Language, Ideology and Social Consciousness: Developing a Sociohistorical Approach

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Ashgate, Aldershot 1999. pp. 272 + vii, ISBN 184014-842-X (hbk) L39.95 Reviewed by Alex Low

Chik Collins' fine study breathes fresh life into debates about ideology and social consciousness. Not that it is without problems. However, these fade beside Collins' dogged labour of intellectual repair of a distinctly Marxist approach to language and consciousness. Collins rightly complains of the nihilism and relativism of the `linguistic turn' in the social sciences. Despite this; he insists on the centrality of language to any understanding of the dynamics of social consciousness and collective action in class-divided societies. `There can be no assessment of the development of social consciousness outwith an engagement with the actual language mobilised in concretely located discursive processes' (p.29). Collins maps out a potentially expansive research programme based mainly, though not exclusively, on the pioneering work of the Russian Marxists, Vygotsky and Volosinov.

Born within a year of each other, 1896 and 95 respectively,Vygotsky and Volosinov were part of the intellectual generation of 1917. Working separately in different disciplines-psychology and linguistics-both were preoccupied in the 1920s with language, consciousness and ideology. Both also eschewed exegetical orthodoxy, where quotations are piled-up and reality fitted mechanically to fixed categories (Vygotsky,1978: 8). Instead, historical materialism infused their methods for grasping language as `the specific material reality of ideological creativity' (Volosinov, 1973, P. xiv). Here, method involves `practical-critical' activity in a dialectical shaping of tool of analysis and product of that analysis. As Vygotsky (1978: 65) explained, `The method is simultaneously prerequisite and product, the tool and the result of the study! Practical activity is not somehow the opposite of semiotic mediation. Rather, consciousness develops through their necessary unity. Collins attempts no less than a similarly dialectical approach.

It is difficult to convey the richness of Collins' method-and-theory, which develops through critical dialogue with four contemporary approaches. First, J.S. Scott maintains that subversive `infrapolitical resistance' involves the pragmatic insertion of subordinates' own resistant language-their `hidden transcripts'-into dominant `public transcripts'. Scrutinised against John Foster's (1974) study of class struggle in the industrial revolution, Collins makes two important criticisms of Scott. First, `public transcripts' are undermined not simply by subordinates' infiltration of pre-existing `hidden transcripts' but by socioeconomic processes themselves. Moreover, Scott pays scant attention to the specific linguistic forms mobilised by subordinates.

Second, Norman Fairclough's `critical discourse analysis' privileges the textual analysis of isolated, sometimes contrived, `ready-made' texts. Following Fairclough, Collins minutely analyses a discrete text, a transcript of a television documentary on the restructuring of us multinational General Electric. Ultimately, Collins finds inadequate a critical discourse analysis that neglects the concrete struggle of living subordinates. For the 'critical' analyst texts possess a phantom-like quality, quietly slipping any anchorage in irreducibly antagonistic social relations.

Michael Huspek's `emancipatory linguistics' seems more promising. Huspek recognises `emancipatory potential' in speaker's everyday discourses. Dominant power might limit subordinates' capacity for `wording the world' (Freire) but working class speakers still elaborate critical meaning in their everyday practices. However, Huspek's own ethnographic study of us male lumber workers shows that worker's talk tends to be 'parasitical' on dominant meanings. Here a familiar problem presents itself. If worker's language is 'parasitical' on the limiting and distorting power of dominant ideology wherein rests `emancipatory potential'? …