July 02, 2011

Michel Pêcheux, from MAPPING IDEOLOGY

Rather than reading this version which is a draft, you can download the corrected and cleaned up text of all the annotations and my introduction to them here now called, "One Possible Narrative of the Concept of Ideology since Marx"

“The Mechanism of Ideological (Mis)recognition” - Michel Pêcheux
Michel Pêcheux 
The first thing to note about Pêcheux is that he firmly Althusserian and sees his project as extending Althusser’s thoughts about ideology in order to develop “the foundations of a materialist theory of discourse” (141). He rephrases Althusser very slightly to bring out the dynamics of class struggle as they pass through ISAs and thus rather than reproduction alone as the focus, he is concerned with the “ideological conditions of the reproduction/transformation of the relations of production” (141). He begins with a few framing assumptions, first that he recognizes (as had Althusser) that ideology is by no means the sole element” through which “reproduction/transformation” occurs (141). The second point he raises is that by “reproduction/transformation” he means “to designate the nodally contradictory character of any mode of production which is based on a division into classes, i.e., whose principle is the class struggle” - that is, he is not marking this or that force as either reproducing or transforming, Pêcheux sees the ISAs as the very cite of the class struggle and thus inevitably productive of both transformation and reproduction (141-2). Pêcheux reminds his readers that, 1) ideology is not equivalent to “the general form of the Zeitgeist (...) imposed in an even and homogenous way on ‘society’ as a kind of space pre-existing class struggle,” 2) that we cannot impute to every class its own distinct ideology which would pre-exist the class struggle, 3) ISAs “are not the expression of the domination of the ruling ideology (...) but are the site and means of realization of that domination,” and 4) ISAs “constitute simultaneously and contradictorily the site and the ideological conditions of the transformation of the relations of production” (142). Pêcheux conceptualizes the ISAs as a “complex set” characterized by “relations of contradiction-unevenness-subordination between its ‘elements’” (143). Basically, that not every ISA has an equal share in what is happening and some may skew more toward reproduction and other toward transformation. Specific ISAs “have a ‘regional‘ character and involve class positions: the ideological objects are always supplied together with ‘the way to use them‘ - their ‘meaning’” (143). Class positions too, Pêcheux reminds us, do not “exist abstractly” to them be “applied to the different regional ideological ‘objects’ of concrete situations” (143). Rather, class positions are created through these regional struggles, and “the very division into regions (...) and the relationships of unevenness-subordination between those regions [is] what is at stake in the ideological class struggle” (143). Pêcheux sees class struggle as the effort, through the ISAs, to impose “new relationships of unevenness-subordination” thereby transforming the complex set of the ISAs relations with the state, thus changing the state apparatus itself (144). He proposes the term “ideological formation” to designate the “complex whole in dominance” inclusive of the ISAs, RSAs and the state and understand this complex whole as always riven by contradictions (144). Class struggle is not in “symmetrical” and ought not to be thought of as opposed sides fighting for one and the same object, and further, class struggle should not be thought of as taking place within a “single space” - all of this is consequent on the constitutive role of contradiction with the ideological formation. Considering what Althusser has had to say about the subject Pêcheux makes the point that “the term [subject] is neither subject nor object but an attribute of the object” when one is thinking about ideology in general (146). Next Pêcheux picks up the comparison of ideology and the unconscious that Althusser had made, and observes that “the common feature of the two structures (...) is the fact that they conceal their own existence within their operation by producing a web of ‘subjective’ evident truths, ‘subjective’ here meaning (...) ‘in which the subject is constituted’” (147). Referencing the obviousnesses that Althusser had mentioned, Pêcheux zeroes in on one of Althusser’s examples that I skipped over in my previous annotation, namely the obviousness of meaning and of language as transparent (147). Pêcheux is interested specifically in parallels and linkages between the “constitution of meaning” and the “constitution of the subject” and developing Althusser’s notion of interpellation wishes to theorize such “ideological ‘rituals’” as reading and writing (148). For Pêcheux the concept of interpellation “makes palpable the superstructural link” between the subject of the law (who is hailed in Althusser’s famous policeman example) and the ideological subject (who says “yes, it’s me” when asked “is that you?”) (148). In a fashion that is somewhat unclear from the excerpt, Pêcheux feels that this double instance of interpellation, allows the analyst to see “from behind the scenes” in order to grasp that “the subject is spoken of” and “the subject is spoken to, before the subject can say: ‘I speak’” (148). He makes the point, apropos Althusser’s thesis about interpellation, that before interpellation occurs, that the subject is a non-subject, and that it is only post-interpellation that it appears that the subject always-already was so (148). The split within the subject as ‘legal’ and ‘ideological‘    suggests is important to Pêcheux who argues that “this discrepancy (...) operates by contradiction” regardless of whether the speaking subject recognizes this or not (149). Pêcheux sees an awareness of this present in many jokes, such as “There are no cannibals in our areas, we ate the last one last week” (151). He sees interpellation as a “process of signifier, an interpellation-identification” along the lines of Lacan’s claim (which he cites) that “the signifier is what represents the subject to another signifier” (149). Thinking in this way allows him to conceive “the subject as a process (of representation) inside the non-subject constituted by the network of signifers, in Lacan’s sense: the subject is ‘caught’ in the network” (149) and it is in this process that “objects” are found which “duplicate and divide to act on themselves as other than themselves” (150). What I think Pêcheux has in mind here is that, given the differing ways in which interpellation can function, that ideology - much like the unconscious - is this thing which subjects enact on themselves as “other than themselves” (which would seem to be what is happening when someone does something knowing that it will induce guilt, ostensibly for the pleasure it will afford, but - per the analytic notion of the superego - in order to feel guilt with good reason). Pêcheux seems to feel that this doubling of the subject of interpellation offers the promise of great explanatory power for a materially-based discourse analysis, one that he seems to have begun in the book from which this except was taken, but as he died at the age of 45 in 1983 and as I have not heard of any fully fleshed-out theory of materialist discourse analysis under his name, I assume that this project remained incomplete. The two of his books which exist in English are both long out of print, and the one of them which is available commercially is listed at over $150. I’ve looked for them both before without success.
This too is Michel Pecheaux, but a different one, participating in the 1936 Olympics.
I fenced in college, so figured I'd include it.


  1. i am currently making a "scoopit" about discourse analysis/theory in france 1960-1980 et i just discovered your post, very interesting ! you are "scoopited" :

  2. Hi Marie-Anne, I'm flattered that you've scoopited me. Best of luck in your researches. kind regards, John


lay it on me/us