Up From Here.

23-year-old philosophy & education MA student.

Signs Within Our Verbally Constituted Consciousness

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.


Addressing Selfhood in Bakhtin

I found reading the introductory chapter of Michael Holquist’s Dialogism to be very helpful in giving background to Mikhail Bakhtin’s life and work. There are several points within this beginning chapter that I would like to bring together in this blog post to refer back to as we continue our discussion of Bakhtin.

  • There were two general aspects of Marburg Neo-Kantianism that influenced Bakhtin’s early work. The first was the Neo-Kantian desire to relate traditional problems in philosophy to new discoveries about the world. Bakhtin had a keen interest in science, particularly the physics of Planck, Einstein, and Bohr, and the developments in the study of the central nervous system. During Bakhtin’s early childhood, the traditional binary distinctions between matter and mind, and body and soul that had previously been assumed were being disregarded. The second aspect of the Marburg School that influenced Bakhtin was the emphasis of its founder on unity and oneness. Bakhtin resisted this thinking, and this seems to have been his way of relating to the other side of Kant’s synthesis, i.e., the world.
  • Bakhtin participated in the political and methodological struggles of his time. He attacked Freud for what he believed was his inability to imagine a collective subject for psychoanalysis, while also denouncing Saussure for not recognizing the importance of history and everyday speech in his theory of language. He also published his Problems in the work of Dostoevsky that argued against the hegemony of absolute authorial control.
  • For most of his life, Bakhtin thought about the mysteries of locating a self. As Holquist states, “[Bakhtin] argued early and late that what a person said was meaningful to the degree his or her utterance answered a question, and the particular set of questions he himself addressed may be understood as growing out of problems that confront anyone seeking to heed Socrates’ injunction to ‘Know thyself!’ How could one ‘know’? And assuming for the moment that one might somehow be able to know, how could one then know something called a ‘self’…” (11). Furthermore, Bakhtin’s work emphasized particularity and situatedness; he stated that abstract questions about selfhood are pursuable when they are treated as specific questions about location. In this way, Bakhtin was extremely interested in questions concerning the relationship between time and space. He explored similarities and parallels between the conditions at work when anyone speaks and the conditions that obtain when an author writes a piece. In both of these situations, the utterance is thought to be an act of authorship.

In the second chapter of his work, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin discusses Dostoevsky’s notion of a hero. Bakhtin writes, “The hero interests Dostoevsky not as some manifestation of reality that possesses fixed and specific socially typical or individually characteristic traits, nor as a specific profile assembled out of unambiguous and objective features which, taken together, answer the question ‘Who is he?’ No, the hero interests Dostoevsky as a particular point of view on the world and on oneself, as the position enabling a person to interpret and evaluate his own self and his surrounding reality. What is important to Dostoevsky is not how his hero appears in the world but first and foremost how the world appears to his hero, and how the hero appears to himself” (47). Bakhtin argues that having self-consciousness as the dominant feature in constructing a character’s image would require the creation of an “artistic atmosphere” that would allow his speech and discourse to reveal itself. This atmosphere cannot be neutral; everything must effectively touch this character in some form. In this sense, “everything must be directed toward the hero himself, turned toward him, everything must make itself felt as discourse about someone actually present, as the word of a ‘second’ and not of a ‘third’ person” (64). The external world where characters of the story exist is fundamentally the author’s world, which is an objective world via the consciousness of the characters. Everything in this world is perceived in the author’s all-encompassing field of vision. The characters in a novel are portrayed from the author’s point of view; the characters themselves are portrayed from one and the same authorial position. The author’s field of vision does not intersect dialogically with the characters’ fields of vision, and nowhere does the word of the author encounter resistance from the hero’s word; this is because the point of view of the hero is always an object of the author’s point of view. The author’s point of view cannot encounter the hero’s point of view on the same dialogic plane or level. In a novel, the words of the story and the words of the characters themselves are the pure intonations of the author. As such, the words are double-voiced, and an argument, or a microdialogue, come about from each word.


Langue and Parole as Necessary and Complementary Aspects of Langage

In the introduction of “The Linguistic Base I,” Caws explores the natural history of language. Initially, comparisons were made solely between elements of languages, and grammar dealt exclusively with one form at a time, but language was never viewed as a whole entity. Von Humboldt was the first to propose the notion that each language had an inner form that made it a unity. The inner form was specific to each language. Caws disagrees with this point and argues instead, “… Languages collectively exhaust the possibilities of human conception and expression. We may move from one to another but never escape from language altogether: man ‘spins language out of himself, spins himself into it, and thus draws around the people to whom it belongs a circle from which it is possible to step out only in so far as one steps into the circle of another language’” (61). Though we may move from language to language and may encounter a new outlook along the way, we will inevitably find similarities and characteristics of our own; in this way, all language is a combination of the experiences of each individual and the nature of mankind. In his work, Caws strives to understand the form of language as entirely of internal representations, and subsequently explores the acquisition of inner structures by individual speakers. As Caws states, “The difficulty that now presents itself is that of reconciling the particularity of the internal representation (which there seems no reason not to call a mental structure) with the undeniable fact that language is a collective phenomenon, found only in more or less stable and continuous social groups (and constituting one of the structures characteristic of such groups)” (62). Rather than give a historical, comparative, or metaphysical examination of the internal structures of language, Saussure tries to provide an account of them through his discussion of parole and langue, two complementary aspects within it. Perhaps it is in the following description of these parts of langage that we are able to relieve the tension between the internal workings of words themselves and the need for language to encapsulate the nature of mankind. Perhaps it is here that we can conceive the totality of language as encompassing human expression, rather than making broad associations between its distinct parts.

One of the fundamental ideas Caws introduces in “The Linguistic Base I” is found in the section, “Langue and parole”. He argues that language is wholly embodied in the aggregate of acts of speech. The distinction and difference between language and speech here becomes crucial. Speech is individualistic and is executed by a person; Saussure used the French word parole to describe this executive side of language. The term langage was used for the general phenomenon of language, and langue for the synchronic system of norms with important internal structure and workings. Langue (tongue) and parole (discourse or spoken word) are complementary aspects of langage. As Caws writes, “Langue for Saussure belongs to the collectivity of the speakers of a language, parole to the individual; parole gives langue its concrete embodiment, langue gives parole its significance… If it were not for langue, parole would be a series of meaningless noises; if it were not for parole, langue would be a series of mute abstractions” (67). Thus, while language and speech serve separate functions, they cannot operate independently of each other. In the application of these terms to the human subject, the user of language and the one through whom the whole of language enters the world, Saussure’s ideas of langue and parole come together. “As the subject speaks, choosing words, using them to refer… he or she is located at a point on an individual spoken chain, the unfolding of parole in the temporal dimension. At the same time the speaker confronts other speakers, interlocutors, who at each point bring the norms of langue to bear on what is said… [here] the plane of langue is metaphorically intersected by the orthogonal line of parole” (69). It is in Caws’ clear description that we see the activity of langage. The significance of language is found in the relations that each word contains. Saussure parallels words to constellations, as they are the points of convergence with an infinite number of coordinated terms. A wonderful depiction of his thinking can be found in Figure 4.8 of the reading. This map helped me envision the many ways in which a single word is related to a multiplicity of others. As Caws states, “The location of a word in a language, whether langue or parole, is in short a matter of the simultaneous holding of some among a great variety of possible relations with other words and with things…” (78). In language, words become an activity in themselves, simply through their existence with other words.


Art as an Inseparable Part of the Cultural Process

In “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” Raymond Williams begins his work by defining and examining two of the central terms in Marxist theory. The simplest notion of a superstructure had been the reflection, imitation, or reproduction of the reality of the base. Later on, as Williams notes, there had been a reconsideration and qualification in this thinking. The modern notion of mediation states that something more than simple reflection or reproduction occurs; there is a sort of activity. In the later twentieth century, the notion of homologous structures came about, in which there is an essential homology or correspondence of structures between the superstructural process and the reality of the base; this occurs through analysis. In terms of the realities of the cultural process itself, Williams argues that the base is the more important concept. In his thinking, the base must be referred to as a process and not a state. Williams’ goal becomes redefining the meaning of both the superstructure and the base. He states, “We have to revalue ‘superstructure’ towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced or specifically dependent content. And, crucially, we have to revalue ‘the base’ away from the notion of a fixed economic or technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men in real social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations and therefore always in a state of dynamic process” (132). Williams criticizes the narrow view that has become of Marx’s notions of capitalist commodity production, which necessarily negates the cultural context. Williams attempts to bring his audience back to Marx’s central notion of productive forces, in which the most important thing a worker can produce is himself and his history. When Williams discusses the base, he means “…the primary production of society itself, and of men themselves, the material production and reproduction of real life” (133).

Furthermore, Williams notes the very important development of social totality that was opposed to a layered notion of base and superstructure. This concept of a totality is similar to the notion of a social being determining consciousness. However, Williams is quick to note that a notion of totality must include the notion of intention. Societies have specific organizations and structures, which are directly related to social intentions. As Williams states, “One of the unexpected consequences of the crudeness of the base/superstructure model has been the too easy acceptance of models… which exclude the facts of social intention, the class character of a particular society and so on” (134). It would be beneficial to include a discussion of the Marxist concept of hegemony here. Hegemony supposes the existence of something truly total that is not secondary or superstructural, and is instead “… lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent… [and] responds to the reality of social experience very much more clearly than any notions derived from the formula of base and superstructure” (135). Hegemony is not singular; its internal structures are very complex and must be continually renewed, recreated, and defended, so that they can be constantly challenged and modified. Williams proposes a theoretical model of a central system of practices, meanings, and values that are not merely abstract, but are organized and lived. He describes this system as “… a whole body of practices and expectations; our assignments of energy, our ordinary understanding of the nature of man and of his world. It is a set of meanings and values which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming. It thus constitutes a sense of reality…” (135). This is not a static system.

The system Williams describes depends on the process of incorporation. The modes of incorporation are of great social significance. Williams specifically points to educational institutions as the main agencies of transmission. He writes, “The processes of education; the processes of a much wider social training within institutions like the family; the practical definitions and organization of work; the selective tradition at an intellectual and theoretical level: all these forces are involved in a continual making and remaking of an effective dominant culture” (136). The process of interpreting our experience is continually active and adjusting. In an effective culture, alternative meanings and values, alternative opinions and attitudes, and even some alternative senses of the world can be accommodated and tolerated. Later in the text, Williams argues that this type of culture and society cannot be fully formed without literature and art, as they cannot be separated from the social process itself: “… the practices of discourse in writing and speech, the making of novels and poems and plays and theories… [take] place in all areas of the culture” (140). Williams’ main point is that we should not simply reduce art to objects in relation to society, but that we must necessarily consider art as an inseparable part of the cultural process. Williams states, “But in literature… in music and in a very wide area of the performing arts, what we permanently have are not objects but notations. These notions have then to be interpreted in an active way… The relationship between the making of a work of art and its reception is always active… this is radically different from the production and consumption of an object” (142). Williams is vehemently against our preoccupation of art as solely objects of profitable consumption, and it is with this notion that I wholeheartedly agree.



Commodities as Citizens of the World

In the first section of Karl Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Marx opens by defining a commodity, or useful thing. He states, “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’, its unit being a single commodity” (45). A commodity is an object outside of a person that, by its properties, satisfies human wants. These commodities, or these useful things, e.g., iron and paper, may be looked at from two points of view: quality and quantity. Useful things are the assemblage of many properties and can be used in many different ways. Marx calls the discovery of the use of a thing the work of history. It becomes important to reference the footnotes here, as an important example is given of the loadstone attracting iron; “The property which the magnet possesses of attracting iron, became of use only after by means of that property, the polarity of the magnet, had been discovered” (45). Marx next enters a discussion concerning use value and exchange value. What makes a thing use value is its utility. The utility itself has no existence apart from the commodity. Thus, the commodity, so far as it is a material thing, is also a use value and something useful. When referring to use value, we are dealing with definite quantities; these use values then become a reality through use or consumption. In particular societies, they may very well constitute the substance of all wealth and the material depositories of exchange value. Marx states that exchange value “…presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place” (46). In noting the difference between exchange value and use value, it becomes necessary to keep in mind that the exchange of commodities is an act characterized by a total abstraction from use value; one use value is just as good as another, as long as it is present in sufficient quantity. For example, since x blacking, y silk, or z gold, &c., each represents the exchange value of one quarter of wheat, x blacking, y silk, z gold, &c., it must be replaceable by each other, or equal to each other, as exchange values. As Marx states, “As use values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use value” (48). When we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, we are left with labor power without regard to the mode of its expenditure. When we look at these things, they tell us the human labor is embodied in them; what is common to them all is that they are Values. The common substance that manifests itself in the exchange value of commodities, whenever they are exchanged, is their value (48).

What determines the magnitude of value of any article is the amount of labor (labor time) socially necessary for its production. Marx states, “Commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labour are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value. The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labour time necessary, for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other” (49-50). The value of a commodity would remain constant if the labor time remained constant; however, the labor time changes depending on the productiveness of labor, i.e., the average amount of skill of the workmen, state of science, social organization of production, and physical conditions. Marx aptly sums up the relationships between labor time and productiveness in stating, “The value of a commodity… varies directly as the quantity, and inversely as the productiveness, of the labour incorporated in it” (50). Marx later in the chapter notes that human labor itself is not value, even though it creates value. Human labor only becomes value when it is embodied in the form of some object. For example, to express the value of linen as a congelation of human labor, the value must have an objective existence as something materially different from the linen itself, but as something common to the linen and other commodities (61).

In the third section of Capital, Marx enters a discussion concerning exchange value. In the introduction, he summarizes the notion that commodities enter the world in the shape of use values; this is their plain, bodily form. These use values become commodities because they are something twofold: objects of utility and depositories of value. Use values manifest themselves as commodities insofar as they have two forms: a physical (natural) form and a value form. Commodities have a value form that is common to them all, which is a marked contrast to the many bodily forms of their use values: this is their money form. The two different forms of value, i.e., the relative form and the equivalent form, are mutually dependent and inseparable elements, but they can also be described as antagonistic extremes, i.e., poles of the same expression, as Marx states. “They are allotted respectively to the two different commodities brought into relation by that expression. It is not possible to express the value of linen in linen. 20 yards of linen = 20 yards of linen is no expression of value… The value of the linen can therefore be expressed only relatively – i.e., in some other commodity” (58-9). The relative form presupposes the presence of another commodity under the form of the equivalent. In this way, the value of a single commodity can be expressed in terms of numberless other elements of the world of commodities. Every other commodity becomes a mirror of the linen’s value. The labor that created the linen now ranks equally with the other sorts of human labor, no matter the form, e.g., tailoring, ploughing, mining. “The linen, by virtue of the form of its value, now stands in a social relation, no longer with only one other kind of commodity, but with the whole world of commodities. As a commodity, it is a citizen of that world. At the same time… that as regards the value of a commodity, it is a matter of indifference under what particular form, or kind, of use value it appears” (73-4).



[Note: Dave, I have enabled comments at the start of each post. I hope this helps!]

The Intentionality of Language

In the Introduction of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, the audience hears a clear and complete intentionality of language in the description of the economic, social, and political terms: production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. Marx opens the text by calling a human being, in its most literal sense, a political being, meaning an animal who can only individuate itself within a society. One who is isolated and not part of a given society is, by this definition, incapable of production. Marx relays this sort of absurdity to the impossibility of the formation of language without individuals living together and talking to each other (84). Marx, in the following pages, describes what he precisely understands as production; he states firstly that “All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society” (87). Additionally, “…every form of production creates its own legal relations, form of government, etc” (88).

In the second section of the Introduction, Marx continues to establish the relationships between production, distribution, and exchange. In production, society’s members create the products of nature based on human needs, whereas distribution determines the proportion in which the individuals of society share the product. As Marx summarizes, “Production creates the objects which correspond to the given needs; distribution divides them up according to social laws; exchange further parcels out the already divided shares in accord with individual needs; and finally, in consumption, the product steps outside this social movement and becomes a direct object and servant of individual need, and satisfies it in being consumed” (89). Marx characterizes the relationship between production and consumption as directly identical. The act of production is in all its moments an act of consumption. However, Marx is quick to note that consumption itself is also immediately production, i.e., consumption proper. He gives several examples to illustrate his salient point, the first being that in taking in food (consumption), a human being is producing his own body (production). One of the most important passages of the Introduction occurred in Marx’s portrayal of the relationship between the two as a “mediating movement”. Marx states, “Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter’s material; without it, consumption would lack an object. But consumption also mediates production, in that it alone creates for the products the subject for whom they are products” (91). A railway is a railway only if there are no trains. Similarly, a garment becomes a real garment only in the act of being worn, and a house becomes a real house when someone lives in it. A product becomes through the act of consumption. Furthermore, specific products and objects must be consumed in a specific manner; in this way, production creates the consumer by “creating the material for it; by determining the manner of consumption; and by creating the products… in the form of a need felt by the consumer” (92). A wonderful example Marx gives his readers is in the consumption of art. The object of art creates a public, which is sensitive to it and enjoys looking at it; as such, production is creating a subject for the object of the art.

Marx then relates the elements of distribution and production to whole societies; in this way, it seems as if distribution precedes production. His examples include (1) a conquering people dividing the land among the conquerors and then determining production; (2) enslaving the conquered and making the slaves labor the foundation of production; (3) people rising in revolution and smashing the estates into small parcels; and (4) a system of laws that assigns property in land to certain families. In the examples that Marx has given, it seems as if production is determined and structured by distribution, not the opposite. Additionally, Marx describes exchange as an act comprised within production. He states, “…the exchange of activities and abilities which takes place within production itself belongs directly to production and essentially constitutes it” (99). In determining the relationship between exchange and production, Marx notes that there cannot be exchange without production and the division of labor, private exchange presupposes private production, and the intensity of exchange is necessarily determined by the development and structure of production. Production, distribution, exchange, and consumption are by no means identical elements; however, they form the members within a unity. Marx states, “The process always returns to production to begin anew… Likewise, distribution as distribution of products; while as distribution of the agents of production is in itself a moment of production. A definite production thus determines a definite consumption, distribution and exchange… the needs of consumption determine production” (99-100).

Later in the Grundrisse, Marx argues that private interest automatically becomes a socially determined interest. An individual’s production is dependent on the production of others. Prices are dominated by the relations of all production, and this is developed in bourgeois society, i.e., the society of free competition. There becomes a constant necessity for exchange; “Each pursues his private interest and only his private interest; and thereby serves the private interests of all, the general interest, without willing or knowing it… private interest is itself already a socially determined interest, which can be achieved only within the conditions laid down by society” (156).




Tom Thompson (Canada 1877-1917)Nocturne: The Birches (1916)oil on wood panel 21.6 x 26.8 cmNational Gallery of Canada. Ottawa


Tom Thompson (Canada 1877-1917)
Nocturne: The Birches (1916)
oil on wood panel 21.6 x 26.8 cm
National Gallery of Canada. Ottawa

(via daisybuchanan)