The Ironic Life of Keywords

Michael Carrithers

I have been much concerned lately with the notion of sociality, and with the idea that a clear view over the real intricacies of human interaction and mutual engagement would bring forth a crisper image of humans in social life. It would show, for example, how historicity is possible and how cultural change would be a natural and incessant process.
In this essay I'm interested in one particular mode of sociality, namely public culture, meaning the culture of mediated interactions through print and public broadcasting. Keywords are terms in public life which bear a great weight of symbolic, moral and emotional meaning. Examples in English might be: democracy, dictatorship, social justice, the Christian way of life, etc. I take the German phrase Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit and its fraternal twin, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, as examples of such keywords. These are sometimes used as if synonymous, and to mean something like 'dealing with the past' or 'confronting the past', notably the uncomfortable German past. Unlike, say, democracy, these are of relatively recent coinage, so there is some chance of seeing them come to life and undergo metamorphosis over a whole career.
Aufarbeitung is clearly, I think, what W.C. Gallie called an 'essentially contested concept'. But his is a philosopher's argument which needs sociological and cultural expansion. I note that irony often accompanies Aufarbeitung or the work of Aufarbeitung, so I explore the extent to which irony might be the best way to expand Gallie's conception. Irony works by drawing attention to conflicting interpretations of a situation known in common to both speaker and interlocutor, in order to achieve a rhetorical end, that is, to further some social and cultural project. By considering all these factors together-the difference between speaker and interlocutor, the contrast between conflicting parties, the force of a project, the existence of a common situation-I devoutly hope to provide broad yet cogent interpretation of irony to illuminate the essentially contested, and therefore essentially interactive and mutable sense of Aufarbeitung and, by implication, of keywords in public discourse.
I also ask whether rhetorical irony might also amount to historical or dramatic irony, or, to put it another way, whether a figure of speech corresponds to a configuration of events, or, to put it yet another way, whether contrasting interpretations expressed in irony correspond to necessarily contrasting interests and experiences in social life.

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