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Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Derek has responded to my request for clarification [and in the interim I managed to access the blog he referred to], so I now understand what I need to explain in order to reply to his request.  I invite anyone interested in this post to read Derek's comment on the preceding post before continuing to read this one.

I must begin by explaining the nature of ironic discourse.  The term "ironically' is quite often used loosely and incorrectly to mean something like "not seriously" or "just kidding."  Now, I do not mean to be -- to appropriate Seinfeld's classic phrase -- the usage Nazi, but unless we all really understand the nature and structure of ironic discourse, what I have to say about Capital and Marx's language therein will be simply mysterious.

Irony is a mode of discourse that presupposes a double audience -- an apparent audience and a real audience.  It thus relies in an essential way on Plato's distinction between appearance and reality, a distinction that he bequeathed to the entire philosophical enterprise.  When a statement is uttered ironically, the speaker intends to convey two meanings that are related as appearance to reality.  The apparent meaning is heard by the first, or apparent, audience, which mistakenly thinks that it has understood everything that the speaker means to communicate.  The deeper, real, meaning is heard by the real audience, which also hears and understands the apparent meaning.  The real audience also knows that the apparent audience exists, and has heard only the apparent meaning, which it has mistaken for the real meaning.  Thus, one might say, the ironic utterance is a private joke between the speaker and the real audience at the expense of the apparent audience.  It is this complex structure of the communicative situation that distinguishes irony from ambiguity or mere confusion.

An example will, I trust, make this clear.  I take this example from the first edition of a textbook I wrote forty years or so ago.  A young man and a young woman are having a secret love affair.  The young woman lives at home with her very strict parents, who would be horrified were they to learn of the affair.  One evening, the young man comes to pick up the young woman at her home, ostensibly to take her to a church social, but really to return to his apartment for an evening of love-making.  As the young woman puts on her coat, her mother says, "Be home by ten.  And remember to be a good girl."  The young woman says, "Yes, Mama.  I'll be good," and off they go.  Just before ten, the young man brings the young woman home, where they are met by the mother.  "Were you a good girl?" the mother asks.  "Oh yes," says the young man.  "She was good.  She was very good."

The ironic utterance is "She was good.  She was very good."  The apparent audience is the mother, who hears the apparent meaning, which is that the young woman was chaste.  The real audience is the young woman, who hears and understands the apparent meaning, and also hears the real meaning, which is a compliment on her sexual virtuosity.  The couple are, as it were, laughing at the mother and sharing their privileged access to the deeper meaning of the utterance.

Well, that was fun.  What does this all have to do with Karl Marx, Das Kapital, and classical Political Economy?  As I observed, I wrote a book about this.  In fact, I wrote two books about it, plus a very technical journal article, so this will be no more than a brief précis.  But one does what one can on a blog.

First of all, you must keep in mind that Marx, in contrast to Smith, Ricardo, and the other classical Political Economists, thinks capitalism is thoroughgoingly mystified.  Not puzzling, or complex, or difficult to understand without a graduate degree in Economics, but mystified.  It presents itself as transparent, free of the magic and incense and Latin gobbledygook of Christianity, whereas in fact it is more thoroughly mystified than either the alter or the throne ever was.  Like the novels of Charles Dickens [which Marx loved], capitalism is a world in which people are treated as things and things take on the lineaments of people.  Capitalism is an economic system built on exploitation that presents itself to the eye as an exchange of equals for equals.  As Marx writes bitterly at the very end of Part II of Capital, Volume One, the marketplace in which "the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man.  There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham."

The Labour Theory of Value presented in its initial form by Adam Smith and revised and improved by David Ricardo is a theoretical explanation of the structure of relative prices observed in a capitalist marketplace and also the basis for explaining how the annual social product is divided among the three great classes of society, the Landed Interest, Capitalists, and Wage Laborers.  Marx thinks the theory, once it has been further revised to solve problems understood but not solved by Ricardo, is true of capitalism.  But because capitalism itself is ideologically mystified, the truth about capitalism is a surface truth, an apparent truth, that conceals the deeper reality of exploitation.

Why not just say that flat out, as I just did?  Why write ironically?  Because -- and this is the key to understanding Capital, I believe -- all of us who live in this society are implicated in capitalism and at some level mystified by it.  Hence I can express my understanding of the reality of capitalism only because I am myself a complex being capable of understanding the deeper reality of capitalism while yet being unable to free myself from its mystifications.  In Moneybags, I use the example of a lapsed Catholic for whom the Apostle's Creed still retains an emotional power to illustrate this complex subjective situation.

The mystification of monarchy resides in the throne and its appurtenances.  The mystification of religion resides in the altar and its appurtenances.  The mystification of capitalism resides in the commodity.  That is why the very first words of Capital are:  "The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as 'an immense accumulation of commodities,' its unit being a single commodity.  Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity."

Marx thinks that the statements he makes about commodities are crack-brained, verrückt.  But nevertheless he thinks they are true of capitalism, because capitalism is itself crack-brained. 

So, if all of this is ironic, who are the real and apparent audiences?  Well, the apparent audience is the great throng of Political Economists whom Marx calls "Vulgar Economists" [among whom, by the way, he does not include Smith and Ricardo -- he had great respect for them.]  Also, all of us who live in a capitalist society, experiencing commodities as quanta of value and workers as mere producers of abstract socially necessary labour.  The real audience is Marx and those of his readers who can grasp the inner reality of the mystifications of capitalism, INCLUDING MARX HIMSELF AND THOSE READERS IN THE KNOW.  All of us are in the grip of the mystifications of capitalism and all of us, Marx included, live our lives day to day according to those mystified appearances.  Were we to attempt not to do so, we would stumble about in the marketplace like the character in the Allegory of the Cave who reenters the cave after having seen the sun, only to be blinded by the darkness -- or, to choose a more recent literary example, like Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. 

I hope that explains things a bit, Derek.


Chris said...

Did you ever read, and/or appreciate Louis Althusser's essay on the Ideological State Apparatus?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I read it, and I confess I have never been much taken with Althusser. But that was a long time ago.

Tony Couture said...

I worry that your account of Marx's irony makes Marx's work harder to understand, that is, rockier for the reader rather than smoother. Irony is indirect communication, with words used in ways to produce opposite meanings due to the context, tone or incongruity. For Kierkegaard, the parable was the paradigm of what works to get around the delusions and defences of his audience--and it is very unscientific. M. Kundera writes: "The more attentively we read a novel, the more impossible the answer (to how to read it right or wrong), because the novel is, by definition, the ironic art: its "truth" is concealed, undeclared, undeclarable....Irony irritates. Not because it mocks or attacks but because it denies us our certainties by unmasking the world as an ambiguity. Leonardo Sciascia: "There is nothing harder to understand, more indecipherable than irony." (from The Art of the Novel, p 133-4). Richard Rorty refers to ironism as "awareness of the power of redescription" and contrasts the ironist with metaphysicians and objectivists such as Habermas (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Ch 4), arguing ultimately that it remains a "private" or elitist matter, not appropriate for public reason tasks (such as justifying a change in a law). Irony does express a form of critical distance (indirectly, perhaps to the real audience, while the apparent audience is sucked in by the pretense). I always liked Chomsky's ironic phrase about the "American invasion of South Vietnam" which had disappeared and needed to be re-described to be seen again. Let me leave you with a very short poem about Capitalism: "The Ponzi Scheme must appear to be a legitimate deal, in order to succeed as a real steal." It is the mixture of ironic discourse with scientific discourse that complicates everything, as comic relief, or drama, or emotion, is alleged to interfere with the discovery of laws and realities.--I will read your Marx books and follow along, as it is intriguing. Does it mean Capital can be read like a novel????

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Tony, I find this a very odd comment. You seem to suggest that the way to interpret a difficult text is to choose a reading that is easy to un derstand, even if it is wrong. It is n ot I who made CAPITAL puzzling, but Marx. And he in turn chose to write that way, when he could easily have done otherwise, because he thought that capitalism is puzzling, and can its complexity can only be captured by the language he used. It does not matter what other people have said about irony, only what Marx thought and how best to understand it.

Tony Couture said...

I am struggling to understand your argument, and only compare what you are saying about irony to others for that purpose. I am also thinking about how to compare Marx's choice of combining ironic discourse with social scientific with William Godwin's approach: which was to separate his Philosophy (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 1793) from his novel (Caleb Williams, 1794). Your comments are making me see what I am currently reading (which is not Capital) differently. I am now asking myself as I read, is this argument ironic discourse? For example, Paul Goodman writes in Compulsory Mis-education: "My own view, for what it's worth, is that sexuality is lovely, there cannot be too much of it, it is self-limiting if it is satisfactory, and satisfaction diminishes tension and clears the mind for attention and learning. Therefore, sexual expression should be approved in and out of season, also in school, and where necessary made the subject of instruction. But whether or not this view is correct, it certainly is more practical than the apparent attempt of the schools to operate as if sexual drives simply did not exist." I do not know what to think about this remark, it bewilders me and I think: he must be arguing ironically, that is why I can't understand it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Tony, I really think you do not understand what ironic discourse is, despite my [apparfently unsuccessful] efforts to explain it. As for Paul Goodman, one of my all time favorite authors, I think you can take the passage you quoted from him as saying openly and simply what he has in mind.

Chris said...

I'm not a fan of Althusser - in general - either, but I do think that particular essay does a fantastic job of highlighting your point, which is that people seem to assume capitalism's necessary existence in the same way a fish takes water for granted.