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Claire Colebrook

Irony is both a figure of speech and a mode of existence or attitude toward life. Deriving from the ancient Greek term eironeia, which originally referred to lying, irony became a complex philosophical and rhetorical term in Plato’s dialogues. Plato (428/427 or 424/423–348/347 bce) depicts Socrates deploying the method of elenchus, where, rather than proposing a theory, Socrates encounters others in conversation, drawing out the contradictions and opacities of their arguments. Often these dialogues would take a secure concept and then push the questioning to a final moment of non-knowledge or aporia, exposing a gap in a discourse that his interlocutors thought was secure. Here, Socratic irony can be thought of as a particular philosophical method and as the way in which Socrates chose to pursue his life, always questioning the truth of key ethical concepts. In the Roman rhetorical tradition irony was theorized as a rhetorical device by Cicero (106–43 bce) and Quintilian (c.35–c.96 ce), and it was this sense of irony that was dominant until the 18th century. At that time, and in response to the elevation of reason in the Enlightenment, a resurgence of satire emerged: here the rigorous logic of reason was often repeated and in a parodic manner. At this time, modern irony emerged, which was subtly different from satire in that it did not simply lampoon its target, but suggested a less clear position of refined and superior distance. The German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) was highly critical of what came to be known as Romantic irony, which differed from satire in that it suggested a subtle distance from everyday discourse, with no clear position of its own. This tendency for irony to be the negation of truth claims, without having any clear position of its own, became ever more intense in the 20th century with postmodern irony, where irony was no longer a rhetorical device but became a manner of existing with no clear commitment to any values or beliefs. Alongside this tradition of irony as a distanced relation to one’s speech acts, there was also a tradition of dramatic, cosmic, tragic, or fateful irony, where events might seem to act against human intentions, or where human ambition would seem to be thwarted by a universe that almost seems to be judging human existence from on high.