cogntive science irony postirony

Cognitive Science and Irony

I usually hate these sorts of thing, but the Stanford Humanities Center had a great conference on Friday on cognitive science and literature. I unfortunately could only attend the morning session on irony, which featured Herb Clark (Psychology, Stanford), Joshua Landy (French, Stanford), and Elaine Scarry (English, Harvard) and was chaired by Lanier Anderson (Philosophy, Stanford). The discussion largely focused on Clark’s 1984 paper (with Gerrig), “Irony as Pretense,” which argues, against the so-called “mentioning” theory of irony, that when X is being ironic, he is pretending to be X* speaking to Y*, a hypothetical conversant who may or may not be present. Irony thus becomes a form of pretense, a dramaturgical critique by X of X*. I googled Clark’s paper and discovered a 2007 book Irony in Language and Thought: A Cognitive Science Reader, a collection of papers on cognitive science research on irony.

I came to Stanford thinking I’d be working on the relationship between cognitive science and literature, but then decided it would be too difficult to do a decent dissertation on that relationship unless I seriously engaged with the cognitive science literature. Complicating matters, most English departments are very strongly historical in their orientation and institutional organization, implicitly demanding that grad students specialize in particular periods and authors if they hope to find jobs. The result of these pressures is that even the most theoretical dissertations are grounded in specific periods and historical horizons, which is not necessarily a bad thing. And all things considered, I would rather not have to conduct empirical research into how our brains process literature because the necessary tendency of such research is to quickly abstract away from particular examples to cognitive structures and processes. So I moved on to other interests, first to the genre of postmodern encyclopedic fiction (Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo, Silko, Wallace) and then finally to postironic fiction, which I continue to work on. But it’s nice to be led back, via postirony, to cognitive science. I want to try to make use of this literature in the diss., even if only in a peripheral way.