In the first chapter of Part I of Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, V. N. Volosinov enters a discussion of the relationships between ideology and signs, signs and consciousness, and consciousness and social communication. For Volosinov, everything ideological possesses meaning as it represents, depicts, or stands for something lying outside itself; in this way, everything ideological is a sign. Furthermore, there is no ideology without signs. Volosinov states, “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” (10). Every ideological sign has a kind of material embodiment, whether in sound, physical mass, color, or movements of the body; in this sense, the sign is fully objective and is a phenomenon of the external world. The sign and the effects it produces occur in outer experience. Volosinov writes, “Signs emerge… only in the process of interaction between one individual consciousness and another. And the individual consciousness itself is filled with signs. Consciousness becomes consciousness only once it has been filled with ideological (semiotic) content, consequently, only in the process of social interaction” (11). The reality of the sign is determined by communication, as the reality of a word is absorbed in its function of being a sign. As such, a word is the purest medium of social intercourse; it carries out ideological functions of many kinds, e.g., scientific, aesthetic, ethical, or religious. Once it is given any sort of meaning, no sign can remain in isolation; it is part of the total verbally constituted consciousness.
In the second chapter of Part I, Volosinov further discusses the idea of the word as a method of social change. What is important about the word is its social ubiquity. As Volosinov states, “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… The word has the capacity to register all the transitory, delicate, momentary phases of social change” (19). Every sign is a construct between socially organized people in their interactions; in this way, signs are conditioned by the social organization of the participants involved and by the conditions of their interaction. The sign changes when the conditions of their interactions change. An interesting part of this second chapter occurs when Volosinov argues that the sign becomes an arena of the class struggle. As he states, “[The] social multiaccentuality 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 sign that has been withdrawn from the pressures of the social struggle… inevitably loses force, degenerating into allegory and becoming the object not of live social intelligibility but of philological comprehension” (23). The sign must have an active social quality in order to have importance in social progression.
In the third chapter of Part I, Volosinov discusses Marx’s desire to construct a genuinely objective psychology in which the psychology itself is based on sociological principles. As Volosinov states, “The subjective psyche of the human being is not an object for the natural-scientific analysis, as would be any item or process in the natural world; the subjective psyche is an object for ideological understanding and socioideological interpretation via understanding” (25). The realities are the same for the inner psyche and the sign. The psyche does not exist outside the material of the signs; the psyche is localized somewhere between the organism and the outside world. As such, the organism and the outside world meet in the sign itself. The inner psyche is not analyzable as a thing, but it can only be understood and interpreted as a sign. In order for us to receive the psyche and the inner signs, we must necessarily engage in self-observation and introspection. Volosinov defines self-observation as the understanding of one’s own inner sign. We cannot see or feel an experience; we can only understand it. Introspection, as a kind of understanding, has a specific ideological direction. As such, it can partake in ethical or moral self-objectification. The inner sign is hereby drawn into a system of ethical values and norms. Introspection is included within the unity of objective experience, as the orientation in one’s soul is inseparable from the orientation in the social situation in which the experience occurs. Any deepening of introspection can only come about in conjunction with a deepened understanding of the social orientation.