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The state of irony in China

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In everyday life, people in China as elsewhere have to confront large-scale incongruities between different representations of history and state. They do so frequently by way of indirection, i.e. by taking ironic, cynical, or embarrassed positions. Those who understand such indirect expressions based on a shared experiential horizon form what I call a ‘community of complicity’. In examples drawn from everyday politics of memory, the representation of local development programmes, and a dystopic novel, I distinguish cynicism and ‘true’ irony as two different ways to form such communities. This distinction proposes a renewed attempt at understanding social inclusion and exclusion. I also suggest that irony, so defined, might be more conducive to an anthropology that is ethnographic and dialogical.

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