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.