Well, well, well

Last time I managed to actually get into to the book, to examine Valentin Vološinov’s ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’, albeit only the first chapter or so. I could have gone on but it got a bit heavy with the tangents that came about from the asylum ignorance bit mentioned by Vološinov (13). So, I’ll continue from where I left off, which is at about chapter two of the book.

In summary of the first chapter, Vološinov argues that language is pivotal in all that we do as the word is the medium of consciousness, comprehension and interpretation. It is not the only mode as there are, for example, images, music, gestures and movement, but all nonverbal is, nonetheless, unseparable from the verbal. Everything is linked to language. It is a phenomenon, among others, if you will, yet it always accompanies all other phenomena. I guess you could say that, in a sense, language is always rather imperial, always bleeding into things, not exactly conquering them, as what’s outside language never actually becomes language, but making them subservient to it, always mediated through it, to certain extent. Another important point is that language is interindividual, not individual. It emerges from people but only in relation to one another. It never emerges from a person in isolation from other people.

Vološinov (17) moves to address one of the fundamentals of Marxism, the relationship between base and superstructure or infrastructure and superstructure, the former being, roughly speaking, the material conditions (means of production and how they are organized) and the latter being the ideal conditions (the ideological layer, if you will, with the institutions, be they political, educational, cultural, religious etc.). He (17) argues that examining these two would benefit considerably from taking language into account because he finds attributing the development of the superstructure as merely caused by the base rather poor as it comes across as rather mechanic and hardly explanatory.

He (18) uses the example of the superfluous man, Rudin, a conceptual person, who, I admit, I had to look as being created by Ivan Sergejevitš Turgenev, a Russian writer who lived in the 1800s. It is introduced in ‘The Diary of a Superfluous Man’, originally published in 1850, but also used in ‘Rudin’, originally published in 1856. In short, based on the book about the superfluous man, he is someone who could do just about anything as he has the background (the money, the contacts, the skills) but just can’t be arsed to do anything of note as it’s probably too easy and not worth it. Instead, the superfluous man, obnoxious enough to write about himself, to himself, despite having done next to nothing in life, which he, the superfluous man, does acknowledge, leads a superfluous life, something that he does also acknowledge. He is the type of a guy who lies in bed, all morning, if not all day, because he pities himself … because his woman fancies someone else etc.

Anyway, Vološinov (18) argues that it’d be simplification to rationalize the superfluous man as an expression of content, the degeneracy of the gentry. This also holds the other way around. The point he (18) is making is that one should not only look at the content or the expression, but both at the same time and not in a causal way. To make sense of this, he (18) clarifies that while there are superfluous men in Turgenev’s works, it doesn’t follow that they are mechanically produced in his works by socioeconomic factors related to the gentry. Instead, he (18) argues, the superfluous men need to be considered as having a specific role in Turgenev’s works and the works themselves as having specific role in social life.

In summary, what Vološinov is after, at least the way I see it, is that one needs to take content and expression into account in series. I reckon this feels oddly familiar to me because I’ve read something similar in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. I’m recalling this on memory alone, but, simply put, they argue that while form of content and form of expression are indeed distinct, one can function as the other one, so that it becomes a series of this and that. So, for example, all the relevant parts are the form of content of a car which is the form of expression but that car can also be understood as a form of content with other cars that together are the form of expression of traffic. I know that may be a bit crude and somewhat off, but you should get the gist. So, keeping all this in mind, Vološinov (18) states:

“Surely it must be clear that the ‘superfluous man’ did not appear in the novel in any way independent of and unconnected with other elements of the novel, but that, on the contrary, the whole novel, as a single organic unity subject to its own specific laws, underwent restructuring, and that, consequently, all its other elements – its composition, style, etc. – also underwent restructuring. And what is more, this organic restructuring of the novel came about in close connection with changes in the whole field of literature, as well.”

To unpack this, let’s say that this operates on many levels. I’d still say in series but perhaps levels is easier to grasp, so I’ll go with that here. So, on one level, in the novel ‘Rudin’, which is the novel Vološinov is referring to, the superfluous man is not just some random character unconnected to what else is contained and happens in the novel. On another level, the novel is not unconnected to literature, so it didn’t emerge unconnected to it either. Now, of course, as it is evident here, contributions to literature, including those of Turgenev, change literature which then alter the field of literature. The point Vološinov (18) is making is that:

“[A]ny explanation must preserve all the qualitative differences between interacting domains and must trace all the various stages through which a change travels.”

In short, what he (18-19) is after is that, in the Marxist nomenclature, there is an interrelationship between the base and the superstructure and, importantly, this interrelationship is not simple as the base causing changes in the superstructure in a mechanical fashion. To my understanding this is not in contradiction to Marx as the base does operate as the conditions for the superstructure, yet it’s not, strictly speaking a one-way street. What is different with this is how Vološinov (19) attributes language a key position in all this. Following what he went on and on about in the first chapter, he (19) states that:

“What is important about the word in this regard is not so much its sign purity as its social ubiquity.”

Simply put, language is everywhere and everyone is tangled up in it, all day everyday. There’s no escaping the word. He (19) continues:

“It stands to reason, then, that the word is the most sensitive index of social changes, and what is more, of changes still in the process of growth, still without definitive shape and not as yet accomodated into already regularized and fully defined … systems.”

In other words, language is everywhere, at all times, but it is not static. Language is always too busy to stay the same. It’s not that it’s all over the place, that there’s no fixity to it, but that it is constantly subject to change. Moreover, as he (19) goes on to explain, it’s not that people choose to change the language but that it inevitably ends up changing as people go on about their everyday life. As the world changes, so does the language, hand in hand, albeit not in the sense of mechanic causation. Language, not unlike social structures, is, as he (19-20) puts it, persistent, yet engulfed and washed over by the tides of creativity that occurs as people interact with one another (outer speech), as well as in reaction to various events that one encounters in everyday life (inner speech). Also, as stated in the first chapter, he (20) adds that these speech performances are not separate from other forms or modes of making sense, for example miming, gesturing and acting out. He (20) argues that what follows from this then is that one must look at language from two viewpoints, the content and the expression, to use the Deleuzo-Guattarian terms (which are actually Hjelmslevian terms). In other words, to him (20), language must be understood as being affected by the themes of everyday life, which then manifest in it, as implemented in discussions, expressions, questions, pondering etc. As emphasized in the first chapter, he (20) warns not to attribute the change in language to the individuals as language never emerges from a person in isolation from others.

I guess you could object to that on the grounds that once you’ve been reared into language, your use of the language, even in the absence of others can cause it to undergo change, even if you never speak out loud. Then again, how would you know? Also, that would require that you don’t engage with anything that has been written, be it by others or you, as those could also be seen as moments of interlocution. I mean I do that all the time. This blog is a good example of that, me engaging with others, dead and alive, as well as myself. Anyway, as I pointed out, it would still be very hard to imagine a world without other people, without any written records and the possibility to create such. Something also tells me that we can’t exactly test that in a lab either. I reckon it wouldn’t take long for a person to go insane in such a setting, that is to say without any hope of it being only a temporary arrangement. This probably also explains why people write on the walls that confine them.

Vološinov (20-21) clarifies that while this is not about the individual, the individuals are not rendered into one giant blob, but rather a wide number of different social groups that, taking time into consideration, have their repertoires of speech forms, their behavioral speech genres, with its themes. So, for example, people working in some technical field speak to one another in a rather technical fashion, while people in business go for the concise statements. Now, of course, that doesn’t mean that just because you work in some technical field or in business that you necessarily speak in this or that way in other contexts. Then there’s hierarchy. Even in those fields used as examples by Vološinov there tends to be some sort of hierarchical organization. People’s position in relation to others affects how it is that they come to speak to one another. In his (21) words:

“Every sign, as we know, is a construct between socially organized persons in the process of their interaction. Therefore, the forms of signs are conditioned above all by the social organization of the participants involved and also by the immediate conditions of their interaction. When these forms change, so does sign.”

Only to add that, as he (21) sees it, if one is to study language, it cannot be separated from everyday life and simply be studied in isolation from its contexts. He (21) gets very adamant on this, reiterating in bullet point form that you cannot locate language outside materiality and outside social intercourse, which, in turn depend on the purview of time and place, as well as the social groupings.

He (21) moves from speech forms to speech content, with specific emphasis placed on “evaluative accentuation that accompanies all content.” To make more sense of this, he (21-22) goes on to point out that we come to label this and/or that content depending on space and time. In his (21-22) words:

“Every stage in the development of a society has its own special and restricted circle of items which alone have access to that society’s attention and which are endowed with evaluative accentuation by that attention.”

Now, I realize that this may seem a bit topsy-turvy, how he argues that items come to access our attention, but that’s what he is really saying. If we were to turn this around, to say that depending on space and time, that is to say our real life societal conditions, we come to pay attention to certain items or objects, we’d be stating that there are these ready made items or objects, these things that are simply out there, just waiting for our society to develop to the level that we come understand them and pay attention to them. That’s not what he (21-22) is after, at all. That’s why he (21-22) says that he have these circles of items that come to have access to our attention. The presence of those items is dependent on us, which also makes the circle of items subject to change. In his (22) words:

“Only items within that circle will achieve sign formation and become objects in semiotic communication.”

How does that work then? He (22) is quick to answer:

“In order for any item, from whatever domain of reality it may come, to enter the social purview of the group and elicit … semiotic reaction, it must be associated with the vital socioeconomic prerequisites of the particular group’s existence; it must somehow, even if only obliquely, make contact with the bases of the group’s material life.”

So, as I pointed out already, all the items, all the objects, for example in your room, are only such because they make sense to you and they only make sense to you because they are relevant on the level of the society, hence the point made about socioeconomic and material conditions being prerequisites. There is nothing in your purview that do not conform to this. That said, if the conditions change, we may come to add more items into the circle of items and/remove some from it. This should not be understood as items simply disappearing all the sudden (which sort of may happen, think of the items that we uncover in archaeology, then think of all the items that were made of materials that decay) and others appearing out of nowhere. This is not about what some thing is in itself, but how we come to make sense of this and/or that, according to the relevant conditions. For example, the extensions of a tree are known as branches, but if they fall off or are chopped off, they become sticks once you encounter them as separated from the tree and, possibly, pick them up. That piece of wood doesn’t change (although I guess it will dry up, decay etc. eventually), only how we come to make sense of it.

What’s particularly interesting here is that none of this is whimsical. You cannot alter the circle of items, what we come to sense and make sense of as this and/or that, by yourself. It’s not up to you. I can call a table a chair and a chair a table but that doesn’t change anything. Others wouldn’t agree and even if they did agree, we’d end up back to square one as calling what we call a chair a table and vice versa doesn’t change anything. We could be having the same conversation, arguing that I want to call what we call a chair, in this case called a table, a chair and the same thing with what we call a table, in this case a chair, a table. He (22) makes note of this:

“Individual choice under these circumstances, of course, can have no meaning at all. The sign is a creation between individuals, a creation within a social milieu. Therefore the item in question must first acquire interindividual significance, and only then can it become an object for sign formation.”

He (22) acknowledges that this may come across as puzzling, considering that all this accentuation is produced by an individual, only to note that it is all actually social because others also come to recognize whatever is at stake as such and such. I realize that his use of accent and accentuation may be a bit confusing, so, the way I understand it being used by him, in this context, is about giving emphasis, making something more noticeable. He (22) clarifies his use of the word as it always being, first and foremost, interindividual. He (22) explains this in relation to animals:

“The animal cry, the pure response to pain in the organism, is bereft of accent; it is a purely natural phenomenon. For such a cry, the social atmosphere is irrelevant, and therefore it does not contain even the germ of sign formation.”

In other words, human language is always accentuated, its always vested with this and/or that, whatever it may be. At this state, or actually right before the animal example, he (22) tentatively settles “to call the entity which becomes the object of a sign the theme of the sign” with all signs then having their themes and all verbal performances having their themes. This is only tentative for him because he returns to this later in chapter four of the second part of the book, where he (99) clarifies his use of the word:

“A definite and unitary meaning, a unitary significance, is a property belonging to any utterance as a whole. Let us call the significance of a whole utterance its theme.”

He (99) adds that:

“The theme is the expression of the concrete, historical situation that engendered the utterance.”

And provides a simple example (99):

“The utterance ‘What time is it?’ has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation (‘historical’ here in microscopic dimensions) during which it is enunciated and of which, in essence, it is a part.”

Mentioned in the footnotes, he (99) acknowledges that his use of the word is different from how it is used in literature and suggests that, perhaps, instead of theme it would be more apt to speak of thematic unity. He (100) further comments on the theme of an utterance as going beyond linguistic forms, be they lexical, morphological, syntactical or phonological, segmental or suprasegmental, extending to extralinguistic factors specific to the situation.

He (100) distinguishes theme from meaning, stating that theme is always indivisible and unreproducible, always an instance in the moment, an event, if you will, whereas meaning, nested in theme, is what we come to extract or abstract from the utterance as divisible, reproducible and self-identitical. So, when it comes to his example, he (100) argues that the meaning, as he defines it, of “What time is it?” is always the same, across all the instances of that utterance as it is an abstraction of all those instances of its enunciation, what’s common between them. That is, nonetheless, not the same thing as the theme of a specific utterance, which is always context dependent.

Having distinguished between the two, theme and meaning, he (100) notes that in practice it is impossible to neatly separate them from one another:

“There is no theme without meaning and no meaning without theme.”

In other words, they are in reciprocal presupposition. He (100) exemplifies this by noting how it is impossible to teach someone, say a foreign language learner, the meaning of this or that word without resorting to other words, without resorting to the theme. I keep repeating this example, but this is how it works when you look up a word in a dictionary, how meaning of a word only emerges in connection to other words. It’s worth noting that he (100) is not dismissive of meaning as he notes that there has to be some, relative, fixity to language, otherwise nothing makes any sense. Then again, the meaning only emerges in verbal intercourse, thus meaning is always, nonetheless, context dependent and thus also subject to change. So, in his (101) words:

“Meaning … belongs to an element or aggregate of elements in the irrelation to the whole. … [I]f we entirely disregard this relation to the whole (i.e., to the utterance), we shall entirely forfeit meaning. That is the reason why a sharp boundary between theme and meaning cannot be drawn.”

Simply put, as he (101) defines it:

“Meaning, in essence, means nothing; it only possesses potentiality – the possibility of having a meaning within a concrete theme.”

Relevant here, he (101) calls theme “the upper, actual limit of linguistic significance” and meaning “the lower limit of linguistic significance.” In other words, as he (102) comes to characterize this, theme has to do with the “investigation of the contextual meaning of a given word within the conditions of a concrete utterance” whereas meaning has to do with the investigation at “the limit of meaning”, “in the system of language”, as is the case dictionaries. What follows from this is, according him (102), that the splits to usual and unusual meanings, central or peripheral meanings, denotation and connotation are unsatisfactory and fallacious. You can’t have denotation, usual or central meaning, because, in his formulation, meaning is the lower limit, a synthesis, an abstraction extracted from a host of utterances. He is particularly adamant on this, when he (102) asserts that:

“[If it were the case], it would leave theme unaccounted for, since theme, of course, can by no means be reduced to the status of the occasional or lateral meaning of words.”

In other words, if that were the case, the theme, the thematic unity of an utterance, would have to follow from the meaning. However, that’s not the case. It is the exact opposite. The general, that is to say meaning, is derived from the specifics, that is to say the theme. It would be wholly unsatisfactory to take a number of utterances, form a standard on the lower limit of those utterances and then judge utterances on that basis as either central or peripheral, denotative or connotative. It’s also simply unnecessary as, for some reason, people can make sense of one another’s utterances without any abstraction or theoreticization of language. For example, I don’t need an authority to tell me how to make sense of this or that, be it some person or a dictionary. In social intercourse, to put it in his parlance, you routinely encounter strange or unfamiliar words, yet, somehow you manage to muddle through, inasmuch as you do of course, pending on how willing your interlocutors are to put what is strange or unfamiliar to you in other words, you know, like in a dictionary.

This is why Vološinov (102) turns to what he calls “the problem of understanding”. He (102) differentiates between “passive understanding, which excludes response in advance” and active, genuine understanding that always “constitute[s] the germ of a response.” In his (102) exact words:

“To understand another person’s utterance means to orient oneself with respect to it, to find the proper place for it in the corresponding context.”

So, in a nutshell, to understand what someone is after is all about the context, what they mean specifically, not what they said means in general. That’s the differences between the upper limit and the lower limit. Therefore, as a result, he (102) argues that “[a]ny true understanding is dialogic in nature.” Actually, I reckon that is a bit of an understatement, in the sense that you can have no understanding without being immersed in language, without ever having engaged in dialogue. Remember, language is not about you, nor about anyone else in specific. You may be fooled to think that it emanates from you but it doesn’t. You can’t say anything unless someone else has said something to you first. To clarify this, I know that’s quite the mind warp but to the best of my understanding, yeah, as much as I like to credit myself for this and that, as having come up with it own my own, I’m very certain that others taught me to speak, hence the point made about understanding being dialogic in nature. He (102) further clarifies this:

“Understanding strives to match the speaker’s word with a counter word. Only understanding a word in a foreign tongue is the attempt made to match it with the ‘same’ word in one’s own language.”

As a result, he (102-103) reiterates that:

“Meaning is the effect of interaction between speaker and listener via the material of a particular sound complex.”

Followed by a rather humorous, yet apt bit on electricity and light bulbs (103):

“It is like an electric spark that occurs only when two different terminals are hooked together. Those who ignore theme (which is accessible only to active, responsive understanding) and who, in attempting to define the meaning of: word, approach its lower, stable, self-identical limit, want, in effect, to turn on a light bulb after having switched off the current. Only the current of verbal intercourse endows a word with the light of meaning.”

To amuse you just a tiny bit more here, while I was writing that down, word to word, I realized that it’s not only humorous and apt, but also … wait for it … enlightening. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist the temptation. Also, it’s worth adding to the first bit, the one preceding this funny one, that it also applies in writing, not only with regards to spoken language.

Ooh, how lucky! Before I jumped to chapter four in order to explain theme, I attempted to explain how he uses accent. Here he (103) he acknowledges that he needs to do a better job at that, to explain its importance in the way he understands language. It is what he (103) calls the “interrelationship between meaning and evaluation”, that is to say how everything we express, say or write, also contains a value judgment, a specific evaluative accent.

He (103) exemplifies this with what he calls “the most superficial value judgement incorporated in the word”, also known as “expressive intonation”. I remember this being covered on an introductory course on phonetics with various hilarious examples as to how merely changing the intonation, the way we say something, affects how we come to understand something. That’s all well and good, and, as a side note, brings back fond memories, but what’s interesting here is that how he (103) points out that it’s not (only) that intonation defines how we come to understand something but how intonation itself is a result of the situation, the immediate context, which is often rather ephemeral.

He (103-104) exemplifies this with a lengthy passage from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘A Writer’s Diary’. The passage is just way too long to include here, especially when the point is rather simple. You have most likely encountered it in the English language context. So, in summary, in the passage there are six tipsy artisans who the narrator, Dostoyevsky (it’s his diary), encounters in passing, each of them saying the one and the same word, a noun that is not indicated in the passage. No other words are uttered. The narrator characterizes the noun as a unprintable, as well as forbidden if women are around (sign of times … that’s 1800s for you!), which Vološinov states as being a common obscenity. In the English context this would surely be ‘fuck’, know for being a rather flexible word. I can’t be bothered to crawl the internet for what the exact word here might be. I guess I have to ask a speaker of Russian. My intuition says it’s probably ‘blyat’ (блять), a rather common emotional expression for this and that in Russian, or its equivalent in the 1800s. Anyway, you get the point. You only need to change the performance to land on something different, even if ever so slightly different. If you struggle to find an example look up the scene in TV-series ‘The Wire’ where two detectives go through an old crime scene, just mainly uttering ‘fuck’ to make sense of what happened at the scene.

To emphasize the importance of the immediate context, he (104) states:

“The conversation was conducted in intonations expressing the value judgments of the speakers. These value judgments and their corresponding intonations were wholly determined by the immediate social situation of the talk and therefore did not require any referential support.”

He (104) points to a case where it becomes more or less, not entirely but largely, irrelevant what the expression happens to be as it is about how it is done. He (104) lists expressions such as “‘so-so’, ‘yes-yes’, ‘now-now’, ‘well-well’” functioning as vents, the doubling “allowing the pent up intonation to fully expire.” This is my example, not his, but just consider the difference between:

“Well, what do we have here?”


“Well-well, what do we have here?”

I guess you could triple that as well, while we are at it:

“Well-well-well, what do we have here?”

It does make a major difference. This is, of course, only my take and I have conjured my own context to it. In the first utterance it’s rather straight to the point, perhaps with a slight surprise. In the second utterance there is clearly more emphasis on the surprise. It’s a bit snarky already. In the third utterance, there’s even further emphasis. It’s not snarky anymore, in the sense that there is no joy taken in it. It’s more of a disappointment, as if you saw it coming. If you want a real life example, not my made up one, look up some compilation video of Matthew McConaughey saying ‘alright’, ranging from ‘alright’ to what he is known for, ‘alright-alright-alright’, all the way to it being uttered so many times that I lost count. If all this doubling and tripling bothers you, look up Owen Wilson saying ‘wow’ all the time instead. I think he does a couple of ‘wow-wow’ or ‘whoa-wow’ and ‘wow-wow-wow’ or ‘whoa-whoa-wow’ but he is pretty locked on uttering that only once. This actually also works with ‘fuck’, just look up the scene in ‘The Wire’.

Getting back to his Dostoyevsky example, he (104-105) reiterates that in the theme of the utterance, each and every time, as uttered by six different people, it “is implemented entirely and exclusively by the power of expressive intonation without the aid of word meaning or grammatical coordination.” He (105) reiterates his earlier point about how this operates at the higher limit and reducing it to the lower limit just won’t work. He (105) clarifies what will happen if you do that, reduce it to the lower limit:

“Only the abstract element, perceived within the system of language and not within the structure of an utterance, appears devoid of value judgment.”

He (105) argues that the problem with this is that while you can go for the lower limit, come up with some semantically ultra broad utterance and imagine a super wide social audience, it still necessitates an element of evaluation. Skipping bits here (which I’m sure you have the time and the will to read yourself), he (105) addresses changes in meaning that happen not only in the sense that a word used to mean this and/or that back in the day, as often indicated in a dictionary, but also in everyday life when words are used differently. In short, he (105) emphasizes that utterances are never separate from evaluation, which, in fact, permits change, makes language creative. For him (105) a change in meaning is thus always a reevaluation, i.e. “the transposition of some particular word from one evaluative context to another.” He (105) is particularly clear and adamant on this, what happens if theme and (re)evaluation is ignored:

“The separation of word meaning from evaluation inevitably deprives meaning of its place in the living social process (where meaning is always permeated with value judgment), to its being ontologized and transformed into ideal Being divorced from the historical process of Becoming.”

For those who are familiar with the work of Deleuze and/or Guattari, by themselves or together, and subscribe to becoming, not being, this couldn’t be a better example for you. Simply put, he rejects semantics and advocates for pragmatics. Note how he states that this results in language being ontologized, transformed into something ideal. It is set up as having its own existence. He is not stating that it has its own existence, that it is a being of its own. To be absolutely clear, he points out that this is an illegitimate move, deriving something ideal and static from something actual and dynamic.

So, conversely, in summary of what this essay has been all about, more or less, (106) he argues that:

“[I]t is essential to take social evaluation into account. The generative process of signification in language is always associated with the generation of the evaluative purview of a particular social group, and the generation of an evaluative purview … is entirely determined by expansion of the economic basis.”

Now, I left out the following bit, in order to pay more attention to the evaluative purview, which he (106) defines as:

“[T]he totality of all those things that have meaning and importance for a particular group[.]”

This brings me back to where I started, the second chapter of the first part of the book where the importance of groups is indicated. He (106) exemplifies the importance of material conditions, that is to say economic conditions, that bear relevance to various human groups with prehistoric herdsmen and contemporary people (early 1900s to be exact here). He (106) is being quite dismissive of the herdsmen when he argues that they were “virtually interested in nothing, and virtually nothing had any bearing on” them. Of course this is in contrast to the people of his time. This is what he (106) calls the evaluative purview. This lands me back to the final pages of the second chapter where he (21) calls this “the social purview of the given time period and the given social group.” This is also the point he (20-21) makes about how people belonging to different groups, for example engineers engage in technical jargon on the job and business people make use of concise statements (buzzwords?), as well as how the adjust accordingly if they speak members of other groups and/or their superiors and inferiors. Obviously this expands to virtually all contexts and group memberships, be they are formal or informal.

This all, particularly what is discussed in chapter four, also helps to understand how he (22) conceptualizes how items (objects, things) come to appear in the circle of items for this and/or that group of people in this and/or that time and place. That’s the point he makes about purview. So, yeah, he (106) is dismissive about the purview of prehistoric herdsmen but only in contrast to the purview of contemporary people. The circle of items for the herdsmen was for sure small but not because they were too dumb or blind to see them items out there but because their socioeconomic circumstances did not push new items to enter their purview. Now, as I pointed out earlier on in this essay, this should not be taken as if there is list of things, in themselves, only waiting to be uncovered by a more advanced human being, as if things were simply hiding in plain sight. This reminds me of how Michel Foucault (49) defines discourse in ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’:

“[P]ractices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.”

This is also highly relevant to contrasting appearance and apparition, the former being about the looks of this or that item (object, thing) and the latter being about how that item (object, thing) comes to be seen (or sensed, to avoid ocularcentrism here). This distinction applies regardless of whether one assumes that there is something essential to things (items, objects), that there is a corresponding idea, a thing-in-itself, or not. Apparition is highly relevant here because it pertains to the conditions of inauguration, how something enters our purview, to the systematic practices that form it, that item (object, thing).

In the very last pages of the second chapter Vološinov (23) reminds the reader not confuse the groups of people with the sign community, with speakers of this and/or that language. If they were one and the same thing, then different people belonging to different groups would be unable to comprehend one another. He (23) calls this multiaccentuality of signs:

“[I]t is thanks to this intersecting of accents that a sign maintains its vitality and dynamism and the capacity for further development.”

He (23) warns of the perils of flattening this, studying language in isolation from everyday life. It may be of interest to the researcher to do so, but, for him, and for me, as I agree with him, this ignores reality. It kills language, as he comes to characterize the issue later on in the book. What makes language particularly interesting is the exact opposite, its vitality and mutability, which also make “it a refracting and distorting medium”, as he (23) characterizes it. Simply put, language is not interesting for what it is but for what it does. He (23) acknowledges that this, what he calls multiaccentuality, can be used to, well, is inevitably used to portray language as uniaccentual. This is the point where language becomes a language, fixed and standardized, as judged according to certain interest by those designated to the task. In Deleuze-Guattarian (or, rather, Nietzschean) parlance those people are the priests. They are the people who tell us what this and/or that means. This is the central issue Vološinov has with linguists throughout the book.

I’ll stop here, for now. I intend to keep going with this book as contains so many good points out this and that, many which I have yet to cover. As a disclaimer, I don’t agree with Vološinov on everything. I’ve already mentioned how I don’t like the word ideology and this book drops it in almost every sentence. That keeps irking me and I try do my best to avoid using it. I’m also not fond of dialectics, so I try to avoid that as well, as much as I can without distorting what I considering important in the book. Do I succeed in such? Well, yes and no. I’m sure there are people who’d like to point out that I got this and/or that wrong, that I can’t skip these and/or those parts, or that I shouldn’t reformulate this and/or that in the way I’ve done. There’s that. There’s always that. That’s why I recommend people to actually read the originals themselves, not just take someone’s word for it and be happy with it.


  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Dostoyevsky, F. M. (1993/1994). A Writer’s Diary (K. A. Lantz, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
  • Foucault, M. ([1969/1971] 1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language (A. M. Sheridan Smith and R. Swyer, Trans.). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
  • Turgenev, I. S. (1850). Дневник лишнего человека. St. Petersburg, Russia: Otechestvennye Zapiski.
  • Turgenev, I. S. (1856). Рудин. St. Petersburg, Russia: Sovremennik.
  • Turgenev, I. S. ([1856] 1894). Rudin. London, United Kingdom: William Heinemann.
  • Turgenev, I. S. ([1850] 1899). The Diary of a Superfluous Man. In I. S. Turgenev, The Diary of a Superfluous Man and Other Stories (C. Garnett, Trans.) (pp. 3-98). New York, NY: Macmillan and Co.
  • Vološinov, V. N. ([1930] 1973). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik, Trans.). New York, NY: Seminar Press.