Sexually explicit images are among the oldest known representational artifacts, and yet none of these were ever understood as “pornography” until the word and concept began to emerge in Western European languages during the 19th century. At that time, it was used equally to refer to written texts and visual representations. The word has since entered into much more widespread usage, often referring to any and all sexually explicit material, more often to material that appears specifically designed “to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings” (Oxford English Dictionary). Since the popularization of internet pornography in the late 20th century, the term has even come to be applied to any image considered to emphasize the pleasure and seduction of the viewer over realistic representation (as in “food porn,” “real estate porn,” etc.). Many attempts have been made to define pornography more specifically, but little consensus has been achieved. Courts of law have generally avoided defining the word “pornography,” preferring to categorize sexually explicit or arousing representations in terms of “obscenity.” Feminist scholars have disagreed on the definition of pornography to the extent that the conflict became known as the “Porn Wars” of the last several decades of the 20th century. Sexually explicit or sexually stimulating representations can elicit powerful emotional responses that vary widely, and they are inextricable from questions of social power. Thus, the very act of defining pornography is implicated in political struggles over some of the most fundamental issues of human life: gender, sexuality, social equality, and the nature and power of representations. There remains no general or stable agreement concerning what it is, what effects it may have, or even whether it exists at all.
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.
Ring Lardner was a sharp-witted American humorist who had an amazing ear for malapropisms, idioms, and the lively vernacular of early 20th-century Chicago and later the East Coast. Originally a sports writer for baseball, Lardner branched out to short stories in 1914, when he wrote serial fiction for the Saturday Evening Post. This job lead to him honing the authorial control that lead to him creating three original and beloved fictional characters. They were the baseball player Jack Keefe (who appeared in the Saturday Evening Post stories); later, an unnamed but sarcastic husband; and years later, Fred Gross, an inept detective. His unique, first-person stories held an air of authenticity and daring. Readers loved his work for the style and subjects that transcended the stodgy halls of refined literature, and yet intellectuals mined them for the brilliant irony and cultural criticism. Lardner developed a reputation as a complex writer whose column, nonetheless, was read weekly by the mainstream, not just the experts. Additionally, critics saw immediate value in how Lardner let himself be fascinated by the social microcosm of baseball (with minor leaguers maneuvering to rise in the ranks); he saw in it a parallel to class struggles in America. When he later became an actual Long Island neighbor of American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, he sought to capture in literature the decadence of the American lifestyle. His later work was fiercely critical of shallow attitudes, social climbing, and the tendency for business interests to undermine culture. By 1929, Lardner's rough lifestyle and utter disenchantment with America—as well as a tuberculosis diagnosis—took a toll on his creative output. He had been a binge drinker since his days as Fitzgerald's socialite neighbor. His drinking was fueled by his deep vein of disgust for his own society. His wildly comedic and witty writing belied his own weaknesses, including succumbing to the stress of being financially responsible for his family. Monetary success eventually came in 1930, when he coauthored a musical, “June Moon.” It was fleeting, however; the next years saw him produce a weekly radio column and rehash the Jack Keefe adventures in a 1933 redux of fictional baseball letters, titled Lose with a Smile. He died that year, of a heart attack, on September 25. He was forty-eight years old.