Language and Materialism
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Language and Materialism

Developments in Semiology and the Theory of the Subject

Rosalind Coward, John Ellis

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Language and Materialism

Developments in Semiology and the Theory of the Subject

Rosalind Coward, John Ellis

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About This Book

First published in 1977, this book presents a comprehensive and lucid guide through the labyrinths of semiology and structuralism — perhaps the most significant systems of study to have been developed in the twentieth century. The authors describe the early presuppositions of structuralism and semiology which claim to be a materialist theory of language based on Saussure's notion of the sign. They show how these presuppositions have been challenged by work following Althusser's development of the Marxist theory of ideology, and by Lacan's re-reading of Freud. The book explains how the encounter of two disciplines — psychoanalysis and Marxism — on the ground of their common problem —language — has produced a new understanding of society and its subjects. It produces a critical re-examination of the traditional Marxist theory of ideology, together with the concepts of sign and identity of the subject.

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Publisher
Routledge
Year
2016
ISBN
9781134997244

1 The philosophical context

Perhaps the most significant feature of twentieth-century intellectual development has been the way in which the study of language has opened the route to an understanding of mankind, social history and the laws of how a society functions. In this chapter, we attempt to summarise the philosophical movements involved in the development of this perspective. As an overview, this chapter asserts what the remaining chapters substantiate.
The study of language has taken two forms. First, there has been a massive development of synchronic linguistics whose particular object of knowledge is language's own laws of operation. It makes possible the reflection on speech as a 'language', a specific system with its own laws of functioning. Scientific knowledge of language has also been extended to all social practices which can then be studied as languages, as for example with structural anthropology. This second development is based on the assumption that all social practices can be understood as meanings, as signification and as circuits of exchange between subjects, and therefore can lean on linguistics as a model for the elaboration of their systematic reality.
Both these aspects can render the concept 'mankind' a concept accessible to scientific analysis. Because all the practices that make up a social totality take place in language, it becomes possible to consider language as the place in which the social individual is constructed. In other words, man can be seen as language, as the intersection of the social, historical and individual. It is for this reason that work on language has created consideration of man as 'subject', that is, the individual in sociality as a language-using, social and historical entity. Such a consideration can only lead to a demystification of the complex and imprecise realm of the 'human': it makes possible, for the first time, a scientific analysis of the concept of the 'human' which we suggest is fundamental presupposition of bourgeois ideology. This is then an advance for materialist philosophy with its fundamental tenet of 'infinite matter everywhere in movement'. The 'human' can be analysed as a socially-constituted process which plays a material role in society. The category of 'human essence' (a conception which belongs to the opposing philosophic tendency of idealism) is no longer necessary as a founding part of the materialist theory of ideology. Materialist philosophy is thus able to provide a scientific analysis of history and the subject. Ideology is conceived as the way in which a subject is produced in language able to represent his/herself and therefore able to act in the social totality, the fixity of those representations being the function of ideology. (Reference to the notion of 'subject' creates the very problems of language which this book is dealing with. Since the term refers both to an individual in sociality, and more generally to the space necessitated by ideological meanings, we have chosen to designate the subject with the pronoun 'it'. But where this confuses the meaning of a sentence, we use the term 'he'. In accepting this convention, we are aware that it is an ideologically determined use. It is the work of a specific discourse – patriarchal discourse – which inscribes a 'he' as the generalised representative of the species.) Structural linguistics and semiology were not able to carry through this criticism of idealist thought, even though they provided the basis for doing so. This was because structuralism failed to produce a genuinely materialist theory of language, and ultimately rested on idealist presuppositions. It is important to understand the reasons for this failure since they illuminate many problems of Marxist thought, and indeed the attempt to find their solution has led to a reconceptualisation of Marxism.
Idealism depends on notions of 'human essence' which somehow transcend and operate (indeed, cause) the social system, and are not constructed in this system. The idealist 'deformation of thought' mobilises notions of 'mankind' and the 'human' as the specific language-using entity. They underlie the idea of identities which pre-exist the individual's entry into social relations. Idealism has, in other words, an idea of identity which is in complete opposition to the materialist tenet of the subject resulting from its construction in sociality. The idealist assertions underlie the fundamental assumption of bourgeois ideology with its necessity/will to present society as consisting of 'free' individuals, whose social determination results from their pre-given essences like 'talented', 'efficient', 'lazy', 'profligate', etc. The conception of language as a transparent, neutral milieu – a conception which enables bourgeois ideology to construct such representations of essences – was shaken by the extension of a materialist analysis to language itself. Reflection on language in relation to history and to representations of social relations opened the route towards considering the individual as a part of a materialist process. It therefore moved towards a materialist theory of how this individual then appears, that is, as a subject. But as we see in the development of structuralism (from structural linguistics) and semiology in France, it became evident that this theory was constantly inhibited from developing any real materialist understanding of language and ideology in the social process. The emergence of mechanistic tendencies from structuralist analyses revealed its complicity with the idealism of bourgeois ideology. The recognition of this led Barthes, Kristeva and others associated with the Tel Quel group to rethink the foundations of structuralism and semiology. In doing so, they have moved in a direction that is of vital importance for any future elaboration of materialism.
Structural linguistics and the possibility of analysing all social practices as languages both emerged from the examination of the 'sign': the relation between the means of expression, e.g. sound (the signifier) and the concept (the signified), neither of which pre-exists the other nor has any meaning outside their relation. It was a matter not simply of realising their interrelatedness as categories, but also of suggesting their separation. This separation, glimpsed by Saussure, made possible a study of the relations entered into amongst the signifiers themselves in the production of meaning. The analysis of the proper relations of the signifier led to the conclusion that 'no meaning is sustained by anything other than reference to other meaning' (Lacan, Ecrits, p. 498). The signifier cuts out or articulates the signified only by relations entered into with other signifiers: meaning is only produced by a systematic arrangement of differences.
The possibility of thinking of the signifier and the signified as separate in the concept of the sign had two results. On the one hand, it was responsible for the production of structuralism as the synchronic analysis of a system, that is, the analysis of structural relations. On the other, it had a more radical potentiality since the signifier could be seen to have an active function in creating and determining the signified. It was the concentration on the first aspect to the exclusion of the second which resulted in the failure to develop the radical potentiality of Saussure's theories, and became the central problem for semiology in its exploration of the avant-garde text. Structuralism, the first aspect of the examination of the sign, was the analysis of meaning from the perspective of its production by the interaction of various elements in a network of differences. It ascertained the precise rules of functioning of a given structure, and the precise rules of structural transformations. This was the basis for understanding the production of meaning from a system of differences, and the regulation of the relations of difference to fix a specific meaning. In the cases where this type of analysis was carried out, these meanings were generally cultural meanings, for example, the kinship system of Lévi-Strauss. The lesson of this development of structuralism was that man is to be understood as constructed by the symbol and not as the point of origin of symbolism. The individual, even prior to his or her birth, is always already subjected to the structure into which he or she is born. The structure is what sets in place an experience for the subject which it includes. This demands a radical re-estimation of the position of the individual; it should no longer be possible to adhere to the notion of the individual as embodying some ideal pre-given essence. Being always subject-ed, the subject can never be the transcendental, punctual source of a symbolic system. It is de-centred within this structure, constructed in a specific system of differences and their arrangements.
However, structuralism tended to gravitate towards a mechanistic theory of the action of the structure. Concentration on the interactions of various elements of the structural network resulted in a separation of the product from its production. The relations between the various elements were then conceived as relations of exteriority. The universe of structuralism was made up of fully constructed objects and subjects; their 'presence' was affirmed by the naive, empirical reference to 'concrete' evidence, to 'social life', to culture, to anthropology, etc. This direction of structuralism blocked the realisation of the radical potentiality of Saussure's work, since it removed any emphasis from productivity, stressing instead a pre-given meaning. Two tendencies resulted from this. Either the system was considered to be imposed on the subject who is then only its support: such is the foundation of mechanical materialism. Or else meaning was seen as' produced in the structure by the transcendental consciousness which always already intends that meaning. This is the foundation of idealism.
Any mechanistic account of structural relations is reductive since it reduces the process of structuration, the action or process of the structure, and the process of the subject in this action. It rests, finally, on the implicit assumption of a centre or a fixed origin which organises or limits the action of the structure to produce fully-finished subjects and objects. This centre originates, balances and organises the interaction of the elements of the structure. Derrida (in The Structuralist Controversy, ed. Macksey and Donato, pp. 247–65) points out how the history of the concept 'structure' can be seen as a series of substitutions of centre for centre. The centre is given different names, such as 'essence', 'existence', 'transcendentality', 'consciousness', 'God', 'man', etc. But although this appears as a centre, it is in fact a transcendent notion of being which supports the structure. It is therefore finally outside the structure and operating it. Such a contradiction – that of a centred structure achieved only by resorting to the idea of transcendence – expresses the will to find a reassuring certitude, an affirmation of the limitation of what otherwise appears as the endless process of structural causality. This certitude is in direct antagonism to the philosophy of Marxism, whose lesson of dialectic materialism stresses precisely process; everything that exists consists in contradiction and in the process of transformation. The 'will' of the idealist 'deformation' of structuralism can be seen to be the will of bourgeois ideology, a will which seeks to reinstate idealism against materialism.
These politically regressive elements of structuralism quickly became apparent in semiology's attempt to pursue a 'dream of scientificity' basing itself on Saussure's work. Transcendency was implicit in Saussurean linguistics, and those disciplines which drew their influence from it, as the result of understanding the individual simply as a 'user' of the social code. The structure of language (langue) is mobilised in the individual speech act (parole). In this way, the productivity of meaning from a system of differences is abandoned, and meaning can only be understood as what the individual 'intends'. it is therefore the individual's intention which produces the specific relations of difference. This theory returns us to the idealist premise of the individual belonging to the realm of the transcendent, beyond scientific analysis. The attempt made in the early work of semiology to understand the specific relations of difference from the point of view of the social relations which produced it, led Barthes and Kristeva to recognise this idealist premise. Any consideration of the ideological connotations of specific articulations raises the question of the status of language. Is it superstructural (all ideology) or not? It was soon realised that to propose the former would collapse language and ideology together in a totally mechanistic way. It would deny the very notion of productivity which, at another level, was the specific object of knowledge for semiological analysis.
The problems of language as a specific practice, together with its articulation with ideology, appeared in the analysis of literature. Structural analysis proved to be inadequate to account for the differences between texts. Attention to what distinguishes one text from another necessitated attention to the full complexity of the speech act, to the transformations witnessed in the speaking subject. Such attention clearly demonstrates that language and ideology cannot be collapsed together. The complexities of 'poetic language' equally show the inadequacy of the (simplistic) idea of language as a transparent, neutral milieu (this would be the arbitrary sign) which is taken over by the ideological or scientific metalanguage. However, the early work in semiology had been able to unveil the ideological form of realism by using this idea of the metalanguage. The 'appearance-as-natural' of a certain ideological representation appeared to be realised in a process through which the 'arbitrary' relation between the signifier and the signified (the sign) is taken over to form a new signifier in an ideological discourse. This presupposed an original neutrality and innocence of language, which was used to inform the ideological signified with its 'naturalness'. Barthes gave the name 'écrivance' to this complicity of realist writing with bourgeois ideology and it seemed relatively simple to demonstrate. It was, however, the attempt by Barthes, Kristeva and others to deal with writing which did not re-present reality in quite this way, that made problematic the fundamental assumptions such as identity that form the basis of the 'arbitrary' sign in structural linguistics.
It was in analysing texts by Mallarmé, Lautréamont, Joyce, Robbe-Grillet, Bataille, etc., that semiology's assumptions about the speaking subject (parole) and its relation to the system of language (langue) became increasingly untenable. Often, these texts turned their attention to their own material, to language. The effect of this attention was to expose the production of meaning from the activity of the signifiers. The fixed relations of the sign and meaning in the realist text are displaced and redistributed. Every enunciation is seen to be a practice, transforming and renewing positions of meaning. These texts expose the inadequacy for literature of the model of 'communication' (addressor/addressee). Communication can only conceive of an author as source of meaning. But texts like these refuse the possibility of a conventional 'I' behind or outside the text: they refuse any sense of the plenitude of being and meaning behind the text. These texts destroy all unity both of reader and of author. The identity of the subject of the text (i.e. the space necessitated by the meanings of the text) is dissolved. This dissolution is a function of the dissolution of the fixed system of meanings found in classic representations. In this way, textual practice makes it felt that meaning and the subject are only produced in the discursive work of the text, and the subject is only experienced in process. In other words, language emerges in all its materialist implications as the specific milieu of productivity, practice and transformations.
Barthes's S/Z was a crucial turning point between early semiological analyses and full acceptance of the complexities of the speaking subject in signifying practices: an acceptance that has itself necessitated a radical re-examination of traditional Marxism, structuralism and notions of ideology. It was realised that the complexities of the text result from the fact that poetic language gives itself to the expression of certain aspects which are entirely ignored by formal linguistics. The sense of the montage of the subject in language, the musicalisation and the multiplication of meanings, all imply a far greater determinacy of the signifier than can be accounted for by formal linguistics. The text deals with the rhythmic or musical functioning of language: it is therefore no longer analysable in terms of structural transformations and instead necessitates attention to discursive reality as the movements of consciousness and the unconscious processes. Experimental texts demonstrate the productivity of new meanings in the discursive work and, for this reason, they could be seen to be significantly similar to the forms of signification which Freud described. He had shown a form of signification, such as the dream work, that could not be recognised by formal linguistics. The processes of condensation and displacement clearly demonstrate the active function of the signifier in the production of meaning. Meaning, then, is no longer a matter of a pre-given, arbitrary relation between signifier and signified, but rather the fixing of the chain of signifiers to produce a certain meaning. Nor is it a question of an innocent sign being 'taken over' by an ideological discourse. Attention is reoriented towards discursive work, to the productivity of meanings, to meanings being cut out, articulated, from the signifying system. In this way, the idea of the metalanguage became untenable. It was seen that a metalanguage could only present itself in language; there is no neutral milieu on which it unfolds itself. Every identity between signifier and signified is the result of productivity and a work of limiting that productivity. The identity of signifier and signified had to be analysed from elsewhere than a purely natural or a purely ideological relation, if idealist thought was to be dispensed with.
What emerged was a need for a theory of the production of the positions by which the chain of signifiers becomes attached to a specific signified, and what is demanded is a theory of the process and positions occupied by the subject in relation to language and ideology. The realisation that specific meanings are produced with specific identities points to the need for a radical re-estimation of the place of the subject in the structure. This would be what Barthes conceived as a 'political theory of language' which would 'bring to light the processes of appropriation of the system of language (langue) and study the "ownership" of the means of enunciation, something like the Capital of linguistic science' (Barthes, Promesse, no. 29, 1971, p. 25). In other words, no materialist theory of language can be produced without consideration of the process of the subject in the relation between identity and sign. The political implications of this are clear: the domination of bourgeois ideology can no longer be seen as control of ideas by a class, it is a function of those positions established in relation to meaning. A genuinely materialist understanding of language and ideology needs an analysis of the process by which fixed relations of predication are produced for/in the subject. It is this necessity which can be met only by psychoanalysis, since positions/identifications are produced in the socio-familial construction of the subject.
Lacan's re-reading of Freudian theory involves a similar attention to the productivity of language as that demanded by the avant-garde text. As well as reaching similar conclusions about meaning, psychoanalysis has begun to account for these conclusions from a genuinely materialist position. In turning to psychoanalysis, Barthes and Kristeva were in no way demonstrating their allegiance to psychoanalysis as a bourgeois practice. This contemporary mode of analysis dramatises the limits imposed by sociality in order to return the individual to these limits. Contemporary psychoanalysis thus has a specific ideological character. It is this political pessimism which has provoked the extreme and justifiable hostility from Marxists and, especially, feminists. But Lacan's theoretical work is very different from this form of psychoanalysis. Its ultimate effect is a complete undermining of the notion of a unified and consistent subject, the assumption on which all bourgeois ideology is founded. This critique is based on an analysis which emphasises the more radical tendency in Saussurean linguistics: Lacan claims that Freud had already anticipated this in his work on dreams. Freud's discovery that unconscious signification is accessible and objectifiable for an analysis in language has made it possible to demonstrate the active function of the signifier in the determination of meaning. In dreams, for example, either several thoughts appear condensed in one symbol, or the representation of unconscious desire is displaced into another symbol to accommodate dream censorship. Meaning disseminates itself in the dream according to the position of the subject (its socio-familial construction) and the arrangement of the signifying chain in relation to this position. Because of this, it is never possible to separate the domains of consciousness and unconscious. The fixed relation of signifier and signified which is the object of linguistics is shown as only one moment of a process. It becomes fixed when the conscious subject is constructed in a certain position in relation to the signifying chain. The unconscious is constructed in the same process as that by which the human animal enters the symbolic universe. This unconscious is what makes accessible the knowledge of the 'price paid' for the splitting by which the individual becomes a language-using subject. It is the constitution of a subjectivity which necessitates the splitting which produces the unconscious. And it is this splitting which produces the subject as able to be in a fixed relation to the sign. This constitution, therefore, has to be taken into account if we are to found a materialist theory of ideology. It specifies the determination of a construction into symbolic relations, into a position of predication, which involves the mirror-phase and the castration complex. There is no possibility ...

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