On Not Knowing: Irony and the English Department

by Emily Ogden

Screenshot from the music video for the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” (1999)

Because I wanted to write about something I believe in, my topic today is irony.

The alert reader is already asking, can you believe in irony? The ironist is widely supposed to be a person who doesn’t really believe in anything. Disavowing her attachments as soon as she forms them, holding nothing sacred, she occupies a stance of cool detachment. I don’t think this picture is right. Far from detaching us from the world, irony allows us at once to hold fast to our attachments and to hold them at a distance; to be convinced about our convictions and to be willing to question them.

Such a definition of irony doesn’t necessarily change the ironist’s outward aspect. Go ahead and imagine the same cool customer as before, if you like. But reconsider what might lie behind her performance of detachment. She doesn’t simply say the opposite of what she means for comic effect, as a sarcastic wit might do. Instead, the ironist means everything she says and more besides. If I say that irony is the one thing I really and truly believe in, for example, I’m deliberately invoking the conflict we think exists between irony and belief. I invoke that conflict not to cancel the belief with the irony, but to show that these attitudes can survive their mutual antagonism. Not all conflicts have to end in the extermination of one combatant.

I do mean I believe in irony. I also mean to call my own ability to characterize my “beliefs” into question—because isn’t there always something false, even comical, about attributing states of conviction to ourselves as though they will never waver? And I also mean, further, to circle back past this questioning of conviction to the forming of a conviction again, a conviction all the sturdier because of the thoughts of failure it has withstood. Irony can look like cool knowingness, but it’s the opposite: it’s an impassioned ignorance, an acknowledgement that one doesn’t know where to come to rest among a range of mutually incompatible positions, to all of which one is committed.

The ironist’s way of floating amid her commitments might be clearer if we think about simultaneous attachment to, and detachment from, a single object. Take this sketch from the TV show Brooklyn Nine-Nine, an office comedy set in a police precinct.[i] The sketch’s topic is the mixture of rapturous affection and ashamed repudiation that pop mega-hits can inspire. Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) is standing in front of a police lineup with a witness to a convenience store hold-up who heard the robber singing the Backstreet Boys’ 1999 single “I Want It That Way,” an R&B-ish ballad of easy virtue. In this breakup song, “the way” the beloved “wants it” is over, although the dirty-talk innuendo of “I want it that way” is surely also intentional. The five Backstreet Boys take the solo in turns, begging the lover to stay. A surprising amount of straight-faced kink abides in the song structure: are all five of these singers dating the one who wants it this way? But even mentioning these complexities is liable to give the wrong impression, so little does “I Want It That Way” obtrude them on the listener. It is formidably catchy and the last thing it demands is thought.

Back in the nineties, the song was way overplayed. If you are in your late thirties, there’s a chance you are hearing it in your head right now, with something like the mix of rapture and repudiation I was just mentioning. The Brooklyn Nine-Nine sketch dramatizes those mixed feelings. So that the witness can identify the robber, Peralta, who also looks to be in his late thirties, has the suspects in the lineup sing snatches of the song, trading the solo just as the original Backstreet Boys used to do. As he cues one suspect after another, Peralta starts to get into it, keeping a rhythm, bopping along. By the time the fourth suspect sings, the one-way glass Peralta stands behind is starting to look more like a production booth than a precinct observation room. In a state of aesthetic transport, he cues suspect number five, who sings the title line: “I want it that way.” “That’s him,” says the witness, now revealed to be, also, a victim. “Number Five killed my brother.”

What exactly happens at this moment of ironic deflation? I ask you to entertain the possibility that the deflation doesn’t cancel, even if it critiques, the aesthetic transport that preceded it. Some people will be reluctant to follow me down this road. For some people, once they’ve heard, “Number Five killed my brother,” the only possible point of the sketch is to condemn Peralta and make you feel badly about yourself besides: he shouldn’t have gotten carried away in aesthetic experience and neither should you. It’s as though, in a dream-like way, bad taste—the Backstreet Boys, for God’s sake—had been elided here with bad morals. But if, like me, you hesitate to set aesthetic pleasure at nothing, no matter how jejune the taste or morally contaminated the object—if you suspect that refusing all but the pure versions of aesthetic experience would mean refusing such experiences altogether—then the sketch may prompt you to pose some questions. How do we enjoy a thing and see its limitations all at once? After we realize that the object of our pleasure is the slick product of the pop industrial complex—after we realize it’s contaminated, in this case, with murder—can we still find a place for the pleasure?

These are the sorts of questions that irony copes with. I say copes with and not answers because irony is characteristically not a mode that gives answers. Irony does not resolve contradictions, it lets us live well with them. For the space of an utterance, cacophony resolves into polyphonic harmony. String together many years’ worth of such utterances, and you have a life. But this achievement doesn’t just happen. You have to learn how to keep your innocence and your experience in balance. Irony is a skill, a feel, like knowing when to swing the bat, when to stop kneading the bread, or how much tension to keep in the rope that controls the mainsail.

Where do we learn? Plenty of people are homeschooled or self-taught. No institution has a monopoly on ironic training. Nonetheless, I’ll talk about the institution from which my own training came: the English department. We English Department folk hone our ironic capacities through the work of textual interpretation, something like what I did above. Our texts are not necessarily literary in a traditional sense of the word, and they are not necessarily texts: films, performances, and television shows; novels, state documents, institutional archives, private letters, and many other things besides capture the interest of my colleagues. These days there is no agreement among field practitioners about what the “literary” is, about how one would go about defining that term, or about whether it matters to try. But I would hazard that what separates the artifacts that attract our somewhat undisciplined disciplinary attention from those that do not is the occasion they offer for irony.[ii] If irony is a commitment through and beyond disappointment, some artifacts seem to carry within them an expectation of, and a capacity for prompting, such a trajectory. It is as though they already knew about the attachment, dismay, and re-attachment they would elicit from us. They seem to include commentary on each of these stages.

Mobile currents of ironic attachment and detachment are commonly to be found in English professors’ writing and speech, and especially in their acts of interpretation. Objects partly teach us to follow these currents and we in English departments have partly taught each other to follow them. It is not always clear where to draw the lines between us and our objects. In my interpretation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine above, for example, my interpretation of the video mingles with its interpretation of its characters and its characters’ “own” reflections on their experience of art. Only that sketch, of the dozens from the show that I have watched, prompted my line of thinking about irony, so there is something special about it. But the particularity resides halfway between me and it, and between its creators and itself. Maybe you think the indeterminacy is damning. I don’t. Over time I have grown quite comfortable with the idea that in the work of interpretation, irony enters through all the doors at once. As Friedrich Schlegel commented, “It is a very good sign when the unreflective and uncomplicated have no idea whatsoever how they should take this continual self-parody and just go on now believing and now disbelieving until they become giddy and take the joking seriously and the earnestness as a joke.”[iii] That giddiness is the first fruit of a English major’s education.

I remember being taught how to do a turn in ballet class: you pick a spot on the wall with your eyes, then as you spin, you whip your head round faster than your body to look at the spot again. The surprising thing about this technique is that it does not accomplish what you might think it ought to accomplish: it does not prevent you from getting dizzy. You will be dizzy. What it prevents you from doing is falling down. English professors are people who have spent years spotting on the wall as they turn between criticism and love. They might be dizzy. But they will not fall down. That’s what makes their guidance worth having. I can still remember my college professor saying more than twenty years ago about some clumsy, but fascinating, early American book, “It’s no good, but isn’t it great?” A colleague at another institution reported saying to her students,“We have to wear the bad text like a skin,” an exhortation that sums up beautifully an attitude that many of us try to inculcate in the classroom: however bad the text’s politics, inhabit it as well as critiquing it. Even as lowly a form as the internal administrative email sometimes—in fact, routinely, in the fullest sense of that word—affords possibility. With what masterful ironic shadings have I not heard my colleagues commenting on the latest shake-up in Human Resources?

If I had to defend the existence of English departments, I wouldn’t make the claim that we turn out critical thinkers or democratic citizens. I wouldn’t say that we hone the capacity for empathy. I might not even say that we preserve a body of historical knowledge about literature, though we do, and long may that work continue. I wouldn’t try to claim that English departments do something that, by definition, no one else could possibly do. What I’d say is that in the English department as currently constituted we have a treasure, rare though not unique. We have an institution dedicated to, pervaded with, and capable of inculcating the capacity for irony: the capacity to be attached, committed, and disappointed all at once. This is an aptitude human beings urgently need. And it is possible to want to defend institutions that foster a valuable aptitude even when they are far from perfect; even when there are significant elements of chance and contingency in the process that has led them to offer it; even when there is no necessary connection between the subject matter “English” and the aptitude “irony.” Nevertheless, irony is part of what we do, and it is worth doing.

I am not sure how many of my colleagues would give, or even agree with, such an account. As is the case for many of the humanities disciplines, “what we do” and “what we study” are not currently the objects of any sort of consensus among field practitioners.[iv] We have also been in a chronic crisis about the right proportions of detachment and attachment in our work for most of the time that I have lived in and around English departments, which amounts now to twenty years. There has been concern about whether as a group we have drifted into something like the stance of cool detachment that most people associate with the word “irony” (as opposed to the complex dance of attachment and detachment I am trying to describe here). I don’t doubt that one can find articles, lectures, classes, subsets of the field in which such distancing attitudes prevail. However, in my own travels from classroom to lecture hall to faculty meeting, from seminar to collegial lunch to campus visit, I am far more struck by the prevalence of irony on the definition to which I am committed. All around me, people’s beloved objects survive their criticisms; the love that follows on this battle is all the stronger.

I take it to be a pretty uncontroversial statement that this is an imperfect world. Yet it is also, strangely, a world in which efforts at spiritual, aesthetic, moral, intellectual, and physical perfection are routinely undertaken, and in which such efforts for some reason make sense to us even as we know they will probably fail. Irony is the performance that such a world demands. It is a stance, if not the stance, that permits honest perception of reality and earnest faith in ideality to coexist.

People worry about irony and critique damaging our ability to form attachments and make commitments. I worry about the opposite: I fear you are likely to have problems with attachment if you are not ironic enough. The objects of our love fall short. Whether it’s a book, or a song, or a person, or even that most blameless of animals, a faithful dog, at some point the beloved is going to start looking dinged up. When that happens, we need to articulate our disappointment. And we need to love again afterwards, because virgin purity is not one of the options we have. Innocence before experience is absolutely doomed. It’s innocence after experience that, though fragile, might endure. Irony is innocence after experience. The institutions that train us in it are worth preserving.


[i] Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Season 5, Episode 17, April 15, 2018.

[ii] And as some readers will note, this is an old way of defining the field: Cleanth Brooks put irony at the heart of our activities back in the 1940s, though what he meant by it and what I mean by it are not exactly the same. See, for example, Cleanth Brooks, “Irony and ‘Ironic’ Poetry,” College English 17, no. 5 (February 1948): 231-37.

[iii] Friedrich Schlegel quoted in D. C. Muecke, The Compass of Irony (London: Methuen, 1969), 195.

[iv] For an account of how things stand in Religious Studies, for example, see Joy Brennan, “On Disciplines and Non-Knowing: A Reply to Agnes Callard,” The Immanent Frame (blog), April 19, 2019.