Current Issue

Oct. 21, 2009

Vol. 110, No. 3


Ironists and zealots

From two professors: a modest proposal

By D. Graham Burnett ’93 and Jeff Dolven
Published in the October 21, 2009, issue

Professors D. Graham Burnett ’93, left, and Jeff Dolven
Christopher Dawson ’94
Professors D. Graham Burnett ’93, left, and Jeff Dolven

Last spring, professors D. Graham Burnett ’93 (history) and Jeff Dolven (English) submitted this application for $750,000 in response to a request for research ­proposals by defense ­contractor Lockheed Martin. Their topic: irony in the national defense. Prince­ton declined to ­forward the proposal to the ­company.  

(The proposal was first published in Harper’s magazine.)  

PROPOSED PROJECT TITLE: Irony in the National Defense




1) Advanced Active and Passive Sensing; 2) Distributed ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] and Attack; 3) Human Terrain


Irony is a powerful and incompletely understood feature of human dynamics. A technique for dissimulation and “secret speech,” irony is considerably more complex than simple lying and even more dangerous. Ideally suited to mobilization on the shifting terrain of asymmetrical conflict, inherently covert, insidiously plastic, politically potent, irony offers rogue elements a volatile if often overlooked means by which to demoralize opponents and destabilize regimes. And yet, while major research resources have for forty years poured into the human sciences from the defense and intelligence community in an effort to gain control over the human capacity to lie (investments that led to the polygraph, sodium pentothal and its successor compounds, “brain fingerprinting” and associated neuro-physiological imaging techniques, etc.), we have no comparable tradition of sustained, empirical, applied investigation into irony. We know very little about its specific manifestations in foreign cultures; we understand almost nothing about the neurological basis of its expression; we are without forward-looking strategies for its mastery and mobilization in the interest of national defense. This project, led by a pair of PIs [principal investigators] with a strong commitment to irony and to the research university, will position Lockheed Martin for field leadership in an important new area of strategic and commercial growth.

Burnett and Dolven propose to take on a sustained three-year, three-pronged, interdisciplinary investigation of Irony in the National Defense, drawing on social scientists, engineers, and neurobiologists ... .

1) THE HUMAN TERRAIN: If we don’t know how irony works, and we don’t know how it is used by the enemy, we cannot identify it. As a result, we cannot take appropriate steps to neutralize ironizing threat postures. This fundamental problem is compounded by the enormous diversity of ironic modes in different world cultures and languages. Without the ability consistently to detect and localize irony, the intelligence agents and agencies are likely to lose valuable time and resources pursuing chimerical leads, and to overlook actionable instances of insolence. The first step toward addressing this situation is a multilingual, collaborative, and collatory initiative that will generate an encyclopedic global inventory of ironic modes and strategies. More than a handbook or field guide, the work product of this effort will take the shape of a vast, searchable, networked database of all known ironies. Making use of a sophisticated analytic markup language, this “Ironic Cloud” will be navigable by means of specific ironic tropes (e.g., litotes, hyperbole, innuendo, etc.), by geographical region or language field (e.g., Iran, North Korea, Mandarin Chinese, Davos, etc.), as well as by specific keywords (e.g., nose, jet-ski, liberal arts, Hermès, nightsoil, etc.). By means of constantly re-­weighted nodal linkages, the “Ironic Cloud” will be to some extent self-organizing in real-time, and thus capable of signaling large-scale realignments in the “weather” of global irony as well as providing early warnings concerning the irruption of idiosyncratic ironic microclimates in particular locations — potential indications of geopolitical, economic, or cultural hot spots.  

2) ADVANCED ACTIVE AND PASSIVE SENSING: This monitory feature of the “Ironic Cloud” leads to further consideration of the different ways to scan for and detect irony. But this work needs to be done at multiple scales: global, regional, theater, cell or sect, individual, etc. The development of increasingly refined technologies for brain-imaging (e.g., PET, CAT, fMRI, etc.) has opened a staggering new world for the investigation of the somatic basis of psychological functioning. Language research has been at the forefront of this work. The time is ripe for a full-scale study of the neurophysiology of irony. What subregions of the brain are metabolically active in an ironizing subject? What dynamical patterns are revealed by ironic expressions? Can irony be “stimulated” or “suppressed” by chemical or electro-physiological or magneto-inductive means? The answers to these questions will be crucial to the design and testing of irony-scanning equipment. While it is likely that such devices will for some time require relatively high-cost equipment (and thus be primarily of use only to specialized services with access to laboratory environments) there is reason to hope that biochemical or macrometabolic correlates will be discovered that would allow for lower cost and portable “Irony Kits” (probably saliva-based, and likely making use of litmus-paper-like tabs) that could be counted on to identify ironic subjects or situations to an adequate first-order level of accuracy. The field value of such systems for military intelligence and domestic surveillance needs no elaboration.

3) DISTRIBUTED ISR AND ATTACK: Admittedly the most speculative dimension of this project is the preliminary (“blue-sky”) investigation into modes of weaponized irony. Superpower-level political entities (e.g., Roman Empire, George W. Bush, very large corporations, etc.) have tended to look on irony as a “weapon of the weak,” and thus to adopt a primarily defensive posture in the face of ironic assault. But a historically sensitive consideration of major strategic realignments suggests that many critical inflection points in geopolitics (e.g., Mughal invasion of India, American Revolution, etc.) have involved the tactical redeployment of “guerrilla” techniques and tools by regional hegemons. There is reason to think that irony, properly concentrated and effectively mobilized, might well become a very powerful armament on the “battlefield of the future” — serving as a non-lethal, or even lethal, sidearm in the hands of human fighters in an information-intensive projection of awesome force. Without further fundamental research into the neurological and psychological basis of irony, it is difficult to say for certain how such systems might work, but the general mechanism is clear enough: Irony manifestly involves a deep and profound “doubling” of the inner life of the human subject; the ironizer no longer maintains an integrated and wholistic perspective on the topic at hand, but rather experiences something like a small tear in the consciousness, whereby the overt and covert meanings of a given text or expression are sundered. We do not now know just how far this tear could be opened — and we do not understand what the possible vital consequences might be. Even under the current lay or primitive deployments of irony we see instances of disorientation, anger, and sometimes even despair. There is thus reason to hope that, suitably tuned, refined, and charged, the irony of the future might be mobilized to “stun” the enemy or possibly kill outright. This would be an extreme form of the sort of “speech act” theorized by the English philosopher (and, significantly, Strategic Intelligence Service officer in MI6) J.L. Austin. Excitingly, such systems could be understood as the tangible culmination of a 2,500-year humanistic western project of making words matter.

The story behind the proposal

Burnett told PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83 what was behind the idea:

“Both of us began our first semesters teaching at Princeton in the autumn of 2001, and within days the world, and this country, looked very different. Our drafting of this satirical proposal ­certainly reflected an ongoing preoccupation with the current political climate in this country, but, perhaps equally importantly, a preoccupation with the general drift of the modern research ­university in the U.S. over the last half-century into the orbit of government-funded and, increasingly, ­corporate-funded research.

“Anthony Grafton [the Henry Putnam University Professor of History], a dear friend and colleague, wrote a piece for The New Republic in 2007 that took up the problem of the humanities and national-security policy. He pointed out that our political and military leaders have been seduced by an ersatz model of technocratic ‘expertise’ and that humanists have largely conspired in their own marginalization. The implication was that there were basic things that humanists need to keep saying, and that need to be heard. Our playful ­proposal can be read as a gesture in this direction: Great ironists make lousy zealots, and thus the humanities, the great enemy of zealotry, attend with particular assiduity to the delicate ­registers of irony.

“As we say in our proposal, irony is ­generally a ‘weapon of the weak,’ and we are inclined to think that, in a deep way, the humanities are fundamentally ‘weak’ in that they may really have very little to offer to those who are seeking practical answers to the problems of statecraft. At the same time, I am not sure this is all bad. It is our basic belief that weakness is a pre­condition for both beauty and love.” 

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1 Response to Perspective


2009-10-27 15:39:59

There is an antecedent for such nonlethal tactics in the French Mime Regiment, which served the French Army for centuries as shock troops to startle and confuse enemies. In WWI at the Battle of the Somme, they went over the top and into no man's land, apparently facing a powerful headwind. As shot and shell enveloped them, they appeared to seek shelter behind imaginary walls. Although virtually all of them were grievously wounded, they impassively maintained silence throughout in keeping with their tradition. The Regiment was disbanded thereafter, but during French military parades in Paris, each rank of soldiers that passes the Mime Regiment Memorial in homage takes three strides in the posture of men walking against a strong headwind.
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