This post over at Larval Subjects muses about a general passivity with regards to language. In this post by Paco many of the same themes come up, whether student’s inability to recognize and evaluate either fallacies or arguments due to a general passivity that allows language to “work” us rather than the reader to evaluate or “work” language. Or, in Paco’s case, he points to the broader university structure and culture to suggest that philosophy itself (as construed in Philosophy departments within the University) may in fact be irrelevant. I generally don’t like to complain about my students, although certainly I do, because I feel like lousy teachers blame their students. However, sometimes I just don’t understand.
One of my more shocking discoveries while teaching this semester has been the refusal of many of my students to read attentively and really, responsively. When I asked what they do when they come across a word or concept they don’t know or if they don’t understand a passage all 29 of them said that they just keep on reading. This is shocking to me. There are prerequisites to the course, not least is the Eng 101 series. How are these students passing English 101? I can’t help but think of Paco’s suggestion that grade inflation is a cover for lowering standards.
“It terrifies me to think that we are so passive with respect to language. We become marionettes of words and speakers, without any skills to resist. Prior to being a critical thinker one must first develop critical consciousness. Such a consciousness requires a minimal distance from language. Yet how is such a distance produced? I do not know. Such things do, however, fill me with despair.”
This question really, at least for me, cuts to the heart of the problem. For one, the traditional idea of liberal education is to foster a critical consciousness. Yet, if Paco is correct about the decline of the broader structure of the University–from a marketplace of ideas to a bottom line minded business–the university simply reflects the broader culture, which is largely anti-intellectual, disapproves of critique and as a whole tends to reward social status not talent. One thing is certain: many of our students simply refuse to think things through, or think, in the most Heidegarrian sense. I don’t know how to produce such a critical consciousness in my students either, other than trying over and over to point it out. This is interesting, one of the more odd things that my students could just not wrap their minds around was the emotive use of language, that it’s not necessarily mere emotion.
Anyway, all of this has gotten me thinking about two figures I haven’t thought about in quite some time: the (under-rated) Roland Barthes and (always interesting) Louis Althusser, who both point to this very phenomenon of the passivity of language I think.
Barthes use of connotation is deployed something like this: it is the means in which a text can be made to express the dominant values of a given historical period. It is repressive and ideologically motivated. Yet, the strategy, if you will arises in the text’s limited multiplicity and can be accentuated if it is predicated upon the perpetual exchangeability of the signified; the play of meaning then, has neither closure or justification. Althusser’s approach tends to absorb the object of Marxism to the objects of the physical or chemical sciences and implies a de-centering of the subject. Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects. The subject’s work by ideology and are inserted into practices governed by the ISA’s. The individual is interpellated as a free subject so that she shall submit freely to the dictates of the subject and make the actions of her subjection by herself. Bluntly, I am by and for my subjection, subjects are produced by structures.
Barthes “Myth Today” deals with myth as a kind of speech, a system of communication. He is concerned with HOW things mean. Myth is a message, a mode of signification and consists of the deployment of signifiers for the purpose of expressing/justifying the dominant values. Ideology is a condition of false consciousness promoted through the fictions sponsored by the dominant class. Myth is a semiological system. Myth, then, is constructed through a second order semiological system. Denotation is the first order, connotation, the second. The linguistic system coheres with the language-object-its final term of signifier is meaning, myth is the meta-language; its final term parses itself out as ‘form’. Something like this example of the word ‘dog’-primary [4 legs, tail, barks] which is denotation and secondary [ugly women, cheat etc] signifieds, connotation. So, Barthes suggests that the sign becomes a signifier when the connotation enters in; ideological signifieds like nationalism for instance. The relationship between a connotative signifier and connotative signified can only be explained through reference to a larger social field, ordered by class interests. Connotation is a device that transforms actual difference into sameness-all textual materials and signifying formations are reduced to a privileged group of signifieds. Ideology motivates the relationships between say, cultural artifacts and signifieds so the relationship is most definitively not arbitrary. Socially constructed society is passed off as natural, which was anticipated in a different way be Nietzsche years prior.
Myth needs first order as its alibi. “Oh I wasn’t being ideological” claims myth, “I wasn’t even present!” The parasitic sign system [connotation] allows for the process of de-puzzling by bringing to the front the construction of the sign. Objects signify more than themselves, systems of representation add meaning to them. If we are to recall Marx’s well known insistence that ideology is a veil of false consciousness that produces a narrative as lies about what capitalism really is-Althusser, ideology constitutes experience—or that ideology consists of conflicting truth claims grounded in a telos with reference to political effects that lend meaning to discourse then we’re back to certain forms of Marxism or simply, hermeneutics.
I think that while Althusser gets us somewhere, the major problem is the insistence on the preferential ISA, the school, which contradicts Lacan’s theory that conceives the individual as submerged and internal to the continuum of the law of the Phallus. The socialized subject inserts itself into the symbolic/cultural as an already sexualized signifier. Althusser fails to take into account the complex nature of the continuum, the contribution of all to the maintenance of the existing ideology and provides little offering in the way of social action at the level of ISA’s, put simply, it is deterministic. With Barthes, I wonder if connotation necessarily involves ideological coercion of the reader, denotation engages me at an innocent level. But then again, if we recall Althusser, when we learn denotation we are still subjected to ideology.As a child I learn want, no, desire, mother etc none of which may be abstracted from ideology.