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A New Chapter in the Politics of Irony: Cynthia Willett’s Irony in the Age of Empire
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What if a tree told a joke in the woods and there was no one there to hear it?

Occasionally I watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show. I have appreciated Ellen as a comedian since she first came on the public scene, and one part of her talk show that I enjoy is the dancing in the opening segment, where Ellen dances to music played by a DJ, and she goes up into the audience and the overwhelmingly female audience dances with her. I like to dance and I enjoy watching other people dance, but the Ellen dance segment also holds a special fascination for me, as there is a style of dancing I have observed over the last twenty-five years or so, a style that might as well be called “lesbian,” and which, if you don’t know this style, Ellen exemplifies nicely. (Recent articles about the “drag king” phenomenon confirm that there is such a style.) It is fun to watch her dance and then to see how the other women in her audience relate to this style. As best I can tell, most of Ellen’s audience is not self-identified as lesbian, and yet I would say (without having studied the question systematically) that most of the audience is receptive to Ellen’s style of dance and seeks to emulate it. There may be a lesson here concerning a mode of discourse and a mode of receptivity, a question to which we will return. Thinking about the chapter on the origins of philosophy in music and dance in Cynthia Willett’s earlier book, Maternal Ethics and Other Slave Moralities, it would be interesting to map the emergence of the instances of irony in dance.

I mention Ellen’s show for another reason, however, having to do with a certain segment of the show that has aired in the last year or so (as of summer 2008) that I cannot bear to watch. It’s just too much—and this has to do with irony. This is a segment where a woman from the audience is down on her luck, and Ellen bails her out. Now please do not misunderstand, I feel plenty of sympathy for these women and indeed all people who are down on their luck; what’s more important, I feel further spurred by their stories to grapple with the systemic dimensions of their situations and to ask what might be done to address these dimensions. But there is a role for the concept of irony in these investigations, well captured by a little saying that was heard in the Third World in the midst of anticolonialist and anti-imperialist struggles: “Some people in America are so poor, the new baby has to sleep in the box that the color television came in.” One segment on Ellen had a woman who had bought a car that she really could not afford and soon after wrecked the car, so she was now paying more money than she really had for a car that she no longer had, and she was in danger of losing her job because she didn’t have transportation. I’m sure you can see at least a couple of ironies in the situation, but the interesting question for a politics of irony is to set the more “personal” aspects of this situation—someone makes the decision to buy something she can’t afford—with the systemic aspects, having to do with employment, transportation, and credit. And, I would say, we will see how Willett helps us understand this in relation to American imperialism.

After seeing this segment of Ellen’s show a couple of times, I resolved to not watch it anymore (the segment—I still like watching the opening sequence of the show)—the ironies involved are just too upsetting to me. But recently I was flipping through the channels, and I just happened to see a little bit of the hard-luck segment, and once again I was hit in the face with what might be called an irony of our specific empire. Somehow I got all of this in about five seconds, before I changed the channel! Here...

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