Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





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Monday, December 3, 2018

A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT IRONY


Judging by the responses to my post on irony the day before yesterday, I seem to have struck a nerve.  Irony is not a smirk or a sneer or the verbal version of an emoji.  It is a complex literary form, and since I consider ironic communication in particular, and the subject of the political implications of the structure of language more generally, to be quite important, I am going to try once more to explain what I have in mind. 

As many, many writers have shown us, central to the ideological justifications of slavery, of colonial rule, and of exploitation generally is the belief that the victims of these oppressions are inferior, not fully human, incapable of the refined, sophisticated, advanced modes of thought and expression that the powerful congratulate themselves on exhibiting.  I was made aware of these themes by my sixteen years in an Afro-American Studies Department, but I could as easily have learned them from the writings of Edward Said or Franz Fanon, among others.  Just last Tuesday, in the Columbia course Todd Gitlin and I are teaching, we discussed Charles Mills’ brilliant book, The racial Contract, which deploys this idea as a critique of the entire modern tradition of social contract theory in Political Science and Philosophy.

To be fully human is to have a self-understanding complex enough to include a conscious recognition of the ways in which one may be understood or misunderstood by others, especially by those occupying a different position in the social structure of power.  Irony is a mode of communication through which one can articulate that recognition, as I explained in my previous post.  It is not the only way, of course, but it is an extremely compact way of doing so.  Masters cannot allow themselves to recognize that slaves are speaking ironically, because to do so would require acknowledging the slaves as fully human, and that would undermine the rationale for what is otherwise a manifestly unjust social and economic institution.  The same blindness affects colonial rulers, even when, as in India, they have conquered and dominate a people with an immeasurably older and more complex culture.

Some years ago I wrote, but never published, a short analysis of the famous novel The Color Purple and of what I considered the failure of the academic literature on the novel to come to terms with its genuine sophistication.  Since that short essay illustrates what I am trying to say, and may as well be of interest in its own right, I shall post it after posting this brief addendum to my remarks on irony.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I’d still recommend for those who have the time to spare—though those of us who are retired never seem to have time to spare—that they spend an hour listening to this ironic(?) brief history of irony.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03bpv42

anon 1

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

Just wanted to let you know that thanks to you, I read Charles W. Mills "Racial Contract" and have since incorporated parts of it in my course on the history of technology when we speak about imperialism. I had read Carole Pateman's "Sexual Contract" in grad school but had never made the connection. Thank you for the reference -- very insightful and illuminating.

-- Jim