Years ago, my friend Ted and I were teaching English and coaching lacrosse together every day. And one day we noticed on the lacrosse field the very kind of "irony" we had been teaching that morning in class. Except that it was slightly different--it was fleeting, darting and the person involved had no idea that it had happened. This led us to re-think the idea of irony as a noun--that it was a description of something that one observed and could identify and label.
What if, we thought, irony were not a noun but a verb? What if irony were an active force in the world (perhaps something like the way some people see God as playing a day to day role in their activities)? What if irony were not, as we had been teaching, a rhetorical device or a literary technique? What if deeply understanding irony was not the ability to identify it as verbal, situational, dramatic or cosmic, but to see it happening around one, perhaps even to oneself in the moment?
It would be one thing to help students to identify irony in O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" where a couple buys each other Christmas gifts by selling exactly what the others gift was to be used for, but it would be another to feel it happening to one while in the moment. And hence was born the idea of "guerrilla irony." This was irony that was "hit and run;" sometimes it was so fast that the person who was victimized was unaware that they had been "ironized."
But where to look for this irony? Were there places that it showed itself more clearly? At times it seemed to be everywhere--signage, see below, was particularly visible. A soccer goalie screaming, "Keep calm," and wildly gesticulating which induced hysterical laughter from the rest of the team after the guerrilla irony had been noticed.
But one of best places seemed to be during faculty meetings. There were obvious ones like an ongoing berating of student attentiveness in class while half of us were on-line and some were texting, but the one that continues to haunt me was the cursory discussion of the mission statement and the phrase "encourages a lifelong passion for learning." Following that we spent the majority of the day learning how to use "Blackbaud"--our new computer program that, among other things, records, translates and calculates individual grades for students in classes.
What was striking about the session was how intense and excited people became as they realized all the ways they could manipulate and translate grades--letter grades, check and check pluses, numbers, any kind of symbol--into a single number. I could not help but be reminded of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the poem the Ancient Mariner shoots the albatross that has led them to safety with a cross-bow for no other reason than that he can. It is my favorite example of technology being used simply because you have it (though perhaps one would have hoped Truman had read the poem before he dropped the atomic bomb). And here we were with our new cross-bows that did wonderful tricks, but at what price in terms of people's relationship to their learning? What is the albatross we are wearing, and how deep is this "guerrilla irony?"
Later that fall I ran in to my friend who calculates all the grades looking exhausted and beleaguered and he posited, "maybe this technology isn't quite worth all the effort?"
But today I just got an email that I had mis-calculated some of my grades according to the Blackbaud formula, and I needed to change some of them.
The lesson seems to be that guerrilla irony is at its most powerful when our personal assumptive world--the one whose bedrock beliefs we do not question or perhaps even recognize and which acts as a way of managing our anxiety--is challenged by a competing assumption that is equally attractive. In other words, do I need to use this crossbow? Do I really need Blaukbaud to accomplish the school's stated mission?
So, I am wondering, maybe "guerrilla irony" could act as an early warning humor system that our desires for ourselves and our assumptive world are in conflict?
In the vein of the world speaking to us---sometimes called "morphic resonance"--while I was writing this piece, my friend Josina posted this photo on her Facebook page. Guerrilla Irony of the day---for today!