Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

Chapter 5 Literature and Ideology

Renée Balibar: Class Domination and the Literary Effect

It is impossible to say more about Macherey's rejection of criticism and the concept of literature without introducing the work of Renée Balibar and her associates, whose historical investigations of literature, language, and education in France are used by Macherey to illustrate and justify his new position.[5] Like Macherey's theoretical shift, the work of Balibar emerges from Althusser's concept of the "ideological state apparatus." In Les français fictifs , which studies the functioning of literary texts within the French educational system in the nineteenth century, and in Le français national , which studies the development of a uniform national language in conjunction with that of the unified schooling system during and since the French Revolution, literature, language, and the schools are treated as ideological apparatuses and, as such, are shown to be in a close and necessary interrelationship. Balibar's thesis is that in the context of the development of a uniform national language the production of certain texts as "literary" together with their re-


stricted use within the education system was a manifestation of class struggle in the sphere of language, a tactic by which the bourgeoisie created its "cultural revolution" and created for itself a position of hegemony. The objective existence of literature is held by Balibar to be inseparable from given linguistic practices (if there is a "French" literature, it exists only because there is a linguistic practice of "French" as a national language). This formulation means, as well, that literature is inseparable from an academic or schooling practice that defines the conditions for both the consumption and production of literature; by connecting the objective existence of literature to this ensemble of practices one can define the "material anchor-points" that make literature a historical and social reality.

In Le français national (1974), Renée Balibar and Dominique Laporte demonstrate the double relation to language that the bourgeoisie has maintained in France since the Renaissance. In the period before the French Revolution, the noblesse de robe discovered a source of power in the emerging political structure of the nation-state and the emerging ideological field of nationalism, whose embryonic form sprang into existence as the "democratic" idea of a national language. The decision of Francis I in 1538 that all juridical-political acts were to be written in the language of "the people" and no longer in Latin was particularly significant, Balibar and Laporte maintain, because it greatly increased the power of the recently ennobled bourgeoisie, the "nobility of the robe," over the older noblesse d'épée , the "nobility of the sword." As a result of the king's decree, the nobility of the robe became the intermediary between the fragmented dialects of the countryside and the central state apparatus, a state of affairs that greatly facilitated the decline of the traditional nobility of the sword. At the same time, Balibar and Laporte point out, this ostensibly "democratic" reform set the bourgeoisie over the population as a whole by virtue of the fact that they became the sole mediators between a mass of speakers and an elite of writers.

According to Balibar and Laporte, at the time of the French Revolution there appeared a double exigency that seemed to threaten the privileged position of the bourgeoisie. Under pressure from the popular masses, there was a call for the elimination of the class languages of the ancien régime—the French of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie on the one hand and the popular dialects or patois of the masses on the other—and, at the same time, a call for a single system to replace the plurality of establishments of the monarchical era—bourgeois and aris-


tocratic colleges and the so-called petites écoles conducted by the church for the benefit of the lower classes. These notions, conceived under the revolutionary nationalism of the Jacobins, were a double-edged weapon to the bourgeoisie. On one side they constituted a necessary precondition for the full development of capitalism—for a national economy, the development of a unified legal system based on contracts between equal subjects, a unified political system of citizens able to participate directly in public affairs, and a unified ideological system based on the identification of individuals with "the nation." On the other side, the egalitarian tendency of these reforms was an undeniable threat not only to the aristocratic privileges acquired by the bourgeoisie through submission to feudal forms of power and status but also the nascent hegemony of private property and educated competence being created by the nationalist bourgeoisie. According to Balibar and Laporte, this contradiction between elitist and egalitarian nationalism accounts for the fact that the single school system was not achieved in France until nearly a century after the French Revolution (with the establishment by Jules Ferry of free education in 1881 and secular, obligatory education in 1882), and then only after considerable vicissitudes and after the bourgeois cultural revolution was achieved (thus making the new school system a necessary apparatus of bourgeois hegemony).

Following a line of investigation opened up by Structural Marxist sociologists Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet (Baudelot and Establet 1971; see also Baudelot, Establet, and Malemort 1981), Balibar and Laporte insist that the homogeneity of the bourgeois school was (is) a facade concealing the existence of antagonistic academic practices previously manifested in the form of distinct institutions (schools for the rich and schools for the poor) but that have now taken the form of two integrated schooling networks; primary education (le réseau primaire-professionel ) and secondary education (le réseau secondaire-supérieur ), which, respectively, produce/reproduce the relations of domination and exploitation within the social formation. The existence of these two networks, Balibar and Laporte argue, is reflected at the level of language itself by two types of linguistic practice. As the division in schooling, which reproduces the division of society into social classes, is veiled by the assertion of a pseudo-egalitarian national community, so a linguistic division emerges between different practices of the same national languages, between "basic" exercises of rédactionnarration (a simple exercise in "correct" usage and the reporting of "reality") and "advanced" exercises of comprehension, the disserta-


tion-explication de textes (so-called creative work, which presupposes the use and imitation of literary materials). Within the primary schools, Balibar and Laporte point out, the sons and daughters of the lower classes receive their education in the national language in the form of an administered grammar, a set of formal rules learned mechanically from texts inherited from the old regime, while the generative schema of this grammar, derived from an understanding of the rules of Latin, is withheld. It is retained, however, as an invisible background in the secondary schools, which are populated primarily by the children of the bourgeoisie. Because education for the dominated does not result in mastery of the linguistic code, it imposes an effect of submission on all individuals educated at the primary level (the only level of instruction of the future exploited classes). As a corollary, education for the privileged minority, founded on the active mastery of language, produces a class-based effect of dominance . Apprenticeship in the "advanced" language not only opposes that in the "basic" language but also encompasses and surpasses it, bestowing on its enrollees a qualitatively superior mastery of the language and power over those excluded from such mastery.

In Les français fictifs , Balibar extends this line of argument to include literature. She analyzes several literary texts—Flaubert's "Un coeur simple," two narratives by Péguy, a Surrealist comptine , and Camus's The Stranger —under the assumption that the literary effect they produce can be grasped only in relation to the process of education in the schools and the contradictory linguistic practices developed there. The basic mechanism at work in these texts, she argues, is the unconscious reconciliation, or more properly the imaginary or fictional reconciliation, of the contradiction between "elementary" French, the language of the primary schools, and the literary or "fictive" French of the secondary schools. For Balibar, literary texts are "essentially sublimations of the conflicts lived out in the practice of language" (R. Balibar 1978, 42). It is the particular function of literature to resolve, through sublimation and by the production of a unique linguistic form, the insoluble contradictions existing in other ideological formations and related social practices—specifically, contradictions stemming from the existence, in the schools, of antagonistic linguistic practices—so as to render them soluble in non-literary ideological discourses (philosophy, politics, religion, and so forth). The literary text constitutes a "language of compromise" proclaiming otherwise irreconcilable class positions to be their own imaginary solution.

Literary texts, in effect, unconsciously reproduce the original opera-


tion by which elementary French is dominated by advanced French, that is, the process by which the latter incorporates the former (which remains nevertheless plainly visible) while simultaneously transcending it by unusual usages and creative constructions. The fact that this process of incorporation and transcendence is accomplished in one and the same national language further disguises the existence of domination, an ideological effect Balibar calls a compromise formation . Far from seeing literary practice as an activity that makes visible the operations of the dominant ideology by putting it to work, she contends that literary practice constitutes an operation of masking and unification, attempting thereby to heal or placate class and ideological contradictions inscribed within linguistic practice itself. Compromise formations may include both practices of French, but Balibar insists that the presence (more or less dissimulated) of advanced French produces the literary effect, the "aesthetic pleasure of reading," via the domination of the elementary language by the advanced. Constituted by a contradiction within language, the literary text is structured by an interplay between the level of ordinary grammar and that of its own distinctively literary language. The "effect of the text"—although never completely successful—is to overlay or soothe this contradiction, to preserve the fiction of "one language." This disguised/repressed evocation of elementary French by advanced French (the compromise formation), a process that is at the same time a reproduction and a deformation, constitutes the literary effect.

For Balibar, the invocation and domination of elementary by advanced French explains, in material terms, the phenomenon of style . For example, she describes the initial sentence of Flaubert's "Un coeur simple" as a juxtaposition of verbal material drawn from elementary grammatical exercises (then in use at the primary level) and a construction périodique peculiar to Greco-Latin rhetoric (as it was practiced in the upper levels of secondary school)—a juxtaposition of a simple, stripped-down vocabulary and certain lexical improprieties (e.g., the word bourgeoises ) or certain subtleties of agreement impossible to grasp other than in terms of Latin grammar. Conversely, Balibar finds Péguy's unfinished manuscript Pierre, Commencement d'une vie bourgeoise unsuccessful because it attempts to combine two styles (rédaction primaire and composition secondaire ) without producing a unified style capable of encompassing both primary and secondary styles or, more important, establishing the primacy of the latter over the former. This impasse, Balibar argues, is not dissimilar to the plight of the major


protagonist, a disoriented candidate for the Ecole Normale who is brought to a personal crisis when he tries to comprehend his own life and thoughts by reminiscing about his childhood and his primary school experience. Péguy's Note conjointe , by contrast, is a successful attempt to combine notions derived from primary school lessons of things and "philosophical-literary" discourses of secondary school. The success of this combination, Balibar explains, hinges on the dominant position of the secondary discourse, whose particular devices (which she calls scholarismes , that is, figures of discourse such as Latinisms, neologisms, and vulgarisms whose superficially striking effects invest the basic elementary language with an ideal aura) mask both the contradictions of the combination and the domination effect.

The style of The Stranger , according to Balibar, hinges on a juxtaposition of simple sentences and intentionally trite, affected sentences in "cultivated" French. In the case of Camus's novel the mechanism of the literary effect is particularly interesting because what seems to be happening is the valorization of the elementary sentences, which appear to dominate the literary ones rather than being dominated by them. Balibar argues this apparent effect is consistent with Camus's conscious intention to expose the inadequacy of the illusion of objectivity inherent in the chronological-logical discourse of the past perfect tense, a task Camus accomplishes by revealing the deformations that result from employing this tense in complex sentences. However, Camus's reversal of the primary relationship of domination is only superficially successful. Because both linguistic practices incorporate the past perfect tense, this particular tense serves unconsciously as a compromise formation, erasing the conflict between elementary and fictive French under the sign of a unified French grammar. Moreover, Balibar points out that Camus's style continues to reproduce the domination of elementary French by literary French because the effect he desires is achieved only on the condition that the intended deformations are perceived as such. Such subtleties are, of course, apparent only to those who participate in Camus's mastery of the French language.

In all of these cases the source of the literary effect resides in an unvarying linguistic contradiction that Balibar posits between elementary and literary French. The literary effect, which is the author's style, cannot exist without this contrast, yet by its very existence as a discourse written in the national language, it promptly "forgets" the contradiction from which it originates, masking it under the illusion of a unified language. In this sense, the literary text does not have an effect


opposed to that of the dominant ideology. It acts rather as a privileged region of ideology within which, by concealing its contradictions as they manifest themselves at the level of language, the entire system of the dominant ideology is reproduced, preserved intact as an ongoing system in spite of the tensions with which it is racked. Furthermore, the motifs, themes, and situations that the literary text introduces into the fiction are, in Balibar's view, of little value in understanding the mechanisms of the literary effect of the texts she is analyzing. These elements are merely a facade, the facade of the text whose role it is to distract attention from the linguistic conflict, the real source of the literary effect and the sole precondition of the text. Such narrative elements (social mores in Flaubert, philosophical content in Péguy and Camus) are somehow "mobilized" by the fiction to "downplay" the presence of contradictory linguistic practices in the literary text; thus, what the reader assesses as significant in the fictional text—materials taken from scientific observation, philosophical reflection, history, or, more simply, information or topical events—is in fact a screen intended to hide the underlying class-biased production of the work of fiction.

The final implication of Balibar's work is that literature is inherently and irrevocably inscribed in the mechanisms of linguistic domination. Because of this, literary works cannot be subversive, for their very existence as literature is contingent on their exploitation/participation in the linguistic contradiction that is the source of all literary style. The texts of Flaubert, Péguy, and Camus are not usually considered buttresses of capitalistic relations of production, but as Balibar convincingly shows, this is exactly what they have become: Flaubert's "Un coeur simple" appears in manuals and vanguard journals of pedagogy as a lesson on how to write in a limpid style and how to perceive "narrative technique" or "point of view"; Péguy's undoing of the bourgeoisie in Pierre erases the ideology of middle-class education in order to valorize its predecessor—education controlled by the Catholic church. In The Stranger , Camus reproduces the writing lessons of North African children who had to learn "proper" verbal usage in order to achieve l'effet du français (entire passages of the novel replicate exercises of description found in secondary school manuals), hoping thereby to undermine the illusion of certainty they produce; yet, in effect, the novel merely readapts and promotes their continued use today. At the level of discursive practice, it would be wrong to categorize this process as simply co-optation or alienation, for it is more insidious and more powerful than these: it is the inexorable and cumulative logic of ideological


domination and the expanded reproduction of the hegemony of the ruling class.

Chapter 5 Literature and Ideology

Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.