Anyone still confused about irony should read the brilliant piece Zoe Williams wrote in The Guardian last year. It goes through all the different kinds of rhetorical irony and charts the evolution from (i) a fairly straightforward Socratic technique; to (ii) a means of discovering the truth; to (iii) a way to communicate a particular meaning different from the literal meaning; and finally to (iv) a way communicate precisely nothing in a way that’s supposed to be cool.
Williams notes in relation to this “fourth age” of irony:
So, you take a cover of FHM, with tits on the front—and it’s ironic because it appears to be saying “women are objects”, yet of course it isn’t saying that, because we’re in a postfeminist age. But nor is it saying “women aren’t objects”, because that would be dated, over-sincere, mawkish even. So, it’s effectively saying “women are neither objects, nor non-objects—and here are some tits!”
Scary Movie 2, Dumb And Dumberer, posh women who go to pole-dancing classes, people who set the video for Big Brother Live, people who have Eurovision Song Contest evenings, Charlie’s Angels (the film, not the TV series) and about a million other things besides, are all using this ludic trope—”I’m not saying what you think I’m saying, but I’m not saying its opposite, either. In fact, I’m not saying anything at all. But I get to keep the tits.”
I still think there are a couple of different things in here. I can see how the established meaning of rhetorical irony can extend beyond verbal communication and into things like dress and perhaps even pole-dancing, but so far all these forms of irony reside firmly in the communication. It seems that all the Eurovision-and-Big-Brother crew are doing is purporting to enjoy entertainment products in ways not intended by their creators—who presumably couldn’t care less. I suppose by their watching they may be trying to say to the world “These are excellent singers and compositions” or “This is really compelling interpersonal drama” in an ironic or at least sarcastic way. But what if nobody’s listening? It seems to me that taking the communication out of irony is as damaging to the concept as taking the meaning out of it.
And anyway, most of the time it’s obviously just a big lie (as Williams points out, a lie has things in common with irony, but clearly isn’t irony). You can try all you like to enjoy FHM on an ironic level, but you’re obviously just reading it for the tits. A lot of this talk of irony is just trying to have your cake and eat it too. (Interestingly—but hardly ironically—the original expression was “eat your cake and have it too”, which makes much more sense. I wasn’t about to attempt some metaphor to do with tits.)
Of course Alanis Morrissette was trying to tackle situational or cosmic irony, which is like the universe playing a joke on you. Williams explains:
[W]here rhetorical irony can be as simple as saying the opposite of what you mean, cosmic irony is not simply experiencing the opposite of what you thought was going to happen. For instance, if I was having a party, and I thought my dad was going to come, and he didn’t, that wouldn’t be ironic. If, on the other hand, I was having a party and I didn’t want my dad to come, and I spent three weeks working on a brilliant cover story for why he couldn’t come, and then my sister accidentally blew my cover, so I had to invite him anyway, and then, on the way here, he got run over and died—that’s ironic.
So there you have it. Irish Comedian Ed Byrne has a pretty reasonable riff on Alanis’s song:
No, there’s nothing ironic about being stuck in a traffic jam when you’re late for something. Unless you’re a town planner. If you were a town planner and you were on your way to a seminar of town planners at which you were giving a talk on how you solved the problem of traffic congestion in your area, couldn’t get to it because you were stuck in a traffic jam, that’d be well ironic: “I’m sorry I’m late, you’ll never guess.”
“It’s like rain on your wedding day”—only if marrying a weatherman and he set the date. I could go on and I will.
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break, that’s inconsiderate office management. A no-smoking sign in a cigarette factory—irony. It’s not a difficult concept Alanis. It’s very rare you see a ironic no-smoking sign, although if you ever see one of those that say thank-you for not smoking and you are: fairly ironic.
Astute readers will wonder who the young woman pictured above is. No, it’s not Alanis Morrissette—it’s British Alanis tribute artist Kerry Jay, who, according to her agent, “has the gift of the looks, mannerisms and above all, the distinctive voice of Alanis”. Is that ironic? No, not really. But surely it’s better than nothing.