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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences




Irony in Action: Anthropology, Practice, and the Moral Imagination by James W. Fernandez and Mary Taylor Huber (University Chicago Press) Irony, no longer simply a figure of speech, irony is increasingly viewed as an integral and perva­sive force that shapes our understanding as well as our behavior. This idea of irony as one of the major modes of human experience Is at the center of this provocative book The result of a meeting where anthropologists were invited to explore the politics of irony and the moral responsibilities that accompany its recognition, this book looks at both the positive and negative aspects of irony and lends an anthropological perspective to this contempo­rary phenomenon, both within anthropology and without.

"A brilliant exploration of the anthropology of irony, conceived as social action and not just as literary trope. Irony refuses a passive acceptance of the way the world presents itself, under­mines accepted wisdom, and Invites that delicious ambiguity in which we are not entirely sure, did he mean what he said or just the opposite? This important book on irony in the ethno­graphic enterprise overflows with wit and insight" -Edward M, Bruner, editor of Text, Play, and Story, The Construction and Reconstruction of Self and Society
"A lively, provocative, and engaging work, Irony in Action at the same time reflects with humor and intellectual force on our own scholarly practice and expands the ways in which we think about those social and cultural worlds with which we wrangle. This is a major contribution to a broader and more comprehensive view of language and cultural life." -Donald Brenneis, coeditor of The Matrix of Language: Contemporary Linguistic Anthropology
"A volume devoted to a trope as elusive as irony demands brilliance in thought and elegance In style. In this seminal collection of luminous essays, the authors give their readers a thorough critique of what can be done with irony, asking the fundamental question, Under which condi­tions can irony be used and considered useful?" -Jean-Paul Dumont, author of The Headman and I: Ambiguity and Ambivalence in the Fieldworking Experience


While this collection hopes to provide a deeper understanding of the ironies an­thropologists confront in their own inquiry, we also wish to stimulate aware­ness of the energy of the ironies of everyday life in the field and the importance of paying ethnographic attention to irony as a local resource of insight into lo­cal lifeways. With this dual purpose in mind, we have divided the essays into two groups of five, each with commentary by a scholar well known for critical work on rhetoric and representation. Each section begins with two essays that focus on irony's articulation of political tensions within a larger social world, moves on to an essay foregrounding the antinomies of classic contact-zone cul­tures, and ends with two essays that bring irony "home" to ethnography. This is not to say, of course, that many of these essays do not bear on several themes at once.

The collection begins in a dark mood with contributions on "internal" ironies by Chock on congressional hearings on immigration in the United States, and by Herzfeld on mockery in the political contestation of Greek identity. Chock's essay examines the limits of irony in the high seriousness of legal discourse. The ideology of speech in this context sets up a model of disinterested, uni­vocal, affectless, unmarked speech, against which witnesses at immigration law hearings have attempted to use irony to clear space for new meanings. But irony is not necessarily liberating: as her cases show, those in power can counter with irony to make retorts, silence speakers, and rule out competing meanings.

Herzfeld's study of the politics of mockery in Greece also involves the in­teraction of official and subaltern subcultures, but his assessment of irony's lib­eratory force is even darker than that of Chock. Contrary to their reputation for humorless self-seriousness, Herzfeld suggests that Greeks of all levels of so­phistication use irony to bridge the gap between the intimacy of everyday ex­perience and the formalism of official practice. When Greeks ironize their re­lationship with powerful Western nations or when marginalized citizens use it to confront the bureaucratic and clientilistic state, irony can be a confirmation of unequal power rather than effective resistance to it. Irony may give a brief sense of mastery over forms intended as a means of control, but, because it does not have to be acknowledged, it can contribute to the perpetuation rather than to the eradication of a sense of victimization.

The third essay, by Fernandez, takes up the "colossal irony" of the develop­ing disparities of affluence and influence in the world, despite four decades of the Development enterprise. In examining some of the ironies generated in the energetic but often counterproductive work of International Development, Fer­nandez raises the question of how commitment to humanitarian action can be maintained against this history's corrosive ironic effects. He notes that the dis­parity between haves and have-nots, inherently ironic, has aroused the moral imagination of some anthropologists, but is also ripe for the politics of irony, a residual politics which is often expressed in the meditative inaction, the quiet complicity, that is the final resting place of so much irony. In search of stable irony, Fernandez makes use of a distinction between inclusiveness and exclu­siveness in ironic register.

The essays that follow by Losche and Boon explore ironic attitudes in an­thropology. Losche begins with an ethnographic question, and ends with reflec­tions on the hubris of anthropologists' irony in the field. Can words and ideas like irony travel and illuminate life in a distant culture? Indeed, in reconsider­ing her field experience among the Abelam of Papua New Guinea, Losche finds in the play of names and of secrecy and revelation in the men's yam cult an ironic view of knowledge in which `truth,' for the Abelam, is constructed via falsity. The narrative seduction of these institutions, with each layer of mean­ing promising one secret yet ahead, works on expatriates as well as on the Abe­lam, but while true believers are vulnerable to the bitter truth that in the end there is no ultimate secret at all, the anthropologist, protected from disappoint­ment by her ironic, distancing stance, is left forever on the outside of belief, and open to the undecidability of truth.

Boon focuses on humility rather than hubris in anthropological irony. Ken­neth Burke's concept of "true irony" as humble, not superior to the enemy, but based upon a fundamental kinship with the enemy, Boon suggests, can illumi­nate ethnographic exchange and intercultural interpretation. Exploring his own "seriocomic" encounters over a decade with a Balinese informant and friend, Boon notes how they are connected by the mutual incongruities of their lives. Indeed, without a Burkean sensitivity to 'as-if ' kinship, to resemblance through a difference, it would be very difficult to recognize "plural cultures, histories, and critiques," or to see the ways in which they become like "footnotes and marginalia" to each other.

The second section opens with pieces that treat the seriocomic side of irony within large, divided polities. Scoggin examines tropes in China that associate wine with escape from and commentary upon social, political, and moral prob­lems and argues that this usage is primarily ironic, masking the desire to en­gage with precisely those problems from which people seem to want to escape. She draws examples primarily from the "miscellaneous essay" (zawen), which is especially suited to exploring the relationship between the complexities of the individual writer's imagination and literary, moral, and political currents. Scoggin argues that the three kinds of irony in zawen writing are ultimately in­tended to bring the most worrisome human problems into better focus, dis­cussing, changing, if not actually resolving, problems such as hierarchy, moral criticism, political struggle, and loneliness. Irony is a mask that in many ways might not hide or protect, but rather emphasize, or accent an expression. And yet irony, like wine, may also offer the opportunity to dismiss what is said as arrogant, foolish, or simply crazy.

Taylor, too, attends to the comic in his exploration of the Irish use of irony to construct the individual and collective self, particularly vis-a-vis the En­glish and Americans. These definitive contrasts are examined as they appear in songs, jokes, and typical comments, where they are often characterized by an irony that envelops subject, speaker, and listener. In fact, Taylor argues, the subtle power of irony may lie precisely in its ambiguity with regard to the true position of the speaker, marking an ambivalence about the self which is a key feature of the postcolonial condition. Self-ironic jokes, in particular, can func­tion as a "preemptive strike" on powerful others. As Taylor notes, the message of the performance is a warning: "I can do a better job on myself than you, . . . and I could easily do a job on you."

In this part's third essay, Huber takes up the irony that was used by colo­nials-patrol officers, travelers, anthropologists, and missionaries-in Papua New Guinea to convey the contradictory qualities of colonial life. Placing Catholic missionaries' irony in this general context of colonial commentary, Huber argues that their use of irony was tempered by the narrative tradition of biblical paradox, in which a seemingly contradictory statement nevertheless conveys a sacred truth. Although they admitted that their work sometimes ap­peared to depart from conventional expectations, missionaries' ironic expres­sions implicitly argued that they were nonetheless adapting to local circum­stances so that real missionary work could progress. This indirection was important, Huber suggests, because of the potentially subversive implications of this situation for the applicability of distant standards to the emerging local church. For good reasons, these missionaries turned ironies into paradoxes: while their practice appeared to point out the shortcomings of certain expecta­tions, their imagery made these seeming contradictions reveal deeper truths.

In the two essays that follow, Marcus and Friedrich engage the question of whether certain times or situations are especially prone to irony. Marcus sees the ironic predicament of our times as enhanced by the reach of nonlocal agen­cies into the local, so that conventional ideas of the social no longer have au­thority and actors are confronted with the same kind of impasse that academics experience in the face of postmodern anxieties about knowledge. These im­passes often appear as pragmatic problems requiring responses for everyday life to proceed at all-evasions, displacements, halfhearted investments in old theories or exotic constructions, and idiosyncratic theories of the way the world works. Marcus suggests that contemporary conspiracy theories are one of these ad hoc and embedded responses to massive changes in the world for which there is no one authoritative macronarrative, and proposes that the interview/ dialogue format, with its associated writing challenges, is an appropriately ironic strategy for an ethnography of the contemporary predicament of irony in the academy and beyond.

Friedrich approaches the varieties of ironic experience through literature as well as ethnography. Indeed, many ethnographies have been insensitive to irony, although much of cultural anthropology and sociolinguistics centers on experience marked by the kinds of flux and gaps and discontinuities that are so often called "ironic." Drawing on Homer's Odyssey, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and the author's own ethnography of the Mexican peasantry Princes of Naranja, Friedrich develops the theme that irony is always with us, inevitably im­plicated in the nature of time and power, culture and language, tropes and trag­edy. "All is irony," Friedrich argues, even those transient moments of "zero irony," which are empowered and given meaning by the ironies of life that precede and follow them. Irony should not be treated in terms of isolated cases and events, but in terms of how cases and events encapsulate and depend on each other- a pattern that informs not only the best literature but the most in­teresting ethnographies whether or not it bears "irony's" name.

The two sections conclude with commentary by Arnold Krupat (part 1) and James Clifford (part 2), who take respectively, as Clifford points out, an "Apol­lonian" approach to irony, clarifying its formal qualities, and a "Dionysian" ap­proach, celebrating the transformative potential of irony as process, rather than form. Along the way, each questions some of the guiding premises of our work. Krupat wishes to rein in our general tendency to attribute too much to irony. For example, he does not agree that "visions of disparity" should automatically be productive of irony, nor that it is appropriate to think of every ambiguity or plural meaning as ironic, nor that it makes sense to focus so much on the liber­ating or destructive capacity of irony, when so often they simply affirm cultur­ally agreed upon truth. Still, he agrees with the larger point made in this intro­duction and by many of our contributors: that irony's potential to undercut all positions motivates a search for stability, and that as long as one's irony remains humble, a recuperation of humanism may be possible.

Clifford returns to irony's creative side, warning that ironic paradigms never lead quite where one wants them to, and that stability (if not humility) may be hoped for in vain. Yet perhaps there is transformative potential in irony's drive toward perpetual displacement. Of course, irony is often used ideologically to express and to contain complexity, wrestle with dissonance and disorder, and critique innovation and deviance. But irony can also help achieve historical openness and self-location if, as Clifford says, the Holy Spirit you put your faith in is enough of a trickster, or if, like Taylor's Irish singers, you drink enough to get "drunk, singing, and blissfully delusional in the face of history." Indeed, Clifford is inclined to see virtue in the "all is irony" view. For if we re­store to the agenda the question of temporality, we place at center stage (as in Frazer's Golden Bough) the irony-or is it a paradox?-of "disintegration: death as a transformative source for more life."

These essays, as we seek to reveal and as the reader will find, shed much light on the presence and absence of the "force of irony" in human relations-in our relations to each other and to the world. They also raise complex problems for our ethnographic work, for our ethnographic interpretations, and for the posi­tioning of our discipline, in the academy and in the world. We will return for brief final comment on this complex of problems and possibilities in our "coda" to the collection.

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