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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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."




Total Pageviews

Saturday, December 1, 2018

IRONY


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.





30 comments:

Dean said...

Bravo. "The ability to recognize irony is one of the surest tests of intelligence and sophistication."--C. Hugh Holman, "Irony," in A Handbook to Literature, 3d. ed. (based on the original by Thrall & Hibbard), 1972. The entire entry is worth reading, especially in light of this post.

s. wallerstein said...

Irony is often signaled by the tone of the voice, facial expression or by body language, none of which can be communicated in a blog.

Irony also depends on a shared culture, which would occur among ancient Athenian intellectuals or among contemporary African-American academics, but is unlikely to occur when a blog reaches people all over the world and of differing generations.

Since I know that you are as anti-Trump as they come, why, unless I knew you a lot better than I do, would I not imagine that you were serious when you proposed releasing Trump's grades? Especially since you wrote very positively (not ironically, I imagine) about the releasing of data about the Harvard endowment.

MS said...

Sorry, Prof. Wolff, I do not agree with your analysis of the issue that I was raising. I fully understood the point that you were making, appreciated that you were making it tongue in cheek (and even so indicated in my comment) and was responding with an ironic observation of my own. Let me explain. Yesterday evening, on the PBS Newshour, David Brooks (I know, someone you think is smug and reminds you of the know-it-all kid who answers the four questions at the Seder dinner) and Mark Shields engaged in a very revealing discussion about Trump. Brooks pointed out that Trump continues to be an anomaly in American politics–whenever confronted with the fallacy of what he has said, he just shrugs and moves the goal posts. Nothing fazes him; he is shameless. Discussing the repercussions of the revelations this week regarding Cohen’s guilty plea and Mueller’s charging Manafort with lying, Brooks expressed concern that Trump has so contaminated the norms of politics that even this new evidence will not upset his supporters, either in the country at large or in the Senate. He expressed concern that the Rep. Senators, particularly McConnell, have become so craven they fear what Trump will do to their careers should they overtly oppose him. He indicated the damage Trump is doing to this country is so profound that his contamination may have become the new norm.

Mark Shields agreed, and referred to Trump as a “mutant.” Judy Woodruff was so surprised by Shields’ use of the word she did a double take and asked if she had heard him right–he repeated, yes, Trump is a mutant. Shields then noted that even Nixon, on tape, when discussing a strategy to avoid the repercussions of the Watergate investigation, rejected the proposal, saying, “We could do that, but it would be wrong.” Shields stated that Trump would not have said that–he would have embraced the strategy. For Trump, there is no right or wrong–everything is transactional–do I win, or do I lose. To find praise for Nixon over Trump is a sad index of how far this country has fallen.

Now, I may have come across as sanctimonious and rather anal retentive in my criticism of your proposal, even if tongue in cheek, that some low level employee at the University of Pennsylvania unlawfully release Trump’s grades, but my point was, in the more normal world we once existed in, using such a tactic even against someone as deplorable as Nixon would have been ignominious–to break the law–any law-in order to bring down someone like Nixon would be, as Brooks put it, moving the goal posts to a place we do not want to go. It would set a precedent we would regret, because there were more dignified ways to bring him down, ways that would preserve our respect for the rule of law–which Senators Goldwater and Baker invoked, and, Nixon, with a final act of respectability, acceded to. With Trump, a mutant, maybe we have reached the point where breaking the law may be our only recourse for saving this country, because nothing else will succeed against someone as unscrupulous as he. I hope not. I believe the respect for law, even a law as insignificant as that which protects a student’s personal information, is important to preserve so that we can eschew the alternative, the consequences of which we cannot predict. You regarded my comment as equivalent to misconstruing Swift’s Modest Proposal. But Swift’s proposal that in order to reduce starvation in Ireland the Irish should resort to selling their young to rich landowners for food was an obviously ludicrous proposal that could not be taken for anything other than satire. Your proposal, on the other hand, of unlawfully releasing Trump’s grades was not a ludicrous proposal–in fact, in light of recent events, e.g., Snowden’s release of NSA confidential data, it was quite a plausible proposal, particularly given your reference to the release of the Harvard data regarding its endowment donors, which you endorsed as precedent. You believe that I missed the irony in your proposal. I believe you missed the irony in my response.

F Lengyel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Auerbach said...

click here for the great Oscar Brown Jr. signifying

Anonymous said...

@ s.wallerstein

Come now, Professor Wolff clearly referenced Jane Austen as an example of a a famous ironist, and she didn't rely on her face to express that irony. A blog is no worse a place to write jokes than a novel, except perhaps that readers online are more accustomed to shallow reading. That's no fault of the writer. Don't double down on looking foolish.

@MS
While I'm sure some readers appreciate your ability to begin a comment related to the topic at hand and swiftly derail conversation towards something mildly interesting, if unrelated, to others it can come across as rude. No-one wants to go to a dinner party and sit beside the guy who listens to you tell a story only so far as he can respond with a more grandiose personal anecdote.

I don't wish to come across as needlessly abrasive by commenting, but come on. If you didn't get a joke the first time around, you can still laugh when it is gently explained to you, rather than petulantly and unconvincingly argue on despite your embarrassment.

F Lengyel said...

It was clear to me that since the Harvard episode ended with "But the printout, delicious as it was, didn’t help us any, and in the end we failed to budge Harvard" that the idle thought of some functionary exposing the transcript of an individual whose record would fall short of that of the writer (a successful academic) could only end the same way.

At the time I thought this too obvious to mention, but like the next paragraph, in which that idle thought was entertained, I end this one with an ellipse...

F Lengyel said...

P.S. I am not the anonymous above--that person is a better writer than I am.

MS said...

Anonymous,

Rather than engage in a pointless effort at rebuttal of your insults, which will just be a waste of my time, I will be terse and quote George Bernard Shaw:

“I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

Anonymous said...

I suppose that Trump’s rhetoric is a massive, ongoing piece of sleazy fiction. So, who’s the apparent audience for it? And who’s the real audience?

s. wallerstein said...

Anonymous,

Maybe I'm dense, but if I were to pick up Jane Austen's novel without having first being told that she was known for her irony, I never would have understood that her famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is ironic. I read Pride and Prejudice in the context of a literature course many years ago, and if not warned beforehand by the Professor at that time, I would have missed the irony. How the hell can I be expected to understand the irony of the first sentence of a novel written in an entirely different cultural context 200 years ago?

I've had the experience of standing in front of a classroom of 30 students, much younger than me and from a different cultural background, and when I said something ironic, no one understood me. Maybe I'm not an artist of irony.

Now the irony of Socrates mentioned above is over-acted and obvious to a 12 year old, so let's not bring that in.

Anyone can play the game of making ironic remarks which are difficult to decipher and when some don't understand you, feeling intellectually superior to them. I imagine that it's a lot of fun and it does wonders for the ego.

If you're ironic and others don't understand you, maybe they're dunces or maybe you're not as good a communicator as you imagine yourself to be. I won't specify which of the two alternatives I believe to the case in Professor Wolff's post in question.

Jerry Brown said...

I'm with S. Wallerstein. I didn't realize the previous post was meant to be ironic. And certainly didn't associate it with Plato or Socrates, although I did appreciate the history lesson provided by the Professor here. It is a great technique that I must remember when I want to claim I was being ironic about something- associate it with Socrates. I doubt I could pull that off though... Well this is where the smileys come in :). They are very useful in signaling that you mean to be ironic, or sarcastic, or humorous on the internet. Because it really can be difficult in a short blog post or comment to express your intentions. :)

Howard Berman said...

Do you consider irony more powerful and effective than sarcasm? Socrates was known to be sarcastic too

Howard Berman said...

In Nazi Germany irony was a crime against the state for which you could be arrested. Trump unlike the Nazis is the most ironic figure in history. American history will come to an end not with a bang or a whimper but in scare quotes. Hitler was sarcastic, Trump ironic, though he doesn't know what the word signifies Just a side note but irony captures the moment we're in, totally absurd irony. That's why I'm not afraid of Trump anymore, he's too ironic for fear and trembling

Howard Berman said...

To clarify, I think the fact that democracy ultimately ends in autocracy the ultimate irony. Trump is the fruition of the American Dream

F Lengyel said...

Prof Wolff writes, "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 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 ... "

Some of us don't have much feeling for Western thought, that's all.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous:

@MS
While I'm sure some readers appreciate your ability to begin a comment related to the topic at hand and swiftly derail conversation towards something mildly interesting, if unrelated, to others it can come across as rude. No-one wants to go to a dinner party and sit beside the guy who listens to you tell a story only so far as he can respond with a more grandiose personal anecdote.

I don't wish to come across as needlessly abrasive by commenting, but come on. If you didn't get a joke the first time around, you can still laugh when it is gently explained to you, rather than petulantly and unconvincingly argue on despite your embarrassment.
MS said...
Anonymous,
Rather than engage in a pointless effort at rebuttal of your insults, which will just be a waste of my time, I will be terse and quote George Bernard Shaw:
“I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

To MS:
The concept of wasting your time is doubly entertaining: a) you seem to have rather a lot of it to waste (er, I mean spend in this public forum). b) you don’t seem to mind wasting ours. Beyond that, your ability to draw on a rather impressive pool of quotes hardly excuses so mordant a one as this current exemplar. But then again I doubt there are too many readers of this blog who would accuse you of being overly sensitive.
I would posit that Professor Wolff has been the very model of a modern gentleman. On by now countless occasions he has invited “his readers” to remain on point; not exceed in length (with regularity) his own posts; on November 16th he posted a blog called Night Thoughts in which he actually said “I will be honest. I have stopped reading them (the comments) all. I feel as though my little on-line class has been hi-jacked, and I do not know what to do. I even suggested to the most prolific of the usual suspects that he start his own blog, but to no avail.” Yours was not one of the 57 comments to this post, MS, nor, obviously, did you respond to his Thank You post the following day. But that was as long as you could hold out: on the 18th of November you decided that when Professor Wolff airs a modicum of personal Weltschmerz nothing would suit but that you come to the rescue with a recommendation to see The Old Man & A Gun.
In short, MS, I have a sense that I am not alone in wondering what it might take for you to understand that, while it is perfectly true that nobody forces any of us to read your comments on The Philosopher’s Stone, we find it quite offensive that you consider this a platform for airing any and all thoughts that come to your mind.
Anonymous #407

MS said...

Anonymous #407,

As I said, I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.

Anonymous said...

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

Anonymous said...

I concur with Anonymous 407

s. wallerstein said...

I wonder why MS is worthy of intense criticism.

He can be obsessive, and irritatingly political moderate. I dislike middle of the road liberalism so much that I stopped reading the New York Times several years ago: just looking at it ruins my day. As those who read this blog habitually can see, I often have had bitter arguments with MS.

However, if you don't like MS's comments, skip them.

Let me dig a bit deeper. Professor Wolff tells us about his cat, his breakfasts, whether he takes the bus or the taxi from the airport, his experiences at Harvard or elsewhere 40 or 50 years ago, old movies that he considers worth seeing, his sports enthusiasms, his morning walks, etc. Well and good.

However, when MS recommends movies or relates his life experiences or tells us about books he read in college, he is seemingly guilty of some terrible sin.

I understand that readers may be more interested in Professor Wolff's breakfasts than in MS's leaf raking or vice versa, but why do MS's attempts to tell us about his life awaken such repugnance among a goodly number of readers? Is it a way of striking back at him for his liberal than radical political views? If so, why not argue politics with him?

I seem to be missing something here.

MS said...

Thank you s. wallerstein. Yes, while we have had our political, literary and maybe even ontological disagreements, I have enjoyed the intellectual exchange, and, despite our occasional sarcastic exchanges, we have treated each other with mutual respect.

Now, to Anonymous #407, upon re-reading your last post, it struck me – since the subtleties of your aberrational thought processes had escaped me – are you suggesting that my recommendation that Prof. Wolff should see a movie titled The Old Man & A Gun was intended at poking fun at his age??? That is INSANE! First, while Prof. Wolff is my senior by a number of years, I am no youngster. Moreover, the movie stars Robert Redford, who played a prominent role in one of the movies that Prof. Wolff has repeatedly made mention of, and quoted from. In addition, one of the actors in the movie uses a gesture that was prominently used in the movie in question that Prof. Wolff admires, and which I thought he would get a kick out of seeing reintroduced in this movie. Finally, the theme of the movie – please, I cannot resist, you Idiot – is that chronological age can be irrelevant to your state of mind as long as you continue to do what you love – which in the case of the protagonist in the movie – based on a true story – was continuing to rob banks and escaping from prison when caught – which, in the case of the actual person in question, was 16 times! The point being, that regardless Prof. Wolff’s age, he could still enjoy life by continuing to do what he loves – teaching classes to young college students, taping videos of his excellent lectures, and debating w/ incorrigible people on his blog, like me. I sincerely hope that Prof. Wolff was not, and I frankly doubt that he was, insulted by my movie suggestion.

And finally, Anonymous #407, stupid comments are written by fools like you, to whom I bid a fond adieu.

David Palmeter said...

I am concerned about the tone that this blog has taken in the days since Prof. Wolff has been going to Columbia on a weekly basis and hasn’t blogged more than once or twice a week. We’re behaving like a bunch of kids when the teacher has left the room.

Some people clearly don’t like MS’s posts. I am puzzled why, after reading a few lines, they continue to read. MS’s posts are far longer than we’re used to on this blog. So what? I for one, start reading them, and if they interest me, I finish; if not, I move on. I’m grateful to MS for going to the trouble of writing something that I may or may not be interested in. He does the work; I make my choice.

I don’t respond to many posts that I find interesting, including those of MS, simply because I don’t have anything further to say about the subject. But no posting--of whatever length--has ever disadvantaged me. I retain the choice or reading or not and of responding or not. That’s true of all of us. Why not leave it at that?

In the meantime, while the Prof. is absent, we should behave ourselves and not start throwing erasers. Show him that we can engage in an adult conversation all by ourselves.

PS: Anonymous 407, I appreciate your identifying yourself with the number. As a reader of the blog, and occasional commenter, I find the simple tag “Anonymous” confusing because I don’t know how many of you there are--am I responding to the same person or not? I hope your example will be followed by the others anonymati or whatever the plural or anonymous is.

Anonymous said...

I have refrained lately from "going meta" in the comments, but I'll reverse the trend in response to David Palmeter's comment above 9:14:PM. Call it an opportunity to reiterate my suggestion that people read the brief Holman entry on irony. In order, then:

1. Adults often behave like children without supervision. No need to condescend to kids.
2. I entirely agree with DP's opinions about MS's comments. Freedom of expression certainly includes the freedom not to pay attention to messages one doesn't care to entertain.
3. That "Some people clearly don't like MS's posts" is itself good information. It's no reflection on MS as a person, but it could be a measure of MS as a source of information.
4. Once upon a time, "no posting--of whatever length--has ever disadvantaged" anybody. But nowadays this stupid internet thing occupies much of our time. The medium messes with the message. Letters to the editor in the daily newspaper command a marginal amount of our time and attention. Multiple daily verbose comments on blogs command more.

Dean said...

Well, dang, that Anonymous above @9:57 PM is me.

MS said...

David,

Re your claim that some of us have been behaving like children -

But he started it!

Daniel Langlois said...

There are a multitude of definitions of irony, but if it's not unexpected it isn't.

Jerry Fresia said...

Touché!!

Anonymous said...

A consensus has formed around a maudlin defense of compulsive bloviating one-upmanship at all costs. Toupee! Anon 1337.

James Camien McGuiggan said...

I knew about Socratic/Platonic irony through Nehamas' superb 'The Art of Living,' which (just in case you don't know) is a powerful study of Socrates', Plato's and then Nietzsche's and Mann's uses of irony. But the Gates book is new to me; thanks! It reminds me a bit of A. Davis' 'Blues Legacies and Black Feminism,' but that book only really touches on these topics, if I remember correctly.

Thanks!