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Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Subjectively, irony is a private joke between the speaker and the real audience at the expense of the superficial audience, which explains the feeling of shared superiority engendered by the irony.  Objectively, irony is the appropriate trope to capture the distinction between social appearance and reality.  Because this point is central to my entire undertaking, I must spend some time elaborating on it with an extended example.  I have deliberately chosen an example that has little directly to do with Marx's insight into the nature of capitalist social and economic relations, because I want you to understand the logical/literary point I am making before I engage with the extremely controversial theses advanced by Marx in the opening chapters of Capital.  Eventually I shall connect this analysis up by arguing that Marx's complex vision of the reality and mystifying appearance of capitalist society can be rendered successfully only by the ironic discourse that we in fact find in Capital.  This, right here, is the core of my entire narrative.  It is the idea that flashed on me in 1977, when my long exegetical odyssey began.

Imagine that I have been raised in the Catholic faith and have arrived at my present atheistical condition through a lengthy and painful process of questioning and self-criticism.  The symbols, myths, and language of Catholicism retain for me, as for many lapsed Catholics, a residual power that I cannot wholly subdue, and whose direct and indirect effects in part define who and how I am.  If now I am asked, "Do you believe in God?" how can I answer in such a way as to communicate this complex state of affairs, with the weights and resonances of the several portions of my religious condition given their proper magnitude?

Simply to answer, "No, I do not" would be, strictly speaking, to lie.  It would be to lie by omission, but to lie nonetheless.  Such an answer would in no way distinguish me from someone who has had no religious upbringing and who has never believed.  It would, by omission, represent me as a simple non-believer.  To say, "I once did, but I no longer do" comes closer, but still misrepresents the true situation by treating the remnants of Catholicism as no longer present in me, as having long since been externalized and destroyed.

We might think that a true, though tedious answer to the question would be a thorough unpacking of the situation in flat, declarative prose, more or less as I have been doing in these past few lines.  But that really will not do either.  To speak that way is to invent a voice that is neither the voice of the victorious portion of myself, nor the voice of the subdued portion, but is rather the voice of an external observer, a scientific reporter, a neutral party implicated neither in the original Catholic faith nor in its rejection.  It would be the voice of the cultural anthropologist describing native customs, of the social theorist denying complicity in the popular culture of her own society by her very manner of reporting it.  Insofar as I purport to be voicing my religious condition in that voice, I am lying.  In all likelihood, I would be deceiving myself at least as much as my audience.  The declarative unpacking of the complexities of my loss of faith would entirely miss the sensuous immediacy of feeling that is an essential part of my present rejection of, and residual clinging to, Catholicism.

Consider now what could be accomplished by means of the adoption of an ironic voice.  Asked whether I believe in God, I might reply -- employing, ever so exaggeratedly, the singsong tone of the Apostle's Creed -- "I believe in God the Father Almighty maker of heaven and Earth and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten son ..."  These few words, uttered thus, would capture, for an audience capable of understanding, the entire state of affairs:  that I once was an unreflective communicant of the Roman Catholic faith, that I no longer am, that I view my former beliefs with amusement, rather than with superstitious fear, but that those beliefs, and the associated rituals, still have some power over me, so that what I now am and believe can only be understood as a development out of that earlier, credulous state.  To a naive audience, it would of course appear that I was simply answering the question in the affirmative.

At the risk of tiring those among you for whom literary criticism is virtually second nature, let me expand on this point for a moment.  In the imaginary example I have been discussing, my problem as the speaker is to render a correct account of the full emotional and cognitive complexity of my relationship to the mysteries of the Roman Catholic faith from the inside, as it were.  I am [we are supposing] not an anthropologist bringing back stories of a Hopi rain dance or a Trobriand Island exchange ceremony.  I am a former communicant of the Catholic Church for whom the rites of baptism and the mass, the miracle of transubstantiation, the terror and joy of the Crucifixion and Resurrection were once the centerpieces of my spiritual life and which retain for me a superstitious power that I cannot ever hope fully to shake.  In short, I am myself both the first and the second audiences of my utterance, and my ironic statement is as much a communication to both parts of myself as it is to external audiences.

Now, at long last, let me connect this up with the explication of Capital. 
Early in his life, Marx believed that the social relations of production were mystified in the feudal economic order.  Ordinary peasants, whose unfree labor supported the relatively luxurious lives of the landed aristocracy and its associated military, legal, and political accompaniments, were led by the Church to believe that their miserable lot was divinely ordained, a belief that as reinforced by the mysteries of the Mass.  But, Marx thought, capitalism had blown away the clouds of incense hovering over the throne and the altar, leaving in plain view the unmystified economic interactions of the sunlit market.  After the failures of the 1848 revolutionary uprisings throughout Europe, Marx reversed his view.  Now, he concluded, it was the medieval economic and power relations that were plain to see.  There was no mystery about how the rulers managed to maintain their power, nor about how the landowners were able to extract a physical surplus of agricultural products from their serfs, a surplus that they used to support armed men and compliant law courts.  Rather, the real mysteries inhabit the marketplace, the sphere that Marx mocks in the brilliant conclusion to Chapter VI as "a very Eden of the innate rights of man.  There alone rule Freedom, Equality, property, and Bentham.... On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities [Marx here is anticipating Léon Walras' famous description of tâtonnement], which furnishes the "Free-trader Vulgaris" with his views and ideas [this is really marvelous -- ed.], and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae.  He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist;  the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer.  The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business;  the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but -- a hiding."

Tomorrow the penny drops.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice post i love it thanks for sharing