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Ideology and Language as the Terrain of Class Struggle:
The Case of Voloshinov


Term Paper
By
Atakan Büke


Submitted
To

Necmi Erdoğan

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Course
ADM 5196
Cultural Politics

ANKARA
METU
January 2011

Ideology and Language as the Terrain of Class Struggle: The Case of Voloshinov
Introduction
Throughout this paper, I will try to point out main theoretical and methodological framework
of V. N. Voloshinov1 with regards to his conceptualization of ideology and language as the
terrain of class struggle. The paper is organized in four parts. Following this introductory part
I will try to mention, in fact, summarize, Voloshinov’s understanding of the relationship
between ideology, language and more particularly sign; keeping in mind that his work is one
of the first attempts within Marxism to analyze the field of language. Moreover, we should
also keep in mind that Voloshinov is among the firsts who tried to conceptualize ideology and
language in positive terms rather than in pejorative terms, to use Larrain’s (1979) terminology.
In this part, I will try to argue that the inner relationship between ideology, language and sign
lies in their social character, and this social in Voloshinov’s terms is not a free-floating thing
but rather composed of hierarchical class and power relations. After mentioning the basics of
Voloshinov’s terminology, in the following third part, I will try to point out mainstays of
Voloshinov’s struggle with two current of thoughts, two trends in philosophy of language up
to his own time, namely abstract objectivism exemplified best by Ferdinand de Saussure, and
individualistic subjectivism exemplified best by Wilhelm von Humboldt. This struggle of
Voloshinov, his sharp criticisms pointed towards these two trends, I will try to argue, are the
basis of his own approach to language as a socio-ideological phenomenon, which can in fact
be seen as a “dialectical synthesis” of abstract objectivism and individualistic subjectivism.
Finally, in the last conclusion section, I will try to share some ‘comments’ on reading
Voloshinov today, the time period in which social class is everywhere and nowhere and some
criticisms that are possible to direct towards Voloshinov.
Ideology, Language and Sign
The relationship between ideology and language for Voloshinov is of crucial importance not
only for putting language in its proper place within Marxism but also for conceptualization of
ideology itself as a socio-material phenomenon and in terms of class struggle. In his own
introduction to Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (hereafter, MPL) and in the first part

1 It is interesting to note that Mikhail Bakhtin never rejected not accepted the claim that they are the same
person.
1


of the book he mentions this point through his critique of Marxist studies up to his time. For
Voloshinov (1996: xiii), the founders of Marxism provided just the “definition of the place of
ideology in the unity of social life” as superstructure, and they remained silent as regards to
the questions concerning “the material of ideological creativity and the conditions of
ideological communication”, which, for Voloshinov, corresponds to the study of language and
particularly of signs. According to Voloshinov (1996: xiv), what is worse than this
inadequacy of the founders is the fact that the followers of Marxism remained either in the
field of psychologism through reducing ideological phenomena to “subjective consciousness
and psyche” or “at a stage of predialectical mechanistic materialism” through understanding
ideological phenomena in terms of mechanistic causalities.
Contrary to the errors of “idealistic philosophy of culture”, “psychologistic cultural studies”
and the “predialectical mechanistic materialism” Voloshinov argues that ideological
phenomena can only be understood within the boundaries of social. Here also lies the core of
the relationship between ideology, language and sign. In order to understand this point, one
should focus on the specific nature of ideological phenomena for Voloshinov:
Any ideological product is not only itself a part of a 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 itself. Everything ideological possesses meaning: it represents, depicts, or
stands for something lying outside itself. In other words it is a sign. Without signs
there is no ideology. (Voloshinov, 1996: 9)
It is clear from the above quotation that for Voloshinov the domain of ideology and the
domain of signs overlap. He also explicitly states this point: “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.” It is this semiotic
value or character that makes a general definition of ideological phenomena possible despite
its various forms like “the artistic image, the religious symbol, the scientific formula and, the
juridical ruling etc” each of which “has its own kind of orientation towards reality” and which
“refracts reality in its own way”.
What is more important, arguably, is the fact that, for Voloshinov ideological phenomena has
materiality in two senses: it is material in the direct sense of the term, i.e. it is an object, or
2


“has some kind of material embodiment, whether in sound, physical mass, color, movements
of the body, or the like”; and second, it has materiality through its effects on another reality
either by reflecting or refracting it. It is exactly on the basis of this materiality, he argues that
“the reality of sign is fully objective and lends itself to a unitary, monistic, objective method
of study”. This point is also crucial for conceptualization of understanding and consciousness,
since consciousness for Voloshinov “can arise and become a viable fact in the material
embodiment of signs”. In relation to this point and echoing the post-structuralist studies which
now dominates the literature on language and ideology under the name of discourse theories
Voloshinov (1996: 11) mentions the following:
The understanding of a sign is, after all, an act of reference between sign apprehended
and other, already known signs; in other words, understanding is a response to a sign
with signs. And this chain of ideological creativity and understanding, moving from
sign to sign and then a new sign, is perfectly consistent and continuous: from one link
of semiotic nature (hence also of a material nature) we proceed uninterruptedly to
another link of exactly the same nature.
The critical point in relation to this continuous chain of signs is that the flow of signs is from
one individual consciousness to another which simply means that consciousness and
understanding can arise only “in the process of social interaction”. Hence, both idealistic
philosophy of culture and psychologistic cultural studies for Voloshinov commit, in their own
ways, the same fundamental error of “localizing ideology” in the subjective consciousness
rather than conceiving it as a social reality:
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 Homo Sapiens. It is essential that the two individuals be organized socially,
that they compose a group (a social unit); only then can the medium of signs take
shape between them. (Voloshinov, 1996: 12)
In other words, the relationship between ideology, language and sign should be established at
the level of social interaction, and ideological phenomena should be tied “with conditions and
forms of social communication” since “the existence of the sign is nothing but the
materialization of that communication” (Voloshinov, 1996: 13). The question, then, is by
3


focusing what and on which ground this social intercourse and communication should be
analyzed.
For Voloshinov, the focus should be on word as the ideological phenomenon par excellence.
This is so, because of the special characteristics of word. To begin with, it is “the most purest
and most sensitive medium of social intercourse” – semiotic purity – since its reality is
nothing but being a sign. Second, according to Voloshinov, it is “a neutral sign”, which means
word exists in any ideological phenomena be it scientific, artistic, ethical or religious –
ideological neutrality. This neutrality, however, should not be confused with an ethical one,
meaning word as neutral in content, as I will try to point out in the following pages. Rather it
simply means that although word does not and cannot replace ideological signs, for instance a
religious one, it exist side by side any ideological phenomena and accompanies them. Third, it
is the medium and material of behavioral communication, i.e. the question of social
psychology is located not in “the souls of communicating subjects” but “in the word, the
gesture and act”. Fourth, the material of individual consciousness is also the word. Although
sign emerges in the field of inter-individuality the word can be produced by the individual
organism’s owns means without resource to any equipment or any kind of material
extracorporeal material which gives rise to the role of word as the semiotic material of inner
life – consciousness (inner speech). However, one should keep in mind that even the inner
speech is a dialogic one, i.e. a social intercourse. Finally, a word, simply because it is the
medium in which consciousness can develop, “functions as an essential ingredient
accompanying all ideological creativity whatsoever”. (Voloshinov, 1996: 14-15)
It is clear that the analysis of sign should focus on word and, arguably this point has close
connections with Voloshinov’s emphasis on utterance as the prime area of investigation in
philosophy of language as I will try to mention in the following section of the paper. However,
at this point, one should remember the critique of Eagleton (1994: 9) pointed to those who
consider ideology as “a matter of the inherent linguistic properties of a pronouncement
[word]” rather than of power relations and thereby discourse. Voloshinov is well aware of this
fact even before the development of an immense literature on discourse. He puts this matter in
terms of the relationship between basis and superstructure with regards to the question of
how actual existence (the basis) determines sign and how sign reflects and refracts existence
in its process of generation” (1996: 19). And it is at this point that the relationship between
4


ideology, language and sign, and their relation to existence are established on the basis of
class struggle.
This last point has close connections with the listed properties of the word as the ideological
phenomenon par excellence. Since the word is ubiquitous in each and every social interaction,
even in the individual consciousness, and since it is the common denominator of every
ideological phenomena, according to Voloshinov, it becomes “the most sensitive index of
social changes”. In order to clarify this point and establish its relation with class struggle
Voloshinov offers a double analysis: analysis of the form of sign and analysis of the content
of sign which in fact are “two sides of the same coin”. As I tried to point out at the beginning
of this section, a sign can emerge only in the social intercourse. This point is of crucial
importance to analyze any particular form of sign, word or of utterance:
… 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. When
these forms change, so does sign. And it should be one of the tasks of study of
ideologies to trace this social life of the verbal sign. (Voloshinov, 1996: 21)
This task, for Voloshinov (1996: 21), can only be handled with some particular
methodological premises regarding the analysis of ideology: “ideology may not be divorced
from the material of sign (i.e. by locating it in the consciousness or other vague and elusive
regions); the sign may not be divorced from the concrete forms of social intercourse (seeing
that the sign is part of organized social intercourse and cannot exist, as such, outside it,
reverting to a mere physical artifact); communication and the forms of communication may
not be divorced from the material basis”.
For the content of the sign and its relation to basis, too, these methodological premises should
be kept in mind. At this point, Voloshinov argues that for sign in order to become part of
reality, in order to emerge, it must fall within the boundaries of the “special and restricted
circle of items” that have the capacity and ability to have the attention of the society in each
historical and social context that is given. In other words, any sign in order to become a sign
“must be associated with the vital socioeconomic prerequisites of the particular group’s
existence; it must somehow, even if obliquely, make contact with the bases of the group’s
material life” (Voloshinov, 1996: 22).
5


It is clear that the relationship between sign and existence both in terms of its form and
content can only be derived from the social character of the sign. However this social is not
an egalitarian one and is not abstracted from power relations as assumed in some cases by
postmodernist writers or more importantly this social is not composed of independent and
abstract individuals seeking just their own individual interests. Rather this social is based
upon classes and this point is very important in understanding the very nature, materiality, of
sign. As mentioned before sign has materiality in two senses and one of these is its effects on
another reality, that is to say sign not only reflects reality but also and more importantly
refracts that reality:
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 sign community, i.e. by the class
struggle. (Voloshinov, 1996: 23)
Since the social is composed of different classes with different interests and since “class does
not coincide the sign community”, i.e. “various different classes will use one and the same
language [same set of signs]”, sign gains a multiaccentual character and becomes “an arena of
class struggle”. This is the basis to understand how sign refracts existence and this is the basis
of the relationship of ideology, language and sign to class struggle. Being an arena of class
struggle is also the basis for a sign to “maintain its vitality and dynamism and the capacity for
further development” (Voloshinov, 1996: 23). In other words, it can be argued that as an
arena of class struggle signs become an open-ended, socially constituted uninterrupted
signification chain. What differentiates Voloshinov and his problematics from the
contemporary postmodernist literature, even from an important portion of Marxists, is his
methodological and theoretical emphasis on class struggle.
It appears that the struggle over a sign is a struggle over meaning, or more generally over
content. It is important to note that the refracting and distorting character of ideological sign
and ideological domain in general, arises simply because of the fact that it is the arena of this
struggle. In this struggle 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 judgments
which occurs in it, to make the sign uniaccentual” (Voloshinov, 1996: 23). In other words,
the struggle over a sign is a struggle for uniaccetuality and over multiaccentuality, a struggle
in which the ruling class tries to fix the meaning by glossing over its conflictual and
6


multiaccentual character. This point is very important in understanding the concepts of
Voloshinov/Bahktin like centripetal and centrifugal forces, dialogical and monological, and
heteroglossia, which are, arguably, best exemplified by Bakhtin (2005) in his analysis of
grotesque and popular culture in Rabelais and His World. However, in order to understand
this relationship it is better first to look at Voloshinov’s criticism of two trends in the
philosophy language, namely, in Voloshinov’s terms, individualistic subjectivism, represented
best by Wilhelm von Humbolt; and abstract objectivism, represented best by Ferdinand de
Saussure; and his own conceptualization of language on the basis of utterance as a socio-
ideological phenomenon.
Utterance as a Key Towards a Marxist Philosophy of Language
Having mentioned the general framework and methodological premises of Voloshinov
regarding the relationship between ideology, language and sign, in this part of the paper, I will
try to point out his position in relation to the questions of “what is language and what is word”,
i.e. “the problem of the identification and delimitation of language as a specific object” (1996:
46-7). In relation to this problem, Voloshinov starts to analyze the attempts that have already
been made in this regard and he mentions that there are “two basic trends” in the solution of
“the problem of identification and delimitation of language as a specific object”:
individualistic subjectivism and abstract objectivism. While the former is associated with
romanticism and exemplified best by Wilhelm von Humboldt, the latter is associated with
rationalism and neoclassicism and exemplified best by Ferdinand de Saussure.
Key methodological and theoretical premises of the first trend, according to Voloshinov (1996:
48), are as follows:
(1)Language is activity, an unceasing process of creation (energia) realized in
individual speech acts; (2) the laws of language creativity are the laws of individual
psychology; (3) creative of language is meaningful creativity, analogous to creative art;
(4) language as a ready-made product (ergon), as a stable system (lexicon, grammar,
phonetics), is so to speak, the inert crust, the hardened lava of language creativity, of
which linguistics makes an abstract construct in the interests of the practical teaching
of language as a ready-made instrument.
7


It is clear from the assumptions listed above that, for the first trend, the proper object of
investigation of language is “the individual creative speech act” that has its ground in the
individual psyche, which in turn means that the linguist and the philosopher of language
should study, in fact, “the laws of individual psychology”, i.e. should focus on expression. For
this trend, language as a stable system is nothing but the “inert crust, the hardened lava of
language creativity”, rather the focus should be on “the individual creative act of speech”,
“stylistic concretization of and modification” of abstract forms like grammar, phonetics, and
lexicon, since, for this trend, “everything that becomes a fact of grammar had once been a fact
of style” (Voloshinov, 1996: 51). It is at this point that individualistic subjectivism equals
language creativity with the artistic creativity. The situation for the second trend, abstract
objectivism, is, however, almost exactly the opposite.
The methodological and theoretical premises of abstract objectivism according to Voloshinov
(1996: 57) are as follows:
(1)Language is a stable, immutable system of normatively identical linguistics forms
which the individual consciousness finds ready-made and which is incontestable for
that consciousness. (2) The laws of language are specifically linguistic laws of
connection between linguistics signs within a given, closed linguistic system. These
are objective with respect to any subjective consciousness; (3) Specifically linguistic
connections have nothing in common with ideological values (artistic, cognitive, or
other) Language phenomena are not grounded in ideological motives. No connection
of a kind natural and comprehensible to the consciousness or of an artistic kind obtains
between the word and its meaning. (4) Individual acts of speaking are, from the
viewpoint of language merely fortuitous refractions and variations or plain and simle
distortions of normatively identical forms. … [Hence] there is no connection, no
sharing of motives, between the system of language and its history.
As opposed to the first trend, abstract objectivism conceives language as a stable and even
immutable system which does not let any individual consciousness make any creative move.
Despite the uniqueness of each utterance, as in the case of fingerprints, they emerge within the
boundaries of identical elements of phonetic, grammatical or lexical forms governed by
objective, linguistic laws. Thus, “the individual act of articulating sounds becomes a linguistic
act only by measure of its compliance with the fixed (at any given moment in time) and
8


incontestable (for the individual) system of language” (Voloshinov, 1996: 53). This point is
best exemplified by Ferdinand de Saussure.
Saussure, in order to point out the proper object of investigation of language as a science,
distinguishes three aspects of language: langage (speech), langue (language), and parole
(utterance). Within this framework, while langue refers to language as a system of forms,
parole refers to the individual speech act, i.e. utterance; and langage is the combination of
langue and parol, “the sum total of all the phenomena – physical, physiological, and
psychological – involved in the realization of verbal activity”. language-speech (langage),
language as a system of forms (langue) and the individual speech act – the utterance (parole)”
(Voloshinov, 1996: 59). Within this categorization, according to Saussure, only langue
deserves to be the proper subject of philosophy of language. Langage (speech) cannot be the
starting point since it is “manifold and anomalous”, “astride several domains at once”, it
“resists classification under any of the categories of human facts because there is no knowing
how to elicit its unity” (Saussure, Course de linguistique, p. 25, cited in Voloshinov, 1996:
60). For Saussure, language (langue) on the contrary is “a self contained whole and a principle
of classification”. This point becomes more clear in Saussure’s differentiation of language
from utterance:
In distinguishing language (langue) from utterance (parole), we by the same token
distinguish (1) what is social from what is individual, and (2) what is essential from
what is accessory and more or less random. Language is not a function of the speaker;
it is a product that the individual registers passively… (Saussure, Course de
linguistique, p. 30; cited in Voloshinov, 1996: 60)
Here it is clear that the second trend exemplified by Saussure, conceives linguistics
phenomena in terms of “normatively identical forms” that exist in any case of utterance and
argues that the rest is nothing but accessory, or random. One of the most crucial aspect of this
abstract objectivism, for Voloshinov, is its conceptualization of social in opposition to
individual, and thereby, language in opposition to utterance, and it is at this point that
Voloshinov sees the fundamental error.
As for the second trend, Voloshinov (1996: 67) asks the critical question of whether
“language really exist for the speaker’s subjective consciousness as an objective system of
incontestable, normatively identical forms?”. According to Voloshinov, this may be the case
9


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