By now, in 2011, Laibach’s act is considered to be ironic, as it is deducted from interviews that the band does not sympathize with fascism. (Although there stance towards political issues is far from clear and univocal even now.) In the eighties, their shows actually got canceled and Laibach got banned from radio stations because their music was considered to be fascist.
When we consider Laibach’s song Geburt Einer Nation ironic and try to pinpoint what the irony is, we often use irony in the sense of an opposition. Irony in this sense is saying one thing, but actually meaning the opposite. In A Rhetoric of Irony (1974) Wayne Booth argues for a way to locate irony in a text. In chapter one, “The Ways of Stable Irony”, he therefore argues for a method of “deciding” whether a text is ironic or not. Booth’s agenda is to rid irony of its vague and broad meaning and to treat it as a (clear) rhetorical device. In order to do this, Booth introduces the notion of Stable Irony; four criteria (or marks) determining whether a text or utterance is ironic. Booth illustrates his problem, in light of Pride and Prejudice: “I know that Jane Austen intended Mr. Bennet’s statement as meaning something radically different from what he seems to say. [But] then we have a real and specific problem, or set of problems: In what sense do I “know” Jane Austen’s intentions? How is such a peculiar kind of knowledge possible, if it is?” (Booth 3)
So, Booth discusses the four marks of stable irony, in order to solve his problem. The first mark of stable irony is intention. Irony has to be intentional. As Booth argues, irony has to be “deliberately created by human beings to be heard or read and understood with some precision by other human beings[.]” (Booth 5) Booth locates this intention in the implied author. (Booth 11) The implied author is the author the reader constructs on basis of what he has read and seen (“knows”) of this author. Thus, for Booth, in the tradition of New Criticism, the intention and therefore irony is an inherent quality of a work.
The second mark of irony is that the irony must be covert. It must be intended to be reconstructed as having another meaning than that stated at the surface of the utterance. Thus, the statement “it is ironic that…” does not count as irony for Booth.
The third mark of irony is that it has to be stable or fixed. Once the irony has been reconstructed from the surface of the utterance, “the reader is not then invited to undermine it with further demolitions and reconstructions.” (Booth 6) So, when we conclude that the utterance “Think it’ll rain?” is expressed is a situation in which it is clear that it is, it is ironic and not to be further analyzed or interpreted. It is fixed.
The fourth and last mark of stable irony is that it must be finite in its application. The irony must cover a limited area, it must not (just) make general statements like “the universe is ironic” or “there is no truth”. (Booth 6)
While Booth expands his theory on irony in a number of ways, for this post I propose I will look at the four marks in respect to Laibach’s song. Booth suggests interpreters need four steps for detecting irony.These steps happen, according to Booth, “virtually simultaneous” and intuitive. (Booth 12, 13)
The first step is to reject the literal meaning. We must recognize a dissonance between what we read and what we know. We read, including music and video, Laibach singing Queen’s lyrics in German. The text appears to have a literal meaning of unified glory and ultimate homogeneity. Together with the bombastic sound of the music and the militant images, this unified glory is placed in a military context. We make of this a German war context based on the German translation. Thus we have a text that displays German, military unified glory, not unlike Triumph Des Willens (Riefenstahl, 1935). The link to the Second World War is obvious. There are two things in the text and its context that could make us reject this literal meaning: 1) the text is a copy of a popular song about a peaceful global nation which is conflicting with the military message portrayed by Laibach and 2) exaggeration: the neo-fascist meaning is so over the top and overt, that it cannot be serious. On basis of the incongruity between 1 and 2, we could argue for rejecting the literal meaning.
Booth’s next step is to try out alternative interpretations. Laibach could be unaware of militarizing the song or could be unaware of the original song by Queen. Is their version just unfortunately referring to 1930’s/1940’s Germany or are we missing something? These alternatives seem to be highly implausible.
Continuing with step three, we have to decide on the (implied) author’s knowledge or beliefs. As the people in the eighties, we cannot just take our (current) knowledge of the band Laibach into this decision. Therefore we have to base our knowledge about Laibach on what we see and hear. As copying someone’s text could count as parody, and the exaggeration of German military aspects, we could take this to be a hint at believing the author meaning something else than is said. This is (in a problematic way, as we will see Fish argue) in line with step 1, the rejection of the literal meaning.
Finally we come to step four, in which we choose a new meaning based on our beliefs about the author. We therefore say that Laibach’s song is ironic and thus not fascist, precisely because it exaggerates this literal meaning and counters Queen’s song.
What we have now, in terms of Booth’s four marks, is a music video in which the implied author, our idea of what Laibach is according to the music video, has another intention (mark 1) than is present appears at the surface of the music video. Therefore, the surface meaning is different from the underlying and covered up “real” meaning (mark 2). Now that we know this, we do not form other interpretations. As covert as the ironic meaning may be, we believe we have now found and fixed it (mark 3). This fixed meaning is about a particular subject, in this case mocking both fascism (war) and popular culture (Queen) by exaggerating the first through copying and subverting the latter. Although this is, according to me not a final and fixed meaning, it seems plausible. But in what way did we get to this meaning in respect to Booth’s marks? We can see that practical use of Booth’s marks of irony is highly problematic, at least in Laibach’s case. Therefore we turn to Stanley Fish’s criticism of Booth’s stable irony in the next post.
Booth, Wayne C. “The Ways of Stable Irony.” A Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: University of Chicago,
Laibach. “Geburt Einer Nation.” Opus Dei. Rico Conning, 1987. CD.
Queen. “One Vision.” A Kind of Magic. Queen, Reinhold Mack, Dave Richards, 1986. CD.
Triumph Des Willens. Dir. Leni Riefenstahl. Prod. Leni Riefenstahl and Adolf Hitler.