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Thomas Herbert [Michel Pêcheux] (1938–1983)

Originally a Germanist before his entry into the École Normale Supérieure in 1959, Michel Pêcheux experienced Louis Althusser’s teaching as a political transformation. Breaking with his Catholic and Sartrean roots, he quickly rallied behind the Althusserian reading of Marx, taking up the theory of ideology as the central problem of his research. He also met Georges Canguilhem shortly after his arrival at the ENS, which led Pêcheux to an interest in epistemology and the history of the sciences. With Canguilhem’s help, Pêcheux secured an appointment in Robert Pagès’s Laboratoire de la psychologie sociale in October 1966 to pursue research on the ‘transmission of messages with unusual [insolite] content’. After his involvement with the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, Pêcheux would continue along the same lines, developing his own unique model of ‘discourse analysis’. More Marxist than the Foucauldian approach, Pêcheux’s effort in books such as Analyse automatique du discours (1969) and Les Vérités de la palice (1975) can be seen as the most strident attempt to develop Althusser’s theses on the equally discursive and practical nature of ideology. By the 1980s, ‘discourse analysis’ as a field of inquiry with its own concepts and operations was beginning to find a wider audience in the UK and North America. Pêcheux’s contributions to the field he helped create were cut short by his suicide in 1983.

Slightly older than the founding editors of the journal, Pêcheux contributed to the second and ninth volumes and was a member of the Cercle d’Épistémologie from issues eight to ten. In all of his contributions to the Cahiers, Pêcheux used the pseudonym ‘Thomas Herbert’. Readers and associates have speculated that Pêcheux’s option for the pseudonym was a result of the fact that his Cahiers writings were more explicitly Marxist than his contributions as a CNRS researcher at this time, despite the fact that the positions taken in both domains were by and large consistent with one another. In his later writings, Pêcheux himself would continue to refer to ‘Herbert’s’ writings in the third person. Whereas many of the articles in the Cahiers engage the ‘hard sciences’, in particular mathematics and logic, Herbert’s contributions to the Cahiers are notable for the precision and rigour they bring to the problem of the social sciences. His piece in volume two, following upon Pagès’s critiques of Canguilhem, makes use of Althusser’s epistemology in ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ to argue for a scientific transformation of the ideological field of social psychology. His contribution to volume nine is a highly elaborate formalisation of the theory of ideology itself, which complements the Althusserian framework with the insights drawn from Nicos Poulantzas concerning the role of the state and a more explicit invocation of Lacanian ideas concerning law and knowledge.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Thomas Herbert, ‘Réflexions sur la situation théorique des sciences sociales et, specialement, de la psychologie sociale’, CpA 2.6 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]
Thomas Herbert, ‘Pour une théorie générale des idéologies’, CpA 9.5 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • With Michel Fichant. Sur l’histoire des sciences. Paris: Maspero, 1969. (Fascicule III in the Cours de Philosophie pour Scientifiques, 1967-68).
  • Analyse automatique du discours, Paris: Dunod, 1969. Automatic Discourse Analysis, eds. Tony Hak and Niels Helsloot, trans. David Macey. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.
  • Les Vérités de la Palice: linguistique, semantique, philosophie. Paris: Maspero, 1975. Language, Semantics, and Ideology, trans. H.C. Nagpal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.
  • ‘Discourse: Structure or Event?’, trans. Warren Montag, with Marie-Germane Pêcheux and Denise Guback. In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 633-650.
  • ‘La Langue introuvable’. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory. 7, 1-2 (1983): 24-28.
  • ‘Ideology: Fortress or Paradoxical Space?’ In Rethinking Ideology: A Marxist Debate, eds. Sakari Hanninen and Leena Paldan. New York: International General/IMMRC, 1983.