Myers, G  (1990)  'The Rhetoric of Irony in Academic Writing', in Written Communication 7(4): 419 - 55

[This is a long, detailed and complex piece of work, and all the examples are drawn from linguistics or psychology - -I have taken the liberty of adding some of my own examples to help out.. These notes are very brief as a result. Basically, irony has been studied by a number of disciplines, but each in their own way. It is hard to generalize, but usually, ironic statements mean the opposite of what they apparently say, as in  'What lovely weather!' when it is hammering down (420). Although it is hard to generalize, academic writing tends to use the form of  'echoic mention in which the same words can be re-used with a different intention' (419). The obvious examples turn on the ways in which academics cite the works of others or use quotations in the work. Sometimes, these quotations are meant to draw support, but often they are meant critically. Academic subjects will vary, but again, it is conventional to be very polite,and a bit underhand, in the way in which one criticizes other academics. The problem is that readers do not always  'get' the irony.

{My own suspicion is that this ambiguity is also used by ironic writers to deny responsibility for any unduly critical remarks, as when people  'take refuge in irony '. In an example, of my own:

Two young trendy and pretty insecure academics wrote an introductory piece for their module which openly mocked academic conventions. They were hurt and alarmed to find senior academics objecting strongly, so to get off the hook, they said it was really ironic all along} ]

Academic writing has to establish a context for irony, involving the ironic writer, the ironicized writers and the audience. Writers have to indicate that they are being ironic in a number of ways -- using quotation marks;  'echoing in a recognizable way the vocabulary or form of another writer'; indicating that  'the ironic writer is writing about these words, not using them as part of his or her own assertion'; readers have to feel that they are discovering double meanings for themselves, 'not just [as] the result of the ironic writer's explicit instructions'; readers have to understand and share assumptions about the text that demonstrates irony  (421).

Academic writers use irony as a particular rhetorical function. Essentially, it is to do with the business of critically discussing and debating with other academics within academic conventions. In general, social distances, hierarchies and threats to 'face' are involved. For academics especially, there are issues such as  'criticizing another researcher, asserting one's own claim, ignoring other researchers, accounting for errors, or naming something' (423). Sometimes, these matters are managed with excessive politeness, with excessive caution, by combining criticism with praise, or by not exempting oneself. Irony often seems to involve  'positive evaluations', which also has the function of building on the assumptions of readers [including readers who are supposed to be impartially examining a controversy]. It is thus a form of persuasion which is not always visible to the reader.

In one example, a critic is evidently sneering at French theorists, while pretending to discuss them. French theory is referred to as  'this French disease', for example. More subltly, the passage includes a quotation from a French theoretical approach, with the clear intention that readers can see that it is pompous and windy [especially when compared to the clear style of the critic, and, in this case, a classic  'graceful, informal, impersonal and modest' essay style  (425). The critic comments on the quotation by writing  'Gee whizz!', assuming that only simple-minded readers could be impressed by the quotation. It is also a clear signal that the real readers are not expected to take this view.

In this particular case, ironic comment takes a more polite form than open criticism, and it also persuade readers more effectively, by allowing  'the quoted passage to condemn itself' (425). The obscurity of the passage also condemns people who might be associated with it even if they have not written it, by linking the two.

[What you do is list a line of advocates of a particular approach, say British Cultural Studies, and then pick one of the silliest examples, say a wacky analysis of the deep underlying power struggles evident in horseplay at a Boy Scout camp, and thus condemn them all -- see Harris (1992)]

This example of irony also helps build an understanding with the readers, who might be expected to carry on this ironic reading for themselves. However, this connection with readers is  'flexible, occasioned by immediate rhetorical purposes', rather than generalisable  (425).

Not all quotations are meant ironically, of course. Some can be used to introduce an argument, to indicate what is taken to be accepted, or as a  'traditional argument from authority' (427).

Some of the clues indicating an ironic use can be quite subtle. In another example, Myers demonstrates that the writer is using quotations, but not making any immediate reference to them. An awareness of irony develops through the course of a piece of writing. For example, criticisms of claims might be made at a later stage: here, using quotations might simply be a device to try to argue that there is an established truth that needs to be questioned. In this particular case, the writer finally refers to these quotations as  'standard arguments' and 'dog-eared examples'. To the skilled reader, another clue of critical intent arises when the author includes him or herself.  [I think this could be easily understood as an example of 'academic realism', where rival views are displayed, apparently fairly, but then subsequent authorial comments undermine them].

[One of my favourite examples is an attack on the UK Labour Party's 'New Times' policy which lists all its central claims and arguments, pretending to be one of those common-sense views of what 'everyone knows' is happening these days, only to demolish the whole list as ill-thought out rubbish. Other examples have done the same for the latest trends in management theory or various faddish therapies.]

Myers admits that these clues depend on assuming that readers are already pretty experienced, but thinks this delay can be particularly effective in involving such readers, allowing suspicion and criticism to develop in their minds.  [It clearly helps if readers are more experienced in criticizing academic work in the first place -- for newcomers it must be just confusing and annoying to begin to understand a position, only to find that the author is criticizing it all along. Often, readers are uncertain and they must try out  'several possible relations among the reader, the writer, and another writer' -- assuming they have enough cultural capital to attempt several  relations].

Irony is also useful in cases where there are unresolved disputes between academics, and both parties are vying to convince the readership. Often academic disputes are insoluble, since the parties may not agree on any criteria to resolve them -- no agreement on scientific method, on success and failure and so on. Myers thinks that such disputes typically venture into metatheory, or deploy analogies or new forms of presenting their case, as well as increasingly responding to new criticism by paraphrasing their opponents' views, which can then be met with an insistence that the opponents have been misrepresented -- and so on  [try the great dispute on social mobility as an example here].

One obvious device is to use quotations ironically, sometimes whole sentences, but sometimes single words. there are also devices such as  'footnotes, italics, highlighted lists, titles and highlighted lists, citations, and more heavy handed disclaimers such as  (sic) and (?!).' (431). Quotation is useful for focusing attention on specific terms used in a text -- an example given is where the author highlights the term 'natural' in rival accounts -- the quotation marks immediately make it questionable. There are also 'scare quotes' [or  'sneer quotes', but these tend to be less polite -- 'According to various 'marxists' in the group...', or 'The most 'progressive' thinkers would agree that... etc].

What might be called selective quotation is also useful, and here the claim is that selective quotations are particularly suitable, typical or representative. Properly used, they can again allow opponents to condemn themselves in their own words. It need not be actual authors that are quoted in their own right: they can stand for whole traditions  [whether they want to or not]. Quotes that seemingly contradict each are also useful.

Other signals of irony include phrases such as  'interestingly enough' and  'emphatic modifiers', such as  'precisely' [ I remember that 'interesting' was one of the deadliest words you could use to describe work in the media, and it meant exactly the opposite. There is a common use of the term to describe student work in the same way -- 'Thank you for this essay. It was interesting'] [it seems to me that any phrase can function as a signal of irony, though -- Myers would no doubt agree that it depends on context]. These words take on particular force in academic argument.

When debates get under way, one response to the ironic comment is to insist on having been misunderstood. Writers will sometimes quote themselves in defence. The assumption here is that ironic readings are misleading and that a literal reading is required instead. Ironic reading can lead to a counter accusation that the ironist is deliberately misunderstanding for malicious purposes. A counter to this view insists that context is all important [what these examples indicate is the tactical use of irony again -- a way of making criticism while leaving open the possibility of defending oneself by insisting that one's opponent is taking it all too literally]. Further twists to the argument can turn on whether or quotations are representative, whether single words indicate the real significance of an argument, how much of the work is to be taken as the text, and so on.

Analogies can also be used ironically. In Myers' own example, he could have included a large technical diagram of his argument for ironic purposes. This would indicate to the readers  'an ironic echo of the articles containing the cognitive process model that can be found in Written Communication' (437). Since analogies clearly involve similarities being emphasised, while differences are suppressed, there is much room for irony -- pointing to unwanted similarities, or highlighting contrasts. Here, the analogy is accepted and then ironically echoed.  [Myers'example is hopelessly obscure for non-linguists]. Often the criticism is disguised  'as a polite attempt to repair and agree with the analogy' (439).

[One excellent but pretty simple example I remember concerned a couple of nice old consultant managers who visited us to explain that our organization was just like an internal combustion engine. Students and lectures were the fuel. Naturally, managers had the important role of the on-board computer, measuring and regulating the performance of the whole engine. At question time, somebody asked 'And what is the exhaust?' The poor old souls were so nonplussed --the implication was clearly that the hot air and noxious gases were the sort of presentation they had just given -- that the questioner had to pretend he was being helpful and merely trying to repair the analogy]

Sometimes, analogies can be reversed,  'raising questions about the side of the analogy that is supposed to be taken for granted' (439). Sometimes, it is possible to parody the form of an argument, borrowing from and echoing  'characteristic titles, openings, examples, formalisms' (440). Sometimes this can work so well that readers can be misled.

[One parody I must get on and develop is to argue that there are 'multiple fitnesses', just as in the highly fashionable and deeply dodgy 'multiple intelligences' bandwagon. With any luck I can mimic the forms of argument used in Gardiner's various efforts, using various innocent observations, common-sense examples, and some developmental psychology, and it will all end with the popular and apparently non-elitist view that everyone is fit in their own way, and thus no-one should feel inferior to those who have just happened to confuse athletic fitness with fitness in general, even if they do have a BMI of 40]

Academics have to know when to use particular kinds of irony, if at all. Sometimes, for example  'elaborate, ostensibly polite mockery of opponents' would be inappropriate, while  'self-mockery and offhand echoes of disciplinary cliches, routine formulations, and slogans -- the proverbs of the community' would be acceptable, say in a workshop at a conference (441). The latter are often omitted from formal proceedings of conferences. Self-mockery in particular helps in  'distancing the ironicized writer and building solidarity with the audience' (443). There are differences in some disciplines between published and unpublished papers. In one example, reduction to absurdity is used ironically, and in another,  'an unlikely and mischievous bit of terminology'

[Myers'example is obscure again, so here is one of my own:

A writer criticizing a popular notion that there are visual, auditory and kinaesthetic types of learner, invented a 4th type who learned through smell, and imagined concerned parents demanding specialist olfactory curriculum materials

This example also shows the risks, possibly, which I have certainly encountered in relaying it to students and other VAK enthusiasts --  'though irony may be a form of redress of {surely 'or?}criticism, is still suggests a personal attack and thus risks backfiring' (448).]

Irony seems to be  more common in certain subject areas whose status is uncertain, such as cognitive sciences [sports science would be my example]. In some areas direct criticism is also rare. It is also the case that people from completely different subject disciplines can simply be dismissed, sometimes sarcastically, rather than ironically quoted: irony is more common between closely related disciplines. Respected researchers are usually accused of misreading work rather than misunderstanding it.

Academic disputes often rapidly move on to the use of analogy or to claims about the general scientific nature of different disciplines  [all the examples here concern disciplines that consider themselves to be various kinds of sciences]. One peculiar feature is that writers are never addressed directly:  ' [writers decide] that they need not talk to the other writer, they need only talk about him' (448).

The use of irony in academic writing arises from the need to maintain a polite form of discussion, which can vary between the different disciplines. For those searching for a cognitive account of irony, this will not do, but some general points can be made to help us understand particular texts. Especially: irony can emerge gradually through a text after a period of  reader uncertainty; there are signals of irony, but these vary according to context; irony can depend for its effects on being subtle, and apparently discovered by the reader; a main form is echo, and this can appearing quotations or analogies or paraphrases; everything depends on the relations between the ironist, the victim, and the reader  (449).

It is a useful technique in exposing assumptions, both of writers and of whole approaches or disciplines. It can problematise texts, opening them up for analysis, and encouraging critical reading. However, it can also exclude outsiders. Indeed, 'Irony, to work, must exclude' (450)  [not only some readers but some disciplines and some rivals], and it can mystify and obscure.

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