Production=Signification: Towards a Semiotic Materialism

1. Introduction

This article offers a reading of Karl Marx’s work as a critical theory of forms of social reproduction, in their diversity and plasticity, and to which a communicative dimension is central. Marx’s materialist social theory is often taken to relegate language, like consciousness, religion, etc., to a secondary status in his account of the core determining and differentiating bases of human social forms. We aim to challenge this by outlining and developing Bolívar Echeverría’s[1] striking proposition that production and signification have an ‘essential identity’, taking it as the basis for a Marxist semiotic materialism in which material production always also involves semiotic communication.

2. The language of real life

Whilst the idea of ‘languages’ may unproblematically refer to systems of communication, the idea of language as such commands no single common definition within contemporary scientific discourse, where ‘there exists no consensus about what specifically identifies “language in general”’ (Ullrich, 2017, p. 180). The term is instead subject to a panoply of divergent and often incompatible definitions, a difficulty further confounded in relation to specifically human language and linguistic capacities. If the notion that linguistic communication (or, more emphatically, ‘rational discourse’, logos) as that which distinguishes the human from other animals may no longer be self-evident or theoretically palatable, and the apparent impossibility of identifying a unique function of human communication not found anywhere in the animal kingdom raises charges of ‘anthropodenial’ (De Waal, 1999) the appeal (and perhaps need) of defining human language in distinction from other forms of animal communication nonetheless endures. In minimal and residual form, this seemingly interminable endeavour is manifest in the tentative claim that ‘human communication differs from animal communication not so much in specific traits but rather in its complexity and flexibility’ (Naguib, 2006, p. 283). What might Marx’s intellectual project — for which ‘all mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice’ (Marx, 1978) — offer in light of these aporias?

3. Semiotic Materialism

Reading Marx in this way reveals human social life to be marked by a dual structure, generated by convergent teloi — physiological and ‘political’. The ‘political’ telos guiding human existence acts upon the physiological telos of biological survival, subsuming it under a determinate social form through which it is to be realised, such that for the human, ‘the reproduction of its animal materiality is the bearer of a reproduction that transcends it, that of its social materiality’ (Echeverría, 2014, p. 27). The pre-eminence of this ‘trans-naturalising’, socio-historical dimension to practical life affirms the human capacity and necessity of giving form to its own material activity, to endow itself with a concrete identity, albeit as something that is always in question, perennially in the process of definition and redefinition. This dual structure splits apart the reproduction process which realises and sustains material life, fracturing it in the hiatus between the production of practical objects and their consumption. It is this hiatus, operative both temporally and intersubjectively, which establishes a ‘communicative tension’, a practical ambiguity and uncertainty from which the semiotic character of human life emerges.

Fig. 1. The homology between communication and production/consumption[4]

4. semiotic materialism and capitalism

The preceding analysis of the ontology and semiotics of human reproduction in its general, ‘socionatural form’ now enables us to explore the consequences of producing practical objects with use-values, or social wealth, as capitalist commodities, that is to say, as units of value in the process of capital’s self-expansion (Marx, 1976).

5. Concluding remarks

The ‘transnaturalised’ character of human social life is the foundation of the semiotic materialism we outline here. Although many discrete examples can be found of learned, transmitted and apparently ‘spontaneous’ behaviours by which non-human animals transgress their instinctual codes, this always occurs in a limited manner. Human life, by contrast, is, for Marx, inherently characterised by this transgression; it is the differentia specifica of human existence to find and select its own form, to constantly put this into play and reinvent its concrete identity. The predominance of this ‘political’ telos over any ‘natural’ schema, and the instability of any given mode of life it implies, gives rise to a communicative tension throughout the entire human reproduction process which opens the possibility for a semiotic analysis of the ‘language of real life’. As Echeverría’s distinctive reading of Marx highlights, human communication occurs not only with language in the specific sense, but also through the production and consumption of practical objects, through the form of those objects, which relays practical intentions between social individuals. In this way human practices can be grasped as signifying, and the objects through which human reproduction is realised can be treated as signs; they express, in the bi-planar configuration of a natural substance and a social form, both the mode of life which conditions their emergence and the political impulse, however subtly manifest, to sustain or alter that mode.

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Philosopher based at University of the Arts London and the UNAM, Mexico

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Andrés Saenz de sicilia

Andrés Saenz de sicilia

Philosopher based at University of the Arts London and the UNAM, Mexico