There are few things that annoy me more in a reading of a text than the claim that the author “doesn’t mean” what the text “literally says.” Such a claim sounds like a sophisticated reading strategy, one which wouldn’t be fooled by a cunning author, but it is based on a naive belief that authors have intentions and texts have literal meanings. Worse, because this kind of reading depends on basically unknowable authorial intentions, the reader has a great deal of license to decide where the intention and the literal meaning diverge, and the tendency is for this to coincide with whatever the reader feels is least plausible in the text. So, this supposedly sophisticated method of reading ends up domesticating texts, turning a text which might challenge the reader into one which just reinforces their own beliefs (the king of this kind of reading is Leo Strauss, who managed to read his philosophy into the entire western canon).
I was thinking of this because I’ve been reading various interpretations of Capital that seek to find where Marx is being “ironic,” and so where his true belief is the opposite of the position he puts forward.Wolff’s Moneybags Must be so Lucky: On the Literary Structure of Capital is a particularly good example because he spends some time explaining what he means by irony and why he thinks Marx employs it, which makes his position more defensible than some, although still, I think, wrong. What Wolff thinks is ironic is Marx’s development of the labor theory of value, in which commodities have value because they are the embodiment or crystalization of the non-material stuff of abstract labor time. Wolff writes:
What can Marx possibly have in mind by advancing so manifestly absurd an account of the commodity? That he does consider this theory of “crystals of abstract homogeneous socially necessary labor” to be absurd is demonstrated by the language in which he chooses to expound it. The chapter on commodities, in which this extraordinary doctrine is introduced, is strewn with religious metaphors. (48)
Part of the problem with Wolff’s position is that it is based on a misunderstanding of Marx’s position on religion, and so a misinterpretation of the point of this religious language. Wolff assumes that, because Marx is an atheist, a comparison between a theory of the commodity and religion must be intended to signal that Marx believes the theory to be as false as religion. But Marx doesn’t think religion is simply false; Capital takes seriously theological questions, such as the differences between catholicism and protestantism, and argues for the particular appropriateness, the social validity, of protestantism to capitalism. Further, the chapter on commodity fetishism explains precisely the analogies and disanalogies between commodity fetishism and religion:
In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. (my emph)
So Capital endorses a theory of religion and uses this theory, with modifications, in building a theory of commodities; that is, Marx’s frequent, and often sarcastic, references to religion are not a sign that he “doesn’t mean” what he is saying, but a kind of perverse mark of his sincerity.
What misleads Wolff, I think, is his understanding of irony, which cannot account for this employment of irony in the service of sincerity. The model of irony which Wolff uses in understanding Marx is Socratic irony, which he defines as a statement made with two intended audiences, a naive audience who assume that Marx intends the literal meaning of the statement, and a sophisticated audience who understand that Marx denies the literal meaning of the statement, and also understand why the naive audience would be fooled. But this underestimates the extent to which irony is a rhetorical effect, taking the two audiences simply as given; what reason do we have to believe that there is such a naive audience? The only reason we have to believe in the naive audience is in the ironic writing itself; indeed, the naive audience is purely imagined in order to produce the desired effect, in order to stage a confrontation between intention and literal meaning.
If there is no actual naive audience to be fooled, then, what is the purpose of Marx’s irony? The answer, I think, lies in distinguishing Socratic from romantic irony. Where Socratic irony is used to say something while meaning the opposite, romantic irony is used to say something ironically while actually meaning it seriously; that is, it a response to a crisis of sincerity, a situation in which it seems impossible to say what you mean. This is, indeed, the situation that Marx finds himself in. The transformation of abstract labor into exchange value is indeed absurd, but unfortunately it is not an absurd theory, but an absurd reality, and Marx’s irony is a response to this absurdity, a way of expressing the simultaneous impossibility and necessity of meaning just what he says. The irony in Capital, that is, isn’t a sign of Marx’s duplicity, but of his painful sincerity.