What Words and Their Meanings Tell us
Watch the video here: https://youtu.be/sZgjtVFDVWg
In the last two videos, we were focused on theoretical and historical perspectives on language. Today we will turn our attention to a brief case study that reflects on some of the concepts we have already explored.
Language, as we’ve already seen, is fundamentally political, social and historical. One of the major consequences of this position is that the same words can carry very different meanings to different people and groups. Remembering Bakhtin and Voloshinov from the first video on language, we note that a language is in fact many different languages at any given time.
Being sensitive to this is important for grappling with contemporary political discourse. Let’s take our not-so-innocently-chosen example world: socialism. It’s probably no surprise to anyone watching this video that socialism is a word which evokes a vast array of very different concepts. To anyone who has talked about socialism before, least of all advocated for it, it has likely been jarring to encounter interpretations of this word that seem to reflect polar opposite systems. But our understanding of language is well equipped to explain why this happens!
Before we do, let’s introduce one more new idea, this time from the field of semiotics. Simply put, semiotics is the study of signs. It is a field concerned with how we produce these signs and what meanings we derive from them.
The Sign (Saussure and Voloshinov)
In Saussure’s theory of semiotics, the sign is composed of a signifier and a signified — that is, some sensory perception (sound, hear, taste, etc.) which refers to a concept. Notably, the signifier and the signified are necessary conditions of each other. A sign cannot possess a signifier without reference to a concept, and a concept cannot lack a tangible referent.
We might consider a signifier to be the word “tree”. This refers directly to the signified, the concept of a tree. Together, these two elements constitute a sign.
Unlike the Saussarian sign, which is situated in a conceptual and arbitrary space, Voloshinov’s sign is an element of social practice. Therefore, the sign is always embedded in the social environment that gives it shape (and in turn acts back upon that environment). This speaks in general to the social and historical framework of Voloshinov’s philosophy of language: “The essential task of the study of language is not, as the dominant linguistic tradition from Chomsky to enunciation analysts would have it, to study grammatical structures or grammatical markers, but to account for the life of language — that is, language as a human practice” (Lecercle 2009, p. 108). Similarly, “the speaker is always-already collective. […] External linguistics takes priority; and language is to be analysed as social and historical practice” (p. 109).
This is all very important to why socialism seems to bring totally different things to mind for different people. Here’s an excellent example (and dummy-proof, according to the author!):
Disregarding the author’s preferential tone, the conclusions are very interesting. On the one hand, the author is acknowledging that socialism and capitalism carry different meanings to different people. On the other hand, the author is rejecting one meaning in favor of what they believe to be the non-dummy interpretation. Paying close attention to what the “real” meaning of socialism is, we get a description that very oddly (and very effectively) encapsulates the anti-capitalist position. Anti-capitalists of all flavors tend to describe capitalism the way this author is describing socialism.
The signifier is the same, and yet the signified, the concept being referred to, is not only different, but almost completely inverted! If we were to imagine a conversation transpiring between the author of this table and a hypothetical dummy socialist, we could imagine both agreeing wholeheartedly that “a system where all property is controlled by a small group of individuals” who “determine what the common good will be and force everyone else to comply” is, unequivocally, bad. They might go on to agree on all the reasons why such a system is unjust and inefficient up until the point where the dummy lets slip, “clearly socialism is the solution.” At this point, the conversation comes to a screeching halt as both interlocutors realize they do not actually see eye-to-eye at all. How can it be, that the grievances both individuals aired were directed at seemingly identical dystopias, but the terms they attach to those concepts are diametrically opposed?
This exemplifies what Bakhtin called heteroglossia . Though there is only one statement, there are two voices, two perspectives, and, ultimately, two languages. Our connoisseur of political economy belongs to communities entirely distinct from the ones the socialist dummy frequents. As such, the languages they speak are, in a very real sense, not the same. The schools of thought and historical developments they draw on to define these systems are entirely different. The meanings they each attach to the word ‘socialism’ are entirely sensible in their respective contexts, which makes them all the more confused how it is possible that the other could be so horribly wrong about what socialism “really” is.
Perhaps we are not always (if ever) in a position to suggest which meaning is correct and which is not. The best we can do is navigate language as the site of historical, social, and political dynamics. We can understand that for the author, the meaning of ‘socialism’, comes from a specific conjuncture with its own political, economic, and social specifities. As Marxists we are fairly accustomed to historicization, which is possibly the most potent of all the methodological tools Marx championed. We understand that nothing springs out of the vacuum, least of all ideas and languages. Of course we are not crude relativists — after all, “good slogans are correct slogans”. But in appreciating the way meanings overlap and conflict, we can construct more analytically sound conclusions, which do not discard the very environments in which meaning and language are constructed.
The rhetorical value of understanding language in this way extends not only to those who would call themselves “capitalists,” but to our fellow socialists as well. It’s no secret that the Left can’t agree on a definition to save its life. Blood and ink has been spilled over what “socialism” looks like, whether there are stages of communism, and which countries have fit which definitions. Each of these interpretations was born in a specific historical context. This does not make the definitions obsolete, but it certainly gives them an anachronistic quality. We have a habit of pulling these terms from history and forgetting to put them back where we found them. There is plenty of use in debating these definitions, but not if we lose sight of where and when they came from, and what motivated their conception.
The main takeaway from the past three videos should be fairly clear now: in our political and social actions, language should be interpreted very consciously. We should pause to assess words, phrases, declarations, communiques, speeches, etc., and treat them as the complex products of past and present social forces. We should identify the ways in which “language speaks through us” and the way we use language. And above all, we should recognize that language is material. Thus, we can not only interpret the world around us, but change it as well.
- In actuality, he called it ‘разноречие’ [raznorechie].
Lecercle, J.-J. (2009). A Marxist Philosophy of Language (G. Elliott, Trans.). Haymarket Books.