Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Irony: It’s a Good Thing

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From the comments:

Disagree with you on the New Yorker cover.

I’m even not sure who these mythical people are supposed to be who are with it enough to have heard of the New Yorker in the first place yet still clueless enough to take the cover at face value.

People who walk by magazine stands? People who have it emailed to them? People who see it posted on a bulletin board or as the new desktop background of someone who just had it emailed to them?

We have a politics of image and symbolism. You can’t throw this kind of stuff out there into the public sphere and not expect it to be misused and abused.

I think the “oh, everyone gets the joke” thing comes from a fairly parochial point of view.

Now, I agree with Shankar on a wide range of issues, but I still think this anxiety is simply overheated. First, the image’s meaning is unmistakable, because frankly it deconstructs itself; it’s impossible for anyone with either a modicum of political intelligence or cultural savvy to take this image at face value. Obama doesn’t dress like that; Michelle Obama doesn’t look like that; presidential candidates don’t burn flags or stand in front of pictures of Osama bin Laden. That’s not to say that there aren’t still people who won’t get the joke, despite all its obvious tells—sadly, there probably are—but I just don’t think there are especially large numbers of people in that category, nor to the extent that there are do I see much compelling reason to dumb down the culture in an effort to cater to them.

Art and literature are misunderstood all the time. That’s their nature. They’re nonetheless good things to have in the public sphere, even when they’re misused and abused at the margins.

I’m also not clear on what the actual objection to the cover is supposed to be. Most of the concern on the left seems to be that the cover isn’t “useful,” which may or may not be true, but it’s neither here nor there with regard to its cultural value. (And I’d add that for what it’s worth the image may actually prove itself pretty useful to Obama—the best response to this sort of under-the-radar bullshit is mockery and marginalization, which is what we all agree this is.)

Then there are the claims that the image is tasteless or offensive. Now, I write from a very privileged subject position, white heterosexual upper-middle-class American male, and it’s certainly possible that this cartoon trips sensitivities I just don’t have. I’m open to that. But I haven’t seen any compelling explanation of just what about this extremely pro-Obama cartoon is actually supposed to be offensive; instead, its offensiveness and tasteless are simply taken for granted, as if everyone in the world but me and Jon Stewart’s writers had forgotten what irony is.

Irony: it’s a good thing, and a powerful weapon. Didn’t we learn from Orwell that without irony language is just Newspeak?

‘The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,’ he said. ‘We’re getting the language into its final shape — the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’

He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy.

‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning, or ” doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words — in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,’ he added as an afterthought.

A sort of vapid eagerness flitted across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother. Nevertheless Syme immediately detected a certain lack of enthusiasm.

‘You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,’ he said almost sadly. ‘Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in The Times occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?’

Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:

‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,’ he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?’

‘Except-‘ began Winston doubtfully, and he stopped.

It had been on the tip of his tongue to say ‘Except the proles,’ but he checked himself, not feeling fully certain that this remark was not in some way unorthodox. Syme, however, had divined what he was about to say.

‘The proles are not human beings,’ he said carelessly. ‘ By 2050 earlier, probably — all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron — they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.’

Written by gerrycanavan

July 16, 2008 at 4:25 pm

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