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Marxist Modes

MARXIST MODIS
lonathan Rea
1

Here is a tempting book* – a kind of teach-yourself
the new semiotics, a simple primer about Barthes,
Lacan and post-Althusserian Marxis m. I came
across it by accident, when I saw it peeping out of a
friend’s luggage. ‘It’s very good, ‘ I was told:

‘inspiring and clear ‘. I dipped into the book
cautiously – attempting, as Virginia Woolf once
advised, ‘to get the hang of the sentences’ and
‘trying a sentence or two on my tongue’. For a
start: ‘The emergence of mechanistic tendencies
from structuralist anal ses revealed its structuralism’s corn licit with the idealism of bour eois
ideology’ (2-3). Something worried me about this
one. It has a sharp flavour when you roll it round
your mouth: ‘complicity with idealism’ sounds like
the language of a state trial; and the menacing reference to ‘mechanistic tendencies’ reminds me of the
righteous agents of Law, Order and Decency closing
in on some furtive deviant. Over a few pages, I
paused again: ‘In spite of the radical potentiality of
structuralist thou ht therefore there remains the
danger of thinking of an immanent structure … ‘ 21).

This has less of forensic acid, perhaps, but it
evokes similar associations of smug authority; in
fact it reminded me of school reports nervously
delivered up to mother and father: ‘in spite of
Jonathan’s undoubted potential, there remains a
danger that • .. etc’.

Both these sentences struck me as having a strong
flavour of manicheis m: they are the sort of announcements that are made by people who live in a simple
world of pure virtue and unrelieved vice, of god and
the devil; they made me expect that the authors of
Language and Materialis m were going to try and set
me on the true and only Path of Radical Potentiality,
hurrying me past the enticing side tracks leading to
idealism, bourgeois ideology or immanent structures, where persons of mechanistic tendencies lie
in wait.

But this is supposed to be a theoretical work, not an
anthology of aphorisms. It is a guidebook to an
intellectual synthesis advocated by some Parisian
intellectuals (notably Julie Kristeva and Philippe
Sollers) over the last ten years. The nouveau
melange which it advertises has a variety of names:

‘the new semiotics’, ‘neo-structuralism’, ‘discourse
theory’ and ‘theory of the subject’, amongst others.

The purpose of Language and Materialis m is to make
out the claim that this mixture of ideas, taken from
the psychology of Lacan, the literary theory of
Barthes, and (with a pinch of salt) the social theory
of Althusser, is the legitimate heir and successor
not only to the dynasties of psychoanalysis,
founded by Freud, and structuralism, founded by
Saussure, but also to the dynasty of dialectical and
historical materialism, founded by Marx. A settlement which united these houses would be momentous
*

2

RosalindCowardandJohnEllis, Language and Materialism -Developments
in Semiology and the Theory of the Subject, Routledge and Kegan Paul,
1977, 0-7100-8620-2 (cloth) £4.50; 0-7100-8627-X (paper) £2.25.

Thanks to Wendy Hollway, Jean McCrindle, David Murray, Rip Bulkeley,
Kate Soper, and especially Jim Hopkins.

indeed. Let us see how it is proposed to arrange it.

ONE: MARXISM AND THE SYNTHESIS
OF LACAN AND BARTHES
2

The tradition to which the new semiotics stands
closest is that of structuralism, whose origins are
said to lie in Saussure’s linguistics – especially
(a) in the concept of langue,meaning a whole system
of signs, whose entire structure of reciprocal
(‘diacritical ‘) differentiation is necessary to confer
meaning on any particular, token utterance
(parole); and (b) in the concept of the doubleness of
signs – with a visible or audible face (the signifier)
and an inner meaning (the signified). (The signified
is the sense represented by the signifier.) Some
historians trace the whole history of 20th century
linguistics to these inventions of Saussure ‘s; and
many writers (notably Levi-strauss) have seen
Saussurian linguistics as the model for the social
sciences. The connection is made by seeing all
human actions – non-linguistic as well as linguistic as representing, in a sense, meanings, which presuppose a total structure of actual or possible
actions, a kind of societal langue. In very general
terms – in its dualism between a ‘social-world’ of
meanings and reasons, and a natural world of
mechanisms and causes – this way of thinking has
mingled with some of the softer elements of AngloAmerican sociology; through the works of Sartre,
Laing and Cooper it has entered .many areas of
English com.mon sense and ordinary language; and,
at another extreme, it connects both with phenomen-·
ology and with the anti-naturalistic philosophies of
social science of, for instance, Winch and
MacIntyre. Roughly (~roughly, as you will see
in section 4, below), this liaison was authorised by
Saussure himself, who foresaw that his linguistics
might one day be incorporated into a general science
of signs in society – an unborn science for which he
earmarked the name ‘semiotics’.

The proble.m which (according to Coward and Ellis’s
version of history at least) obstructed the development of structuralist social science was that of ‘the
subject’. Traditional structuralism (they say) always
presented structures as if they existed objectively,
outside the individual. Individual subjectivity was
placed beyond the pale of possible explanation, or
even (with Althusserian ruthlessness) annihilated
altogether. The new theory of the subject; according
to Coward and Ellis, welcomes individual subjectivity back inside the portals of social science, not by
abjuring structuralis m, but by undertaking to explain
subj ectivity as an effect of structures. For Coward
and Ellis, the pioneer of this revision of structuralis m is Roland Barthes, especially in his corn mentary on Balzac’s short story ‘Sarrasine (~197 0).

In this book, Barthes tried to corrode the ‘readerly’

ideas that writing, especially fiction, is a matter of
an author thinking up characters and writing a story

about them which is to be passively ingested by a
gormless reader. In truth, says Barthes, the
effects of literature are produced by the reader
rather than the author; the text does not originate in
the author but in the functioning of language as a
transindividual structure; and the seeming naturalness of the characters and stories of realist fiction
is an illusion. The realism of classical literature is
thus, according to Barthes, a baroque subterfuge of
inauthenticity: it claims to be the most natural,
sincere and honest mode of writing, but is in fact
the height of artifice; it practices an art that conceals
the artificiality of human subjectivity – that of
author, reader, and fictional character alike – by
disguising the arbitrariness of language; and in this
sense, it is a ‘political’ activity, and a reactionary
one at that.

All of this, and Barthes’ detailed sentence-bysentence commentary on Balzac’s story, seems to
me to be to a large degree substantial and intelligible. But Barthes himself does not, I believe, offer
any large, schematic generalities about the nature
of ‘readerly’ writing. Coward and Ellis, however,
following one or two scattered hints in Barthes, try
to make good this deficiency: the feature of classical
or realist writers, they say, is that they presuppose
‘an identity between signifier and signified’ (49).

With this suggestion about the essential error of all
realist writers, I find .myself, I must admit, in dire
difficulties.

But Coward and Ellis always try to be attentive
guides, extending a helpful hand whenever they think
I may be getting stuck. This is just such an occasion,
and they offer a whole range of paraphrases to help
me out. With realist writers, they explain,
‘language is treated as though it stands in for ..• the
real world ‘; or again, it is seen as ‘identical with
the real world’. ‘The business of realist writing is’ ,
they continue, ‘to be the equivalent of reality, to
i.mitate it’; and for the realist, finally, ‘the word is
identical to, the equivalent of, the real world’ (47).

How could I ask for more lifelines, and all of them
compressed within the compass of a single paragraph? But surely – I soon notice – aren’t they all
tangled together, and pulling me in opposite directions? My initial difficulty was that I couldn’t see
how realist writers could be said to identify signifier and signified; and when the well-intentioned
rescue party tells me that this .means that realists
confuse words with the world, and take words and
world to be ‘identical’, and ‘equivalent’, and on top
of this that they see words as ‘imitations’ of the
world, then I simply have to tell them to go away
and leave me to my own devices. I asked for an
explanation of a proposition about signifiers and
signifieds, and I was given a set of obscure and
probably incompatible formulations about words and
the world – two relations which, whilst no doubt
connected, are far from being identical. Can it be
that our guides, in their scorn for the realists’

supposed error of identifying signifier and signified,
have themselves made the error of identifying
‘signifier’ with ‘words’ and ‘signified’ with ‘the
world’? (In the same way, perhaps that they
conflate langue, paradigm and synchrony, and
parole, syntagm and diachrony in an extraordinary
farrago on page 14).

. Be that as it may, I find my guides worse than useless in rescuing me from the incomprehension in

which their attempt to schematise Barthes on
realism landed me. So I extricate myself unaided,
and retrace my footsteps for a while; and as I do so,
I distract my mind from gloomier thoughts by considering the tough question of why Language and
Materialis m – which is, after all, an attempt to tell
me, as simply and briefly as possible, the basic
facts about the achievements of Barthes and others should not itself succumb to its authors’ general
disdain for realist writing.

3

The next task for Coward and Ellis is to introduce
the second ingredient of the nouveau melange structuralist psychoanalysis. For some forty years,
the French analyst Jacques Lacan has been trying to
blend Saussure’s terminology (especially the
signifier-signified distinction) with Freudian psychology, on the one hand in the notion that the unconscious is ‘structured like a language’ (a notion
rendered particularly obscure to me by Lacan’s
associated doctrine that the unconscious is, in
effect, only half a language, in that it co.mprises
signifiers, but not signifieds), and on the other hand
in a theory about the relation between languagelearning and the formation of the ego. It is on the
latter that Coward and Ellis concentrate.

Freud’s theory was that a child’s ego is for.med as
a result of a series of narcissistic identifications,
especially with parent-figures, in which what is at
stake is always the child’s sexuality, which in turn
is organised around his possession (or her lack) of
a seemingly unimportant appurtenance, a penis.

Syste.matic psychic differences between men and
women are ascribed by Freud to this Oedipal process of ego-for.mation, since the process can never
be properly completed, according to him, by
nor.mal women.

Lacan accepts this story, and elaborates it by distinguishing two turning points in the child’s progress towards possession of an adult, male ego.

The first initiates a ‘mirror phase’, when a rudimentary ego is formed on the basis of the child’s
perception of his own image: this takes place, says
Lacan, at a private, inarticulable, non-universalisable, pre-rational, a-linguistic ‘level’ – that of
imagination. This mirror-phase ego, however, is
no sooner established than it is disrupted and transcended by the onset of the Oedipus complex, in
which the child forms a much more sophisticated,
but simultaneously more elusive, kind of ego – this
time, through language. The oedipal ego identifies
itself (fallaciously of course, and, for that matter,
phallaceously too) as the originator of the meanings
of its words, including the word ‘I’; it sees itself as
a kind of horizon at which the parallel lines of
signifier and signified appear to meet. It is on this
basis that, as’Lacan puts it, the child manages to
make its way into the realm of the ‘symbolic’ (as
distinct from the imaginary): the world of culture,
reason, words and – ab yes – the phallus – the latter
being, according to Lacan (though I don’t know his
reasons or evidence), the all powerful signifier-inchief. Thus Lacan lends his authority to the view
that this item (or perhaps a phantasy representation
of it?) is a passport to the adult world. Bad news
for little girls •
I am in no position to tell whether Lacan’s elaborations are an improvement on Freud’s original
3

theory of the formation of the ego; nor do I know
how they compare to rival post-Freudian accounts.

I am told that .most psychoanalysts are hostile to
Lacan, but perhaps that should be put down to
professional conservatis.m. It is possible to formulate some a priori doubts about his concepts,
however – first, as to Lacan’s presentation of the
distinction and relation between the imaginary and
symbolic realms (for instance, is a pre-symbolic
imagination in fact a coherent postulate ?), and
secondly as to the monocausal obsession which leads
Lacan to discount all non-linguistic factors in the
formation of the Oedipal ego. (For an amusing cold
douche on Lacan and Lacanianism, see Richard
Wollheim’s review article in New York Review of
Books XXV 21-2, January 1979.) But on the whole
the question of Lacan ought to be settled by clinical
practice rather than armchair speculation; and
Coward and Ellis seem excessively charitable to
Lacan in simply going along with his magisterial
confidence in his own speculations, and with his
habit of refusing to study alternative analytical
theories.

4

Coward and Ellis now approach a more delicate
stage in their work: the link-up between Lac an ‘s
account of the formation of the ego, and Barthes’

account of classical realist fiction. Both of these
coincide (so they seem to argue) in a ‘theory of the
subject’ which defines subjectivity as the effect of
sO.me doomed-to -failure attempt to unite signifier
and signified. Here, the difficulties for the Cowardand-Ellis synthesis begin to rain down ominously;
and I believe that this is only the harbinger of a
worse storm to come. Apart fro.m assuming that the
doctrines they find in Barthes and Lacan are beyond
reasonable doubt, Coward and Ellis blithely neglect
both the specificity of what each of their authorities
writes and the particularity of the traditions to which
they belong.

Lacan’s speculations on the role of language and the
Oedipus co.mplex in the formation of the ego are not whatever their merits – a universal account of
‘subjectivity’. For subjectivity is not the same as
the ego – as Lac an ‘s own references to preOedipal, prelinguistic forms of subjectivity testify.

In psychoanalytic theory, the ego is not the only
formation within the personality; and anyway, once
a description of its general form has been given, the
task remains of accounting for its particular contents in different groups and individuals. Coward and
Ellis ignore all this in order to forge ahead with
their supersynthesis.

They behave similarly with Barthes’ reflections on
realism in classical French literature, telling us
4

that realism, as analysed by Barthes, dO.minates
,the mole of ‘traditional criticis.m’ (43); indeed, it
is ‘the nor.mal mode of writing’; it is the same as
‘mimesis’ (47); they even allege, unless I have misunderstood, that it is co-extensive with ‘Western
thought’; and then they ste~nly pronounce it to have
been ‘exposed in its complicity with forms of
thought specific to Western society’ (33). (And if
that be a crime who – by the way – shall then escape
whipping?) By thus abstracting from Barthes’

analysis of ‘Sarrasine’, Coward and Ellis satisfy
themselves that they can herd all representations
of subjectivity in Western literature into two manichean pens: ‘realism’ (Bad) and ‘the nouveau roman’

(A Good Thing). I can’t help wondering how much
light this can be expected to throw on poems, plays,
myths or music -dramas.

With the positions of Barthes and Lacan thoroughly
rinsed of particularity in this way – the theory of
ego formation passed off as a theory of subjectivity
in general, the theory of French classical literature
as a theory of Western literature in general Coward and Ellis attempt to link the.m together.

The project see.ms unpro.mising. To my ears at any
rate the crashing of· .machinery and ripping of gear
teeth when they approach each other is agonising,
though not one of the four ears of Coward and Ellis
see.m to detect anything a.miss. The effect is most
noticeable when observed from the vantage point of
geography and chronology. For .mercilessly as they
stretch Barthes’ elasticated analysiS of ‘Sarrasine’,
it will never cover the same time or space as
Lacan’s analYSis of the formation of the ego. Even
supposing Barthes’ analysis to have been successfully generalised to cover all the literatures of
‘Western societies’, that still leaves o.ut peoples
without written literatures, not to mention societies
in ‘the East’, or for that matter, the South: all of
which psychoanalysis, in its attempts to define the
necessary conditions for the formation of human
personality, claims to take into account. This,
surely, indicates a rather serious gap between
Lacan and Barthes.

Given a little more rope to play with, however,
Coward and Ellis may, perhaps, be able to tie up
their authors more firmly. Recall, first, that Lacan
considers that the for.mation of the ego (if not of
‘subjectivity’) is based on language; notice, next,
that the French literature dealt with by Barthes in
his study of realism and subjectivity is also language; then, surely, you can see that Lacan approaches
ego formation, as Barthes approaches subjectivity,
from the point of view of language. What a coincidence! Surely, this gives Coward and Ellis the extra
rope they need – in a worri, ‘language’.

There are problems, however. In the first place,
the language perceived by the pre-Oedipal child of
Lacan’s theory is presumably everyday speech,
rather than the carefully wrought writing of French
classical literature. Or do the infant subjects of
Lacanian therapy have to read Balzac in order to
induce the onset of an Oedipus complex? Actually,
Coward and Ellis seem not to suppose so; instead,
they attempt to reduce the literary arts, indeed art
in general, to (spoken) language, as analysed by
Saussure. They inform us, with a disarming air of
stating the obvious, that ‘Art is a practice of
language’ (35). Now whilst there are important
differences between understanding arts and understanding languages (for instance, you cannot trans-

late fro.m one art into another), there are also profound and fertile analogies. (For an acute discussion
of art and language, see Nelson Goodman ‘s Languages
of Art, second edition, 1976.) Indeed, the existence
of such analogies is implicit in Saussure’s notion of
se.miotics. But there is an important difference:

Saussure envisaged linguistics as a sub-discipline
within a general science of signs, not as its foundation. He did not .make the gratuitous· and grotesque
assumption that the conceptual apparatus of linguistics could be .moved into non-linguistic domains
(such as .most of the arts) and applied there as if
there were no difference. For Coward and Ellis,
however, ‘Art’ (in general) simply ‘is a practice of
language ‘; and this – if it is to mean what they wish
it to .mean (that everything that needs to be said
about art can be expressed in ter.ms of linguistics) will come as a surprise, and an offensive piece of
petty-discipline-chauvinism, not only to creative
writers but also to co.mposers, choreographers,
architects, designers, producers, photographers,
instrumentalists, singers, dancers, directors,
conductors, mimes, etc; and it certainly won’t help
the.m to identify something called ‘bourgeois realism’

in their own tradition. Perhaps it would be kinder
not to give Coward and Ellis the extra rope after all.

5

Strange bedfellows, then, Lacan’s theory of the
formation of the Oedipal ego and Barthes’ account of
classical French literature; and it is hard not to
admire the audacity with which our cheerful
marriage-brokers cajole their third client, Marxism.”
into cla.mbering in alongside the first two. ·This
‘Marxis m’, however, is rather different fro.m the
character who.m we may have associated with the
name in the past; he is extremely youthful, agile,
and broad-minded, not to say rakish: he has cast
aside those rigid, puritanical dog.mas of ‘econo.mic
determinism’ which used to make him such dreary
company. Can it be the same ‘Marxism’ we used to
know? And if so, what has wrought this marvellous
change?

According to Coward and Ellis, it is the same Marxism; but his distressing econo.mic-deter.minism
complex has been completely cured. The cure has
had two phases. First, under Dr Althusser, Marxism was brought round to the recognition that social
for.mations have three eternally preformed ‘levels’ the political, the economic, and the ideological – all
interacting in easy-going reciprocity. There ensued
a period when Marxism relished this new-found freedo.m, cheerfully reciting the discovery that its
‘levels’ were ‘relatively autonomous’, though still
obsessively harping on the idea that the economic
was ‘deter.mining in the last instance’. But this
healthy period was not destined to last, for before
long Althusser’s ban on ‘the subject’ began to cause
unforeseen problems. So began the second stage of
Marxism’s cure: now under the care of cineaste and
semiologist Christian Metz, Marxis.m was led to the
liberating acceptance of a hitherto repressed fourth
level within itself, a level to which Althusser’s
therapy had been blind. This was the level of
language, of ‘Signifying practice’ – the very level at
which, according to the new se.miotics, subjectivity
is made! From now on, surely all will be well with
Marxis.m! How distant those anguished days of
obsessive economic determinism seem now!

But let us check over the argument. Coward and
Ellis tell us that language is neither base nor

superstructure, and that it cannot be located’ at any
of the three ‘levels’ of social reality. Next they
point out that ‘language is an active (and perhaps
vital) constitutive part of social relations ‘; further,
it has ‘a reality of its own’, and ‘this reality is
material’ • Then they pull out their conclusion:

‘It ‘is for these reasons that it is necessary to
propose the process of language as a fourth
practice’ (80).

That this argument is absurd can, I think, be easily
seen. What could be· more material, real and
constitutive than sexual activity? Surely we must
acknowledge a fifth level! Or eating? A sixth!

Drinking and drugging? A likely seventh!!! And,
for good measure, singing and danCing, perhaps?

An eighth level! Co.mrades may like to amuse
the.mselves during meetings by seeing who can think
of the most original new ‘levels’ of the social
for.mation.

6

However many ‘levels’ Marxism .may have – if
indeed it is built on that design at all – it is, quite
centrally, a theory about the place of capitalis.m in
history, and was intended, in particular, to show
that capitalis.m contains the seeds of socialism.

It was on this basis that Marx and other 19th-century
marxists layed into fellow socialists for being
utopian, unhistorical, undialectical, idealistic, or
unscientific. For Coward and Ellis, in contrast,
Marxis.m is, above all, the opposite of ‘bourgeois
ideology’ – a pheno.menon to which, they believe,
the new semiotics holds the keys. But as they discourse about it a most disconcerting effect occurs;
bourgeois ideology is seen spreading like a great
stain over acres and acres of the fabric of history:

it engulfs all ‘naturalistic’ modes of thought, the
whole of ‘Western culture’, the entirety of
‘ideology’ and even of ‘co.mmon language’. It
contaminates the whole of everyone’s thought processes in Western society, regardless of class: all
thought – sorry, ‘Western thought’ – capitalist and
precapitalist, aristocratic, bourgeois, petty
bourgeois, peasant, artisan and proletarian, liberal,
socialist and fascist is e.mbraced by this hospitable
notion of ‘bourgeois ideology’.

My present point is not to dispute that the new
semiotics provides a theory of ‘Western culture’ ,
or to deny to Coward and Ellis the right to set up
shop in competition with the entirety of that imposing institution (though I know where I shall take my
custom if forced to choose). My point is, rather,
first to deplore the imprecision of referring to it
all as ‘bourgeois ideology’, and secondly, to
express wonder that, having done so, they should
then enter the unedifying squabble for that not
untarnished title, ‘Marxism’. Why do they not
abandon ‘Marxis m’, with its three levels, four
levels or no levels at all, along with the rest of
‘Western thought’ – with which it does, after all,
have certain affiliations – perhaps, even, as
Coward and Ellismight put it, some ‘co.mplicity’?

The bridge to Coward and Ellis’ interest in being
considered ‘Marxists’ is the word ‘radical’, which,
too, they define as the opposite of ‘bourgeois
ideology’ and ‘Western thought’. The horizons of
French thought are scanned for signs of ‘radical
potentiality’ as many as four times on a single
page (123). The ‘radical potentiality’ of the new
structuralis m lies in its unmasking of the idea of
5

individ’lJal subjectivity – the idea which has contaminated classical French literature, or rather
Western thought, or rather ideology in general,
or rather the necessary structure of the personality
ever since language began: in short, what Coward
and Ellis call ‘bourgeois ideology’. Their ‘politics’

is ‘radical’ because it ai.ms to epater this ubiquitous bourgeoisie. It is a ‘politics’, not of support for
any movements stirring within existing society, but
of antagonism to them all: it is a politics, perhaps,
of situationism, or surrealism, or, better, of
existentialism.

The ‘radicalism’ of Coward and Ellis is existentialist not just in the general sense that it is oppOsed to ‘

almost everything that exists, but also in its belief
that if it can be de.monstrated that bourgeois individualism is. ‘artificial’, and in this sense a human
creation, then one can draw the conclusion that it
can be changed – which is surely the same solecism
which disfigured the young Sartre’s paeans to
‘freedom’. Thus we are told that radical semiologists have demonstrated that ‘what appears to be
unchangeable is humanly created and can be recreated in ce.rtain directions’ (32). This insipid
equation of artificiality with alterability, and the
refusal to recognise that what is humanly created
might, for all that, be unchangeable, appears to be
Coward and Ellis’s chief claim to ‘radicalism’.

Surely, if the pessi.mistic patriarchs they claim to
serve – Freud and Marx – were alive today, they
would be turning in their graves! !

r,–rHE.Y

WOUL”Dr”rT
HA”D

-ro

U~E. IHEM LON< YJoR:DS

CL.t:AN

uP

IF" THE'i

Af"-reRwAR.'DS 11

TWO: PHILOSOPHY AND THE
NOUVEAU MELANGE
7

So far, I have expressed so.me doubts about the first
two ingredients of the nouveau melange – structuralist literary theory and structuralist revisions of
psychoanalysis (2 and 3); I have also argued that they
don’t fit together well (4); finally, I have suggested
that their third ingredient, which they call
‘Marxism’, is – for better or for worse – not the
genuine article. But my criticis.ms have been
sporadic and ad hoc; they might, I suppose, turn
out to be based on misunderstandings. So let us
6

assume, for the sake of argument, that Coward and
Ellis are right, and that the new semiotics really
does furnish the basis for a merger between psychoanalysis, structuralism and historical and dialectical
.materialism. This leaves another question: is the
new, synthetic theory actually true?

Most of the devices which Coward and Ellis employ
to persuade us of the truth of their synthesis are,
in a strict sense of the word, philosophical: they
comprise, first of all, so.me arguments about
dialectical materialism (8); then a philosophical
criticism of Hegel (9); and then a philosophical disquisition on ‘economic determinism’ (10). Let us
look at these argu.ments.

8

Coward and Ellis begin ‘with what are, technically,
dogmatic philosophical argu.ments. Just like the
authors of Stalinist textbooks of ‘marxist philosophy’

in the 1930s and t 940s (and since), they frame their
discussions in a traditional philosophical vocabulary,
and specifically in ter.ms of a dualism between ‘meta~
physics’ and ‘dialectics’ and an intersecting dualis.m
of ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’. Although this
vocabulary is surely a main part of what Coward and
Ellis dismiss elsewhere, with lofty disdain, as ‘the
language of Western metaphysics’ (123), they
embrace it here with a frank and wholehearted
exuberance. Next they assume that Truth resides in
Marxism, and that therefore its arbiter must be as they put it – ‘the philosophy of Marxism, whose
lesson of dialectical materialism stresses precisely
[preCisely?] process’ (4). Now listen.to the deadening bloWs of the ;following credo:

To analyse the structure without the subject can
only be a form of metaphysical materialism; to
analyse language without its object can· only be
idealism; and to analyse ideology without
language will only ever be .mechanical
materialism (92).

This method of argument see.ms to .me to have nothing to recommend it; at least not without so.me
explanation why we should go on listening to the
‘lessons’ of that frightful old pedagogue, self-styled
‘the philosophy of Marxism’. We should surely
inspect his credentials, and be suspicious about the
fact that his lessons are always couched in premarxist vocabulary, and that they have never
changed in spite of decades of philosophical inquiry
since he set up his school. But Coward and Ellis
seem to trust him completely. This is particularly
surprising in view of their strictures not only on
‘Western .metaphysics’ but also on ‘naturalistic’ and
‘realist’ views of language. For it is a mistake, they
tell us, to think that the relations of words to concepts (signifiers to signifieds) are ever a simple
matter of one-to-one, once-for-all correspondence;
on the contrary, they .may ‘slide’ against each other.

I agree. But what .more crass example of such a
mistake could there be than Coward and Ellis’s
supposition that every alternative to the new semiology can be consigned to oblivion as soon as it has
had the words ‘.mechanical’, ‘metaphysical’, or
‘idealist’ pinned to it? (Curious too, to find Coward
and Ellis writing about ‘.materialist processes’

(2, 86, 91), as though materialism were a property
of the world rather than of world-views. Perhaps
this is an example, if anything could be, of the
confusion between word and world of which they
accuse realist novelists! ).

9

The gravest danger that Coward and Ellis see lurking about the groves of Philosophy is idealism:

‘idealism, with its vision of things as isolated,
static, and unchangeable’ (83); such idealist propo …

sitions, we are warned, ‘underlie the fundamental
assumption of bourgeois ideology, with its necessityl
will to present society as consisting of “free” individuals, whose social determination results from
their pre-given essences’ (2). These are eccentri’c
definitions of idealism, excluding as they do the
systematic collectivism of Hegelianism – for which
individuals depend for their identity entirely on
either the family, civil society, or the state. This
exclUSion, however, seems to be inadvertent, for
Hegel is, to Coward and Ellis, the most notorious,
unrepentant and died-in-the-wool idealist ever to
have lain in wait for nice, normal materialists.

Lacan’s constant references to Hegel might give us
pause, but Coward and Ellis are swift to reassure us
that, in spite of appearances, Lacan’s theory is
‘grounded in materialism’ (8); and we are reminded,
in a rather sharp tOne, that ‘the dialectic of desire
as it appears in Lacan is in no way comparable to
Hegelian idalism’ (108); and also instructed,
tetchily (and with a conspicuous lack of dialectical
imagination), that Lacan’s reading of Freud is ‘in
every way ••• opposed to idealism, and cannot therefore contribute to that idealism which serves
existing society’ (95).

It is impossible not to feel a prurient curiosity now

as to what that respectable old professor actually
got up to, and why the mere mention of his name
should produce such a chorus of shocked tut-tutting
amo~gst all right-thinking ‘radicals’. The .mol3t
explicit statement Cowa;:”d and Ellis Touchsafe us is
this:

Hegel’s idealist problematic proposed that the
necessity of moyement was engendered from an
initial unresolvable gesture: the Idea. The process is then one of simple development or
logical progression. .. The dialectic is
convergent on a defined conjuncture ••. and
the subject is an entity whose identity of self
is already completed. .• The Hegelian
dialectic is then purely logical, linear and
hierarchical (84).

Coward and Ellis use this description of Hegel’s
work as a foil to set off the ‘philosophy’ which they
wish to recommend – a ‘philosophy’ which, in contrast to (what they take to be) Hegelianism, ‘has no
full stop, or centre’ (20).

The use of this metaphor of ‘decentering’ to criticise
Hegel is, I believe, due to the influence of
Althusser’s well-known remarks about ‘the marxist
dialectic’. It seems to me, however, that despite
this august authority, it remains a mere metaphor,
with no theoretical bite – however menacingly and
repetitively it may be chanted.

The reason is, that ‘dialectics’ means – if it means
anything – the attempt to explain changes in terms of
the processes by which a system (whether natural,
SOCial, philosophical, or of any other kind) adjusts
to internally generated conflicts, instabilities, or
contradictions. A dialectical theory, in other words,
must by definition specify sbme kind of conflict
within a system and present tIE process with which
it is concerned as an attempt to resolve it. And a
moment’s reflection should suffice to make it obvious
that any dialectical theory will lend itself to expres-

sion in terms of a description of the system when the
conflict is played out, stable equilibrium achieved,
and the process in question, therefore, at an end.

If the dialectical theory is about subject and object,
then you can express it by describing the stasis of a
subject-object unity; if it is about communal organisation and private property, then you can express
it by describing communism; if it is about bourgeoisie and proletariat, you can express it by describing
a classless society. Of course, you may also thipk
that the process you are describing will never co.me
to an end – that it will constantly renew itself, or be
interfered with by other processes. In that case,
you will not believe that a state of equilibrium, unity
or non-contradictoriness will actually be aChieved,
and you will regard descriptions of such states· as
– like many scientific state.ments – idealisations.

Even so, the fact re.mains that, if you are proposing
a dialectical theory, then you can express it by
reference to what Coward and Ellis call ‘a full stop,
a centre’; and. that this is a necessary property of
any dialectical theory, regardless of whether it is to
be characterised by the threadbare epithets of
‘materialist’ or ‘idealist’. To talk of a dialectical
theory which is ‘decentred’ is not to make any contribution to the theory of dialectics; at best, it is to
make a bald, empirical, c~ackerbarrel statement
about how complicated, interactive, or interminable,
the processes of this world are. That isn’t philosophy; it~s· more like cookery.

10
Coward and Ellis are more cooks than philosophers
in the sense that they offer their precepts not on the
basis of argument, but by offering assurances that
their method somehow produces the best results.

You tenderise your concepts of causality, slice your
social formations into four sections, and plunge your
Hegel-heads into boiling salt-water. Here is a
typical tip from their book:

To avoid idealism, the emphasis should be on
one dividing into two rather than the logic of
two fused into one – the latter being a logic
which characterises and gives an idealist
form to tpe’1hanical m::iteri~]jsm (88).

I am not sure how Coward and Ellis would argue
with people who did not wish to avoid idealism, or
with lOgicians who would say that their diSCipline
does not deal in propositiOns of this kind. But one
does not even have to venture into the realms of
theory to see what a fatuity their advice is. ‘The
emphasis should be on one dividing into two’, they
say. But what if two do in fact fuse into one? What
if water combines with sulphur dioxide or fat with
flour? Where should the ’emphasis ‘. be then? Does
that refute Coward and Ellis’s logic? Or vice-versa?

But perhaps the principle is supposed to be practical
rather. than theoretical: in fact I believe it was first
propounded by Mao as a way’ of claiming ‘dialectical
materialist’ respectability for going against Stalin’s
advice and splitting with the Kuomintang. But what
is the scope of the advice? Does it mean we should
advocate streaming in schools, apartheid, division
between boys and girls in education and so on?

Perhaps not, but so baldly presented I don’t see how
it can fail to bear such constructions as well as any
others.

Coward and Ellis make their most sustained
attempt at philosophical argument in the pages where
they take on ‘economic determinism’. Their suggestion is that marxists should put a larger measure of
‘ideological practice’ and a smaller measure of
7

‘economic practice’ into their historical .materialism. They first tell us gravely of the days when
‘ideological practice’ was ‘referred to as being
merely a “system of ideas”, “false consciousness”
etc.’ (68). But these, they continue, were ‘crude
ideas’, owing to the extreme youth of Marx and
Engels when they wrote The German Ideolo . Next
we are informed that ‘the dialectical materialist
idea that the production of representations necessarily entails the production of subjects for these
representations has only been developed occasionally by such writers as Brecht, Mao and Althusser’.

Let us take their word for it that this obscure proposition deserves a medal ‘for dialectical materialism’, and that its ancestry can be traced to Mao and
Brecht; still it is surely time Coward and Ellis gave
us some argument for its truth. But what comes
next? ‘We assert that it is only psychoanalysis which
has· gone any way to analysing the formation of the
subject’. Apart from the fact that, to be consistent
with their last sentence but three, they will have to
make the (surely difficult) case that Brecht was a
psychoanalytic theorist and the (harder) case that
Mao was one too, we asked for an argument, and
they only gave us an assertion. But relax. Is this
the argument coming along at last?:

. The importance of understanding ideological
practice in the way suggested by the articulation
of Marxism and psychoanalysis is very great.

The politics which flow from radical and Marxist
thought can then be free from any economic
determinism. that is. the idea that economic
practice is more i.mportant than political or
ideological processes in the social process.

As long as Marxists still think of ideological
practice as somehow subservient to the econo.my
(as a ‘super-structure’ built on the economic
‘base ‘), then their politics will always stress
the economy as the principal deter.minant, and
see economic crisis as the principal (or only)
cause of social crisis (69).

Practices, processes, importances, subserviences,
principal determinants, only causes: what a motley
collection of ill-defined categories! Constructing a
theoretical argument from materials like this will
be like trying to build a snowperson out of slush!

And in any case, the argument is going round in
tedious circles. Coward and Ellis take the trouble
to tell us that politiCians who believe in economic
determinism are likely to concentrate their work on
‘econo.mic practice’; but they seem to overlook the
fact that, for all we have heard so far, these
politicians may be right to do so! Next we hear that
Engels himself was against economic determinism,
but this can hardly carry much weight given that
Engels has been unceremoniously dressed down for
his ‘crude ideas’ earlier on the same page. And that
is all.

Except, that is, for an illustration. The Chinese
cultural revolution, we learn, shows the fallaciousness of ‘economic determinism’. China, it appears,
.is a country where ‘the outcome of ideology would
determine the whole form of Chinese society .. .

The recognition of the determinacy of ideology .. .

is the core 0 f the difference between China and
Russia’ (70). Why don’t Coward and Ellis discuss
Lenin’s Cultural Revolution?; and why don’t they
enter into a debate with those historians (not all of
the.m ‘economic determinists’, surely) who would
attribute to different organisations of peasant landholding, different soil and crops, different transport
8

systems, or different levels and distributions of
industry, some part in ‘the core of the difference
between China and Russia’? Such an analysis might
not enable you to be immediately ‘rid of any
econo.mic deter.minism’, but might it not, for all
that, be true?

Coward and Ellis come back to the question of China
a couple of pages further on.

In China, another revolution in ideology is
taking place, overthrowing ideas of delegation,
manage.ment. the handing over of power to
‘representatives’ or ‘responsible individuals’,
ideas which are the keystone of capitalist
production relations and bourgeois democracy.

They are repla ced with ideas of collective
deciSion-making, of active thinking by all the
people, summed up in the ideas of ‘philosophy
In the factory’, ‘philosophy is no mystery’

etc. (72).

There are of course still some historians who would
wish to place exploitation, the wage relation, proletarianisation, industrialisation or abstract labour
so.mewhere in the vicinity of the ‘keystone’ of
capitalism; but Coward and Ellis see.m to believe
that they have left these poor scribbling hacks far
behind. Might they not nevertheless consider the
proposition that the ‘idea’ of collective decisionmaking, so widely publicised in China, may in fact
conceal the true power relations? I am not asserting
that this is so ; merely wondering how their revamped ‘dialectical materialism’ can make them so
sure that it is not.

11
Upon examination, Coward and Ellis’s sophisticated
philosophical argu.ment against economic deter.minism turns out to be neither sophisticated nor,philosophical; nor does it, so far as I can see, contain
argument as opposed to blandishment. I a.m struck,
however, by the fact that Coward and Ellis praise
China for running philosophy courses in com.munes
and factories where it is taught that ‘philosophy is
no mystery’ (courses in which, incidentally, if my
experience is anything to go by, the students may
not be able to .make head or tail of what is being
taught – see ‘Philosophy in China’, Radical
Philosophy 14, Summer 1976). Now I must admit
that, as a philosophy teacher myself, I may be
liable to dramatise the mystery and gla.morise the
philosophy. But let me, on the other hand, .make a
ritual announcement of my belief that, like any other
academic discipline, philosophy is drenched in
ideology – not fortuitously, but necessarily; not
occasionally, but chronically; not locally, but
ubiquitously. The fact remains, however, that it is
an inheritor of certain traditions of theoretical
work. I am not trying to proselytise, or to recruit
students; in fact I believe that for many people, if
not all, it may be best to ignore philosophy and get
on with something else. However, those who, like
Coward and Ellis, choose to defend themselves by
philosophical means – and, I ..may add, by devices
of an ancient, if not antiquated construction – ought
to take some notice of their traditional uses.

Let us pass over their trusting use of the prestructuralist, pre-marxist, and largely preHegelian vocabulary of ‘materialism’, ‘idealis.m’,
‘dialectics’ and ‘metaphysics’ and concentrate on
their use of the word ‘subject’. And let us forgive
their confusion (see above para. 4) of ‘subject’ and

‘ego’. And let us not grudge them the use of the
word ‘subject’ to refer to an individual conscious
being; or, following upon this, their punning way of
referring to the individual’s relation to the rest of
the world as ‘predication’. It is genial, perhaps, to
speak of ‘a subject different from and able to
differentiate within a predicatable outside’ (91), or
of a subject ‘able to predicate an outside’ (94). But
for their own safety they should have been warned
that this has nothing to do with the relations of subject and predicate in logic and gra.m.mar, and
therefore does not entitle the.m to bung logical and
philosophical· tliscussions of predication into their
melange along with everything else. This is what
happens when they try to stir in a few remarks
about Frege:

He showed quite clearly that negative thought
does not exist: he was starting out from the
premise that the judging subject sustains all
thought, and that this subject cannot therefore
be negated. •• Negation is simply a variation
of the predicate, and is therefore impossible
outside the syntactical relations of subject and
predicate. •. These observations confirm
Frege’s idea that negation belongs to the
understanding, in that it is simply a variation
of the act of predication (138).

I do not enjoy behaving like an exasperated schoolmaster, but I feel bound to explain that Coward and
Ellis have not understood a single word of what
Frege was on about. The truth is that Frege was
utterly opposed to the idea that ‘thought’ d~ ends on
the ‘judging subj ect ‘; he argued that thoughts existed
objectively, independently of all thinkers. Of course
he thought that ‘the subject cannot be negated’ the subject, that is as defined in grammar: this is a
gram.matical co.m.monplace. However, none of this
has anything to do with ‘the subject’ in the sense of
‘the individual consciousness’. And besides that:

Frege was impressed by the wide range ofpropositions which are not, from a gram.marian’s point of
view, of subject-predicate form (identity statements,
existential statements, relational statements); in
addition, he argued (and many still agree) that the
whole vocabulary of ‘subject and predicate’ should
be scrapped,and replaced, for the purposes of
logical theory, by the categories of ‘argument’ and
‘function’. This is a technical matter of course, and
one of which .most thinkers could safely remain in
ignorance: but no one who chooses to drop Frege’s
name and use his authority to support sO.me baffling
statements about negation and the subject-predicate
relation has the right to be so ignorant. Coward and
Ellis invoke Frege on the basis of wholly spurious
connections between psychological and logical
theory, and attribute to Frege theses which are in
fact opposed in every respect to the conclusions for
which Frege painstakingly and scrupulously argued.

Philosophy is no .mystery, indeed! .

•••
~l~r’.’

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‘::i”””.~’

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.~(,.” .1”’~1
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~~4·./{: ,’,::~:i,,:L
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~~.~:;~~2:”·’

Yaa Shih-chanq and ccmmune members at peanut
harvest. Yoo tells how hE’ applied Chairman Mao’s
philosophic thinkinq 10 raisin/) th(‘ pean.l! yipl.t,

‘.

THREE: ARGUMENTS FROM
AUTHORITY AND THE FALLACIES
OF FASHION
12
For reasons which are not at once apparent, Coward
and Ellis make excited claims for the originality of
the nouveau ,mtlange. They assert that only – ‘only’

is a favourite word with them – only with the work
of Barthes, Lacan and Althusser can we understand
the ways in which ‘bourgeois ideology’ disguises the
artificiality of human individuality. So, in praise of
the new se,miotics, all the remainder of existing
science, culture and theory is blackened. An
apocalyptic, manichean view of history stalks the
pages, trying to point out a recent watershed after
which a torrent of ‘radical’ truth, nouveaux rO.mans
and the Chinese cultural revolution has been
thundering down the valleys, sweeping all before it;
whereas formerly – with the exception of a few
im.maculately conceived ideas in the heads of Marx,
Lenin, Brecht and Mao, and perhaps also of Engels
and Stalin – everything was Bad: economic determinism, realist fiction, and of course idealism,
mechanism, metaphysics and the rest of ‘Western
thought’.

‘Only the articulation of psychoanalysis and Marxism’, we are told ‘can hope to ·ve an account of
such practices’ 20. Freud and Freudians other
than Lacan are not given the chance to .make out
their own claim to have given such an account;
and we are hastened on to the assertion, part of
which I have already noticed, of a new ‘philosophy’,
a philosophy which
has no Ultimate full stop, or centre. to its
process of structuring: it has no ‘God’, no
‘human essence’, no ‘presence’ as the
traiiSC’endent term which makes the system
possible (20).

This is of course meant primarily as a swipe at
Hegel, though at this particular point Hegel is being
represented by Levi-Strauss. I have already explained (para. 9) why this criticism of Hegel see.ms
to .me to be entirely insubstantial. But there is
another point about HegeI. Even if you restrict
yourself to one chapter of the Pheno.menology of
l’ilind you will find a beautifully composed, if somewhat elusive, description of the varieties of contradictory ways in which personal identities are formed
for ,men and women, in Ancient Greece and Ro.me,
in early christian communities, amongst monarchs
and courtiers in pre-revolutionary France, and so
forth. Vague for.mulations about ‘decentering’ do not
seem to ,me to be a very good reason for refusing as Coward and Ellis evidently have – to read or
learn from Hegel’s – after all very accomplished philosophical prose. And whilst I am on the ‘H’ shelf
of my bookcase, I wonder what Coward and Ellis
would .make of the atheism of Holbach or Hobbes, or
of Hume’s attack on ordinary notions of personal
identity (surely there’s some ‘radical potentiality’

there!). Which reminds me, leaving ‘H’, that in
Robert Owen Coward and Ellis would find a militant
socialist, and indeed feminist, whose entire practice
is based on a critique of the idea of individual responsibility, which he – a harbinger, see.mingly, of
the ,manic he an marxism of the new se.miology – saw
as the source of all evil in ‘the old, im.moral world’.

9

totality’ – which is no longer a statement in the
historiography of ideas, but a philosophical thesis.

Need I point out. that the slide fro.m the first kind of
sentence to the second involves a fallacy?

But setting aside clas~ical writings, we also find
20th century works distorted and misrepresented to
fit in with Coward and Ellis’s manichean view of
history. For instance Lukacs and Goldmann (Lucien,
not Em.ma, I take it) are both reproved for failing to
envisage reality as ‘a world which is produced by
the whole ense.mble of social activities, including
that of conceptualisation in language’ (36). I do not
see why Coward and Ellis find it necessary to sneer
at these not insubstantial theorists of literature; but
I am astonished that they should do so on the basis
of an attribution which, like this one, is 180 degrees
off-target. (I feel the sa.me uneasiness when (3,62)
they claim as insights of structuralist linguistics
propOSitions wbich are co.mmonplaces of analytical
philosophy; or (51), as innovations of the new
semiotics, positions that were at the heart of the
Ca.mbridge English school in the 1930s!)
But these omissions and incriminations are insignificant cO.mpared with the next I shall mention. The
‘claim which has got Coward and Ellis excited is that
the nouveau .melange successfully merges structuralis.m, .marxis.m and psychoanalysis. You would
think therefore that they would attempt to match and
.measure this claim against any other body of work
which .might be taken to do exactly the sa.me thing.

And whatever else .may be said about it, it cannot be
denied that Sartre’s work in the last twenty years,
especially the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) ,
tries to integrate structuralis.m (sociological as well
as linguistic), marxis m (historicist rather than
structural) and psychoanalysis (phenomenological
rather than structuralist); moreover, Sartre’s basic
propOSition – that the individual is produced by,
rather than simply presupposed to, social processes – is preCisely that for which Coward and
Ellis wish us to thank the new semiotics. And whilst
it .may not ultimately be successful, Sartre’s synthesis is, unlike the nouveau melange, constructed
in a systematic way and with abundant historical
illustration and a co.mparatively wide range of
reference to philosophical traditions. Coward and
Ellis never once .mention any of Sartre’s works or
ideas: they see.m to have excised hi.m from their
.manichean picture of the history of .marxism no less
ruthlessly than Stalin obliterated Trotsky in the
History of the CPSU (B). Much the same could be
said of their similar silence about Marcuse.

13
Their distorted view of the history of ideas may be
only an incidental feature of Coward and Ellis’s
presentation of the new semiotics. But then again,
it may be more: for it see.ms to be used as a kind of
argu.ment, or argu.ment-surrogate, to convince us of
the truth of the nouveau-me’tange. Again and again
they present sequences of sentences, beginning with
state.ments which are simply attributive (‘x says
so-and-so’, ‘radicals believe so-and-so ‘) but ending
with statements saying that so-and-so is the case.

Thus we are told that ‘there is no place in marxist
thought for the idea of a simple beginning’ – which
sounds like a perfectly normal attempt at realist
reporting of other people’s ideas. And a couple of
sentences later, the ‘conclusion’ is drawn: ‘Reality,
then. is an ever pre-given, complexly structured
10

The slide is greased, and the fallacy disguised, by
Coward and Ellis’s disingenuous habit of using
idio.ms like ‘sees that’, ‘notices that’, ‘recognises
that ••• ‘ and so forth – phrases which are partly
devices for ascribing beliefs to people, and partly
ways of signalling one’s oW:Q.endorsement of the
belief. Thus, when Coward and Ellis report that
Marx ‘rehabilitated the dialectic, the notions of
struggle, contradiction and practice’ (91), they are
not only making a report on the history of ideas na.mely, saying that Marx tried to do certain things
with certain notions; but also (by using the word
‘rehabilitate’), informing us that Marx’s attempt
was successful. Readers, having accepted such a
state.ment as a report on Marxts belief, suddenly
find that they have swallowed a dubious philosophical
thesis.

In a sense, all these fallacies are instances of the
fallacious ‘argu.ment from authority’ – arguments
that so.mething .must be the case, because some
authority says so. But in fact most of Coward and
Ellis’s fallacies are of a slightly different, though
closely related kind: they involve not so .much referring to a particular authority, as watching the ways
in which currents of opinion are flowing: a kind of
punting on what future authorities will say, based on
ideas of what can be ‘seen’, and seen ‘only now’.

Thus our tipsters tell us:

It is no longer a matter of politics and ideology
being superstructures which are supported/
produced by the economic base. .. . It is rather
a .matter of seeing the articulation of the three
practices (69).

(The fourth practice is not discovered for anotre r
few pages.) And then:

The materialist dialectic .must now be seen as
the dialectic between history, language and
ideology’ (92).

Again: following a paraphrase of Barthes’ position
in ~, we are told:

The political implications of this are clear: the
dO.mination of bourgeoiS ideology can no longer
be seen as control of ideas by a class, it is a
function of those positions established in relation to .meaning (7) •
But wait: if ‘it is no longer a .matter’ of base and
superstructure, then surely it cannot ever have
been? ‘Must now’? If this is a ‘must’ of logic,
should it not apply then as well as now? And if it
is only a ‘.must’ of the mo.ment, then surely its
authority is only that of fashion, and so is liable to
change again before one’s ink is even dry. ‘Can no
longer be seen as control of ideas by a class’?

Well, it .may be so seen, and understandably, by,
for example, victims of the Berufsverbot, defendants in the Official Secrets Trials, Italian
autono.misti, and others. Barthes may not see it
their way; but on the other hand, they may not see
it his way; and the question is, who is right? Even
if it were seen their way ‘no longer’, this might be
because true beliefs were more widespread then
than now; and besides, at a future time it might
cease to be ‘no longer’ possible – no longer no
longer.

Perhaps the hidden premise of Coward and Ellis’s
arguments from fashion is an equation (surprising

in such violent Hegel-bashers) between newness and
epistemological superiority, an equation neatly
wrapped up in their evolutionistic reverence for
ideas which are ‘advanced’. Ti.me was, that the
current theories of the literary and academic
establish.ments would be automatically disniissed by
Marxists as the latest siren-calls of the bourgeoisie.

Terrible damage was done by this attitude – for
example in the conventional British Marxist conte.mpt for ‘Freudism’ or· ‘the· Bloomsbury group’ in
the 1930s. Coward and Ellis, however, seem to
assume the exact reverse: they invite us to believe
the ‘most advanced’ ideas not because they are true
(which they mayor .may not be) but because it is ‘no
longer possible’ not to. There is still something to
be said, surely, for the identification of Marxis”m
with a culture which strives to conquer subversive
vantage points against the tides of fashion?

14
This is a weird and .multiply contradictory book. It
advocates a melange of structuralis.m and psychoanalysis as the highest form of .marxis.m; but it
repeatedly cO.m.mits fallacies of fashion which distance it considerably fro.m the oppositional, embattled
and counterhege.monic activities normally associated
with the na.me of ‘marxis.m ‘; and it is all written in
literary .modes – realistic reportage, appeals to the
obvious, and dogmatic assertion – that fit badly with
the conclusions of structuralis.m and psychoanalysis.

But the hostility it arouses in me makes .me acutely
uncomfortable. It causes an abominable figure of a
huffy, co.mplacent, conservative, xenophobic Oxford
don to stir within me •
‘Good God’, says the don, reading out sentences at
rando.m, ‘they can’t even write the bloody English
language! They may pride the.mselves on their grasp
of linguistic theory, but their linguistic practice
certainly leaves a lot to be desired. •. I suppose
they call their book a ‘text’ because they want
priests to make sermons fro.m it, or examiners to
‘set’ it! . .. Their attitude to these Parisian chaps
is one of pseudo-erotic infatuation – they have produced not a sober evaluation, but a pastiche – a
child’s guide to pseud’s corner!’

There are two good reasons for bar racking this
co.mplacent, chortling don. The first is that, if I a.m
not mistaken, many of the propositions of structuralism, whether or not they are radical, or marxist,
or new, are in fact true, and offer ways of dismantling various obstacles to the for.mation of a critical
and intelligent view of society.

The second reason for suppressing the reactionary
don is that, as booksellers and publishers will tell
you, Coward and Ellis, and others offering a
similar co.m.modity, see.m to answer, if not satisfy,
a real need. They have, strange to relate, the
common touch. What is this need?

In parallel with Language and Materialis.m, I have
been reading Edward Thompson’s brilliant and
blistering attack on Althusser and English
AlthusseJ”ianism in The Poverty of Theory (Merlin,
£3.90). This essay is by turns skilful, inaccurate,
devastating and banal. Thompson makes, amongst
others, the following historical conjecture: that it
becam~ obvious to a generation of students about ten
years ago that the academic disciplines into which
they were being inducted were corrupted by a ‘crass
and abject empiricism’. Althusserianism seemed to

make this criticism with verve; and their ‘instant
recognition’ of the truth of the criticism, according
to Tho.mpson, provided ‘the nor.mal gate-of-entry
for inexperienced readers, and • •. beckons them
into the interior of his [Althusser’s] absurd syllogistic world’ (20).

I a.m encouraged by Thompson’s essay to suggest a
genE;)ralisation about the historical conditions which
have made the kinds of argu.ment, or argumentsurrogate, of .Language and Materialism, possible.

My conjecture is that they and their audience have
been bored and irritated to distraction by the
pomposities, idiocies and careerist gossip on board
the ghost-ship of some claustrophobic acade.mic
discipline, condemned to sail the seven seas for
ever, and never touching land. In this predicament,
any tradition which is synthetic, interdisciplinary,
critical and (at least in inspiration) politically
engaged will seem worth trying. In the 1930s,
students would e.mbrace the latest deliveries of
dialectical materialism the moment they arrived
from Russia, culminating in the translation of
Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism
(1940); in the 1950s and 60s, they e.mbraced
Sartrian existentialism and marxism, culminating
in Laing and Cooper’s Reason and Violence (1964),
Marcuse’s One Di.mensional Man (1964) and the
‘Dialectics of Liberation’ Conference in July 1967;
next, there was a phase of. hard-line structuralist
scientis.m, centering on the translation of Balibar
and Althusser’s Reading Capital in 1970, and going
on into various essays in self-indulgence; and
latterly, there has been an enthusias.m for the new
se.miology, represented in, a.mong other things,
Language and Materialism.

I can see lots of flaws in the generalisation given

above, but I cannot resist the te.mptation to press on
with it. For – for all the differences and discontinuities which have to be taken into account – there
are si.milarities between all these .movements.

Each of the.m has involved an i.mportation which
has been extre.mely ephemeral in its implantation in
English culture; each of the.m has been introduced
dog.matically, rather than through a proper critique
of the available alternatives; each of them has, in
one way or another, aggrandised itself by presenting
amanichean-apocalyptic picture of its own place in
the history of thought; each has exhibited, in some
degree, both a considerable margin of conspicuous
unintelligibility and an awe-inspiring habit of uttering preposterous falsehoods with imperturbable
self-confidence; and so on. The doleful thought
which assaults me as I squint out at a snowy New
Year’s Day, is that this book is just another
episode in the sa.me old cO.mic dra.ma: testifying to
a real appetite for an alternative to bourgeoisacademic organisations of knowledge, but incapable
of permanently satisfying it. Perhaps, like
Dialectical and Historical Materialism, or Reason
and Violence, or One Dimensional Man, or Reading
Capital, it too will soon be abandoned, and, like
them, wrapped in amnesia like an old childhood
fetish.

11

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