Acrostics seem to be quite the rage in America. There have been several high-profile resignations in response to Donald Trump’s utter moral bankruptcy in the wake of Charlottesville. The entirety of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities resigned en masse two weeks ago with a resignation letter in which the first letter of each paragraph taken together spelled ‘Resist’. A week later, one of the State Department’s science envoys, Daniel Kammen, resigned with a letter that spelled out ‘Impeach’. This use of an acrostic to embedded an implied message within what is said on the surface is an example of what Linda Hutcheon describes as the rhetoric of irony: there is a tension between the said and the unsaid which, in almost dialectical terms, creates a third meaning that is simultaneously both and neither, taking up a powerful affective charge in the process (see Irony’s Edge). A literary-critical reading of this irony reveals the power and impact of this rhetorical gesture that the PCAH and Kammen made, while also cautioning us of the risk of this ironic mode of resistance.
That these officials used irony in their resignation does not make it an inherently subversive act as, according to Hutcheon, irony is ‘transideological’ and can serve both legitimating and subversive interests (10). Rather, the politics of the gesture depends upon the ‘meaning’ and ‘attitude’ that the readers infer from it (11). What defines irony is the contradiction between what is said and unsaid. It is quite clear what is being said: the PCAH and Kammen they excoriated Trump’s systematic attack on press freedom, repression of human rights and civil liberties of trans members of the armed services, the way in which he enables extreme violence and bigotry and the terrible threat that his actions have posed to the very fabric of American society. The acrostic, meanwhile, is a contextual clue that signals the ironic intent by gesturing gestures towards the second meaning. The implied meanings are not contradictory, rather they compound the existing critique: ‘resist’ is one of the prominent hashtags associated with the protest against Trump’s administration, while ‘impeach’ is a sign of the mounting pressure on members of the House of Representatives to move to remove him from office. So both the said and the unsaid seem to resonate with each other in terms of their meaning.
The tension between the two meanings, however, lies in the attitudes that they express. The resignation letters simultaneously perform two kinds of speech-acts: the letter itself is the formal notice that terminates their employment, while the acrostic code embedded within it echoes a public call to arms is widespread across social media. What makes an ironic statement powerful is its edge or affective force. Hutcheon provides an illuminating graph of irony that has the ‘affective charge’ on one axis and function of the act (with either a positive or negative polarity) on the other axis (47). The intensity of the tension between the said and implied meanings determines the force of the irony. These acrostic ironies are transgressive or subversive gestures that derive their force from the difference in charge between public dissatisfaction and government failure: they bring these hashtags that embody a public movement into the corridors of government, placing them squarely on Trump’s desk.
While on one reading these acrostics force Trump to reckon with the mounting opposition to his administration not just from the public but also from within, this irony still remains a double-edged mode of utterance that brings with it certain risks. One of the most striking risks is to do with the way in which operates through different discursive communities (Hutcheon 95). These communities are determined by a set of shared beliefs and concepts (99). The reception of irony is divided between those who get it and those who don’t. For the in-group that gets the irony, the shared understanding can promote ‘solidarity’ (95). But outside, the two groups grow even more alienated. This is most salient in the way in which dissenters to Trump’s administration are celebrating these ironic gestures, whereas Trump himself remains impervious to it (instead releasing a statement that he was going to dissolve the PCAH anyway, ironically proving one of the points that the authors make that he was running arts funding to the ground). Moreover, the only audience who will appreciate the subversive meaning of this irony are those who are part of the same discursive community, the dissenters who already resist Trump. The excessive celebration of the ‘solidarity’ within the in-group can become self-aggrandising and self-congratulatory, and by achieving no meaningful political result it may as well have proved hollow.
The ironic gesture that the authors of these letters make is quite powerful in its subversive intent, but it can have the pernicious result of further alienating the in-groups and out-groups of those who get and do not get the irony. This division is pernicious, especially considering one of the reasons British and American society are in the current state is because of how divided societies have been between rich and poor, and between the political and corporate elite and the rest of society. While the subversive edge of irony is powerful, it can nevertheless cleave society even further. Moreover, we need to be cautious that we do not get carried away with these ironic forms of resistance, lest they become hollow gestures.
Hutcheon, Linda. Irony’s Edge: the Theory and Politics of Irony. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.