The logic of nonsense
in The free speech wars
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This chapter examines the use of irony and nonsense in the contemporary political battlefield, from Twitter and Netflix comedy specials to the self-satirising turn of broadsheet journalism. When faced with the conflicting desires of wanting to say something that we suspect will be received as problematic while also escaping censure for it, we can choose not to say it, to say it straight and take the consequences, or to try to fudge it: to say and not-say it. The problem with the latter option is that the contradiction it entails will run the risk of being noticed. One way of navigating contradictory statements is to frame them within irony: we often find humour in paradox, and by asserting something as a joke, or more subtly couching it in an ironic tone, so that you can never be entirely sure what is meant within that style of discourse, the intention behind speech is blurred. A Trumpian technique entails going further still, embracing nonsense in a series of apparently conflicting propositions. Many commentators currently bemoan the ‘postmodernism’ that apparently besets public discourse, seeking to negate and immolate positive assertions about the world. But there is nothing intrinsically postmodern, or even new, about any of this. Since Petronius, Nero’s aesthetic advisor, wrote the Satyricon bemoaning the cultural downfall of Rome while simultaneously revelling in it, playing with illogic and the surreal has been a literary tactic common to times of change.

The free speech wars

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