irony, etc.

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Wed Nov 17 10:12:13 PST 1999

Michael Yates wrote:

>Now I was there to explain the style to those who did not understand it
>and to explain that MR was a radical magazine and that Yurick was
>appalled by the drug business. But the writer does not know who will
>read what he or she has written or in what context or with what level of
>schooling and sophistication. So does the radical writer, one who
>desires a transformation of the social order, have any special
>obligation to write in manner which would make it difficult to be
>misunderstood, especially about a subject critical to those actually
>living in the ghettoes? Some students said yes and some no. What do you

One of the things that makes so much left writing so dismal is the fear of wit or irony or style, as if beauty and pleasure were somehow suspect. (I could name names, but I won't.) Instead, we get the endless recitation of pieties in a grating moralizing-exhortatory tone, or some affectless just-the-facts empiricism. In one of the first issues of Z magazine, there was an exchange between George Scialabba and Michael Albert, in which Albert claimed that Scialabba's preference for style was really an attempt to speak to and seduce elites.

I find it very hard to believe that prison inmates would be dead to irony. Popular culture and popular speech are full of it.

I also find it hard to believe that any Marxist, or anyone who admires Marx, would be suspicious of irony. Robert Paul Wolff wrote a whole book (a small one, but a book nonetheless) on Marx's irony. Speaking of Marx, irony, and crime, there's this from the Addenda to Theories of Surplus Value:

>V 182 A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman
>sermons, a professor compendia and so on. A criminal produces
>crimes. If we look a little closer at the connection between this
>latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid
>ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes
>but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives
>lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable
>compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the
>general market as "commodities". This brings with it augmentation of
>national wealth, quite apart from the personal enjoyment which - as
>a competent witness, Herr Professor Roscher, [tells] us - the
>manuscript of the compendium brings to its originator himself.
>The criminal moreover produces the whole of the police and of
>criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc.; and all
>these different lines of business, which form equally many
>categories of the social division of labour, develop different
>capacities of the human spirit, create new needs and new ways of
>satisfying them. Torture alone has given rise to the most ingenious
>mechanical inventions, and employed many honourable craftsmen in the
>production of its instruments.
>The criminal produces an impression, partly moral and partly tragic,
>as the case may be, and in this way renders a "service" by arousing
>the moral and aesthetic feelings of the public. He produces not only
>compendia on Criminal Law, not only penal codes and along with them
>legislators in this field, but also art, belles-lettres, novels, and
>even tragedies, as not only Müllner's Schuld and Schiller's Räuber
>show, but also [Sophocles'] Oedipus and [Shakespeare's] Richard the
>Third. The criminal breaks the monotony and everyday security of
>bourgeois life. In this way he keeps it from stagnation, and gives
>rise to that uneasy tension and agility without which even the spur
>of competition would get blunted. Thus he gives a stimulus to the
>productive forces. While crime takes a part of the superfluous
>population off the labour market and thus reduces competition among
>the labourers - up to a certain point preventing wages from falling
>below the minimum - the struggle against crime absorbs another part
>of this population. Thus the criminal comes in as one of those
>natural "counterweights" which bring about a correct balance and
>open up a whole perspective of "useful" occupations.
>The effects of the criminal on the development of productive power
>can be shown in detail. Would locks ever have reached their present
>degree of excellence had there been no thieves? Would the making of
>bank-notes have reached its present perfection had there been no
>forgers? Would the microscope have found its way into the sphere of
>ordinary commerce (see Babbage) but for trading frauds? Doesn't
>practical chemistry owe just as much to adulteration of commodities
>and the efforts to show it up as to the honest zeal for production?
>Crime, through its constantly new methods of attack on property,
>constantly calls into being now methods of defence, and so is as
>productive as strikes for the invention of machines. And it one
>leaves the sphere of private crime: would the world-market ever have
>Como into being but for national crime? Indeed, would even the
>nations have arisen? And hasn't the Tree of Sin been at the same
>time the Tree of Knowledge ever since the time of Adam?
>In his Fable of the Bees (1705) Mandeville had already shown that
>every possible kind of occupation is productive, and had given
>expression to the line of this whole argument:
>"That what we call Evil in this World, Moral as well as Natural, is
>the grand Principle that makes us Sociable Creatures, the solid
>Basis the Life and Support of all Trades and Employments without
>exception [...] there we must look for the true origin of all Arts
>and Sciences; and [...] the moment, Evil ceases, the Society must be
>spoil'd if not totally dissolve'd"* [2nd edition. London, 1723, p.
>Only Mandeville was of course infinitely bolder and more honest than
>the philistine apologists of bourgeois society.

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