In the last post, we’ve seen that most ‘standard’ theories of irony, even the more recent ones, while adequately explaining some basic examples, like uttering “What a wonderful weather!” on a downpour, fail to: a) give an account as to why one chooses to speak in such manner, b) explain other more complicated occurrences, c) are not applicable in some cases and, I would add, d) if not “take-the-opposite-meaning”, than little is offered as answer to the question ‘How does the hearer get from the ironic statement to the serious intended one?’ We’ve seen that point (a) is partially answered by Searle (1979) and Grice (1975/1989), but we’ve also seen that “transferring them [the problems] from the semantic to the pragmatic domain” of indirect speech acts or conversational implicature does not solve the other points.
1. Irony as echoic mention/interpretation
The first departure from the standard, semantic approach came from D. Sperber & D. Wilson’s somewhat famous article “Irony and the Use-Mention Distinction” (1981[i]), after which the two authors slightly changed their view in “On Verbal Irony” (1992[ii]). Their main observation is that, in the case of ironical questions, “what the speaker actually communicates is not the question itself, but an attitude to it and to the state of mind that might give rise to it. […] The only way to understand him is to assume that he is expressing a belief about his utterance, rather than by means of it” (1981, p. 302). This led to the use-mention distinction. One uses an expression when he or she applies an illocutionary force to that expression; on the contrary, one mentions an expression, when it does not have “the illocutionary force it would standardly have in a context,” rather, the expression refers to itself. One could mention a word, or an expression, both of which could be illustrated thus:
What did John say on the telephone?
(1) I cannot talk to you now (use)
(2) I do not understand the word “telephone” (word mention)
(3) “I cannot talk to you now” (mention by direct quotation)
(3) He said he could not talk to me then (mention by indirect quotation)
In irony, the speaker mentions a proposition “in such a way as to make clear that he rejects as ludicrously false, inappropriate or irrelevant” (p. 307). Saying “What a lovely weather!” in a downpour is ludicrously false; the same, saying “It seems to be raining” is completely inappropriate given the circumstances, thus it “conjures up a picture of […] inattention or failure to react” (p. 310).
Of course, the question arises: What if no prior utterances have been made? What is the speaker echoing then? The first answer is: If nothing has been previously uttered, then past expectations or “high hopes” (of good weather, for example) are echoed even if, incidentally, they haven’t been expressed. The second answer: If no expectation whatsoever is to be found, than the speaker is “pretending”, i.e., he is “pretending a degree of hesitancy”, ignorance, foolishness or many other sorts of unenlightenment you can think of. While this may seem akin to a “convenient addendum” to the theory, we will see that it actually constituted one of the main points for later criticism.
In Sperber & Wilson (1986; 1992), the two authors replaced “echoic mention” with “echoic interpretation”, hence being able to account for the modifications which occur in the ironical statements, but basically their theory remained pretty much the same.
2. The pretense theory
In 1984, Clark & Gerrig formulated a severe criticism to the echoic interpretation theory, proposing the view that irony is chiefly a way “of role playing that must be recognized as such for correct comprehension “. Starting from the etymology of “irony” (which originally meant something like “staged performance of ignorance”), the authors put forward the idea that “In speaking ironically, S is pretending to be S2 speaking to A. What S2 is saying is, in one way or another, patently uniformed or injudicious, worthy of a ‘hostile or derogatory judgment or a feeling such as indignation or contempt’”. Thus, the ironical statement is actually addressed at a second audience, an audience which, on the face of it, would not “get the point” or understand the “real statement beneath” for the members of this second audience would not be in the “inner circle”.
Their criticism goes like this: “The mention theory of irony hinges on a distinction between the use and mention of an expression” … but “Not all ironies echo actual utterances, so the mention theory assumes that what is echoed may also be ‘popular wisdom or received opinions’” – for which they do not give any criteria, hence making the “implicit mention” category akin to a sort of wastebasket category.
3. The allusional-pretense theory
By now, being faced with these three relatively opposed theories (SPM, EMT, PT), theorists started asking themselves: “Could we determine the necessary and sufficient conditions for the recognition and comprehension of irony?” In 1995, Kumon-Nakamura, Gluksberg and Brown proposed The Allusional Pretense Theory of Irony. At first, they’ve noticed that Sperber & Wilson’s account could not explain some ironical questions such as “How old did you say you were?” uttered to someone acting foolish, or over-polite statement such as ““Would you mind very much if I asked you to consider cleaning up your room some time this year?”, where there’s no noticeable “previous expression” involved.
Therefore, echoic utterances fall under the more general rubric of allusion – which can refer to “some prediction, expectation, preference or norm that has been violated”. All forms of irony, the theory goes, are forms of alluding to some discrepancy between what is expected (what should be) and what actually is. OK, so first condition: failed expectation.
The second condition is pragmatic insincerity. This may sound as if going back to the ‘blatantly false proposition’ that the speaker is evidently not believing. But it’s not. It goes further than that. Being Grice-like insincere is not observing the Maxim of Quality (“Do not say something you believe it’s false”), whereas being pragmatically insincere is achieved by flouting not just all maxims, but also al felicity conditions such as: (a) propositional content conditions, (b) preparatory conditions (the status of both the speaker and the hearer), (c) sincerity rules or (d) the perception of the speaker’s sincerity. In this way, you could be pragmatically insincere in uttering a true statement. They give the following example: saying “You sure know a lot” to someone who is arrogantly and offensively showing off knowledge. Or saying “Thanks!” to someone who just shut the door in front of you, when you do not want to communicate: “It’s false that I thank you”, but rather “My speech act is insincere”. “Similarly, when a driver comments “I just love people who signal when turning” [which might be true] when the car ahead abruptly turns left, irony is communicated via the joint operation of allusion and pragmatic insincerity.”
Let me just mention one important articl which undertook the endeavor to review the literature on irony. Such summarizing operations turned out to be more like “spot-the-differences” games, since – as you might have noticed – the above theories mainly revolve around the same issue. In 2000, Herbert L. Colston published an article called “On necessary conditions of verbal irony”, and an year later, Salvatore Attardo published “Irony as relevant inappropriateness”.
Colston (2000/2007, p. 102) summed-up previous accounts on irony in an easy-to-grasp example, which I will quote entirely:
Scenario: A boy in junior high school goes to a barber for a haircut. The boy had been bragging at school about the “terrific ‘do’” this barber gives. The barber actually does a horrible job on the boy’s hair though, and it looks terrible. The next day, the boy goes to school, dreading the reaction he is going to get from the students in his class. When he walks in the room, the girl he sits next to, who is known for being arrogant and cruel, says to the boy …
Expected situation: An attractive haircut
Ensuing situation: An ugly haircut
Possible Ironic Comments
Type of Insincerity
|1. “That Sure is a terrific ‘do’”|| |
Echoic Mention: mentions explicit expectation
|2”Nice hair”|| |
Echoic Reminder: reminds addressee(s) of implicit expectation
3. “When are you going to get a haircut?”
|Elicitation: elicits expectation from addressee(s)||pragmatic|
|4. “You sure did get a haircut”||True Assertion: mentions portion of expectation that occurred||pragmatic|
5a. “This barber gives a terrific
Pretense: mentions expectation while
|5b. “That really is a terrific ‘do’”|| |
Pretense: mentions expectation in a
6. “I really like guys with nice
|mentions opinion of expectation||(?) [this is the example which does not require any type of insincerity]|