Saturday, December 09, 2006

irony as distinct from sarcasm

Must look into the suttelties(?) of this. Was listening to Julian Burnside, (an unsung Australian philologist) on Radio National earlier today, discussing the difference.

36 comments:

Yves said...

When you find out tell me, because having looked at Holtie's House and some of your own outpourings, it can be hard to tell the difference. A stranger might not initially appreciate how warm-hearted you tough old australian flightless birds are.

Deirdre said...

I have real trouble with it too. What did the good Mr Burnside say?

Davo said...

deirdre, that there was a difference.. fuck orrrf both of ya, self said that i have to look into it. fascinatinting concept ..and also fascinating interview .. will try to find a transcript of some sort.

Davo said...

.. basically, from dim recollection, is that "irony" is using words as a joke, which very few people actually understand .. (the concept comes from a Greek play-script) and "sarcasm" is using words as a blunt axe.
But don't take my word for it..

Davo said...

(PS, there are at least two jokes in this post)

Kurt Reply said...

This was interesting to me. I went to Wikipedia's pages on irony and sarcasm and found quite a bit of information.

Kurt Reply said...

Davo, I think this bit, from the sarcasm page, was the most helpful to me and is part of what you're saying:
Sarcasm is sneering, jesting, or mocking a person, situation or thing. It is strongly associated with irony, with some definitions classifying it as a type of verbal irony intended to insult or wound....

Deirdre said...

Davo: Oh, fuck orrrf yerself, man - you're the one who mentioned the fascinatinting concept in the first place, and I'm just surprised, nay ALARMED, that you didn't rush off and look into it ASAP.

Now, was that (a) sarcasm, (b) irony, or (c) just me being a goose? :) In 25 words or less, please. And yes, I'm still doing it - I don't mean you have to use 25 words or less, and I don't even expect you to answer the question, because it wasn't even a real question. The correct answer, if in fact one was required, would have been (c), and yes, lock it in, Eddy. (And I don't even watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, so see? I'm still being stupid, but I'd prefer to say I was being either sarcastic or ironic, hence my interest in the topic: self aggrandisement.

"Fascinatinting" should go straight into the dictionary, by the way, and I'm not joking about that.

Kurt Reply: I skimmed that Wikipedia article on irony: there seem to be any number of definitions, and lots of them don't have a lot in common. I can't see anything very similar between Socratic and verbal irony, for example. And sarcasm: I don't think it need be hurtful; quite the opposite, if it relies on the listener/audience knowing what you mean without you having to spell it out, I think it indicates or celebrates comradeship. But maybe it's cultural or something? Maybe it's something that Australians or others do which doesn't translate?

Anonymous said...

Irony draws its name from the Greek eironia “dissimulation; ignorance purposely affected”, which is reflected in the name of a stock comic character in Greek drama, called Eiron. Eiron was frequently opposed to the boastful Alazon who, blinded by his own good opinion of himself, fails to notice the skill in Eiron’s disingenuous observations and is defeated. The comic effect of the exchanges between Eiron and Alazon was appreciated by Athenian audiences who knew in advance that Eiron was cleverer than he seemed, and cleverer than Alazon noticed.
The central idea of irony is the contradiction inherent in words spoken or events depicted.
Dramatic irony has the audience informed of larger events than are known to the play’s protagonists, so they proceed in their ignorance towards a fate already prefigured by the audience. In that setting, their words can be made to carry a quite different significance to the audience than they apparently have to the speaker. The same device can be used conversationally, and with just as telling effect. In the last stages of Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition of 1912, Captain Oates left the shelter with the comment “I am just going outside and may be some time”. The circumstances gave his words a very different meaning which must have been well understood by his companions. Oates’ remark is recorded in Scott’s journal on 16 March 1912. It is the last entry.
Anyway, I am glad my chat on the ABC got you interested in it.
Julian Burnside

Deirdre said...

Errr... (whispering) Was that actually Julian Burnside? The really-truly?

If so, then well done you, sir. You're a credit to this country when there's so much we have to be ashamed of. Thank you.

(Davo: I still don't get irony and sarcasm, but now I don't care :) )

Davo said...

(whispering )..oooer, whoever the julian burnside is that wrote that comment, it accurately covers the part of the transcript that have been unable to find.

If you ARE Mr Burnside, sir, am truly honoured.

Davo said...

Deirdre, it would, I guess, be somewhat ironic if that comment was written by THE Mr Burnside .. and, since most of the stuff i chuck into this blog is written without much thought or research - am now extremely humbled .. and am not being sarcastic.

Deirdre said...

You've been shocked into silence now, Davo, haven't you?

;)

Even if it was the real Mr Burnside, and I'm hoping it was (because otherwise somebody is being really obnoxious, impersonating a known person), remember this: even famous people are people - and I mean, even lawyers!! No, really! It's true! :)

Davo said...

Nah, not shocked, just pondering. tch tch D, do i detect a note of sarcasm there?? heh.

Have just emailed the "real" Mr Burnside for confirmation .. aand while yer waiting this site should while away a few hours if you haven't been there before.

Kurt Reply said...
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Kurt Reply said...
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Kurt Reply said...

Davo, I deleted my comments because they just didn't make any sense. Let's try again. I am still trying to get a handle on the difference between irony and sarcasm.
Upon reading that Wiki article again about sarcasm, I think I do see the difference. Irony seems to be when the events and the intent are not connected; chance makes things amazing (and funny sometimes) to all the participants. Irony often has great humor to me; Seinfeld is that sort of humor. The humor isn't at anyone's expense, it's just funny because of what happened by chance. The characters aren't mean-spirited to each other or to anyone else; they are only silly, and the situations end up being silly because of some amazing coincidences that occur in almost every episode. The coincidences that happen in the Seinfeld episodes are pretty amazing, and that's where the humor lies. I think that's why I like Frasier, too; the characters are all really nice people (albeit quirky) but you aren't laughing AT them. You are laughing at the situations that they end up in. I like all the characters for who they are, but the situations they get themselves in are just so ironic that they are funny.
Sarcasm seems to be directed at individuals, with mean intention. And it always seems to have mean intentions if you are not "in on the joke". To me that seems hurtful and does have ill intent. I just don't think that's funny. Yes, sarcasm is a blunt axe, and it's mean. I'm an emotional fool on this: I was teased a lot througout my youth, and as a result I have a great interest in telling the truth all the time to people, and I have intent in always being sincere and cognizant of others' feelings. Even after you know somebody well, there is a great danger of error if sarcasm is used, because it might be understood by the receiver. In my opinion, sarcasm is not safe to use in the written word to someone; so much of sarcasm depends on the inflection and body language. You should know someone really well before you use sarcasm and even then there always is the chance of being misunderstood. I, for example, have been misunderstood several times when I was actually being sarcastic to myself or sarcastic about the situation, but the reader thought I was being sarcastic towards him. It's gut-wrenching when that happens because you always wonder if the mistake is unrepairable.
"Mr. Burnside" above says, The comic effect of the exchanges between Eiron and Alazon was appreciated by Athenian audiences who knew in advance that Eiron was cleverer than he seemed, and cleverer than Alazon noticed. . . . The central idea of irony is the contradiction inherent in words spoken or events depicted.
Well, that makes me uncomfortable if the audience is laughing at either person. I feel for Alazon as much as I feel for Eiron.
I also learned about the "Socratic method" a bit on Wiki, and it made me uncomfortable.

Kurt Reply said...

Oops...the sentence in the middle of the third paragraph should read:
Even after you know somebody well, there is a great danger of error if sarcasm is used, because it might be misunderstood by the receiver.

Davo said...

Hi Kurt, have just dropped in to check emails before off to work, but yes, you are correct, humour IS a very strange concept. Will spend more time reading what you've written, later this evening.

Kurt Reply said...

Dierdre, I agree with your statement,
I think it indicates or celebrates comradeship.
Indeed, I think this is when sarcasm works and works well: when everyone understands the language and the unspoken humour involved. But it can hurt if someone is arbitrarily left out of the circle for too long.
One of the nice things about the humor of a television series is that if one is willing to take time to learn the characters well, the humor will generally follow.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Running_gags_in_Seinfeld

Kurt Reply said...

I don't mean to belabor the issue here but I do understand this tonight after having gone here:
http://www.ajdrake.com/e456_spr_03/materials/guides/gd_irony_def.htm
"People frequently use a simple form of verbal irony to forge bonds with a new acquaintance (think of the repartee between Hugh Grant and his beloved in Four Weddings and a Funeral). The listener is pleased to get the joke, however simple, and the speaker is pleased to have made it, and to have pleased the listener."
There is some pretty heady stuff in that webpage but all in all I am happy to have had this to think about today. Thank you, Davo.

Deirdre said...

Davo: Not sarcasm, irony! I was making fun of lawyers in order to make fun of those who make fun of lawyers, including myself. Or something. But now my brain hurts.

Kurt: I agree with you - humour is cruel when it leaves people out, or worse, is about leaving people people out (eg. racist or sexist jokes). And I feel uncomfortable about that Eiron/Alazon scenario too; it seems like a nasty sort of manipulation, Eiron using feigned ignorance in order to bring out Alazon's faults (his self-absorption or whatever) in order to mock him. That'd be sarcasm, wouldn't it? "The use of irony to mock or convey contempt" (definition from AskOxford.com)

I disagree with you about Seinfeld, though - and even wonder whether you're using irony to illustrate the dangers of using irony (the reader's understanding of your real intention depending on whether or not they share your view of the show). I thought the Seinfeld characters were entirely mean-spirited, and the humour was always at somebody else's expense. But it wasn't a mean-spirited humour because the characters were also mocking themselves, not just everybody else, and (referring to your link about the running gags) the viewer was invited into the group - the show made "insider jokes" which everybody could understand. I think maybe that's the difference between humour which is cruel and that which isn't: it depends on the size of the in-group.

I think cruel humour tends to be simple, too, whereas clever stuff like Seinfeld, or I would add The Simpsons, has an extra layer. It's not just about characters who are sarcastic, or who are mocked (and also loved) because of their flaws, the show also mocks itself. I don't quite know what this means, but it's there when you're watching it: a sort of joyful self-deprecation, an acceptance and celebration that at heart all of us are idiots, and that's just fine. This isn't present in shows like Greatest Home Videos or similar (a show in which viewers provide footage showing a range of random mishaps; it could be subtitled "One million ways to see someone get hurt"). That sort of show relies on the viewer feeling superior and distanced.

I think you were right originally. Sarcasm is used to belittle; it's mean. It was irony I was trying to understand. Sarcasm is just a subset of irony. Probably. I think :)

I'd rather restrict the definition of irony to something simple like this (from Wikipedia: Irony):

Henry Watson Fowler, in The King’s English, says "any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same."

Kurt Reply said...

Deirdre, I agree with you.
And about Seinfeld, either you love it or you hate it. I love it because I see the characters as so off the wall that they can't be real people, so I feel it's okay to laugh at their situations. I, too, dislike the videos of people getting hurt; they aren't actors doing it on purpose to entertain us so that we can laugh them--they are real people and I have too much empathy there.
I started a comment earlier but deleted it. The gist of it was that I remember reading that The Simpsons is very successful all over the globe in all sorts of languages. But Seinfeld isn't. Apparently the humor is just odd or regional enough to make it unfunny in cultures outside the USA, more or less. I don't live in New York, but I still am able to find Seinfeld to be one of the funniest things ever. I think when I laugh hardest, it's because I am laughing at extremely talented actors doing some amazing acting and NOT necessarily laughing at the situation the characters are in. As an observer I am elevated above the fray and am able to always be aware that I am not watching reality.
Ohhh, my head hurts now too.
But I must add that while reading that link I provided at 2:27 pm, I found this statement: It's impossible to write or read about irony without either becoming ironic, falling victim to irony, or both.
Yikes.

Davo said...

OK, time to set the record straight. Have now tracked down the transcript/podcast link to the program I was referring to in the post. Have to admit that my recollection was faulty, and that there is, I think, no mention of "sarcasm" in the interview. THAT must have been in my head for another reason, for which I have to apologise.
The link to the transcript is here.

Also, Julian did drop in to clarify and expand on what he said about 'irony' in that interview - for which, I thank him.. and once again, am truly honoured.

Strangely enough, it was neither of the words which we have been discussing, but philology, a word that had never heard, which sparked my interest in the whole thing.

And so .. on with the discussion. Have to admit that this is fun, and am learning heaps.

Davo said...

I can't see how anyone can be 'uncomfortable' with the Eiron/Alazon scenario, since they were both reading from the same script, and since the audience also understood .. where's the problem. We see that in most comedy 'duo's'.. smart guy/fall guy. Had also, earlier today, been mulling over the notion of comedy as a "communion", community, "group", togetherness thingo, but haven't quite marshalled my thoughts on that one yet, as much of the comedy is regional.

I also find it fascinating that some comedy refuses to translate, and yet some does, and "the Simpsons" would be an example. Why do I find the Simpsons hilarious, and yet loathe "Family Guy". Love "Frasier", but find "Seinfeld"just plain silly.

Am going to stick my neck out a bit and say, generally, I find American comedy a bit juvenile, still based around slapstick .. whereas English/British humour is more focussed on the subtlties (how DO ya spell that word?) and interaction between language and/or character.

Another thoughts that have been dribbling around in the sludge i call a brain have been about satire and farce, but can't type fast enough to keep up.

Kurt Reply said...

I tend to agree with you, Davo, about most American comedy being rather slapstick. I like it to be a little more cerebral.

Deirdre said...

Kurt Reply: Sorry to give the wrong impression - I LOVED Seinfeld. It was brilliant. I loved the characters, loved the humour, loved the whole thing. It was very successful in Australia. And this: "As an observer I am elevated above the fray and am able to always be aware that I am not watching reality." Yes. Hmm. My earlier theory about the in-group (the viewer feels included) might need tweaking :) You're right. You do need some distance in order to see something as funny. And probably irony helps with that, because it's using a gap between what is said/done and what is meant, and... other stuff. I'm losing the plot now :)

Davo: You're taking a different tack on Eiron and Alazon, seeing them as actors, representatives (which is probably what Greek drama was about). Kurt (I think) and I were seeing them as fictional people. There's that distance thing again. If we were all sitting in that Greek audience, you would've been more removed from the characters - you'd be seeing them as playing out a tradition or something, whereas I'd be sitting there lost in what's going on between them and wondering what's going to happen next. Suspension of disbelief, etc. Believing it's real, though knowing, if I pull back for a minute, that it isn't. Which is probably a modern notion, I guess. Greek dramas were probably about rituals or pre-arranged... y'know, whatsits :) Can't think.

Thanks for those links - I'll have a look later and also try to consider the diff between US and Brit humour. Interesting.

Davo said...

What Julian was getting at in the interview (i think, damn, now i have to go read it again) was that we have, or are trying - to shift the meaning of "irony" and should be using words like incongruous or paradox.

We humans really are a "weird mob". Am not trying to deliberately "exclude" you, Kurt. i really am still a "hunt-and-peck"typist, so having to give a detailed background for every reference is um, difficult. "They're a Weird Mob" is a very funny book authored by "Nino Colutta(sp?)" about the difficulties deciphering the Aussie idiom(slang) experienced by an Italian immigrant who had, in fact, "learnt proper English" before he arrived. Part of the "joke" was that it was written by a bloke named John O'Grady. Part of its success, methinks, was that it worked on multiple levels. People with language difficulties found it just as funny as "ordinary" working people (Nino was a brickie's labourer) -- and also operated on an "intellectual" level. This, of course, is a rare skill, and could explain why some "humour" can travel across regional borders .. and also to appeal to the various social stratas. Similarly with "The Simpsons". It operates on multi-level layers, and a person'd have to be a bittuva sour-puss to not respond to at least one of the levels.

Another humourist (comedian,whatever) with that sort of skill is Billy Connelly. (also Barry Humphries .. "Edna Everage", but will bypass him for the moment.) We mustn't forget that a large part of comedy is also "visual" and "tonal". I, for one, can't really figure out how Billy Connelly can get away with the sort of language he uses (liberal slatterings of F*** and F**ing) and still have a theatre-full of the "blue rinse" set rolling in the aisles. This sort of leads into a further mini essay about "group therapy", but will have to leave it here for the moment.

Davo said...

PS Deirdre, I DID try to find the link to the Programme on Saturday, but they either hadn't put it on RN website, or was using the wrong search terms (had forgotten which segment and presenter).. so just went ahead with the post using an apparently failing memory.

Deirdre said...

Kurt, do you know Billy Connolly? Because that's a really interesting question, Davo - just how DOES he get away with it? I've got no idea, but agree with you that he does. Everybody seems to love him. Maybe it's him, his personality, rather than what he says.

I'm just calling in to apologise for not having checked those links yet. I'll get to it, just haven't yet. And as for the transcript, there's usually a delay before they're posted online, I think. I'm guessing they get typed up by work experience students sitting in the ABC lunchroom, listening to the podcast on their iPods and trying to type really really fast...

:)

Kurt Reply said...

It's been nice discussing humor.
If neither of you have ever watched Everybody Loves Raymond, I recommend you try. It's always got me guffawing, not only because the acting is so fantastic but also because as a person around the age of Ray I can relate to 95% of their surroundings, situations, attitudes, and reactions.

Kurt Reply said...

Wow, Dierdre, we cross-pollinated there!
Yes, I LOVE Billy Connolly. I haven't seen him since I lost my satellite service so I don't know what he's up to these days. I will check out that website.

Deirdre said...

Kurt - "cross-pollinating" is a nice idea. (There are thousands of bees outside as I write this. I live on a farm and all the coffee trees are flowering today, and all the bees are busy as a you-know-what.) I liked Everybody Loves Raymond too, and yes, agree with you, I think a big part of its appeal was that it refers to everyday life, much as Seinfeld did, just exaggerating things in a comic way. I know somebody who hated it though. She thought it played too closely to stereotypes about men/women/families, and this was amusing in itself because her own family life was not a hell of a long way from being very similar to Ray's :)

Davo - You missed the highlight of Julian's talk: "'gongoozler' was originally a person who would stand at length staring at a canal". Priceless!

This is a good explanation (from that interview): "And so the essential feature of irony is that there is embedded in the situation, an additional layer of knowledge not known to one of the participants." The smart guy/fall guy scenario you referred to, Davo. And then we the audience have an additional layer of knowledge not available to either of them. I wonder if this is what Billy Connolly uses in telling tales about himself: he's playing the smart guy to his former self's fall guy. (And maybe in that sense all memory is ironic? Our old selves didn't have the extra knowledge which hindsight now gives to our present selves.)

Here's an idea: it's the meaning which matters, not the words. The words matter in that they define what we mean and communicate it to others, but they just point the way, they're not the destination. So what matters in Billy Connolly's delivery isn't the rough language (except to people who are offended by it), it's the stories he's telling, and he seems to love and like all the characters he portrays. Under the bluster he seems like a nice person, so even the blue rinse set likes him. (What's happened to all the blue rinses, by the way? You don't see many any more. Have they all gone blonde, or what?)

Davo said...

Deirdre, this shy little wombat spends far too much time sarcastically gongoozling the ironies, incongruities and paradoxes in the flow of life's canals. (whew, all in one sentence! :-D )

At this point am wondering whether Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis is a "modern" example of the Athenian Eiron/Alazon notion of irony. Whether we liked him or not, Jerry Lewis was a better "actor" than Dean Martin .. though here again .. "forced" comedy. Another example is
'Frank Spencer'in "Some Mother's do 'ave 'em". The actual intellect, abilities and skill of Michael Crawford are well hidden .. but the audience senses that there is something more.

Davo said...

and Kurt, it is, I guess, somewhat ironic that I have indeed, read (red? reeded?) what you wrote in the deleted comments. (it sends me an email.) "whacko"? more than likely ..heh.

Kurt Reply said...

Oh, yes, I knew you would read them. I was at the time sorry I wroted (writed? writted?) them.
The first two comments just didn't say what I wanted so I succumbed to vanity and fear of public scrutiny and thus deleted them :) But actually, if I remember right, maybe they weren't so bad. Interesting that Dierdre came up with the Simpsons reference on her own a little bit later.
Oh, and I must confess that I was thinking of the Simpsons character Mr. Burns, not Mr. Burnside. I made the mistake only (and I sheepfully confess this) because I myself haven't been able to sit through a full episode of the Simpsons.
Oh, and I did some reading of his interview and it seems much of what I call irony is in fact paradox. I find that quite paradoxical.