Irony + political expression

I want to think about irony, as it appears in Marylin Chin’s poetry and Dorothy Wang’s analysis, with regard to choice and choosing or not choosing politicization. Choice politics and political choice operate on multiple levels in this general context. First, as a poet and a quasi-public figure, Chin has chosen to assert an explicitly political voice. Her art, including writing style and her use of literary device, presumably reflect that larger political aspiration. Simultaneously, Wang rejects the possibility of choice in political engagement for racially ‘minoritized’ subjects, reading political implications into the explicitly a-political work of Li-Young Lee. In doing so, she raises fundamental questions about the level, or even existence, of mutual necessity between politics and choice. Is Wang suggesting that to express political ideas, is it enough to simply be alive? Certainly, none of the writers mentioned above were able to choose or were able to choose their racialization and it’s attendant perceptual implications and all three, according Wang, are politically relevant.

The function of irony as a literary device, however, complicates the question of choosing and choice with regard to how political ideas are communicated interpersonally and intercommunally. We’ve discussed irony as a literary instantiation of the double speak, code-switching reality of life under colonial hegemony. It is not simply lying, but as Claire Colebrook, one of Wang’s references, argues irony is rather “the continual questioning or a distance from fixed norms—is the possibility of politics as praxis: as engaged activity achieved through dynamic speech and collective participation. . . . those who celebrate the destabilising force of irony, by contrast, insist that politics is the rejection, contestation or disruption of shared norms” (Wang 123). From this perspective, as a political expression, irony is evocative of the necessary undertakings of life under as a colonized subject or with a colonized subjectivity. Insofar as irony, by its very definition, demands the holding together of opposites, it seems illustrative of the ways that politics, from Chin’s perspective, are complicated and not reflective of pure doctrine. Thus, it seems that irony demonstrates a coping mechanism for retaining the ability to speak, albeit in a form of code, rather than some sort of theoretically framework aimed at directly resisting hegemonic power. By definition as well, ironic speech confounds singular meaning. But does there exist in the struggle to transform racialized hierarchies an ethical imperative to choose – to clearly state a political opinion and bear its weight unambiguously? That is to say, do the political implications of identity function in the same way as explicit political speech? The socio-political implications of the ambiguity of irony, its seeming resistance to the necessity of choice, raise ethical and strategic questions about the means and approach to revolution. In the end, maybe this more than anything raises questions about what it means to be political – is being political as writer or artist of color merely commenting on the state of power relations in the society writ large? Or does politics imply an intention to transform the state of those power relations, in particular, to upend and reconstitute the status quo?

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One Response to Irony + political expression

  1. Erica Mena says:

    You’re asking some really amazing, and difficult, questions. Especially “That is to say, do the political implications of identity function in the same way as explicit political speech?” and “Or does politics imply an intention to transform the state of those power relations, in particular, to upend and reconstitute the status quo?” The first one raises questions of agency, interpellation, and privilege outside of racialized identity. I wonder what it means for a able-bodied, middle class, straight, cis male, Asian American person to reject political implications of identity, and whether that has more to do with access to discursive norms from other parts of his subject positionality. Perhaps it’s corralative: the more privilege one has, the more able one is to reject the political implications of identity? And then of course the question about intent. For a highly marginalized subject (queer, trans, disabled, poor, person of color) merely existing as who and what one is as the effect, if perhaps not the intent, of transforming the state of power relations…


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