21 May 2024

cultural Marxism's obsession with Language – final part

The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is here used to mean:
the corpus of Marxist ideology, excluding the parts that are overtly about economics or politics,
not the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, usually spelt with a capital C.

extracts from my forthcoming book:
Trope 8: Language

One of the curious features which an impartial observer is likely to notice when first encountering cultural Marxism is its obsession with the topic of language. Any Critical Theory text worth its salt is almost certain to expound on this topic. Referencing the enigmas of linguistics in a work of literary criticism, especially if the name ‘Saussure’ is also mentioned, could almost function as the basic criterion of cultural Marxism.
   The purpose of invoking the mysteries of language appears to have more to do with exploiting uncertainty and confusion than with generating any genuine insights.

Promoting the culture-is-social perspective is relatively easy in the case of language. This is presumably one reason why references to the topic are popular with cultural Marxists.
   There are academic subjects which actually study the basic principles of language. The question of how combinations of sounds, or combinations of characters, can stand for (represent, refer to, signify) elements of reality, and the nature of the relationship between the signifier and what is signified, are problems that continue to baffle. This may be partly because those problems are intertwined with the problem of consciousness, which remains as intractable as it did four centuries ago. Our understanding of the fundamentals of language has advanced a little, but not much, during the history of the subject since the nineteenth century.
   Swiss humanities professor Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is often presented as a key figure in this history. However, it is not clear that his contributions in this area actually amount to much. Space is given to Saussure in textbooks on linguistics, but this seems to be primarily because he was the first to analyse language in a way that strongly emphasised its social aspects, and which provided other social theorists with the tools for promoting cultural collectivism. It is difficult to see his theories about the fundamentals of language as constituting genuine advances on which later linguisticians were able to build.
   The following trio of sub-tropes seems to have developed into a kind of mantra within the liberal arts:
• the idea that there is something mysterious, and intrinsically political, about the way language works;
• using terminology to discuss the topic of language in a way that engenders bewilderment rather than genuine comprehension;
• citing Ferdinand de Saussure.

Introductory texts on Critical Theory invariably give prominence to the language issue. The book Introducing Cultural Studies, for example, a sort of Critical Theory for Dummies, brings linguistics in right at the start. This in spite of the fact that, for the average reader, leaping into such abstruse theory at an early stage is surely neither necessary nor helpful.
To understand how cultural studies is done, we need to equip ourselves with a few of its key concepts and principles. A major concept in cultural studies is that of sign. A sign has three basic characteristics ...
   The physical form of the sign is known as the signifier ... what the sign refers to, its mental association, is known as the signified ...
   The theory of signs developed from the work of Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. He argued that language is a cultural phenomenon; and it generates meaning in a special way. Language produces meaning by a system of relationships, by producing a network of similarities and differences.
   Saussure’s followers developed a study of signs – semiotics – to establish the basic features of signs and explain the way they work in social life. [ICS, pp.10-11]
Saussure’s assertions about the social nature of language are used to make analogous sweeping claims about culture, society and politics – though it’s by no means clear that Saussure himself would have approved of this (ab)use of his ideas.
Signs are often organized as codes governed by explicit and implicit rules agreed upon by members of a culture or social group. A system of signs may thus carry encoded meanings and messages that can be read by those who understand the codes. A signifying structure composed of signs and codes is a text that can be read for its signs and encoded meanings.
   When the social and power relationships are examined, the historical forces shaping the text are understood.
   The combination of signs and significations is considered, and the general environment within which the text exists is recognized. [ibid, p.13]
* * * * *

The intellectual movement called ‘linguistic philosophy’, inspired by Cambridge philosophy don Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), was based on the claim that our understanding of reality is highly dependent on language. The extremer versions of this asserted that experience itself is impossible without language. Literature professor Terry Eagleton is clearly a fan of this perspective.
Husserl speaks of a purely private or internal sphere of experience; but such a sphere is in fact a fiction, since all experience involves language and language is ineradicably social. To claim that I am having a wholly private experience is meaningless: I would not be able to have an experience in the first place unless it took place in the terms of some language within which I could identify it ... [Literary Theory, p.52]
Eagleton exploits the fact that we have only limited understanding of how language conveys meaning. He uses our ignorance to make vague assertions which – conveniently – do not contradict any known facts. Such assertions do not have genuine informational content, but instead appear to have a propaganda purpose. The point, apparently, is to convey the sense that culture is primarily social, and not the product of individuals.
Dealing in grand generalities in the absence of facts, Eagleton is able to jump from one vague and unsupported claim (‘we cannot have meanings without language’) to another (an individual’s experience is ‘social to its roots’). Such claims are best seen as serving an emotional purpose rather than actual analysis.
The hallmark of the ‘linguistic revolution’ of the twentieth century, from Saussure and Wittgenstein to contemporary literary theory, is the recognition that meaning is not simply something ‘expressed’ or ‘reflected’ in language: it is actually produced by it.
   It is not as though we have meanings, or experiences, which we then proceed to cloak with words; we can only have the meanings and experiences in the first place because we have a language to have them in.
   What this suggests, moreover, is that our experience as individuals is social to its roots; for there can be no such thing as a private language ... [ibid, pp.52-53]
* * * * *

Attempts to shift emphasis away from individuals and towards a social model of culture may seem relatively easy in the case of language. However, it has also been attempted in relation to specific cultural products, such as novels and paintings. One of the most infamous exemplars of cultural Marxism is Roland Barthes’s idea of the death of the author, according to which a book is not the creation of its author but simply a ‘tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture’. The following extract from a Canadian university’s online literature course captures the idea quite well.
A number of arguments militate against a text being written by an intentional individual. The concept of the stable ego has been challenged — it has been suggested that ‘we’ are in fact processes of symbolization. The idea of ‘the individual’ has been seen as an ideological conception, a product of capitalist revolution in the seventeenth century.*
* * * * *

The obsession with language started to become prominent within cultural Marxism in the era of so-called ‘structuralism’ during the 1950s and 60s. The continuing centrality of the name Saussure seems to be partly a residue of that era.
   Here is one book’s take on how structuralism’s theory of language supposedly proves there is no self in the traditional sense, thus undermining the idea of the individual:
The self as a consistent entity enduring over time – an ‘inner essence’ that we always suppose to be there – evaporates into the conditions of language. [Introducing Critical Theory, p.67]
Let us briefly recall the political purpose behind cultural attempts to magic away the individual — whether by subordinating him/her to language, or by means of other intellectual devices. The point is to generate legitimacy for collectivism. Collectivism means: comprehensive rule by political and technocratic elites, supposedly in everyone’s best interests.
   The concept of the individual as an autonomous entity, with innate characteristics that vary from person to person, is an awkward obstacle for collectivism. Any theory which diminishes the significance of the individual is therefore highly attractive to collectivists.

* * * * *

The movement referred to as post-structuralism supposedly involved a rejection of some of the key dogmas of structuralism. On the issue of language, however, its agenda is essentially the same as that of structuralism. Here, for example, is a summary of the notoriously verbose Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralist theory of language:
Derrida argues that the standard conception of meaning in the West depends on an assumption of a ‘metaphysics of presence’, that is, the full meaning of a word is held to be ‘present’ to the speaker, or writer, in their mind, as they use it. He has named this assumption logocentrism  ...
   Such transparent presence of meaning can never be achieved, according to Derrida, because of the action of différance. He made up this word in French to describe the process by which meaning ‘slips’ in the act of transmission. Words always contain within themselves traces of other meanings than their assumed primary one. [ibid, pp.88-89]
The message is: language is very complicated; it doesn’t work the way you think it does; it’s beyond ordinary people to understand its mysteries; only cultural-Marxist experts can make sense of its enigmas.
   This kind of mystification is perfectly suited to blocking critique. ‘Not only are you, as a layman, insufficiently trained to be able to comprehend what is expressed by experts in social theory. You would not in any case be able to express any meaningful criticism of it, since language eludes your grasp. Give up, already!’

It is one of the paradoxes, or perhaps one should say hypocrisies, of cultural Marxism that its apparent preoccupation with understanding language and meaning is paralleled by a presentational style that, with few exceptions, is opaque at best and intentionally obscurantist at worst.
   Obfuscation is achieved via a number of strategies, of which boggling about language is only one. Another strategy involves the continual invention of new terminology, without anything new being said. This is apparently required in order to create the illusion that progress is being made in ‘research’ on social theory.

Applying a sociological perspective to the phenomena we are considering, the purpose of obfuscation, and of blocking potential criticism, can be assumed to be: to protect the academic class’s professional and ideological power.
   Whether the motivation at work is conscious or unconscious must be a matter for speculation. However, at times it is hard to avoid the conclusion that deliberate deception is involved.

part 1: introduction
part 2: terminology
part 3: ‘ideology’
part 4: which ideology is dominant?
part 5: ‘good’ and ‘evil’
part 6: ‘culture is a social product’
part 7: Language

* Brock University online English course notes, quoted in: Fabian Tassano, Mediocracy: Inversions and Deceptions in an Egalitarian Culture, Oxford Forum 2006, p.37.
Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (second edition), Blackwell 1996.
Z. Sardar and B. Van Loon, Introducing Cultural Studies, Icon Books 1997.
S. Sim and B. Van Loon, Introducing Critical Theory, Icon Books 2009.