Transformational Processes and Codes
This article presents some theorical notions from M.Bakhtin and L. Godmann necessary for understanding how is working the process of semiotic
transformation that links the textual structures with the social structures.
Textual Functions I
Transformational Processes and Codes
A Materialist Philosophy of Discourse
Every literary text is the product of a phenomenon of consciousness or, rather, a series of phenomena of consciousness. Consciousness does not constitute a preexisting immanent reality but, on the contrary, as Mikhail Bakhtin writes, “a socioideological fact” that “can only arise and assert itself as a reality through material embodiment in signs.”1 It is insepa-rable from the whole set of semiotic markers configuring it and causing it to exist. There is no consciousness apart from the sign understood in the broad sense, since semiotic material also comprises “every gesture or process of the organism: breathing, the circulation of the blood, the movements of the body, articulate speech, interior discourse, mimicry, reactions to external stimuli (light, for example), in short, everything that takes place in the organism can become material for the expression of psychic activity, given the fact that anything may acquire semiotic value, may become expressive.”2 The word, however, is the privileged material of inner life: “For a psychism which is to any extent developed and differentiated a subtle and flexible semiotic material is indispensable, and it is essential, moreover, that this material lend itself to formalization and differentiation in the social context, in the process of exteriorized expression.”3 Whether or not at any given time the semiotic operation concretizing mental activity is organized around the word, this expression arises, in any event, outside consciousness. and without this external contribution of the sign no psychic activity is possible. The sign is essentially social; it can be exchanged only by individuals belonging to a particular community possessing specific structures; it materializes a communication, and investing consciousness, it consequently traces within it the markers of a certain type of sociality.4
Using this hypothesis, and limiting the discussion to the problem of language. I assume, for a start, three levels of consciousness (the clear consciousness, the nonconscious, the subconscious),5 structured essentially by and around acquired signs, which means that not each one of these signs has thus transferred its valence intact, but that, on the contrary, the valence has been redistributed inside and by this new system. In this sense, semiotic expressions form a system only through the modalities of their assimilation.
Consistent with what I said earlier, but quite apart from Goldmann, I shall add that the transindividual subject invests the individual consciousness of each individual participating in it by means of specific microsemiotics. These microsemiotics transcribe in signs the totality of aspirations, frustrations, and vital problems of each of the groups involved. They provide a kind of “readout” of the ways each group is immersed in history. Each of us belongs, at any given moment of our lives, to a series of collective subjects (generation, family, geographic origin. profession, etc.); we pass through many of them in the course of our existence, even though we may be marked more specifically by the one that, in the last analysis, conditions the whole of our activities, namely our social class. These different collective subjects, when we pass through them, offer us their values and world visions through the materialization of the semiotic, gestural, or verbal expressions characterizing them (social roles, set phrases, hierarchical organization of paradigmatic axes, etc.). On the one hand, the whole set of these materializations is available to organize our inner life every bit as much as our external circuits of communication, and on the other hand, the expression of every phenomenon of consciousness organizes certain of these signs around a specific configuration corresponding to a particular situation. An initial conclusion may he drawn that, though obvious, deserves to be emphasized, if we are to base a critical approach to the cultural artifact upon a materialist philosophy of language: the text selects its signs not within language but within the totality of semiotic expressions acquired/proposed by collective subjects. (We shall see that other centers of selection must be specified.) Thus we may refute Saussure’s distinction between language (langue) and speech (parole) or, more precisely. the criteria advanced in order to establish this distinction:
"By separating language from speech, one separates in one stroke: first, what is social from what is individual; second, what is essential from what is accessory and more or less accidental. Language is not a function of the speaking subject: it is a product that the individual passively records. . . . Speech is, on the contrary, an individual act of will and intelligence in which one should distinguish, first, the combinations through which the speaking subject uses the code of the language with a view to expressing his personal thought, and second, the psychophysical mechanisms which permit him to exteriorize these combinations.6
The concept of langue is an abstraction that exists only for the historian. The individual passively records not a language but a multiplicity of discourses. which are essentially assimilated within enunciative contexts along with their potential variations. These variations are closely dependent on the situation of communication conveying them and thereby c-onferring upon them their social and ideological valence. The sign is acquired “in a situation” and remains a bearer of sociality and interaction: it keeps in its memory the dialogic space from which it arose.
The act of speech is an individual response to a given circumstance, but speech it-self is essentially a product derived from a collective subject (the Nous). This does not mean that one may isolate a proletarian discourse from a bourgeois discourse, or that there are class languages and grammars, which would contradict the definition of social classes7 and the concept of discourse to which we have just referred. Discourse, whatever the col-lective subject whose aspirations, frustrations, or values it expresses, transcribes with these aspirations, frustrations, or values, and through their very mediation contradictory elements that are contiguous or complementary to other transindividual subjects. In our sense of the term, there is no ideologically pure discourse, but more specifically, there are discursive traces capable of reconstituting themselves in meaningful microsemiotic systems that mark an utterance more or less strongly, and these traces are sometimes capable of giving it a sociohistorical meaning. Within the spaces of contradiction that discourse, whichever one it may be, enacts, it reconstructs at its own level, and according to modalities appropriate to it, the contradictions in the social formation upon which the corresponding collective subject depends. I have given several examples elsewhere of these semiotic systems organized contradictorily within the same utterance;8 here I shall cite the example of taqiyya (“a term that designates the act by which a Muslim isolated in a hostile group refrains from practicing his own religion, pretending to adopt externally the religion imposed upon him”), concerning which L. Cardaillac quotes an aljamiado text reporting the reply of a mufti of Oran to the moriscos of Grenada, who are questioning him about the practice of their religion: “What must the morisco do when he is obliged to renounce his faith . . . ? If, for example, the Christians force the Muslims to blaspheme the prophet, they will then have to pronounce his name Hamed, as the Christians do. . . . As far as prayers are concerned, when the morisco finds that he is obliged to go to Church at the very moment when he should be saying his Muslim prayer, he will be dispensed from doing so. . . . In like fashion, if he cannot say his prayer during the day, let him do it at night.”9 This casuistry is part of the countercasuistry of the Manual of the Inquisitors, which warns judges against the dissimulation in the replies of the accused (“the heretics have ten ways of deceiving inquisitors who interrogate them . . . as when we speak to them of the true body of Christ and they respond: of his mystical body: or if we ask them if this is the body of Christ, they answer yes, meaning by that their own body, a nearby stone, in the sense in which all the bodies on Earth are of God”).10 These two intertwined discourses show how a dominant ideology integrates into its own system of representations the spaces that the dominated ideology attempts to infiltrate, and in the case of the taqiyya, how the dominated ideology allows the dominating structure to show through. Thus, each of the discourses, in turn, invests the discursive space confronting it and envelops its principal components.
The Word’s Plurality of Accent and the Spaces of Dialogue
When we undertake a more precise analysis of the word, as Bakhtin does, we find a space fraught with conflicts. Bakhtin speaks, in this connection, of the pluriaccentuation of the word, “which makes it a living thing”:
“The possible contexts of one and the same word are often in opposition with each other. The replies in a dialogue are a classic example. Here, the same word figures in two contexts struggling against each other. It is true that the dialogue constitutes a particularly glaring example of contexts that are oriented differently. It may be said, however, that every real utterance, whatever its form, always contains a more or less clear indication of agreement with something or refusal of something. Contexts are not merely juxtaposed, as though they were indifferent to each other, but are in a situation of interaction and of intense, uninterrupted struggle. The shift in a word’s value accent from one context to another is totally ignored by linguistics. . . . Although value accents are lacking in substance, it is the plurality of a word’s accents that makes it come alive. The problem of pluriaccentuation must be closely linked to that of polysemy.”11
What is problematic in this case is the univocality of the word, which, when it enters into the enunciation of a textual message, undergoes the effects of semantic reduction. How then can it restore its original plurality of accent while inserted in only one context? One might expect, in fact, two levels: on the one hand, by the elaboration of semiotic systems;12 on the other hand, by the reconstitution of the microsemiotic systems acquired by the speaking subject.13 To clarify the problem, I refer the reader to two texts.
In the example of Scarface, what is involved is not a word but a sign14 –the St. An-drew’s cross– that is related to a sensationalist type of journalistic writing whose objective is to expose the facts, and that represents one of the modes of transcription of a new, urban, immigrant culture turned toward collective action and mass communication. At the same time, however, it is a sign of interdiction belonging to a “rhetoric of silence and concealment” that materializes within the film the presence of the Hays Code, that repressive code of censorship weighing heavily against the film industry, a product of the mental structures of an older rural, conservative, and Protestant America. These contradictory connotations of the same sign can be restored only as the sign is put back into the context of the two chains of meaning functioning in the film’s text. We are at an intersection of two voices testifying to a situation of conflict, speaking within the text through two contiguous semiotic systems.
The case of Guzmán deAlfarache is more complex.15 In this text, the glorification of the Earth’s generosity begins with the mention of a series of products it offers spontane-ously (“It gives us precious stones, gold, silver, and other metals which we need so much and for which we thirst”). The term thirst enters into a microsemiotic that transcribes within textuality the mark of one of the traditional topics of the Golden Age, namely the description of the first human beings, who have only elementary needs to satisfy and who live in a world that generously provided for them. Within this microsemiotic, thirst relates to other signs such as “necessity, herbs, fruit, water, drink, sheep, milk, wool,” and so on. But it also belongs to a second microsemiotic of exchange and mercantilism (gold, silver, commerce, etc.), of products of a second order of need (cloth for decoration, etc.); in this context, the accent is placed on another value of sed, namely avidity. In this term two thoughts intersect, which, to borrow Pierre Vilar’s words, “have coexisted and fought one another” over the role of gold and precious metals in the prosperity of a State. Is gold the “sole sign . . . of the greatness of States,” or on the contrary, is it the “seed of dissolution of true wealth that consists only in the production of goods necessary for life”?16 In a first reading, apparently set within a semantic reduction that makes it a sign of cupidity and the textual index of a moral discourse on mercantilism, the word is here somehow destabilized in the framework of textual semantics, and also says something else –namely the opposite of its first meaning. In this sense, it represents a crossing of voices, a space of conflict.
What I have just said about the word remains valid at the level of the broader units that enter into the combinatorial structure of the genotext. I refer here to the Buscón, in which, as we shall see, the representation of sociopolitical reality takes place through the inscription in the text of the two social practices: the feast of Carnival and the repressive ac-tions of the Inquisition. These practices are invested in the text by means of semiotic systems resting in turn upon contradictory value systems that we may consider as phantasmal projections of social Destructuration and Restructuration. When we investigate the mechanisms that permit the system to swing from one semiotic system to another and, consequently, from one space to an opposite space, we observe that the point of coincidence is the polyvalent concept of mask, the tragic mask behind which forbidden rites, especially, hide and which the inquisitorial procedure strives to remove, or the festive disguises that permit marginal people to express themselves. The fact that, in a burlesque context, these masks reproduce the features of the established authorities, as is frequently the case at Carnival time, or that in the dramatic masquerades of the autos da fé, they reproduce, because they are obliged to do so. the ritual practices of the dominant society, shows how the discursive spaces of marginality coincide with the structures producing situations of exclusion.17
The comparison between this analysis and the preceding analyses of the sign in Scarface and the word in Guzmán deAlfarache suggests a generalization: every textual element inserted at the heart of the production of meaning can function only in a polyvalent form.
Returning to our central problem, we see that it is impossible to conceive of dis-courses of transindividual subjects functioning autonomously. Every act of speech sets in motion an interdiscourse that marks in the text the discursive traces of an ideological for-mation and. in this way, refers us to a social formation. That is why this utterance must be considered in turn as polyvalent, which requires reconstituting often contradictory vectors of meaning that transcribe the social interests of the different transindividual subjects in-volved. These different vectors of meaning carve up one and the same reality in myriad ways and create polysemic spaces of reading.
To say implicitly that the phenomena of consciousness that generate texts are not reducible to the category of the individual does not mean that we have rejected the notion of a text’s originality, for speech always redistributes these different voices in particular ways. These voices have themselves shaped consciousness in a unique mode by giving it a specific configuration.
1. Mikhail Bakhtin, Le Marxisme et la philosophie du langage; Essais d’application de la méthode sociologique en linguistique (Paris: Minuit. 1977), pp. 27, 30.
2. Ibid., pp. 50-51; Bakhtin’s italics.
4. See Theory and Practice of Sociocriticism, Chapter 9.
5. On this point, see, Ibid. Chapter 1.
6. F. de Saussure, Curso de lingüística general (Barcelona: Planeta, 1985), p. 27. My italics.
7. “Class . . . cannot be conceived as static, passive, in itself, but in its relation to other classes” (Jean Guichard, Le Marxisme: Théorie de la pratique révolutionnaire [Lyons: Chronique Sociale de France], p. 193).
8. Edmond Cros, “Effets sur la génétique textuelle de la situation marginalisée du sujet,” Imprévue, 1 (1980), 23-30.
9. L. Cardaillac, Moriscos y cristianos: un enfrentamiento polémico (Madrid: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1979), ch. 2. The term aljamiado refers to a text in Castilian but writ-ten in Arabic characters.
10. Nicolav Eimeric and Francisco Peña, El Manual de los Inquisidores (Barcelona: Muchnick editores [Colección Archivos de la herejía por R. Muñoz Suay], 1983), p. 148.
11. Bakhtin, Le Marxisme, p. 116. On the same problem, see also Bakhtin’s La Poétique de Dostoievski (Paris: Seuil), ch. 5.
12. See Theory an History… Chapter 6.
13. See Ibid., Chapter 1.
14. See Ibid., Chapter 8, pp. 133-136.
15. See Ibid., Chapter 10, pp. 190-207.
16. Pierre Vilar, Or et monnaie dans l’histoire (Paris: Flammarion, 1974), p. 192.
17. See E. Cros, “Pratiques idéologiques et pratiques rituelles. Rendre I’illisible lisible,” Imprévue, 1 (1980), 129-137.
[From Edmond Cros, Theory and Practice of Sociocriticism, Translation by Jerome Schwartz, Foreword by Jürgen Link and Ursula Link- Heer, University of Minnnesota Press, Minneapolis, Theory and History of Literature, Volume 53, 1987]