IN THE FILM Henry and June, there is a scene in which Henry Miller is complaining to Anais Nin about her attitude towards life. Nin in retorts, "Oh Henry, you're always ironizing." Miller then insists that "ironizing" isn't a word, but Linda Hutcheon would disagree. In Splitting Images, in fact, Hutcheon, the high priestess of postmodernism, argues that Canadians are "structurally ripe for ironizing" She suggests that, whether this irony is directed against ourselves or our neighbours to the south, Canadians are, by virtue of their tenuous place(s), in the perfect position to wield the double-edged sword of irony. What makes Canada ripe for such split or doubled images are English/French, native/colonial, federal/provincial, north/south, and east/west binaries.
Hutcheon's claim that Canada is "particularly fertile ground for the cultivating of doubleness" becomes, in Splitting Images, an all-embracing and possibly too extended one. Most of Canada's foremost authors and artists get swept up into the ironists' embrace. The writers Susan Swan, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Atwood are here. Other artistic cultivators of irony include the photographer Geoff Miles and the ecological-expressionist installation artists the Fastwurms. Aritha Van Herk and Joyce Wieland are also written into the script as feminist ironizers. According to Hutcheon, these artists, writers, and others are using irony as a method of challenging dominant social and political constructions. This leads her to cite irony as a major device of postmodernism, about which she has written extensively for the last few years.
In Hutcheon's view, Canadian artists sometimes challenge the status quo from a point of view that is both marginalized and accepted by the very society they are criticizing. She writes:
Works of and about marginalization tend to use irony as a deconstructive device because it allows them to address a dominant culture from within its own structure of understanding, while still contesting and resisting those structures.
An oft-repeated tenet these days, this may not be a radical position; but it is still a very effective one, and the crux of Hutcheon's argument for art's political impact.
One major problem in using irony as a method of attack is that one's audience must be "in on the joke" Hutcheon recognizes this aspect of the approach and calls it the "elitism" of irony. In order for irony to be effective, there must be an audience that understands, at least partially, the intended message. Those not familiar with Canadian culture will most likely not "get" the double message that exists in the ironic works Hutcheon mentions. This makes irony not so much a "popular rhetorical strategy," but rather an inside joke that excludes those not "in the know." One may be left with a split-second of confusion and perplexity, instead of split images.
For a book oriented toward the university community, Splitting Images is smoothly written and accessible. It provides the reader with an analysis of just how Canada and Canadians are in an ideal position to use irony as a method of challenging our culture. While it is true that Canadians have ample material from which to draw these ironies, it doesn't necessarily follow that we are in a better position than any number of other places; South Africa, Israel, or Northern Ireland, for example. As one Canadian television newscaster recently said, "This is the time of year for the IRA's annual Christmas bombing campaign." It is safe to say that this splitting image of Northern Ireland society has more political impact than any number of Atwood's "Ice Queen' (as Hutcheon characterizes her) statements about contemporary Canadian culture.