I have long thought that the distinction between Appearance and Reality is the fundamental idea on which all Philosophy builds. It lies at the core of Plato’s Dialogues and everything that comes after. Plato expresses the distinction, especially in the early Dialogues, by means of the literary trope of Irony. Irony is a mode of discourse that presupposes a double audience: the Apparent Audience, which mistakenly thinks that it is the intended recipient of the utterance, and a Real Audience. The utterance has two meanings, but what distinguishes irony from mere ambiguity is that whereas the Apparent Audience understands only the apparent or superficial meaning, the Real Audience understands both the apparent and the real meanings, and knows that the Apparent Audience mistakes the apparent for the real meaning. Thus, in a sense, the ironic utterance is a private joke between the speaker and the Real Audience at the expense of the Apparent Audience. The classic example is Socrates’ statement, to a visiting public intellectual, Gorgias, that he, Socrates, does not understand the nature of Rhetoric, and hopes that Gorgias will enlighten him.
Ironic discourse recurs often in the Dialogues, perhaps most movingly in the Crito. As Socrates sits in jail waiting to be put to death, he is visited by one of his followers, Crito, a middle-aged businessman desperate to get Socrates out of harm’s way. He has arranged to bribe the jailors to turn a blind eye while Socrates escapes, and he begs Socrates to take advantage of this arrangement and flee. Crito’s well-meant effort is for Socrates a devastating blow, for it shows that he has failed in his effort to enlighten his disciples. Sadly and gently, like a parent who soothes a frightened child by repeating a familiar bedtime story, Socrates reminds Crito of their old discussions about the individual and the state, all the while aware that he will once more fail to enlighten Crito. In this case, we, the readers, are the Real Audience, Plato, the author, is the speaker, and Crito is a member of the large Apparent Audience who will mistake the apparent meaning of the discourse [the arguments about the state and the individual] for the true meaning [the pathos of Socrates’ lonely awareness of his failure.]
Irony is a theme that runs through virtually all of Western thought, in countless texts and many different fields of the Humanities and the Social Sciences. One finds it, of course, in Kierkegaard, in Hobbes, in Hume, and in many other authors. It is the key to understanding the early chapters of Das Kapital, which is why, when I launched into my exposition of those chapters at Columbia this semester, I began by quoting and explicating the famous opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
For those of you who do not have that text in your memories, the novel begins, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Why, we might ask, does Austen not begin instead with this sentence: "Mrs. Bennett and the other women in her social circle, caring as they did almost exclusively about their daughters' marital prospects, were prone to consider every unmarried man of sufficient wealth who entered the community fair game as a potential husband." In a sense, the two sentences say the same thing, but the first is an ironic utterance by Austen to her real audience, we readers, at the expense of the apparent audience, the mothers of Mrs. Bennett’s social circle. The second, although it is an accurate description of the attitudes of those women, fails to capture and to mock their utter lack of self-awareness.
Irony played a central role as well in the discourse of slaves in ante-bellum America. Viewed by their White owners as sub-human, and forbidden by the threat of the lash to speak openly, the slaves developed elaborate forms of ironic communication with one another at the expense of their owners that the owners were utterly incapable of understanding.
In his early and, in my opinion, brilliant book, The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. traces these modes of ironic discourse in the American Black community back to the religious traditions of West Africa from which most of their forebears had come. Gates writes fascinatingly about the many modes of Black ironic discourse, which are referred to in that community as Signifyin’. One example, with which I was much taken, is Loud Talking. Suppose that a Black woman thinks that one of the other women in her social circle puts on airs, affecting “White” modes of speech and overdressing for casual occasions. She may strike up a conversation with a friend when the target of her criticism is ten or fifteen feet away, and proceed to speak scathingly of some entirely different woman who, she says, puts on airs and overdresses. Except that she speaks a little too loudly, just loudly enough so that the real subject can hear her. If this woman takes offence and butts into the conversation, saying “Are you talking about me?,” the answer is “Why on earth would you think that?”
This and many other forms of ironic communication are called signifyin’. It is even the case that signifyin’ turns up in music, for example in jam sessions. One musician states a theme, perhaps with the clarinet, and then a second picks it up and signifies on it with the sax, followed by another musician and another, rather as though they are playing the dozens, until one does a riff so over the top that it cannot be topped, and they all go back to playing the theme. When I joined the UMass Afro-American Studies Department in 1992, I had to learn to recognize and respond to ironic communication, or signifyin’, so as not to be perpetually the apparent rather than the real audience in departmental conversations.
Once one becomes aware of this sort of ironic communication, one finds it in the most unexpected places. It might even pop up on a blog, when the blogger writes a wistful and playful post designed to express his sadness at the omnipresence of Trump, and finds himself confronted by readers who launch into a lengthy, intelligent, deadly serious back and forth of comments that entirely misunderstand the real meaning of the post. Rather like Socrates in the Crito.