Base/Superstructure and the Academy

Postmodern Enterprises quilty at philos.umass.edu
Wed Sep 28 13:24:54 MDT 1994


The recent exchanges on base/ideology, relative autonomy, and the deep
pockets "behind" the academy, have been interesting.  I don't have the
original texts in front of me, but perhaps it's just as well, since I
don't think I could do justice in quoting the originals in a manner that
preserved all the intentions w/o quoting altogether too much.

My thought on it, for anyone interested, is that the Althusserian gesture
of "relative autonomy" as against Gramsian "hegemony" is a step in the
right direction.  That is, I think it's simply too reductive just to
suppose that all superficial ideological disagreements are no more than a
*front* for the hegemonic preconditions behind them all (or maybe a mask
for that common unity).  I wouldn't quite disagree with the possibility
of operation of such hegemonic preconditions (since I *am* trying to
write a dissertation on just such a thing), but I would want to see them
as a "horizon", rather than as directly determinative conditions of the
concrete opinions.  That is, I would suppose that the "unsayable"
intervenes as a purely negative constraint, not as a causal influence on
particular ideologies (I like Althusser's use of the big and small
'I'/'i' to distinguish outsideless Ideology from mere ideology... the
former being, maybe, close to the gramscian hegemony).  This is one of
the problems with the reductivist (confessedly) analysis of the deep
pockets behind the intellectuals which Henwood, for example, proposes.
It hardly seems to me that moneybags is more able than the intellectuals
to step outside the constraints of the *sayable*, and somehow
deliberately impose those constraints.  Certainly moneybags has a
preference amongst the ideologies (small 'i'), but so do the
intellectuals, and the bureaucrats, and the church, and lots of other
interested parties, none of which has any simplistic "final say" in the
matter.  This is almost tautology:  if there was a final say between
ideologies, the one finally said wouldn't be ideology at all, but rather
Ideology/hegemony.  Besides, even moneybags is internally divided, having
varieties of opinions -- Armand Hammer and Pinochet not being in
agreement on *all* things.

One answer is to suppose that not capitalists, but Capital, have this
last say in what the intellectuals -- and other ideologists
(entertainers, politicians, etc.) -- may say.  This is true enough, but
it's also quite metaphysical, *Capital* being synonymous as a vacant
placeholder with the Big Other, Being, Totality, or whatever.  Hell, one
might even use my word 'horizon' -- although at the risk of sounding
sickly reminiscent of H---------. (the name I won't write)

I think one has to go a step beyond this Althusserian relative autonomy
though.  The mention of those heady times of Stalinist linguistics point
in this direction -- namely to the dear to my heart semiotician
V.N.Voloshinov (arguments on his equivalence to Bakhtin are for someone
else to bother with).  Stalin was in a sense right, as against Marr, on
the language issue.  Language, though being a form of representation,
rather than an expressive/mimetic extension of the modes of production,
must properly constitute part of the base.  Where Stalin makes an error,
IMO, is in keeping to a too simple base/superstructure distinction -- or
rather to equating this with a (different) base/ideology distinction.
Language indeed constitutes the very mechanism by which modes of
production operate, but so also do a great number of *ideological*
facts.  Marx himself gestures to this somewhere or another in his comment
on the historical conditioning of the necessary consumption for the
recreation of workers as workers (the bit about the English workers
needing ale, and the French wine, or something like that... where is
that?).  I would think of *everything* about the constitution of the mode
of production -- the construction of the machines, the skills of workers,
the forms of hierarchy -- as already ideological.  Certainly it is the
work of *representation*, and of all the usual ideology workers, who
maintain and make possible/conceptualizable all the facts of the base.

This is where I think "relative autonomy" doesn't go far enough.  The
*base* is always and everywhere an *ideological* construction
('construction' in the sense of a building, not in that of something
merely imagined).  The "last instance" is surely quite ideological.  I
don't really object to the base/superstructure picture -- some things
clearly have a causal significance, while others are pretty much
epiphenomenal.  But Ideology (big 'I') is on the side of the base in
constituting the horizon of representability -- representability of the
modes of production, as much as of the epiphenomena.  Particular
ideologies, those things about which we can disagree, fall to the
superstructural side, but so as well do a great number of economic
accidents.   There may be a "relative autonomy" of ideological forces --
like the churches vs. the schools.  Weber was not wrong in diagnosing
different significances for these historically.  But Ideology itself has
a much more universal rol than to be merely relatively autonomous, IMO.

Yours, Lulu...


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