Identity   /   Fall 1999   /    Articles

Glamour and the End of Irony

Harvie Ferguson

Detail from Thomas Hickey’s The Actress Elizabeth Younge with Bust of Shakespeare.

Since the Romantics, who advertised the stunning insights of the first moderns, irony has waned. Everyone, of course, must remain on nodding terms, so to speak, with the ironic. It remains significant as a technique of affirming membership in a specific “in-group.” But irony in the Romantics’ sense is no longer in evidence; as an all-embracing literary and metaphysical position, it seems to have had its day, and now it must be content with playing its part, with other figures, in the repertoire of modern rhetorical devices. Of course discourse has now become a matter of living and breathing, a style of life rather than a mode of speech alone; but all the same, few would confess to, far less boast of, living-out an ironic style of life.

Irony as a social form of communication exists in the period of developing individualism, a period in which voluntary communities and exclusive social groupings can form. The period of high modernity is inimical to irony in that sense because, for the most advanced societies, all communities tend ideally to be dissolved in the continuous flux of civil society.

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