Valentin Nikolaevich Voloshinov
First Published: in Russian, 1929;
Source: Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Seminar Press, in liaison with the Harvard Univerity Press and the Academic Press Inc., 1973. One section reproduced under “Fair Use.”
Transcribed: by Paul Lamplugh.
The problem of the ideological sign. The ideological sign and consciousness. The word as an ideological sign par excellence. The ideological neutrality of the word. The capacity of the word to be an inner sign. Summary.
Problems in the philosophy of language have in recent times acquired exceptional pertinence and importance for Marxism. Over a wide range of the most vital sectors in its scientific advance, the Marxist method bears directly upon these problems and cannot continue to move ahead productively without special provision for their investigation and solution.
First and foremost, 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 the problems of the philosophy of language.
Any ideological product is not only itself a part of reality (natural or social), just as is any physical body, any instrument of production, or any product for consumption, it also, in contradistinction to these other phenomena, reflects and refracts another reality outside of itself. Everything ideological possesses meaning: it represents, depicts, , or stands for something lying outside of itself. In other words, it is a sign. Without signs there is no ideology. A physical body equals itself, so to speak; it does not signify anything but wholly coincides with its particular, given nature. In this case, there is no question of ideology.
However, any physical body may be perceived as an image; for instance, the image of natural inertia and necessity embodied in that particular thing. Any such artistic-symbolic image to which a particular physical object gives rise is already an ideological product. The physical object is converted into a sign. Without ceasing to be a part of material reality, such an object, reflects and refracts another reality.
The same is true of any instrument of production. A tool by itself is devoid of any special meaning; it commands only some designated function – to serve this or that purpose in production. The tool serves that purpose as the particular, given thing that it is, without reflecting or standing for anything else. However, a tool may also be converted into an ideological sign. Such, for instance, is the hammer and sickle insignia for the Soviet Union. In this case, hammer and sickle possesses a purely ideological meaning. Additionally, any instrument of production may be ideologically decorated. Tools used by prehistoric man are covered with pictures or designs – that is, with signs. So treated, a tool still does not, of course, itself become a sign.
It is further possible to enhance a tool artistically, and in such a way that its artistic shapeliness harmonizes with the purpose it is meant to serve in production. In this case, something like maximum approximation, almost a coalescence, of sign or tool comes about. But even here we still detect a distinct conceptual dividing line: the tool, as such, does not become a sign; the sign, as such, does not become an instrument of production.
Any consumer good can likewise be made into an ideological sign. For instance, bread and wine become religious symbols in the Christian sacrament of communion.. But the consumer good, as such, is not at all a sign. Consumer goods, just as tools, may be combined with ideological signs, but the distinct conceptual dividing line between them is not erased by the combination. Bread is made in some particular shape; this shape is not warranted solely by the bread’s function as a consumer good; it also has a certain, if primitive, value as an ideological sign (e.g., bread in the shape of a figure eight (krendel) or a rosette).
Thus, side by side with the natural phenomena, with the equipment of technology, and with articles for consumption, there exists a special world – the world of signs.
Signs also are particular, material things; and, as we have seen, any item of nature, technology, or consumption can become a sign, acquiring in the process a meaning that goes beyond its given particularity. A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality – it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore, it may distort that reality or be true to it, or may perceive it from a special point of view, and so forth. Every sign is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation (i.e., whether it is true, false, correct, fair, good, etc.). The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs. They equate with one another. Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present, too. Everything ideological possesses semiotic value.
Within the domain of signs – i.e., within the ideological sphere – profound differences exist: it is, after all, the domain of the artistic image, the religious symbol, the scientific formula, and the judicial ruling, etc. Each field of ideological creativity has its own kind of orientation toward reality and refracts reality in its own way. Each field commands its own special function within the unity of social life. But it is their semiotic character that places all ideological phenomena under the same general definition.
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 is 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 new signs it elicits in the surrounding social milieu) occur in outer experience.
This is a point of extreme importance. Yet, elementary and self-evident as it may seem, the study of ideologies has still not drawn all the conclusions that follow from it.
The idealistic philosophy of culture and psychologistic cultural studies locate ideology in the consciousness. Ideology, they assert, is a fact of consciousness; the external body of the sign is merely a coating, merely a technical means for the realization of the inner effect, which is understanding.
Idealism and psychologism alike overlook the fact that understanding itself can come about only with some kind of semiotic material (e.g., inner speech), that bears upon sign, that 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 this chains of ideological creativity and understanding, moving from sign to sign and then to a new sign, is perfectly consistent and continuous: from one link of a semiotic nature (hence, also of a material nature) we proceed uninterruptedly to another link of exactly the same nature. And nowhere is there a break in the chain, nowhere does the chain plunge into inner being, nonmaterial in nature and unembodied in signs.
This ideological chain stretches from individual consciousness to individual consciousness, connecting them together. Signs emerge, after all, only in the process of interaction between one individual consciousness and another. Consciousness becomes consciousness only once it has been filled with ideological (semiotic) content, consequently, only in the process of social interaction.
Despite the deep methodological differences between them, the idealistic philosophy of culture and psychologistic cultural studies both commit the same fundamental error. By localizing ideology in the consciousness, they transform the study of ideologies into a study of consciousness and its laws; it makes no difference whether this is done in transcendental or in empirical-psychological terms. This error is response not only for methodological confusion regarding the interrelation of disparate fields of knowledge, but for a radical distortion of the very reality under study as well. Ideological creativity – a material and social fact – is forced into the framework of the individual consciousness. The individual consciousness, for its part, is deprived of any support in reality. It becomes either all or nothing.
For idealism it has become all: its locus is somewhere above existence and it determines the latter. In actual fact, however, this sovereign of the universe is merely the hypostatization in idealism of an abstract bond among the most general forms and categories of ideological creativity.
For psychological positivism, on the contrary, consciousness amounts to nothing: it is just a conglomeration of fortuitous, psychophysiological reactions which, by some miracle, results in meaningful and unified ideological creativity.
The objective social regulatedness of ideological creativity, once misconstrued as a conformity with laws of the individual consciousness, must inevitable forfeit its real place in existence and depart either up into the superexistential empyrean of transcendentalism or down the presocial recesses of the psychophysical, biological organism.
However, the ideological, as such, cannot possibly be explained in terms of either these superhuman or subhuman, animalian roots. Its real place in existence is in the special, social material of signs created by man. Its specificity consists precisely in its being located between organised individuals, in its being the medium of their communication.
Signs can arise only on interindividual territory. It is territory that cannot be called “natural” in the direct sense of the word: signs do not arise between any two members of the species Home sapiens. It is essential that the two individuals be organised socially, that they compose a group (a social unit); only then can the medium of signs take shape between them. The individual consciousness not only cannot be used to explain anything, but, on the contrary, is itself in need of explanation form the vantage point of the social, ideological medium.
The individual consciousness is a social-ideological fact. Not until this point is recognized with due provision for all the consequences that follow from it will be possible to construct either an objective philosophy or an objective study of ideologies.
It is precisely the problem of consciousness that has created the major difficulties and generated the formidable confusion encountered in all issues associated with psychology and the study of ideologies alike. By and large, consciousness has become the asylum ignorantiae for all philosophical constructs. It has been made the place where all unresolved problems, all objectively irreducible residues are stored away. Instead of trying to find an objective definition of consciousness, thinkers have begun using it as a means for rendering all hard and fast objective definitions subjective and fluid.
The only possible objective definition of consciousness is a sociological one. Consciousness cannot be derived directly from nature, as has been and still is being attempted by naive mechanistic materialism and contemporary objective psychology (of the biological, behaviouristic, and reflexological varieties). Ideology cannot be derived from consciousness, as is the practice of idealism and psychologistic positivism. Consciousness takes shape and being in the material of the 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. If we deprive consciousness of its semiotic, ideological content, it would have absolutely nothing left. Consciousness can harbor only in the image, the word, the meaningful gesture, and so forth. Outside such material, there remains the sheer physiological act unilluminated by consciousness, i.e., without having light shed on it, without having meaning given to it, by signs.
All that has been said above leads to the following methodological conclusion: the study of ideologies does not depend on psychology to any extent and need not be grounded in it. As we shall see in greater detail in a later chapter, it is rather the reverse: objective psychology must be grounded in the study of ideologies. The reality of ideological phenomena is the objective reality of social signs. The laws of this reality are the laws of semiotic communication and are directly determined by the total aggregate of social and economic laws. Ideological reality is the immediate superstructure above the economic basis. Individual consciousness is not the architect of their ideological superstructure, but only a tenant lodging in the social edifice of ideological signs.
With our preliminary argument disengaging ideological phenomena and their regulatedness from individual consciousness, we tie them in all the more firmly with conditions and forms of social communication. The reality of the sign is wholly a matter determined by that communication. After all, the existence of the sign is nothing but the materialization of that communication. Such is the nature of all ideological signs.
But nowhere does this semiotic quality and the continuous, comprehensive role of social communication as conditioning factor appear so clearly and fully expressed as in language. The word is the ideological phenomenon par excellence.
The entire reality of the word is wholly absorbed in its function of being a sign. A word contains nothing that is indifferent to this function, nothing that would not have been engendered by it. A word is the purest and most sensitive medium of social intercourse.
This indicatory, representative power of the word as an ideological phenomenon and the exceptional distinctiveness of its semiotic structure would already furnish reason enough for advancing the word that the basic, general-ideological forms of semiotic communication could best be revealed.
But that is by no means all. the word is not only the purest, most indicatory sign but is, in addition, a neutral sign. Every other kind of semiotic material is specialized for some particular field of ideological creativity. Each field possesses its own ideological material and formulates signs and symbols specific to itself and not applicable in other fields. In these instances, a sign is created by some specific ideological function and remains inseparable from it. A word, in contrast, is neutral with respect to any kind of ideological function. It can carry out ideological functions of any kind – scientific, aesthetic, ethical, religious.
Moreover, there is that immense area of ideological communication that cannot be pinned down to any one ideological sphere: the are of communication in human life, human behaviour in human life, human behaviour. This kind of communication is extraordinarily rich and important. On one side, it links up directly with the process of production; on the other, it is tangent to the spheres of the various specialized and fully fledged ideologies. In the following chapter, we shall in speak in greater detail of this special are of behavioural, or life, ideology. For the time being, we shall take note of the fact that the material of behavioural communication is preeminently the word. The locale of so-called conversational language and its forms is precisely here, in the area of behavioural ideology.
One other property belongs to the word that is of the highest order of importance and is what makes the word the primary medium of the individual consciousness. Although the reality of the word, as is true of any sign, resides between individuals, a word, at the same time, is produced by the individual organism’s own means without having to recourse to any equipment or any other kind extracorporeal material. This has determined the role of the word as the semiotic material of inner life of consciousness (inner speech). Indeed, the consciousness could have developed only by having at its disposal material that was pliable and expressible by bodily means. And the word was exactly that kind of material. The word is available as the sign for, so to speak, inner employment: it can function as a sign in a state short of outward expression. For this reason, the problem of individual consciousness as the inner word (as an inner sign in general) becomes one of the most vital problems in the philosophy of language.
It is clear, from the very start, that this problem cannot be properly approached by resorting to the usual concept of word and language as worked out in nonsociological linguistics and philosophy of language. What is needed is a profound and acute analysis of the word as a social sign before its function as the medium of consciousness can be understood.
It is owing to this exclusive role of the word as the medium of consciousness that the word functions as an essential ingredient accompanying all ideological creativity whatsoever. The word accompanies and comments on each and every ideological act. the processes of understanding any ideological phenomenon at all (be it a picture, a piece of music, a ritual, or an act of human conduct) cannot operate without the participation of inner speech. All manifestations of ideological creativity – all other nonverbial signs – are bathed by, suspended in, and cannot be entirely segregated or divorced from the element of speech.
This does not mean, of course, that the word may supplant any other ideological sign, None of the fundamental, specific ideological signs is replaceable wholly by words. It is ultimately impossible to convey a musical composition or pictorial image adequately in words. Words cannot wholly substitute for even the simplest gesture in human behaviour. To deny this would be the most banal rationalism and simplisticism. Nonetheless. at the very same time, every single one of these ideological signs, though not supplantable by words, has support in and it accompanied by words, just as is the case with singing and its musical accompaniment.
No cultural sign, once taken in and given meaning, remains in isolation: is becomes part of the unity of verbally constituted consciousness. It is in the capacity of the consciousness to find verbal access to it. Thus, as it were, spreading ripples of verbal responses and resonances from around each and every ideological sign. Every ideological refraction of existence in process of generation, no matter what the nature of its significant material, is accompanied by ideological refraction in word as an obligatory concominant phenomenon. Word is present in each and every act of understanding in each and every act of interpretation.
All of the properties of word we have examined – its semiotic purity, its ideological neutrality, its involvement in behavioural communication, its ability to become and inner word, and finally, its obligatory presence, as an accompanying phenomenon, in any conscious act – all these properties make the word the fundamental object in the study of ideologies. The laws of the ideological refraction of existence in signs and in consciousness, its forms and mechanics, must be studies ion the material of the word, first of all. The only possible way of bringing the Marxist sociological method to bear on all the profundities and subtleties of “immanent” ideological structures is to operate from the basis of the philosophy of language as the philosophy of the ideological sign. And that basis must be devised and elaborated by Marxism itself.
Inadmissibility of the category of mechanistic causality in the study of ideologies. The generative process of society and the generative process of the word. The semiotic expression of social psychology. The problem of behavioural speech genres. Forms of social intercourse and forms of signs. The theme of a sign. The class struggle and the dialectics of signs. Conclusions.
The problem of a relationship of basis and superstructures – one of the fundamental problems of Marxism – is closely liked with the questions of philosophy of language at a number of crucial points and could benefit considerably from a solution to those questions or even just from treatment of them to some appreciable extent and depth.
When the question is posed as to how the basis determines ideology, the answer given is: casually; which is true enough, but also far too general and therefore ambiguous.
If what is means by causality is mechanical causality (as causality has been and still is understood and defined by the positivistic representatives of natural scientific thought), then this answer would be essentially incorrect and contradictory to the fundamentals of dialectical materialism.
The range of application for the categories of mechanical causality is extremely narrow, and even within the natural sciences themselves it grows constantly narrower the further and more deeply dialectics takes hold in the basic principles of these sciences. As regards the fundamental problems of historical materialism and of the study of ideologies altogether, the applicability of so inert a category as that of mechanical causality is simply out of the question.
No cognitive value whatever adheres to the establishment between the connection between the basis and some isolated fact torn from the unity and integrity of its ideological context. It is essential above all to determine the meaning of any, given ideological change in the context of ideology appropriate to it, seeing that every domain of ideology is a unified whole which reacts with its entire constitution to a change in the basis. Therefore, any explanation must preserve all the qualitative differences between interacting domains and must trace all the various stages through which a change travels. Only on this condition will analysis result, not in a mere outward conjunction of two adventitious facts belonging to different levels of things, but in the process of the actual dialectical generation of society, a process which emerges from the basis and comes to completion in the superstructures.
If the specific nature of the semiotic-ideological material is ignored, the ideological phenomenon studies undergoes simplification. Either only its rationalistic aspect, its content side, is noted and explained (for example, the direct, referential sense of an artistic image, such as “Rudin as the superfluous man”), and then that aspect is correlated with the basis (e.g., the gentry class degenerates; hence the “superfluous man” in literature); or, oppositely, only the outward, technical aspect of he ideological phenomenon is singled out (e.g. some technicality in building construction or in the chemistry of colouring materials) and then this aspect is derived directly from the technological level of production.
Both of these ways of deriving ideology from the basis miss the real essence of an ideological phenomenon. Even if the correspondence established is correct, even if it is true that “superfluous men” did appear in literature in connection with the breakdown of the economic structure of the gentry, still, for one thing, it does not at all follow that related economic upsets mechanically cause “superfluous men” to be produced on the pages of a novel (the absurdity of such a claim is perfectly obvious); for another thing, the correspondence established itself remains without any cognitive value until both the specific role of the “superfluous man” in the artistic structure of the novel and the specific role of the novel in social life as a whole are elucidated.
Surely it must be clear that between changes in the economic state of affairs and the appearance of the “superfluous man” in the novel stretches a long, long road that crosses a number of qualitatively different domains, each with its own specific set of laws and its own specific characteristics. Surely it must be clear that the “superfluous man” did not appear in the novel in any way independent of and unconnected with other elements of the novel, but that, on the contrary, the whole novel, as a single organic unity subject to its own specific laws, underwent restructuring, and that, consequently, all its other elements – its composition, style etc. – also went restructuring. And what is more, this organic restructuring of the novel came about in close connection with changes in the whole field of literature, as well.
The problem of the interrelationship of the basis and superstructures – a problem of exceptional complexity, requiring enormous amounts of preliminary data for its productive treatment – can be elucidated to a significant degree through the material of the word.
Looked at from the angle of our concerns, the essence of this problem comes down to how actual existence (the basis) determines the sign and how sign reflects and refracts existence in its process of generation.
The properties of the word as an ideological sign (properties discussed in the preceding chapter) are what make the word the most suitable material for viewing the whole of the problem in basic terms. What is important about the word is in this regard is not so much its sign purity but its social ubiquity. The word is implicated in literally each and every act or contact between people – in collaboration on the job, in ideological exchanges, in the chance contacts of ordinary life, in political relationships, and so on. Countless ideological threads running through all areas of social intercourse register effect in the word. It stands to reason, then, that the word is the most sensitive index of social changes, and what is more, of changes still in the process of growth, still without definitive shape and not as yet accommodated into already regularised and fully defined ideological systems. The word is a medium in which occur the slow qualitative accretions of those changes which have not yet achieved a status of a new ideological quality, not yet produced a new and fully-fledged ideological form. The word has the capacity to register all the transitory, delicate, momentary phases of social change.
That which has been termed “social psychology” and is considered, according to Plekhanov’s theory and by the majority of Marxists, as the transitional link between the sociopolitical order and ideology in the narrow sense (science, art, and the like), is, in its actual, material existence, verbal interaction. Removed from this actual process of verbal communication and the interaction (of semiotic communication and signs in general), social psychology would assume the guise of a metaphysical or a mythic concept – the “collective soul” or “collective inner psyche,” “the spirit of the people” etc.
Social psychology in fact is not located anywhere within (in the “souls” of communicating subjects) but entirely and completely without – in the word, the gesture, the act. There is nothing left unexpressed in it, nothing “inner” about it – it is wholly on the outside, wholly brought out in exchanges, wholly taken up in material, above all in the material of the word.
Production relations and the sociopolitical order shaped by those relations determine the full range of verbal contacts between people, all the forms and means of their verbal communication – at work, in political life, in ideological creativity. In turn, from the conditions, forms and types of verbal communication derive not only from the forms but also the themes of speech performances.
Social psychology is first and foremost and atmosphere made up of multifarious speech performances that engulf and wash over all persistent forms and kinds of ideological creativity: unofficial discussions, exchanges in opinion at the theatre or concert or at various types of social gatherings, purely chance exchanges of words, one’s matter of verbal reaction to happening in one’s life and daily existence, one’s inner-word manner of identifying oneself and identifying one’s position in society, and so on. Social psychology exists primarily in a wide variety of forms of the “utterance,” of little speech genres of internal and external kinds – things left completely unstudied to the present day. All these speech performances, are, of course, joined with other types of semiotic manifestation and interchange – with miming, gesturing, acting out, and the like.
All these forms of speech interchange operate in extremely close connection with the conditions of social situation in which they occur and exhibit an extraordinary sensitivity to all fluctuations in the social atmosphere. And it is here, in the inner workings of this verbally materialised social psychology that the barely noticeable shifts and changes that will later find expression in fully fledges ideological products accumulate.
From what has been said, it follows that social psychology must be studies from two different viewpoints: first, from the viewpoint of content, i.e., the themes pertinent to it at this or that moment in time; and second, from the viewpoint of forms and types of verbal communication in which the themes in question are implemented (i.e., discussed, expressed, pondered over, etc.)
Up till now the study of social psychology has restricted its task to the first viewpoint only, concerning itself exclusively with definition of its thematic makeup. Such being the case, the very question as to where documentation – the concrete expressions – of this social psychology could be sought was not posed with full clarity. Here, too, concepts of “consciousness,” “psyche,” and “inner-life” played the sorry role of relieving one of the necessity to try to discover clearly delineated material forms of expression of social psychology.
Meanwhile, this issue of concrete forms has significance of the highest order. The point here has to do, of course, not with the sources of our knowledge about social psychology at some particular period (e.g., memoirs, letters, literary works), nor with the sources for our understanding of the “spirit of the age” – the point here has to do with the forms of concrete implementation of this spirit, that is, precisely with the very forms of semiotic communication in human behaviour.
A typology of these forms is one of the urgent tasks of Marxism. Later on, in connection with the problem of the utterance and dialogue, we shall again tough upon the problem of speech genres. For the time being, let us take note at least of the following.
Each period and social grouping has had its own repertoire of speech forms for ideological communication in human behaviour. Each set of cognate forms, i.e., each behavioural speech genre, has its own corresponding set of themes.
An interlocking organic unity joins the form in communication (for example, on-the-job communication of the strictly technical kind), the form of utterance (the concise, businesslike statement) and its theme. Therefore classification of the forms of utterance must rely upon classification of the forms of verbal communication. The latter are entirely determined by production relations and the sociopolotical order. Were we to apply a more detailed analysis, we would see what enormous significance belongs to the hierarchical factor in the processes of verbal interchange and what a powerful influence is exerted on the forms of utterance by the hierarchical organisation of communication.. Language etiquette, speech tact, and other forms of adjusting an utterance to the hierarchical organisation of society have tremendous importance in the process of devising the basic behavioural genres.
Every sign, as we know, is a construct between socially organised persons in the process of their interaction. Therefore, the forms of signs are conditioned above all by the the social organisation of the participants involved and also by the immediate conditions of their interaction. When these forms change, so does sign. And it should be one of the tasks of the study of ideologies to trace this social life of the verbal sign. Only so approached can the problem of the relationship between sign and existence find its concrete expression; only then will the process of the causal shaping of the signs by existence stand out as a process of genuine existence-to-sign transit, of genuine dialectical refraction of existence in the sign..
To accomplish this task certain basic, methodological prerequisites must be respected:
1. Ideology may not be divorced from the material reality of the sign (i.e., by locating it in the “consciousness” or other vague and elusive regions);
2. The sign may not be divorced from the concrete forms of social intercourse (seeing that the signs is part of organised social intercourse and cannot exist, as such, outside it, reverting to a mere physical artifact);
3. Communication and the forms of communication may not be divorced from the material basis.
Every ideological sign – the verbal sign included – in coming about through the process of social intercourse, is defined by the social purview of the given time period and the given social group. So far, we have been speaking about the form of the sign as shaped by the forms of social interaction. Now we shall deal with its other aspect – the content of the sign and the evaluative accentuation that accompanies all content.
Every stage in the development of a society has its own special and restricted circle of items which alone have access to that society’s attention which are endowed with evaluative accentuation by that attention. Only items within that circle will achieve sign formation and become objects in semiotic communication.
What determines this circle of items endowed with value accents?
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.
Individual choice under these circumstances, of course, can have no meaning at all. The sign is a creation between individuals, a creation within a social milieu. Therefore the item in question must first acquire inter-individual significance, and only then can it become an object for sign formation. In other words, only that which has acquires social value can enter the world of ideology, take shape, and establish itself there.
For this reason, all ideological accents, despite their being produced by the individual voice (as in the case of word) or, in any event, by the individual organism – all ideological accents are social accents, ones with claim to social recognition and, only thanks to that recognition, are made outward use of in ideological material.
Let us agree to call the entity which becomes the object of a sign the theme of the sign. Each fully fledged sign has its theme. And so, every verbal performance has its theme.
An ideological theme is always socially accentuated. Of course, all the social accents of ideological themes make their way also into the individual consciousness (which, as we know, is ideological through and through) and there take on the semblance of individual accents, since the individual consciousness assimilated them as its own. However, the source of these accents is not the individual consciousness. Accent, as such, is inter-individual. The animal cry, the pure response to pain in the organism, is bereft of accent; it is a purely natural phenomenon. For such a cry, the social atmosphere is irrelevant, and therefore it does not contain even the germ of sign formation.
The theme of an ideological sign and the form of an ideological sign are inextricably bound together and are separable only in the abstract. Ultimately, the same set of forces and the same material prerequisites bring both the one and the other to life.
Indeed, the economic conditions that inaugurate a new element of reality into the social purview, that make it socially meaningful and “interesting,” are exactly the same conditions that create the forms of ideological communication (the cognitive, the artistic, the religious, and so on), which in turn shape the forms of semiotic expression.
Thus, the themes and forms of ideological creativity emerge from the same matrix and are in essence two sides of the same thing.
The process of incorporation into ideology – the birth of theme and birth of form – is best followed out in the material of the word. The process of ideological generation is reflected two ways in language: both in its large-scale, universal-historical dimensions as studies by semantic palaeontology, which has disclosed the incorporation of undifferentiated chunks of reality into the social purview of prehistoric man, and in its small-scale dimensions as constituted within the framework of contemporaneity, since, as we know, the word sensitively reflects the slightest variations in social existence.
Existence reflected in sign is not merely reflected but 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 community, i.e., by the class struggle.
Class does not coincide with the sign community, i.e., with only the community which is the totality of users of the same set of signs for ideological communication. Thus various different classes will use one and the same language. As a result, differently oriented accents intersect in every ideological sign. Sign becomes an arena of class struggle.
This social multi-accentuality of the ideological sign is a very crucial aspect. By and large, it is thanks to this intersecting of accents that a sign maintains its vitality and dynamism and the capacity for further development. A signs that has been withdrawn from the pressures of the social struggle – which, so to speak, crosses beyond the pale of the class struggle – inevitably loses force, degenerating into allegory and becoming the object not of live social intelligibility but of philological comprehension. The historical memory of mankind is full of such worn out ideological signs incapable of serving as arenas for the clash of live social accents. However, inasmuch as they are remembered by the philologist and the historian, they may be said to retain the last glimmers of life.
The very same thing that makes the ideological sign vital and mutable is also, however, that which makes it a refracting and distorting medium. The ruling class strives to impart a supra-class, eternal character to the ideological sign, to extinguish or drive inward the struggle between social value judgements which occurs in it, to make the sign uni-accentual.
In actual fact, each ideological sign has two faces, like Janus. Any current curse word can become a word of praise, any current truth must inevitably sound to other people as the greatest lie. This inner dialectical quality of the sign comes out fully in the open only in times of social crises or revolutionary changes. In the ordinary conditions of life, the contradiction embedded in every ideological sign cannot emerge fully because the ideological sign in an established, dominant ideology is always somewhat reactionary and tries, as it were, to stabilise the preceding factor in the dialectical flux of the social generative process, so accentuating yesterday’s truth to make it appear today’s. And that is what is responsible for the refracting and distorting peculiarity of the ideological sign within the dominant ideology.
This, then, is the picture of the problem of the relation of the basis to the superstructures. Our concern with it has been limited to concretisation of certain of its aspects and elucidation of the direction and routes to be followed in a productive treatment of it. We made a special point of the place of philosophy of language has in that treatment. the material of a verbal sign allows one most fully and easily to follow out the continuity of the dialectical process of change, a process which goes from basis to superstructures. The category of mechanical causality in explanations of ideological phenomena can most easily be surmounted on the grounds of philosophy of language.