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Niels Helsloot, 'Linguists of all countries ...!, On Gramsci's premise of coherence', in: Journal of Pragmatics 13, 1989, pp. 559-561.
Chapter 6, Charlatanism of the will (Vološinov), section 6.2.
© 1989, 2003 (posted with permission from Elsevier)



Using his concept of 'neology', Gramsci imputes a lack of historical vision to "all those Nietzschean charlatans in verbal revolt against all that exists, against conventionality, etc." (PN 369). Gramsci's Russian contemporary Valentin N. Vološinov illustrates such Nietzscheanism from an explicitly Marxist and linguistic point of view. [10] [p. 560:]
   Vološinov's theoretical position can be characterized by its relationship to Marr, whose theories were quite popular among Russian linguists of that time. Even more explicitly than Bartoli, Marr turns around the Neogrammarian goals by trying to show that there is not a single proto-language, but numbers of 'tribal languages': national languages are cross-bred, and the idea of their oneness remains a fiction. Language is always class language. Stalin (1950) put an end to the popularity of Marrism by promoting the view that dialects, as opposed to real languages, have no importance of their own. He idealized the unified language as a neutral means of communication. (And most of linguistics still confirms this image of fundamental unity.)
   For Vološinov, the unity of language is not essential. Nor can Marr's conception of 'tribal languages' guarantee class unity: it shows that language is fundamentally something alien, or foreign. Language exists in a continuous process of 'becoming'. It organizes the relationships between people. "Each and every word expresses the 'one' in relation to the 'other'" (1973: 86). In this process, understanding does not amount to recognition of 'the same' expression, but to attuning to its novelty – which calls for organicity. Isolated expressions occur "on the borders of the normal and the pathological" (p. 92). They are close to Gramsci's 'neologies'. Likewise, Vološinov's concept of 'behavioral ideology' is close to the uncritical and incoherent verbal knowledge that Gramsci holds responsible for political passivity. It is an unsystematic and loose aggregate of life experiences and expressions (p. 91). But Vološinov dismisses the idea of a 'critical' language outside this 'verbal' (or ideological) domain. The linguistic sign is a refracting and distorting medium, an arena of the class struggle (p. 23). Its individual and non-reproducible, unitary meaning (its 'theme') cannot be fixed like the abstract aspects of the utterance that are usually called meaning (pp. 99-106). This makes multiplicity of meaning a constitutive feature of language. As a prototype, the utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used. "And that is how it happens that meaning – an abstract self-identical element – is subsumed under theme and torn apart by theme's living contradictions so as to return in the shape of a new meaning with a fixity and self-identity only for the while, just as it had before." (p. 106).
   Every attempt to extinguish 'the class struggle within the sign' tends to safeguard the positions of leading groups, by neutralizing the meanings they have inscribed. Unorganized groups, therefore, should try to break down every illusion of unity, in order to interrupt the monopoly of ruling languages. Language is ideology; incoherence and struggle remain part of the organized, official systems of ideology such as art, ethics, and law. Whereas Gramsci [p. 561:] fights the strangeness of the alienating language of other, more powerful, groups, Vološinov accepts this otherness as fundamental to language, inasmuch as it is necessarily dialogical.

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p. 559   10.   The work of Vološinov is sometimes attributed to Mikhail Bakhtin (see on both: Todorov (1984) and Clark and Holquist (1984)).
   I shall not go into Nietzsche's own philological stance (cf. e.g. Nietzsche (1969)). The way he
p. 560 has been misused by fascism, however, should alarm us of philosophies of the 'pure' act. Vološinov stresses the importance of 'impurity', like Gramsci (and by the way Nietzsche himself). The same applies to Derrida, who, like other post-structuralist philosophers, explicitly relates his thought to Nietzsche's.

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