Vera Tobin

Elements of Surprise / Publications / Teaching / CV

“Irony as a Viewpoint Phenomenon.” In Viewpoint in Language: A Multimodal Perspective. Eds. Eve Sweetser and Barbara Dancygier. 25-46. Cambridge University Press. With Michael Israel.

Within cognitive science, theories of verbal irony tend to focus on the problem of how irony is understood and why it is used in the first place. The basic goal is to identify the necessary features for an ironic utterance and the cognitive mechanisms which support ironic interpretations. In literary studies, however, the opposite concern sometimes arises: namely, how to elucidate the proliferation of ironies in ways that problematize the emergence of a stable meaning. We suggest that these concerns are in fact complementary and that literary and linguistic theories of irony have much to gain from one another.

Drawing on work in Mental Spaces Theory (Fauconnier 1985, 1997) and Cognitive Grammar (Langacker 1999), we develop an account of irony which explains why it is both sometimes very hard to understand (thus appearing relatively late in cognitive development) and sometimes very hard to control (allowing for apparently endless layering in certain contexts). We argue that understanding irony of any sort (verbal, dramatic, or situational) involves a type of dynamic reconstrual in which attention zooms out from the focused content of a mental space to a higher viewpoint from which the original viewpoint space is reassessed. In effect, irony is a special kind of blending process (Fauconnier & Turner 2002) in which a conceptualization is simultaneously accessed from multiple perspectives. The possibility for irony is, in effect, a natural consequence of the narrative mind, but its operation is constrained by the high costs it puts on processing and a consequent need for highly ritualized discourse contexts (cf. Haiman 1998).

Our account builds on theories which treat irony as a form of echoic mention (Sperber & Wilson 1981, 1998) or pretense (Clark & Gerrig 1984; Kreuz & Glucksberg 1989), but applies to a broader range of literary phenomena, including classical cases like Swift’s “Modest Proposal” and multilayered ironies of the sort found in Borges. This analysis has the additional advantage of accounting for verbal, dramatic, situational, and cosmic irony within a single unified framework, where prior approaches have restricted themselves to verbal irony.