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The Functions of Irony


Admission requirements

No extra admission requirements


Irony is a protean concept. While everyone is more or less able to recognize ironic situations or pinpoint the irony in a statement or text, irony resists definition and theoretical determination. As it traverses historical periods, movements, genres, and disciplines, irony assumes different shapes and functions. It can be a literary device, a rhetorical strategy, a trope or a figure, but also a philosophical concept, an attitude to life, a position of scepticism and radical mistrust in relation to language, and a pedagogical instrument. What are the major transformative moments of irony in history? How can we analyze irony in literary texts? What is the place and function of irony in the (post-)postmodern era or in so-called post-truth politics? In this course we will examine different permutations and notions of irony, and the aesthetic, cultural, and political functions thereof in Greek and Roman antiquity and particularly in European modernity from the 18th to the 21st century: in romanticism, modernism, post-modernism, and in what some have called the “post-ironic” era after ‘9/11.’ We will explore the operations of irony in different fields and genres: in prose and poetry, in literary criticism, in philosophy, in cultural critique, and in popular culture. We will explore different forms of irony: Socratic, romantic, and postmodern irony; verbal, situational, dramatic irony, and meta-irony. The relation of irony to the related concepts or genres of humor, parody, satire, cynicism, pastiche, and camp will also be examined. We will address the theoretical and epistemological problems that irony raises by scrutinizing approaches by well-known critics and philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sören Kierkegaard, Wayne Booth, Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty, Paul de Man, Georges Bataille, Judith Butler, Umberto Eco, and Fredric Jameson. And we will bring these theoretical insights to bear on close readings of literary texts and other cultural objects, ranging from the 18th to the 21st century.

Course objectives

Students that follow the course will:

  • gain insight in the main conceptions and permutations of irony historically

  • develop analytical and methodological tools for studying irony in literary texts and other cultural objects

  • be able to critically examine the philosophical, political, social, cultural, and aesthetic functions of irony in relation to comparable yet different concepts and genres (parody, satire, cynicism etc.)


Timetable on the website

Mode of instruction


Course Load

280 hours Lectures: 42 hours Class preparations (readings): 148 Assessment (presentations, final paper): 90

Assessment method

1 Class presentations and contributions to blackboard discussions
2 Presentation of research for final paper in concluding symposium
3 Final paper

Please note that active participation in discussions in class and on blackboard, as well as oral presentations (as listed under 1 and 2) will not be graded but are requisite. Failure to fulfil these requirements will result in the deduction of one point from the final grade. The final mark is established by the final paper. Should the final paper yield an insufficient grade, then the student will be offered an opportunity for revising it.



Reading list

The reading list will be made available on Blackboard.


Students have to apply for this course with the registration system of the university uSis.
General information about registration with uSis you can find here in Dutch and in English
Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Contact information

Media Studies student administration, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 102C. Tel. 071 5272144;

Coordinator of studies: Mr. J. Donkers, MA, P.N. van Eyckhof 4, room 1.02b.