Is There an End of Ideologies?: Exploring Constructs of Ideology and Discourse in Marxist and Post-Marxist Theories [Unabridged] 1443875511, 9781443875516

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Is There an End of Ideologies?: Exploring Constructs of Ideology and Discourse in Marxist and Post-Marxist Theories [Unabridged]
 1443875511, 9781443875516

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Is There an End of Ideologies?

Is There an End of Ideologies?: Exploring Constructs of Ideology and Discourse in Marxist and Post-Marxist Theories By

António Lopes

Is There an End of Ideologies?: Exploring Constructs of Ideology and Discourse in Marxist and Post-Marxist Theories By António Lopes This book first published 2015 Cambridge Scholars Publishing Lady Stephenson Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2PA, UK British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Copyright © 2015 by António Lopes All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. ISBN (10): 1-4438-7551-1 ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-7551-6


Foreword ................................................................................................... vii Preface ........................................................................................................ ix Acknowledgements .................................................................................... xi Introduction ................................................................................................. 1 Chapter One ............................................................................................... 10 Discourse: The Intricacies of Defining an Elusive Concept or Why Critical Discourse Analysis is Not That Critical Chapter Two .............................................................................................. 27 The Problem of the Origins or the Origins of the Problem: Some Epistemological Concerns Chapter Three ............................................................................................ 34 Parodying Saussure or “Who’s Afraid of Valentin Vološinov?” Chapter Four .............................................................................................. 51 The German Ideology: Against the Language of Philosophy and Towards a Philosophy of Language Chapter Five .............................................................................................. 71 Ideology B. C. (Before Capital) and Later Reactions Chapter Six ................................................................................................ 83 The Fetish Hiding (in) the Structure Chapter Seven............................................................................................ 88 Is There a Place for Revolution in Structural Determinism? The Responses of French Structuralism Chapter Eight ........................................................................................... 103 Exposing an Orrery of Errors


Table of Contents

Chapter Nine............................................................................................ 112 La Palice, von Münchhausen, Lord Kitchener: Pêcheux’s Investigations into Discourse and Ideology Chapter Ten ............................................................................................. 133 The Role of Discourse on the Post-Marxist Agenda Chapter Eleven ........................................................................................ 160 The Discourse of Discourse Theory Chapter Twelve ....................................................................................... 170 Some Concluding Reflections Bibliography ............................................................................................ 173 Index ........................................................................................................ 191


Ideology and discourse analysis is currently a major research area within cultural studies, critical studies, political and philosophical studies, and many other current areas, postgraduation courses and research projects. This field of study includes, in many cases, theories on hegemony, power, knowledge, liberalism, libertarianism, neoliberalism, utilitarianism, communitarianism, socialism, etc. These keywords could be circumscribed to a series of key names that everyone will recognize as familiar to these questions: Marx, Gramsci, Heidegger, Althusser, Saussure, Barthes, Lacan, Zizek, Derrida, Wittgenstein, and Foucault. António Lopes has contributed to the debate on the reconceptualization of ideology and discourse in contemporary terms that go beyond the postMarxism proposals. He starts reexamining the concept of discourse in Critical Discourse Analysis, following a historical perspective, and including a revision of the epistemological problem of the origin of discursive formations on discourse and ideology, arguing that both dimensions belong to a specific historical and political setting. Foucault’s The Order of Things (2002), Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics and Valentin Vološinov’s philosophy of language provide him the necessary theoretical framework to prove that the use of language by Critical Discourse Analysis is not totally new since Marxists have already underlined the importance of language in the ideological structuring of society. Lopes’ argument is summed up this way: “if CDA is purportedly critical of the dominant discourses and abides by a specific political agenda (…) and if it integrates in its jargon terms like class, ideology and hegemony, is it not then clear that Marxism constitutes one of its major sources? And if so, why do most of CDA theorists avoid explicit involvement with Marxism, especially in terms of engaging in an in-depth discussion of such authors as Marx, Engels, Vološinov or Althusser?” (p. 45). These research questions are discussed with a strong belief that we cannot exclude two major intellectual traditionsíSaussure’s linguistics and Marxist philosophy of languageíwhich are behind so many works appeared throughout the nineties and the first decade of the twentieth century (Butler, Laclau, Žižek, Howarth, Mouffe, Torfing), suggesting, with Terry Eagleton, that symptoms of political crisis always affect the way we communicate and form our social discourse.



This way, the post- Marxist approaches to discourse imply what Lopes calls “the textualization of the social,” which means that we cannot inquiry discourse only within the boundaries of texts and speeches, but rather in all social relations and processes that involve our participation in contemporary sociosphere. Quoting Howarth, as to summarize his main argumentʊ”discourse theorists seek to locate these investigated practices and logics in larger historical and social contexts, so that they may acquire a different significance and provide the basis for a possible critique and transformation of existing practices and social meanings.” (Howarth, 2000b:129)ʊ, Lopes sees in these words the light of a new project for revising the relationship between individual consciousness and social reality. The literary text is not the only possibility to use ideology as a creative system of ideas and an opened ground for digging discourse. Critical exercises like the one offered by António Lopes prove that the theorist is a producer of ideology taken from many non-textual experiences. The critical practice of reading texts and their theories is no less ideological (in any sense) from what one can achieve in the production of knowledge motivated not only by what we read but also by what we live as well. Carlos Ceia Full Professor Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal


Prompted by the need to set up a theoretical framework for my doctoral research on British communism in the thirties, I found myself drawn to the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Their concept of discourse and the theoretical perspective underpinning it seemed particularly apt to discuss the way in which the Communist Party of Great Britain sought to negotiate meanings, representations and identities in the period of the People’s Front—a time when it was necessary for the party to reach out to sections of society that had until then remained suspicious of Communism and distrusted the intentions of the Soviet Union. I had already read extensively on ideology, especially those authors identified with the Marxist tradition. However, despite the countless meanings that each of them attached to the term, it invariably involved an idea of stasis, which raised some theoretical difficulties in my attempt to account for a period in the history of the party and of the nation marked by rapid identity changes. From other readings, it soon became clear to me that both ideology and discourse, in spite of the conceptual gap that exists between them, are sometimes confused by a significant number of authors. Thus, I decided that the initial part of my thesis should be dedicated not only to disentangling these two categories, but also to ascertaining the way in which each of them could be applied to my historical inquiry as analytical tools. This work seeks (a) to trace the genesis and evolution of both concepts in Marxism and post-Marxism, (b) to understand how they are interrelated and (c) to assess their applicability in empirical research. It is not my intention to exhaust the discussion of each category. Whoever is looking for the contributions to the theory of ideology made by influential authors such as Lucáks, Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Stuart Hall, Habermas or Jameson, just to name a few, will notice that little or nothing is said about them: not that I do not recognize their value, but the focus of my attention was not ideology alone. Neither was it discourse tout court. To develop my project I needed to place myself at the crossroads where ideology, language and discourse meet. I had to be particularly selective about the thinkers and their work, so as to secure, on the one hand, an articulation—



as theoretically fruitful as possible—of these two categories and, on the other, the coherence of my line of argument. In the first chapter I sought to distance myself from the domain of linguistics, in particular those branches that have attempted to intersect language and ideology, namely Critical Discourse Analysis and Critical Linguistics. Despite the conceptual complexity of the models, I realized that their proponents usually fail to properly address some of the most pressing philosophical questions hanging over these two scientific projects. As I intended to trace the origins of the inquiry into the concepts in question, I decided to prepare the ground by exploring the epistemological conditions conducive to the emergence of statements (in the Foucaultian sense) on ideology and discourse. This constitutes the nucleus of the second chapter. In the third one, I went on to discuss the two intellectual traditions that made a critical contribution to the reflection on the nature of the sign and the social dimension of language, namely Saussurean linguistics and Vološinov’s Marxist philosophy of language. The fundaments of the latter’s critique of Saussure took me to the heart of Marx and Engels’s seminal text, The German Ideology, which I set out to examine in the fourth and fifth chapters. From this point onwards the next sections follow a loose chronological order: the theory of commodity fetishism in Marx’s Capital (sixth chapter); the appropriation of Marx’s theory of ideology by the French structuralists (seventh chapter); the criticisms addressed to Althusser’s edifice (eighth chapter); Pêcheux’s transposition of Althusser’s ideas into the realm of linguistics and the foundation of a Marxist discourse analysis (ninth chapter); the way in which post-Marxism, in the light of Gramsci’s conception of hegemony, reinvented the concept of discourse and questioned the cogency of ideology (tenth chapter); and the application of the post-Marxist categories and parameters in the analysis of social and political phenomena by the advocates of Discourse Theory (eleventh chapter). To round off the book I make some suggestions concerning possible future developments of theory-driven empirical research (twelfth and final chapter) within the framework of Discourse Theory.


This work is partly based on my PhD thesis, which would have never been completed without the invaluable support and encouragement of both my thesis supervisors, Professors Filipe Furtado and João Ferreira Duarte, who have always been readily available to lend a patient ear to my cogitations and who have never abstained from giving me the best advice and feedback. I owe them a great debt of gratitude. Many thanks are also owed to Professor Ernesto Laclau, who so generously agreed to review this work. The University of Algarve gave me permission to apply for a three-year scholarship with the PRODEP (Programa para o Desenvolvimento Educativo de Portugal), which allowed me to complete the thesis sooner than expected. I am grateful for that. I would also like to express my appreciation to Professor Terry Eagleton for having shown interest in my study and for having given me his precious time, attention and encouragement to publish my work. I would also like to extend sincere thanks to my friend and colleague Jorge Carvalho, who, among other things, was kind enough to lend me some of the bibliographic material used in this study. My friend and colleague Paul Murphy had to endure, in the course of our peripatetic wanderings in Manchester, my endless musings about the British Left, which he was kind enough to fine-tune and to enrich with his own critical insights. I owe him special thanks. Finally, most heartfelt thanks are due to my wife, Dina, who had to put up with my existential doubts and carried me through.


Discourse and ideology play a major role in any epistemological enterprise seeking to understand the relationship between individual consciousness and social reality. Although they are key concepts used in a vast array of studies in almost every field of the social and human sciences, they appear frequently associated with politics and political thought. More than often they are used in a rather loose sense. This is particularly noticeable in the case of party politics. It is not unusual for politicians to accuse their opponents of being chained up to a particular “ideology.” This is a way to suggest that they are unable to think outside the box, guiding their judgments and attitudes in accordance with a reified set of beliefs. And who has not yet seen or heard a politician boasting himself of being free from ideological bias (which is, per se, an ideological statement)? In most cases, ideology is meant to signify the absence of democratic values and principles. It is seen either as an impediment or as a direct threat to the open society and human rights. People take it to be a trait typical of totalitarian regimes, religious fundamentalisms and all other sorts of orthodoxies. For example, on 24 October 2005, during a debate on the instability in the North Caucasus, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Triesman, argued that “ideology and tactics of international terrorism, have, exploited the situation in the region”1. In the wake of the 7/7 bombings, British Prime Minister Tony Blair did not hesitate to classify the “perverted and poisonous” doctrines of Islamic extremism as “evil ideology”2. Other people, however, have located the menace elsewhere. George Soros, in The Crisis of Global Capitalism, argued that “market fundamentalism poses a greater threat to open society than any form of totalitarian ideology”3. Discourse, too, has been dragged into the realm of politics and used without much concern for semantic accuracy. In any case, unlike ideology, it seems to be more consistent with the idea of a democratic culture of dialogue and political critique. This may be related to the fact that originally the word was connoted, on the one hand, with the power of reasoning and argumentation, and, on the other, with the faculty of conversing, i.e., of sharing and negotiating views and ideas.



These two distinct meanings were not unfamiliar to Shakespeare. In Hamlet, the hero condemns Gertrude for not having grieved the death of his father by exclaiming that “a beast, that wants discourse of reason,/Would have mourned longer”4. And as Lord Derby takes his leave of Richmond on the night before the final battle in Richard III, he says: “Farewell: the leisure, and the fearful time/Cuts off the ceremonious vows of love,/And ample interchange of sweet discourse,/Which so long sundred friends should dwell upon”5. In these past few decades, nevertheless, the word has taken a new turn. Discourse is not seen as a simple collection of more or less coherent, more or less illusory ideas, but rather as a sort of grammar that defines the ways in which those ideas can be articulated and values established. In a more comprehensive sense, it has also been seen as the terrain where ideas are negotiated and consensus is reached. Here, the term becomes coextensive with democracy. In a debate on the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon controversy in the British parliament, it was once again Lord Triesman who, replying to a question raised by Lord Monson, said that “EU Foreign Ministers underlined that freedom of expression is a fundamental right and an essential element of a democratic discourse” 6. And at a public address in West Point on 1 December 2009, President Obama, while discussing the US military effort in Afghanistan, criticized the way in which “national discourse” was being “poisoned” by “rancor and cynicism and partisanship”7. Quite often, however, the word may also be employed with the same negative overtones as the ones usually ascribed to ideology. Civil servants in France complained about “the populist anti-civil servant discourse” after the publication of a book exposing the alleged inefficiency of the French public services8. Even in sociological analysis and in sociolinguistics both terms are so closely related that it becomes difficult to disentangle them. Sometimes they seem to juxtapose each other or to be interchangeable. Some other times they appear conflated in phrases like “ideological discourse”9 or “discursive ideology”10. Thanks to this indefiniteness, we find ourselves trapped in a kind of tautological cobweb: Wodak and Meyer claim that “discourse is ideological”11, while others simply state that “ideology is discourse”12. Discussing Michel Pêcheux, Wodak and de Cillia explain that “[d]iscourse is the place where language and ideology meet”13. Besides, there has also been a proliferation of titles pairing these two words together14. If anything, all of this indicates that there is conceptual contiguity between them, or, if you prefer, a theoretical complicity.

Is There an End of Ideologies?


The title of present work is no exception. My intention, however, is not just to discuss the ways in which these two concepts are related to, or differ from, each other. The main objective is rather to address how they emerged and evolved in Marxist thinking and were later resumed by the post-Marxists in the context of the problematic of the relationship between language and political action. The political implications of the two concepts could hardly be more conspicuous. In this particular it is important to recall the positions of one of Italy’s most influential Marxist. Gramsci, whose Prison Notebooks stand out as a turning point in the Marxist intellectual tradition, reminds us that, although power may manifest itself in many different forms, it is most effective and enduring only when it is achieved through the consent of the masses, and this consent is constructed not by means of a blind imposition of force, but through a hegemonic project based on a successful articulation of ideas, which, as popular beliefs, “assume the same energy of ‘material forces’”15. At the level of the individual, those popular beliefs take the form of verbal consciousness, which is “uncritically absorbed” and induces a “condition of moral and political passivity.” It prevents human beings from attaining a more politically and socially conscious conception of reality, i.e., from realising that they are in fact “part of a particular hegemonic force”16. To discuss ideology and discourse is thus to dissect the mechanisms that condition such verbal consciousness and to understand the processes that lead to the establishment of social identities, social order and political power, in other words, to the foundation of a given hegemonic bloc. This brings me to one of the main challenges that a study of this nature has to face, which is the fact that the concepts themselves do not exist as vague abstractions in the ethereal realms of theory, but are instead affected both by ever-changing historical conditions and the political factors they themselves seek to explain. The birth of ideology is a case in point. The scientific rationality underlying the genesis of the the project of ideology did not prevent his proponent, Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy, from falling victim to a series of political disputes. The reasons are not difficult to fathom. With his Elements d’Idéologie, he intended to launch the foundations of a new science aiming to study the way in which ideas and opinions originated in the human mind. As a reflection of the spirit of revolutionary change, his project was an attempt to contribute to the fulfilment of the political desideratum of construction of a new man for a new age. Such enterprise, however, would not outlast the attacks of its critics, who dismissed it for its adhesion to the tenets of political rationalism of the late eighteenth



century, its naive belief in the perfectibility of the human being, its insistence on the sensualistic principles of Condillac’s school and the mechanistic overtones of its social and political theory17. When de Tracy and his followers at the Institut National 18 censured Napoleon for his plans to assume the title of Emperor, they fell from grace and Napoleon saw to it that they were the ones to take the blame for France’s political failures. Partly as a result of these persecutions, partly as a consequence of the methodological shortcomings of their proposals, the idéologues’ claims to the scientificity of their findings found little or no echo in later generations. Foucault in The Order of Things (2001) did not hesitate to consider the models they had advanced as pre-scientific. He argued that the knowledge that the idéologues were seeking to compose was unable escape from its own field of representation, failing to question its own frontiers and precepts19. When Marx and Engels resumed the term in The German Ideology, it had already lost its scientific garments and was now being used as a synonym either for false consciousness or an inverted perception of reality. Ideology, which had originally been conceived as science, was now being presented as its negation. As a result of this permanent struggle for human emancipation and social transformation—which is as much philosophical as it is political—, meanings keep changing with the passage of time. And not even Marxism, despite all its impressive theoretical apparatus from Marx to Althusser, had the last say on this matter. Marxism, too, has been reassessed and reexamined in the light of the latest developments in contemporary theory, especially after the post-structuralist turn and the emergence of a postMarxist agenda. In the sixties and seventies, the structuralist contributions of Louis Althusser, Nikos Poulantzas and Étienne Balibar opened a new chapter in Marxist theory. By elaborating on Marx’s base/superstructure dyad, they insisted on the notion of structural determination of the social by the economic. But they engaged in a further enterprise—not without its risks taking into account the theoretical framework on which they relied— which consisted in demonstrating the relative autonomy of the superstructure with respect to the base. Thus, they concentrated their efforts in moving away from simplistic models of economic determinism, proposing in its stead a highly elaborate structural model which they believed was able to account for the complexity of the modes in which social and political relations were established and reproduced. What post-Marxism did was to move the entire discussion up one notch, this time without being enslaved by the straightjacket of a structural

Is There an End of Ideologies?


centre, of a last instance of determination. They discarded the essentialist conception of the economy that had prevailed in Marxist thought until then, and placed the economic at the same level as the social, the political and the ideological, all of them interwoven in a complex network of relations and bearing upon each other in innumerable ways. The writings of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Judith Butler illustrate this concern. Their attempt has been to conceive politics not as something subordinated to the economy, but as the site of struggle, of both resistance and domination, where social relations, including the relations of production—and, consequently, the economy itself—, are continuously being defied and renegotiated. It is precisely here where discourse plays a major role, for every social identity involved in that struggle is constituted by a set of hegemonic operations which depend on the way in which meanings are articulated within a given discourse. It is important, however, to recall that, contrarily to what one might be led to believe, post-Marxism does not consist in rejecting or discrediting Marx’s thought. As a matter of fact, it resumes much of what lies at the core of the Marxist problematic. Still, what it tries to do is to review it in the context of the recent discussion around the new relations of power in contemporary Western democracies. As Laclau pointed out, “[w]e did not invent this label [post-Marxism]—we do not oppose it insofar as it is properly understood: as the process of reappropriation of an intellectual tradition, as well as the process of going beyond it”20. This is all the more important if we consider the fact that one cannot expect to erect a critique of some of the categories of classical Marxism without keeping them under a permanent theoretical tension. Concepts such as “class struggle,” “ideology,” “superstructure and base,” “representation,” just to name a few, have all undergone a careful reassessment in the light of social and political phenomena that Marx and Engels could hardly have foreseen. Besides, the numerous interpretations and contributions to the Marxist theory made by key thinkers, such as Kautsky, Lenin, Lukács, Gramsci, Althusser and Poulantzas are still caught inside the old paradigms of epiphenomenalism, class reductionism or structural determinism. Not only have post-Marxists deconstructed such paradigms and categories, but have also sought to transcend them, widening the scope for new perspectives of social analysis, thus responding to the challenges to theory posed by the contemporary world. In the meantime, other no less important categories—some of which Marxism never fully exhausted or emerged outside its scope—have also been applied to the scrutiny of politics, thus opening up the space for the construction of new paradigms.



Thanks to the contributions of thinkers like Habermas, Foucault, Derrida and a revisited Gramsci, concepts such as “discourse,” “power,” “hegemony,” “contingency” and “dislocation” became the cornerstones of the theoretical mainframe of post-structuralist studies. This is not to argue that Marxism has been unable to meet the challenges posed by the politics of postmodernity or “the cultural logic of late capitalism”21. On the contrary, from the late seventies onwards it has evolved towards a greater diversification of proposals, in domains as diverse as cultural studies, gender studies and new social movements, not to mention its traditional fields of intervention, such as politics, aesthetics, literary criticism and scientific knowledge22. My purpose, nevertheless, is not to dwell on all these different approaches to Marxism. It is rather to focus on some of the authors who have contributed the most to the evolution of the concepts under discussion in the context of the debate about the relationship between language and politics. In order to do that, I will not attempt to observe strict chronological order, but rather perambulate in various directions, with a few digressions here and there to explore those aspects that demand our attention as the argument progresses. I shall start by problematizing the way in which the concept of discourse (as language in use) has been operationalized in linguistics and, more specifically, in Critical Discourse Analysis. I shall contend that the theorists of this latter discipline usually fail to provide a much-needed historical perspective on some of the invaluable philosophical reflections that many Marxist thinkers have cast on the role of language in the formation of human consciousness and in the shaping of the social and political order. Consequently, not only do their proposals lack conceptual depth, but also fail to add anything significant to the philosophical theses that have been advanced on these issues. To substantiate some of my positions concerning the necessity of such an historical perspective, I will then address the epistemological problem of how to define the origins of the discursive formations on discourse and ideology. The appearance of such formations is in itself both an ideological phenomenon and a discursive process taking place in a specific historical and political setting. Here my point of departure will be the modes of emergence of discursive formations as proposed by Foucault in The Order of Things. This will provide the framework within which I will examine two intellectual traditions that crossed the threshold of formalization, as Foucault defines it. The ones that are of central importance in this study are Saussure’s linguistics and Vološinov’s philosophy of language.

Is There an End of Ideologies?


The latter attacked Saussure’s positions concerning the stability of the sign system. He argued that the sign cannot be conceived of as something that stands outside the social practices in which every human being is engaged and which are constantly evolving. Every utterance, as it bears all the weight of the social condition of the speaker, ends up by carrying with it the genes of social conflict, of class struggle. “Class does not coincide with the sign community, i.e., with the community which is the totality of users of the same set of signs for ideological communication” and so “various different classes will use one and the same language.” But the fact that they use the same language does not mean that the sign remains univocal throughout. As he states “differently oriented accents intersect in every ideological sign” and thus the sign “becomes an arena of the class struggle”23. According to Vološinov, meanings are everything but stable and keep shifting in accordance with the speakers” social position, their particular interests, the framework of relations of power, the groups with which they identify themselves, and so on. Thus, the existence of a plurality of discourses—a notion that resumes Bakhtin’s perception of language as having a dialogic nature—within a given historical moment, is regarded as the materialization of social antagonisms at the linguistic level. The scrutiny of Vološinov’s work will allow me to approach Marx’s critique of ideology from the standpoint of the philosophy of language. Given its importance, I intend to discuss it at length, starting with the metaphor of the camera obscura in The German Ideology. Then I shall track its evolution until it is resurfaces in Capital, this time as the theory of commodity fetishism. Some of the responses of later authors to Marx’s ideas—especially Lenin, Gramsci, Williams, Derrida and Mepham—will also be analysed. French structuralism, however, will be given special attention. Althusser and Balibar not only sought to exhaust some of theoretical possibilities offered by Marx’s work, in particular Capital, but also to find a way out of some of its most intractable deadlocks. At the core of their concerns lies the attempt to understand the processes leading to a revolutionary rupture of the dominant mode of production. This rupture presupposes the conditions for the formation of a consciousness able to break free from the paralysing effects of ideology and its modes of representation. It would be up to Michel Pêcheux to analyse the role of language in the ideological processes of representation and identification in the constitution of the social subjects as proposed by Althusser. And here the concept of “discourse” takes the centre stage. If for Althusser it just was



another word to refer to the philosophical logos24, for Pêcheux it is clearly associated with the linguistic realization of ideology. He also sees it as the means through which the modes of representation of ideology can be dismantled, namely through the modality of disidentification. This is a first step towards the recognition of the ideological dimension of the social subject and is based on the discourse of science and of the proletarian political practice. Two of Pêcheux’s influences, Vološinov and Lacan, will also be called in to help us systematize some of his propositions in the areas of psychoanalysis and linguistics. Post-Marxism would resort to the term “discourse” once again. This time, however, it would be to dissolve the foundations of the structuralist edifice and to criticise the theory of ideology of the French thinkers. The last two chapters will be dedicated precisely to the way in which postMarxists—Laclau and Mouffe in particular—not only refurbished, but actually expanded the concept (in opposition to that of ideology), and how their theoretical apparatus was borrowed by the proponents of the Discourse Theory of the Essex School (Howarth, Torfing, Norval, Stavrakakis, among others) to advance new methodological and analytical approaches to current social and political phenomena.

Notes 1

Lords Hansard, 24 October 2005; my italics. Commons Hansard, 13 July 2005. 3 Soros 1998: xxii. 4 Hamlet, I. ii. 150. 5 Richard III, V. iii. 97-100. 6 Lords Hansard, 9 March 2006; my italics. 7 (accessed on 9 May 2011; my italics). 8 The Guardian, 23 March 2011. 9 Stavrakakis, 1999: 79. 10 Lucy, 1996: 62. 11 Wodak and Meyer, 2001: 171. 12 Reeves, 2009 (1983): 36; Ricoeur, 1980: 62; Agger, 2007: 153. 13 de Cillia and Wodak, 2005: 1646. 14 Fowler, 1991; Dant, 1991; Wodak, 1989; Kress, 1987, just to mention a few. 15 Gramsci, 1971: 404. 16 Idem: 333. 17 See Head, 1985: 2. 18 Pierre Jean George Cabanis, Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf, Dominique Joseph Garat, Comte de Volney. 19 Foucault, 2002: 261. 2

Is There an End of Ideologies?


Laclau, 2001 (1985): ix. See Jameson, 1991. 22 See, for instance, Nelson and Grossberg, 1988. 23 Foucault, 1986 (1929): 23. 24 Althusser, 1977: 27, 36, 49, 58, 62, 64, 119. 21



Discourse is at the crossroads of different intellectual traditions. One of the most obvious consequences of its composite image, which grants it a privileged position in post-structuralism, is the impossibility of reaching a satisfactory definition. In fact, the concept has been appropriated in so diverse a fashion1 that it appears to be a spectral figure that keeps changing every time it is focused anew. This introduces a dilemma: any attempt to define the concept, any reduction to a standardized formula implies its subjection to the effects of meaning generated by a given discourse. This reminds me of the problem Pascal once detected—and that Umberto Eco later explored in the first Chapter of his Kant and the Platypus, entitled “On Being”—when he was confronted with the impossibility of defining Being without resorting to the verb to be 2. Paul A. Bové discusses the status of discourse in contemporary thinking in the following terms: “Discourse” provides a privileged entry into the post-structuralist mode of analysis precisely because it is the organized and regulated, as well as the regulating and constituting, functions of language that it studies: its aim is to describe the surface linkages between power, knowledge, institutions, intellectuals, the control of populations, and the modern state as these intersect in the functions of systems of thought.3

Just like ideology, discourse is inherent in the analyst’s stance. His thinking is always constructed against a backdrop of sets of discourses (academic, scientific, political, etc.). They mark the way in which he, as a scientist, describes, explains and interprets the social phenomena that constitute his object of study—even when that object is language or

Discourse: The Intricacies of Defining an Elusive Concept


discourse. This means that any sort of normalization of the concept— which some discourse analysts may feel tempted to seek for the sake of a given scientific objectivity—may jeopardize a more comprehensive view of its role in contemporary thinking. Fairclough, for example, synthetically refers to discourse as “language as a form of social practice”4. Van Dijk, on the other hand, speaks of “discursive language use” as consisting “not only of ordered series of words, clauses, sentences and propositions, but also of sequences of mutually related acts”5. These definitions, despite their apparent clarity and the authors’ critical awareness, are framed by a scientific paradigm discursively constructed. We can say, therefore, that they are still discourses about discourse 6. Considering the political and epistemological implications that any approach to discourse has (even if it is under the guise of such objectivity), rather than trying to replicate the formulae of the theorists of Discourse Analysis7, I believe one should revisit some of the intellectual traditions mentioned above so as to reach a more comprehensive insight of the processes of migration of the concept, namely how it has been constructed, deconstructed and adjusted to each methodological edifice. In other words, I shall try to trace that which I might call—resuming one of Foucault’s levels of analysis—the genealogy of discourse properly speaking. In order to clarify the limits of the object of this study, one must recover a historical perspective accounting for the genesis and the conditions of emergence of the “discourses about discourse” and about its correlated concepts. This signifies that one has to examine not only the way in which “knowledges” concerning the social dimension of the language were constituted, but also how they sought to defend their scientific legitimacy. This entails the adoption of a historical perspective and the acknowledgement that scientific truth is always constructed by certain material practices including, more specifically, the way in which language is socially used. Thus, one should take into account not only the present “state of the art” of discourse studies, but also those theories that contributed to its making—even if they do not explicitly refer to the concept of discourse. That is the case of Marx and Engels’s conceptions of language and ideology formulated in The German Ideology, of Engels’s proposals concerning the relation between labour, communication and language as expressed in The Dialectics of Nature, and of Vološinov’s theory of the social and ideological dimension of the sign as expounded in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Likewise, Lacan’s arguments on “the discourse of the Other” or Derrida’s conceptions of text, sign and discourse (as developed in Speech and Phenomena and Of Grammatology) also deserve a closer inspection. All these authors are of critical


Chapter One

importance in helping us to understand the conceptual and epistemological limits of discourse and, which is more important, to question established assumptions and methods of inquiry. And the first assumption one should question is the apparently objective definition of “discourse.” Before I proceed any further—and in order to set the tone of my argument in this respect—, I shall dwell for a while on some definitions that have appeared over the past few decades. In 1966, Émile Benveniste, still within a linguistic perspective, maintained that “with the sentence we leave the domain of language as a system of signs and enter into another universe, that of language as an instrument of communication, whose expression is discourse”8. He defined this concept as “every utterance assuming a speaker and a hearer, and in the speaker, the intention of influencing the other in some way”9. Regrettably, Benveniste did not go to great pains to discuss the ways in which such influence could be exerted on “the other,” thus leaving the power-language equation unresolved. Around the same time, Michel Foucault attempted to rescue the concept from the domain of linguistics and explored its epistemological potential in his Archaeology of Knowledge (first published in France in 1969). As he stated: Instead of gradually reducing the rather fluctuating meaning of the word “discourse,” I believe I have in fact added to its meanings: treating it sometimes as the general domain of all statements, sometimes as an individualizable group of statements, and sometimes as a regulated practice that accounts for a number of statements; and have I not allowed this same word “discourse,” which should have served as a boundary around the term “statement,” to vary as I shifted my analysis or its point of application as the statement itself faded from view?10

Foucault therefore insisted that the study of discourse was not to be confined to the analysis of statements only. It had to be examined within the problematic of the networks of power and the regimes of truth at work in society. This conception had such an impact on the study of language that Gunther Kress later recalls it in his Linguistic Processes in Sociocultural Practice to argue that… [i]nstitutions and social groupings have specific meanings and values which are articulated in language in systematic ways. Following the work particularly of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, I refer to these systematically-organized modes of talking as DISCOURSE. Discourses are systematically-organized sets of statements which give expression to the meanings and values of an institution.11

Discourse: The Intricacies of Defining an Elusive Concept


Pursuing the same line of argument, Fairclough and Wodak, in their attempt to systematize the theoretical origins of Critical Discourse Analysis, also declare that… Critical Discourse Analysis sees discourse—language use in speech and writing—as a form of “social practice.” Describing discourse as social practice implies a dialectical relationship between a particular discursive event and the situation(s), institution(s) and social structure(s) which frame it.12

I do not intend to exhaust all the major conceptions with this brief collection of quotations, but they help us to trace the modes of emergence of the concept of “discourse” as it drifted away from traditional linguistics and matured as an autonomous object of study in its own right. I will now look into each of these claims more attentively. As Benveniste correctly pointed out, one could limit the study of language neither to the scale of the sentence nor to the Saussurean notion of language as a highly structured system. Benveniste’s remarks in the late sixties and early seventies laid bare the shortcomings of structuralist linguistics as it had been devised and developed until then. It lacked a critical perspective on how individuals, engaged as they are in a wide variety of social practices, use the language. The French linguist, however, was not adding anything new to this issue. This criticism had already been made by Vološinov back in 1929: [Linguistic] thought goes no further than the elements that make up the monologic utterance. The structure of a complex sentence (a period)—that is the furthest limit of linguistic reach. The structure of a whole utterance is something linguistics leaves to the competence of other disciplines—to rhetoric and poetics.13

It seemed that little had changed in linguistics since the late twenties and that, as far as Vološinov’s pathbreaking proposals were concerned, there was still a lot to catch up with—especially in the way in which he explored the social dimension of language use and the “dynamic whole of speech performance”14. Obviously language had already been recognized as a social phenomenon by Saussure himself in his Course in General Linguistics (1915). However, he either purposefully overlooked or remained impervious to challenging questions related to what was later to be known as the problems of “language change,” “language variation” and the “social stratification of language.” In fact, the so-called “Saussurean paradox” epitomized the difficulties that his theory faced: how can


Chapter One

language be defined as a fixed system of signs used by a given community, when it is ineluctable that that system is constantly undergoing changes at the phonological, morphological, syntactical and semantic levels? I shall return to this issue later. The emergence of sociolinguistics in the fifties and sixties revealed greater sensitivity to those issues and some of them were successfully tackled, as in the case of the work carried out by William Labov and Peter Trudgill15. Sociolinguistic research was primarily devoted to the elucidation of how communicative interaction depended on linguistic structures, which were no longer regarded as static or immutable, but rather subject to continuous processes of change and variation. This represented an important progress as it enabled the scope of analysis to be extended to the social field, but it did not go much further than that. They did not risk taking another (and quite necessary) step, which was the introduction of the political debate in linguistics. In one of his studies, for example, Labov set out to show the way in which narratives in the Black English vernacular culture are generally structured and how the narrator himself evaluates his personal experience16. Although the object of analysis is a set of three fight narratives involving members of south-central Harlem gangs in the late sixties—an object raising urgent questions on class ideology, racism, power, and social conflict at the core of the American society—, the fact is that Labov keeps political concerns at bay. Actually, what triggered his study was the reading problems experienced by the speakers of the Black English Vernacular in the context of formal education institutions and the “type of ignorance” that they were supposed to overcome, namely, the “ignorance of standard English rules on the part of speaker of nonstandard English”17. Not once does he engage in a systematic study of the social and political implications of those narratives, nor does he try to explore the social causes of that “ignorance.” As a matter of fact, the study might as well endorse racial prejudices against the black community, as it implicitly suggests that it is this type of narratives of violence and self-aggrandisement—usually based on foul and abusive language—that one should expect of the Harlem black youth18. In a way, it was as if the political dimension of language—that is to say, how it not only mirrors but actually intervenes in the construction of the social order, how it contributes to the making of identities and to the distribution and circulation of power—was being either systematically silenced or overlooked. One first step towards the study of such political dimension of language was Foucault’s attempt to assert the autonomy of this new

Discourse: The Intricacies of Defining an Elusive Concept


object—“discourse”—by proclaiming its independence from linguistics. In his Archaeology, he sought to break old bonds and to reframe the concept in a new light. His methodological proposals to analyse the modes of existence of statements should not be confused with the grammatical analysis of sentences or the logical analysis of propositions. He was operating in a different field, using a vocabulary and a set of tools of his own, and embarking upon a radical project aiming to understand the transformation of knowledge in history. Concepts such as discursive formation—defined as anonymous, historically-located rules establishing the regularity of statements—and discourse—ultimately regarded as a group of statements defined by a given modality of existence19—were instrumental in realizing the aims of his project. Among other things, he intended to dissect the discontinuities in the history of thought, to map the historical dissemination of knowledge, and to perceive the way in which power is “concretely exercised” by means of verbal performances. The impact of Foucault’s epistemological research eventually led to the emergence of new methodologies related to discourse. It was now evident that this new notion of discourse as “language use relative to social, political and cultural formations”20 was of substantive value not only to linguistics, but also to many other scientific domains. As it cuts across a wide range of disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science and, of course, philosophy, it helps to straddle epistemological divides and to open new avenues of research. By the same token, any new discipline exclusively oriented to the examination of the social use of language would have to rest on the articulation of all the above. It was within this scope of concerns—aiming at the exploration of the structuring of the political facets of language—that the project of a Critical Linguistics first appeared in the late seventies, methodologically sustained by M. A. K. Halliday’s functional systemic linguistics21 and inspired in the work of J. R. Firth and of B. L. Whorf. In 1979, Roger Fowler, Gunther Kress, Robert Hodge and Tommy Trew published Language and Control, immediately followed that same year by Kress and Hodge’s Language as Ideology, and two years later by Fowler’s Literature as Social Discourse. Their basic assumption was grounded on the idea that, since language was such an important constitutive element of society, it was bound not only to voice its consciousness and its own “theory of reality,” but also to serve as a means of social control, that is, as an instrument of power in a world riven with conflicting class interests and social antagonisms of every sort22.


Chapter One

They believed that the grammatical characteristics of any given text betray, as it were, the ideological position of the speaker, since his lexical and syntactic choices usually reflect specific interests deriving from his social standing. Thus, what they set out to do was to detect ideological traces in the grammatical structure of the utterance and to determine how ideology actively takes part in our choices concerning the realization of the language, and affects several of its aspects, such as modality, tense, classification and so on. Although it is true that the critical linguists have been careful enough to circumvent a deterministic understanding of the relation between the social and the linguistic phenomena, it is no less true that their analyses have not quite stepped out of the realm of sheer language analysis. As a result, they have never succeeded in laying down in a methodical way the complex ways in which such relation is sustained. By the mid-eighties, researchers realized that the context of language use could no longer be left outside the range of analysis, since the production of meaning also depends on on-going social practices and on the existing social formations. The setting-up of this new “cross-discipline,” as it has been often called, resulted precisely from that shift of emphasis, whereby the study of the modes linguistic production gave way to the study of the modes of relation between context and text. This meant that the organization of the language above the sentence acquired a new relevance: larger linguistic units, such as conversational exchanges or whole written texts, were now considered to be not only the basic units of communication but also social practices interacting with other non-discursive practices—to use Foucault’s nomenclature23. This derived, after all, from an attempt to exhaust all the implications of Halliday’s notion that texts fulfil a multiplicity of functions (or, according to his terminology, metafunctions)—namely ideational, interpersonal, and textual—serving specific social purposes24. This discipline, known as Critical Discourse Analysis, eventually ended up assuming an overtly multidisciplinary nature, absorbing the latest developments in sociolinguistics, pragmatics, cognitive psychology, conversational analysis and narrative analysis. The multidisciplinary constitution of Critical Discourse Analysis, along with its methodological openness, would further induce a variety of approaches, all of which end up diverging in several important aspects. In an attempt to systematise this diversity, Fairclough and Wodak explain that those approaches differ in (1) the adoption or absence of a historical perspective; (2) the emphasis laid either on the reproduction or the creativity of practices; (3) the understanding of way the textual and the social are mediated, either by stressing sociocognitive processes or by

Discourse: The Intricacies of Defining an Elusive Concept


underlining the role of genres in given social practices; (4) the way in which the Hallidayan multifunctionality of texts is taken into account or overlooked; and (5) the implementation of a more hermeneutic or a more text-oriented type of interpretation25. Given such diversity, one may be led to ask if Critical Discourse Analysis does not lack consistency and if any attempt to bring all proposals together under one single roof is not just another way to disguise a given post-structuralist indefiniteness of the present state of social sciences, which has resulted in a fragmentation and atomization of perspectives of the linguistic phenomenon. However, it is unquestionable that they share a common critical paradigm primarily based on the dialectical relationship between language, ideology and society, and on the need to ascertain the effects of power in and through language. Besides, this apparent scattering of perspectives may also correspond to the fact that critical discourse analysts have been trying to dialogue and to reach a compromise with a significant number of works coming from several other areas of research in social and cultural studies, and which have been converging in the discussion of issues related to the links between language and society, and language and culture26. The breaking down of disciplinary barriers culminated by the late eighties in Hodge and Kress’s proposal for a project of social semiotics (1988), which later found expression in Kress and van Leeuwen’s Reading Images (1996), a work drawing on the multi-semiotic nature of contemporary texts and seeking to explain the relationship between text and image, particularly in terms of the way in which interactive participants (people communicating through images) try to make sense of pictorial representations in an institutional context. But despite the apparent novelty of purposes and the multifarious methods that fall under the designation of Critical Discourse Analysis, it still incorporates much of the basic assumptions of Critical Linguistics in such a way that we may legitimately ask ourselves if there is a definite paradigmatic break between them. Complicity between both projects has always existed, especially in regard to their defence of the ideological nature of discourses and the questioning of the arbitrariness of signs. Nonetheless, I think there is a pertinent distinction that should be drawn: Critical Linguistics, on the one hand, presents a more language-centred perspective; Critical Discourse Analysis, on the other, seeks to overcome some methodological limitations of Critical Linguistics by investing in a more multidisciplinary approach. That distinction is perfectly visible if we compare the excerpts drawn from Kress on the one hand, and from Fairclough and Wodak, on the other.


Chapter One

In the case of the former, linearity prevails: institutions and groups “have” meanings that language is in charge of articulating. He still regards discourse as an “expression” of the “values of an institution,” that is, as the linguistic materialization of the axiological cement of a given social body. This formulation may be misleading, for we might infer from it that values can have an existence prior to its linguistic articulation and therefore be generated independently of the language serving the social grouping to which they belong27. Although operating primarily at the level of psychological analysis, Lev Vygotsky, in his influential Thinking and Speaking (1934) had already called our attention to the fallacy of the “expression” thesis as propounded by Kress, when he argued that… [t]he structure of speech does not simply mirror the structure of thought; that is why words cannot be put on by thought like a ready-made garment. Thought undergoes many changes as it turns into speech. It does not merely find expression in speech; it finds its reality and form.28

In a way, Kress may still be voicing that which Vygotsky had denounced back then as the theory of associationism. Such theory, advocated by the old schools of psychology (in particular the Würzburg school), claimed that there was an associative bond between “word” and “meaning” (which, in Kress’s terms, could be translated into “discourse,” on the one hand, and “values” and “meanings,” on the other)—, that is, an association between the sound of a word and its content. Vygotsky was one of the first to realize the theoretical inconsistency of such assertion. If words were to be seen as “having” a meaning (the so-called “evidentness of meaning” Pêcheux exposes29), i.e. as calling to mind a given content, then one would have to admit that all connections have an identical character and that the “psychological nature” of the word and of its meaning could never change or evolve. The problem of immutability of word meanings bars the path towards a more comprehensive view of the way in which language becomes the structuring element of the mental processes. In Kress’s passage, we are before a similar paralogism: one is led to think that the “systematicallyorganized sets of statements”—if they are ever to be recognized by all members of a given community—remain valid as long as the meanings contained in them are unchangeable. However, this is to admit that institutions are stubbornly impervious to the transformational forces at work in society—a hardly defensible claim. Conversely, in Fairclough and Wodak’s passage the linearity of Kress’s arguments is disrupted and an important inflection occurs: discourse and social practices are seen to interact dialectically, co-

Discourse: The Intricacies of Defining an Elusive Concept


determining each other in manifold ways. This entails a more comprehensive understanding of the entire dialectical process and it is precisely that which confers the whole project its critical edge. By relativizing the position occupied by each intervening factor, and by establishing a dynamic relation between them in such a way so as to produce reciprocate effects, Critical Discourse Analysis changes the perspective: it ceases to be a question of “expression” of the institutions in order to become a question of “interconnectedness of things”30. This allows their critique to be extended to the conditions of possibility of the social. Though Fairclough does not acknowledge it explicitly, this interconnection of all processes can be traced back to the principles of historical materialism. However, the understanding of the use of language as advocated by the proponents of Critical Discourse Analysis is only apparently new, for Marxists had since long sensed the importance of language in the ideological framing of society. Despite the fact that all of these theorists claim to have a politically engaged perspective, they hardly ever delve into the Marxist origins of Critical Discourse Analysis—with the exception of some scant references to Gramsci or Bakhtin. Thus, my contention can be summed up the following way: if Critical Discourse Analysis is purportedly critical of the dominant discourses and abides by a specific political agenda—aiming at the arousal of the political consciousness of the public (which public they have in mind is yet another matter) by means of denouncing the way in which hegemonic relations are reproduced and perpetuated in and through language—, and if it integrates in its jargon terms like class, ideology and hegemony, is it not then clear that Marxism constitutes one of its major sources? And if so, why do most of theorists avoid explicit involvement with Marxism, especially when it comes to engaging in an in-depth discussion of such authors as Marx, Vološinov or Althusser? I will briefly look into three eloquent cases. A first example is drawn from one of the forerunners of Critical Discourse Analysis: Kress and Hodge’s Language and Ideology. As they state: [Language], typically, is immersed in the on-going life of a society, as the practical consciousness of that society. This consciousness is inevitably a partial and false consciousness. We can call it ideology, defining “ideology” as a systematic body of ideas, organized from a particular point of view. Ideology is thus a subsuming category which includes sciences and metaphysics, as well as political ideologies of various kinds, without implying anything about their status and reliability as guides to reality.31


Chapter One

Anyone familiar with The German Ideology will no doubt recognize Kress and Hodge’s source of inspiration. In due course I shall examine Marx and Engels’s work in greater detail and if one then cares to compare the passages I quote with the one above, my point will become clear. For the time being I shall simply retain expressions like “practical consciousness,” “false consciousness,” “metaphysics,” “sciences,” “reality,” all of which echo, faintly but still audibly enough, some of the most critical passages of The German Ideology. One should expect on the part of both linguists some sort of acknowledgement of the influence of the two German thinkers over their own theoretical premises. Nothing of the sort, though. The German Ideology is not included in their bibliography, despite the fact that we can find there one other title by the same authors, The Communist Manifesto. Marx’s Capital is also listed. But as we shall see, Capital advances the theory of commodity fetishism, which is substantially different from the concept of ideology expressed in the earlier work, and even that is not approached here. As for The Communist Manifesto, they quote the same sentence twice in separate chapters32, but do not go to great pains to contextualize it or to explore all its political implications. The problem is that not only do they fail to engage in a critical analysis of their source—which they completely omit anyway—but also recast complex philosophical ideas to suit an oversimplified concept of ideology. They start by not providing a conception of the social relations upon which society is based, which in turn could explain the conditions of existence of the “practical consciousness” they mention. Then, a series of questions arises: can we infer that language forcibly voices “a partial and false consciousness“? Does it mean that there is something opposed to that consciousness, that is, “a complete (or totalizing) true consciousness” to be expressed by an “untypical” (as opposed to “typical”) language? If sciences themselves are subsumed under ideology, as they claim, what is the position of the two linguists in relation to their own scientific enterprise? When they speak of “political ideologies of various kinds” are we to conclude that there may be some ideologies that are not political or do not have political consequences? If ideology is “a systematic body of ideas” then how are those ideas “systematized”? Besides, is ideology made up of “ideas” only? What originates that “particular point of view”? If we are to admit that not even science can be considered a “reliable” guide to reality, what can then? I could go on. The fact is that the disproportionate number of unanswered questions is sufficient to make us suspicious of the “reliability” of theoretical framework presented in a book so deeply committed to

Discourse: The Intricacies of Defining an Elusive Concept


exploring the relations between language and ideology. They vaguely appear to be Marxists, but only in terminology, not in critique. Now for the second case. Referring to western Marxism, Fairclough and Wodak, though accepting the relevance of its categories in the studies carried out within the scope of Critical Discourse Analysis, recognize that researchers have kept it at a certain wary distance. As they stated, “critical discourse analysts do not always explicitly place themselves within this legacy, but it frames their work nevertheless”33. One possible inference of this sentence would be that the absence of explicitness might correspond to an attempt to efface any references to that legacy; another inference is that, despite such effacement (or should I rather say precisely because of it?), their indebtedness remains visible. Indeed, the theoretical basis of Critical Discourse Analysis risks contradiction if it does not expose its own silences. Nevertheless, this attitude may be understood in the light of a certain economy of analytical procedures: all in all, Critical Discourse Analysis is not intended to be a revisitation of Marxism, nor has it been developed in the realm of pure philosophical speculation. Its target remains empirical and from this perspective it is pointless to chase after purely theoretical contributions that cannot be operationalized in the analysis of statements. The third example is more recent. Van Dijk is unquestionably amongst those who explicitly subscribe to this dismissal of the Marxist roots of the project. In his study on the relationship between discourse and ideology, for example, he rejects the intellectual investment Marxists have made in the latter concept. After all, they would compel him to take a tour de force in theoretical grounds that he has been trying to keep clear of. He himself concedes that Marxism is too philosophical for his scientific enterprise, and that it somehow misses the point when it comes to exploring the cognitive aspect of ideology. It must therefore be left out of his project: There is a vast literature [on ideology] in most of the humanities and the social sciences. This does not signify, however, that the nature of ideology – or its relations to discourse – is well understood. Whether Marxist, neoMarxist or other, the traditional approaches are mostly philosophical, either with little interest in detailed studies of text and talk and other ideological practices, or ignoring the important cognitive dimensions of ideology.34

How he arrives at his own concept of ideology without going through Marx and Althusser is yet another matter that requires careful dissection. As a matter of fact, the notion of ideology as social representation advocated by van Dijk had already been inaugurated by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, and if we further take into account Althusser’s


Chapter One

assertion of ideology as a representation of “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”35—a statement not without its cognitive implications—, we start wondering why van Dijk stakes his claim so emphatically to the novelty of his ideas. He also ignores Vološinov’s proposals on the ideological nature of the linguistic sign, when in fact the Russian linguist practically seemed to have exhausted all the consequences of the equation language-ideology. Besides, this explicit exclusion of Marxism from his conceptual construct is all the more difficult to explain since it contrasts with the affirmation that the whole Critical Discourse Analysis project is committed to a leftist programme and is politically conscious of the role it can play in the transformation of contemporary society36. Where does this rejection leave us? Should we simply accept it without further ado, considering the fact that an excessive importance given to theory constrains analysis? Or is it the expression of some kind of Oedipus Complex, whereby the father-figure of Marxism must be slaughtered in order to let the youngster grow out of his pubescence? Or should this not be regarded as just another moment in the genealogy of the discourses about discourse, which I mentioned earlier, an instance of a sort of continuous logomachy where words and their inherent concepts are disputed by conflicting actors, each trying to assert his own meanings by means of obliterating those of the others’, of silencing other discourses on the subject? Or, perhaps, is it just a manifestation of an attitude that Hölderlin had once brilliantly translated into epigrammatic words: “Wir sind nur Original, weil wir nichts wissen”37? Paul de Man sees this resistance to theory as “a resistance to the use of language about language.” He further explains that it is “a resistance to language itself or to the possibility that language contains factors or functions that cannot be reduced to intuition”38. Theory for de Man is a discourse about language; it is also an exploration of its own conditions of possibility as an edifice constructed in and through language. Although Critical Discourse Analysis is aware that there are “factors or functions that cannot be reduced to intuition” it is still unable to free itself from its own “intuitions,” from its own internal logic, and resists, therefore, to an analysis of the conditions of possibility of their own discourse. This tendency had already been denounced in the early seventies by another philosopher: Linguists and those who appeal to linguistics for various purposes often run up against difficulties which arise because they ignore the action of the ideological effects in all discourses—including even scientific discourses.39

Discourse: The Intricacies of Defining an Elusive Concept


Thus, the distancing of critical discourse analysts from Marxism may correspond to a strategy of positive self-presentation, which tries to shun the negative image that might result from an alignment with its theses during and after the period of debacle of the Soviet regime. But it may also be considered as just another demand of post-modernity, whereby any excessive engagement with a deeply rooted political cause becomes suspicious in the eyes of a commodified public opinion and deserves, therefore, a cautious approach. Regardless of the all the possible suppositions on this matter, I believe that what is primarily at stake here is an epistemological problem. Kress and Hodge’s witty remark in the opening lines of the preface to Language and Ideology suits the present case: “Disciplines, unlike cows, yield least when most contented”40. The same could be said of van Dijk’s attitude towards Marxism and the Marxists: if we suppress the constant challenge posed by philosophy to certain disciplines, we are left with a stifling self-sufficiency, where contented theories keep producing redundant statements of little or no import to the evolution of those disciplines. This phenomenon may be—making use of Althusser’s words once again—just another instance of the problem of reproduction of the relations of production—in this particular case, of production of scientific knowledge. As long as the analysis of statements confirms given epistemological premises (which is to say, as long as scientific knowledge is reproduced), it may look pointless to change tactics and to go after a far more complex and empirically less definable object of inquiry. But then, it becomes a cul-de-sac: there is no production of fresher knowledge. This is what Gaston Bachelard called in his Formation of the Scientific Mind (2001) the epistemological obstacle: a given discipline creates a set of representations that prevents it from correctly devising the problems it is supposed to tackle. A more conservative attitude can safeguard one’s own methodological edifice, but it can also have an undesirable sterilizing effect since it prevents the qualitative transformation of science. The risks of contemplating a decentring theory41 that keeps questioning assumptions and certainties may be incompatible with a scientific project, as that proposed by van Dijk, pursuing apparently coherent models of analysis (contextual or cognitive) accounting for a given architecture of social cognition ultimately materialized in discourse. Nonetheless, overlooking philosophy may be even more dangerous. Allow me to insist on Althusser: [T]here will be scientists who talk of a crisis in the sciences, and suddenly discover a surprising philosophical vocation – in which they see themselves as suddenly converted into philosophers,


Chapter One

although in fact they were always “practising” philosophy – in which they believe they are uttering revelations, although in fact they are merely repeating platitudes and anachronisms which come from what philosophy is obliged to regard as its history.42 Let us then regard its history.

Notes 1

Some examples of such appropriations are the Marxist philosophy of language, the post-Marxist social theory, Halliday’s systemic linguistics, Fairclough’s Critical Discourse Analysis, van Dijk’s cognitive model of political discourse, Ricoeur’s phenomenology and Pêcheux’s structuralist approach to language and ideology. 2 Eco, 2000: 9. 3 Bové, 1990: 54-6. 4 Fairclough, 2001: 16. 5 van Dijk, 1997: 3. 6 See Foucault, 2002: 226. 7 Discourse Analysis is an umbrella term generally used to refer to several academic disciplines, ranging from speech act theory and pragmatics to conversation analysis, narrative analysis, interactional sociolinguistics, the ethnography of communication, discursive psychology and Critical Discourse Analysis. For an overall view of these traditions, see Jaworski and Coupland, 1999: 14-35. 8 Benveniste, 1971 (1966): 110. 9 Idem: 209. 10 Foucault, 2002: 90. 11 Kress, 1985: 6. 12 Fairclough and Wodak, 1997: 259. 13 Vološinov, 1986: 78. 14 Idem: 79. 15 See Labov, 1972a, 1972b, 1975 and 1994; Trudgill, 1974. 16 Labov, 1972b: 354-396. 17 Idem: 3. 18 Idem: 297-353. 19 Foucault, 2002: 131. 20 Jaworski et al., 1999: 3. 21 Gunther Kress was well acquainted with Halliday’s proposals. In 1976, he published, as editor, Halliday: System and Function in Language (London, Oxford University Press). Also influential in that period was Halliday’s Language as Social Semiotic (London, Edward Arnold), first published in 1978. 22 Kress and Hodge, 1979: 6.

Discourse: The Intricacies of Defining an Elusive Concept


23 Foucault, 2002: 75. This distinction will be later rejected by Laclau and Mouffe (2001: 107), as we shall see. 24 These metafunctions are the basic concepts of Halliday’s theory. In his An Introduction to Functional Grammar (1985, 1994), as he deconstructed the concept of Subject used in the traditional grammatical analysis of the clause, he came up with three distinctive functions, corresponding to different lines of meaning of the clause and which contribute to configure its overall meaning. These roles may be conflated or not, according to each case. He distinguished the psychological Subject or Theme; the grammatical Subject or Subject; and the logical Subject or Actor. The first one (Theme) is the starting point of the message and for it the speaker chooses the element on which the whole message will be based. The Subject, on the other hand, is an element placed in the clause in order to secure its transactional status, as an exchange between speaker and listener. Since it is on the Subject that the whole predication rests, it is this element that ultimately validates the statements of the speaker. Finally, the Actor, being portrayed as the active participant of that experience, reveals that the meaning of the message is also founded on a set of representations of human experience (1994: 34). By distinguishing these three roles, Halliday shows that meaning does not simply rest in a one-dimensional perspective of the structure. These ideas would be further developed and referred to as the textual (semiotic reality), the interpersonal (social reality) and the ideational (physical or mental reality) metafunctions, respectively. The resources conferring coherence and cohesion to the text, thus allowing the interpersonal and ideational information to be introduced in it, make up the textual metafunction. The second one is concerned with the way social relationships are linguistically deployed, and how the attitudes and evaluations of speakers come to affect the communicative intercourse. Finally, the ideational metafunction has to do with the means by which the speaker represents and interprets reality, construes his/her experience, makes generalizations or establishes relations. Systemic functional linguistics has was devised to account for the use of language, how it comes to serve human needs and how the system has been “shaped” to respond to them (Halliday, 1994: xiii). Therefore, meaning and text are two of Halliday’s major concerns: meaning is seen as something that is constructed rather than expressed; the text is regarded as the basic unit in the process of meaning exchange, which is entirely dependent on the social context. In other words, texts are not only seen to realize social practices, but they are also the realization of the social construction of meaning. This theoretical standpoint is more than relevant to Critical Discourse Analysis: its detachment from a purely structural approach and its insistence on the need to describe language as a resource for meaning and not as a system of rules or as a set of constraints (Halliday and Martin, 1993: 22) has provided some discourse theorists with the descriptive tools and the analytical instruments to explain the relationship between the textual and the social. 25 Fairclough and Wodak, 1997: 262. 26 See Kress, 1997: 51. 27 This is not to be understood as a criticism to the later work of Gunther Kress. In fact, his more recent writings reveal that, contrarily to Roger Fowler, he has


Chapter One

invested heavily in the exploration of the dialectical relationship between discourse and social practices (see, e.g., Kress, 1996). 28 Vološinov, 1986: 219; my italics. 29 Pêcheux, 1982: 105. 30 Fairclough, 1985: 747, quoted in Wodak, 2001: 2. 31 Kress and Hodge, 1979: 6. 32 Idem: 65, 122. 33 Fairclough and Wodak, 1997: 260; my italics. 34 van Dijk, 1997: 25. 35 Marx and Engels, 1977: 153. 36 van Dijk, 1986: 4; Kress, 1990: 85; Fairclough, 2001 (1989):1-2, 4. 37 “We are original only because we know nothing.” Quoted in Steiner, 2004. 38 de Man, 1988: 364. 39 Althusser, 1971: 161n. 40 Kress and Hodge, 1979: 1. 41 This is how Foucault classified Marx’s thought in the context of the nineteenth-century history of ideas. 42 Althusser, 1977: 30.


Although it is not my intention to drift from the main topic of discussion, I feel I should examine, though briefly, the problem of the origins of statements as produced inside of given discursive formations1, in this particular case, of statements on discourse and ideology. In other words, I am concerned with that which defines the crossing of a given epistemological threshold, establishing new objects of study and giving rise to new methodological procedures. This question had already been tackled by Foucault, who distinguished four different forms of emergence of a discursive formation: (1) the threshold of positivity, when a system for the formation of statements is brought into being, achieving individuality and autonomy; (2) the threshold of epistemologization, marking the moment when a group of statements is said to validate “norms of verification and coherence” and to exert control over knowledge; (3) the threshold of scientificity, where statements reveal given “archaeological rules of formation” and “laws for the construction of propositions” and; (4) the threshold of formalization, characterized by the moment when a scientific discourse starts laying down its own axioms, defining its own propositional structures and considering its possible transformations, that is, “taking itself as a startingpoint, to deploy the formal edifice that it constitutes”2. Despite an apparent stratification or serialization underlying his proposal, Foucault was cautious enough to avoid the adoption of a linear conception of the evolution of these formations. As he demonstrated, not only is it impossible to impose a single chronological order on these thresholds (they may even overlap), as it is wrong to assume that every scientific discipline has been able to cross all of them. For example, in his brief analysis of the evolution of economics, Foucault came across with more moments of rupture and sudden mutation than of transition or continuity. As he explained, an earlier moment of


Chapter Two

positivity coincided with the practice and theory of mercantilism in the seventeenth-century, but its epistemologization only took place by the turn of the century in the hands of theorists like John Locke and Richard Cantillon. In turn, the mercantilist positivity ended up discarded in the nineteenth century by Ricardo, who inaugurated a new kind of positivity and epistemologization, which was to be later modified by Antoine A. Cournot and William Stanley Jevons. At the same time, however, Marx’s project of political economy, based on a thorough critique of the principles of classical economics, gave birth to an entirely different discursive practice, which enabled him to cross the threshold of formalization. One other example testifying to the same type of discontinuities, dispersions and interdependences can be found in the emergence of modern linguistics. One has only to read Saussure’s opening chapter of his Introduction to the Course in General Linguistics 3 to learn about the several emerging positivities (eighteenth-century philology or early nineteenth-century etymology, for instance) and the attempts at epistemologization (nineteenth-century comparative grammar) that occurred before historical linguistics finally established the “archaeological rules of formation” and “laws for the construction of propositions.” It was on the latter that Saussure finally laid down the axioms and defined the propositional structures that characterize modern linguistics. Therefore, Foucault’s preoccupations were not confined to distinguishing the different emergences of scientific discursive formations. He was also concerned with undoing the idea that science grows as a “linear accumulation of truths” or as “the orthogenesis of reason.” What he was trying to prove here was that scientific disciplines do not all share a uniform pattern of evolution: foundational gestures are never easily identifiable and the rules of constitution of objects, along with the conditions and methods of analysis, keep changing in course of time. A “traditional analysis,” as Foucault called it4, may be content with (1) establishing a causal succession between disparate events, (2) drawing the lines of continuity that confer cohesion to a given understanding of historical change, or (3) finding an overarching meaning that renders a series of random phenomena intelligible. Instead of embracing this approach, the French theorist intended to inaugurate a “new history” free from the theoretical premises of the philosophy of history and from the old arguments that have sustained certain teleological or rationalistic views of historical development. His goal was to overcome the limitations inherent in the principle of causality as it has been applied to the discussion of the origins of discursive formations. In fact, trying to establish what cause necessarily led to a

The Problem of the Origins or the Origins of the Problem


given effect—or set of effects—is something that makes sense in the realm of physics or biology, especially as far as the establishment of universal laws is concerned. When talking about the origins of a given scientific discipline in social or human sciences, however, even if the effects can be identified as such (yet another challenge), they sometimes tend to obliterate the causes (if causes they are) or elude our perception of them. In the case of Marxism, for example, a general question one is bound to ask is whether the social phenomena of nineteenth-century Europe (“cause”) induced Marx to reflect on the capitalist system, thus setting the ground for a systematic critique of social representations (based on concepts such as ideology, commodity fetishism and alienation) (“effect”); or if it was Marx’s thought (“cause”) that helped shape our own representation of nineteenth-century industrialized society (“effect”), thus making us realize the social and ideological conditions under which (or rather against which) he developed his ideas. The importance that the “traditional analysis” Foucault spoke of has always attached to causality and to determinism must no doubt be made relative, but in the study of the origins of scientific discursive formations the principle itself cannot be entirely dismissed. It is linked to the question of the agency of the epistemological subject, which is a problem Foucault did not attempt to tackle, but that phenomenology has been trying to solve since long. Is the agent actually endowed with freedom of choice and therefore responsible, in the last instance, for the outcome of his research? Or is that outcome to be attributed only to the causal succession of the system under survey? Paul Ricoeur, for one, feels more inclined to endorse the first hypothesis. He argues that determinism is but an illusion: in order to isolate a system where one specific cause generates one single effect there must be an initial action, ultimately the expression of power and/or freedom of an agent engaged in a scientific enterprise. When representing causality one should always consider that prior to the occurrence of any verifiable set of events there was a free agent who triggered the succession of events and/or observed them5. But this is to fall into three fallacies. Firstly, the subject of knowledge lives in a sort of limbo or weightless environment. Secondly, he takes his actions regardless of his own conditions of existence. Thirdly, he is determined by nothing but his will. Allow me to rephrase my objections. Can the social scientist be left out of (or act independently of) the system he is trying to describe? Or is he, as subject, entirely detached from the social, ideological and, more specifically, discursive formations inside which, or according to which, he conducts his research? Or is this just a residue of Ricoeur’s hermeneutical


Chapter Two

inclinations, according to which the exegete is the final authority sanctioning all meanings? These are questions of context that Ricoeur leaves out of his phenomenological enquiries. In the discussion around the origins of discursive formations on discourse and on ideology, one final difficulty one is bound to come across with—which is still related the question of causality—has to do with the moment of genesis of categories and of objects. Is it possible to pinpoint the exact instant when the object became visible? Or who was the first one to devise it? Or how were its rules of objectivity and its parameters of analysis established? Or under what circumstances (philosophical, ideological, scientific) was the problem able to detach itself from the amalgam of commonsensical perceptions and representations of reality, and reveal itself as a separate issue demanding its own attention, that is, as a valid object of inquiry? The problem of the origins is thus the origin of the problem too. In other words, the attempt to establish the point of departure of a scientific discipline will always imply questioning the nature of the object of study, as we must deconstruct the process by which it has emerged, and dig out the terms in which it has been conceptually devised and theoretically anchored6. But under what conditions can this be done? And what kind of discourse will allow us to legitimately penetrate the meanderings of a given scientific enterprise without putting at risk its own validity as a discipline? Terry Eagleton was moved by this type of concerns when he wrote that “[the] thesis that objects are entirely internal to the discourses which constitute them raises the thorny problem of how we could ever judge that a discourse had constructed its object validly”7. It was precisely in response to this “thorny problem” that Althusser called for a theory that could account for the history of theoretical formations. In Pour Marx (1965), he admitted that it is the set of problems put forward by a certain theoretical formation that allows it to constitute its own object of study. In discussing the question “as to whether or not there was an epistemological break in Marx’s intellectual development indicating the emergence of a new conception of philosophy—and the related question of the precise location of this break,” he would state: Without a theory of the history of theoretical formations it would be impossible to grasp and indicate the specific difference that distinguishes two different theoretical formations. I thought it possible to borrow for this purpose the concept of a “problematic” from Jacques Martin to designate the particular unity of a theoretical formation and hence the location to be assigned to this specific difference, and the concept of an “epistemological

The Problem of the Origins or the Origins of the Problem


break” from Gaston Bachelard to designate the mutation in the theoretical problematic contemporary with the foundation of a scientific discipline. That one of these concepts had to be constructed and the other borrowed does not imply at all that either is arbitrary or foreign to Marx, on the contrary, it can be shown that both are present and active in Marx’s scientific thought, even if this presence is most often in the practical state.8

The perception of the conditions that enable the establishment of a given order of scientific discourse9—turning floating signifiers into relatively stable concepts, fixating meanings that become critical for any exchange of scientific ideas—is, thus, a proviso for any epistemological project. The term ideology, for example, existed long before Marx and Engels appropriated it to attack the Young Hegelians. Destutt de Tracy’s rationalist project of a treaty on the origin of ideas was born during the Reign of Terror in France and might be regarded as a reaction against the irrational politics of the period, the last cry of the Enlightenment for a scientific understanding not just of society, but also of the psycho-sociological bases of human behaviour. But the term would fall victim to its own project when an authoritarian Napoleon later accused the liberal idéologues of overlooking reality with their enlightened ideals of a society ruled by Reason. It would be up to Marx and Engels to define its instrumental value in the critique of philosophy and of capitalist society. From that moment on, the term was appropriated by many other authors—Lukács, Mannheim, Goldmann, Althusser, Poulantzas, Rancière, Williams, Habermas, for example—who positioned themselves critically in relation to this later development. The founding moment of the fixation of its meaning is also the moment when the term becomes relevant to a whole community of intellectuals— that is, when it becomes shared, disputed or simply dismissed by other discourses. It is precisely this dispute that prevents its absolute fixity. Laclau and Mouffe refer to concepts in dispute as nodal points. This idea derives from Lacan’s points de capiton10, that is, “privileged signifiers that fix the meaning of a signifying chain”11. In any discourse there is a tendency to establish a centre, to suppress diverging meanings and to bring the flow of differences to a halt. Nodal points are partial fixations of meaning of fundamental importance in the semantic stability of the discursive event. It is at their modes of constitution that we should be looking when deconstructing the discourses about discourse. They allow scientific discourses to find their own hub, to generate, among themselves, a unity that may be confused with the existence of a single definable object, when in fact that object is but a discursive effect.


Chapter Two

Foucault had already sensed this when, while trying to set up a taxonomy to regroup different statements, he stated: The unity of discourses on madness would not be based upon the existence of the object “madness,” or the constitution of a single horizon of objectivity; it would be the interplay of the rules that make possible the appearance of objects during a given period of time: objects are shaped by measures of discrimination and repression, objects that are differentiated in daily practice, in law, in religious casuistry, in medical diagnosis, objects that are manifested in pathological descriptions, objects that are circumscribed by medical codes, practices, treatment, and care. Moreover, the unity of the discourse on madness would be the interplay of the rules that define the transformations of these different objects, their non-identity through time, the break produced in them, the internal discontinuity that suspends their permanence. Paradoxically, to define a group of statements in terms of its individuality would be to define the dispersion of these objects, to that reign between them – in other words, to formulate their law of division.12

It is not only a matter of questioning how academic disciplines shape and are shaped by the objects of study they have elected as their own. It is also a matter of understanding (1) what rules have been applied to group and to divide statements, (2) what procedures allow us to sanction certain discourses (by labelling them as scientific, legal, or religious) and to condemn others (by dismissing them as erroneous, unlawful, or heretic), and (3) how a given set of laws regulating discursive practices comes into being and is enforced within a certain social formation. Thus, although discourses on language and on ideology may have emerged in such a way so as to make us believe that these two concepts are separate objects of study, one should not derive from this that they must be dealt as totally distinct issues. In fact, if we go back and take into account the philosophical legacy that Marx and Engels bequeathed us in The German Ideology, language and ideology are so intimately linked that it becomes difficult for us to extricate them without a thorough discussion of each category. Besides, any attempt to set clear conceptual or paradigmatic boundaries between language and ideology risks questioning the holistic perspective on the human that has always characterized the Marxist tradition. The articulation of language and ideology poses a further challenge to the social scientist, as implied in the proposals of Critical Discourse Analysis: if the study of the social use of language is to reveal the contours of ideology, it is also true that ideology is embedded in the scientific discourse on ideology. How to escape this sort of epistemological

The Problem of the Origins or the Origins of the Problem


Uroboros? The problem compels us to revisit the origins of these concepts and of the disciplines associated with them, because it is precisely there where unsuspected links can be detected and where we can avoid a certain distortion operated by the historical accumulation of discourses on the scientificity of such disciplines.

Notes 1

Foucault defines discursive formation as “the principle of dispersion and redistribution, not of formulations, not of sentences, not of propositions but of statements” (Foucault, 2002: 121). He further argues that they are characterized “not by principles of construction but by a dispersion of fact, since for statements it is not a condition of possibility but a law of coexistence, and since statements are not interchangeable elements but groups characterized by their modality of existence” (Idem: 131). In his Language, Semantics and Ideology (1982), Pêcheux takes up the term and reconceptualizes it as a set of principles regulating the production of utterances from a given social position: it is therefore responsible for the establishment of semantic frameworks that define the meanings of the words used in those utterances. Discursive formations are implanted within wider ideological formations, which also include non-discursive practices. This point will be resumed later. For the time being, I will abide by Foucault’s definition. 2 Foucault, 2002: 205-206. 3 Saussure, 1983 (1906-1911): 1-5. 4 Foucault, 2002: 4. 5 Ricoeur, 1988: 112; 124. 6 For example, on the concept of culture and on how has become “an abstraction in itself” see Eagleton, 2000. 7 Eagleton, 1991: 205. 8 Althusser, 1969: 32. 9 Order of discourse is a concept already explored by Foucault (1971) and Fairclough (1995; 2001). The latter defines it as “the way in which diverse genres and discourses are networked together. An order of discourse is a social structuring of semiotic difference – a particular social ordering of relationships amongst different ways of making meaning that is different discourses and genres” (2001: 124). In the present case, I adopt the term to refer to the modes science constructs its own meanings within a given community, by setting its own terminology and norms of validity, by electing particular discursive events and by dismissing others as invalid, inaccurate or false, when in fact they may be marginal or oppositional. 10 Lacan sees desire as one of those points, linking the pulsation of the unconscious to sexual reality (1994: 154). 11 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001 (1985): 112. 12 Foucault, 2002: 36.


We will now consider two major intellectual traditions that I believe have crossed the so-called “threshold of formalization”, not only because they both share a critical perspective on the historical evolution of their disciplines and try to question the adequacy of their models to the conditions of existence of their objects, but also because they have succeeded in laying down their own axiomatic framework. I am referring to Saussure’s linguistics and Marxist philosophy of language. Let us look into modern linguistics, for the moment. Ferdinand de Saussure intended this apparently autonomous science to represent a discontinuity (which does not forcibly mean a total rupture) with philology, comparative grammar and historical linguistics. His objectivistic standpoint, in tune with some of the proposals of that period in other human and social sciences, in particular with Théodule Ribot’s psychology and Durkheim’s sociology, allowed him to cast a new light on the concept of language. Given the tendency of both philologists and historical linguists to confine themselves to specific historical periods and to privilege certain dead languages, Saussure realized that the study of language, as it had been carried out until then, was reduced to a purely documental perspective. He argued that the written, crystallized, and in some cases ritualized form constituted only one particular aspect of language use and was far from being representative of the language as a whole. Therefore, Saussure felt the need to redefine the subject matter of linguistics and to set forth new tasks. Instead of confining oneself to the comparison of languages, he believed one should try to derive universal laws from the study of all known languages. He also maintained that linguists should avoid the philologists’ tendency to privilege written texts. They should rather focus their attention on that which he considered to be the true object of study of linguistics, namely the spoken language and its popular forms. Though he might be unaware of it, Saussure was indeed

Parodying Saussure or “Who’s Afraid of Valentin Vološinov?”


making a political statement here, in a sense similar to that of Wordsworth’s in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads: one should listen to the voice of the people, that “language really spoken by men”1, instead of paying exclusive attention to allegedly higher forms of linguistic realization2. It would be this anti-elitist standing, this return to the popular bases of language, this perception of language as a living instrument of communication and social interaction that Bakhtin would come to explore in his theses regarding the polyphonic and dialogical nature of language. However, Saussure ended up erecting three major obstacles on the path towards a more exhaustive study of the social use of language. The first was imposed by his Cartesian outlook: although he was interested in widening the scope of analysis of linguistics so as to comprehend all kinds of manifestations of language, he avoided tackling the creative facet of individual performance. Saussure’s attitude can be easily understood: after all, that particular aspect of language was something that could be reduced neither to formulae nor to universal laws. However, I think the creative dimension cannot be excluded from analysis, for it is here, in the ill-defined areas of imagination, not yet grasped by abstractions or classifications of any sort, that language use may prove to be richer than any models imposed by a rationalist agenda. Besides, by distinguishing langue (language as a system of forms) from parole (the individual speech act or utterance), Saussure was also trying to separate the social from the individual, or, in his own words, “what is essential from what is ancillary and more or less accidental”3. If language pertains to the realm of the essences, does it mean then that the utterance, as an arbitrary individual phenomenon, is a less reliable object of study? Or is the individual such an inscrutable sphere that any attempt to analyse the speech he produces, as a subject, is condemned from the start? The fact is that his system-centred perspective was also to affect the status of the text in twentieth-century linguistics, as Halliday rightfully noted in his Introduction: for Saussure, the only purpose the text (written or oral) served was to endorse the system—a position which prevented the concept of text from becoming, for decades, the cornerstone of a linguistic model centred on the social construction of meaning4. The second obstacle resided in the primacy the Swiss linguist gave to psychology in the explanation of linguistic processes. He maintained that the system of signs that constitutes language was lodged in the brain: despite the need for collective ratification, signs had, first and foremost, a psychological existence5. Such insistence on the role of psychology in his explanation of linguistic phenomena is to be understood in the light of the expectations generated by the latest developments in this discipline by the


Chapter Three

end of the nineteenth century6. Saussure, keen as he was on proclaiming the autonomy of linguistics, was careful enough to demarcate it from psychology. Nevertheless, he would always insist that the former discipline depended on the latter. And when he proposed a new science of signs, semiology—of which linguistics was regarded as a branch—, he also argued that it was but “a part of social psychology and hence of general psychology”7. His views on the psychological nature of the sign no doubt paved the way for important developments in the fields of psycholinguistics and, later, of cognitive linguistics. Those views, however, may have also weakened the theoretical bases for a more comprehensive and more critical view of the truly social dimension of the sign. As a matter of fact, from a Marxist perspective, the brain is far from being the seat of signs. Vološinov is peremptory when he claims that “a sign is a phenomenon of the external world,” explaining that “[b]oth the sign itself and all the effects it produces (all those actions, reactions, and new signs it elicits in the surrounding milieu) occur in outer experience”8. Thus, the study of signs, as the Russian linguist states, must outgrow any purely psychological approach. Anticipating Lacan, he says that “the reality of the inner psyche is the same reality as that of the sign.” But then he argues that “by its very existential nature, the subjective psyche is to be localized somewhere between the organism and the outside world, on the borderline separating these two spheres of reality”9. The Marxist linguist refutes not only the notion that the subjective psyche is solely located in the brain, but also the idea that signs originate in it: signs are continuously ebbing and flowing between the individual and the social but it is in the outer, concrete world where they materialise. Thus, for Vološinov the study of signs should not be based on objective psychology but rather vice-versa. I shall come back to this point. This is not to claim that Saussure failed to regard language as a social institution. On the contrary: he asserted that language was a “social product.” Every individual reproduces in his speech concepts shared by the entire community: All the individuals linguistically linked in this manner will establish among themselves a kind of mean; all of them will reproduce—doubtless not exactly, but approximately—the same signs linked to the same concepts. 10

In this well-known passage of his Course, the Swiss linguist seemed to envisage the variability of language when he spoke of the approximate reproduction of the links between signs and concepts. However, the way in which the adverb “approximately” is produced here is a sign of the

Parodying Saussure or “Who’s Afraid of Valentin Vološinov?”


importance he attached to variation in language: it is bracketed, revealing the parenthetical, or, if you prefer, peripheral status of this issue in his linguistic model. According to Saussure, although all signs required collective ratification, language was in a sense to be understood as something more than a contract established among members of a given community, since it offered “the most striking proof” that “the rules a community accepts are imposed upon it and not freely agreed to”11. “Imposition” here implies, of course, that room for variation was restricted. The problem is that his oversimplified notion of community precluded the possibility of considering the complexities of the social and their incidence on the construction of meanings12. Such reductionism constituted the third obstacle. The fact is that the conception of language as a “social product” cannot overlook the highly complex and contingent nature of society. The construction of meaning does not rely entirely on psychological processes—it also hinges on social circumstances. In this particular, Saussure failed to explore the many different ways in which signs are generated and sanctioned in society. True, he went as far as admitting that “a language has connections with institutions of every sort: church, school, etc.” (that which Althusser would later call “Ideological State Apparatuses”). Regrettably, the Swiss scholar was not particularly committed to understanding the nature of those connections, although he acknowledged the fact that such an institutional perspective of language raised fundamental political issues. As he stated quite rightfully, “[t]hese institutions are intimately bound up with the literary development of a language.” And he added that “[t]his is a phenomenon of general importance, since it is inseparable from political history”13. But then, suddenly, as if daunted by the immensity of the field of study he had just uncovered, he shirked the responsibility of exploring it, claiming that “it is not true to say that without taking such phenomena into account we cannot come to terms with the internal structure of the language itself”14. And so Saussure set politics aside, as if it were something that hovered over language without ever penetrating or shaping it. Nonetheless, since language determines all social phenomena, its study must necessarily take into account the social dimension. As Louis-Jean Calvet points out, “l’idée de langue comme fait social devrait nous arrêter quelque temps et nous permettre d’entamer un débat sur les fonctions du langage (et, en particulier, la fonction communicative) du point de vue social”15—a debate into which Saussure hardly ventured. Vološinov’s critique of Saussure is a good starting point to resume that debate. Before


Chapter Three

expounding it in greater detail, allow me just a few introductory words about the intellectual atmosphere in which the Russian author developed his work and the controversy surrounding his figure. As John Parrington (1997) argues, post-revolutionary Russia in the twenties, freed from the routines and dogmas of the academy, was a fertile ground for the scientific examination of the material basis of consciousness. Established scientific paradigms in the fields of psychology and linguistics ended up questioned, reassessed and eventually reformulated. More than the necessity to purge all science from the prejudice and bigotry allegedly induced by bourgeois ideology in scientific knowledge, what drove social scientists in that period was the desire to systematize those ideas that Marx and Engels had previously sketched out in their survey of the social dimension of the human consciousness. Soviet intellectuals sought to explore a whole world of problems and puzzling questions left open by the writings of the two German philosophers, which forced them to confront the mainstream science of those days. However, neither Marx nor offered ready-made answers to the social scientists of this period. Rather than simply trying to find immediate solutions in Marx’s philosophy, they believed they should strive to extract from it the methodological tools for their research. Lev Vygotsky set the tone: “Immediate application of the theory of dialectical materialism to the problems of science, and particularly to biology and psychology, is impossible, as it is impossible to apply it instantly to history and sociology”16. It was important not to make the mistake of merely reproducing ideas while disregarding the complexity and the specificity of the issues involved. As Vygotsky argued: I don’t want to discover the nature of mind by patching together a lot of quotations. I want to find out how science has to be built, to approach the study of mind having learned the whole of Marx’s method. […] In order to create such an enabling theory-method in the generally accepted scientific manner, it is necessary to discover the essence of the given area of phenomena, the laws according to which they change, their qualitative and quantitative characteristics, their causes. It is necessary to formulate the categories and concepts that are specifically relevant to them—in other words, to create one’s own Capital.17

This excerpt is paradigmatic of the attitude of many other contemporary intellectuals, including, of course, Vološinov. In the opening lines of his Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1986 (1929)), he unambiguously

Parodying Saussure or “Who’s Afraid of Valentin Vološinov?”


viewed himself as an heir of Marx’s method, claiming that such method “bears directly upon” the problems of the philosophy of language. He also added that “the very foundations of a Marxist theory of ideologies—the bases for the studies of scientific knowledge, literature, religion, ethics, and so forth—are closely bound up with problems of the philosophy of language”18. So, when Trevor Pateman stated that “[t]he occasional references to ‘class’ and ‘dialectics’ don’t disguise or alter the fact that Vološinov’s book assumes and defends a general sociology, indifferent to the specific tendencies of Marxism”19, one could hardly help smirking at what one might consider to be just another attempt to blot out the centrality of Marx’s discourse in the theories of the Russian thinker. I ascribe this attitude to that wave of anti-communist euphoria that characterized the late eighties (perhaps, before proceeding any further, we should ask “who’s (still) afraid of Valentin Vološinov?” or, to be a bit more provocative, “who is not yet afraid of him?”). To argue that his work “defends a general sociology” which remains “indifferent to the specific tendencies of Marxism“ is to misconstrue his whole edifice, mainly because Vološinov voices, like it or not, a “specific tendency of Marxism.” And to argue that there are only “occasional references” to dialectics in Vološinov is to miss the whole point of his theory, since dialectics is deeply ingrained in his own line of reasoning. It would otherwise be impossible to understand how he conceptualized the “productive role and social nature of the utterance,” and how he tried to resolve the most fundamental problem of the philosophy of language, namely, “the actual mode of existence of linguistic phenomena.” And this he did resorting precisely to the tools provided by a dialectical approach20. Pateman, nonetheless, was not a voice in the desert. A few years earlier, in 1984, K. Clark and M. Holquist published what was then the only general history of the Bakhtin circle, where they endorsed V. Ivanov’s thesis that the real author of Marxist Philosophy of Language and of Freudianism: A Marxist Critique (1927) was Bakhtin himself 21—still a matter of speculation nowadays, as Bakhtin himself remained silent about it. What is striking about Clark and Holquist’s account is their adoption of that uncompromising anti-Marxist tone typical of the Reagan years. They maintained, for example, that Bakhtin/Vološinov’s works were tempered with Marxist terminology with the purposes of pleasing Soviet censors and of avoiding the risk of incurring the hostility of Stalin’s henchmen. That might have been the case if Marxist Philosophy of Language and Freudianism had been written later in the thirties, when Stalinist repression left no room for political compromise or intellectual freedom. Even so, given the nature and extent of the


Chapter Three

persecutions of the period, I fail to understand how far the inclusion of Marx’s name in one’s work could have made a difference. Moreover, Clark and Holquist’s claims clash with the theoretical consistency of Vološinov’s texts and totally disregard the historical circumstances in which the Russian linguist developed his theses. Intellectually, Clark and Holquist’s positions could not be more misleading and theoretically sterilizing. Marx’s dialectics does not hang from Vološinov’s argumentation as an artificially imposed appendage. Neither does Vološinov parody—to put it in Bakhtinian terms—Marx’s style and content to the point of sarcasm. And it is no less true that Vološinov does not lend any sort of second-hand voice to Marx, as in some vacuous reproduction bereft of critical spirit or creative power. In fact, he admitted he had to face more doubts than certainties about Marxism—doubts he would have to struggle with in his attempt to delineate the “basic directions” and the “methodological guidelines” in Marxist thinking about language, given the absence of “conclusive and commonly accepted definitions as to the specific nature of the reality of ideological phenomena”22. So, in many respects, Marxist Philosophy of Language would have to be—just like Vygotsky’s Thought and Language—a path-breaking work, a journey across uncharted territory. With this work he sought to meet two challenges. On the one hand, he tried to demystify what he called the “predialectical mechanistic materialism” and the “unsurmounted positivist conception of empirical data” that stubbornly continued to be “entrenched in all those fields of knowledge untouched, or only perfunctorily touched upon, by the hands of Marxism’s founders—Marx and Engels”,23. On the other hand, he tried to place the discussion of the problems of the philosophy of language at the core of Marxist thinking. I made this brief detour only to explain exactly where Vološinov stood when he addressed Saussure’s proposals. His critique of the Swiss linguist derived from the need to interpellate the existing “trends of thought” in the philosophy of language and in linguistics, before delving into the nature of verbal interaction and of meaning. In his survey, he identified two major conflicting trends. The first one—which had its origins in the thinking of Wilhelm von Humboldt and was later developed by W. Wundt, K. Vossler and Benedetto Croce—was what he termed individualistic subjectivism. Vološinov argued that what characterized this trend—whose romanticist overtones can hardly be disguised—was its stress on language as an “activity, an unceasing process of creation (energeia) realized in individual speech acts.” They believed that the study of creativity in

Parodying Saussure or “Who’s Afraid of Valentin Vološinov?”


language, which was regarded as “meaningful creativity, analogous to creative art,” was far more important than the study of language as a “stable system.” Indeed, the notions of “system” and “grammar” remained somehow peripheral to their theories. If they ever spoke of language as a “system,” then they were certainly referring to “the inert crust, the hardened lava of language creativity,” whose only purpose was “the practical teaching of the language as a ready-made instrument”24. Vološinov acknowledged that this trend might lead to the empiricist psychologism of Wundt, which he rejected. The Vossler school, however, by playing down linguistic positivism, by privileging style over grammar and by stressing the “meaningful ideological factor” in its analysis of the linguistic phenomena proved to be more acceptable to Vološinov. It is interesting to note that, in an article written many years later, Bakhtin resumed the same tenets when discussing the issue of applying stylistic analysis in the teaching of Russian in secondary school25. Bakhtin insisted on the need to teach students how to use language creatively by means of a close examination of the syntactic structure of certain excerpts taken from literary texts—he was particularly interested in the expressive power of paratactic sentences—, which might help them to avoid the excesses of scholasticism (defined as “ready-made,” or “depersonalized, clichéd, bookish” language26). His main purpose was to bring them closer to “the living, creative language of the people” and to make them confident about the development of a style of their own, by means of the exploration of “their own individual intonation” and expressiveness27. It is as if Bakhtin was trying to put to practice in the classroom Vossler’s belief in the precedence of style over grammar, of creativity over the system. As Vossler argued, “[l]inguistic thought is essentially poetic thought; linguistic truth is artistic truth, is meaningful beauty”28. Nonetheless, Vološinov raised some objections to this trend, the most important of which being the way in which it conceived the category of expression, under which the category of utterance was subsumed. If by expression Vossler and his followers meant the “outward objectification” of something residing inside the individual psyche—the “expressible”—, then “the understanding, interpretation, and explanation of an ideological phenomenon […] must also be directed inward; it must traverse a route the reverse of that for expression”29. In other words, the inner element (the original source of every speech act) was thought to precede the outer element, the latter resulting from a process of materialization of the former. In the course of that process, the inner element was believed to lose some of its genuine characteristics due to the existence of outer constraints deforming or limiting it. Any interpretative exercise would


Chapter Three

then imply the attempt to reconstruct, as it were, the inner element by correcting the distortions it was subject to in the process of expression. Now, for Vološinov this was a theory he could not entirely endorse for two major reasons. Firstly, it contained the “provision for radical negation of expression.” If the “purity” of the inner element was what really mattered, then interpretation would have to find strategies to offset the effects of expression. Secondly, the outer element (the material sign) played little more than a passive role, lending itself to being manipulated by the inner element but never succeeding in accurately reproducing it. In reply, Vološinov dismissed the divide between inner and outer world as an artificial one, arguing that experience does not exist without signs, which ultimately embody and organize it. He thus reversed Vossler’s logic: “It is not experience that organizes expression, but the other way around—expression organizes experience. Expression is what first gives experience its form and specificity of direction”30. This formulation has two theoretical consequences: (1) both the “expressible” and its “outward objectification” are not different realities but two sides of the same coin; (2) the “organizing and formative centre of experience”—as he calls it—is located outside the psyche and not inside it. This means that the individual consciousness does not structure itself on the basis of elements generated in the inner world, but on the basis of the interaction between the psyche and the social world. It is precisely because meaning is bound to the social context and has a dialogic character—since it results from the social relationship between speaker and listener—that the individual consciousness cannot be conceived as existing encapsulated in a self-centred, self-referential universe. In that sense, a word “is a bridge thrown between myself and another”31, or, as Vygotsky, drawing on Feuerbach, once remarked, it is “a thing in our consciousness […] that is absolutely impossible for one person, but that becomes reality for two”32. For both Vygotsky and Vološinov, a mind without words is something devoid of consciousness, as it is unable to associate single experiences with groups or classes of experiences. If the human psyche lacks the “symbolic inventory”—as Edward Sapir once called it33—provided by language, it can neither formulate nor convey ideas related to such experiences. This approach to language that we have been discussing so far collided with the second trend, which Vološinov labelled as abstract objectivism. Here the emphasis is entirely different. According to the representatives of this other trend, what is worth studying is not the individual speech act as an expression of a creative psyche, but the linguistic system itself. The

Parodying Saussure or “Who’s Afraid of Valentin Vološinov?”


analysis of the idiosyncratic character of the utterance is far less important than the understanding of the set of laws that allow the identity of linguistic forms to be preserved regardless of the particular conditions in which they are used. If, for Vossler, grammatical forms had their origin in the free exercise of style on the part of the individual, for the advocates of the second trend the individual is left no alternative but to reproduce the self-identical forms that the system puts at his disposal. Creativity in language is ruled out: language is passed on to the individual as an unchanging set of forms and norms, and no room is given to creative plasticity—except, of course, for that which has already been formally established. The impulses and drives of the individual bear no relation to the systematicity of the language and lie, therefore, beyond the scope of investigation. The individual consciousness is allowed neither to dispute the stability of the linguistic system nor to challenge its immutability since the laws that rule it are objective and pertain only to system itself. But what is also relevant is the fact that, because of this, linguistic connections are not believed to be the least related to ideological values34. Vološinov traces the origins of this trend back to the rationalist tradition of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in particular to Leibniz’s universal grammar and to the Cartesian credo in the mathematical orderliness of the system. If the first trend, with its emphasis on imagination, creativity, and individuality, clearly stood for the romanticist spirit, the second trend advocated a rationalist agenda, more committed to examining how the sign was systematically and logically linked to the other signs. Vološinov wastes no time in picking Saussure, the most important representative of this trend, as the main target of his criticisms. As we have seen, in order to establish a point of departure for linguistic analysis, Saussure was compelled to set up a series of dichotomies: synchrony versus diachrony; langue (language) versus parole (utterance); the social versus the individual; the objective versus the subjective. It does not take much for Vološinov to expose the theoretical shortcomings of such dichotomies and dismantles them at a single stroke. Vološinov only has to dwell upon the loose ends of Saussure’s arguments, starting with the question of the conceptualization of language as “an objective fact external to and independent of any individual consciousness”—an understanding of language that sustains all the above conceptual dyads35. In order to uphold the objective status of language, Saussure tried to keep off every possible source of subjective contamination. He also tried to cut its ties to the ever-changing flow of


Chapter Three

time and worked out a way to freeze language so that the contours of that snapshot could be probed into. Only this way would he be able to avoid the risk of being compelled to account for the tectonics of language, i.e., for the subtle, almost imperceptible underground movements that allow language to evolve, to adapt itself to the more or less sudden social and political dislocations. But for Vološinov those two moves were not possible: From a truly objective viewpoint, one that attempts to see language in a way completely apart from how it appears to any given individual any given moment in time, language presents the picture of a ceaseless flow of becoming. From the standpoint of observing a language objectively, from above, there is no real moment in time when a synchronic system of language could be constructed.36

Here the author of Marxist Philosophy of Language succeeds in trapping the Swiss linguist inside his own premises. What Vološinov is saying is that if Saussure had chosen to push the case for objectivity to its limits, he would then have to admit to the impossibility of a synchronic perspective and—which is equally important—to acknowledge that the immutability of language was to be found at the level of the individual consciousness and not outside of it. In other words, Saussure would have to recognize that the mode of existence of language as self-identical forms depended entirely on the subject. In this case, it would no longer be possible to downgrade or simply dismiss the role of the subjective mind in the process of defining the norms of the language. As Vološinov argues, “[any system of social norms] exists only with respect to the subjective consciousness of individuals belonging to some particular community governed by norms”37. However, Vološinov adds a caveat concerning the relationship between the individual consciousness and language as a system. In a certain way, it might seem that Vološinov is defending the idea that, for the individual, language is always perceived as a fixed system. Nothing of the sort though: to perceive it as system means to think of it as an abstraction, to approach it in a deliberately methodical fashion, to condense its apparent randomness into a well-defined structure. And for Vološinov this is clearly something the ordinary speaker does not worry about. From this point onwards, it becomes easier for Vološinov to advance his proposals: what the speaker is concerned with is “the particular, concrete utterance he is making.” In fact, “[w]hat matters to him is applying a normatively identical form (let us grant there is such a thing for the time being) in some particular, concrete context”38. And if the context

Parodying Saussure or “Who’s Afraid of Valentin Vološinov?”


takes priority, then the normative character of the system loses importance, because what is at stake is by no means a mere recognition of the identity of the sign, but the understanding of its novelty. It is here where I think Vološinov shows his truly Marxist—not to say revolutionary—vision of language. He believes that human beings communicate not for the sake of a redundant existence, of a mere repetition of experiences and actions (which usually implies signal recognition but seldom any truly meaningful interchange), but because they need to convey something entirely new, something that can derive only from the changeability of their conditions of existence—in other words, something that results from the possibility of transformation of history. Vološinov proves that language—and in this particular case, the construction of meaning—cannot be dissociated from the dialectical process of becoming—a position alien to Saussure. As he states, “the constituent factor for understanding the linguistic form is not recognition of “the same thing,” but understanding in the proper sense of the word, i.e., orientation in the particular, given context and in the particular, given situation—orientation in the dynamic process of becoming and not “orientation” in some inert state”39. Without the conveyance of new meanings—which basically results from the confrontation of signs with continuously changing contexts as a part of a dialogic process—society would remain inert and no historical development would ever take place. In this sense, Marxist Philosophy of Language could be regarded as inaugurating what I would call the semantics of revolution. By deconstructing the Saussurean paradigms, Vološinov gave birth to a new conception of language with a strong emphasis on the questions of individual variation, context-bound meaning and the variability of the sign in a world in continuous transformation: What the speaker values is not an aspect of the form which is invariably identical in all instances of usage, despite the nature of those instances, but that aspect of the linguistic form because of which it can figure in the given, concrete context, because of which it becomes a sign adequate to the conditions of the given, concrete situation. […] What is important for the speaker about a linguistic form is not that it is a stable and always self-equivalent signal, but that it is an always changeable and adaptable sign. 40

I can already anticipate some objections. Having gone this far, Vološinov’s case for the ideological nature of the sign, which he expounded so categorically in the first lines of Marxist Philosophy of


Chapter Three

Language41, might seem to lose some consistency—if not collapse under the weight of this “revolutionary” stance. If meanings keep changing all the time, how can signs perpetuate a given ideology? How can human consciousness interact with the outer world and actually transform it if the semiotic value of signs remains transient and cannot be definitively established or agreed upon? Still, I am afraid that these questions are based on premises that Vološinov does not endorse, namely, that ideology is offered to the human consciousness as a pre-ordained, static body of meanings, and that consciousness itself has an immutable, autonomous, purely internal existence, and cannot but establish a merely objective relation with the signs coming from the outer world. From a Saussurean perspective, these premises may hold true. Vološinov, however, does not shy away from the theoretical complexities of a far more dynamic understanding of the processes of ideological communication. Firstly, he argues—following a typical Bakhtinian line of reasoning— that one of the most important traits of the “ideological sign” (in all respects a redundancy for Vološinov) is what he calls its “social multiaccentuality.” Every ideological sign is, so to speak, “intersected” by “differently oriented accents” that originate in the various social classes. The sign cannot be said to contain meanings only; it also harbours all the social tensions and the correlation of forces that characterize the class struggle42. It is precisely this feature that allows the sign to serve the whole community—despite the fact that, under given circumstances, it may become hostage to the ruling class. Vološinov even speaks of the “inner dialectic quality of the sign” to stress the fact that, although it can be used as a “refracting and distorting medium” of a dominant ideology, in a revolutionary context or in a situation of social crisis the sign refuses to be tamed and subverts any attempt to be monopolized by one single social group. That is why Vološinov defends that the sign, which gives material substance to every ideology but which cannot be entirely owned by it, intervenes in the dialectical process of social change. This concept comes close to what Ernesto Laclau will later define as “empty” and “floating” signifiers. He applies these categories in his explanation of the ways in which social identities are constructed in the context of hegemonic practices43. Laclau maintains that hegemonic identities are constituted by empty signifiers: being devoid of pre-given meanings, they can be presented as bearing those meanings (linked in an equivalential chain) that best suit the group’s attempt to assume the representation of the social totality.

Parodying Saussure or “Who’s Afraid of Valentin Vološinov?”


Vološinov does not use the same vocabulary but he is treading the same ground. Both he and Laclau believe that it is through the sign that one seeks to overcome social tensions, to assert one’s social position and to attain power in a context of (a more or less overt) social conflict. The more universal a sign is, the greater the chances are of it remaining uncontested. As the Russian thinker argues, “[t]he ruling class strives to impart a supraclass, eternal character to the ideological sign, to extinguish or drive inward the struggle between social value judgments which occurs in it, to make the sign uniaccentual”44. I can detect, however, an almost imperceptible difference between both authors, which results from the paradigmatic gap separating them. It is related to something that cannot be detached from the political and historical conditions in which they develop their theories, namely, the way in which they perceive the exercise of power and the nature of the dominant groups. Laclau’s emphasis on hegemonic identities and practices derives from his analysis of Western democracies, where given social groups manage to articulate in their discourse the demands and interests of other groups. Vološinov, on the other hand, is out to expose the insurmountable divisions of the class struggle and allows no room for the articulation of interests: once in the hands of a dominant ideology, the sign is “always somewhat reactionary” and seeks to “refract” and “distort” truth45. Secondly, Vološinov insists, as I have already pointed out, on the dialectical relationship between consciousness and the world. He refuses to regard consciousness as a static, isolated entity. It is, above all, an ever-changing phenomenon whose objective existence is entirely configured by semiotic processes. Since such processes take place, as we have seen, in the contradiction-riven world of social relations, consciousness ends up assimilating those contradictions and integrating them into its own structure. This means that signs not only determine the way in which social intercourse is conducted, but also become part of the inner experience of the individual. From this we may derive that the complexity of consciousness is dependent upon the type of ideological differentiation according to which society is organized. As he states, “[t]he stronger, the more organized, the more differentiated the collective in which an individual orients himself, the more complex his inner world will be”46. This is why Vološinov claims that this inner experience (“the expressible”) is as much part of the social territory as the utterance. However, consciousness can—and must— also assert itself in the outer world, at the level not only of the superstructures, but also of the basis. This point is crucial for Vološinov:


Chapter Three [Consciousness] itself is part of existence and one of its forces, and for that reason it possesses efficacy and plays a role in the arena of existence. Consciousness, while still inside a conscious person’s head as inner-word embryo of expression, is as yet too tiny a piece of existence, and the scope of its activity is also as yet too small. But once it passes through all the stages of social objectification and enters into the power system of science, art, ethics, or law, it becomes a real force, capable even of exerting in turn an influence on the economic bases of social life. To be sure, this force of consciousness is incarnated in specific social organizations, geared into steadfast ideological modes of expression (science, art, and so on), but even in the original, vague form of glimmering thought and experience, it had already constituted a social event on a small scale and was not an inner act on the part of the individual.47

This is a key passage. He drags consciousness into the “arena of existence” and commands it to influence “the economic bases of social life.” Too bold a step, perhaps, but a fundamental one. If he wants to assert the value of human creativity and the ability of the individual to intervene in the world, he must somehow seek to break free from the straitjacket of epiphenomenalism. But this is a move he has to calculate carefully so as not to undermine the tenets of historical materialism. He does it by means of three arguments. Firstly, he rejects as inadmissible the category of “mechanistic causality” for its vagueness and ambiguity48. Secondly, he never permits consciousness to enter the realm of metaphysics: it is its materiality, its objectification, in his own words, its “embodiment in some particular material”49 that grants it the ability to act upon the material conditions of existence. Finally, he places the materiality of the sign at the core of the dialectical processes of social transformation. As we can see, this already ushers us into the edifice of Althusser’s structuralism. Nevertheless, before proceeding any further, it is worth peering into the theoretical foundations of Vološinov’s arguments as they were laid down many decades earlier by Marx himself.

Notes 1

Wordsworth and Coleridge, 1991: 254. In this context it is worth revisiting the 1800 Preface: “The language too of these men is adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the action of social vanity they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. 2

Parodying Saussure or “Who’s Afraid of Valentin Vološinov?”


Accordingly such a language arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings is a more permanent and a far more philosophical language than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets […].” (245) 3 Saussure, 1983: 14. 4 Halliday, 1994: xxii. 5 Saussure, 1972: 42. 6 The work of Théodule Ribot was of paramount importance in this field. He was the one who first claimed that psychology was to be looked upon as a science separate from philosophy and based on observable facts. Ribot was familiar with German philosophy, especially with the work of Immanuel Kant, which he explored in his La Psychologie allemande contemporaine (École expérimentale) (1879, Paris, Baillière). The foundations of Ribot’s assertions on the autonomy of psychology can be traced to the proposals of J. F. Herbart, G. Fechner and W. Wundt. 7 Idem: 15. 8 Vološinov, 1986: 11. 9 Idem: 26. 10 Saussure, 1983: 13. We must also consider the specific circumstances of production of his Course. It is known that the text is but a compilation of lecture notes taken by his students and that the opinions contained in it, though usually credited to Saussure, may not correspond entirely to his own views. I believe the problem of authorship can be solved if we draw on Foucault’s notion of founder of discursivity. As he stated in What is an Author?, “[founders of discursivity] are unique in that they are not just the authors of their own works. They have produced something else: the possibilities and the rules for the formation of other texts” (Foucault, 1988 [1969]: 206). 11 Idem: 71. 12 Not coincidently, Paul Grice would also be accused of investing in a perspective on language entirely based on a stereotyped vision of society conforming to middle-class values of cooperation, and functioning on the basis of communicative effectiveness and economy of means. 13 Idem: 21-22. 14 Idem: 22. 15 “…the idea of language as a social fact should arrest our attention for a while and allow us to start a debate on the functions of language (and, in particular, the communicative function) from the social point of view” (Calvet, 1977: 13). 16 Vygotsky, 1982: 419. 17 Vygotsky, 1978: 8. 18 Vološinov, 1986: 9. 19 Pateman, 1989: 204. 20 Vološinov, 1986: xv. 21 Clark and Holquist, 1984: 146-170. 22 Vološinov, 1986: xiii. 23 Idem: xiv. 24 Idem: 48.



Bakhtin, 2004. Bakhtin, 2004: 24. 27 Idem: 22-23. 28 Quoted in Vološinov, 1986: 51. 29 Idem: 85. 30 Idem: 85. 31 Idem: 86. 32 Vygotsky, 1986: 256. 33 Sapir, 1971: 12. 34 Vološinov, 1986: 57. 35 Idem: 65. 36 Idem: 66. 37 Ibid. 38 Idem: 67. 39 Idem: 69. 40 Idem: 68. 41 Idem: 9-10. 42 Idem: 23. 43 Laclau, 2005: 70-71; 133. 44 Vološinov, 1986: 23. 45 Idem: 24. 46 Idem: 88. 47 Idem: 90; my italics. 48 Idem: 17. 49 Idem: 90. 26

Chapter Three


Marx and Engel’s The German Ideology is, no doubt, one of Vološinov’s most important sources1. Seeking to obtain a holistic view of the human condition and of the social reality, the two German philosophers advanced an idiosyncratic approach to the development of the human consciousness and to the way in which it is related to language. For that reason, it is no coincidence that the innovative views of both the social use of language and ideology should first appear in this text. It was written between 1845 and 1846, a period of intense theoretical output, as Marx and Engels had finally matured their ideas concerning the philosophical foundations of scientific Communism and were working together in defining the practical lines of communist teaching. With it “we had achieved our main purpose—self-clarification”2—as Marx would later remark in the 1859 Preface to his Critique of Political Economy. The writing of this seminal work preceded two other influential texts published shortly afterwards: The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), directed against the idealistic Socialism of Proudhon, and the Communist Manifesto (1848). However, with the exception of Chapter IV of Volume II, dedicated to a critique of German Socialism, the whole work was not published during their lifetime. Chapter I, “Feuerbach,” perhaps the most important one in the establishment of the premises of their materialist conception of history—it certainly is one of the most quoted and the most relevant to the present discussion—only came to light in 1924, edited and translated into Russian by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This fact makes The German Ideology almost contemporary of Vološinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) and of Vygotsky’s Thought and Language (1934). Despite its rather late publication, this work was able to retain its theoretical urgency, as testified by its resonances in the proposals of both


Chapter Four

Russian intellectuals. The German Ideology came to represent not only a break with a given philosophical tradition—in this case a break that meant a systematic critique of the Young Hegelians, in particular Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner3—but also the proclamation of a new materialist conception of History. It was seen as the starting-point of a new philosophical attitude which was expected to bring to an end the subjection of the human being to the alienating relations of production of the capitalist system4. Marx and Engels knew that in order to change human consciousness one would also have to change the existing material (i.e., economic and social) conditions, and not simply men’s ideas about themselves and about the world—as the Young Hegelians had insisted on. In the Preface, Marx, mocking at their naivety, literally “drowned” their arguments by showing that one could not expect to avoid the risk of drowning by dismissing gravity as a fantasy generated in one’s mind. In his Theses on Feuerbach, originally written in 1845, Marx had already denounced the fallacies of that restricted form of materialism. He accused the author of The Essence of Christianity (1841) of regarding reality, things [Gegenstände] and sensuousness [Sinnlichkeit] as objects [Objekte]5 to be contemplated only, thus failing to understand the relevance of every human practical activity in configuring both human consciousness and reality (Thesis 1). That is why Marx ended up claiming that “circumstances are changed by men and […] the educator must himself be educated” (Thesis 3). Actually, both Marx and Engels were after something more substantial than simply making momentous statements about the decay of German philosophy in the hands of the Young Hegelians. They sought to transfigure our comprehension of the world and our understanding of the human being by means of what might be called a pedagogical approach (the above reference to the “educator” is by no means coincidental), which was to be achieved first by revolutionizing philosophy itself. In order to do that, they had to rescue it from a purely contemplative attitude and alter the perception of the modes whereby we become conscious of the world and act upon it. But in order to explore this path, they were compelled to examine how language is related to consciousness and becomes responsible for the reproduction and/or transformation of social relations: Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical, real consciousness that exists for other men as well, and therefore does it exist for me; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other people.6

The German Ideology


By “practical, real consciousness” they do not signify an unmediated consciousness of the real conditions of existence. Were it so, all we had to do would be to rely on language (here confused with consciousness itself by a linking verb) to free ourselves from the realm of necessity7. Language, on the contrary, is shown to serve, first of all, the purposes of necessity, and the “practical” consciousness they refer to is that of an early stage of human development in which men and women, confronted with the laws of Nature, were still unable to alter its course. As they state: The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men—the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men at this stage still appear as the direct efflux of their material behaviour.8

Success in overcoming the limitations imposed by Nature owes much to the way in which human material activity is transformed and adjusted to meet the needs and requirements of a growing population. Division of labour also corresponds to a growing awareness of different—and sometimes diverging—social roles. Our consciousness is tied down neither to immutable practices nor to fixed representations. Here, language, which is itself an inextricable part of the evolution of consciousness9, becomes responsible for helping to shape social formations and social practices, and for sustaining the apparently emancipated status of consciousness vis-à-vis the world. As we can see, labour occupies a special position in this whole process. As a factor in the evolution of the human mind, this set of social practices serving an economic function greatly supersedes all the others. In his Dialectics of Nature—written between 1872 and 1882, and which would be one of the sources of inspiration of the dialectical materialism fostered by Stalin in the thirties—, Engels insists on this point by maintaining that labour is responsible for the very becoming of humanity. Gramsci would later subscribe to this view when he claimed that “homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens”10. Doing and thinking, acting and uttering—this is not a question of knowing which preceded which; it is rather a question of understanding their reciprocal influence and realizing the impossibility of drawing a clear dividing line between them in any anthropological undertaking. Therefore, labour cannot be merely regarded as the response of human beings to the needs imposed by Nature. In Capital, Marx points out that “from the moment that men in any way work for one another, their labour assumes a social form”11. It is


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precisely due to its social dimension that labour enables human society to advance towards more complex modes of production, more elaborate products and consequently more intricate forms of social organization. These forms, however, cannot be accounted for by the existence of labour only. They also result from the instruments of communication that evolved with labour—language in particular12. It is through the sublimated forms of social representation discursively arranged by language that every act in society is perceived. And since language participates so actively in every labour process, it is not merely, as Saussure insisted, a “social product”13: it is, in a sense, a “social producer” as well. As Louis-Jean Calvet points out: La langue est pour la majorité des linguistes l’instrument (ou l’organe) de la communication, mais nous pouvons aussi poser qu’elle en est le produit, ou plutôt qu’elle est le produit du besoin de communication, lui-même produit de la forme d’organisation sociale successive a l’apparition d’une certaine forme de travail. La langue est donc un produit social mais aussi un outil social, un instrument, et donc un producteur social.14

This position goes way beyond an oversimplified or even passive perspective in which language is seen as an outcome of social intercourse. It is, on the contrary, regarded as a productive, dynamic force, dialectically constraining and interacting with all the other social forces driving the course of History. The problem underlying Calvet’s other trope, that of the “outil social,” however, lies in the fact that, as he shifts our attention from “language as product” to “language as a means of production,” he undermines Marx and Engels’s projection of language as an activity constitutive of the human consciousness. In this case a compromise is difficult to be reached: either language is a subject-dependent phenomenon, and the subjectivities it constructs can claim some degree of autonomy before the world and the social, or it stands outside the subject as an objective resource, a means of communication to be employed in the reproduction of knowledge and of social relations. In his survey on the origins of language in Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams defends a view that challenges Calvet’s conception. As he remarked: Language here decisively lost its definition as constitutive activity. It became a tool or an instrument or a medium taken up by individuals when they had something to communicate, as distinct from the faculty which made them, from the beginning, not only able to relate and communicate, but in real terms to be practically conscious and so to possess the active

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practice of language.15

Still, if language, according to the dialectical outlook of Marx and Engels, plays such an important part as a productive force in society and as a structuring element of social reality, how does it overlook reality? The answer to that lies in the division of labour, which performs a key function in the process by which consciousness and language grow to become phenomena apparently separate from the world. As they argued: Division of labour only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears. From this moment onwards consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of “pure” theory, theology, philosophy, morality, etc.16

And if philosophy (in this particular case self-sufficient philosophy [selbständiges Philosophie]) derives from a consciousness that has severed its bonds with the real, is it not running the risk of self-delusion? That is, is it not making up a world of representations serving its own interests? Is it not feeding itself of ideas that do not agree with the struggles and the needs of actual, living human beings? Is it not generating its own theoretical momentum regardless of the practical problems of men and women working and relating to each other under specific conditions? In order to expose the deceptiveness (or “putrescence,” as they call it17) of the realm of Hegel’s Spirit, they had to take a further step in proving that the point of departure of any philosophical enterprise could not be that of fantasies or ideas conceived in the ethereal regions of “pure” thought, divorced from the life-process. This meant that they would have to show how much philosophy depended on language18. In another passage from The German Ideology, philosophising is seen as much a question of thinking as it is of uttering, that is, of thought materialized as language19. But it poses yet another challenge too, as language seems to conspire with thought and consciousness against a truer perception of reality: One of the most difficult tasks confronting philosophers is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world. Language is the immediate actuality of thought. Just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make language into an independent realm. This is the secret of philosophical language, in which thoughts in the form of words have their own content. The problem of descending from the world of thoughts to the actual world is turned into


Chapter Four the problem of descending from language to life.20

This does not allow much room for an introspective philosophical inquiry, since the exercise of philosophy will always be undermined by the uses of language. At a single stroke, Marx and Engels showed that language not only induced a metaphysical appropriation of the world, but also constituted the limits of philosophy. Thus, it seems that they have reached a tight spot in their argument where all philosophical language must either be looked upon with suspicion or simply discarded. The problem here lies in the fact that philosophical language cannot keep a close watch on itself without becoming inconsequent. As Rupert Read pointed out in his essay on philosophical language in Marx and Wittgenstein, one would have to regress continuously in order to examine the metalanguage(s) used to survey the language(s) below, headed for an endless ramification of normative enforcements21. Even Vološinov would realize that if we were to try to gain a panoptical perspective on the language below “we would find ourselves witnessing the ceaseless generation of language norms”22. Wittgenstein, too, observed that “[m]ost of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false, but nonsensical” due to the philosophers’ failure to account for everyday language. And they do not succeed precisely because “[w]hat expresses itself in language, we cannot express by means of language”23. The paradox becomes evident: for philosophy to supervise language it would have to supersede itself, to disentangle itself from the norms existing both in ordinary language and in its own discourse. In other words: philosophical discourse can never be constructed if it is to pre-empt every nodal point used to sustain it; consequently, philosophy becomes a purely sophistic, if not indefensible, enterprise. If Marx and Engels are against a purely philosophical language24 but are not against philosophy, then we must conclude that (1) for them philosophy is allowed to exist insofar as it is devoid of a language of its own; (2) it must, nonetheless, exist through and in language (but not through or in a metalanguage, which is to say that most of the philosophical discourse is based on borrowing or—though less frequently—on coinage, as in the cases of Heidegger or Derrida); (3) philosophy must therefore make use of a natural language, which is to say that philosophy is ultimately a use of language, i.e., a discourse and not simply another language of its own accord. Still, given the impossibility of a purely philosophical language, Marx and Engels provide a solution for that which might otherwise represent the discredit of philosophy:

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We have shown that thoughts and ideas acquire an independent existence in consequence of the personal circumstances and relations of individuals acquiring independent existence. We have shown that exclusive, systematic occupation with these thoughts on the part of ideologists and philosophers, and hence the systematisation of these thoughts, is a consequence of division of labour, and that, in particular, German philosophy is a consequence of German petit-bourgeois conditions. The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it as the distorted language of the actual world and to realize that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life.25

The question here is to know what they mean by “ordinary language”. Is it once more the Wordsworthian concept of “language really spoken by men”26? Of course, from a Marxist point of view, Wordsworth—as a poet representative of an aesthetics nurtured by late eighteenth-century bourgeois values—must be approached not without some caution. Instead of actually reproducing the reality of a particular manifestation of language (say, the language actually spoken by late eighteenth-century Cumbrian male peasants), what Wordsworth was proposing was an ideological representation of such language—the adverb “really” being vague enough to disguise the fact that the highly complex nature of the social uses of language is not to succumb to stylistic fancies and aesthetic concerns. However, could we not accuse Marx and Engels of relying too much upon the concept of “ordinary language” as well? Could it not be that what they had in mind was little more than its sheer ideological representation, too? If anything, what Marx and Engels were trying to do was to denounce the workings of ideological representation in philosophy. “Ordinary language” is in fact a concept that emerges from their critique of the Young Hegelians. Their thorough examination of the ideas advanced by Bauer, Stirner and Feuerbach allowed them to conclude that, no matter how elaborate philosophical discourses may be, they are but constituted by ordinary language. Such discourses are, if anything, a distortion of such language. By this I mean that a critique of the philosophical use(s) of language, which is to say of philosophical discourse(s), cannot be undertaken without a prior discussion on the nature of ordinary language—of “the language of real life,” as Marx and Engels would also call it. Unfortunately, the indefiniteness introduced by the qualifier “ordinary” poses several problems. In fact, I must confess that the adjective


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“ordinary” applied to language—“gewöhnliche Sprache” in the original27 —seems too unclear and does not help us to envisage what social uses of the language they had in mind. “Gewöhnlich” can also mean “usual” (occurring too often or constituting common practice), “current” (as in commonly accepted) or even “banal” (not deserving interest). Its overarching meaning prevents us from assigning it to any particular class or group. It remains too hazy for us to identify it with any given set of discursive practices—not to mention that there is a wide variety of discursive practices certain social groups are engaged in that cannot be simply labelled as “philosophical” or “ordinary”28. By collapsing the huge diversity of linguistic phenomena occurring in society into one single adjective, Marx and Engels do not leave much room for a more elaborate understanding of the complexity of the discursive processes at work in the existing social formations. Such reductionism can only be justified by the fact that—concerned as they were with exposing the fallacies of philosophical language and how it misappropriates reality—they needed a concept that would serve not so much as a sort of counterpoint or term of comparison, but as the matrix of philosophical language. “Ordinary language” does not oppose philosophical language for it is embedded in its own discursive fabric. At the same time, though, ordinary language also embodies common sense. If it is so, if ordinary language is equally as important to common sense as it is for philosophy, then it becomes difficult for philosophical language to escape the contamination of the linguistic fallacies that also characterize common sense29. It is no coincidence that Gramsci would later define common sense as a form of “philosophy of the masses”— devoid of homogeneity and systematization—, in his own words, “fragmentary, incoherent, inconsequential in conformity with [their] social and cultural position” and whose “principal elements […] are provided by religion”30. We have already seen that ordinary language, being a part of the process of emergence of consciousness, is “interwoven with the material activity.” It does not follow, however, that it is capable of devising reality as it actually exists outside the human consciousness, nor that it is capable of offering a worldview untouched by religious or metaphysical reflections. Actually, its complicity with ideology raises serious epistemological obstacles, as Mepham correctly warns us: “ordinary language is the repository of category mistakes,” which is to say that “[o]rdinary language, and the philosophy which makes a fetish of it, has, as Marx says, things standing on their heads”31. If anything, ordinary language must be regarded as being dialectically

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involved in the life-process, constituting the “practical, real consciousness” of individuals. It transforms and is transformed by other agents of social change. It conditions and is conditioned by historical processes. It participates in the consolidation and dissolution of identities and social formations. It shapes and is shaped by the relations of power. It is by realising the immanent force of (ordinary) language at the core of the social and of every political practice that one can hope to avoid falling back on a metaphysical or transcendental stance of reality. Having set out to question and to relativize the claims upon the scientificity of the discourses about discourse, I believe this brings me back to my line of argument. As I try to unravel the relationship between philosophical (uses of the) language and ordinary (uses of the) language I can distinguish here two possible approaches. That which I will call the interpretive one places philosophical and scientific discourses just outside and above ordinary language, in the assumption that such discourses are capable of conducting a panoptical survey of the latter, that is, of exhausting its networks of meaning, of exposing the sets of values and beliefs ingrained in the verbal texture, of reaching the epistemic centre of the text and revealing its social and political function. Critical Discourse Analysis is, obviously, based on this assumption. But is it simply a matter of allowing philosophical and scientific discourses to pry into everyday uses of the language in search of the keys by which we can decipher or deconstruct social relations, ideologies, processes of identity (trans)formation and the social flux of power? Now, if we establish a hierarchy of discourses as implied in the interpretive approach, we will run the risk of finding ourselves hostages of a never-ending chain of metalanguages, each demanding its authoritative status to be placed at the apex of the hierarchy of such metalanguages. But how to grow out of the “structural impulse to express truth” (to make use of Jameson’s words32) which underlies every philosophical project? How to make sure that, by targeting given systems or by subjecting them to our derision or criticism, we are not trying to enforce our own (irrefutable) perspective? The neo-Kantian overtones of this kind of approach make us contingent on subjectivism and idealism. In order to validate its position, any interpretive methodology ends up dealing with the text as just another object of experience that is to be understood according to a priori subjective categories. Thus, to unravel the content of texts one must rely on that which conforms to the structure of the conscious mind. And since the observer’s will is supposed to conform to a universal, metaphysical


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law dictated by practical reason, his moral status rises above the subjectivities that the text builds, judging them in accordance with some sort of categorical imperative that he alone, as a subject of knowledge, recognizes as such. The problem here is that the structure of the observer’s mind and his allegedly moral autonomy as a rational being may already be conditioned by the ideological fantasy induced by his social experience. Interpretation is far from being a flawless exercise, exempt of contradictions and expressions of authority. Hence Marx’s objection— formulated in the last of his theses on Feuerbach—to the idea that philosophy should be solely engaged in interpreting the world33 (although Marx’s detractors can always argue, conversely, that he had done little else but to provide a given interpretation of reality in order to legitimize a political attitude). What Marx and Engels propose in The German Ideology follows a different path, all the more difficult due to its apparent lack of an all-embracing authoritative voice. They speak of “dissolving” the philosophers’ discourses into ordinary language, that is, of merging both the philosophical discourse and ordinary language so as to reveal that they are but a part of the same process—they are merely “manifestations of actual life.” This suggests to me a second kind of approach: I will provisionally call it the critico-dialectical one. According to this approach, I see philosophical discourse dialectically interacting with ordinary language in a dialogic continuum where the former learns to understand itself by contemplating and confronting the latter. Adapting itself to ever-changing material conditions and responding to specific socioeconomic constraints, ordinary language not only comes up with new words (by means of the several processes of word-formation) and new meanings or concepts, but also asserts values and beliefs unheard of till then, produces a new understanding of the human and of the world around it, and consequently opens the path towards a new way of philosophizing. Most of that renewal of language occurs, as Gramsci reminds us, by means of metaphors: “when a new conception replaces the previous one, the previous language continues to be used but is, precisely, used metaphorically. The whole of language is a continuous process of metaphor, and the history of semantics is an aspect of the history of culture”34. From a purely philosophical angle, it would seem too daring if I were to maintain the idea that ordinary language is capable of producing philosophy tout court. From a politico-philosophical one, however, this suggestion poses an interesting challenge to the commonsensical idea of

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“superiority” of one language—or discourse, for that matter—over the other. Marx had already demonstrated that metaphysics itself could not exist without language, maintaining that the language deployed in philosophy had been little more than everyday language deceptively invested with an aura of metaphysical truth. This had enabled the apparent distancing of philosophy from actual life. Consequently, the credibility of philosophy and the value of its discourse for the history of humankind cannot be ascertained, as it were, from the inside, that is, from its own premises, theoretical resources or internal rules of validity. It should rather be measured up against its effectiveness in acting upon the world and changing it along with the conditions of possibility that allow such transformation. Fredric Jameson also intended to tear down the (ideological) barriers that have been erected to separate these different uses of language. His arguments, however, seem to oppose Marx’s, for it looks as though metaphysics should be taken for an entirely autonomous, separate sphere. Referring to Heidegger’s discovery that every philosophical system cannot escape being constitutive of metaphysics, he maintains that… …any affirmation one makes is at least implicitly a philosophical proposition and thereby a component of just such a metaphysical system. The bad universalism of metaphysics has thereby infected language itself, which cannot continue to emit and endlessly to regenerate the “metaphysical” or the ontic, comically to affirm one proposition after another, which outlast their pragmatic uses and know an afterlife as what another tradition might call ideology.35

To all appearances, it is not philosophy that is dependent on language but rather vice-versa: language seems unable to exist without a metaphysics that, ingrained as it is in every utterance, fabricates the texture of thought. But even here Marx is not flatly contradicted by Jameson. First of all, Marx had already claimed that the metaphysical stance has a pathological effect on speech, encumbering it with stale, outworn—but nevertheless commonly acknowledged—representations of the world. Secondly, according to Marx, language is always either philosophical or ideological—that is, it is always realized as discourse. The only difference between the two lies in the fact that, in the case of the latter, we are before a reification of thought that is no longer able to reflect upon on-going processes of social transformation. Ideological language is unable to avert its own petrifaction (or putrefaction in some cases) under the weight time. It results from a process whereby the materiality of language loses touch


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with the material conditions of human existence. Hence the appearance of the spectre or of the ghost that looms behind every representation, behind every identity capable of asserting its existence beyond (or despite of) its verbal dimension. In a sense, it is as if the discreteness of the sign corresponded necessarily to the discreteness of the idea and/or of the components of reality. This is precisely the realm in which Marx’s first theory of ideology is located. Nevertheless, a dialectical approach induces an apparent paradox: I can become critical of Marxism without really stepping out of it. That paradox, however, is but an effect of the critical tension that exists at the level of the language between philosophical or theory-driven speculation, on the one hand, and political praxis, on the other. Up to a certain point, this is to be understood in view of Marx’s maxim that the task of philosophy that lies ahead is to change the world and not to be lost in its contemplation [“Anschauung”]. Even if it may lose some of its theoretical consistency in the mouths of “ordinary” people (as opposed to organic—or even traditional—intellectuals, to use Gramsci’s typology), Marxism is compelled to reflect on its theoretical grounds, and how they agree and— what is perhaps more important—disagree with political practices. That is why Althusser claimed somewhat provocatively, echoing his Marxist creed, that “[everything] which touches on politics may be fatal to philosophy, for philosophy lives on politics”36. I shall therefore dispute the idea that Marxism is to be understood simply as a pre-established body of knowledge which has given origin to, framed or justified particular forms of political intervention. On the contrary, it is the comprehension of the experience of women and men engaged in material practices within specific historical contexts that is determinant in the construction of such knowledge. Marxism should, for that matter, be regarded as a discursive formation in the making. It is permanently seeking to construe not only the ways in which social actors try to make sense of the world around them, but also the processes whereby they get involved in collective political struggles to change that world. Sartre realized that this was one of the main objectives of Marxism. As he stated, “the important thing here, in a history conditioned by class struggle, is to explain the transition of oppressed classes from the state of being collectives to revolutionary group praxis”37. This also brings to mind Foucault’s words when he spoke of the archaeological tools with which one is to conduct the analysis of political knowledge and of revolutionary consciousness: The question […] would not be to determine from what moment a revolutionary consciousness appears, nor the respective roles of economic

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conditions and theoretical elucidations in the genesis of this consciousness; [such analysis] would not attempt to retrace the general, and exemplary, biography of revolutionary man, or to find the origins of his project; but it would try to explain the formation of a discursive practice and a body of revolutionary knowledge that are expressed in behaviour and strategies, which give rise to a theory of society, and which operate the interference and mutual transformation of that behaviour and those strategies.38

The revolutionary consciousness Marxists speak of presupposes on the part of certain agents of social change, in particular the intellectuals, the ability to (1) decentre existing structures of domination by revealing and discussing alternative models of social interaction and of social formations; (2) set up a hegemonic project by intersecting and articulating both kinds of discourse, one arrested by theoretical concerns, and another one closer to the living conditions and concerns of the masses (in whose name revolutions are made); and, from an Althusserian perspective, (3) interpellate the working class as an always-already subject of social transformation, whose participation is required to make the historical change of the relations of production. Intellectuals are the key to turn the proletarian movement into that which Marx defined in the Communist Manifesto as “the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority”39, although in this latter work intellectuals are still depicted as “a portion of the bourgeois ideologists,” who, nevertheless, “have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole”40. At this point, I cannot help drawing on Gramsci’s concept of philosophy of praxis, relevant to understand how the issues associated with this relationship between theory and practice, along with the role of the (“organic”) intellectual, were still being discussed in the thirties. By philosophy of praxis Gramsci meant “a philosophy that is also politics, [and] a politics that is also philosophy”41. Ultimately, this implies the existence of a project (fashioned in accordance with a theory or method based on a given knowledge of the world, that is, the transitive or agential aspect of hegemony) within a set of on-going processes with historical incidence (encompassing enduring relations, structures and mechanisms occurring out of reach of one’s will, that is, the intransitive or structural aspect of hegemony)42. The success of Gramsci’s mission of renewal of Marxism is partly indebted to this concept of philosophy of praxis43. It gives him room for an open-ended theorizing against the orthodox readings of Marx and Engels made until the thirties, which tended towards a mechanistic understanding


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of the historical processes and pre-empted any attempt to escape the logic of both determinism and essentialism. In a way, Gramsci, qua politician, shared the same practical concerns that moved Lenin and Trotsky in terms of defining a method of political and social change. He felt there should be some sort of compromise between the constraints imposed by the historical conditions and the realization of the political goals put forward by a radical project for society. In this sense, the philosophy of praxis cannot be understood as an end in itself, but as a means, a transient solution before the realm of freedom is finally reached44. He defines it as “the concrete historicisation of philosophy and its identification with history”45. Such concretization of philosophy must take place as a historical process, which ultimately implies that philosophy is supposed to become a material force, even if it has to degenerate into ideology and later into “popular belief”46. The conditions under which he wrote his Prison Notebooks justify this polemical position: as a witness to a lasting Fascist regime that had annihilated all political opposition, Gramsci had reasons to demand from philosophy an unambiguous commitment to history and a compromise with humankind, fulfilling its ultimate social function in combating long-standing “hegemonies” and forms of “direct domination”47. His political and sociological analysis of the history of some European countries ends up reflecting not only such sense of urgency, but also the idea that this philosophy of praxis could only come into being if it was to come about as a didactic exchange between social groups, in particular between the “organic” intellectuals and the popular masses: The philosophy of praxis had two tasks to perform: to combat modern ideologies in their most refined form, in order to be able to constitute its own group of independent intellectuals; and to educate the popular masses, whose culture was medieval. This second task, which was fundamental, given the character of the new philosophy, has absorbed all its strength, not only in quantitative but also in qualitative terms. For “didactic” reasons, the new philosophy was combined into a form of culture which was a little higher than the popular average (which was very low) but was absolutely inadequate to combat the ideologies of the educated classes. And yet the new philosophy was born precisely to supersede the highest cultural manifestation of the age, classical German philosophy, and to create a group of intellectuals specific to the new social group whose conception of the world it was.48

The organic intellectual is here assigned a leading role not only in the education of the masses, but also in the displacement of the existing

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ideologies and in the inauguration of a wider enterprise of intellectual and moral renovation—a process Gramsci considered himself part of. As I spoke of a critico-dialectical approach to the problem of the relationship between philosophical discourse and ordinary language, I was precisely considering the fact that ordinary language could be looked upon as the means by which philosophy becomes—using, once again, Gramsci’s words regarding the philosophy of praxis—historicised and identified with history. Ordinary language bears the deep scars of social and political history and of the growth and evolution of the human consciousness in the semantic layers of the word meaning49. On the other hand, it also enables philosophy to grow aware of its place in the historical context and to become more effective in its role of transforming the world, especially in terms of “combating modern ideologies.” Althusser was also led to reformulate his own definition of philosophy in accordance with a set of concerns arising precisely from the relation of theory and practice—a matter which he discussed in “Lenin and Philosophy” (1977 (1968)). His thesis was summarized in the English edition of For Marx (1969 (1965)) in the following terms: (1) philosophy “represents” the class struggle in the realm of theory, hence philosophy is neither a science, nor a pure theory (Theory), but a political practice of intervention in the realm of theory; (2) philosophy “represents” scientificity in the realm of political practice, hence philosophy is not the political practice, but a theoretical practice of intervention in the realm of politics; (3) philosophy is an original “instance” (differing from the instances of science and politics) that represents the one instance alongside (auprès de) the other, in the form of a specific intervention (politicaltheoretical).50

This is no doubt a polemical position, and many critics would dismiss this politicisation of philosophy as a facile solution on the part of someone trying to reach a compromise between his leftist political concerns and a coherent and solid philosophical project. However, this is one more way of conceiving philosophy, moved by the same concerns that led Kant to distinguish between practical and pure reason, or Hegel to claim that the purpose of philosophy is not to waste time on vague abstractions and empty universalities, but to demonstrate that the Idea is made of the concrete and that it is, after all, a unity resulting from different determinations51. Althusser’s philosophy also attempts to drag philosophy away from pure speculation and to bring it back onto the plane of the concrete by placing it on the borderline between politics and “Theory,” intervening in


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each field as a critical instance that legitimizes both an appropriation of theory on the part of politics and vice-versa. The critico-dialectical approach I have just formulated (and which owes much to a critical realist standpoint) raises nonetheless a difficulty related to the epistemological limits of each discourse. It now seems impossible to know exactly where the qualitative difference between philosophical thinking and common sense lies. If such difference were simply a matter of genre or register, then philosophy would be reduced to mere conventionality and therefore unable to break away from the rules of social convention. I believe the solution for this predicament can be found in two modes of cognition that had already been discussed by Marxist theorists. One of them is the critical awareness of the role played by ideology in the establishment and regulation of hegemonic relations, in the apparent effacement of social antagonisms and in the definition of social and political practices within modern societies. This mode is what Lukács in his History and Class Consciousness calls “self-criticism”52. The other mode is linguistic consciousness as defined by Bakhtin. In his essay “From the prehistory of novelistic discourse,” he showed that some forms of parodic-travestying literature immediately preceding the emergence of the novel ended up freeing language from the shackles of myth. It was precisely this set of forms that released language from given crystallized, if not deified, verbal images of the world which had ultimately contributed to submit literature to the straightjacket of the ideology of the ruling classes. As he stated: [These forms] liberated the object from the power of language in which it had become entangled as if in a net; they destroyed the homogenizing power of myth over language; they freed consciousness from the power of the direct word, destroyed the thick walls that had imprisoned consciousness within its own discourse, within its own language. A distance arose between language and reality that was to prove an indispensable condition for authentically realistic forms of discourse.53

The same way the novelistic discourse—as Bakhtin saw it—”is always criticizing itself”54, demystifying the ritualized forms of appropriation of the language, exposing the dominant discourse by direct confrontation with the otherness present in all the other discourses, so should a dialectical approach, also critical of itself, gain distance from the hypostatizations induced by commonsensical discourse.

The German Ideology


Notes 1

Marx, along with Freud, was one of examples Foucault gave to illustrate his notion of founder of discursivity (see footnote 13). 2 Quoted in Carver, 1982: 17. 3 The latter had already made an attempt to tear down the old edifice of metaphysics by attacking the very foundations of religion. But little else had been achieved. Though all of them declared the need for a change of consciousness, they were unable to address the social reality of their time and to come up with a political solution to some of the questions they themselves had raised. 4 “Communism differs from all previous movements in that it overturns the basis of all earlier relations of production and intercourse, and for the first time consciously treats all naturally evolved premises as the creations of hitherto existing men, strips them of their natural character and subjugates them to the power of the united individuals” (Marx and Engels, 1996: 89-90). 5 Objekt in German is not to be confounded with Gegenstand. The Duden Deutsches Universalwörterbuch (1996) defines the former as “unabhängig vom Bewusstsein existierende Erscheinung der materiellen Welt, auf die sich das Erkennen, die Wahrnehmung richtet” [“manifestation of the material world, independent of consciousness, to which cognition and perception are directed”]. 6 Marx and Engels, 1996: 49. 7 This does not signify that language cannot be, as we shall see later, the key to a more conscious perception of the material conditions in which men live. 8 Idem: 42. 9 Vygotsky, dialoguing with Marx and Engels, is convinced that the ever-transforming linguistic sign, the word, participates in the historical process of consciousness-formation. “If language is as old as consciousness itself, and if language is a practical consciousness-for-others and, consequently, consciousnessfor-myself, then not only one the particular thought but all consciousness is connected with the development of the word. […] The word is a direct expression of the historical nature of human consciousness” (Vygotsky, 1986: 256). 10 Gramsci, 1971: 9. 11 Marx, 1994: 26. 12 As he stated: “The reaction on labour and speech of the development of the brain and its attendant of judgement, gave an ever-renewed impulse to the further development of both labour and speech. This further development did not reach its conclusion when man finally became distinct from the monkey, but, on the whole, continued to make powerful progress, varying in degree and direction among different peoples and at different times, and here has been strongly urged forward, on the one hand, and has been guided along more definite directions on the other hand, owing to a new element which came into play with the appearance of fullyfledged man, viz. society” (Ch. IX, §13). 13 Saussure: 1983: 12-15; 71-74. 14 “To most linguists, language is the instrument (or the medium) of communication, but we may also conceive it as the product, or rather the product


Chapter Four

of the need for communication, which is itself a product of the form of social organization that follows the appearance of a certain form of work. Language is therefore a social product; but it is also a social tool, an instrument and thus a social producer” (Calvet, 1977: 19). 15 Williams, 1977: 32. 16 Marx and Engels, 1996: 50. 17 Idem: 33. 18 In a way, they anticipated what Richard Rorty would later call the linguistic turn of philosophy. See R. Rorty (ed.), 1967. 19 This is a formulation that Wittgenstein resumed in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus when he looked into the conditions of possibility of a logically perfect language: “a thought is a proposition [Satz] with a sense” (Wittgenstein, 2001: 4). Notwithstanding the quality of Pears and McGuinness’s translation, I think the German text is much clearer: “Der Gedanke ist der sinnvolle Satz.” (; accessed on 25 May 2011). 20 Marx and Engels, 1996: 472-3. 21 See Read, 2000. 22 Vološinov, 1986: 66. 23 Wittgenstein, 2001: 4.003; 4.121. 24 Probably the exception would be mathematics, which in any case is to be regarded as an instrument used to search for (and to validate) the truth of certain relations and functions—and even here mathematics cannot escape the contamination from natural languages. 25 Idem: 472-473. 26 After all, it seems that Marx and Engels are trying to do that which Wordsworth himself thought to be beyond the scope of the defence of his poetry, namely to point out “in what manner language and the human mind act and react on each other” and to retrace “the revolutions not of literature alone but likewise of society itself” (Wordsworth and Coleridge, 1991: 243). 27 Marx and Engels, 1969: 433. 28 This exercise of translation of the word “ordinary” prompts further reflections on the problem of metalanguages. As far as intralingual translation is concerned— since my attempt here is to determine the meaning of the word “ordinary,” as proposed by the translator—, I see myself wandering in the labyrinth of synonyms and semantic equivalents trying to find its way out. I soon realise that that way could only be that of a metalanguage. However, the very principle that structures that labyrinth – the self-reflective nature of language – allows us to chart it without having to resort to any act of metalinguistic inspection. Such narcissistic quality of language may well be that which will help us resist the Daedalean temptation. As Paul de Man states referring to the importance of the myth of Narcissus in Rousseau: “[t]o the extent that all language is conceptual, it already speaks about language and not about things. […] All language is language about denomination, that is, a conceptual, figural, metaphorical language. […] If all language is about language, then the paradigmatic linguistic model is that of an entity that confronts

The German Ideology


itself” (de Man, 1979: 153-4). We could argue that de Man is condemning here a materialistic approach to language: what is at stake is not so much how language is articulated with the real world, with the objects endowed with an existence outside the speaker’s mind, but how it articulates itself, indulging in a mise en abîme of metaphors. This, however, does not contradict Marx insofar as one of the intrinsic problems of ideology—as defined in German Ideology—is precisely the fact that language, although generated by the material needs of the human being, has created a realm of self-reference and self-reflection, separated from the real relations of men and from their relation to those relations, thus blocking their perception of how the latter work. But for Marx, this does not mean that there is no relation whatsoever between language and reality. Wittgenstein, as he tried to sort through this problem, ended up ascertaining that such relation exists as representation (that is, as Darstellung): “Propositions can represent [darstellen] the whole of reality, but they cannot represent what they must have in common with to be able to represent it—logical form” (Wittgenstein, 2001: 4.12). With Marx, however, the issue involves further considerations of a phenomenological order. In accordance with the theory he later developed in Capital, phenomenal forms, such as “value” and “wage” correspond to modes of thought but they do not represent in a perfectly logical or objective way the real, essential relations underlying such forms. I shall return to this point later. 29 Besides, is common sense not as revealing of metaphysical designs as philosophy? As Kant stated in his Critique of Pure Reason (1787) regarding matters of morality: “Do you really require that a mode of knowledge which concerns all men should transcend the common understanding, and should only be revealed to you by philosophers? Precisely what you find fault with is the best confirmation of the correctness of the above assertions. For we have thereby revealed to us, what could not at the start have been foreseen, namely, that in matters which concern all men without distinction nature is not guilty of any partial distribution of her gifts, and that in regard to the essential ends of human nature the highest philosophy cannot advance further than is possible under the guidance which nature has bestowed even upon the most ordinary understanding” ( kant/philosophy-17.html). 30 Gramsci, 1971: 419-20. 31 Mepham, 1994: 222. 32 Jameson, 1999: 31. 33 “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (Marx, 1998: 571). 34 Gramsci, 1971: 450. 35 Jameson, 1999: 31. 36 Althusser, 1977: 34. 37 Sartre, 2001: 328. 38 Foucault, 2002: 215. 39 Marx, 1961: 22. 40 Idem: 21. 41 Gramsci, 1971: 395.


Chapter Four

42 On intransitive processes and methodological transitivity in Gramsci see Joseph, 2002. 43 He ascribes the origin of the concept to Marx himself (Idem: 384). But who discussed this concept more thoroughly was Antonio Labriola in his letters to George Sorel, later published under the title Correspondence on Philosophy and Socialism (1898). 44 Idem: 404. 45 Idem: 436. 46 Idem: 404. 47 Idem: 12. 48 Gramsci, 1971: 394-395. 49 A concept introduced by Vygotsky to refer to the unit of verbal thought. See Vygotsky, 1986: 211-212. 50 Althusser, 1969: 256. 51 Hegel, 1995: 69. 52 Lukács, 1971: 205, 237. 53 Bakhtin, 1988: 139. 54 Idem: 131.


All the above considerations on philosophical language have only obliquely answered a fundamental question: to what extent are discourse (that is, language in use) and ideology related? Once again, The German Ideology attempts to address the problem. As dominant groups insist on certain meanings and values through the language they have taken hold of (after all, language has always been object of dispute), they succeed not only in buttressing their class or group identity, but also in holding up the overall structure of social relations in accordance with their interests. They are thus able to impose their ideology under the guise of universalism and deluding other groups with the belief that their social privileges have been legitimately acquired and are naturally owed to them. If they are able to do so, one should note, it is not because there is a cause-and-effect relation between the production of social representations by the bourgeoisie and their consumption by the proletariat. It is rather because it is of the nature of the bourgeois society to facilitate the consent of the masses in retrieving such representations—as Gramsci correctly suggested with his concept of hegemony—in the light of which domination loses its repressive, violent edge, and exploitation takes place as a part of the “normal” order of things. Marx and Engels reminded us that… …according to Destutt de Tracy, the majority of people, the proletarians, must have lost all individuality long ago, although nowadays it looks as if it was precisely among them that individuality is most developed. For the bourgeois it is all the easier to prove on the basis of his language the identity of commercial and individual, or even universal, human relations, as this language itself is a product of the bourgeoisie, and therefore both in actuality and in language the relations of buying and selling have been made the basis of all others.1


Chapter Five

Here Marx and Engels held on, once again, to the concept of ideology as camera obscura2. The notion the proletarians have of their individuality is an inversion of reality; in fact, such individuality, far from having reached its highest realization, has been lost. Emerging out of a positivist concern to shove illusions aside in order to grasp “real knowledge,” the concept ends up endorsing the empiricist belief that the object remains exterior to the subject. It was based on this belief that Marx and Engels could speak of a distorted, residual appropriation of reality and of inverted representations of the social relations of the individuals. But contrarily to the empiricist credo, knowledge of reality is not to be acquired through experience only. After all, men’s experience, their “material behaviour” in the context of their “historical life-process,” and their empirical awareness of the world are the obstacles that prevent them from gaining access to “real, positive science”—here depicted as the only antidote to ideology. Empirical experience does not constitute scientifically valid knowledge per se. However, Marx and Engels admit that any truly scientific survey of human history must contemplate men’s “actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions”3. I should say that the simplicity of the metaphor of the upside-down image is quite appealing, but such simplicity is only apparent, as it veils a highly structured complexity aggregating different cognitive operations and fulfilling distinct social functions. Contrarily to what is widely assumed, ideology at this stage of Marx’s theory does not simply refer to false or deceptive ideas about oneself and about the world (were it so and he would just be echoing the Young Hegelians, who sustained that the opposition human-divine is pure illusion). It also refers to the mystifying function that those ideas—being in fact generated by an essentially practical consciousness—have in every social practice. Those ideas distract the individuals from their real conditions of existence, i. e., from the relations of exploitation and the oppression from which capitalism draws most of its strength. And it is “the ideas of the ruling class,” they state, that “are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force”4. That is also why we cannot dismiss this earlier concept of ideology as a sheer synonym for illusion, or simply a set of ideas or representations detached from reality. It serves, as we can deduce from what I have just quoted, a function. It has a political force, the same way speech has, as suggested by Austin, both an illocutory and perlocutory force. Up to a certain point, although we can condemn and even reject certain ideas as

Ideology B. C. (Before Capital) and Later Reactions


illusions or as an offspring of an idealist mind, it does not follow that we are denying their materiality, that is, their effect on the organization of social relations or institutions, on the distribution of power, etc. The theoretical consequences of this other side of ideology were to be felt much later5. The above quotation is also an attempt to throw into relief the mechanisms whereby ideology not only constrains language, but also depends on the latter to reinforce the dominating status of a given class: a given “use of language” allows some meanings to gain wide currency, thus reinforcing the disposition of social relations in accordance with given forms of social consciousness, while blocking out the real contours and circumstances of the life-process. Nevertheless, despite representing a breakthrough in how to examine social representations in the analysis of the relations of production within the capitalist system, the concept of ideology as expressed above is grounded on the notion of class reductionism. This perspective forces us to consider that every identity—even a non-class identity—is entirely built on class struggle, that is, on the contradiction within capitalist societies between wage-earners and those who hold the means of production. As we shall see, class reductionism, along with epiphenomenalism, the two major pillars of Marx’s economism, were especially targeted by post-Marxists. Notwithstanding, we cannot rush into believing that Marx’s concept of class was too limitative or reductive. Since the manuscript of Capital breaks off exactly at the point when Marx was about to discuss the constitution of class, we cannot but speculate about the way in which he was conceiving, at this stage of his theory, the complexity of the constitutive rules of classification of social groupings. Still, the vitality of the concept of ideology as defined in The German Ideology can be ascertained by later reactions. I will focus on some of the most significant of the past few decades. Althusser, for example, stressed the “negative thesis” underlying this concept: Ideology […] is for Marx an imaginary assemblage (bricolage), a pure dream, empty and vain, constituted by the day’s residues from the only full and positive reality, that of the concrete history of concrete material individuals materially producing their existence. It is on this basis that ideology has no history in The German Ideology since its history is outside it, where the only existing history, is the history of concrete individuals, etc.6

By “negative thesis” Althusser meant two things. Firstly, that ideology offers no positive knowledge of reality whatsoever, despite the fact that


Chapter Five

individuals are themselves materially engaged in the processes that constitute that reality. Secondly, that ideology is devoid of any history “of its own.” Up to a certain point, Althusser was just repeating what Marx and Engels had already stated when they maintained that “forms of consciousness corresponding to [morality, religion, metaphysics, and the rest of ideology] […] have no history, no development”7. They argued that, despite the diversity of manifestations occurring in the course of history, those forms belong to one single unchangeable epistemic phenomenon present in all human societies. Althusser, however, did intend to sever the ties between ideology and history. In fact, it was Marx and Engels’s words that allowed Althusser to draw a distinction between (1) “ideologies” as concrete historical phenomena within the sphere of the class struggle and (2) “ideology” as something “endowed with a structure and a functioning such as to make it a non-historical reality […] present in the same form throughout what we can call history”8. And in order to assert its atemporality, Althusser ended up equating it with Freud’s concept of the unconscious. He maintained that ideology, being in fact the unconscious relation between men and the world, is not bound by the laws of time either. Besides, if the unconscious cannot be dissociated from the human being, neither can ideology be separated from the social formation9. But this would not be the only aspect of The German Ideology that the French philosopher attempted to recast. As he tried to clarify a given theoretical imprecision deriving from the notion of mystification that informed Marx’s earlier version of ideology, he would also come to reject the very concept of “idea”—which would always lead back to the very idealism Marx and Engels were fighting—and speak in turn of the ideological functions of “recognition” and “misrecognition” (méconnaissance). These concepts, which he drew from Lacan, were used to explain the process by which ideology constitutes and interpellates concrete individuals as subjects within a given social position and engaged in certain material practices. He rejected the notion that ideology was merely about men and women endowed with a false consciousness about themselves and the world10. What is at stake, then, is not the distortion or inversion of reality that ideology is supposed to operate, but the “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”11. It is because of this imaginary relationship that individuals are able to identify themselves with certain social representations and to relate to each other by means of such representations. Raymond Williams, on the other hand, assumed a critical position visà-vis Marx and Engels. He exposed the simplistic and somehow imprecise

Ideology B. C. (Before Capital) and Later Reactions


language of “reflexes,” “echoes,” “phantoms” and “sublimates” employed in The German Ideology to refer to ideas that, according to the English theorist, were “as much part of [the material social] process as material products themselves”12. Williams could not devise the study of the “real-life process” without “setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived” because they are still, whether we like it or not, “real, active men”13. And it is thanks to “what men say” and to what men say about themselves, that is, thanks to their discourses, that we can hope to reconstruct history. According to Williams, the authors of The German Ideology leave us in a difficult situation if we are to strive for “real knowledge” (the “real, positive science” (Wissenschaft in the original)) concerning “the practical process of development of men”14 by starting to ignore what men have to say about themselves. The result would be… …an objectivist fantasy: that the whole “real life-process” can be known independently of language (“what men say”) and of its records (“men as narrated”). For the very notion of history would become absurd if we did not look at “men as narrated”…15

By calling their proposal “an objectivist fantasy,” Williams was in fact accusing Marx and Engels of indulging in the same kind of perception they were supposed to have battled away at. But that was not all. He also alerted us to the way in which Marx and Engels appeared to belittle the realizations of language in their epistemological programme: it was not consistent with the importance they ended up attaching to language and its materiality as the constitutive element of consciousness16. We should, nevertheless, take into account that in the passage highlighted by Williams they were targeting German idealism and certain forms of knowledge that were blind to the ideological underpinnings of certain discourses. What they were rejecting was not “narrated” history as a legitimate object of study, as suggested by Williams, but rather the validity of certain historiographical perspectives and practices. Actually, contrarily to Williams’s claims, The German Ideology is in a sense dedicated to “what men say” about themselves: one has only to read their reactions to Bauer and Stirner. But that which constituted for Williams the reason why the camera obscura theory should be censured—Marx’s insistence on the spectral nature of our knowledge of the world—was for Derrida the cornerstone of his approach to the German philosopher’s thought. In a polemical work that could somehow be regarded as the balance sheet of Marxism, he argued:


Chapter Five The treatment of the phantomatic in The German Ideology announces or confirms the absolute privilege that Marx always grants to religion, to ideology as religion, mysticism, or theology, in his analysis of ideology in general. If the ghost gives its form, that is to say, its body, to the ideologem, then it is the essential feature [le propre], so to speak, of the religious, according to Marx, that is missed when one effaces the semantics or the lexicon of the spectre, as translations often do, with values deemed to be more or less equivalent (fantasmagorical, hallucinatory, fantastic, imaginary, and so on). The mystical character of the fetish, in the mark it leaves on the experience of the religious, is first of all a ghostly character.17

Derrida’s Spectres of Marx may well be an instance of the recent “turn to religion” of much continental philosophy, which has caused several religious categories and concepts to play an increasingly important role in current political philosophy and philosophical ethics, as John Roberts shows18. True or not, the fact remains that this deconstructive reading— trying to rescue the ineffable or transcendental from that which seems to be a discourse haunted, as it were, by materialistic preoccupations—is rather challenging insofar as it explores a dimension that most Marxists have been trying to avoid for fear they may be touching upon one particular aspect of Marx’s thought —”the absolute privilege that Marx always grants to religion.” Such an aspect seems to escape the safer, by far more systematized ground of historical materialism and structural determinism. In order to explore that dimension, Derrida had only to conjure up the philosophical sources that inspired The German Ideology, even if only indirectly, by means of allusions, spectral references hanging in the air: Hegel, Stirner, Feuerbach. Stirner, for example, claimed that the “spirit” arose “out of nothing,” created itself and the “spiritual world”19, and that man, although being more than spirit, could only perceive the truth if he could see the spirit in every object, transforming the world into the spectre of truth. Marx and Engels mocked this by means of a metaphor well in tune with their critique of the capitalist mode of production: “[this] is the first manufacture of spectres on a large scale.—It is now no longer a matter of perceiving objects, but of perceiving the truth; first he perceives objects truly, which he defines as the truth of perception, and he transforms this into perception of the truth”20. Feuerbach, too, did not escape scrutiny. In fact, regardless of the many criticisms Marx made of Feuerbach’s materialism, brilliantly recapitulated in his Theses, he owed much of his thinking to the latter’s onslaughts on religion and to his concept of religious alienation. In The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach claimed that God was but a projection of idealized

Ideology B. C. (Before Capital) and Later Reactions


human qualities and aspirations, and that this belief in an imaginary other—an immortal deity endowed with infinite power—had been constructed as the opposite representation of his own limitations and finite existence. By summoning the Stirnerian and Feuerbachian ghosts, Derrida succeeded in showing that Marx conceptualized ideology not only as an epistemic inversion of reality, but above all as the realm of sublimation. In other words, Marx construed it as the locus where a given representation of reality is also idolized, where it becomes an eidǀlon, an entity of a sacred (and therefore unquestionable, untouchable) nature. And why should Derrida insist on the sublimating effects of ideology? I believe here lies one of the major contributions of Derrida’s work to the discussion of this concept: he diluted the classical ontological opposition between the material and the spiritual. By suspending the divide between reality and the spectral the French philosopher showed that, in fact, reality cannot appear before us except in its spectral, ghostly form, the same way all “spectres,” all “fetishes,” can only be perceived in their materiality, in their corporeality21. Vološinov had already realized this when he maintained that even physical bodies are converted into signs and that, despite being a part of material reality, they “reflect” and “refract” “another reality,” the same way “an ideological sign has some kind of material embodiment”22. But I think that when Derrida speaks of the “mystical character of the fetish” in Marx, he is attaching too much importance to the influence of the transcendental and of the religious on Marx’s discourse. I still believe that the “mystical character of the fetish,” although primarily a “ghostly character,” finds its place in Marx’s philosophy as one particular aspect of his critique of the social relations in the capitalist system. Marx and Engels’s onslaught on the Stirnerian phenomenology reveals that “the absolute privilege that Marx always grants to religion,” as Derrida would have it, is not “absolute” at all but merely “relative,” a “privilege” that arises out of the need to construct a philosophical discourse that vindicates the “real, positive science” of “real life” and that must therefore be based on a negative thesis of religion. This is how Marx and Engels would have replied to Derrida: The standpoint at which people are content with such tales about spirits is itself a religious one, because for people who adopt it religion is a satisfactory answer, they regard religion as causa sui (for both “selfconsciousness“ and “man” are still religious) instead of explaining it from the empirical conditions and showing how definite relations of industry and intercourse are necessarily connected with a definite form of society,


Chapter Five hence, with a definite form of state and hence, with a definite form of religious consciousness.23

Besides, as we shall see in Capital (1867-1894), the fetishism that gives rise to religious thought is the same that allows capitalism to grow sturdier. Although Marx may dwell now and then in the realm of the spiritual, what primarily moves him is sketching a scenario of political intervention that may bring about an alternative model of social and economic construction—hence his denunciation of the alienating effects of religious thought and his critique of capitalism. However, I must confess that I find it hard (maybe due to an ideological bias on my part) to conceive his call for revolutionary action without an ethics partly grounded on a notion of a Messianic, self-conscious, imperative-bound subject endowed with the responsibility of delivering human kind from the bondage of capital. The problem can be posited the following way: can revolutions be made without sublimating individuals and fashioning idols (whether these idols are secularized or not is irrelevant at this point)? Can a communist revolutionary action that relies on the transcendental be taken without endangering its materialistic foundations? Derrida’s summoning of the spectres of Marx, that is, of images of an idolized, ghostly Marx, is an attempt to unveil these contradictions, never to sort such matters out. Lenin’s reflections are, perhaps, the most eloquent embodiment of such contradictions. He knew how ghosts and idols might actually interfere with politics. It was precisely this issue that led him to write the following introductory lines to The State and Revolution (1918), a work produced while he was hiding from the Provisional Government in the summer of 1917: What is now happening to Marx’s theory has, in the course of history, happened repeatedly to the theories of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes fighting for emancipation. […] After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it. Today, the bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the labour movement concur in this doctoring of Marxism. They omit, obscure, or distort the revolutionary side of this theory, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie. All the social-chauvinists are now “Marxists” (don’t laugh!).24

Ideology B. C. (Before Capital) and Later Reactions


Ironically, the words of another icon (perhaps icons should be carefully heard before they are turned into such). At first glance, this remark is to be interpreted in the light of the historical context that preceded the October Revolution. Lenin was attacking all those who had been the first to slander and vilify revolutionary thinking in the past, and who were now (in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution or even earlier) pretending, although shallowly, to embrace some of its principles. He denounced this sort of idolatry as a part of a deliberate strategy to prevent the emergence of an authentic revolutionary movement, thus averting the social and political rupture it would no doubt cause. It is a document in tune with the April Theses, written after the February Revolution, in which he made the case for the transformation of that which for him had been a “bourgeois-democratic” revolution into a “proletarian-socialist” one. However, the importance of the historical context in the interpretation of this text should be made relative: substitute “social-chauvinists” for “Marxist Humanism” in France in the sixties and Lenin’s accusations still ring clear25—“(don’t laugh!).” What is significant about this quotation is that it provides some clues as to Lenin’s conception of ideology, which bears some resemblances to that of the early Marx, and which (paradoxically or not) ends up justifying Derrida’s insistence on religion. I will systematize. Firstly, we find here, once again, the opposition between essences (“substance”) and their appearances (“harmless icons”). Secondly, those appearances—materialized in this passage as apotheosized images, particularly through language (the revolutionary thinkers’ names are, as it were, “hallowed”)—result from a process of “distortion” or “omission” of reality. Thirdly, those representations are fabricated with the purpose of facilitating political manipulation, in a sort of pre-emptive strike launched by the bourgeoisie against the foundations of the revolutionary culture26. Finally, icons are instrumentalized to serve class interests and, consequently, to perpetuate class conflict, depicted here as a division between iconographers—the “oppressing” bourgeoisie—and the iconolaters—the “oppressed classes.” Despite exposing the way in which ideology works, Lenin, the stern materialist, was nevertheless unable to escape the seduction of metaphysics. He speaks of the “revolutionary soul,” that which is beyond the reach of “the bourgeoisie and [of] the opportunists within the labour movement”—that is, the “substance” which demagogy, political manoeuvring and pretence will not be able to subvert. It is a 360 degree turn. He starts off by denouncing fabricated idols, but ends taking refuge in religion. Any critic of Marxism can now claim that Lenin was also pursuing an intangible entity, here elevated to the position of a Hegelian


Chapter Five

Universal Subject, conscious of the laws that rule the movements of History. Althusser also faced the same predicament. In order to break free from the circularity that rendered Lenin’s arguments contradictory, he was forced to rescue discourse from the religious inclinations that underlie every exegetic practice and to deliver it from the temptations of a purely interpretive appropriation of reality. Discourse—and not the knowledge of the world—may well be the only instance that will ultimately enable us to dispose of the last transcendental remnants in the scientific edifice of historical materialism: Need I add that once we have broken with the religious complicity between Logos and Being; between the Great Book that was, in its very being, the World, and the discourse of the knowledge of the world; between the essence of things and its reading;—once we have broken those tacit pacts in which the men of a still fragile age secured themselves with magical alliances against the precariousness of history and the trembling of their own daring—need I add that, once we have broken these ties, a new conception of discourse at last becomes possible?27

Notes 1

Marx and Engels, 1996: 248; my italics. Idem: 42. 3 Idem: 43; my italics. 4 Idem: 64. 5 It would be up to Lukács to explore it in his much-quoted History and Class Consciousness and to promote it to a transformative force in the hands of the proletariat. Althusser, within the same trend, would later insist on the materiality of ideology and on its definite effects on social formations. 6 Althusser, 1971: 151. 7 Marx and Engels, 1998: 42. 8 Althusser: 1971: 151-2. 9 On Althusser’s dialogue with psychoanalysis see his Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan (1996) and Macey’s “Thinking with Borrowed Concepts: Althusser and Lacan” (1994). 10 Idem: 160-2. 11 Idem: 153. 12 Williams, 1977: 59. 13 Marx and Engels: 42. 14 Idem: 43. 15 Williams, 1977: 60. 16 “The ‘mind is from the outset afflicted with ‘the curse’ of being ‘burdened’ with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, 2

Ideology B. C. (Before Capital) and Later Reactions


sounds, in short, of language” (Marx and Engels, 1998: 49). Although the very materiality of language referred to here seems to be confined to the level of phonetics, this formula has far-reaching implications at all the other levels of the study of language. 17 Derrida, 1994: 148. 18 See Roberts, 2003. 19 Marx and Engels, 1998: 160-161. 20 Idem: 167-8. 21 Žižek, resorting to some of Lacan’s categories, seeks a more daring formulation. He claims that “there is no reality without the spectre, that the circle of reality can be closed only by means of an uncanny spectral supplement” and is to be justified by the fact that “the spectre gives body to that which escapes (the symbolically structured) reality,” which ultimately implies that the spectre becomes matter when reality, as a symbolical construct, fails to account for the (Lacanian) “real”; but if that is so, one might assume that the very materiality of the spectre could eventually enter the domain of reality, thus lending itself to becoming symbolized. Žižek, however, maintains that the spectre resists symbolization, that is, it eludes reality (Žižek, 1994: 20-21). Nevertheless, the categories with which he operates must not be confused with those of Marx’s. Lacan’s “real” is much closer to Marx’s imperceptible reality as defined in Capital than to the reality mentioned in The German Ideology, which can be object of a positive science. On the other hand, “(the symbolically structured) reality” about which Žižek talks is fantasy-construction (Žižek, 1989: 45) and resembles, in some aspects, some of the general features of ideology as defined by Althusser. Thus, it would never be possible to merge the notions of spectre and ideology. 22 Vološinov, 1986: 9, 11. 23 Marx and Engels, 1998: 166. 24 Lenin, 1978: 225. 25 This type of condemnatory attitude can be found in For Marx. In the disputes he saw himself involved in within the French Communist Party, Althusser remained highly critical of those scholars and activists who had embraced Marxist Humanism. As he argued: “Since the 1930s Marx’s Early Works have been a war-horse for petty bourgeois intellectuals in their struggle against Marxism; but little by little, and then massively, they have been set to work in the interests of a new ‘interpretation’ of Marxism which is today being openly developed by many Communist intellectuals, ‘liberated’ from Stalinist dogmatism by the Twentieth Congress. The themes of ‘Marxist Humanism’ and the ‘humanist’ interpretation of Marx’s work have progressively and irresistibly imposed themselves on recent Marxist philosophy, even inside Soviet and Western Communist Parties” (Althusser, 1969: 10-11). He considered the recrudescence of a humanist interpretation of Marx to be a symptom of the “inability to resolve the real (basically political and economic) problems posed by the conjuncture since the Twentieth Congress,” which, ideologically, entailed the “danger of masking these problems with the false “solution” of some merely ideological formulae” (idem: 12). Balibar would refer to these two historical conjunctures (the thirties and the


Chapter Five

early sixties) as moments in which the so-called “crisis of Marxism” reached its peak (Balibar, 1996: 110). But if we are to believe in Lenin’s words, that crisis had also been felt much earlier. 26 Note that in the previous footnote Althusser also speaks of “real problems” as opposed to “false solution,” and attacks “petty bourgeois intellectuals” and “Communist intellectuals” liberated from Stalinism who were out to question the foundations of Marxism. 27 Althusser and Balibar, 1970: 17.


Marx appeared to have discarded the ambiguous, volatile vocabulary of spectres and idols in The German Ideology when later, in the Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, he came up with his base-superstructure dyad to account for the relationship between economy and social institutions: The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary their social existence determines their consciousness.1

For a moment, the echoes of religion seem to disappear here. The “phantoms,” “sublimates” and “ghosts” that peopled The German Ideology and that lent the earlier conception of ideology its “phantasmagorical” hue, have now receded and have been replaced with the much more scientific lingo of the “ideological forms” of the superstructure—”the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic”2. Marx was here trying to dodge the somewhat unscientific lexis of the haunted, but in Capital his “spectrography” would resurface. Only this time it was under the guise of commodity fetishism. It is as if it were a symbology that had been held back, repressed, but that needed to be properly addressed, not in its own terms but in those of a theoretical edifice solid enough to deflect the metaphysical echoes of its own discourse. It would be this work that would also help us to understand what was really meant when Marx and Engels related language to “the relations of buying and selling” in the excerpt from The German Ideology quoted above, as we shall see later. A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying


Chapter Six human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. […] But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was. (Marx, 1994: 25-26)

It is as if Marx himself still felt he had not yet done with his onslaught on metaphysics. Not only does he resume the same kind of vocabulary we had already come across in The German Ideology (“mysterious” [“Mysteriöses”], “transcendent” [“sinnlich übersinnlisches”], “wonderful” [“wunderbarer”]), but also insists on the trope of the camera obscura by inverting the image of the commodity, by making it “stand on its head” [“er stellt sich allen andren Waren gegenüber auf den Kopf”3]. This time, however, his theoretical frame of reference is more elaborate and more consistent thanks to the development of his economic theory of value, which is, as I will explain, analogous to the philosophy of language present in the subtext of Capital—especially in respect to the processes of generation and circulation of meaning, as suggested by John Mepham. Let us start by considering some of the aspects of his theory of value. A major concern traverses Capital: what is the real nature of value and what are its manifest forms? How can its magnitude be determined in relation to different goods? How relevant is it for the constitution of the commodity? What bearing does it have not only on the processes of commodity exchange but also on social relations in general? What is its role in capitalist society? This concern is the reason why Marx decided to commence his critique of the capitalist system by demystifying the fetishist nature of the exchange-value of commodities, which, after all, “come into the world in the shape of use-values,” which is, after all, “their plain, homely, bodily form.” Nonetheless, the sheer use-value of things—that is, the determination of their objective usefulness for the life-process and for the material practices that it involves—is not enough to turn them into commodities. As he stated: They are […] commodities only because they are something twofold, both objects of utility and at the same time depositories of value. They manifest themselves therefore as commodities, or have the form of commodities, only in so far as they have two forms, a physical or natural form and a value form.4

This other value form, the form of exchange-value, is not “inherent”5

The Fetish Hiding (in) the Structure


or “immanent” (in the original) in the commodity, as one might believe. It is determined independently of its use-value and on the basis of the “socially necessary labour-time,” that is, the time needed to produce it under normal conditions and within the average levels of productivity and available technical means in a given historical period. Social conditions are, therefore, decisive in the definition of exchange-value6. What caught Marx’s attention, however, was the way in which value manifests itself to most individuals: not as a relation established between producers, but as an objective relation between products. As he argued: A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.7

The argument for such imperceptibility or opacity of reality is further stressed when he maintains that “[t]he characters that stamp products as commodities […] have already acquired the stability of natural, self-understood forms of social life”8 and seem, therefore, immutable and universal. Now this point is extremely important. Commodity fetishism should not be confused with the political question of a more or less conscious denial or concealment of facts on the part of a given class or classes in order to favour its social position or to reinforce its economic power. It is rather an epistemological problem. Marx now speaks of two different but interrelated planes of reality: on the one hand, we have the plane of the “perceptible,” where given forms of social life appear before us as “natural, self-understood”; on the other, we have the “imperceptible,” the real relations that, although they cannot be recognized as such, manifest themselves by means of distorted appearances, as social hieroglyphics. In Chapter Nineteen, dedicated to the discussion of how the value of labour-power is transformed into wages (which is a process that bears some resemblances with commodity fetishism), Marx spells out how this epistemological mechanism works: In the expression “value of labour,” the idea of value is not only completely obliterated, but actually reversed. It is an expression as imaginary as the value of the earth. These imaginary expressions arise, however, from the relations of production themselves. They are categories for the phenomenal forms of essential relations. That in their appearance


Chapter Six things often represent themselves in inverted form is pretty well known in every science except Political Economy.9

“Phenomenal forms” vs. “essential relations”; “phenomena” vs. “hidden substratum” [“Hintergrund”]10; “juridical notions of both labourer and capitalist” vs. “actual relation”; “mystifications of the capitalist mode of production”11 vs. “the real relation of things”12—these are some of the expressions used to reinforce this simple—but fundamental—distinction that allows us to understand, in a more systematic way, the cognitive mechanisms underlying the functioning of the capitalist system and of its social formation. Appearances or phenomenal forms—such as value, wages and money-form, for instance—do not exist independently of each other but are articulated and form a structure insofar as reality, which sustains such appearances, is also structured by means of a network of relations and of interrelated categories—such as use-value and labour-power. If we are to assume that ideology and commodity fetishism are synonyms, then such structural arrangement adopted by Marx within the scope of his epistemological investigation casts a new light on the concept of ideology. If phenomenal forms “appear directly as spontaneously as current modes of thought”13 it is legitimate to infer that ideology—which governs, as an apparently coherent whole, those modes of thought—is not just to be understood as a set of inarticulate, false or illusory ideas serving a specific social function, distracting individuals from their material conditions, but as the cognitive device that regulates both social relations and the constitution of social representations and identities in a dynamic relation to real relations imposed by a given mode of production. However, as we shall see, merging ideology with commodity fetishism is more problematic than it appears to be.

Notes 1

Marx, 1961: 5. With this formulation, Marx put a risky bet on determinism and left unsolved the problem of epiphenomenalism, which Althusser and Poulantzas would go to great pains to solve. I shall come back to this point later on. 2 Idem: 6. 3 Marx and Engels, 1968: 85. 4 Marx, 1961: 38. 5 Idem: 28. 6 As I have been discussing the question of use-value, I would also like to indulge in a reflection on the problem of the value of texts or utterances, understood either as exchange-value or as use-value. To view them as use-value only would mean to

The Fetish Hiding (in) the Structure


take them for their illocutory and perlocutory force, that is, as serving a given intention or purpose, as having an effect or causing to have an effect on the social. That perspective is coincident with that of the projects of Critical Linguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis. But looking now from the angle of their exchange-value, that is, from the way they relate not only to other incommensurably different texts but also to the subject, texts and utterances cease to be mere instruments of social change, and regain their full symbolical force, as they can now be traced back to the unconscious of the subject, which, according to Lacan, is itself of the order of the symbolical. In this sense, an utterance, a proposition, a text, is ideological insofar as it is not simply to be regarded as having an instrumental use only, but because it is spectrally relevant to the constitution of subject as it is set apart as a ghostly demarcation that helps him/her retrieve apparently discrete, identifiable (that is, verbally consistent) moments or pieces of reality in order to construct his/her own symbolical order(s), his/her own subjectivity(ies). 7 Idem: 51. 8 Marx, 1994: 29. 9 Marx, 1990: 609. 10 Idem: 615. 11 Idem: 613. 12 Idem: 615. 13 Idem: 615


In a way, this epistemic mechanism of structural determinism exposed in Capital explains the reason why language-in-use, as the living embodiment of such modes of thought, ends up endorsing or “expressing,” as it were, “the relations of buying and selling,” as suggested in The German Ideology. It also articulates and constitutes those relations the same way exchange-value allows us to articulate incommensurably different products and “the different kinds of labour expended upon them”1. John Mepham, in “The Theory of Ideology in Capital” (1972) is clear about this point: This distinction between phenomenal form and real relation is applied both to the order of reality and to the order of language and thought (“phenomenal forms appear as modes of thought”) […]. One thinks about and talks about social relations in terms [like “wages” or “price of labour”] because these categories have the same form that reality has, because this is the form in which reality “is presented to us.” […] This means that the distinction is not a superficial one, a simple rewording of some such common-sense distinctions as those between “superficial” and “profound” or “confused” and “clear.” It is a distinction that contains a substantial epistemological theory about the relation between thought and reality and about the origins of illusions about reality. This theory is that the origin of ideological illusions is in the phenomenal forms of reality itself.2

The order of reality (i. e., reality as “presented to us,” that of the phenomenal forms) and the order of language and thought are not two separate orders. These orders, which prop each other up, are always cognitive elaborations obtained on the plane of the phenomenal. “Illusions about reality,” built (and not simply “expressed”) as they are by language, do not result directly from a distortion of the “hidden substratum” [“Hintergrund”], but from the phenomena that stand before us and that

Is There a Place for Revolution in Structural Determinism?


substratum. This counters the commonplace assumption that language bridges the gap between us and reality, or that it literally “reflects” reality, or that the word “expresses” the world as it is. As de Man argues, ideology is “the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism”3. Thus, a definition of ideology should not be narrowed down to a mere inversion of reality, but should rather encompass the cognitive and linguistic modes whereby the phenomenal forms are appropriated, classified, or even deleted, in a word, how reality is alluded to4. Mepham later adds: Ideological language does not just distract attention away from real social relations, nor does it explain them away, nor even does it directly deny them. It structurally excludes them from thought. And this is because the phenomenal forms of social life constitute not merely a realm of appearances of particulars, but appearances articulated upon a semantic field. Social life is a domain of meanings with which men “spontaneously” think their relations to other men and to nature. […] Social life is structured like a language; or rather the conditions that make it possible for social life to be of a particular kind (a particular mode of production) are also conditions for the possibility of a particular language. These conditions are material conditions and are the social practices which constitute a particular mode of production. The “natural self-understood” meanings encountered in social life form a text which one needs to decipher to discover its true meaning.5

By conceiving social life as a “domain of meanings,” which ends up forming a “text,” and by comparing its structure to that of a language, Mepham is giving rise to a conception of “discourse” similar to that that has been presented to us in the post-Marxist agenda, as I will later demonstrate. But one should be cautious: the equation, as it has been laid down, can be misleading. After all, he is still operating within the paradigm of structural determinism, which post-Marxists have tried to discredit. Discourse, just like social life itself, responds to an economic base that determines it in the last instance (“the conditions that make it possible for social life to be of a particular kind (a particular mode of production) are also conditions for the possibility of a particular language”). It is not difficult to see, at this stage of the argumentation, how far Althusserian structuralism frames much of Mepham’s understanding of language-in-use, which is succinctly outlined in the final part of his essay: (1) discourse is a two-layered phenomenon, whereby “superficial, apparent, manifest semantic content” contrasts with “deeper, more


Chapter Seven

revealing, latent, formative principles of discourse” (echoing, in a sense, Althusser’s concept of “symptomatic reading,” which he, in turn, borrowed from Freud); (2) specific ideological meanings can only be ascribed to certain words, images or phrases if sustained by given “orders of discourse” or, to use Pêcheux’s vocabulary, “discursive formations”; (3) discourse can claim some degree of relative autonomy in relation to “any particular set of generative categories” and it is always overdetermined. Mepham was trying to be coherent with the text he set out to analyse, but on account of that he failed to perceive that language—materialized by conflicting discursive formations that characterize contemporary societies—is, for that matter, a locus of antagonisms that render the nature of social life and of language highly contingent. It is tempting to subscribe to the idea that the whole of social life is discursively ordered—which might be just another way to recapture Lukács’s “social totality”—thus assigning to discourse a universal dimension. However, to move from such an expression of universalism towards particularism and to consider the simultaneous existence of different kinds of discursive orders, of alternative ways of constructing social order and social fantasy—as advocated by post-Marxists—would be a climb too steep for Mepham. Such a move would have to entail both the deconstruction of such “totality” and a notion of the social encompassing antagonistic networks of meanings, representations, and identities generated from differential positions. Among these positions, we should include the class of the revolutionary proletariat, a group of individuals who share not only a certain position within the capitalist mode of production, but also the ideological class consciousness—so Lukács believed—of their own transformative power. Mepham himself admits that “the theory of ideology outlined here is clearly very incomplete inasmuch as it would have to be expanded to include a theory of mediations and overdetermination to make of it a useful tool in the analysis of those cases that are less directly grounded on the particular categories discussed in Capital than are those related to the wage-form discussed above”6. He is right: although Marx’s epistemological proposal in Capital represents an important progress in explaining the contradictions of the capitalist system, it poses, at the same time, a problem to all those who hope to step out of the internal logic of commodity fetishism, in particular the revolutionary proletariat. In fact, the German philosopher did not lay bare what cognitive mechanisms should be set in motion to counter the effects of the structure of a given mode of production. In other words, he did not show how, within the tenets of structural determinism, the definitive rupture with

Is There a Place for Revolution in Structural Determinism?


capitalism could be devised. Is it possible to conceive alternative “orders of language and thought” that go against the structural effects of the extant mode of production? This is certainly a case that Marx failed to examine in this particular work. Does it ironically mean that the Marx of Capital undermined any theoretical justification of the revolution? Althusser took notice of this problem in Capital. In his “Preface to Capital Volume One” (March 1969) he admits that “a mere education of the consciousness [of the proletariat, of specialists and of other bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ‘intellectuals’] is not enough, nor a mere reading of Capital” (my italics). Still, this particular work might provide them with “supplementary theoretical education in the form of objective explanations and proofs” which are necessary to process the revolutionary transition in their consciousness from sheer “class instinct to an (objective) proletarian class position”7. Since this is an operation to take place primarily at the level of the subject’s consciousness, one could object that Althusser’s pedagogical challenge betrays an idealistic bias, which he himself had sought to counter in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Actually, in the latter essay, the very notion of “consciousness,” a form of reification of our mental processes, was replaced by that of “recognition,” which befits his description of the modes whereby we, individuals, are interpellated or hailed by ideology as “always-already subjects”8. Étienne Balibar, in one of his studies on historical materialism (1975), was also highly critical of this flaw in the Marx of Capital. Balibar accused the German philosopher of having been caught up in the German ideology he had intended to expose earlier. He argued that Marx had been unable to reconcile the contradiction that resulted from trying to bring idealist and materialist positions—inherited from Hegel, on the one hand, and from Feuerbach, on the other—under one single theoretical roof. Balibar stated that had Marx had failed to meet the political demands of historical materialism in Capital. For Balibar, this work was, at best, a description of the architecture of the existing capitalist mode of production, grounded on a critique of Hegel’s idealism from the inside. It never came to be a materialist theory of ideologies because this would have required the establishment of yet another materialist theory of production, which Capital does not provide. Of course Balibar spoke from an Althusserian standpoint: if a revolutionary ideology is to produce a transformation of the material conditions and of the modes of production, that is, if it has to assert itself as a transformative force, it can only do so on the basis of a general theory of production. Such a theory might account not only for how the modes of


Chapter Seven

production work, but also for the way in which they are generated and can be changed. Balibar argued that Capital remained silent in this respect, although Marx in his Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy had already dropped a hint about it when he alluded to “the change of the economic foundation” brought about by “the material transformation of the economic conditions of productions”9. Nevertheless, how ideology, as a superstructural phenomenon, can trigger such transformation at the level of the infrastructure is precisely the question that is left unanswered (which only proves that Marxism needs to be confronted with the political praxis so as to evolve theoretically). In order to sort out this problem, the Althusserian move consisted in asserting the material dimension of ideology and its existence as a set of material practices. Vološinov had once claimed that all signifiers are material and must therefore be considered as an integral part of reality, and that the word, the ideological phenomenon par excellence, is fused with concrete forms of social intercourse that remain dependent on the economic base. Likewise, the Althusserians believed that ideology, despite being a “‘representation’ of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”10, is also to be looked upon as a part of reality. They claimed that ideology does not exist in the world of “ideas” (which is dismissed, as I noted earlier, as a part of the idealist folklore) but as specific material practices that take place within concrete Ideological State Apparatuses11. Unlike Mepham, Balibar does not confuse the concept of ideology with that of commodity fetishism. The very title of Mepham’s article does indeed suggest that Marx’s initial concept of ideology developed to a more elaborate form, which could be found at the heart of Capital’s epistemology. Balibar could not oppose this more emphatically: it is fundamental that ideology and commodity fetishism are kept apart, as two distinct issues. The latter points to the epistemic closure of capitalism by suturing its contradictions and blunting its antagonisms, whereas the former provides an escape route to revolutionary thinking. The difference between the two concepts becomes all the more apparent if we are to consider two aspects of the commodity fetishism thesis to which Balibar drew our attention. First, (mis)recognition is an effect of the structure of commodity exchange on the subject, who holds a given position within that structure. Second, the commodity is to be seen not only as the object of such misrecognition, but also as “the origin or the subject of its own misrecognition”12. Balibar concludes that the commodity in Capital is conceived as Subject, insofar as it represents itself within the capitalist system as (1) an element of the labour process, (2) an essence,

Is There a Place for Revolution in Structural Determinism?


and (3) constitutive of the money-form. Allow me to rephrase this: Marx had already asserted that “[t]here it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things”13, which is to say that the “fantastic form” of the commodity must not be defined in terms of a relation between things, but rather understood qua relation between individuals. However, it is its reified existence—not as concrete, particular objects, but as the abstract Universal, Value—that imposes on individuals their own social position. That is, the commodity constitutes them as subjects within the capitalist mode of production. This way, subjects can be said to be the embodiment of the Universal Subject—the commodity—, which rules over the relations of the producers. Actually, one could say that the basic Marxian thesis of Capital is, to quote Žižek, “already the effective world of commodities which behaves like a Hegelian subject-substance, like a Universal going through a series of particular embodiments” (Žižek, 1989: 32). Therefore, the commodity fetishism theory accounts for the genesis of the alienated subject, a subject whose knowledge is based on misrecognition. So much for revolutionary thinking in capitalist society! By the same token, however, I find it difficult not to understand the Althusserian concept of a-historical ideology in the same terms. Actually, in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” Althusser also offers a definition of ideology based on the notion of an eternal essence constitutive of the social subjects that remains impervious to the accidents of history: a Universal that outlives its particular embodiments (ideologies), as the “Absolute Subject,” which every individual subject must recognize in order to recognize the other social subjects and to misrecognize himself as such14. Although the French philosopher tried to prove how far Marx had gone in his attempt to gain some distance from the Hegelian dialectic, here he himself apparently gave in to the idealist temptation of the Absolute Spirit. With an important difference, though. Its realization is not the world, as Hegel would have it, but the subjectivities at work in specific social formations. This means that ideology/the Absolute Subject is directly responsible for the objective existence of such concrete social formations. Based on this conceptual rephrasing, I will maintain that there are still Hegelian overtones in Althusser’s theory, which derive I believe from a not overtly admitted attempt at a compromise between Marx’s structural determinism and the Hegelian possibility of a spiritual construction of the world. We should not assume, however, that Althusser believed that the subjects constituted by ideology via interpellation were able to intervene


Chapter Seven

directly in history as agents of a revolutionary rupture. I shall come to this point later. No wonder Balibar reacted so strongly against the theoretical foreclosure of the revolution in the theory of commodity fetishism. In order to give some room for social and political change, he would defend that a “conscious” proletarian ideology should be able to offer the proletariat the epistemic conditions to revolutionize both the relations of production and the base15. However, if the emergence of that conscious ideology is to take place, the superstructure must claim some degree of autonomy in relation to the economic base and to the mode of production. He would therefore argue that specific ideological social relations, materialized as they are as practices within the Ideological State Apparatuses, are distinct from the relations of production. Note that he was not discarding the notion that the former are determined “in the last instance” by the base16. Theoretically speaking, the problem lies in developing an explanation of how a new social formation can succeed an old one given the conditions of possibility of the existing mode of production. What is needed, in other words, is a theory accounting for the historical transition of social formations, which is also to say, a theory that tackles the problematic of the change of the modes of production and of their material conditions—a theory to be integrated, as he suggested in Reading Capital, in a general theory of combination or articulation of the modes of production. And this, so Balibar believed, is what historical materialism should be about: not just a “theory of the need of (revolutionary) transformation of social relations, but a theory of the transformation of the mode of transformation of social relations”17. Of course Marx had already stated in the Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy that revolutionary ruptures result from the existence of antagonisms between productive forces and relations of production, determining the transition of modes of production and the transformation of social formations. But this explanation was not enough for Balibar, who found it difficult to define with some precision the extension of the sphere of such antagonisms within the complex social whole18. According to Balibar’s theory of transition, then, there is an invariant structure of production, which will never disappear (just like Althusser’s a-historical ideology) and which takes a particular form (the mode of production) during a given period of time. It is within the conditions of possibility of this structure that transition, a gradual movement from one dominant mode of production to the next, occurs. As a result, it is false to

Is There a Place for Revolution in Structural Determinism?


assume that they simply succeed each other by breaks, let alone to believe that there are moments of total destructuration. Thus, Balibar admitted (echoing the tenets of structural determinism) that “the forms of transition themselves are particular “forms of manifestation” (Erscheinungsformen) of this general structure: they are […] modes of production. They therefore imply the same conditions as every mode of production, and notably a certain form of complexity of the relations of production, of correspondence between the different levels of social practice”19. If this correspondence between the different levels of social practice is one of the determining conditions for the existence of the mode of production, then one can only conclude that it is not the mode of production that determines the superstructure, but the other way round: every mode of production is, in fact, “a complex unity of determinations that derive from the base and from the superstructure”20. But what is most interesting about Balibar’s theory is that he strove to find, within the limits imposed by the structure, the role of the class struggle in the historical process of transition of modes of production. As we have just seen, he believed that the structure of production allows the “correspondence” or “articulation” between the different levels of the social structure. That is the case of the relatively autonomous instances of economic practice and political practice—which assume the form of class struggle, law and the State—, all of which intervene upon each other21. To explain such articulation, he spoke of a system of interventions, which, despite being indispensable to the process of transition, is not sufficient to cause a change per se. What happens is that, in transition periods, these practices appear dislocated in relation to the dominant mode of production, which further implies, in the eyes of Balibar, the disruption of the above “correspondence” between different levels: In a transition period, there is a “non-correspondence” because the mode of intervention of political practice, instead of conserving the limits and producing its effects within their determination, displaces them and transforms them. There is therefore no general form of correspondence between the levels, but a variation of the forms, which depend on the degree of autonomy of one instance with respect to another (and to the economic instance) and on the mode of their mutual intervention.22

Balibar further added that dislocation happens by virtue of a double-reference of these levels to two competing modes of production along a diachronic plane. From a synchronic angle, this shows that it is possible to envisage the simultaneous existence of two different modes of production and the dominance one exerts over the other (as in the process


Chapter Seven

of emergence of the Industrial Revolution, for example), marginalizing or extinguishing it. At the same time, however, Balibar admits that additional study is required to exhaust the problematic of the transformation of the limits of the structure, in particular as far as the incidence of class struggle—and, consequently, of ideology—on the economic structure is concerned: The analysis of the transformation of the limits therefore requires a theory of the different times of the economic structure and of the class struggle, and of their articulation in the social structure. To understand how they can join together in the unity of a conjuncture (e.g., how, if other conditions are fulfilled, the crisis can be the occasion for a—revolutionary— transformation of the structure of production) depends on this…23

In this sense, Althusser’s essay “Contradiction and Overdetermination” (1962) already sought to give us an insight into processes of “transformation of the limits,” as Balibar would put it. Althusser claimed that social formations do not mirror any kind of “pure” contradiction between forces of production and relations of production, a contradiction secreted, as it were, by the economic structure, but are themselves ruled by an “overdetermined contradiction.” In other words, they are an “accumulation of effective determinations (deriving from the superstructures and from special national and international circumstances) on the determination in the last instance by the economic”24. It is this “accumulation of effective determinations” that can lead either to historical inhibition or revolutionary rupture25. Here Althusser dealt a severe blow to the myth of the “single contradiction” which had characterised orthodox Marxism, and which was responsible for the idea of a linear progression from capitalism to Communism by means of the build-up of social tensions deriving from the contradiction between the relations of production and the productive forces—as demonstrated in the multiple forms of antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Not one, but several overdetermined contradictions, as practices articulated in the complex whole of the social formation, are the driving force of every historical transition as they condensate or fuse together intensifying latent antagonisms. Now we could well claim that this reading of Marx is itself, in a given sense, a “revolutionary rupture”—or an “epistemological break,” to use words Althusser borrowed from Bachelard—from Stalin’s determinist and mechanistic theses that still prevailed after the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956. The possibility of change, the vision of a dynamics of reality had now been restored to Marxism. It

Is There a Place for Revolution in Structural Determinism?


represented a crucial departure from Soviet dogmatism and from the paradigm accepted by most communist parties that the development of the forces of production of capitalism would inevitably lead to rise of Communism in the industrial countries. The historicist thesis of “historical inevitability,” a kind of sociological determinism revealing history to be moving towards the end of all social antagonisms through the resolution of that single contradiction—an idea so vehemently criticised by Popper in his Open Society and its Enemies (1950)—, had now been checkmated by Marxism itself. The price paid for this theoretical sacrifice would be high, but Althusser knew that this would rescue Marxism from the grip of an oversimplified historicist understanding of the evolution of social formations, which would continue to legitimize situations of totalitarianism and of political intolerance. Besides, Althusser’s proposals helped Marxism step out of strict economic determinism by accepting the possibility of “reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base” (although Althusser used these terms only reluctantly, since he considered them to be part of the vocabulary of a descriptive representation of the social whole, to which he did not entirely subscribe)26. And yet, the question of defining of the agency responsible for the revolutionary rupture remains open. In Althusser the notion of subject is constructed on the basis of the negation of (1) the individual, as an indivisible, self-contained whole, as a conscious and self-assertive agent of social transformation and producer of his own meanings, and (2) the possibility of existence of the “true consciousness” as opposed to the “false consciousness,” for all forms of consciousness must necessarily be constituted by ideology and do not exist outside of it. The Althusserian model of subject leaves no room for free will and turns the human being, once mythified as an individual capable of transforming world history27, into a functionality of the structure, the result of an overdetermination, removing from him the capacity for agency or resistance within a given . Once more, a symptomatic reading of Althusser’s text betrays Hegel’s influence, maybe more than he would have it. It is as if the idealist spectre of the latter, after being exorcised by Marx, was conjured in the materialist theses of the former. I will consider three important aspects where that influence is most visible. Firstly: the concept of Freedom, according to the German philosopher, is but an abstract process of the Spirit that “exhibits itself in the conscious will of men, as their interest”28. The Hegelian consciousness and Freedom are manifestations of the Universal Spirit occurring beyond the realm of Necessity. Similarly, the Althusserian consciousness is a construction of


Chapter Seven

Ideology (qua Universal Subject), freedom being but an ideological effect begotten by misrecognition and intertwined in the process of constitution of the human subject, who acts as if he was free but who is in fact merely moving within the limits allowed by the Universal Subject29. Secondly: the Hegelian consciousness does not come into existence as such, but derives from “a hidden, most profoundly hidden, unconscious instinct,” an “implicit form” that realizes “the Idea of the Spirit”30. Likewise, the French philosopher maintained that the mechanisms that give rise to our consciousness are hidden from us, this time not as metaphysical shadows, but as the “obviousnesses” that remain transparent to us—especially through language—and upon which we build all the certainties of our lives (the so-called “ideological recognition function”31). Thirdly: “God”—or the “Absolute Spirit” as defined in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1806-1807)—not only occupies the central position, but also conceives itself as its own aim, as its own telos. It is a self-determining being, whose will perpetually realizes itself in a mirror-like process. All historical phenomena, as contradictory or random as they may sometimes seem, revolve around this stable, unchanging principle, the perfect Being, who “can […] will nothing other than himself—his own Will”32. World-historical individuals, or Heroes, do not act of their own accord but will strive to realize the Idea of Freedom as commanded by the Spirit. In other words, they are the ones who recognize God’s Will as being their own, i.e. who see themselves reflected in His Will. Althusser, too, admitted that “all ideology is centred, that the Absolute Subject occupies the unique place of the Centre, and interpellates around it the infinity of individuals into subjects in a double mirror-connexion such that it subjects the subjects to the Subject”33— actually, a rephrasing of Lacan’s “mirror-stage.” Given these striking resemblances, why did Althusser, who was so well acquainted with Hegel’s thought34, still insist on differentiating the concept of (a-historical) ideology from that of the Hegelian Universal Spirit? The reason lies in his denegation of the spiritual but not of the ideological. In this respect, he is following in Marx’s footsteps. At a given passage of Spectres of Marx, Derrida says Marx goes to “desperate lengths […] to distinguish between spirit and spectre”35—“spirit” and “spectre” corresponding to two different attitudes towards metaphysics. In the first case, the material world is but a projection of the spiritual, matter being the embodiment of the spirit. In the latter case, the spectral is regarded as resulting from the material practices men are engaged in within specific empirically verifiable conditions (still, I believe the difficulty Derrida

Is There a Place for Revolution in Structural Determinism?


speaks of is related to the fact that both spirit and spectre are concepts dwelling in the “twilight zone” that separates both worlds, each stepping into foreign territory). The same applies to Althusser. In fact, he was trying, to use Marx’s words, “to descend from the world of thought to the actual world” and, therefore, “from language to life”36. That is why in this epistemic and epistemological process (which is also an exercise of translation) he announced that ideology, inscribed as it is in “the actual world,” has a material existence37: it is realized as concrete practices within specific Ideological State Apparatuses, whereas the Spirit remains a purely metaphysical category, which asserts itself as an entity endowed with an independent existence. Besides, ideology is itself an overdetermination of the complex whole in dominance; on the contrary, the Spirit, free from the constraints of the material conditions of existence (the economic), oversees Totality [Totalität] and is not determined by anything but itself (which is a claim that Derrida would later try to contradict, as we shall see). Despite these differences, the Hegelian ghost would also affect Althusser’s perception of History. Drawing on several passages of Capital, Althusser develops a concept of History devoid of humanistic claims, reducing human beings to the condition of ‘forced actors’, readers of a ‘script’ imposed on them by the mechanisms of the complex whole in dominance: [In Capital] we find a different image, a new quasi-concept, definitely freed from the empiricist antinomies of phenomenal subjectivity and essential interiority; we find an objective system governed in its most concrete determinations by the laws of its erection (montage) and machinery, by the specifications of its concept. Now we can recall that highly symptomatic term “Darstellung,” compare it with this “machinery” and take it literally, as the very existence of this machinery in its effects: the mode of existence of the stage direction (mise-en-scène) of the theatre which is simultaneously its own stage, its own script, its own actors, the theatre whose spectators can, on occasion, be spectators only because they are first of all forced to be its actors, caught by the constraints of a script and parts whose authors they cannot be, since it is in essence an authorless theatre.38

The metaphor of the theatre is not new. Hegel himself had already referred to the “History of the World” as a theatre, not of happiness, but of realization of a freedom in harmony with the Idea, the Universal essence which lives inside the Absolute Spirit39. Althusser, however, kills (or, if one prefers a more ritualistic terminology, “sacrifices”) the Human (and


Chapter Seven

the Metaphysical, for that matter) on Hegel’s stage. It is no longer a theatre where the idea of a human-like God is staged but a space where the role assigned to each subject is defined by his position in relation to all the other subjects “working by themselves”40. But by ultimately denying the possibility of human agency in History, was he not dismissing the notion of revolutionary rupture? How does he solve this apparent theoretical inconsistency? Let us concede that the subject’s representations are induced by ideology, which is overdetermined and overdetermining within the decentred structure in dominance. Let us also admit that the latter contains in itself the conditions of possibility of change. If that is so, then the subject caught up in the revolutionary process is but reproducing—in and through his material practices (including, of course, his discourses)—the overdetermined effects of the condensation and fusion of the contradictions of the structure. It makes no sense, therefore, to claim that revolutions result from actions taken by individuals either in accordance with their own free will or paying obeisance to an Entity (consciousness, or God, or the Idea) detached from the material constraints of the world (the object). Instead, revolutions are only possible when a specific ideology, already tied up to an emergent mode of production, finds itself dislocated in relation to the dominant mode of production and to its corresponding ideological formation. Ideologies, and not human subjects, can be said to be ultimately responsible for changing the course of history. In the Althusserian edifice, ideologies—besides ruling over social practices and social relations, as well as over the representations of such practices and relations—are one of the most important factors of overdetermination41 of the complex whole in dominance in the on-going process of transition. It is this overdetermination that bestows the complex whole its ultimate coherence: […] even within the reality of the conditions of existence of each contradiction, it is the manifestation of the structure in dominance that unifies the whole. This reflection of the conditions of existence of the contradiction within itself, this reflection of the structure articulated in dominance that constitutes the unity of the complex whole within each contradiction, this is the most profound characteristic of the Marxist dialectic, the one I have tried recently to encapsulate in the concept of “overdetermination.”42

Is There a Place for Revolution in Structural Determinism?


Notes 1

Marx, 1994: 28. Mepham, 1994: 219. 3 de Man, 1988: 363. 4 “[...] while admitting that [ideologies] do not correspond to reality, i.e. that they constitute an illusion, we admit that they do make allusion to reality, and that they need only be ‘interpreted’ to discover the reality of the world behind their imaginary representation of that world (ideology = illusion/allusion)” (Althusser, 1977: 153). 5 Mepham: 220-1. 6 Idem: 231-232. 7 Althusser, 1971: 96. 8 Idem:162-4. 9 Marx, 1961: 6. 10 Althusser, 1971: 153. 11 Marx himself had clued us on the practical (and unconscious) facet of ideology when he stated that “we are not aware of this, nevertheless we do it” (Marx, 1961: 53). The original reads: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (Marx and Engels, 1968: 88). The parallel with the biblical text is striking: “Vater, vergib ihnen; den sie wissen nicht, was sie tun” (Lucas: 23, 24)). 12 Balibar, 1975: 191. 13 Marx, 1961: 51. 14 Althusser, 1971: 152, 168. 15 Idem: 190. 16 Balibar, 1975: 188. 17 Balibar, 1975: 224. 18 Althusser and Balibar, 1970: 203-4. 19 Idem: 273. 20 Balibar, 1973: 62 21 Althusser and Balibar, 1970: 305; see also Resnick and Wolff, 1996: 174-180. 22 Idem: 307. 23 Idem: 293. 24 Althusser, 1969: 113. Althusser draws on concrete historical examples to undo the notion of “pure contradiction,” asserting that “the whole Marxist revolutionary experience shows that, if the general contradiction […] is sufficient to define the situation when revolution is the ‘task of the day’, it cannot of its own simple, direct power induce a ‘revolutionary situation’, nor a fortiori a situation of revolutionary rupture and the triumph of the revolution. If this contradiction is to become ‘active’ in the strongest sense to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its ‘direct opponents’), they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime which its ruling classes are 2


Chapter Seven

unable to defend. Such a situation presupposes not only the ‘fusion’ of the two basic conditions into a ‘single national crisis’, but each condition considered (abstractly) by itself presupposes the ‘fusion’ of an ‘accumulation’ of contradictions” (Althusser, 1969: 99). 25 Idem: 106. 26 See Althusser, 1971: 130. 27 As in Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841), for example, which is but a reflection on Hegel’s “world-historical individuals.” 28 Hegel, 1956: 26; my italics. 29 “the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection” (Althusser, 1971: 169). 30 Idem: 25; my italics. 31 Althusser, 1971: 161. 32 Hegel, 1956: 20. 33 Althusser, 1971: 168. 34 In this respect, see “On Content in the Thought of G. W. F. Hegel.” In Althusser, 1997: 36-169. 35 Derrida, 1994: 122. 36 Marx and Engels, 1998: 472. 37 Althusser, 1971: 155. 38 Althusser and Balibar 1970: 193. 39 Hegel, 1956: 26. 40 Althusser, 1971: 169. 41 This is a key Althusserian concept which left its mark on the subsequent Marxist and post-Marxist discourses. “I did not invent this concept. As I pointed out, it is borrowed from two existing disciplines: specifically, from linguistics and psychoanalysis. In these disciplines it has an objective dialectical ‘connotation’, and—particularly in psychoanalysis—one sufficiently related formally to the content it designates here for the loan not to be an arbitrary one. A new word is necessarily required to designate a new acquisition. A neologism might have been invented. Or it was possible to ‘import’ (in Kant's words) a concept sufficiently related to make its domestication (Kant) easy. And in return, this ‘relatedness’ might open up a path to psychoanalytic reality” (Althusser, 1969: 206). As this excerpt clearly denotes, Althusser is, as Marx was, aware of the problems posited by language in the realm of philosophical enquiry. According to Laclau and Mouffe (2001), by using a concept that in Freudian terms refers to the constitution of the symbolic order by means of the displacement or condensation of thoughts, Althusser was opening up the possibility of going beyond the limitations of structural determinism since the “overdetermined,” that is, the “symbolic” nature of social relations, the existence of several, equally valid planes of interpretation, excludes an “ultimate literality” of the complex whole. But, as the same authors mentioned, Althusser was to discard that path (2001: 98). Their task would be, as we shall see, to retrieve it. 42 Althusser, 1969: 206.


Althusser has not remained untouched by criticism. His theory of ideology has been regarded as a condemnation of human emancipation, favouring a mode of thinking conformed to the everlasting and inescapable presence of the ideological1. Hobsbawm accuses Althusser of being engaged in a type of analysis that “finds it difficult, if not impossible, to get outside the formal structure of Marx’s thought” and that “simplifies away some of Marx’s problems — for instance, that of historic change”2. It has, moreover, been claimed, especially by post-Marxists, that his conception of the reproductive role of the superstructure by means of the Ideological State Apparatuses, too dependent on a class-reductionist view of society, is restrictive. It overlooks the indeterminacies and the contingencies that arise from the exercise of an oppositional politics in the context of the class struggle3. Besides, the concept of Ideological State Apparatuses implies the existence of a dominant class that makes use of such apparatuses to secure state power and to guarantee the political and economic control over the other classes. This is a conception that, in a way, is considered too limited when compared to Gramsci’s insights regarding the way hegemony enables the ruling class to impose its own norms on the rest of the civil society and to win the active consent of the other classes, thus succeeding in “becoming a state”4. Nonetheless, I believe this criticism is a somewhat reductive perspective of what Althusser proposes, for in the postscript to his “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” he lays emphasis on the “resistance, revolt and class struggle of the ruled class”5, thus leaving his theory open to further developments in the analysis of the politics of opposition and of the heterogeneous effects of ideological interpellation6. By the same token, the accusations of a pessimistic vision of the human condition deriving from his claims upon the inescapability of ideology, can be partially dismissed by the way in which he elects “science”—historical materialism, to be more precise—as the only possible discourse against the effects of the mechanisms of ideological misrecognition:


Chapter Eight Now this is the knowledge we have to reach, if you will, while speaking in ideology, and from within ideology we have to outline a discourse which tries to break with ideology, in order to dare to be the beginning of a scientific (i.e., subjectless) discourse on ideology.7

This is a position which, besides being theoretically consistent with the aims of the “real, positive science” already enunciated by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, must be read as part of a pedagogical strategy aiming to extol the virtues of Marxist science amongst the organisations of the French workers’ movement (especially the French Communist Party) in the late fifties and early sixties. This, too, could be viewed as a form of interpellation, this time not by means of the unconscious or transparent modes by which ideology materializes itself, but by rendering opaque its materiality. However, the functionalist model that Althusser offers us, along with his insistence on the determination in the last instance by the economic and on the reproductive devices at work for the maintenance of the system, does induce an understanding of the social as a highly complex mechanism encapsulated, so to speak, within the laws of a perpetuum mobile, and where transition is but an effect of that same system. Jacques Rancière’s reaction against the way in which Althusserianism belittled the student revolt in May ’68 shows how difficult it is for structural determinism to step out of the logic of that perpetual movement and to accept the disruptive force of the revolution. Actually, by claiming to possess “true” knowledge, Althusser ended up defending, thanks to a series of revisionist arguments, academic authority against the dislocatory effects of the revolt. After all, the events of ’68 were seen to threaten the class position and the class interests that the French Communist Party was supposed to represent, namely those of the “labour aristocracy” and of the “intellectual cadres”8. This way, Rancière proved the fallibility of the divide science/ideology (knowledge, too, can be used as an ideological weapon in the class struggle) and also the difficulty to theorize about revolutionary change beyond the ideological conditions offered by a bourgeois society. E.P. Thompson, who was, along with Hobsbawm, one of the leading British Marxist historians, spared no words in his indictment against Althusser’s attempts to “challenge, centrally, historical materialism itself,” not simply by “modifying” it, but by actually “displacing” it 9. His outcry was translated into an essay entitled The Poverty of Theory: or an Orrery of Errors (1978), one of the most systematic critiques of the Althusserian edifice from the point of view of a social historian. He referred to this reflection as a “polemical political intervention.”

Exposing an Orrery of Errors


There Thompson maintained that Althusser had fallen victim to his own precepts. He stated that… Althusser’s schema either show us how ideological illusions can reproduce themselves endlessly (or may evolve in aberrant or fortuitous ways); or it proposes (with Spinoza) that theoretical procedures in themselves can refine ideological impurities out of their given materials by no other means than the scientific discourse of the proof; or finally, it proposes some everpre-given immanent Marxist Idea outside the material and social world (of which Idea this world is an “effect”). Althusser argues by turns the second and the third proposition, although his work is in fact a demonstration of the first.10

According to his wife Dorothy, when the writings of Louis Althusser first appeared in Britain Thompson did not feel they would affect his work. Both he and Dorothy were more inclined to view Althusser’s proposals as just another form of “theology”11 or, at best—as Dorothy Thompson put it—another manifestation of “the basic platonic mode of thought by which human endeavour is to be judged by its degree of approximation to a pre-existing ideal”12. However, Thompson was truly alarmed when he came to realise that such apparently innocuous “platonic mode of thought” was about to strike a deadly blow against History. Many British scholars were beginning to line up behind the French philosopher. Although claiming themselves to be post-Althusserians, Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst, in their PreCapitalist Modes of Production (1975), spelled the end of History as a science, stating unhesitatingly: Marxism as a theoretical and a political practice gains nothing from its association with historical writing and historical research. The study of history is not only scientifically but also politically useless.13

These claims were too damaging for Thompson to ignore. The premises upon which they were laid seriously questioned the scientific validity of historiography and divorced Marxism from its humanistic foundations. All in all, they attempted to prove that politics had little or nothing to learn from a well-informed, conscious reflection on the processes of evolution of society and the role of human agency within such processes. It is not my intention here to commit to paper a thorough analysis of Thompson’s critique of the Althusserian theses. I shall, however, dwell on three points of contention which I think best encapsulate his concerns about the structuralist invective against History.


Chapter Eight

First: the dismissal of the study of History as a mere form of ideology and the insistence on the predominance of the abstract stance of Theory over the “necessary empirical dialogue” that History, as a science, has always sought to foster. Althusser rejects the excessive attention given to the analysis of “raw material” arguing that… … the mere collection of these “facts,” these empirical “givens,” which, with a very few remarkable exceptions, are generally only presented in the form of simple sequences or chronicles, i.e., in the form of an ideological conception of history, or even in the a priori of a philosophy of history— the mere collection of these facts is not enough to constitute a history of knowledge, the concept of which must be constructed, at least in a provisional form, before it can be undertaken.14

Or, as he stated, not without a provocative tone, “[t]he knowledge of history is no more historical than the knowledge of sugar is sweet”15. Thompson, who was all too familiar with the epistemological challenges posed by the treatment of such “raw material,” slashed back with the authority of someone who knows the tools of his trade only too well. He jested with the reductive understanding Althusser had of “facts” and of “empirical givens.” “His raw material (object of knowledge),” he would argue, “is an inert, pliant kind of stuff, with neither inertia nor energies of its own, awaiting passively its manufacture into knowledge.” And he added in a playful manner: “it may contain gross ideological impurities, to be sure, but these may be purged in the alembic of theoretical practice”16. Thompson realized that any concession or indulgence in the course of this open conflict with the Althusserian gorgon would wholly discredit History as a science. Thus he insisted on the untruthfulness of Althusser’s proposition with resort to two arguments. On the one hand, historians, especially the ones inscribed within the Marxist tradition, are not naïve reproducers of “an ideological conception of history.” Only a “critical consciousness”—attentive to the distinctive character of each artefact, relationship, event or text and to the range of meanings they can bear17—offers the means to tackle the order of epistemological problems that their scientific undertaking is constantly posing. What historians are primarily concerned with is the formation of social consciousness, which in turn is subject to inter-related pressures and events that “continually give rise to experience”18. It is the awareness of the complex genesis of this experience and of the way in which it intervenes in the dialogue between social being and social consciousness that marks the difference between a social historian like Thompson and a

Exposing an Orrery of Errors


philosopher like Althusser, who saw men as simple Träger (that is, bearers) of structural determinations. On the other hand, this stubborn resistance to the “real world” resulted from the fact that Althusser was confined to a purely idealistic stance. To the accusation of ideological blindness, Thompson counterposed the Althusserian inability to allow into his theoretical constructs all the weight of the material world. The diversity and stochasticity of the world could not care less for the laws that rule the structural orrery. The walls surrounding Althusser’s paradigm of knowledge production admitted no breach, no opening, no dialogue with the “phenomena of material and social existence”19. It is for this reason that Thompson characterised it as “a sealed system within which concepts endlessly circulate, recognise and interrogate each other, and the intensity of its repetitious introversial life is mistaken for a ‘science’”20—an orrery, in other words. And in this case an orrery of errors, since no static structural reconstitution can “encompass the logic of indeterminate historical process, a process which remains subject to determinate pressure”21. Second: The interment of Humanism within the Marxist tradition. Althusser had stated that… … the inflation of the themes of “Marxist humanism” and their encroachment on Marxist theory should be interpreted as a possible historical symptom of a double inability and a double danger. An inability to think the specificity of Marxist theory, and, correlatively, a revisionist danger of confusing it with pre-Marxist ideological interpretations. An inability to resolve the real (basically political and economic) problems posed by the conjuncture since the Twentieth Congress, and a danger of masking these problems with the false “solution” of some merely ideological formulae.22

“Marxist humanism”: the major stumbling block to the resolution of the “real” problems with which Marxist theory should actually be engaged. It is an undesirable ideological excrescence that must be surgically extracted before it contaminates the whole body of theory. In the eyes of the French philosopher, it ends up concealing those political issues that must be urgently tackled. Humanism leaves us at the mercy of illusions, of a “false” perception of reality. Here his speech almost verges on hysterical admonition: get over this “inability to think” and to “resolve”; mind the “revisionist danger”; watch out for “ideological formulae”; etc. Althusser’s onslaught goes on and on and is ruthless. From him we are to expect no concessions to the free will of individuals, to the moral constraints that limit their judgements and dispositions, to the


Chapter Eight

ethical impediments of their actions, to the values and principles that guide their future. In his reply, Thompson plays his card cleverly. Gainsaying would lead nowhere in a dispute where only the arguments constructed by active, critical reason actually count. So he does not simply reject the validity of his adversary’s pronouncements. On the contrary, he believes that this assault on Marxist humanism must be handled, first and foremost, as an ideological (and by no means purely theoretical) reaction of a steel-hardened communist intellectual to a libertarian conception of Marxism. For the structuralist, such a conception would always be regarded as a threat, as it escapes the control of the apparatus and jeopardizes the cold and immutable laws of progression of the structuralist clockwork. Althusser’s negative response to the idea of salvaging humanism inside Marxism congeals every attempt to understand how the practical experience of the human being bears on the way in which he reflects on his own social and political condition and vice-versa. Thompson deems it necessary to stop such paralysing influence. In fact, he accuses Althusserianism of “actively reinforcing and reproducing the effective passivity before the “structure” which holds us all prisoners”23. The only antidote against the stultifying effect of the orrery is one of the ogres that Althusserians have always sought to destroy: “moralism.” As Thompson sums up: This ogre has given to that movement a utopian nerve of aspiration, the muscles of solidarity, and, on occasion, the courage of revolutionary selfsacrifice. It has also, on repeated occasions, impelled revolts and defections within Communist Parties, and a running polemic against the practices of those Parties and the moral vacancy of the Marxist vocabulary.24

And then, to rub salt into the wound, he goes on to mention names and events that have been tabooed in the official communist discourse: Hungary 1956; Prague 1968; Boris Pasternak; Alexander Solzhenitsyn; Gyula Illyés; etc. One third and last concern: the resurfacing of the Stalinist stasis in the form of Theory, where social totality is believed to run like a perpetuum mobile where the human subject is left—in the words of Althusser himself—”stripped of all freedom except that of freely accepting his submission”25. Thompson could not have been more unequivocal in expressing his utter contempt for the self-enclosed and self-perpetuating system his

Exposing an Orrery of Errors


antagonist had worked out: “[it] is only in our own time that Stalinism has been given its true, rigorous and totally coherent theoretical expressions.” He concludes that “[t]his is the Althusserian orrery”26, or, as he argues elsewhere, “a manifestation of a general police action within ideology, as the attempt to reconstruct Stalinism at the level of theory”27. Althusser does not simply voice, as we have seen, just another form of ideology—to which the British historian refers as “theoretical imperialism“28. Once the link between Althusserianism and Stalinism has been exposed—in spite of Althusser’s insistence on his own opposition to Stalinism, which was, for that matter, de rigueur—Thompson is now entitled to make one last move by claiming that the ultimate purpose of Althusser’s project comes nothing short of sheer “ideological terrorism”— ”intended to impress any socialist critic,” as he states, “with a sense of guilt, a breach of solidarity”29. The same way Stalin dismissed all diverging Marxist views either as deviationism or as revisionism, the Althusserian monolithic stance admits no critique and no complicity with alternative political movements, in particular those that stake a claim to Marxist thought. Thompson realises that this has devastating implications for the relationship between the intelligentsia and the other social forces. Overlooking the risks of isolation, theorists become too wrapped up in their own rhetoric and lose contact with social reality. This is especially true with the institutions that have provided the last protective shield against the invectives of capitalism: Enclosed within the intelligentsia’s habitual elitism, the theorists disdain to enter into any kind of relation with a Labour movement which they know (on a priori grounds) to be “reformist” and “corporative,” whose struggles created the institutions in which they are employed, whose labour made the chairs in which they sit, which manages to exist and to reproduce itself without them, and whose defensive pressures are all that stand between them and the reasons of capitalist power.30

Marxism, as Thompson views it, should thrive through the dialogue between critical thought and social reality. It is not a system of thought that seeks some sort of closure, as the Althusserians would have it, but of “open investigation and critique,” which should abide by nothing else but “active reason”31. In fact, Thompson’s arguments against Althusser would resemble those of the young Marx of the Manuscripts scolding the old Marx of Capital for having sold his soul to Political Economy. Having realised that not everything that Marx wrote is sacramental, Thompson is not afraid of making his own axiological choices and of reminding his


Chapter Eight

readers of a fundamental premise that socialists seem to have long forgotten: “Marx is on our side; we are not on the side of Marx” 32. Despite Thompson’s efforts, Althusser has not been entirely forsaken and the fact is that some of the concepts and propositions the French theorist wrought have been (to a greater or lesser degree) assimilated into the theoretical apparatuses of many contemporary philosophers and critics. Does this fact prove the author of The Poverty wrong? Whatever the answer may be, the truth is that his constant inquiry into the epistemological conditions of historical materialism and his understanding of social reality as something that will always escape whatever closure one tries to impose on it turned this “awkward” intellectual, who had once described himself as being “all knobbly – all knees and elbows of susceptibility and refusal,” into one of the architects of the downfall of Structuralism.

Notes 1

Böke, 2001: 14 Hobsbawm, 2001: 178-9 3 Laclau, 1977: 81-94; Torfing, 1999: 23-6; Howard, 2000, 97-8. 4 Gramsci, 1971: 52-53. 5 Althusser, 1971: 184. 6 See Montag, 1996: 103. 7 Althusser, 1977: 162. 8 Rancière, 1994: 150, 156. 9 Thompson, 1995: 5. 10 Idem: 15. 11 Thompson, 1995: 5. 12 Idem: ix. 13 Hindess and Hirst, 1975: 312. 14 Althusser, 1970: 44. 15 Idem: 106. 16 Thompson, 1995: 9. 17 Idem: 25. 18 Ibid. 19 Idem: 18. 20 Idem: 17. 21 Idem: 114. 22 Althusser, 1969: 12. 23 Thompson, 1995: 251. 24 Idem: 232-233. 25 Althusser, 1971: 182. 26 Thompson, 1995: 190. 2

Exposing an Orrery of Errors


Idem: 176. Idem: 13. 29 Idem: 255. 30 Idem: 257. 31 Idem: 254. 32 Idem: 258; his italics. 28



We have seen how, according to Althusser, ideology interpellates subjects to make them engage in material practices. But we have yet to understand how at the level of the always-already subject an oppositional ideology sets in. For Michel Pêcheux, that ideological struggle within the subject does exist, but it takes place on the plane of discourse. Pêcheux’s reflections on the “ideological conditions of the reproduction/transformation of the relations of production” and on the role of language in the establishment of these conditions1—a study I believe constitutes one of the most serious advances towards a Marxist theory of discourse—imposes itself as an attempt (1) to meet Balibar’s challenge regarding the analysis of what he calls “conjuncture”, and (2) to tackle Althusser’s subtraction of the autonomy of the subject in the sphere of language. Althusser himself had already concluded that the issues related to discourse (both external verbal discourse and internal verbal discourse—a term which reminds us of Vygotsky’s inner speech) should be integrated in the wider discussion of the differences that exist between the modalities of the materiality of ideology2. But his theory leaves unexplored the vast territory of the linguistic processes whereby the human individual is interpellated by ideology as subject or is addressed within the Ideological State Apparatuses. It would be up to Pêcheux to delve into that unchartered territory. He did that in his Language, Semantics and Ideology: Stating the Obvious (1982), first published in France in 1975, under the title Les Vérités de La Palice. He sought to understand not only how language intervenes in the process of interpellation and of constitution of the subject, but also the linguistic dimension of every political practice. This

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inquiry would also include those practices leading to the revolutionary rupture Althusser spoke of. Pêcheux’s theory of discourse is an attempt to systematize the various types of relationship between ideologies, subject formation, political practices and linguistic mechanisms. It inaugurates a perspective that allows us to engage in the analysis of the conditions of possibility of language use in the context of an “oppositional politics of meaning production,” as Montgomery and Allan put it3. Besides the Althusserian frame of reference, much of Pêcheux’s theoretical strength was also drawn from Vološinov’s pathbreaking work. Launching the foundations of a materialist theory of discourse, the Russian linguist maintained, as we have already seen, that “[w]ithout signs there is no ideology” 4 and, as a consequence, no consciousness, since the latter... ...takes shape and being in the material of signs created by an organized group in the process of its social intercourse. The individual consciousness is nurtured on signs; it derives its growth from them; it reflects their logic and laws. The logic of consciousness is the logic of ideological communication, of the semiotic interaction of a social group.5

While this position opposes the discriminatory power of Husserl’s “consciousness” as an organizing centre of representations, it prepares at the same time the ground for Lacan’s theory of the subject (if one is willing, of course, to justify the substitution of the words “signs” and “consciousness” for “signifiers” and “unconscious,” respectively). Within this theoretical framework, the sign drops its metaphysical or transcendental garment of “reflection” of reality, and acquires the status of materiality as a part of the concrete forms of social intercourse. Thus, meaning, as a function of the sign, also drops its mask of absolute fixity and finds itself dialectically involved in the dynamics of social relations. Meaning, rooted as it is in social experience, is something always constructed and negotiated at the social level. Its variability depends on the contexts of usage, i.e., on discursive contexts, which are themselves constantly intersecting and colliding in the “arena of class struggle” 6. Still according to Vološinov, though language and ideology are two concepts inextricably linked, one should neither equate them nor assume that language is tied down to one single ideological position. It is rather a space of articulation of the plurality of those contradictory positions and of the social forces behind them. As I have already noted above, Vološinov tried to prove that ideology can be studied at the level of the social materiality of language and, in particular, of the sign as the site where political and social conflicts are fought and won. It is this line of thought that constitutes the point of departure of Pêcheux’s enterprise.


Chapter Nine

I will focus on three aspects of his thought that have more relevance to the present discussion of the status of discourse within the theory of ideology7: (1) the distinction between linguistic basis and discursive process; (2) the context of the class struggle and the ideological conditions that affect the existing discursive formations; and (3) the mechanisms of ideological (mis)recognition at work at the level of subject formation. On a previous occasion I mentioned the Saussurean distinction between langue and parole. Just like Vološinov before him8, Pêcheux set out from this distinction to develop his analysis of the relationship between language (langue) and ideology. He did not dispute the existence of langue as a socially undifferentiated abstract system, possessing its own internal laws9. In this respect, he was as much indebted to Saussure as he is to Stalin10. In an interview that first appeared in June 1950 in Pravda, later published as an essay under the title “Marxism and Problems of Linguistics,” Stalin put an end to a dispute over the theses of the Russian linguist, N. J. Marr (whom Vološinov quotes on several occasions), who had claimed that language is a superstructure and that the concept of national language was in fact anti-Marxist. Stalin opposed this categorically, advancing three theses. Firstly, language is by no means a superstructure, since the Russian language remained the same after the October Revolution (a thesis which would require a closer inspection). Secondly, despite what Marx and Engels claimed in “St. Max”11, language bears no “class character”. Thirdly, the national language is not something imposed by power, but a medium or an instrument of communication12 shared by all members of society. Even Lacan did not fail to notice this position13, which did not counter his claim that the human subject has always been a “slave of language”14. The simple fact that Stalin decided to intervene in linguistics, which is a matter he himself admitted was not his field, reveals the political significance he attached to language. But precisely because it deserved such attention, Stalin’s ideas on the subject, lacking in insight most of the times, must be handled with particular care. I will not engage in a discussion of Stalin’s subtext, though his arguments should be cautiously dissected15 and compared to, for instance, Trotsky’s positions16. Instead, I will focus on Stalin’s insistence on the concept of “grammatical system”, which comes close to the Saussurean concept of langue. He saw the “grammatical system”—a set of abstract laws established by a slow process of historical evolution—as the “foundation of language,” as “the essence of its specific character,” which is conceptually opposed to particular concrete sentences.

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Pêcheux followed suit: he, too, asserted that there is a linguistic basis, which is not affected by the division of classes and “is endowed with a relative autonomy that makes it subject to internal laws which constitute, precisely, the object of linguistics” 17. But, as he stated, although class struggle cannot have a direct effect on the linguistic system, it does not follow that classes remain “indifferent” to language. Stalin had already made reference to the “jargons” or “dialects” of specific classes, but he dismissed their importance: since language was supposed to serve society as a whole, he believed them to be condemned either to stagnation or to extinction in a classless society. Pêcheux, however, could not afford to cast these “jargons” or “dialects” aside, nor to demote them to the condition of mere offshoots of a common national language. Classes do make their own use of the linguistic basis in the context of the class struggle as a part of their material practices. He was thus convinced that the study of linguistic phenomena, despite their dependence on one single linguistic basis, should not be divorced from the study of the social formations in which they occur. Neither should they be detached from the processes of social antagonism and political struggle that characterize such formations. Hence his emphasis on the concept of discursive process, which is not intended to be just a surrogate term for parole—a concept rooted in the “psychologistic anthropologism” of Saussure and which he firmly rejects due to its individualistic overtones18. With this idea of discursive process he sought to prove that linguistic events are always “inscribed in an ideological class relationship”19. We have already seen that the study of the language system and of its internal rules as proposed by Saussure is isolated from the analysis of the social processes and therefore overlooks the way in which these discursive processes take place. It also remains insensitive to the vital importance that ideological positions have in the constitution of the meanings of words, expressions and propositions. Pêcheux laid emphasis on the processes of meaning production because it is precisely at this level where the different opposing ideological positions attempt to assert themselves. Vološinov insisted once that meaning is not a property pre-established by the linguistic basis, but depends on the social evaluation deriving from the social experience of a given class—what he called the “we-experience”20. “Every sign,” he said, “is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation”21. Pêcheux translated this idea into Althusserian terms: meaning is “determined by the ideological positions brought into play in the sociohistorical process in which words, expressions and propositions are produced (i.e., reproduced)”22. In other words, meaning is not constructed


Chapter Nine

by the internal rules of the language23, but inside discursive formations that voice the ideological positions that exist in a given social formation at a certain stage of historical evolution and that are subject to the mechanisms of ideological reproduction/transformation. By discursive formation he meant “that which in a given ideological formation, i.e., from a given position in a given conjuncture determined by the state of the class struggle, determines ‘what can and should be said (articulated in the form of a speech, a sermon, a pamphlet, a report, a programme, etc.)’”24. Discursive formations are thus “imbricated” in ideological formations (which necessarily imply, I should add, class positions) and the “transparency of the meaning” induced by such discursive formations is in a way hiding their dependence on the “complex whole in dominance” 25. It is within these discursive formations that discursive processes—defined as “system[s] of relationships of substitution, paraphrases, synonymies, etc., which operate between linguistic elements—‘signifiers’”26—take place. Specific compositional habits and standard linguistic operations present in every utterance are governed by a discursive formation. This ultimately implies that they are determined by a given ideology fighting for dominance in the context of the class struggle in a particular historical conjuncture. Three new important concepts emerge as a consequence of this formulation. Firstly: discursive formations compose a complex whole—what he calls interdiscourse—which inevitably constitutes, due to the antagonistic character of those formations, a “contradictory material objectivity,” kept hidden by the transparency of meaning. But, as Pêcheux warned us, that transparency is only apparent. The immediacy of meaning itself (which is also to say the intelligibility of a given utterance) cannot be secured unless discursive formations are arranged according to that complex whole. This totality is, in turn, structured according to the relationships of unevenness-contradiction-subordination that also characterise, in the same way, the ideological formations. The myth of the speaking subject as “author” of his own meanings is thus rejected: meaning can only be realized within a discursive formation occupying a given position of domination-subordination inside the complex, that is, inside interdiscourse. Besides, the subject, as “subject-form” 27, is not only determined by the discursive formation in which he is constituted and reproduced, but also, ultimately, by interdiscourse, which, by means of its two primary elements—the “preconstructed” and “articulation”—, dictates the modes by which the subject is related to meaning. If the preconstructed, on the

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one hand, is “the discursive modality of the discrepancy by which the individual is interpellated as subject… while still being ‘always-already a subject’” 28, articulation, on the other, “constitutes the subject in his relationship to meaning, so that it represents, in interdiscourse, what determines the domination of the subject-form”29. Secondly: this “articulation,” or “sustaining process,” is realized as a “linearization,” that is, as a syntagmatic chain of discourse the speaking subject constructs through co-referential strategies of various sorts. From this results what Pêcheux calls intradiscourse, “the operation of discourse with respect to itself”30: what is being said now and how it is related to past and future utterances31. This operation “with respect to itself” should not be understood as an autonomous process, as a discourse entirely dependent on the will or creativity of the speaking subject. It is, in fact, determined by interdiscourse, which constitutes its exterior—the interior (i. e., intradiscourse, where the subject seeks his identification with himself and with the others) being but an effect of the exterior upon itself. In this sense, Pêcheux compared interdiscourse to the Lacanian Real32, which is something that cannot be accessed by the subject without the mediation of a symbolical order. Thirdly: as we can see, the intelligibility of intradiscourse rests on the rules (of articulation) and materials (of the preconstructed) provided by interdiscourse. In fact, such intelligibility is sustained by the possibility of substitution, concatenation, and connectivity of those materials (pre-given signifiers). These different forms of relationship between the discursive elements of the preconstructed are what Pêcheux referred to as transverse-discourse. It is at this point that the subject is constituted as “speaking subject” since he is offered the ability to “articulate” (which is also to say, to “enunciate”) the preconstructed. Consequently, it is also here where interdiscourse permeates both the subject-form and the enunciated intradiscourse. In other words, it is here where the complex whole of discursive formations determines the conditions of possibility of (re)production the subject’s discourse. However, Pêcheux’s reflection on the discursive processes would not be complete without the analysis of the context of the class struggle and of the ideological conditions in which these discursive processes occur. In fact, such analysis constitutes one of the pillars of Pêcheux’s materialistic theory of discourse33. In this respect, Pêcheux made use of the theoretical apparatus and conceptual repertoire already advanced by Althusser in his “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In the linguist’s text we are going to find, once again, the shadow of economism and epiphenomenalism hanging


Chapter Nine

over the whole analytical edifice: the economic determines, in the last instance, the legal, political and ideological superstructure. However, just like Althusser before him, he deftly averted a simplified understanding of that determinism, and starts off by acknowledging that any mode of production that is based on the class struggle is of a contradictory nature. Because of this, the relations of production do not simply reproduce themselves—were that the case we would be before social formations devoid of history, of tensions. On the contrary, such relations also undergo unremitting transformations. These transformations, however, are not induced by some external agency or instance. They constitute a part of the same process whereby those relations are reproduced. That is why he spoke of the “conditions of the reproduction/ transformation of the relations of production”: the slash between the words “reproduction” and “transformation,” far from meaning that these are two separate or alternate moments in the life of a given social formation, expresses the contradictory character of the mode of production and therefore the possibility of their simultaneous (that is, conflicting) occurrence. Thus, the analysis of the mechanisms of reproduction at the level of the capitalist mode of production should also include the social antagonisms it involves. This is to say that equal attention should be paid to the mechanisms of transformation, in particular as far as the Ideological State Apparatuses—as sites and means of realization of the domination of the ruling ideology—are concerned. As Pêcheux explained in “La Langue Introuvable” (1991): “…considering the question of ideology from the standpoint of reproduction” necessarily implies, for a Marxist, also considering ideology from the standpoint of resistance to reproduction, that is, from the standpoint of the multitude of heterogeneous resistances and revolts which smoulder beneath dominant ideology, threatening it constantly. It thereby implies considering dominated ideologies […] as a series of ideological effects emerging from domination and working against it through the gaps and the failures within this domination.34

Therefore, the ideological class struggle cannot be thought of as conflicting class practices dictated by ideological formations that exist independently of each other, trying to impose their own “ideological objects” (their own meanings, their own class interests, and so on) regardless of either the objects sustained by the other ideological formations or the domination effects of the ruling ideology. Quite the opposite: the Ideological State Apparatuses provide the common ground

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where those meanings and interests (here divided into “regions” common to all ideological formations: God, Ethics, Law, Justice, Family, School, Knowledge, etc.) are disputed. It is at the level of the Ideological State Apparatuses that the relationship of unevenness-contradiction-subordination between those ideological formations is defined. It is here where the ideology of the ruling class manages to uphold its own meanings, at the same time as it enforces the reproduction of the relations of production. On the other hand, it is within such apparatuses that the conditions for the transformation of the relations of production—deriving from the contradictory character of the capitalist mode of production—can be created, that is, where the conditions for a revolutionary rupture can be met. It should be noted, however, that the antagonistic classes are not after exactly the same object, the same meaning, the same interest. Were it so, and the class struggle would be reduced to a mere expression of, say, a will-to-power on the part of some classes. In fact, the contradictions that exist at the core of that one particular mode of production compel them to occupy asymmetrical positions in this confrontation and, therefore, to elect and to uphold different interests, demands and meanings. These positions enunciated by Pêcheux are in accordance with Balibar’s opinion regarding the contours of class struggle as defined in The Communist Manifesto. In this seminal text classes are not protagonists shaped outside the context of the class struggle, emerging now and then to stake claims to their interests and rights and falling silent after their demands have been satisfied. They are, above all, the material effects of that struggle, that is, “of the antagonistic conditions of the social production.” A real transformation of a given mode of production and of its social relations occurs only if such “antagonistic conditions” (and not the relations of exploitation) are changed—hence Balibar’s defence of a proletarian State to ensure that the necessary changes are made to put an end to all forms of capitalist ownership and to extinguish the very State as a historically constituted instrument of domination35. Now the question is to know exactly how to define the role of ideology in the tension between the reproduction and the transformation of those antagonistic conditions. In other words, one should ascertain how ideology actually works at the level of the subject, making him reproduce or transform the relations of production that sustain a particular social formation. This takes us back to the discussion centred in the mechanisms of ideological (mis)recognition and in the discursive processes whereby such mechanisms are materialized.


Chapter Nine

Pêcheux resorted, once again, to Althusser’s theory of the subject, which I have already approached in a previous section: every individual is interpellated by Ideology, the Universal Subject, as an always-already subject. To put it differently, the subject is “called into existence” as a subject that is already there and that has always been there. In turn, this conception is, as Pêcheux pointed out, indebted to Lacan’s proposals concerning the birth of the subject. Since the psychoanalyst’s thought is at the heart of Pêcheux’s understanding of the subject, I will touch en passant upon some of his ideas on this issue. As Lacan states: The subject is born in so far as the signifier emerges in the field of the Other. But, by this very fact, this subject—which, was previously nothing if not a subject coming into being—solidifies into a signifier. 36

In fact, the subject is conceived negatively, as a lack (manque), a bearer of signification in search of the symbolic order wherein its identity is finally going to be defined. Since it is constituted on the grounds of an absence—the absence of a positive essence37—, it only becomes perceptible as a signifier (Freud’s Wahrnehmungszeichen), something that represents a subject “not for another subject, but for another signifier”38. Signifiers are, in turn, articulated in a chain—a discourse (i.e., the unconscious)—in the field of the Other. As he explains elsewhere, “[t]he unconscious is neither primordial nor instinctual; what it knows about the elementary is no more than the elements of the signifier”39. However, this discourse of the Other is not an entirely positive structure, for in it the subject is going to find lacks in the intervals of its signifiers (the lack being also part of the structure of every signifier) and it is there where the subject is to locate the desire of the Other40. The latter can looked upon, on the one hand, as “the locus in which is situated the chain of the signifier that governs whatever may be made present of the subject—it is the field of that living being in which the subject has to appear”41. However, it can also be regarded, on the other, as the instance of foundation (and, at the same time, of alienation) of the subject insofar as the subject recognizes, by means of symbolic articulation, his desire as the desire of the Other—a desire grounded on the lacks of the Other’s discourse. This means that neither desire can ever be satisfied, but only articulated and projected in symbols. The latter are generally confused with objects of desire existing outside the human psyche. However, since the subject is conceived as an interior without an exterior, these objects are not external entities. Actually, they are just the effects that result from that symbolic articulation the subject is incessantly engaged in (up to a

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certain point, I believe Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism could be read in the light of these proposals). Pêcheux picked up the Althusserian concept of ideology and tried to reconstruct the thread that links it to Lacan’s theory of the unconscious, acknowledging nonetheless that much work is still to be done in relating both categories. He related—but did not confuse—the Althusserian Universal Subject to the Lacanian Other in order to demonstrate “the process of the Signifier in interpellation and identification” 42, that is, the process whereby the subject emerges, not as a perception (Lacan adopted Freud’s concept of Wahrnehmung) of himself and of its conditions of existence, but as a perception of the Universal Subject or of the Other which is realized by means of the signifiers the latter provides. The complicity he found between the psychic and the social made him argue that “unconscious repression and ideological subjection are materially linked”43. But it is also true that Pêcheux did not venture into exploring this relationship in terms other than a mere comparison between the two theoretical constructs, highlighting some of the most eloquent parallelisms, but leaving aside much of that which a more critical approach could produce (including an explication of modes of articulation of both discourses, a more thorough revision of categories, etc.). He restricted himself to claiming that… … the common feature of the two structures called respectively ideology and the unconscious is the fact that they conceal their own existence within their operation by producing a web of “subjective” evident truths, “subjective” here meaning not “affecting the subject” but “in which the subject is constituted”…44

Nevertheless, these remarks suffice for the purposes of the present enquiry. “‘Subjective’ evident truths,” being precisely that upon which the existence of subject is founded, result from the process of ideological interpellation. Ideology does not only provide individuals with a ready-made reality, a given system of truths and meanings that presents reality in the form of universality and obviousness. It also makes it impossible for them to realize the subordination effect of such interpellation, to perceive their subjection to the Subject (or, to use Lacan’s words, to the Other). That is so because such subjection takes place in the subject “in the form of autonomy,” making the subject conceive of himself as a centred, unified self-identity. The subject is thus convinced that he is someone who makes his own decisions, speaks out for himself and asserts his independence and autonomy as an individual45. One of the strongest visual metaphors of this interpellation effect I can


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think of can be found in Lord Kitchener’s pointing finger in a World War I recruiting poster. There he exhorted civilians to volunteer in the early months of the conflict, before conscription came into force in Britain (which happened only in 1916). “Your Country Needs You,” so the poster read. The use of the second person possessive and personal pronouns, iconographically reinforced by a finger pointing at the viewer, does well illustrate, in quite an unambiguous way, the directness and, I should add, directiveness in the manner the individual is addressed. The assumption was that whoever read the poster should feel compelled to follow the implicit command and sign up. However, in order to read the message as a form of command— although no imperative finite verb is used—the individual had to regard himself as (already being/always having been) a “loyal British subject,” “an able-bodied man,” “a patriot,” “a defender of the Mother Country,” or (unashamedly) “a jingoist,” and so on. An individual who considered himself “a foreigner,” “a pacifist” or, more specifically, a “conscientious objector” (not to mention women in general) should feel automatically excluded. All in all, an average of one hundred thousand men enlisted in the British Army in the following eighteen months. Of course the poster alone was not responsible for those figures, but I still think it represents one of the most memorable means of ideological interpellation of that period. Conscription, in this respect, represented the transition to a repressive state apparatus as it was no longer relevant whether you consciously or unconsciously agreed to, or refused to, sign up. That one should feel automatically identified with the addressee—or, to use Althusser’s words, “submit freely to the commandments of the Subject,” that is, “(freely) accept his subjection”46—proves the effectiveness of the evidentness of meaning within a given discursive formation and of the (not altogether innocent) transparency of the language in the process of constitution of the subject. Actually, the whole edifice of Pêcheux’s theory of discourse rests on the premise, already established by Althusser47, that the constitution of the subject is inextricably linked to the constitution of meaning (actually, the example he gives to illustrate that transparency of language has been foregrounded in the title of the French original). The constitution of the subject is but an ideological effect induced by interpellation, that is, by the way in which the individual is addressed within a determined discursive formation as a given representation that is already assumed to correspond to one particular (identifiable, meaningful) form of social existence that presents him as having a positive (i.e., concrete) identity. It should be noted that the process of identification of

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the social subject follows the same logic Lacan had already described in respect of the psychic subject: it is not the sign (that which enable us to designate “something for someone”) that defines the subject, but the signifier, which, as we have already seen, represents the subject for another signifier48, and which is articulated in a “chain” or “network” of signifiers, discursively materialised as nouns, proper names, phrases, etc.49. Signifiers, it should be noted, are not “always-already” bound to specific meanings: signifiers belong to the realm of the Other and of interdiscourse, abiding by the rules of articulation that are latent in syntax; it is up to discursive formations to provide the meanings for such signifiers, which explains the detachment of the verbal representation from grammatical or logical construction. The subject can build his identity only within the limits and the rules of articulation imposed by that network of signifiers (interdiscourse), leaving him no room but to believe that he is the “cause of himself,” that he is capable of saying that “he is who he is” without noticing the implicit tautology, which is in fact, in the light of Lacan’s proposals, a contradiction. Pêcheux called it the “Münchhausen effect.” He evoked the famous eighteenth-century narratives of Karl Friedrich Hieronymus and of Rudolf Erich Raspe, where the hero, the Baron von Münchhausen, claimed he could lift himself into the air by pulling himself up. In fact, the subject of discourse results from of a process where signifiers keep referring to other signifiers in a co-referential circularity from which causality itself emerges as an articulatory effect. It is, however, an effect induced by ideology, which conceals the whole process, and therefore also conceals the subjection-constitution of the subject. So far Pêcheux seemed to add little to the Althusserian model of the subject. This model, as it was laid down, leaves the subject fettered to the all-pervasive logic of a closed set of meanings of a given discursive formation and of the corresponding ideological formation. Nonetheless, Pêcheux scored an important point when he introduced the question of what he called the modalities of reduplication between “subject of enunciation” and “Universal Subject”. The example I gave above of Lord Kitchener’s volunteers represents the first modality—that of the “good subject.” It “consists of a super-imposition (a covering) of the subject of enunciation and the Universal Subject such that the subject’s ‘taking up a position’ realizes his subjection in the form of the ‘freely consented to’”50. It is, in other words, a case of identification with the Universal Subject, “by which every subject ‘recognises himself’ as a man, and also as a worker, a technician, an executive, a manager, etc., and again as a Turk, a Frenchman, a German, etc., and how his relationship to what represents


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him is organised: a first spark, the gleam of a solution”51. But then there is also the opposite. Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas and Robert Graves, amongst other poets, all enlisted in the Army and could be considered examples of “good subjects.” However, their combat experience, their exposure to the brutality and waste of war, their witnessing the senseless destruction of human lives soon disrupted their “free” subjection to the Universal Subject. As subjects of enunciation they took up an overtly hostile position against the ideological formation that had interpellated them earlier. What was then a self-evident truth has now become its opposite, as Owen denounced: My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori’.

Another example of such dissociation is Bertrand Russell, who was from the outset against the war. In fact, the British philosopher defended his pacifist positions with such conviction that he fell victim to a markedly repressive state apparatus by losing his Trinity Fellowship in 1916, and by being taken prisoner two years later. These are but some examples of cases of people who turned out to be what Pêcheux called “bad subjects”: subjects of enunciation who overtly reject the evidentness of the set of meanings the Universal Subject imposes, but who are still operating within the same categories. The “bad subject” undoes the evidentness existing inside the ideological formation by countering generally accepted meanings with the reversed signs (peace vs. war, life vs. death, and so on). This way, instead of being a question of sheer identification, as in the case of the first modality, what we see is its symmetrical inversion: counter-identification. Antagonism may become too visible, but it is still circumscribed to the limits of the dominant ideological formation. There is no real advance towards a new discursive formation capable of moving beyond its determining effects. As Orwell admits in his Homage to Catalonia, Fascism, and not a revolutionary project for Europe, was the first reason why he had decided to enlist. “I had joined the militia in order to fight against Fascism…”52, he says. If later he speaks of Socialism it is because he faces yet another modality of reduplication. This conception of counter-identification compels us to question the real motives why, for example, many people joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the thirties. Was it a question of belief in (i.e., of

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identification with) the political principles advocated by the party, or a mere reaction against the rise of Fascism in Europe (in which case we should be talking of counter-identification)? But can Communism be boiled down to a question of identification or of counter-identification? I will rephrase: is Communism simply a set of principles that is worth fighting for mainly because it negates the negation—represented by Fascism and Capitalism—of a radical model of society? Or is it a political path dictated by the Universal Subject (in this case called “the Soviet Union”) that one sees oneself reflected in? For example, in many of the passages of William Gallacher’s The Case for Communism (1949), the arguments oscillate between these two modalities: The people of east Europe and the Soviet Union stride forward, raising living standards and production, building the kind of life we all looked forward to after the war. In Britain, because capitalist policy still dominates, house, school and hospital construction is reduced, rations are lower than the lowest during the war, unemployment is officially forecast at nearly half a million this year, the value of wages is falling and now the Government has launched a rearmament programme and is expanding the armed forces. Britain is sliding rapidly into its most serious economic crisis.53

But were it so and one could easily confine Communism to an expression of either political sympathy for “the people of east Europe and the Soviet Union” (the logic of equivalence works wonders when it passes unnoticed) or dissatisfaction with one’s own political regime (“Britain is sliding rapidly into its most serious economic crisis”). That is the reason why Pêcheux, as he looked at the evolution of Marxism-Leninism in the history of the twentieth century, swiftly grasped that a proletarian revolutionary movement cannot be subsumed under those two modalities. (I believe that if it were so it would have been hard for Communism to thrive right after World War II, and yet one would have to wait for 1956— the year of the Twentieth Congress and of the Hungarian Uprising—to witness a real shake of what until then seemed monolithically coherent in Soviet politics.) I could not insist more on the importance of the theoretical development Pêcheux proposed. In fact, the proletarian political practice does not (or cannot afford to) play with the same meanings as those imposed by the dominant discursive formation of capitalist society, even if it is just for the sake of turning them away, because if it does, it will only engage in a process of counter-identification and will retain the same subject-form54. What, then, is the only possible way out? Marx and


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Engels, as well as Althusser—though revealing a more cautious, less positivistic attitude—had already provided the answer. It is science—and historical materialism, in particular—that enables the proletariat to transform the subject-form and to question commonly accepted “meanings” while concentrating on “concepts.” This is the essence of the third modality—disidentification—which is… … one paradoxically characterised by the fact that it integrates the effects of the sciences and of proletarian political practice on the subject-form, effects which take the form of a disidentification, i.e., of the taking up of a non-subjective position: this disidentification is the corollary of the fact already mentioned that scientific concepts do not have “a meaning” graspable in the operation of a discursive formation, which implies at the same time that, as concepts, they have no corresponding “representations.”55

Althusser had already told us that the subject-form cannot be abolished. It would, after all, be the equivalent of maintaining that Ideology (or ideologies) can be eradicated, or, for that matter, that the Other and the unconscious can simply vanish into thin air. Therefore, what Pêcheux suggested is that the subject-form is to be worked upon, displaced and transformed, and not simply eliminated, as a part of a process whereby Ideology is, as it were, turned against itself and forced to rearrange itself. This would ultimately lead to the displacement of the complex whole of ideological formations. However, what appears to me to be one of the most momentous consequences of Pêcheux’s notion of disidentification, although he did not state it explicitly, is that such displacement of the complex whole becomes entirely dependent on discourse. To be more specific, it depends on a scientific discourse that, instead of intending to abide by a purely descriptive or interpretive agenda regarding social facts, will create the conditions for the subjective appropriation of knowledges and of proletarian politics. It will, therefore, lay down the basis for the scientific transformation of the social. It is this type of discourse that surfaces now and then in Orwell’s account of his days in Spain: In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilised life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.—had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one

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owned anyone else as his master […]. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.56

Disidentification starts by acknowledging the modes of existence of the formations, both ideological and social, of the complex whole (what Orwell calls “the ordinary class-division of society”), by recognizing their mechanisms (“money-grubbing, fear of the boss”) and their foundational meanings. It questions their obviousnesses (“the normal motives of civilised life”). It also lays bare the opacity of language and its complicity in the process of subjection-interpellation. In this sense, disidentification works backwards. It is “constructed retrospectively,” as Pêcheux said57, and not prospectively, for the materials involved are in fact “always-already” there. In a word, it deconstructs the preconstructed, and rearticulates the rules of articulation so as to give way to a discursive formation that not only overtly recognizes its critical position in interdiscourse, but also encourages both the subjective appropriation of scientific knowledge and a new political practice on the part of the proletariat. In order to understand the limits and possibilities of disidentification, we must remember, nevertheless, that it is still a modality of reduplication between “subject of enunciation” and “Universal Subject”. Disidentification does not represent the “end of ideologies” or the end of all identification but simply the rise of new ideological and discursive formations. Consequently, it leads to the emergence of another form of identification. Whether this was what the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Cominform wanted is less clear a question. As Claudín argued: … in 1944-5 the Communist parties could halt the revolutionary movement of the proletariat, and in practice this is what they did. The real question is therefore not “Who applied the brake?” but “Was the behaviour of the Communist parties in France and Italy legitimate from the point of view of the interests of the proletariat and of the revolution?” 58

And this is an issue open for discussion. I fear that in this particular case though, as paradoxical as it may seem, Communism may have been one of Marxism’s most effective opponents throughout the twentieth century. Actually, a truly revolutionary working class can be less easily tamed by the Party—and therefore politically more unstable—than a working class permanently dwelling in their contempt for their age-old


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archenemy, the capitalist. Notwithstanding the complexity of the proposals presented in Language, Semantics and Ideology, some authors have called our attention to certain limitations of Pêcheux’s theory. Their criticisms have revolved around four basic arguments. To start with, he was entrapped in the Althusserian “structure-in-dominance” and he failed to rise above the constraints posed by Althusser’s theory of society and politics59. On the other hand, his theory had been unable to evolve in order to comprehend the “complex mixing” of discursive formations in texts and the heterogeneity and ambivalence of texts60. Besides, his emphasis on determination was too reductive in the way in which it accounted for the relationship between utterance and social organization. Finally, some of his concepts (transverse discourse, discursive formation, inter alia) have remained too vague or ambiguous for practical application in textual analysis61. Such criticisms notwithstanding, one should not overlook the potential of Pêcheux’s theoretical edifice. It is true that his own scientific discourse is entirely based on the Althusserian conception of the complex whole in dominance. However, his insistence on the ideological conditions of reproduction/transformation of the relations of production and on the modality of disidentification—as elements of the structure conducive to a revolutionary break with the existing ideological formations—seeks to test the limits of the complex whole and of its conditions of possibility. He also tried to prove that there is always considerable space within his model for marginal thinking and for refusal of the dominant ideology. It is also true that Pêcheux’s mode of analysis is more suitable for certain political texts and apparently inadequate for those texts where the inherent discursive formations are less clearly identifiable. Still, it is Pêcheux himself who provides the theoretical concepts that enable us to understand the discursive processes by which ambiguity arises as confluence of discursive formations in the field of transverse discourse. And if we dismiss determination altogether, how else can one establish a consequent relationship between discourse and ideology? Postmodernist strands in cultural studies may insist on the contingent, discontinuous and fragmentary nature of social phenomena, and will no doubt look upon such notions as “complex whole in dominance,” “closure,” “determination” and “dominance” with palpable suspicion. Pêcheux, however, was a product of his age. He decided to invest in a highly structured non-reductionist and anti-essentialist model of social reality, which nevertheless carries along with it a vision of society as a complex structure determined by a closed set of laws of operation and

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development. Even the “relative autonomy” of the different levels, along with all the contradictions and overdeterminations, cannot disguise the fact that the whole Althusserian model is, after all, constructed in accordance with the deterministic logic that had first been spelled out in Marx’s Capital. There are, nonetheless, advantages to this model. We can now delineate the discursive contours of ideological formations and to understand the way in which discursive formations interact in the context of the class struggle. It also permits us to follow the process whereby meanings are disputed, negotiated and established. Besides, through such model it is possible to recognize the main features of the discursive mechanisms of ideology that turn individuals into subjects and that allow concrete subjectivities to emerge. Moreover, thanks to the new category of disidentification, the scientific transformation of the social through the category of discourse can now be considered.

Notes 1

Pêcheux, 1982: 97ff. Althusser, 1971: 159. 3 Montgomery and Allan: 1992. 4 Vološinov, 1986: 9; his italics. 5 Idem: 13. 6 Idem: 21, 23, 79, 80. 7 That Laclau and Mouffe try to discuss exactly the opposite is something to be tackled in a later chapter. 8 Vološinov does not reject that distinction, but he registers the tension felt by linguists when confronted with the necessity to define their object of study as being centred on either one of these two terms: “What, then, is the true centre of linguistic reality: the individual speech act—the utterance—or the system of language? And what is the real mode of existence of language: unceasing creative generation or inert immutability of self-identical norms?” (1986: 63). 9 Pêcheux: 1982: 58. 10 Idem: 59; Pêcheux and Gadet, 1991: 31; Calvet, 1977: 30-7. 11 Marx and Engels, 1996: 248. 12 Stalin borrows this conception from Lenin’s reflection on the self-determination of nations. He stated in 1914: “Language is the most important means of human intercourse. Unity of language and its unimpeded development form one of the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commercial intercourse appropriate to modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its separate classes” (Lenin, 1977, vol. 1.: 512). 13 In “The insistence of the letter in the unconscious,” first published in 1957, Lacan stated that “[we] shall be content, for our little jab at the general function of 2


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praxis in the genesis of history, to point out that the very society which wished to restore, along with the privileges of the producer, the causal hierarchy of the relations between production and the ideological superstructure to their full political rights, has none the less failed to give birth to an Esperanto in which the relations of language to socialist realities would have rendered any literary formalism radically impossible” (Lacan, 1988: 82). In a footnote he adds: “We may recall that the discussion of the necessity for a new language in the communist society did in fact take place, and Stalin, much to the relief of those depending on his philosophy, cut off the discussion with die decision: language is not a superstructure” (Idem: 105). 14 Lacan, 1988: 82. 15 I am referring to arguments such as language as a factor of political cohesion and unity in a highly centralised State; its reduction to a mere social functionality; the October Revolution as a moment of socio-economic transformation with no bearing on the linguistic inheritance of the Russian people; the linguistic system as something unaffected by class struggle and beyond class control; etc. 16 In his address to the 12th Conference of the Communist Party organization in the Ukraine on 5 April, 1923, in Kharkov, which preceded the 12th Congress of the RCP, Trotsky warned: “Estrangement of the ruling party and state machine from the bulk of the population as regards language is a very dangerous kind of estrangement. One cannot have a frivolous attitude to such a political “link” as the national language, the everyday speech of a people. This question is important for the whole of our Union and of tenfold importance for the Ukraine” (Trotsky, 1975: 33). As he discussed the national question, Trotsky, fearing a split between the proletariat and the peasantry, denounced the fact that peasants in the Ukraine were being excluded from the revolutionary process, which had to be seen as “a workers’ and peasants’ affair.” He realized that language could still work as an instrument of power, of oppression, and of social and political exclusion, especially as far as the backward classes of other nations were concerned. Even the national language, here considered in its discursive dimension (“the everyday speech of people”), was not regarded as a neutral means of communication, as Stalin would have it, but as a “political ‘link’,” which is an observation far more relevant in the analysis of social antagonisms than the more sociological claim that it is but a factor of social cohesion. 17 Pêcheux, 1982: 58. 18 Idem: 58. 19 Idem: 59. 20 Vološinov, 1986: 87-88; 106. 21 Idem: 10. 22 Pêcheux, 1982: 111. 23 Gadet explains what she and Pêcheux mean by “rules” in La Langue Introuvable: “[language] rules […] cannot be considered as categorical rules—in the sense that a rule must apply. They must rather be seen as intrinsically allowing for ideological play and discursive latitudes” (Pêcheux and Gadet, 1991: 32). 24 Idem: 111.

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Idem: 113. Idem: 112. 27 It was Althusser who, in his “Reply to John Lewis” (1976), stated: “No human, i.e. social individual, can be the agent of a practice if he does not take the form of a subject. The “subject-form” is actually the historical form of existence of every individual, of every agent of social practices” (1976: 95). Pêcheux resorts to this passage to define the category of “subject-form”. 28 Idem: 107. 29 Idem: 115. 30 Idem: 116. 31 This process is further related to what he calls forgetting no. 2, which refers to the selection on the part of the speaking subject of one utterance, form or sequence only, when in fact the discursive formation allows for a greater variety of utterances, forms and sequences. 32 Idem: 114. 33 Although one might feel tempted to look for family resemblances between Pêcheux’s project and Critical Discourse Analysis, it should be pointed out that, as far as the analysis of social context is concerned, the latter lacks—despite some loose remarks on class interest and on the social construction of reality—a critical overview of the conditions of existence of the social. 34 Pêcheux and Gadet, 1991: 30. 35 Balibar, 1975a:125. 36 Lacan, 1994: 199. 37 See Torfing, 1999: 149-150; 295 38 Lacan, 1994: 198. 39 Lacan, 1988: 100. 40 Lacan, 1994: 214. 41 Idem: 203. 42 Pêcheux, 1982: 92-3. 43 Idem: 92. 44 Idem: 104. 45 Idem: 114. 46 Althusser, 1977: 169. 47 “Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a word ‘name a thing’ or ‘have a meaning’ (therefore including the obviousness of the ‘transparency’ of language), the obviousness that you and I are subjects — and that that does not cause any problems — is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect” (Althusser, 1971: 161) 48 Lacan, 1994: 198. 49 See Pêcheux, 1982: 108. 50 Idem: 156-7. 51 Idem: 79. 52 Orwell, 1989: 82. 53 Gallacher, 1949: 144. 26


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54 The case of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa could be analysed in this light. Nonetheless, Howarth’s arguments (2000a) follow a different path, as we shall see. 55 Pêcheux, 1982: 158. 56 Orwell, 1989: 83-84. 57 Pêcheux, 1982: 162. 58 Claudín, 1975: 317. 59 Howarth, 2000b: 97. 60 Fairclough and Wodak, 1997: 263. 61 Montgomery and Allan, 1992.


As we have seen, the deterministic and structuralist conception of “Ideology” proposed by Louis Althusser has left many questions unanswered. This has led a series of contemporary left theorists— especially post-Marxists like Claude Lefort1, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Judith Butler, amongst others—to call into question the concept (if not to discard it altogether) and to look for alternative categories. Simply replacing it would have meant that they would continue to operate from within the same paradigm. The idea, instead, would be to define approaches to the social and political issues of contemporaneity which might constitute an alternative to the revolutionary solutions advocated by traditional Marxism. The principal objective of their project is to reflect on the historical tasks of the Left in contemporary societies. Instead of dwelling upon the circumstances that may lead to the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat, they prefer to discuss the conditions of possibility of a “socialist strategy” within the existing political regimes of western countries. This “strategy” entails giving up the primacy of class-division in social analysis and strives to comprehend, within its own theoretical frame of reference, what has been loosely called the “new social movements” (feminism, environmentalism, anti-racism, human rights, the gay movement, anti-globalization, etc.). These movements have been fighting in these past few decades for visibility, not only in the academic sphere, but also in the political arena. Actually, due partly to their radical, contentious nature, and partly to their anti-Establishment vindications, these movements have been gaining a hegemonic position in contemporary Left politics, despite the fact that they have clearly brought into question the traditional assumptions about the prominence of class— and consequently of a conception of ideology based on class positions—in the determination of social identities.


Chapter Ten

Over these past few decades, the Left has been trying to reach out to those areas of social and political intervention which, for the most part of the twentieth century, remained outside of the scope of its age-old concerns (the workers’ movements, the political role of the trade unions, social security and the welfare state, the threats posed to the workers’ rights by the capitalist market economy, to name just a few). In fact, these new social movements have been launching some of the most pressing political debates in contemporary democracies. If this is to be seen as a sign of vitality on the part of the Left, it also poses the problem of knowing where such movements stand in relation to the Marxist edifice—assuming, of course, that Marxism, thanks to the weight of its history and of its theoretical output, is the ultimate epistemology that determines what is genuinely Left and what is not. Regardless the complex contours of its evolution, it has been constructed around a totalizing conception of society modelled after the social and economic reality of the nineteenth-century capitalist world. But we might as well invert the terms of the equation. We could ask where Marxism stands in relation to the twenty-first-century Left—assuming, once again, that the latter is an open field of diverse discourses and practices. Besides, what makes us say that these discourses are actually part of the leftist tradition is yet another difficulty. What do Marx and Giddens have in common, for instance? If we claim that, like Marx, the latter also defends a transformation of the structure by means of autonomous, reflective social actors2, how can we find a way to make Althusser fit the picture? And how valid are the responses of Marxism to the “globalized” and “commodified” social formations of late capitalism, where it has become more and more difficult to find a fully inclusive “we,” and where social identities are constantly being shaped and reshaped? Is the Left also in crisis? Is it in need, as Žižek and Laclau have already suggested, of a new imaginary after the collapse of the “really-existing-Socialist imaginary” and of the exhaustion of the socialdemocratic welfare state imaginary3? The responses of post-Marxists to these pressing questions cannot be overlooked. Post-Marxism is not to be confused with the positions of those right-wing scholars who were enthused over the fall of the Soviet bloc and who have been seeking to discredit Marxism on the basis of a few ill-digested categories and superficial readings of a couple of Marxist thinkers. In reality, post-Marxists do not claim to be anti- or ex-Marxists at all. Even the fact that they have decided to retain the term “Marxism” means it is not their intention to obliterate or erase the Marxist thought altogether, but to enter into dialogue with it, to make use of its frame of

The Role of Discourse on the Post-Marxist Agenda


reference in the construction of a new (post-structuralist) political theory. On general grounds, however, their critique aims to expose the impossibility of the entire Marxist project. As it would be expected, this fact alone has led many Marxist scholars—Ellen Wood (1986), Norman Geras (1987; 1988), Terry Eagleton (1991), Gibson-Graham (1996), just to name a few—to react almost passionately against their proposals. Ellen Wood for one attacks them on the grounds that their work is based on “a breathtaking misreading of Marx, but also a very substantial failure of reasoning”4; Eagleton, on the other hand, claims that “in almost all of their arguments, [they] theatrically overreact to reductionist forms of Marxism”5. Gibson-Graham, in turn, accuse them of “delivering” social theory into the “embrace” of capitalism6. Michèle Barrett, in an attempt to separate the contending parties, states that post-Marxists “now believe that theories such as Marxism are not viable on general grounds, and it is inappropriate in my view for Marxists to respond to their arguments, as some have, with excoriation of them personally as lapsed, ex- or anti-Marxists”7. This position is, I suppose, the least defensible in a sound theoretical discussion. After all, how is post-Marxism going to stake claims on the validity of their arguments, if the only response to their proposals is callous indifference or tacit hostility? The logomachy continues. The prefix “post-” is far more challenging and, I must admit, more disquieting, than the prefixes “anti-” or “ex-.” The Webster’s Dictionary8 does not provide us with a definition, but offers us instead, amongst others, some enlightening equivalents: “after,” “subsequent,” “later,” “behind,” “posterior” or “following after.” Thus, it could either mean that they “are after” Marxism, with the negative (I mean persecutory) overtones that such a phrase implies, or that, on the contrary, they intend to leave it “behind.” It could also indicate that they have succeeded Marxism. In this case, one could presuppose that Marxism is no longer there, that it has already disappeared, or that it has fallen from grace. This could signify that post-Marxists are just occupying a space left vacant by a theory in recession. The impossibility of reaching a satisfactory definition for the prefix somehow mirrors how delicate their position is. The validity and strength of their theory rests on a systematic deconstruction of Marxism. However, as they proceed, they also run the risk of eroding the grounds on which they stand, unless, of course, they force a paradigm shift. That is the reason why Laclau and Mouffe argue that “[j]ust as the era of normative epistemologies has come to an end, so too has the era of universal discourses”9. It is, in fact, a paradigm shift based on a double denial. They


Chapter Ten

are neither willing to accept the “normative” nature of Marxism, nor to acknowledge the “universality” of its claims. Still, to insist on qualifiers such as “normative” and “universal” can mislead a less informed reader. They presuppose the notion that Marxism is one single, uniform, consensual body of norms and universal truths. It is unquestionable that Marxism has had its share of orthodoxy throughout its history (think of Kautsky or Plekhanov) and that certain Marxists have always tried to impose sets of epistemological norms for what they believed to be the “true,” scientifically “valid” appropriation of social reality. However, there is another sort of Marxism: a Marxism that remains faithful to the dialectical logic that characterises many of Marx’s arguments; a restless Marxism that seeks to explore its own limitations, that criticizes itself, that keeps raising doubts and questions where others find answers and certainties, that keeps opening theoretical paths to innovate our perception of the social, that tries to understand the complex whole as it reviews its own premises and the conditions of possibility of its own discourse (E. P. Thompson just pops into mind). Though one can say that post-Marxism is, up to a certain point, the “continuation” of Marxism, it is, nevertheless, an attempt to rise above its tenets and axioms. Drawing mainly on much of the conceptual apparatuses of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Althusserian structuralism and Derridean deconstruction, post-Marxist thinkers set out to meet some of the commonest objections that have been raised to Marxism, especially those that concern the insistence on epiphenomenalism and class reductionism. As we have seen, these two theoretical solutions have been exposed as inadequate to account for the contingent nature of social identities and the indeterminate character of democratic struggles. In order to meet these objections, Post-Marxists have sought to reconfigure the category of discourse and to extend its application to a wider field of sociological and political analysis. We have seen that Pêcheux, for instance, never quite abandoned the field of linguistics. His project strove, above all, to find the links between linguistic processes and ideological formations. Post-Marxists, on the other hand, have moved matters exclusively related to linguistic realization down in their priority list and have attempted to understand the complexity of the social through a renewed concept of discourse—a concept which accepts no centre and no closed system of meanings. The first steps towards the emergence of a post-Marxist thinking were taken in the mid-seventies by Hindess and Hirst in two works that signalled not only the departure from long-standing epistemological and essentialist assumptions of Marxism, but also the adoption of a

The Role of Discourse on the Post-Marxist Agenda


deconstructive perspective on Althusserian structuralism. The works are Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (1975) and Mode of Production and Social Formation (1977). At the core of their anti-epistemological project was the idea that it is false to assume that there is any sort of correspondence between concepts and reality. Contrarily to all empiricist claims, facts are not “given,” but rather “produced” by scientific practice—a position that, as we have seen, made E.P. Thompson react so sharply. Their reservations about the primacy of conceptual abstractions over reality in Marxist discourse led them to warn from the start that “Marxist analysis of a concrete situation is always a work of theoretical abstraction… concrete conditions are not “given” to theory in order to validate or to refute its general concepts.” It is, in fact, the opposite, for “it is the general concepts that make possible the analysis of the concrete”10. In other words: any scientific appropriation of the world, of reality, is but a discursive construction, a conceptualization that depends less on the way in which the world actually is than on the limits of the language used to describe and explain it. In a previous chapter, I discussed the conditions under which given discursive formations establish their own objects of study. I also examined the epistemological problems related to the validation of scientific discourses. In the case under consideration, what Hindess and Hirst proposed back in the mid-seventies goes beyond the relativization of the status of autonomy of the object. In fact, what they ended up doing was claiming that objects have no existence outside discourse—perhaps the translation into political theory of the much quoted Derridean motto “il n’y a pas de hors-texte.” They maintained that objects are constituted of networks of meanings, entirely detached from reality, and articulated in accordance with rules that remain internal to discourse only. As it would be expected, their case fuelled controversy. Terry Eagleton was particularly derisive: [I]t seems plausible to believe that there is a given distinction between wine and wallabies, and that to be unclear on this point might be the occasion of some frustration on the part of someone looking for a drink. There may well be societies for which these things signify something entirely at odds with what they signify for us, or even certain bizarre cultural systems which saw no occasion to mark the distinction at all. But this does not mean that they would stock their off-licences with wallabies or encourage children to feed bottles of wine in their zoos.11

If we were to press their case any further, if we were to assume that it is not possible to establish a link between reality and discourse, we might


Chapter Ten

as well ask why they even bothered to attempt an analysis of the relationship between modes of production and social formations. Although dangerously eroding the scientific legitimacy of their own discourse, Hindess and Hirst decided to embrace an anti-epistemological position primarily in order to checkmate the Althusserian determinism in two moves. First, they questioned the teleological assumptions underlying the Marxist conception of historical evolution, insisting that any general theory of modes of production expresses but teleological concerns and idealistic aspirations12. Secondly, they tried to expose the pervasiveness of the logic of causation in Marxist discourse, arguing that the general concept of structural causality, as defined by Balibar in Reading Capital13, has merely replaced the essence of the Hegelian spirit with the essence of the structure14. It was this contention that gave them the theoretical room they needed to argue that there is “a necessary non-correspondence” between the different economic, political and cultural elements that compose a social formation. Therefore, any notion of a totalizing structure based on an organizing principle such as the economy should be discarded15. This contradicts not only Marx’s economism, which they regarded as operating within an “essentialist conception of reality”16, but also Althusser’s own conception of determination in the last instance. They regarded the mode of production as an “articulated combinations of relations of production and forces of production structured by the dominance of the relations of production”17. Thus, they tried to sidestep economism by emphasising the articulatory and combinatory nature of the productive relations. This manoeuver also enabled them to question, among other things, Althusser’s determinism—a critique further developed in Marx’s “Capital” and Capitalism Today (1977-1978), a two-volume work that they co-authored with Cutler and Hussain. Later, in 1982, Hirst and Wooley would still argue about Althusser that he... ...conceives social relations as totalities, as a whole governed by a single determinative principle. This whole must be consistent with itself and must subject all agents and relationships within its purview to its effects. We on the other hand consider social relations as aggregates of institutions, forms of organization, practices and agents which do not answer to any single causal principle or logic of consistency, which can and do differ in form and which are not essential to one another.18

This position was in consonance with Derrida’s case for the non-existence of a centre in the social structure. In his Writing and

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Difference (1978 (1967)), he had already rejected the conception of centred structure. He maintained that it is basically “the concept of a play based on a fundamental ground, a play constituted on the basis of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which itself is beyond the reach of play”19. Until a given moment, the only way to understand the structure, so Derrida claimed, had been to find a “point of presence.” This enabled us not only to organize the structure or to find its coherence, but also to envisage “the play” of the elements of the structure inside the total form. The problem, however, was that, although the centre was responsible for the structuralization of the structure, it would not allow the elements of the structure to affect its own fixity. The centre was then simultaneously inside and outside the totality. The rupturing moment when the “structurality of the structure” began to be questioned, when the desire for a centre was exposed—that is, when one tried to enquire about the law that was supposed to dictate the existence of a centre— …was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a centre or origin, everything became discourse—provided we can agree on this word—that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.20

However, one could legitimately ask if this negation of the centre as the result of a process of rethinking the “structurality of the structure” is not in itself a new way to rethink the “centrality of the structure.” I will explain. To stake a claim on the non-existence of a centre requires, beforehand, the very conceptualization of centre. In other words, in order to deny the existence of a centre in the structure, one must have imagined it, or at least one must have somehow conceived the possibility of its existence. Could we not argue that Derrida was still insisting on the centre, not as a form of positivity—the Spirit or the Universal Subject, for instance—but as a form of negativity, as an “absence,” to use his own words? Is he not replacing this negativity of the centre by a new positivity, namely discourse? And, thanks to this deconstructive manoeuvre, isn’t discourse now occupying, paradoxical as it may seem, a central position in the human sciences? Taking into account these considerations, I would dare suggest that discourse acquired the status of a “new centrality.” Nevertheless, I shall not ratify the outworn notion of centre as generator of meanings,


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occupying a given position in relation to the structure (within and/or without). I will maintain, instead, that this other form of centrality exists diluted and scattered, as it were, in the complex whole. It is there as the articulating instance not of signifieds but of signifiers, as the generator of an infinite play of differences, that its fluid existence can be ascertained only through the dispersion of its effects and not as a unifying cause (which was precisely what Foucault in his Archaeology of Knowledge sought to establish). It is this infinite play of differences that enables certain signifiers to occupy, only temporarily, a central position. Therefore, discourse as conceived by Derrida allows no perception of the totality of the complex whole, for one would have to be able to exhaust all the possible meanings existing there. That is why totalization is, as Derrida stressed, impossible: If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infiniteness of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field—that is, language and a finite language— excludes totalization. This field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a centre which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions.21

In post-Marxist thinking, the disappearance of the traditional centre, the proclamation of the impossibility of totality and the reconfiguration of discourse were achieved at the expense of the concepts of society and ideology. In an article called “The Impossibility of Society” (1983)— which is but a draft expounding some of the ideas he later developed with Chantal Mouffe—Laclau believed that both concepts required a thorough revision. Derrida’s theoretical challenge compelled Laclau to revisit and deconstruct two essentialist postulates of Marxism that are directly related to those constructs, namely social totality and false consciousness. According to Laclau, the first one relies on the notion that “society” is an intelligible structure within whose conditions of possibility empirical variations occur. In order to grasp the intelligibility of such totality—that is, our knowledge of “society,” our epistemic appropriation of the social order—meanings need to be fixed in relation to a centre—presented as an essence or as a positivity—guaranteeing their stability. In Marx, as well as in Hegel, this centre must be acknowledged before every aspect of social life can be accounted for, deciphered, exposed. Any epistemological project based on these premises will then regard such aspects either as phenomena or as epiphenomena of a given essence (which is the case of historicism or, as we have also seen, of economism).

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Provided one has access to the epistemological and discursive key that unveils such essence, “society” can be tackled as an empirically describable and scientifically definable object. I have already mentioned that Althusser’s structuralism attempted to escape the logic of the centre by asserting (1) the complex whole in dominance as a decentred structure, (2) the relative autonomy of the different levels and (3) the relational character of every social identity. On the other hand, however, he was forced to fixate the different levels and the different social identities in a system of relations (contradictions, determinations and overdetermination) which, despite its complexity, was still determined in the last instance by the economic. Laclau is willing to challenge this later development of Marxism by insisting that the “infinitude of the social” and the “excess of meaning” that characterizes it cannot be reduced to any single structural system of relations. This “excess of meaning” escapes control. It cannot be pinned down or secured by any epistemological principle, which makes it impossible for any social scientist to aspire to a comprehensive and unitary conception of the social. What we usually call “society” is still an echo of that holistic—yet reductive—conception. Totalization is, as Derrida puts it, impossible. Hence Laclau’s renunciation to the fixation of social identities in a single system and his claim, echoing Derrida, that “the social must be identified with the infinite play of differences, that is, with what in the strictest sense of the term we can call discourse—on the condition, of course, that we liberate the concept of discourse from its restrictive meaning as speech and writing”22. However, as he admits, the social would not exist if there were no attempts to suture the existing lacks and contradictions and to curb or limit such infinite play of differences. Žižek would add to this formulation the idea that, by seeking to integrate the social within a given symbolic order, the subject ends up regarding “society”—here equated with the Lacanian Other—as another subject: The subject cannot grasp Society as a close Whole, but this impotence has, so to speak, an immediate ontological status: it bears witness to the fact that Society itself does not exist, that it is marked by a radical impossibility. And it is because of this impossibility to achieve full identity with itself that the Other, Society as Substance, is already subject.23

It is here where the concept of hegemony makes its entry. For post-Marxists what is at stake is not the study of the conditions whereby a given social identity emerges around a closed set of meanings and grounded on a particular ideological formation, which, in turn, tries to


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achieve a dominant position locked inside a complex whole determined in the last instance by the economic (that is, inside a closed system of differences). What matters, instead, is the analysis of how a given social agent tries to hegemonize the social despite the fact that the latter keeps resisting any such attempt, and that absolute domination on the part of any particular group is never going to be achieved. Since all the identities of social agents are negotiable and subject to the contingent evolution of the social, any particular hegemonic project must seek to stabilize systems of meanings in order to establish, on a societal level, a given social order24. That is to be achieved by constructing consensus around nodal points—condensations of meaning in given signifiers—that end up constitution a specific discursive configuration, continuously competing with other emergent configurations. Thus, the concept of hegemony excludes the notion of centre or essence of the social. As Laclau argues: “[i]t is quite simply, a political type of relation, a form, if one so wishes, of politics; but not a determinable location within a topography of the social. In a given social formation, there can be a variety of hegemonic nodal points”25. If there is no centre establishing the ultimate meanings, then it is not possible to maintain that there is a positive and non-contradictory form of consciousness corresponding to each identity. In other words: in order to decide whether one particular form of consciousness is “false” or not, one needs to affirm that there is a “true” identity—an identity whose coherence had been sanctioned by a closed system of signifieds. Once the infinite play of differences takes over our perception of the social and, consequently, the finite system is brought into question, it is no longer possible to tie given social identities, made of composite ideological materials, to one single ideological formation. The first implication of this claim is, I believe, that such an important conception for Marxism as that of class, for example (and, one might add, of its correlated notions, such as objective class interests and class consciousness, as defined by Lukács in his History and Class Consciousness) loses, if not theoretical pertinence, at least its central position in the explanation of the historical processes. In this respect, Laclau and Mouffe are particularly critical of what scientific Socialism had tried to establish. As they argue: Our examination of the history of Marxism has, in this sense, shown a very different spectacle from that depicted by the naïve positivism of “scientific” socialism: far from a rationalist game in which social agents, perfectly constituted around interests, wage a struggle defined by transparent parameters, we have seen the difficulties of the working class

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in constituting itself as a historical subject, the dispersion and fragmentation of its positional ties, the emergence of forms of social and political reaggregation—“historical bloc,” “collective will,” “masses,” “popular sectors”—which define new objects and new logics of their conformation. Thus, we are in the field of the overdetermination26 of some entities by others, and the relegation of any form of paradigmatic fixity to the ultimate horizon of theory.27

The Communist Manifesto epitomizes that “naïve positivism.” It was clear to Marx and Engels (but not so clear to Laclau and Mouffe) that the growing contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production of capitalist society was to lead to the inevitable emergence of the proletariat as “a really revolutionary class”28. This class should be capable not only of “equalizing” the various interests from different social bodies29, but also of devising ways to change the existing conditions of production and modes of appropriation. If, according to Laclau and Mouffe, there has never been a centre, if economy has never determined in the last instance the complex whole, if the meanings constitutive of identities are adrift in the social and left at the mercy of the “infinite play of differences,” then one has gathered all the arguments to discard the notion of the class struggle as the driving force of history. This shakes historical materialism in its foundations. In fact, there are no more grounds to insist on the role of the classes as historical subjects par excellence. “The search for the ‘true’ working class and its limits is a false problem,” so would Laclau and Mouffe state30. Besides, the Marxist conception of struggle requires a topological distribution of forces and interests (be it symmetrical or asymmetrical) that reduces the complexity of the social not only to a set of boundaries legitimizing spaces of internal articulation of meanings and interests, but also to one single battleground where the conflict is supposed to be waged. To admit that social identities cannot be articulated in relation to a centre means that the existing subject positions compete (that is, try to assert their own discursive space) in an open-ended structure where there is not one single field of action but many, and where there is not one single conflict, one single struggle, but many. As historical interests and class positions do not form clear-cut homogeneous unities opposing each other within the existing relations of production, the subject positions may be at a loss when it comes not only to establishing strategic alliances to achieve particular political goals, but also to defining who their real opponents are. Countering many of the long-established Marxist axioms regarding this latter aspect, Laclau and Mouffe advance:


Chapter Ten It is not the case that the field of the economy is a self-regulated space subject to endogenous laws; nor does there exist a constitutive principle for social agents which can be fixed in an ultimate class core; nor are class positions the necessary location of historical interests.31

The second implication is that it is no longer possible to assert the role of ideology in the constitution of the subject in the terms dictated by Althusser. Laclau leaves no doubts about this point when he asks: “if any social agent is a decentred subject, if when attempting to determine his identity we find nothing else but the kaleidoscopic movement of differences, in what sense can we say that subjects misrecognize themselves?”32 Here Laclau is obviously seeking to counter what Althusser had already advanced in terms of the ideological function of misrecognition. In Laclau’s opinion, the subject is continuously drifting from one position to the next, from one identity to the next. This constant shifting does not allow the concrete individual to become tied down to one single ideology and to misrecognize himself as an always-already subject of the Absolute Subject. One of the theoretical consequences of this line of argument is that the individual has now ceased to be a stable subject. But this also enables Laclau to engage the reverse gear in relation to Althusser’s suppression of human agency, handing back some degree of autonomy to the individual—hence his rehabilitation of the category of “social agent.” In the meantime, Laclau acknowledges that the homogeneity and internal coherence of the identities of social agents are but an “illusion.” Now, this does not seem consistent with his claim that “the theoretical ground that made sense of the concept of “false consciousness” has evidently dissolved”33. However, “illusion” and “false consciousness” are two distinct issues to the post-Marxist thinker. The concept of “false consciousness” implies the existence of a fixed identity. The “illusion” Laclau refers to, on the contrary, derives from the fact that the subject fails to recognize the unfixity and precarious nature of his identities, at the same time as he tries to suture the existing discursive contradictions— which brings us back to the discussion of the Derridean concept of discourse. In fact, it is discourse that allows such identities—composed of heterogeneous signifiers—to be articulated without ever coming to a standstill, without ever letting ideology occupy “the unique place of the Centre”34. This means that instead of “falsity,” which befits the epistemological requisites of a model of society endowed with an autonomous centre—a centre that can stipulate what is “true” or not—, we should be speaking of “non-recognition.” This refers to the inability to

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recognize the composite and contradictory nature of the human subject, which is a more adequate term to explain the cognitive and discursive processes at work in a decentred social structure. Necessarily, this compels Laclau to rethink the category of ideology. The same way he dismisses the concept of “society” for its positivity and speaks in turn of the social, so does he avoid the term “ideology” and the essentialism implied in it. In its stead he prefers to speak of the notion of “ideological”: The ideological would not consist of the misrecognition of a positive essence, but exactly the opposite: it would consist of the non-recognition of the precarious character of any positivity, of the impossibility of any ultimate suture. The ideological would consist of those discursive forms through which a society tries to institute itself as such on the basis of closure, of the fixation of meaning, of the non-recognition of the infinite play of differences. The ideological would be the will to “totality” of any totalizing discourse. And insofar as the social is impossible without some fixation of meaning, without the discourse of closure, the ideological must be seen as constitutive of the social.35

This understanding of the ideological legitimizes one of the procedures of the “criticism of ideology” that Žižek later tries to systematize36: the ideological text is to be symptomatically read as a unified, totalized field of meanings resulting from the “montage of heterogeneous ‘floating signifiers’ (…) through the intervention of certain ‘nodal points’”37. A deconstructive approach is thus supposed to expose the discursive mechanisms (displacements, condensations and overdeterminations) presiding over such fixation of meanings. With the publication in 1985 of Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, these positions regarding the nature of the ideological and of the social would be reiterated. As I have already mentioned, in the early seventies John Mepham referred to social life as a “domain of meanings.” In a similar fashion, the two authors of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy advance that every social object and practice is meaningful. However, instead of a single (centred) domain of meanings as Mepham suggested, they propose a (decentred) plurality of domains. Such domains are but systems of differences, or discursive structures. They establish the meanings that are at a time constitutive of social identities and determinant of the subject positions of social agents. In fact, Laclau and Mouffe go as far as proclaiming that discourse is “the structured totality resulting from the articulatory practice”38. This claim somehow contradicts their rejection


Chapter Ten

of all forms of totalization. Therefore, their concept of discourse, unlike Pêcheux’s, is not limited to linguistic phenomena. Instead, it comprehends the entire social reality, now conceived as a structure subject to a play of differences, continuously escaping stagnation and constantly defying stability. For this reason, as there is nothing outside discourse—“il n’y a pas de hors-discours,” if I am allowed to tamper with Derrida’s words—, they reject the idea that in social analysis one should draw a distinction between the discursive and the non-discursive. In their reply to an article Norman Geras had published in the New Left Review (1987) attacking Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe clarify that what matters in the study of social facts is not ontological reality (or “referential materiality,” as they call it). They do not dispute its existence anyhow. What they set out to explain instead is the social construction of the objects through a network of signifiers: If I kick a spherical object in the street or if I kick a ball in a football match, the physical fact is the same, but its meaning is different. The object is a football only to the extent that it establishes a system of relations with other objects, and these relations are not given by the mere referential materiality of the objects but are, rather, socially constructed.39

It is not difficult to detect Lacan’s influence here. On the one hand, Laclau and Mouffe speak of the “referential materiality” or of “the world external to thought”40—that in which the material existence or the entity of things is inscribed—, corresponding to the Lacanian category of the “real.” Lacan had already explained that this “real” is forever beyond and behind the automaton, or network of signifiers, and resists any appropriation on the part of the order of the symbolic. To account for the relation that exists between the subject and the “real,” Lacan elaborated the concept of tuché, the function of the encounter with the “real,” an encounter that can be (and is essentially) missed. When the subject happens to encounter the “real,” the latter is not assimilable and it presents itself in the eyes of the psychoanalyst as trauma41. This happens because in the analytic experience—which is necessarily realized as an experience of speech, of articulation—the “real” remains the eternally foreclosed element. When Laclau and Mouffe, on the other hand, speak of discourse, they are referring to the social construction of the identity of both subjects and objects, which constitutes in itself and by itself another reality. This corresponds grosso modo to the Lacanian conceptualisation of discourse— already discussed in the previous section—, which refers to the unconscious as an articulation of signifiers. For Lacan, signifiers always mediate the subject’s relation to the object. Identification occurs only in

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the field of the symbolic42 and not of the imaginary (which is the field of the idealization). It is the order of the symbolic that allows the human subject to construct his own identity. The order of the subject is determined, even when it comes to sexuality, not by biological factors, but by signifiers that the symbolic provides. As Lacan reminds us, “the human being has always to learn from scratch from the Other what he has to do, as man or as woman”43. Laclau and Mouffe use this Lacanian divide in support of their claims on the insurmountable hiatus that there is between the “real” and discourse. What their theory seeks to do is not to pretend there is no such thing as referential materiality, but to insist on the fact that if we want to apprehend ontological reality we are left with no options but to resort to the signifiers and categories discourse supplies. This means, for that matter, that reality can never be grasped as such. I think this position opens up another front in their offensive against the foundations of Marxism, as it questions the dialectical relationship that Marxists have always assumed to exist between language and reality. It is true that Vološinov had already made reference to two notions that still subsist in the arguments of the two post-Marxists. Firstly, “only that which has acquired social value can enter the world of ideology, take shape, and establish itself there”44. Secondly, one should not confuse the world of natural phenomena with the world of signs45. But he also warned us that “[signs] also are particular, material things”46 and that they have a significant impact on material reality. In other words, the materiality of the sign is embedded in the materiality of natural reality and interacts with it. As he maintained: Every ideological sign is not only a reflection, a shadow, of reality, but is also itself a material segment of that very reality. Every phenomenon functioning as an ideological sign has some kind of material embodiment, whether in sound, physical mass, colour, movements of the body, or the like. In this sense, the reality of the sign is fully objective and lends itself to a unitary, monistic, objective method of study. A sign is a phenomenon of the external world. Both the sign itself and all the effects it produces (all those actions, reactions, and signs it elicits in the surrounding social milieu) occur in outer experience.47

This is hard-line dialectical materialism: the sign is not only material but also produces material effects which, in turn, determine the conditions under which signs are exchanged and (re)produced. Obliviously, Laclau and Mouffe do not address the issue of the materiality of the signifier, let alone of the sign. There is no attempt on


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their part to bridge, in a more systematic way, the two spheres, namely that of referential reality and that of discourse. In this case we are bound to ask if their model accepts the possibility of discourse ever changing that which lies beyond and outside it. In the theses that the two post-Marxists laid down in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, every social phenomenon seems to have been reduced to the dimension of the discursive. As Laclau later acknowledges in the Preface he wrote to Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), objects cannot be looked upon as positivities that are out there waiting to be named. Endorsing the positions taken by Hindess and Hirst in the seventies and which, as we have already seen, had caused Eagleton to react so derisively, Laclau maintains that what confers unity to the object is—and here he quotes from Žižek—“the retroactive effect of naming itself.” In other words, the identity of any object, its singularity, its concreteness, can only be established after a signifier has been assigned to it. From then on, the object appears to have an autonomous existence—an existence that seems to have preceded (hence the adjective “retroactive”) the act of naming (which is for that matter, one should not forget, a speech act). If one removes the signifier, one realizes that the “positive consistence” of the object is only illusory. In fact the act of naming an object is, still in Žižek’s words, “just a positivation of a void—of a discontinuity opened in reality by the emergence of the signifier”48. But I think in this respect Žižek is only redressing Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism: the value of a commodity is apparently inherent in the commodity itself—it seems to us natural that a commodity should have a value—, but it must nevertheless be assigned to the commodity so that the latter acquires social visibility and becomes an object of “desire” (not coincidentally, Lacan points out that “[t]he function of desire is a last residuum of the effect of the signifier in the subject”49). Laclau and Mouffe, then, reject the distinction between “discursive” and “non-discursive” for there is no social practice that is not structured by discourse. Everything that is social is itself a signifier and, therefore, meaningful. I could think of several objections to this formulation, but the most important one is related to epistemological relativism. One of the implications of their premises is that the entire social reality is reducible to signifiers and signifieds (Lacan’s S/s). This is the same as maintaining that only that which can be accounted for, that which bears meaning, that which can be articulated in a chain of signifiers can be regarded as a social phenomenon. However, if—as they claim—meanings cannot be fixed, except provisionally, how can one agree on the nature and the limits of

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that phenomenon? And what about all the phenomena that have not yet found linguistic expression or that have not yet been articulated? Let us consider, for instance, the word “Genocide,” which was first deployed during the Nuremberg trials to refer retroactively to the mass extermination of the Jewish people during World War II—in what way, I wonder, does it constitute a “positivation of a void”? And if so, is the act of extermination a “void”? Anyhow, no one will ever doubt that the word “Endlösung” represented a “positivity” for many SS troopers and commanding officers50. Does all this imply that, for lack of an adequate vocabulary, for lack of a given set of signifiers, certain social phenomena do not take (or have not taken) place at all? Does it mean that we are unable to devise them or that we should set them apart in our sociological analysis? Besides, how far does the “real” interfere with discursive reality? Does it not invade the realm of meanings and change it (think of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, all of whom displaced the meanings that sustained the outworn doxa concerning the place of the human being in the Universe, and its relation to God and himself51)? The fact that there are different signifiers coming from several discursive formations making reference to one single phenomenon— “Holocaust” (religion), “Endlösung” (politics), “Genocide” (law)—allows us to consider the phenomenon itself as a form of positivity, a form of assertion of the ontic that transcends the (several) act(s) of naming and that compels language to admit it to its presence. What happened during the period that separated the call to the “Endlösung” from the charge of “Genocide” testifies that the ontic can never be reduced to the simple act of naming. In order to sidestep this theoretical limitation, Laclau would be forced to admit that discourse is affected by extra-discursive phenomena, by reintroducing Balibar’s concept of dislocation. I will come back to this point later. The problem posed by Laclau and Mouffe’s epistemological relativism becomes all the more difficult to solve due to their insistence on unfixity as the main condition of every social identity. The issue lies in the fact that it can lead to the complete undecidability of social identities and consequently to the impossibility of conceiving the social in a coherent way. As far as the unfixity of social identities is concerned, however, one should be reminded that they are just echoing Gramsci’s thought: “When one’s conception of the world is not critical and coherent but disjointed and episodic, one belongs simultaneously to a multiplicity of mass human groups.” At first sight, this signifies that individuals do not belong


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exclusively to one specific class or group, which is an argument that, up to a certain point, suits Laclau and Mouffe’s claims. However, Gramsci adds: The personality is strangely composite: it contains Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history at the local level and intuitions of a future philosophy which will be that of a human race united the world over. To criticise one’s own conception of the world means therefore to make it a coherent thought in the world.52

He is in fact admitting that individuals can disentangle themselves from that amalgam of “mass human groups” by critically revising their conceptions of the world. If we dismiss, as Laclau and Mouffe will have it, the possibility of there being an epistemology that validates a “critical and coherent” conception of the world—which was precisely the role Althusser assigned to science—we are also eroding the legitimacy of action of the revolutionary proletariat, the “international class” that, still according to Gramsci, was supposed to lead the other groups in accordance with the directives of the Comintern53. It is not difficult to understand Gramsci’s attempt to grant the proletariat’s struggle a central position in the arena of social antagonisms. However, as we have seen, post-Marxism reacts strongly against any such attempt and prefers to assert the relativity of the social. We are thus bound to ask how it is possible to determine the conditions of existence of a particular social grouping and define their core interests if their identity “has become purely relational”54. The unfixity proclaimed by Laclau and Mouffe breaks the “logical and necessary” bond that Marxism has always assumed to exist between “socialist objectives and the positions of the social agents in the relations of production”55. Since they believe that the determination in the last instance by the economic is not a valid argument any more, one can no longer conclude that the political subjectivity of the workers is naturally determined by their position in the productive structure. In this way the two theorists remove the workers from the pedestal where Marx and Engels had first put them, that is, as privileged subjects of the historical process. Since there is no transcendental subject, i.e., no subject constituted by a set of fixed, immutable meanings, the workers’ political subjectivity undergoes, like all the other political subjectivities, constant hegemonic rearticulations. It is in the context of the hegemonic relations that a given social antagonism—qua confrontation with an opposing force that negates their identity—can give rise to their Socialist objectives. But these objectives and interests, however important they may

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be in the transformation of the social structures, do not grant the workers any privileged location in Laclau and Mouffe’s edifice. In a decentred ensemble of hegemonic struggles, the workers’ anti-capitalist struggle is but one social antagonism among others. As the two theorists remind us, “there are no privileged points for the unleashing of a Socialist political practice; this hinges upon a ‘collective will’ that is laboriously constructed from a number of dissimilar points”56. That is why they prefer to speak of “subject positions” instead of applying the category of “subject,” which in Althusser represented a form of always-already fixity, one single position pinned down to a closed system of differences. “Subject positions” are constructed within an open discursive structure and overdetermine each other57. To put it differently, identities do not exist as self-contained elements of the social, immune to the contingencies of history, but can only be constituted as relational moments58 in specific historical contexts. Thus, these subject positions do not exist as fully constituted positivities. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, they result from a process of dislocation—an event that disrupts the existing order of meanings, exposes the contingent nature of the social and shatters previously established identities, forcing subjects to constitute new ones. Secondly, they are discursively constructed on the basis of what is negated by the social antagonism, that is, by the other hegemonic forces also striving to secure power. In fact, it is this hegemonic struggle that confers relative unity to the ensemble. However, as Žižek reminds us in an influential article published in 1990, Laclau and Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy fail to perceive that what is negated in social antagonism is always-already negated. He argues that the negation of interests and objectives held by a certain group does not originate in an opposing group, but inside itself. In other words, they do not exist as positivities that are being suppressed or denied by the other group, but as negation of the negation. Now this can only be understood if, instead of dwelling on the discursive mechanisms that constitute the subject positions, one looks back onto the Lacanian category of subject, because it is precisely at this level where the negation takes place. Allow me to examine this for a while. Žižek observes that in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy these two senses of the word “subject”—the Lacanian “subject,” on the one hand, and the “subject positions” which are bound to the specific historical context in which individuals live, on the other—are hardly compatible. The former suits Althusser’s description of the ideological interpellation of social classes and the nature of the class struggle. Individuals can only regard themselves as social subjects (that is, can


Chapter Ten

claim to have an identity of their own, to belong to a class or to a community, to oppose other classes, and so on) as long as they are interpellated by a chain of signifiers made available by a given symbolic order (Ideology, of course). This also provides them with the class objectives to be achieved (which loosely correspond to Lacan’s “lack”). However, Post-Marxists tend to consider that individuals do not base their identities on one single symbolic order, but rather take up different (and sometimes contradictory) subject positions that vary according to the historical context and to the nature of the social antagonism. This could be regarded as a pragmatic view of how to conduct oneself in society, which seems to serve the purposes of “late-capitalist” democratic regimes, where one witnesses a total dispersion of objectives. What should one be fighting for? International solidarity? Human rights? The environment? The end of capitalism and imperialism? Peace? The end of private property? All of these combined? Besides, everything now appears to be subject to a dismaying relativity of positions. What allows one individual to say that he belongs to one particular group? What defines that group? Ethnicity? Race? Geographical proximity? Gender? The position in the structure of production? Moreover, primary antagonisms seem to have grown more and more indefinite. Who are one’s antagonists? The Government? Capitalism? Extreme right-wing parties? Multi-national companies? Superpowers? Terrorist organizations? Poachers? None of the above? This can end up leading to a sort of socio-political hypocrisy, a constant mask-swapping in a game where ethico-political principles (which are now deemed precarious and relational) can be traded like any other commodity. As Eagleton explains: If there is no “necessary” relation between women and feminism, or the working class and socialism, then the upshot would be a disastrously eclectic, opportunistic politics, which simply drew into its project whatever social groups seemed currently most amenable to it.59

Laclau and Mouffe’s insistence on the relativity of social antagonisms taken to extremes might even call into to question their defence of a Socialist strategy—which is precisely what Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is supposed to be about—as we are no longer in position to elect the one antagonism whose eradication can definitively make way for a change in the existing social order—that is, of course, if social order can actually be changed (I use the passive voice intentionally). Žižek’s discussion of Lacan’s proposals aims to find a way out of this apparent dead-end and to correct Laclau and Mouffe’s difficulty to theorize the subject before its subjectivation60, by helping us to reassess

The Role of Discourse on the Post-Marxist Agenda


its role in the definition of the nature of such antagonisms. What is at stake in every social antagonism, so Žižek maintains, is “self-inflicted impediment”61. Lacan had already stated that the subject is constantly seeking to suppress his lack, which is situated in the field of the Other. Translated into social analysis, this means that social subjects believe that, by suppressing that which they have been denied, by retrieving that which they have been deprived of, they will one day attain full identity. Žižek exemplifies: The feminist struggle against patriarchal, male chauvinist oppression is necessarily filled out by the illusion that afterwards, when patriarchal oppression is abolished, women will finally achieve their full identity with themselves, realize their human potentials, etc.62

In other words, if the enemy from without is defeated, if there is no more negation of one’s interests, if one’s desires have been fulfilled, then one is instantly deprived of the motive that made one take up a particular subject position in the context of a given social antagonism. That is why “the moment of victory is the moment of greatest loss”—a situation Hegel had already described as “the loss of the loss”63. In terms of Pêcheux’s modalities of reduplication between “subject of enunciation” and “Universal Subject”, this is what we could expect of an identity entirely constructed upon the modality of counter-identification. But Žižek is more daring than Pêcheux: what he is suggesting is that the real site of all antagonisms is the subject himself since the latter is, regardless of his efforts, forever condemned to exist as a negation of himself. In fact, the subject is constituted by the impossibility of closure of the symbolic field. As he observed elsewhere, “[it] is not the subject which is asking the question; the subject is the void of the impossibility of answering the question of the Other”64. Now the incompatibility detected by Žižek resides in the fact that “subject positions” exist as long as that impossibility of the subject is kept hidden. The subject as a “void,” as “the internal impossibility of the Other”65, is always-already there. It therefore precedes the process of subjectivation leading to the constitution of socially constructed subject positions. The signifiers invested in the antagonistic relations end up forming an identity sustained by the “ideological” Laclau spoke of, which is essentially the “non-recognition of the precarious character of any positivity, of the impossibility of any ultimate suture.” It is precisely this “non-recognition” that confers a sense of cohesion to the social fantasy. Struggles for emancipation are guided by the ideological illusion that one day the closure of the symbolic order will be achieved, and that their


Chapter Ten

objectives are positivities “on standby,” as it were, waiting for the right social and political conditions to step forth so that they can assert themselves as the closure of the whole historical process, in other words, as “the end of history.” For Žižek, then, it all adds up to the following: either social antagonism is an attribute of the relations between differential subject positions and their illusion derives from the fact that they cannot get hold of the whole discursive context, or it is an attribute of the traumatized subject—that is, an expression of the internal limits of the subject—and subject positions are just an attempt to escape the effects of the lack by trying to become a fully achieved identity through several processes of identification. But is it legitimate to assume that every revolutionary enterprise is motivated by an illusion, by a non-recognition of the subject’s traumatic kernel? Is the Hegelian argument of “the loss of the loss” but a strategy to expose the vacuity of every social movement, that is, to reveal every social movement as rotating a void? Up to a certain point one may be led to believe that the post-Marxists’ insistence on the Lacanian model serves to demonstrate that, no matter how scientifically sustained, no matter how politically urgent it may be, any communist revolutionary project—even when it is based on a “a subjective process of appropriation of scientific concepts and identification with the political organisations ‘of a new type’,” as Pêcheux would have it66—may simply be the expression of a subject seeking to elude such an inbred imbalance. Let me be clear about this: “the loss of the loss” may be the ultimate argument that necessarily renders every revolution an illusory enterprise. Are we to believe that the numerous questions on the future of the October Revolution Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin sought to answer were but manifestations of the restlessness of a traumatized subject trying to come to terms with the disillusionment of having done with capitalism in Russia? Was Lenin trying to put off that disillusionment in January 1919 when he hoped that the situation of civil war in Germany might favour a communist revolution67? Was he voicing the “hysterical” subject—“the subject constituted through his own division”68—when he stated that the Revolution in Russia was doomed unless Communism was to spread to the western countries69? In this sense, we might as well ask if Pêcheux’s disidentification rests upon a mere illusion (namely that one can integrate “the effects of the sciences and of proletarian political practice on the subject-form”70), when in fact, regardless of whatever the efforts we can make, we are but

The Role of Discourse on the Post-Marxist Agenda


postponing “the loss of the loss”. Does it mean that the source of every social antagonism resides primarily in the subject and not in the contradictions of the social structure? I wonder if all those who fought for the Spanish Republic were willing to regard the conflict with the Nationalists as something originating in their own “hysterical subject.” It is within this set of concerns that Judith Butler is compelled to ask: Can the ahistorical recourse to the Lacanian bar be reconciled with the strategic question that hegemony poses, or does it stand as a quasi-transcendental limitation on all possible subject-formations and strategies and, hence, as fundamentally indifferent to the political field it is said to condition?71

The logical consequence of Žižek’s argument is that all political interests only seem to exist as mere offshoots of the “negation of the negation” within the subject. To see beyond one’s most immediate political horizons, to devise a radical strategy to transform the whole social order should require much more than this. And yet, as post-Marxism allows no room for a totalizing stance of the social, such strategy is condemned from the start. All things considered, is it possible for us to maintain, as Eagleton did, back in the early nineties, that post-Marxism “belongs to a period of political crisis—an era in which it could indeed appear that the traditional social interests of the working class had evaporated overnight, leaving you with your hegemonic forms and precious little material content”72? The fact that throughout the nineties and the first decade of the twentieth century a whole series of works have been published on this issue73 could either mean that Eagleton was wrong or that the “period of political crisis” is not yet over. Is Marxism presently crossing the desert of disbelief, expecting rejuvenation in the next oasis of social discontent, or has post-Marxism already buried it under the debris of the Berlin Wall?

Notes 1

On his discussion of the concept of ideology, see Lefort 1986: 185-6, 191, 195-6, 201. See also Flynn 2005: 185-192. 2 Giddens, 1979: 55-65. 3 Butler et al., 2000: 325. 4 Wood, 1986: 59. 5 Eagleton, 1991: 212. 6 Gibson-Graham, 1996: 226. 7 Barrett, 1994: 245.


Chapter Ten

8 In the 1993 edition of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Springfield, Merriam-Webster. 9 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 3. 10 Hindess and Hirst, 1975: 4. 11 Eagleton, 1991: 2004. 12 Idem: 7. 13 “In different structures, the economy is determinant in that it determines which of the instances of the social structure occupies the determinant place. Not a simple relation, but rather a relation between relations; not a transitive causality, but rather a structural causality. In the capitalist mode of production it happens that this place is occupied by the economy itself; but in each mode of production, the ‘transformation’ must be analysed” (Balibar, 1970: 224). 14 Idem: 8; see Balibar, 1970: 224. 15 Hirst, 1977: 130; see also Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 100. 16 Idem: 127. 17 Hindess and Hirst, 1975: 22. 18 Hirst and Wooley, 1982: 134. 19 Derrida, 1988: 109. 20 Idem: 110; my italics. 21 Idem: 118-9. 22 Laclau, 1990: 90; also in Laclau, 1991: 25. 23 Žižek, 1989: 178. 24 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 135-6; Howarth, 2000b: 110. 25 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 139. What remains to be explained, however, is the status of their theory of hegemony. Provocatively, Žižek asks: “is it a theory of today’s specific contingent historical constellation, so that in Marx’s time ‘class essentialism’ was adequate, while today we need the full assertion of contingency, or is it a theory describing a transcendental a priori of historicity?”(Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000: 318). This question could also be, I think, raised in relation to the rest of Laclau and Mouffe’s edifice: are they establishing the rules and limits of historical enquiry, and thus inaugurating a new kind of historicism, or are they simply trying to account for what is happening in the social and political dimensions of the contemporary western democracies? 26 As in Althusser, the concept of “overdetermination” plays an important role in consolidating Laclau and Mouffe’s proposals regarding the nature of the social. The difference between them, however, lies in the fact that the two post-Marxists emphasize that the process is wholly symbolic: “The concept of overdetermination is constituted in the field of the symbolic, and has no meaning whatsoever outside it. Consequently, the most profound potential meaning of Althusser’s statement that everything existing in the social is overdetermined, is the assertion that the social constitutes itself as a symbolic order” (Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 97-8). As they had already undone the Althusserian thesis of the determination in the last instance by the economic, the next step in their argumentation is taken as a matter of course: “[t]he symbolic — i.e., overdetermined — character of social relations therefore implies that they lack an ultimate literality which would reduce them to

The Role of Discourse on the Post-Marxist Agenda


necessary moments of an immanent law. There are not two planes, one of essences and the other of appearances, since there is no possibility of fixing an ultimate literal sense for which the symbolic would be a second and derived plane of signification. Society and social agents lack any essence, and their regularities merely consist of the relative and precarious forms of fixation which accompany the establishment of a certain order” (Idem: 98). 27 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 104-105. 28 Marx, 1961: 21. 29 Idem: 19. 30 Idem: 84. 31 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 85. 32 Laclau, 1991: 26; my italics. 33 Ibid. 34 Althusser, 1977: 168. 35 Idem: 27. 36 The other complementary procedure is based on the notion of enjoyment (“jouissance” or Thing as its embodiment) as depicted in Lacan’s graph of desire. When enjoyment, which cannot be symbolized, intersects the signifier, the latter becomes inconsistent. It is the body, the “real” as source of enjoyment, asserting its presence in the field of the Other. Fantasy plays here an important role as it emerges as an attempt to overcome or conceal such inconsistency in the order of the symbolic. Žižek maintains that the theories of ideology rendered by both structuralism and post-structuralism are based on the Althusserian theory of interpellation, which only addresses the lower section of Lacan’s graph (the level of meaning). However, Žižek believes that ideology also contains a component of enjoyment that is “beyond interpellation”—the realm of fantasy, of desire, of the lack in the Other. This is what explains the fact that “the last support of the ideological effect (of the way an ideological network of signifiers ‘holds’ us) is the non-sensical, pre-ideological kernel of enjoyment” (Žižek, 1989: 124). This means that any criticism of ideology must also be able to “extract”—but not interpret, since it is beyond meaning—this kernel of ideological enjoyment, which appears before us as fantasy that cannot be subjected to a symptomatic reading as it masks a void—the void left by the confrontation of the order of the symbolic with the “real” as enjoyment. 37 Žižek, 1989: 125. 38 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 105; my italics 39 Laclau and Mouffe, 1987: 82; also Laclau, 1990: 100. 40 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 108. 41 Lacan, 1994: 55. 42 Idem: 244. 43 Idem: 204. 44 Vološinov, 1986: 22. 45 Idem: 10. 46 Ibid.; my emphasis. 47 Idem: 11.



Chapter Ten

Žižek, 1989: 95; see also Sim, 2000: 167. Lacan, 1994: 153. 50 On how the Allies came up with this word, their difficulties in grasping the concept and how it had been understood by the German officers see Shirer, 1960: 963-5. No written document with that word was ever found. Apparently, until the Nuremberg Trials this word had only an oral existence. It was passed down from Hitler to Goering, Himmler and Heydrich, who in turn passed it to their subordinates and so forth. The materiality of a mere combination of sounds was soon converted into ghettoes, mass deportations, concentration and extermination camps; a sequence of sounds produced by compressed gas became Zyklon X and the dense dark smoke belched by the chimneys at Auschwitz. 51 In this respect, Lacan, aware of Freud’s pioneering work, stated that “having nothing which corresponded to the object of his discovery which was the same level of scientific development—in this situation, at least he never failed to maintain this object on the level of its proper ontological dignity” (Lacan, 1988: 94). 52 Gramsci, 1971: 325. 53 Idem: 240. 54 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 86. 55 Ibid. 56 Idem: 87. 57 Idem: 116. 58 Laclau and Mouffe distinguish “moments” from “elements”: “The differential positions, insofar as they appear articulated within a discourse, we will call moments. By contrast, we will call element any difference that is not discursively articulated. In order to be correctly understood, these distinctions require three main types of specification: with regard to the characteristic coherence of the discursive formation; with regard to the dimensions and extensions of the discursive; and with regard to the openness or closure exhibited by the discursive formation” (Idem: 105). 59 Eagleton, 1991: 218. 60 See also Torfing, 1999: 52-3; Valentine, 1996: 1183-6. 61 Žižek, 1990: 252. 62 Ibid. It is this line of thought that makes Terry Eagleton provocatively claim: “Marxists want nothing more than to stop being Marxists” (2011: 1). 63 Ibid. 64 Žižek, 1989: 178. 65 Idem: 254. 66 Pêcheux, 1982: 159. 67 Pipes, 1998: 62-3. 68 Žižek, 1989: 181. 69 Claudín, 1975: 53. 70 Pêcheux, 1982: 158. 71 Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000: 13. 72 Eagleton, 1991: 219. 49

The Role of Discourse on the Post-Marxist Agenda


73 See Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000; Laclau, 1990, 1996, 2005; Howarth, 2000b; Mouffe, 1992, 1993, 2000; Torfing, 1999; Žižek, 1997, 2001.


The recovery of Gramsci’s conceptual inheritance provided the foothold post-Marxists needed to break away from Althusser’s rigorous structuralist stance and to approach the vulnerabilities of the Marxist edifice vis-à-vis the social and cultural changes of the sixties and seventies from a different angle. Notwithstanding the controversies that have surrounded Laclau and Mouffe’s message, the fact is that their theoretical proposals—in particular the role assigned to the concept of discourse— have succeeded in permeating social sciences. The post-Marxist formulation of discourse implies, as we have seen, the textualization of the social and, precisely because of this, its field of analysis is no longer confined to texts or speeches, as Derrida and Laclau have already pointed out, but rather embraces all social relations and processes—ideology having now been narrowed down to a form of “non-recognition” of (1) the subject’s constitutive lack and (2) the precarious nature of every identity. Mirroring this widening of the scope of application of the concept, Howarth and Stavrakakis synthetically refer to “discourse or discourses” as “systems of meaningful practices that form the identities of subjects and objects”1. The work of the post-Marxists in the eighties and nineties gave rise to what is now known as Discourse Theory, a project that has been developed by some of the names attached to the “Essex School” of ideology and discourse analysis, namely Laclau, Howarth, Torfing and Norval, amongst others. Post-Marxism, however, is not the only intellectual reference of Discourse Theory: it also draws on several other orientations, such as post-Heideggerian phenomenology, semiology, psychoanalysis and hermeneutics. Presently, Discourse Theory is employed in the analysis of a wide range of socio-political issues, ranging from Fascism and nationalism to racism2 and xenophobia, from Green politics and environmentalism3 to women’s rights4 and gay movements5, from Peronism in Argentina6 to Kemalism in Turkey7. Howarth succinctly explains the objectives of this project:

The Discourse of Discourse Theory


Discourse Theory is concerned with understanding and interpreting socially produced meanings, rather than searching for objective causal explanations, and this means that one of the major goals of social inquiry is to delineate the historically specific rules and conventions that structure the production of meanings in particular historical contexts.8

As it must have already been noticed, despite having a few aspects in common, Discourse Theory and Critical Discourse Analysis represent two different approaches to discourse. We have seen how some Critical Discourse Analysis theorists have only shyly dealt with some of the most important philosophical implications of the concepts of discourse and ideology, failing to explore the foundations of what they claimed to be their own critical (leftist) stance of social reality. Although their methods in the study of given social processes (including urgent political matters, such as racism9, anti-Semitism10; national identity11; the media12, just to mention a few) have always presupposed a critical perspective, they do not go to great pains to avoid the positivistic use of key concepts such as “society,” “ideology,” “language,” “knowledge,” “consciousness,” “reality,” etc. Contrarily, Discourse Theory, grounded as it is on a thorough discussion of relevant philosophical, psychoanalytical, political and semiotic categories, is capable of intersecting far more planes of analysis of given socio-political phenomena, while keeping those categories under constant theoretical tension. It sheds light not only on a new approach to the relation between discourse and the social, but also on the nature of the social complexity, which allows us to explore socio-political issues that have so far been overlooked by Critical Discourse Analysis. One other significant aspect of Discourse Theory is that it does not seek a complete closure of its theoretical edifice, especially its “thin” version, as Townshend defines it (2003). Such a version enables us to expand our theoretical resources if the object of study so demands and— which is even more important—does not turn the empirical case into a mere demonstration of the infallibility of the theory, as in the case of normative theories. Concepts and logics may have to be modified, rearticulated and reassessed in accordance with the contours of empirical evidence. The specificity of each research tailors the theoretical framework to be adopted and defines the precepts that best suit the aims of our social and political analysis. As Townsend suggests: The strength of a “thin” version of discourse theory may indeed lie in its heuristic value to “get research under way” (…). Although not all forms of explanation are compatible with those standardly perceived by discourse


Chapter Eleven theorists, a greater degree of acknowledged methodological pluralism and more modest ontological, epistemological and normative ambitions would make for a “leaner” and perhaps “fitter” form of analysis.13

The openness of its edifice, the diversity of its sources and the wide range of its concepts can only lend more flexibility to the analysis of empirical cases. In the analysis of the communist discourse in Britain in the thirties during the Spanish Civil War, which I conducted for my PhD thesis14, I intersected two of the most relevant areas of investigation of Discourse Theory as defined by Aletta Norval15: (1) the formation and dissolution of political frontiers and of political subjectivities, and (2) the construction of hegemony by means of collective social imaginaries. As far as the first area is concerned, one must always bear in mind that Laclau and Mouffe have already demonstrated that it is neither possible to determine the positive existence of social identities nor to establish their concrete definitive limits. However, this does not signify that they do not exist altogether or that any attempt to specify the conditions of delimitation is doomed to fail. Political subjectivities can in fact be defined, but only in relational terms within a social field comprising heterogeneous political camps. On the one hand, this implies the drawing of boundaries inside of which certain practices and meanings are reproduced and shared, whereas others are excluded. On the other, it requires a symbolic investment lending discursive coherence to the identities (including that of the “enemy”) formed inside those spaces and individuating them. Because the frontiers of the political space are continuously being shifted and rearranged in accordance with the logics of difference and of equivalence, they are never immutable or static. In this respect, Norval reminds us that those two logics are better understood if one takes into account Gramsci’s concept of transformism, which explains the political mechanisms of emergence hegemonic blocs. It consists of… … the gradual but continuous absorption, achieved by methods which varied in their effectiveness, of the active elements produced by allied groups—and even of those which came from antagonistic groups and seemed irreconcilably hostile. In this sense political leadership became merely an aspect of the function of domination—in as much as the absorption of the enemies’ élites means their decapitation, and annihilation often for a very long time.16

What Laclau and Mouffe say in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is that a successful hegemonic project will widen the political space by

The Discourse of Discourse Theory


means of “expansion and increasing complexity”17 of the system of differences. This process will reduce social and political tensions as it absorbs more and more antagonistic groups into the hegemonic project. Due to the dispersion of antagonisms and to unstable social relations, a single centrality cannot be established. This also prevents unified chains of equivalence from dictating what exclusions should take place. Contrarily, the logic of equivalence leads to a drastic narrowing of the political space. Antagonisms are much sharper, the frontiers less permeable, the acceptance of difference less tolerable. The political universe becomes divided into two diametrically opposed camps. Laclau and Mouffe refer to this process as the “paratactical division of social space”18. During the Stalinist terror, for example, the Moscow trials were believed to be perfectly compatible with the new Constitution and the claims of “freedom of speech, press, assembly”19 because those on trial were said to be the “lackeys of the Fascists” and agents of “foreign espionage services,” who willed but the destruction of the State and the end of those hard-won freedoms. That “paratactical division of social space” is also what McCarthyism tried to accomplish in the 1950s. McCarthy’s discourse was not constructing the American identity positively—on the basis of a system of differential positions, absorbing into the American democracy the many different social and political movements—, but through an equivalence of negation, i.e., a “true” American is not a communist. As Laclau and Mouffe state, “the identity has come to be purely negative. It is because a negative identity cannot be represented in a direct manner—i.e., positively—that it can only be represented indirectly, through an equivalence between its differential moments”20. Therefore, these two logics do not only affect the delimitation of the political space, but also preside over the formation of every political identity. To a political space dominated by the logic of equivalence corresponds a popular subject position, which is the opposite of a democratic subject position, characteristic of the logic of difference21. This distinction is essential to avoid the assumption that identities merely originate in a dichotomous division of social relations, that is, in terms of the “enemy.” This dichotomisation is bound to occur within a unified chain of equivalences. However, within an open system of differences, as in the context of a democratic social formation, that is no longer so. As Norval points out, following Mouffe, here the relation between “the self” and “the other” is not to be defined in terms of “friend” versus “enemy,” but rather between “us” and “them,” that is, between antagonists who accept each other’s presence in a given political space but who will still


Chapter Eleven

fight for hegemony22. This is to say that, instead of opposing one single identity (or subject position), a democratic subject position is actually articulated with a plurality of other identities, which not only makes it difficult to define it in a purely oppositional logic, but also renders it impossible to fixate its exact location. Thus, antagonisms in a democratic social formation put to the test the cohesion of the subject position vis-àvis other competing political subjectivities and, simultaneously, keep on redefining the boundaries of that social formation on a permanent basis. Although every social identity and every social formation are subject to contingency and indeterminacy, it does not follow that identities are totally devoid of stability. In this respect, discourse theorists resort to Derrida’s concept of iterability23 in order to explain how identities end up reaching a given stability and can still be recognized despite the fact that they can never be fixated. Deconstructing the word, Derrida shows that two apparently contradictory meanings reside in it: iterability (iter, once again, comes from itara, other in Sanskrit, and everything that follows may be read as the exploitation of the logic which links repetition to alterity) structures the mark of writing itself, and does so moreover for no matter what type of writing (…). A writing that was not structurally legible—iterable—beyond the death of the addressee would not be writing.24

Derrida is here concerned with the conditions of persistence of the written sign, but the analogy with social identities can easily be established. Basically, what Derrida is saying is that, regardless of the context, every “mark,” every signifier, retains a minimal sameness. However, the signifier also undergoes mutations that constantly challenge such sameness in various contexts — hence the tension between repetition and alterity that constitutes the mode of existence of the signifier. Identities, too, are held hostage of this tension and that is why one cannot ever expect to reach a closure. Mere repetition would imply inability to adapt to an ever-changing social space and to react adequately to the interests and objectives held by new antagonists. Mere alterity would imply the total indefiniteness of the social formation and the impossibility of any articulation. One must now look into the way in which identities manage to articulate themselves in the political space despite the contingent nature of the later and the openness of all social relations. This brings us to the second area of research: how myths and social imaginaries take part in the construction of hegemonic projects. According to Laclau25, new hegemonic projects emerge in a given

The Discourse of Discourse Theory


social formation due to the disruption of its symbolic order. Late modern societies are particularly affected by such disruptions, exposed as they are to processes like globalization, bureaucratization and commodification. In order to explain it, Laclau is forced to reassess the role he had previously ascribed to antagonisms—which are not forcibly the main cause of those disruptions—and to introduce the concept of “dislocation,” which he borrows from Balibar. We have already seen how Balibar makes use of the concept to elucidate the transition from one predominant mode of production to the next and, consequently, to account for the process of social transformation—especially the revolutionary process. But Laclau attempts to reframe the concept in accordance with his post-structuralist tenets. He suggests that any hegemonic discursive order will always fail to symbolize given “dislocatory” events or experiences. As these events challenge not only the stability, but also the existence of such order, the social formation is compelled to seek discursive strategies to suture the lacunae left behind by the disruption of structures. This is an important concession on the part of Laclau. In reality, he is admitting that there are social events that escape discourse. This contradicts Laclau and Mouffe’s earlier claims that discourse entirely comprises the social whole. In Lacanian terms, dislocation can be said to represent tuché, the intrusion of the “real” into discourse, the point where discourse ceases to supply signifiers to the subject. Confronted, for example, with an experience he cannot articulate, is the individual still to be regarded as a subject? This raises yet another question that Laclau avoids: what are the causes of such dislocations? Do these causes exist independently of discourse? In other words, is there something outside discourse but still inside the social that affects them both? If it is so, could we not be talking of economy? Perhaps a return to the foundations of Marxism is required in order to understand the mechanisms of emergence of hegemonic projects. Žižek suggests: “my point is not that the economy (the logic of Capital) is a kind of “essentialist anchor” that somehow “limits” hegemonic struggle—on contrary, it is its positive condition; it creates the background against which “generalized hegemony” can thrive”26. In a sense, is this not a return to historical materialism? Naturally, it would be Laclau himself to react in the strongest terms to these positions dismissing them as a “clumsy eclectic discourse” and as a return “to those naïve 1960s distinctions between ‘determination in the last instance’, ‘dominant role’, ‘relative autonomy’, and so on”27. But still he has some difficulties in sidestepping the centrality of the economy in the social processes. He


Chapter Eleven

himself admits that “the economy is, like anything else in society, the locus of an overdetermination of social logics, and its centrality is the result of the obvious fact that the material reproduction of society has more repercussions for social processes than do other instances.” Here Laclau seems to be conceding too much but he closes his argument stating that “[t]his does not mean that capitalist reproduction can be reduced to a single, self-defining mechanism”28. Allow me to go back to the problem of the dislocations. Regardless of the causes of the dislocatory events, discourse seeks to respond to them by means of new forms of identification. Laclau draws a distinction between “myths”—new “spaces of representation” attempting to “cover over” social contradictions and dislocations—, and “social imaginaries”—myths that have succeeded in covering over such dislocations and in incorporating a greater variety of social demands. Imaginaries are, thus, “a horizon” or “absolute limit which structures a field of intelligibility”29. In his study on the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in South Africa, for instance, Howarth30 argues that its disintegration was not due to the fact that it failed to incorporate in its discourse the interests of the South-African working class (as some Marxist interpretations have insisted), but because it never succeeded in transforming its myth of Black Solidarity and Black Communalism into a collective social imaginary. The BCM’s decline contrasted with the growth of other movements that in the meantime adopted the African National Congress’s Freedom Charter. Howarth suggests that the recent history of the country bore witness to a condensation of contradictions (ranging from the transformation of the geopolitical context to a growing economic crisis, from state repression to the working class struggles of 1972 and 1973), which resulted in the Soweto uprising in June 1976. To make use of the vocabulary of Discourse Theory, this uprising—which had been triggered by the shooting of black high-school students who had opposed Afrikaans as a teaching language—represented the dislocation of the social, an event that marked the beginning of mass resistance to the apartheid project, whose symbolic order proved now insufficient to integrate the emerging conflicting discourses into the South-African political space. There followed a political crisis of the apartheid state. This could have provided BCM activists with the ideal ground to win more people over to their side. In reality, the construction of a Black Consciousness identity in the 1960s and early 1970s had been entirely based on the negation or exclusion of Western or Anglo-Boer culture. Most of that which was presented as the true African tradition relied on an opposition to Western values. Such identity, however, was riven with ambiguities and inconsistencies that did

The Discourse of Discourse Theory


not withstand the crisis of the system they were fighting: for instance, their central notion of “blackness” endorsed, on the one hand, the racial division of the country imposed by apartheid, and blurred, on the other, the different ethnic, cultural and national identities that compose the social fabric of South Africa. The Soweto events proved that BCM discourse was no longer defensible, since it was, in a way, one of apartheid’s ideological by-products: it offered a myth to certain discontented sections of the population, but it remained insensitive to the huge variety of demands and objectives of many other sections and groups, and thus it never resulted in a successful hegemonic project. The Charterist discourse of the United Democratic Front (UDF) formed in 1983, on the contrary, denounced the proposals of the government as “divisive,” “undemocratic” and “racist”31, and succeeded in building a collective social imaginary by hegemonizing the discursive field: in fact, the Freedom Charter attempted to articulate a whole range of diverse interests and struggles in a project that, more than the dissolution of the apartheid regime, was aiming at the setting-up of a democratic political space. The South-African case illustrates the second area of investigation proposed by Norval. The UDF is, in a sense, a story of success. But there are also many stories of failure that had a momentous impact in the history of the twentieth century. In my doctoral thesis on Communism in Britain in the thirties I examined the economic, social, political and ideological conditions in Britain which prevented Popular Frontism from becoming a hegemonic project. For this purpose I decided to resort to Laclau’s concepts of “myth” and “social imaginary”32. Post-Marxism and Discourse Theory gave me the conceptual tools I needed to proceed with a more systematic deconstruction of the language of British Communism. As I have already noted elsewhere, it is not possible to conduct a critique of Marxism in blind obeisance to the classical categories it provides. They must be revisited and, if necessary, displaced or even dislocated—that is, exposed as belonging to a particular order of meaning that has been destabilized by a set of contingent events, an order that is struggling, like many other orders, for hegemony. Discourse Theory provides the means to undertake such a critique. As Howarth explains: … while Discourse Theory does seek to provide novel interpretations of events and practices by elucidating their meaning, it does so by analysing the way in which political forces and social actors construct meanings within incomplete and undecidable social structures. This is achieved by examining the particular structures within which social agents take decisions and articulate hegemonic projects and discursive formations.

Chapter Eleven


Moreover, discourse theorists seek to locate these investigated practices and logics in larger historical and social contexts, so that they may acquire a different significance and provide the basis for a possible critique and transformation of existing practices and social meanings.33

In a way, Howarth synthesises in these few lines the overall organization of my thesis. I first sought to characterize the historical context of the period, with an emphasis on the social and economic situation of Britain in the thirties and the problems her domestic and foreign policy faced. Then I gradually zoomed in, focusing on the hegemonic project of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), which also entailed the analysis of its relationship with the Soviet Union, the Comintern and the other British political parties, its strategy for the trade unions and the other political forces, its opposition to Fascism and its direct and indirect intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Finally, I examined in greater detail the textual raw material provided by all those who, linked to the CPGB or sharing some political affinities with its project, were somehow involved in the Spanish conflict, so that I could reconstruct the “meaningful practices that form the identities of subjects and objects.” But more than that, I sought to ascertain in what way, behind an apparent homogeneity of purposes, the discourses of the social actors were constructed from differential positions, how they evolved and changed in the face of the contingencies of international politics, of the policies of the Party and of the Comintern, of personal experience, and especially of the dislocatory effects of the war. In my study I tried to prove that British communist discourse in the thirties was far from expressing a unitary set of beliefs wrapped up in a lingo conformed to one single vision of reality or to one single mode of articulation of signifiers. It was, on the contrary, a continuous struggle between orthodoxy and critical assessment, between crystallization of dogma and the acidifying effect of non-conformity. British Communism in the thirties, especially after the adoption of the “Popular Front” line, was not one single discourse, but a cluster of discourses revolving around each other, trying to establish an ethico-political centre, which is, in the eyes of many contemporary political theorists, an impossibility.

Notes 1

Howarth et al., 2000: 3-4. Howarth, 2000a; Norval, 1996. 3 Griggs and Howarth, 2000. 2

The Discourse of Discourse Theory



Harvey and Halverson, 2000. Ho and Tsan, 2000 6 Barros and Castagnola, 2000. 7 Çelik, 2000 8 Howarth, 2000b: 128. 9 T. van Dijk, 1986, 1993. 10 H. Gruber, 1991. 11 R. Wodak et al, 1999. 12 R. Fowler, 1991. 13 Townshend, 2003: 141. 14 Lopes, 2007. 15 Norval, 2000. 16 Gramsci, 1971: 59. 17 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 130. 18 Ibid. 19 Claudín, 1975: 642. 20 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001: 128. 21 Idem: 131-2. 22 In this context, Mouffe prefers to make use of the category of “adversary.” As she states: “a democratic society makes room for the “adversary,” i.e. the opponent who is no longer considered an enemy to be destroyed but somebody whose existence is legitimate and whose rights will not be put into question. The category of the ‘adversary’ serves here to designate the status of those who disagree concerning the ranking and interpretation of the values. Adversaries will fight about the interpretation and the ranking of values, but their common allegiance to the values which constitute the liberal democratic form of life creates a bond of solidarity which expresses their belonging to a common ‘we’” (Mouffe, 1995: 107). See also Norval, 2000: 223-4. 23 Derrida, 1977; See also Derrida, 1991: 82-111. 24 Derrida: 1991: 90. 25 Laclau, 1990: 39-59. 26 Butler, Laclau and Žižek, 2000: 319. 27 Laclau, 2005: 236-7. 28 Idem: 237. 29 Laclau, 1990: 64; see also Norval, 2000: 227-228; Howarth, 2000a: 173-4; Howarth, 2000b: 111. 30 Howarth, 2000a. 31 Idem: 182. 32 Laclau, 1990: 60-68. 33 Howarth, 2000b: 129. 5


With post-Marxism and, subsequently, with the proposals advanced by the Essex School, discourse reaches its broadest conceptualization. It supersedes the idea that it is little else but the linguistic manifestation of ideology—as it is still looked upon by Critical Linguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis— and has now risen to the position of what might be called the articulatory principle of the social whole. In a sense, this completes a whole cycle—a cycle in which ideology, after having dictated the terms in which discourse (as language-in-use) could be produced, ends up dominated, as it were, by the latter. An ironic turn of events, one might add. We have seen how both concepts—ideology and discourse—have evolved over the past two centuries in the hands of different thinkers, each moved by the social concerns and political challenges of their times. We have also looked at the several ways in which such concepts are theoretically intertwined and yet remain conceptually differentiated. Both of them occupy a central position in the theoretical apparatuses of both Marxism and post-Marxism. The same could be said about their status across social sciences. The understanding of the notional complexity that lies behind each of these two apparently transparent words is a precondition to make sense of the gap between Marxism and post-Marxism. It is also a precondition to unravel the nature of our contemporary world and the conflicting ways of how to envisage it: on the one hand, both terms serve as analytical tools to decipher and expose the workings and contradictions of capitalism in the postmodern age; on the other hand, the dispute over their meanings corresponds, roughly speaking, to a political dispute over the means by which our societies are to be judged. One may feel tempted to look for traces of political alignment in the pages of this work. I must, however, emphasize that this critical analysis is not about taking sides; nor is it about proving one wrong and the other right. On the contrary, what I aimed to do was to provide a comprehensive view of the historical evolution of these two categories and the complicity

Some Concluding Reflections


that exists between them. The nature of such enterprise, however, compelled me to remain attentive to those contradictions, ambiguities or fallacies that might undermine the consistency of the theoretical models in which these categories either fulfil an instrumental role or function as an epistemological determinant. The most controversial aspects have to be explored not only to gain a fuller picture, but also to guarantee an appropriate degree of objectivity and detachment in relation to the authors under analysis. Besides, one must also bear in mind that the social and political circumstances which conditioned the construction of such edifices help to account—partially, at least—for the existence of a variety of shortcomings and unresolved issues. Foucault reminds us that knowledge is socially constructed and inherently linked to power1. The very same approaches that undertake to provide an explanation of knowledge as a historically located phenomenon are no less tainted by the context in which they emerge. In the meantime, there is always room for speculations about future developments. Jacob Torfing in the end of his New Theories of Discourse tried to envisage the tasks that lie ahead for discourse researchers. He suggested that the concern with the making and unmaking of identities in late capitalist societies which has nourished much of recent research must give way to other key issues that the Gramscian theory had already highlighted, such as the reproduction of state, economy, classes and society (aspects that have now been brought to sharp relief with the recent global financial and economic crisis). Besides, opening new avenues of research may strengthen the affinities of Discourse Theory with other theoretical proposals in the fields of economics, political theory and sociology2. At the same time, however, Torfing warned about the risks of reducing the complexity of Discourse Theory either to a fully operationalized framework or to one single methodology to suit the needs of current empirical studies. In any case, if Torfing’s caveat is taken into account, the establishment of links between the broad theoretical basis of Discourse Theory, on the one hand, and empirical research in the field, on the other, can always continue to provide new investigative paths. As I have argued elsewhere3, it is possible to invest in: (a) new analytical perspectives of subjects or issues already studied based on the post-Marxist ontology (by exploring, for example, the discursive formation of a given period and the issues deriving from the articulation or dialogic relation between discourses on the


Chapter Twelve

terrain of hegemonic struggles; by unraveling the processes of construction and deconstruction of political subjectivities in periods of identity crisis; by problematizing the relations of representation and of power within the state and/or within the national parties; by looking into the semantic changes of such empty signifiers as “democracy,” “people,” “freedom” or “peace” and their relation to the shifts in the hegemonic strategy of national parties; by examining the processes by which a given political doctrine sought to evolve from myth to collective imaginary in a given country, etc.); (b) analyses of the means of representation of political parties and their members “from without,” that is, how the parties were depicted, construed and imagined by extraneous individuals and institutions (the police; the media; governments; pressure groups; etc.) as part of the process of constructing their own social and political identities; (c) an application of current foci of social analysis—gender issues or environmentalism, for example—to the study of the discourses of political parties; (d) a critique of former sociological and historiographical approaches, based on categories whose essentialist or reductionist nature poststructuralist thought has sought to question or disassemble: class, centre, ideology, society, etc.; (e) the historicisation and deconstruction of some categories of social and cultural analysis4. Regardless of the next steps that Discourse Theory may take, it must remain and open-ended theoretical field of study, willing to enter into dialogue with other theories, negotiating concepts and perspectives, and eager to pursue new avenues of inquiry. But it must also continue to critically examine its own tenets and to revisit its philosophical foundations, for there is no self-conscious theory without memory.


On the problematic of the social construction of knowledge and the status of truth see Moore, 2009: 33-4. 2 See Torfing, 1999: 291. 3 Lopes, 2009b: 211-2. 4 See Laclau, 1990: 22.


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INDEX Actor ............................................24 Afghanistan ....................................2 African National Congress .........162 Afrikaans ....................................162 agency .... .......29, 96, 98, 104, 116, 135, 141 alienation ........................ 29, 76, 118 alterity ........................................160 Althusser, Louis..... .. 4-7, 9, 19, 21, 23, 26, 30, 31, 33, 37, 48, 62, 65, 69, 73-4, 79-81, 85, 88, 90, 92-8, 100-11, 115, 117, 120, 123-31, 135, 137, 140-1, 147-8, 153 ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’............95 ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ .............. 90, 115 ‘Lenin and Philosophy’ ...........65 For Marx .................................65 Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs)...............37, 91, 92, 93, 98, 102, 110, 116 misrecognition ..... 74, 91, 92, 96, 102, 141 recognition ........................74, 97 repressive state apparatuses..120, 122 ruptural unity.........................100 structure-in-dominance .........125 unevenness-contradictionsubordination ........... 114, 116 Althusser, L., Balibar, É. et al. Reading Capital .............. 93, 135 Althusserianism .................. 103, 107 Althusserians .................... 91, 107-8 always-already subject...63, 90, 110, 114, 117, 141 antagonism . .....................89, 91, 93, 95, 114, 117, 147-50, 158-61 anthropology ................................15 anti-Establishment ......................130

anti-globalization ....................... 130 anti-racism ................................. 130 anti-Semitism ............................ 157 Argentina ................................... 156 articulation.. ...................3, 47, 93-5, 111, 114-5, 118, 120-1, 125, 140, 143, 147, 160, 164 associationism, theory of ............. 18 Auschwitz .................................. 154 Austin, John L. ............................ 72 Bachelard, Gaston ........... 23, 30, 95 Formation of the Scientific Mind ....................................... 23 Bakhtin, Mikhail ................7, 19, 35, 39-41, 46, 49, 66, 70 myth ....................................... 66 Balibar, Étienne ...................4, 7, 81, 90-5, 100-1, 110, 117, 129, 135, 146-7, 152, 161 conjuncture ............................. 95 economic practie .................... 94 political practice................. 8, 59, 65, 94, 104, 110, 147 proletarian State ................... 117 system of interventions........... 94 transition ................................ 93 Barrett, Michèle ......................... 132 base...... 4-5, 48, 82, 88, 91, 93-4, 96 Bauer, Bruno ................... 52, 57, 75 Benveniste, Émile ............... 12-3, 24 Black Communalism ................. 162 Black Consciousness identity .... 162 Black Consciousness Movement ..................................... 129, 162 Black English vernacular ............. 14 Black Solidarity ......................... 162 Blair, Tony .................................... 1 bourgeoisie ................... 71, 78-9, 95 Bové, Paul A. ........................ 10, 24 Britain..... 104, 119, 123, 158, 163-4 Bukharin, Nikolai ...................... 151

192 bureaucratization ........................160 Butler, Judith .......5, 130, 151-5, 165 Calvet, Louis Jean............37, 49, 54, 67, 127 camera obscura ............ 7, 72, 75, 83 Cantillon, Richard ........................28 capitalism.......... .6, 29, 31, 52, 72-3, 76-7, 83, 85, 89, 90-2, 95, 108, 116-7, 122-5, 127, 131-2, 140, 147-8, 151-2, 162 Cartesianism ...........................35, 43 causality .... 28-30, 48, 121, 135, 152 centre ..... 4, 31, 97, 133, 135-41, 164 Clark, Katerina .......................39, 49 class ............5, 7, 14-5, 19, 39, 46-9, 58, 62-5, 71-4, 79, 84, 89, 90, 94-5, 102-3, 113, 115, 127, 133, 140, 146-8, 153, 162 class character ............................112 class interest ...............................128 class position ..............................114 class struggle ..............5, 7, 46-7, 62, 65, 73-4, 94-5, 102-3, 111-7, 126-7, 140, 148 class-division ...................... 124, 130 Claudín, Fernando..............125, 129, 155, 165 closure .... .............91, 108, 126, 142, 150, 155, 157, 160 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.......48, 68 Cominform .................................125 Comintern .......................... 147, 164 commodification ........................160 commodity ...... 7, 20, 29, 82-4, 91-2 commodity exchange..............83, 91 commodity fetishism ..... ..........7, 20, 29, 82, 84-5, 89-92, 118, 145 communism .....................51, 67, 95, 122-5, 151, 163-4 Communist Party of Great Britain ....................... 122, 163-4 Communist Party of the Soviet Union ....................................125 Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the

Index Soviet Union (1956).........81, 95, 106, 123 complex whole in dominance ..... 95, 98-9, 101, 114-5, 124, 126, 133, 136-40 Condillac, Étienne Bonnot............. 4 conjuncture ..... 81, 96, 106, 110, 114 consciousness ............6-7, 15, 19-20, 38, 42-5, 47-8, 51-5, 58, 62, 64, 66-7, 73-7, 82, 89, 90, 96-9, 105, 111, 139, 157 consciousness, false........... 4, 19, 20, 74, 96, 137, 141 consciousness, individual .....1, 42-4, 111 consciousness, practical .... .....19-20, 52, 58, 67, 72 consciousness, verbal .................... 3 contradiction .... ..........47, 73, 89-91, 95-6, 99-100, 117, 121, 126, 138, 140-1, 151, 162 Copernicus, Nikolaus ................ 146 Cournot, Antoine A. .................... 28 Critical Discourse Analysis .... ......6, 13, 16-9, 21-5, 32, 59, 86, 128, 157, 166 Critical Linguistics ...15, 17, 86, 166 Croce, Benedetto ......................... 40 culture............... 1, 14, 17, 33, 64, 79 Cutler, Antony ........................... 135 Darwin, Charles ......................... 146 de Cillia, Rudolf ........................ 2, 8 de Man, Paul....... 22, 26, 68, 88, 100 de Tracy, Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt .......................3, 4, 31, 71 Elements d’Idéologie ................ 3 Derrida, Jacques ..... 5, 7, 11, 56, 7580, 97-98, 101, 133-8, 141-2, 153, 156, 160, 165 iterability .............................. 160 Of Grammatology................... 11 Speech and Phenomena .......... 11 Spectres of Marx .............. 76, 97 Writing and Difference ......... 135 desire ................................... 33, 118

Is There an End of Ideologies? determination..........4, 65, 94-5, 103, 125-6, 135, 138, 147, 153, 161 determinism............ ..... 5, 29, 63, 76, 85-9, 92-3, 96, 101, 103, 115, 135 deviationism ...............................108 dialectical materialism.... 38, 53, 144 difference, logic of ............. 158, 159 discourse............................2-8, 10-8, 21-5, 27, 30-3, 39, 47, 56-66, 71, 76-80, 82, 88-9, 102, 107, 110-2, 115, 118, 120-1, 124, 126, 133-8, 141-6, 155-66 Discourse Analysis ......... 11, 24, 157 discourse theorists..25, 157, 160, 163 Discourse Theory .... 8, 156-8, 162-3 discursive formation......6, 15, 27-30, 33, 62, 89, 112-5, 120-6, 128, 134, 146, 155, 163 dislocation ......... 6, 94, 146-8, 161-2 division of labour ...................53, 55 Eagleton, Terry............... .......30, 33, 132, 134, 144, 149, 152, 155 Eco, Umberto .........................10, 24 Kant and the Platypus .............10 economic determinism .............4, 96 economic structure .......................95 economism ........... 73, 115, 135, 137 economy................ .4-5, 28, 82, 135, 140, 152, 161 élites ...........................................158 elitism.........................................108 Endlösung .......................... 145, 146 enemy ............................. 149, 158-9 Engels, Friedrich.......... ....... 4-5, 11, 20-1, 25, 31-2, 38, 40, 51-60, 63, 67-8, 71-7, 80-2, 85, 100-3, 112, 123, 127, 140, 147 Dialectics of Nature ..........11, 53 English, standard and nonstandard .............................14 environmentalism ............... 130, 156 epiphenomenalism............. 5, 48, 73, 85, 115, 133 epistemological break.............30, 95


equivalence of negation ............. 159 equivalence, logic of....... 123, 158-9 Essex School ......................... 8, 156 ethics ..........................38, 48, 76, 78 etymology .................................... 28 Europe .............................. 29, 122-3 exchange-value ................ 83, 85, 87 exploitation ............... 71-2, 117, 160 expression.................. .... 2, 12, 17-9, 22, 29, 41-2, 48, 67, 84, 145, 151 Fairclough, Norman............... 11, 13, 16-20, 24-5, 33, 129 fascism........................122, 156, 164 Fechner, Gustav Theodor ............ 49 feminism ............................ 130, 149 Feuerbach, Ludwig .......42, 51-2, 57, 60, 76, 90 The Essence of Christianity ... 52, 76 Firth, John Rupert ........................ 15 forces of production............. 95, 135 Foucault, Michel.... 4-9, 11-6, 24-33, 49, 62, 66, 69, 136 Archaeology of Knowledge ...........12, 15, 136 founder of discursivity ........... 49 Order of Things .................... 4, 6 threshold of epistemologization ............ 27 threshold of formalization ....... 6, 27-8, 34 threshold of positivity............. 27 threshold of scientificity ......... 27 Fowler, Roger .............8, 15, 25, 165 Literature as Social Discourse .............................................. .15 France ................... 2, 4, 31, 110, 125 French Communist Party ..... 81, 103 Freud, Sigmund ...............66, 74, 80, 88, 101, 118-9, 146, 154 Gallacher, William The Case for Communism .... 122 gay movement ................... 130, 156 genocide ............................ 145, 146 Geras, Norman .................. 132, 142 Gibson-Graham, J. K. ........ 132, 152

194 Giddens, Anthony .............. 131, 152 globalization ...............................160 Goering, Hermann ......................154 Gramsci, Antonio......... . 3-8, 19, 53, 58, 60-4, 67, 69, 71, 102, 109, 146-7, 154, 158, 165 hegemonic bloc .........................3 hegemony ..................................3 historical bloc ........................139 organic intellectual ..................64 popular beliefs...........................3 Prison Notebooks ................3, 64 tranformism ...........................158 verbal consciousness .................3 Graves, Robert ...........................121 Green politics .............................156 Grice, Paul....................................49 Gurney, Ivor ...............................121 Habermas, Jürgen .....................5, 31 Halliday, M. A. K. ..........15-6, 24-5, 35, 49 Introduction to Functional Grammar ...........................24 Language as Social Semiotic ..24 metafunctions ....................16, 25 Hegel, G. W. F. ..............55, 65, 70, 76, 90, 92, 96-8, 101, 137, 150 Absolute Spirit ...... 92, 97-8, 135 freedom ...................................96 loss of the loss ................... 150-1 Phenomenology of Spirit .........97 hegemonic bloc ..........................158 hegemonic identities.....................46 hegemonic practices .....................46 hegemonic project............3, 63, 139, 158, 163-4 hegemonic struggle ............ 148, 161 hegemony.............6, 19, 63, 71, 102, 138-9, 151, 153, 158-1, 163 Heidegger, Martin ..................56, 61 Herbart, Johann Friedrich .............49 hermeneutics ........................ 29, 156 Heydrich, Reinhard ....................154 Hieronymus, Karl Friedrich .......121 Himmler, Heinrich .....................154

Index Hindess, Barry ........104, 109, 133-4, 144, 152 Hindess, Barry and Hirst, Paul Mode of Production and Social Formation ....................... 133 Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production .............. 104, 133 Hindess, Barry, Hirst, Paul, et al. Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today .............................. 135 Hirst, Paul ..... .........104, 109, 133-5, 144, 152 historical materialism......... .. 19, 48, 76, 79, 90, 93, 102-3, 108, 123, 140, 161 historicism ......................... 137, 153 History................. ......52, 54, 79, 98, 101, 104-5 Hitler, Adolf .............................. 154 Hobsbawm, Eric ............. 102-3, 109 Hodge, Robert ........ 15, 17, 19, 23-6 Hölderlin, Friedrich ..................... 22 Holocaust................................... 146 Holquist, Michael .................. 39, 49 Howarth, David .............8, 129, 153, 155, 156, 162-5 human rights .......................... 1, 130 Hungarian Uprising ................... 123 Hussain, Athar ........................... 135 Husserl, E. G. A......................... 111 identification.......... ..7, 64, 115, 118, 120-2, 125, 150-1, 162 identity.............. . 3, 5, 14, 46, 58, 59, 61, 71, 73, 85, 89, 118-21, 130-3, 137-50, 156-60, 162, 164 ideological formation.............33, 99, 114, 116, 121-2, 124, 126, 133, 138, 139 ideological language .............. 61, 88 ideological sign ..........7, 46, 77, 144 idéologues ............................... 4, 31 ideology ......... 1-11, 14-7, 19-21, 24, 27-32, 38, 45-7, 51, 58, 61, 64, 66, 68, 71-104, 107, 110-21, 126, 130, 137, 140-4, 154, 156-7, 166

Is There an End of Ideologies? imperialism......................... 107, 148 Institute of Marxism-Leninism .....51 intelligentsia ...............................108 interpellation................ 90, 101, 110, 114, 117, 121, 148 Italy ........................................ 3, 125 Ivanov, Vyacheslav ......................39 Jameson, Fredric .......... 8, 59, 61, 69 Jevons, William Stanley ...............28 Jyllands-Posten ..............................2 Kant, Immanuel .. 10, 49, 65, 69, 101 categorical imperative ..................59 Kautsky, Karl .........................5, 133 Kemalism ...................................156 Kitchener, Herbert .............. 119, 121 Kress, Gunther ...... 8, 12, 15-9, 23-6 Linguistic Processes in Sociocultural Practice .......12 Kress, Gunther and Hodge, Robert Language as Ideology . 15, 19, 23 Kress, Gunther and van Leeuwen, Teo Reading Images.......................17 Labour movement ......................108 labour-power ................................85 Labov, William ......................14, 24 Lacan, Jacques........... .. 8, 11, 31, 33, 36, 74, 80-1, 86, 97, 111-2, 115-21, 127, 129, 133, 143, 145, 148-51, 153-4, 161 ‘The insistence of the letter in the unconscious’ ..............127 automaton .............................143 idealization ............................143 identification .........................143 Other .........11, 118-20, 124, 138, 143, 149, 150, 154 points de capiton .....................31 real ........................................143 Real .......................................115 S/s 145 subject ...................................149 tuché.............................. 143, 161 Laclau, Ernesto....... . 5, 8, 24, 31, 33, 46, 50, 101, 109, 127, 130-2, 137-65


‘The Impossibility of Society’ ........................... 137 myth .................................. 160-3 social imaginary ........ 158, 160-3 Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy ....... 142, 144, 148-9, 158 Language .. ..........15, 19, 23-4, 52-5, 67, 127 language change .......................... 13 language variation ....................... 13 language, ordinary ............ 56-60, 64 Lefort, Claude............................ 130 Leibniz, Gottfried ........................ 43 Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich ........ 5, 7, 63, 78-81, 127, 151 April Theses............................ 79 State and Revolution............... 78 linguistics .........6, 8, 12-5, 22-5, 28, 34-40, 101, 112-3, 133 Locke, John ................................. 28 Lukács, György ... ........5, 31, 66, 70, 80, 89, 139 History and Class Consciousness ......66, 80, 139 market economy ........................ 131 Martin, Jacques...................... 25, 30 Marx, Karl Marx, Karl......... 4-5, 7, 11, 19, 20-1, 25-32, 38-40, 48, 51-63, 66-103, 108, 112, 118, 123, 126-7, 131-135, 137, 140, 145, 147, 153 Capital .. ...........7, 20, 38, 53, 69, 73, 77, 81-3, 87, 89-92, 98, 108, 126, 161 Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy .. 82, 91, 93 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 ....... 108 Poverty of Philosophy ............ 51 Theses on Feuerbach........ 52, 76 Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich The German Ideology .................. 71

196 Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich Communist Manifesto....... 20, 51, 63 Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich Communist Manifesto .... 20, 117, 139 German Ideology ...........4, 7, 11, 19-21, 32, 51, 55, 60, 68, 71, 74-6, 81-3, 87, 103 Marxism .... .....................4-8, 19-23, 29, 38-40, 54, 61-3, 75, 78-81, 91, 95-6, 104, 107-8, 125, 130-3, 137-9, 144, 147, 152, 161, 163 Marxism-Leninism .....................123 Marxist humanism ............ 81, 106-7 material forces ................................3 May ’68 ......................................103 McCarthyism ..............................159 Mepham, John .... .........7, 58, 69, 83, 87-91, 100, 142 mercantilism .................................28 metafunctions ...............................24 metaphysics............. 19-20, 48, 60-1, 66, 74, 79, 83, 97 Meyer, Michael ..............................2 mode of production............7, 53, 76, 82, 85, 88-94, 99, 115-7, 134-5, 152, 161 Monson, John .................................2 Moscow trials .............................159 Mouffe, Chantal .. ..........5, 8, 24, 31, 33, 101, 127, 130, 132, 137, 139, 140, 142-9, 152-5, 158-61, 165 adversary ...............................165 enemy ....................................165 Muhammad cartoon controversy ....2 Napoleon ..................................4, 31 national identity..........................157 national language ........... 112-3, 128 negation of the negation ..... 148, 151 negativity....................................136 New Labour..................................79 New Left Review .........................142 new social movements ....... 6, 130-1 nodal points ..................................31 non-discursive practices .........16, 33 Norval, Aletta .. 8, 156, 158-9, 163-5

Index Nuremberg trials ........................ 145 Obama, Barack .............................. 2 object of desire .......................... 145 objectification .................. 41, 42, 48 objectivism, abstract .................... 42 objectivity ........... 11, 30, 32, 44, 114 Oedipus Complex ........................ 22 ontic ..................................... 61, 146 order of language ......................... 87 order of reality ............................. 87 Orwell, George ...........122, 124, 129 Homage to Catalonia ........... 122 overdetermination .. 89, 95-101, 126, 138-9, 153, 161 Owen, Wilfred ........................ 121-2 paratactical division of social space..................................... 159 parole ............................... 35, 112-3 Parrington, John .......................... 38 Pascal, Blaise ............................... 10 Pateman, Trevor .................... 39, 49 peasantry ................................... 128 Pêcheux, Michel................ .... 2, 7-8, 18, 24-5, 33, 89, 110-29, 133, 142, 150-1, 155 counter-identification..... ..... 122, 123, 150 discursive process................. 113 disidentification ..... 8, 123-6, 151 interdiscourse . 114-5, 120-1, 125 intradiscourse ....................... 115 La Langue Introuvable ............... ................................ 116, 128 Language, Semantics and Ideology .............33, 110, 125 modalities of reduplication ... 121 Münchhausen effect ............. 121 transverse discourse .. 115, 125-6 Peronism .................................... 156 phenomenology .........24, 29-30, 69, 77, 156 philology ............................... 28, 34 philosophy .... ........6-7, 15, 23-4, 28, 30-1, 34, 38, 40, 49, 52, 55-65, 67, 69, 76-7, 81, 83, 127, 146 philosophy of history ................. 105

Is There an End of Ideologies? philosophy of praxis ................. 63-4 Plekhanov, Georgi ......................133 Political Economy .......... 51, 85, 108 political practice ......... 123, 125, 151 political science ............................15 Popper, Karl .................................96 Open Society and its Enemies ...................................96 Popular Frontism .................... 163-4 positivism ............................... 40, 72 post-Althusserians ......................104 post-Marxism ...................3-5, 8, 73, 88-9, 102, 130-2, 138, 144, 151-3, 156, 166 post-modernity .............................22 post-structuralism ...................10, 17 Poulantzas, Nikos ........... 4, 5, 31, 85 Pravda ........................................112 proletariat....................71, 80, 89-90, 93, 95, 123, 125, 128, 130, 140, 147 psychoanalysis ........ 8, 80, 101, 133, 156 psycholinguistics ..........................36 psychology.........15, 18, 24, 34-8, 49 psychology, cognitive...................16 racism ............................... 14, 156-7 Rancière, Jacques ......... 31, 103, 109 Raspe, Rudolf Erich ...................121 rationalism................ 31, 35, 43, 139 Read, Rupert.................................56 Reagan, Ronald .............................39 recognition............... 8, 44-5, 74, 90, 112, 117, 141-2, 150, 156 relations of production . ...........5, 23, 52, 63, 67, 73, 84, 93-5, 110, 116-7, 126, 135, 140, 147 reproduction ... ...........16, 23, 36, 40, 52, 54, 110, 114-7, 126, 161 resistance to theory .......................22 revisionism .................................108 revolution .. ................45, 79, 90, 92, 100, 103, 125, 151 revolutionary proletariat ..... 125, 147 revolutionary rupture............... 7, 92, 95-8, 100, 111, 117


Ribot, Théodule ..................... 34, 49 La Psychologie allemande contemporaine .................. 49 Ricardo, David ............................ 28 Ricoeur, Paul ..........8, 24, 29, 30, 33 Roberts, John ......................... 76, 80 romanticism ........................... 40, 43 Rosenberg, Isaac........................ 121 ruling class............ 46, 100, 102, 116 Russell, Bertrand ....................... 122 Russia .................................. 38, 151 Sapir, Edward ........................ 42, 50 Sartre, Jean-Paul .................... 62, 69 Sassoon, Siegfried ..................... 121 Saussure, Ferdinand. 6, 13, 28, 33-7, 40, 43-5, 49, 54, 67, 112-3 Course in General Linguistics ........13, 28, 36, 49 langue..................35, 37, 43, 112 parole ..................................... 43 Saussurean paradox ..................... 13 scientific discourse........ ....... 22, 27, 31-2, 59, 103-4, 124, 126, 134 semiology ............................ 36, 156 Shakespeare, William .................... 2 Hamlet .................................. 2, 8 Richard III ............................ 2, 8 sign............ .. 6, 11, 22, 36, 42-8, 61, 67, 111, 113, 120, 144, 160 signified ......................136, 139, 145 signifier ......... ..........31, 46, 91, 111, 114-5, 118-21, 136-9, 141-6, 148, 150, 153-4, 160-1, 164 social antagonism.........7, 15, 66, 96, 113, 116, 128, 147-51 social formation ..... ..........16, 32, 53, 58, 63, 74, 80, 85, 92-3, 95-6, 113, 116-7, 131, 134-5, 139, 159-61 social semiotics ........................... 17 social stratification of language ... 13 social totality ..........46, 89, 107, 137 socialism ....... .................51, 69, 122, 124, 139, 149 socialist strategy ........................ 130 sociolinguistics .............2, 14, 16, 24

198 sociology ...................... 15, 34, 38-9 Soros, George .............................1, 8 The Crisis of Global Capitalism .................................1 South Africa ....................... 129, 162 Soviet Union .......22, 95, 122-3, 164 Soweto uprising..........................162 Spain ..........................................124 Spanish Civil War ...... 151, 158, 164 Stalin, Josef..............39, 53, 95, 108, 112-3, 127-8 ‘Marxism and Problems of Linguistics’ ..................112 grammatical system ..............112 Stalinism ................ 39, 81, 107, 159 Stavrakakis, Yannis ....................156 Stirner, Max ......... 52, 57, 75, 76, 77 Stravakakis, Yannis ........................8 structuralism .... ............7, 10, 48, 88, 133, 137, 154 structuralist linguistics..................13 subject......... .... 24-5, 79, 91-2, 96-7, 101, 119-20, 150 subject, absolute ................... 92, 141 subject, grammatical.....................24 subject, logical .............................24 subject, universal.......... ... 92, 117-2, 125, 136 subject of knowledge..............29, 59 subject position .... .....140, 142, 147, 148, 150, 159, 160 democratic ..................................159 popular .......................................159 subject-form .... ...........114-5, 123-4, 128, 151 subjectivation ..................... 149, 150 subjectivism, individualistic .........40 subjectivity.................54, 59, 86, 92, 98, 126, 147, 158, 160 superstructure .................4-5, 47, 82, 93-6, 102, 112, 115, 127 symptomatic reading .... .........88, 96, 154 Theme ..........................................24 Thomas, Edward ........................121

Index Thompson, Edward Palmer ... 103-9, 133-4 The Poverty of Theory . 103, 108 Torfing, Jacob......8, 109, 129, 155-6 Totality ... 7, 89, 98, 114, 136-7, 142 Townshend, Jules .............. 157, 165 trade unions ....................... 131, 164 Trew, Tommy .............................. 15 Triesman, David Maxim ............ 1, 2 Trotsky, Leon ... 63, 112, 127-8, 151 Trudgill, Peter........................ 14, 24 Turkey ....................................... 156 Ukraine ...................................... 127 unconscious......... ....33, 74, 86, 103, 118-9, 124, 127, 143 United Democratic Front ........... 163 Universal Spirit ........................ 96-7 use-value .................................. 83-5 utterance........ .... 7, 12-3, 16, 35, 39, 41-4, 47, 61, 86, 114, 125, 127-8 value of labour ............................. 84 van Dijk, Teun ..... 11, 21, 23, 24, 25, 164 van Leeuwen, Theo ..................... 17 Vološinov, Valentin....... 6-8, 11, 13, 19, 21, 24-5, 36-51, 56, 68, 77, 81, 91, 111-3, 127-8, 144, 154 Freudianism: a Marxist Critique ............................. 39 Marxism and the Philosophy of Language ......................11, 38-40, 44-5, 51 we-experience............................ 113 von Humboldt, Wilhelm .............. 40 Vossler, Karl............................. 40-2 Vygotsky, Lev ...................... 18, 38, 40, 42, 49-51, 67, 69, 110 Thinking and Speaking ........... 18 Thought and Language..... 40, 51 welfare state............................... 131 Whorf, Benjamin Lee .................. 15 Williams, Raymond ...........7, 31, 54, 67, 74-5, 80 Wittgenstein, Ludwig ......... 56, 67-9 Wodak, Ruth ..............2, 8, 13, 16-8, 21, 24-5, 129, 164

Is There an End of Ideologies? women’s rights ...........................156 Wood, Ellen ...............................132 Wooley, Penny ................... 135, 152 Wordsworth, William ...... 34, 48, 57, 68 Preface to Lyrical Ballads .......35 working class........125, 139-40, 149, 152, 162 World War I ...............................119


World War II ..................... 123, 145 Wundt, Wilhelm ................. 40-1, 49 Würzburg school ......................... 18 Young Hegelians ........31, 52, 57, 72 Žižek, Slavoj ............80-81, 92, 131, 138, 142, 145, 148-55, 161, 165 retroactive effect of naming . 145 Sublime Object of Ideology .. 144