“My entire existence is really the deepest irony.” Søren Kierkegaard
“The value of irony, when it is deployed well, is that it opens up the possibility of hearing an internal call to goodness—the call of an ideal, the call to one’s better self—that might not be opened up in another way.” Jonathan Lear
On the entrance to the toilet in the airport, the cleaner remarks “welcome to my office” and smiles a big grin. This is irony. The ironist balances on the border of wit and cynicism. In America, irony has become conflated with in-authenticity: the hipster pretending to be unfashionable in an effort to impress, the racist friend commenting dryly about his token minority friend. The recent conflation of irony with, for lack of a better phrase, being a jerk, obscures the depth of its’ power.
Kierkegaard noted this astutely, and thought of irony as playfulness with one’s social role. To be ironic is to call into question ones social standing – by adjusting your position to it to reveal the construction of the position. For Kierkegaard, irony is not just a series of funny quips, but an approach to life. The penultimate question for Kierkegaard was “Of all the Christians, is there really a Christian?” meaning, whether one person can truly embody the ideals of an identity. As a result, to be a Christian meant constantly negotiating one’s position both inside and outside of Christian dogma by posing this very question.
What might a professions’ relationship to irony say about the profession itself? I would argue that it says a lot – as a proxy for a combination of playfulness, humility, and serious inquiry. To start with an easy one, of all philosophers, is there really a philosopher? This question is in fact part of doing philosophy – to constantly reposition oneself. And then, of all doctors, is there really a doctor? The doctor who answers, “yes, me” and then proceeds to do his job is clearly missing something about his work. And yet, part of training as a doctor is to confidently pronounce “yes, me!” out of self-affirmation and also to inspire a sense of trust in patients. Where, if anywhere, is there room for irony in medicine?
There seems ample room for sarcasm, which is a dim shadow of irony. If the ironist approaches her profession with the intent of exploring depth, the sarcastic person retreats into a corner. After discharging a patient, one may hear the comment “another life saved,” sarcastically commenting on the futility of one’s work. Here there is a denial of ones’ role, a negation that closes off dialogue. In contrast, the most ironic thing for a doctor to say might be, after a long day, “What is it that we are truly doing here, anyways?” Or, “given all the chronic disease I am treating, what does it really mean to heal?”
Irony need not be morose or deep – it can be lighthearted, like the nephrologist who, when reading an EKG, says, “Ok. Should we try to do something with these scribbles?” The nephrologist is being more than sarcastic here – in calling the electrical signals “scribbles” he is calling into question the authorial knowledge of medicine – this is not astrophysics, folks, we are just looking at scribbles. Similarly, the geriatrician who remarks, “when all else fails, go examine the patient,” is slyly making it known that medicine is not yet completely technological.
I am arguing for a call to irony in medicine, but I would imagine a similar claim could be made in all professions. Of all the teachers, is there truly a teacher? Of all the religious scholars, is there a religious scholar? The point of the exercise is not merely to compile a list of traits, but to explore the periphery of the very identity, and in doing so, to recreate it.
- Lear, Jonathan. 2009. To Become Human Does Not Come That Easily. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values
- Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, Vol 2, F–K, ed. H. V. Hong and E.H. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970)
Image courtesy of Contributing Scholar Elise Alexander.