The Third International after Lenin

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Psyche and organism


Volosinov and ideology

I. Consciousness as a social-ideological entity. Somewhere near the middle of Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, V N Volosinov makes this startling declaration:

"The psyche enjoys extraterritorial status in the organism. It is a social entity that penetrates inside the organism of the individual person. Everything ideological is likewise extraterritorial in the socioeconomic sphere, since the ideological sign, whose locus is outside the organism, must enter the inner world in order to implement its meaning as sign."

The psyche, that inner world of signs through which you are experiencing and understanding this text, which is most intimately you, is also radically alien, something penetrating the organ from without. It is the territorial avenue through which the social enters the individual - the biological individual, as opposed to the socioideological individual. From this, we gather that the psyche is an objective fact, a social fact, susceptible to understanding and interpretation. Not, mind you, a simple fact, availing itself of easy intelligibility - but nonetheless, as Volosinov says elsewhere, "it is in the capacity of consciousness" to "find verbal access" to inner signs of whatever order, and thus these inner signs can, through introspection, become "outer signs". Thus, proceeding from individual to social, from psyche to society, we learn that the psyche, is "a social-ideological fact" which, if deprived of its "semiotic, ideological content" would "have absolutely nothing left".

To put it another way, "without signs, there is no ideology." In fact: "consciousness itself can arise and become a viable fact only in the material embodiment of signs. The understanding of a sign is, after all, an act of reference between the sign apprehended and other, already known signs; in other words, understanding is a response to a sign with signs." And again: "The individual consciousness is a social-ideological fact." Thus: "If we deprive consciousness of its semiotic, ideological content, it would have absolutely nothing left."

II. Signs, and the word as the semiotic material of inner life. But what is a sign? A sign is whatever has semiotic content, has meaning, refers to something outside of itself. It can be anything, because anything can acquire a semiotic content. Aside from words and images, here are some of the examples Volosinov gives of 'inner signs': "breathing, blood circulation, movements of the body, articulation, inner speech, mimetic motions, reaction to external stimuli ... and so forth". Yet the word is "the purest, most indicatory sign", a "neutral sign", not specialised for any particular field of ideological creativity. Because it is not so circumscribed in its uses, it can be "the medium of consciousness", "the semiotic material of inner life". The word, in the form of inner speech, is the indispensable sign as far as the understanding of all other signs is concerned. "No cultural sign, once taken in and given meaning, remains in isolation: it becomes part of the unity of the verbally constituted consciousness. It is in the capacity of the consciousness to find verbal access to it."

III. Signs and the word as a register of social processes. Moreover, because of the ubiquity of the word, it is "the most sensitive index of social changes" including "changes still in the process of growth, still without definitive shape and not as yet accommodated into already regularized and fully defined ideological systems". The emergence of a new use of language, a neologism or a coined phrase, is an early symptom of a changing social environment, because "the forms of signs are conditioned above all by the social organization of the participants involved and also by the immediate conditions of their interaction". "In order for any item, from whatever domain of reality it may come, to enter the social purview of the group and elicit ideological semiotic reaction, it must be associated with the vital socioeconomic prerequisites of the particular group’s existence; it must somehow, even if only obliquely, make contact with the bases of the group’s material life. ... only that which has acquired social value can enter the world of ideology, take shape, and establish itself there ... all ideological accents are social accents, ones with claim to social recognition".

IV. "Social multi-accentuality" - the sign as a vector of struggle. "Existence reflected in sign is not merely reflected by refracted. How is this refraction of existence in the ideological sign determined? By an intersecting of differently oriented social interests within one and the same sign community, i.e. by the class struggle. ... differently oriented accents intersect in every ideological sign. Sign becomes an arena of the class struggle". To the class struggle, of course, we can add any number of social antagonisms. This means that signs tend to have a "social multi-accentuality". The discussion of 'British values' can be understood in this light: a sign like 'family' will have multiple social accents, because it touches differently on different groups' material lives; the same goes for 'the troops', 'free markets', 'militancy', etc.. To understand a sign in a given conjuncture is to analyse its "specific variability", to pin down the ways in which it can be made to change both within and between discrete social purviews. This tells us how the same sign can work to create distinct and opposing conceptions of the "we". In normal circumstances, the articulation of these signs within a stable, dominant ideology means that a 'common sense' conception prevails. During a crisis of authority, the flux allows for these signs to be re-encoded in a new chain of equivalences. Take 'the nation' as an example. In the post-war era, 'the nation' was linked in a chain of equivalences to a corporatist state, welfarism, the 'war for democracy', and (therefore) formal 'colour-blindness' on race. In the crisis of the late Sixties, Powellism linked 'the nation' to a different chain of equivalences, centred on the restoration of public authority, national competitiveness, and white cultural cohesiveness and dominance. Of course, Powellism would have been as short-lived as Powell's national prominence if these social accents had not then become part of a new hegemonic constellation of forces allying big business and finance capital with the middle class right. Outside of crisis, however, these different social accents and their antagonistic relationship with one another are less immediately obvious. The study of ideology, the study of signs, is not merely the study of individual psychology. Rather, it is the study of social antagonisms and their appearance in daily discourse. It is also, obviously, the study of hegemony, and of counter-hegemonic political struggles.

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