Infernal Machine   /   January 26, 2017

Irony Goes to Washington

( Cicero writing letters; Wikimedia Commons.)

A curious thing happened on the way to the Trump presidency. Cicero—the ancient Roman Stoic and teacher of rhetoric—started appearing in the media. Slate, CNN, and the Washington Post suggest that Trump’s sometimes incoherent speech is actually drawing on hallowed techniques of political oratory. Ancient rhetoricians didn’t just analyze speech; they taught ambitious young men how to use it to gain power with verbal tricks, such as saying you won’t say something as a way of intimating it. (Remember the first debate?) That’s called “praeteritio.” But hyperbole is also a technique. And so is intentionally contradicting yourself, which is called irony.

These articles about Trump's Ciceronian speech are part of a debate about how intentional his speech actually is. Is he a master of rhetoric—especially on his preferred medium, Twitter—or simply lacking attention span, firing off tweets on conflicting whims?

The debate is a familiar one to literary critics, who long ago dismissed the “intention” of authors as a rubric to understand texts. The author is dead, as literary theorist Roland Barthes once quipped. The “intent” of an author is just a fiction; only the written text matters. But what if a dead author moves in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Stephen Colbert weighed in on this literary controversy in the Late Show Monologue last July: “Oh, he’s being sarcastic! Now everything he says makes sense!” Colbert’s joke and the Cicero articles share a sense of ambivalence: Trump’s media rhetoric might be both totally incoherent and massively effective at the same time. If so, then the rhetorical device we’re dealing with is indeed irony—defined since before Cicero as “when the actual meaning is the complete opposite of the literal meaning.”

Trump’s first appearance with Mike Pence seems like a distant memory now. But when they were first interviewed together, the following exchange occurred:


LESLEY STAHL: You're not known to be a humble man. But I wonder—


DONALD TRUMP: I think I am, actually humble. I think I'm much more humble than you would understand.


This statement is an exact definition of irony, albeit the kind that backfires on the speaker. In the ancient theory, there’s an eiron (the one who is in the know) and an alazon (the one who gets tricked). In Trump's interview with Stahl, it looked as though Trump was playing both parts, setting up little ironic gambits that ensnared him almost immediately.

But now it seems that something else is going on. Bernie Sanders recently dragged a huge printed tweet onto the Senate floor to show that Trump contradicted himself on the Affordable Care Act. But what if he’s using that contradiction to his own benefit? Reversing positions can be a way of sending multiple signals whose meaning is lost in a flurry of activity. In that case, we can’t live “without irony,” as Christie Wampole put it recently, because we’re surrounded by a  disorienting kind of irony. On Twitter, this irony is now dispensed from the @POTUS account in addition to @realDonaldTrump, making for approximately 32.6 million followers who consume it on a regular basis.

Maybe Trump was right to claim that his Twitter account was worth more than money on the campaign—but only if you know how to manipulate your message. Maybe the irony of self-contradiction helps to reach an even larger audience, whether you “mean” it or not. Trump is using a media-based ironic form of communication to amplify his voice, not exactly to get a message across, but to increase its force.

The debate about the cultural value of irony ebbs and flows. Its current use would surely disappoint Richard Rorty (whose shockingly accurate prediction that “jocular contempt for women” would return has been making the rounds on social media), who claimed that irony was a central tool for deepening self-knowledge. During the Culture Wars of the 1990s—when poststructuralists and evangelicals skirmished about political correctness, science, and “values”—Rorty argued, pointing to Socrates, that irony did not undermine those sacrosanct things but complemented them as a means of self-knowledge. Irony could show us what intention and presence of mind cannot: solidarity, cosmopolitanism, community.

At the same time, during those years, the first online communities were hard at work destroying the left intelligentsia’s seeming hold on irony. Timothy C. May and the so-called “Cypherpunks” were working hard to use public-key encryption—the technology that allows us to send encoded messages all over the world today—to establish the anonymous posting sites that have their descendants in Reddit and 4chan. These platforms would allow new, vicious forms of irony to proliferate. The controversy around Pepe the Frog, a meme that was configured into a cipher for white supremacy and denounced by the Anti-Defamation League, presents a special kind of irony. The alleged alazons have turned the tables on the coastal elites (who took themselves to be eirons). Irony, as it turns out, is unstable, fugitive, bitter.

But back when the professors seemed to be in control of irony, the high priest of irony was the German Romantic Friedrich Schlegel. Schlegel deserved this designation, and he saw some aspects of irony that are surfacing explicitly only now. Schlegel’s practice of irony (as the controversial literary critic Paul de Man argued) showed us that any attempt to gather coherence, like in a novel or in the interpretation of history, was doomed to collapse under its own rhetorical weight. Schlegel defined irony as a “permanent parekbasis,” a technical term from the ancient theater, meaning an aside to the audience in the theater, the breaking of the fourth wall. Irony is any form of winking at the audience through the frame of the work of art. We are so used to it—think The Crying of Lot 49, Catch 22, Infinite Jest—that we barely notice it anymore. Schlegel just pointed out that this meta-communication was the work of art. So “Schlegel” became a watchword of literary theory, even as Jerry Seinfeld successfully pitched a show to NBC about Jerry Seinfeld successfully pitching a show to NBC.

Most varieties of irony serve to sharpen the message they deliver, winking at the recipient of that message to reinforce its meaning. Dramatic irony is a good case of this. When Romeo commits suicide, the audience knows what he does not, that Juliet is not really dead. The message is split, for the audience, between Romeo’s limited knowledge and their own; the tragedy is felt that much more intensely. But Schlegel also describes an “irony of irony,” in which the device backfires on the speaker (as in Trump’s interview with Stahl). Communication always includes the possibility of irony, because language allows more than just literal messages to be conveyed.

The Democrats and the broader left did a lot of things wrong in this electoral cycle, but one in particular was crucial: They tried to assign values (often truth-values) with increasing desperation but without regard for the technologies and rhetorical constituencies in which values take hold. Schlegel could have helped us here. If politics has become literary, it’s time for literary theorists to get to work. Irony, on Schlegel’s account, is not “post-truth,” but rather is about how truth and lies take material form, both in channels of communication and in the symbols manipulated in that communication.  Whether he “knows” it or not, Trump is a master of this irony.

So we need to lay eyes on alt-right media, as distasteful as it is. Andrew Breitbart was fond of saying that “politics is downstream from culture”—a statement that, stripped of its source, would be accepted without comment on much of the academic left. The alt-right is distinctly postmodern—some even agree that storytelling is more fundamental than economics. Why, then, has this left failed to produce the equivalent tools to hook up this dogma to a media machine on the other flank? Schlegel lays the groundwork for just that move. Trump's critics need to be ready with new forms of irony. We saw a glimmer of that when @HillaryClinton suggested to @realDonaldTrump, “delete your account.” The phrase is a meme, the Tweet a signal to those who know about the meme and a self-conscious breaking of the rules of pre-Twitter political discourse at once. Suffice to say, however, that this style did not continue. By any account, the left is playing catch-up in this arena.

The so-called alt-right refers to moderate conservatives (and, by extension, coastal elite men) as “cucks,” shortened from cuckold. But they extend the sexual meaning to a general political one. “Cucks” are getting tricked by a conspiracy of “racially inferior” groups and establishment alike. We could translate this vile term into Ancient Greek as alazon—the butt of irony’s joke. If we don’t want to play that role in history, we need to wise up to the new media-rhetorical complex in front of our very eyes.