Here’s another nice mini-essay about from Andrew Brown, who writes science books when he is not blogging or writing columns. (See his interesting blog at http://www.thewormbook.com/helmintholog/) Here is his opening:
Why is it that almost all the irony online is unintentional? I don’t mean there is no irony online. There is enough to make God himself crumple up the whole of creation in rage and despair and throw it, hard, into the wastepaper basket. But it is almost all entirely unintended. When you find people arguing that the German law against Holocaust denial proves that they are all really Nazis to restrict free speech like that, or (on the other side) wondering what could be anti-semitic about a claim that the Jews control the world’s media, it’s reasonably certain that they are not trying to be funny.
These remarks are ironic only to someone who knows the relevant facts – for example, that believing the Jews control everything is diagnostic of anti-semitism, or that the law against Holocaust denial was constructed under Allied occupation, because the occupying armies, too, took the view that minimising Hitler’s crimes might be the first step towards excusing and ultimately repeating them.
Irony, then, requires that a statement be logically possible, providing that certain facts are ignored. The first and most memorable dictionary definition of irony, Dr Johnson’s, illustrates this beautifully. Irony, he said, was “a mode of speech in which the meaning is contrary to the words: as, ‘Bolingbroke was a holy man’.” Now, for a Martian, ignorant of irony and 18th-century British politics, it might seem perfectly reasonable that Bolingbroke was in fact a holy man. You have to poke around a little to discover that he was the very opposite: brilliant, but unscrupulous, untrusted and a notorious whorehound.
And so on . . .
It’s not by accident that Brown’s paradigmatic example comes from the 18th century, and from none other than Samuel Johnson, in his wonderfully ironic impersonation of a lexicographer and figure of authority. And I would add that what makes his tacit analogy between 18th century and 21st century ironies work so well is their common origin in the destabilization of ‘shared knowledges.’ And writers, audiences, and media all seem to have converged in a singular way to arrive at what we might call–unironically, of course–an ‘epochal’ quality of irony.