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Synopsis of Thomas Herbert, ‘Remarques pour une théorie générale des idéologies’

[‘Remarks for a General Theory of Ideologies’]

CpA 9.5:74–92

Thomas Herbert was the pseudonym Michel Pêcheux (1938-1983) used for his two contributions to the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. In this article, Herbert takes as his point of departure conclusions drawn in his first contribution, an epistemological assessment of social psychology that developed several key Althusserian theses concerning the relationship between science and ideology (CpA 2.6:139-165). In addition to affirming that any science worthy of the name emerges from within an ideological field, Herbert concluded that social psychology remained stuck in ideology, as it were, due to its conflation of its ‘theoretical object’ with the ‘real object.’ The inability to recognize this distinction, according to Althusser, was the hallmark of empiricist ideology. Herbert, for his part, attempts a bifurcation within the concept of ideology itself, distinguishing those ‘technical practices’ which serve to cloud scientific practice, obscuring its relation to its object, from ‘political practices’ which function like a cement ‘holding the whole in place’ (CpA 2.6:151). In situations where the cloud metaphor is dominant, an epistemological rupture between the theoretical and the real object is possible (e.g., the advent of Galilean science in its rupture with Aristotelian models); in the latter case, which describes the ideology of the modern social sciences, a degree of theoretical practice that works over the ‘cement’ is necessary in order to generate a new properly ‘scientific’ object from the ‘ideological’ object. (Herbert’s inspiration here is Althusser’s own tripartite distinction, developed in his article ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’, wherein the theoretical practice of Generality 2 operates upon the ideological object of Generality 1 to produce the scientific object of Generality 3).

Following Althusser, Herbert concluded his critique of the social sciences with a call for the development of a theory of Generality 2 itself, the ‘theoretical practice’ which transforms ideological objects into scientific objects. Such is Herbert’s task in his second and final contribution to the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, which, by attempting to develop a scientific theory of ideologies, sketches the form of transformative ‘theoretical practice’ itself. The arguments developed in this piece would be foundational for Pêcheux’s later efforts at ‘discourse analysis,’ a theoretical framework which sought to identify sites of political and ideological resistance within the discursive field and which had a minor, but not negligible impact on the development of cultural studies in the UK and North America.

Herbert’s article is divided into four main sections: 1) ‘The Double Form of Ideology’; 2) ‘Semantics and syntax’; 3) ‘Signals and discourse’; and 4) ‘Variation and ideological mutation.’ He begins with a reaffirmation of the distinction between two ‘types’ of ideology established in his previous article, but adds several new elements. Where ideologies of the type ‘A’ remain the ‘technical practices’ identified in the preceding piece (i.e., the ideologies correlated with the cloud metaphor, found above all in the physical sciences), and ideologies of the type ‘B’ continue to play the role of cement in a social totality, Herbert sets himself the task of thinking through the relation between these two types of ideology. The success of scientists such as Thales, Galileo, and Lavoisier was that the epistemological rupture they achieved made it impossible to ‘go back’ to the way things were before; a key ingredient of their success was that the tools they developed in the wake of these respective ‘ruptures’ proved their own mettle in producing new scientific results which left their respective fields irrevocably transformed. (It should be noted that in other writings from this period, Herbert/Pêcheux criticizes the concept of ‘genius’ one finds associated with these names; ‘Galileo’ is but the proper name for the advent of Galileanism in the history of science. Cf. Pêcheux and Fichant, 1969).

In contrast to breaking with ideologies of type ‘A’, Marx’s theoretical discovery was one that emerged within a type ‘B’ ideology. Whereas type ‘A’ scientists maintained their breakthrough in the reproduction of their scientific tools, the ‘failure’ of Marxism to achieve the ‘“methodical reproduction” of the object of science […] in the strictly scientific sense of the term’ has resulted in ‘the immense repression of historical materialism’s scientificity, a repression still exercised against it “from without”, and too often, “from within”’ (CpA 9.5:76). And yet, since all science must emerge from an ideology, this must apply to the science of ideologies as well. The science of ideologies will take as its object ‘an ideological theory of ideology’, which is precisely what functions as the ‘ideological obstacle’, both ‘within’ and ‘without’ the field of Marxism itself, preventing the efflorescence of a truly Marxist science.

Despite Herbert’s theoretical distinction, it remains the case that in all historical instances ideologies of the two types co-exist. In fact, they are mutually dependent. In an attempt to formalize their relation, Herbert argues that type ‘A’ ideology can be understood in a manner analogous to Marx’s concept of the forces of production. In such a scenario, discourses are mobile and mutable, able to be uncoupled from their original site and applied elsewhere. By contrast, type ‘B’ ideologies correlate to the relations of production. This kind of ideology establishes each agent’s place in the interior of a whole. Whereas the ‘type “A” ideological knowledge effect’ is one of reorganization and discovery that leads to the creation of something new, that of type ‘B’ is fully dependent upon the mechanism of recognition in the reproduction of an established order of things.

With this Marxist correlation established, Herbert then suggests another rubric. Type ‘A’ ideologies fit the ‘empiricist form’ of ideology in that their goal is to match significations to a putative ‘reality,’ whereas type ‘B’ ideologies follow an ‘immanent law’ of organization adhering to a ‘speculative-phraseological form’ that establishes coherence in advance. Herbert’s point is to show why type ‘B’ ideologies are so much more difficult to combat, or work through, than type ‘A’ ideologies. Whereas an empirically grounded ideology can be discarded by reference to a putative ‘real’ which reveals its inadequacy, a type ‘B’ speculative ideology determines what is admissible, or what can even make sense, in advance (CpA 9.5:78-79).

In the next section, Herbert takes his correlative agenda a step further, mapping this formal distinction onto that between semantics and syntax. In an analysis inspired largely by Lacanian ideas, but which also draws on the work of Nicos Poulantzas, Herbert first establishes how operations which take place within the ‘ideology of the empirical form’ are ‘fascinated by the problem of the reality to which the signifier must adjust’ (80). In establishing these semantic adjustments, the process itself is never forgotten or hidden. Indeed, it is the very process of adjustment itself that is the motor of ideological operations, and ruptures, at this level. By contrast, with ideologies of the speculative form, the operation takes place at the level of syntax, that is, in the relation of signifier to signifier, not in the ‘adjustment’ of signifier to signified. In Herbert’s reading, the ‘social effect’ is well described by Lacan’s description of the mechanism in the signifying chain which produces the subject effect in language: ‘the signifier represents the subject for another signifier.’ What is essential to this Lacanian formulation is that the sequence is one that covers its own traces; unlike the adjustment between signifier and signified that occurs out in the open in type ‘A’ ideologies (empirical form), in type ‘B’ (speculative form) the subjectification that occurs is constitutively forgotten. The ‘subject effect’ covers over the rupture that was its own condition. Where Poulantzas serves Herbert is in the following formulation: ‘let us say briefly that the putting into place of subjects [i.e., the syntactic chain] refers to the economic instance of the relations of production, and the forgetting of this putting into place to the political instance’ (CpA 9.5:83). In other words, what goes by the name of ‘politics’ in this social formation, i.e. the ‘State’, is the sign of the forgetting of the social ordering itself, which is anterior to ‘politics’.

Complicating matters further is the fact that, much as semantics and syntax work together to produce sense in language, type ‘A’ ideologies and type ‘B’ ideologies exist in a state of mutual dependence in producing consistency within social life. There is no pure ‘A’ type, i.e., no ‘pure’ semantics. Herbert thus affirms the primacy, or dominance of ‘syntax’, which correlates to the dominance of ‘B’ type speculative ideologies that make ‘A’ type empiricist ideologies possible in the first place. He writes: ‘We can now say, more precisely, that the “social sciences” treat “B” type ideological effects (political-speculative) with the help of “A” type formal structures (technical-empirical): the empirical practice of the “realisation of the real” allows for the repression of the political determination that nonetheless supports the whole of their techno-political edifice and produces a primary syntactic dominance which renders them particularly resistant to a productive transformation of their object’ (CpA 9.5:84).

In the following section, Herbert attempts a technical formalization of how these ideological modes relate. Again taking inspiration from the relationship between (semantic) metaphor and (syntactical) metonymy in Lacanian thought, Herbert shows how metonymic relations in one domain, e.g., the economic, become metaphorically displaced into, and as a consequence establish relations with, other domains, such as the political or the ideological. For example, in capitalism, economic relations are effectively metonymical, its constitutive ‘terms’ – salary, worker, contract, boss, etc. – only making sense in their differential relationship to one another. Through the very organization of the economic field of production, however, these metonymic sequences become condensed into ‘semantèmes’, units of meaning; each term is effectively shorthand for the whole sequence. This very compression metaphorically displaces these meanings into the adjacent field of the political, wherein they constitute a ’politico-juridical axiomatic’ whose own internal coherence blinds it to its origins in a distinct field (in this case, the economic). Herbert then notes how this process repeats, with the juridical terms of the political level ‘falling’ into the ideological domain of morality. The metonymic/syntactic field is a horizontal one; the ‘falls’ that occur vertically from one line to another establish the metaphoric/semantic field (CpA 9.5:86). In a footnote that recalls the merits and conundrums of Althusser’s efforts in For Marx, Herbert identifies the ‘major flaw’ in his own rubric: the impression it gives that these processes are ever independent from one another, or are diachronically ordered (CpA 9.5:87).

For the simultaneity of these processes is in fact crucial to his argument. Herbert claims that the two kinds of ideology – ‘A’/empirical/semantic/metaphor/vertical on the one hand, and ‘B’/speculative/syntactic/metonymy/horizontal, on the other – work as mutual guarantees of one another. This mutual guarantee is grounded, however, in the primacy or the position ‘in dominance’ of the metonymic sequence. Without citing Miller’s Suture (CpA 1.3), Herbert nonetheless recapitulates one of its core claims, and also crucially anticipates Althusser’s own later arguments on ideological interpellation, when he writes:

As the horizontal articulation of ideological elements according to a syntactic structure, the metonymic effect produces a rationalization-automisation at all structural levels, each of which will now appear endowed with ‘internal coherence.’ In this way the subject’s identification to the political and ideological structures that constitute subjectivity as the origin of what the subject says and does (the norms he states and practices) is produced: this subjective illusion through which, to use a phenomenological expression, the ‘consciousness of being in a situation’ is constituted hides from the agent his own position in the structure (CpA 9.5:88).

In order to further clarify the metonymy/metaphor relation in the production of ideological subjectivity, Herbert turns to Lévi-Strauss’s distinction between the law and the rule. In effect, Herbert argues, one will never be able to break from a set of ideological coordinates by focusing on the rules which govern a network of syntactical relations; much more crucial is the law which institutes these rules in the first place. This distinction allows Herbert to contrast the implications of his framework from a focus on class consciousness in a Lukàcsian vein. Becoming aware of the ‘pre-conscious rules’ which structure a social totality is insufficient for liberating a subject from his alienation; what is needed is a confrontation with the ‘mechanism of the unconscious Law’ which determines the set of rules in the first place.

It is this mechanism in particular that both assigns the subject its place in the social order, and strikes it with blindness about the process through which this assignation is brought about. An analysis of the forms of ideological existence allows us to ascend to the level of the mechanism that produces, and dissimulates, the forms of individual existence. From this perspective, the essential task for historical materialism is to localise the ‘B-level’ of ideology (the social relations of production), and to retrace the relations between the metaphoric and metonymic process of ideological production and the ‘unconscious law’ articulated by psychoanalysis.

On condition that the unconscious is recognised as neither individual nor collective, but structural, it becomes possible to envisage the Freudian unconscious as a specific effect of the unconscious law […] in the sense that the reproduction of ideological processes carry with them the essential moment of the reproduction of the operation of imposition-dissimulation in every human subject (CpA 9.5:90).1

Working toward his conclusion, and laying the groundwork for his own later model of ‘discourse analysis’, Herbert/Pêcheux maintains that the focus of theoretical practices needs to be on this ‘mechanism’ of the law itself – not the various contents determined by its internal rules, but the purely formal way in which those contents are displaced and articulated to constitute meaning. While some kinds of ideological change are easily recuperable by the dominant order, ‘we choose to call ideological mutation those effects that are strictly non-recuperable by the dominant ideology of the sector considered’ (CpA 9.5:91). Herbert/Pêcheux notes that Bachelard’s thesis about the role of ideological mutation in the natural sciences needs to be complemented by a similar theory for the social field of ‘syntactic dominance’. But in general ‘what we can now say is that mutation always results from a displacement, from a “snag” [bougé] in the system of guarantees’ (CpA 9.5:92). As an example, Herbert cites the concept of the ‘displaced person’ as the site of a potential mutation in the network of ideological relations. Such a site of mutation provides the ‘possibility of establishing’ a new ‘dispositif’ that is at once instrumental and institutional and that will produce new forms and, as a result, new effects. Shortly before his death in 1983, Michel Pêcheux was arguing for a concept of discursivity that functioned at the intersection of ‘structure’ and ‘event.’ He argued that ‘through ordered descriptions of discursive constructions, it is possible to detect moments of interpretation as acts that emerge in the form of explicit viewpoints recognized as such; that is, as effects of identifications that are assumed and not denied. Before boundless interpretations in which the interpreter acts as an absolute point, without any other or real, it is for me a matter of ethics and politics: a question of responsibility’2. Pêcheux’s attenuated effort to formalize a thinking of sites wherein identification might be assumed rather than suffered remained grounded in a crucial observation Thomas Herbert made sixteen years earlier: that the function of the ‘ideological mutation’ is not merely to establish the rupture, but to create the conditions within which the ‘mutation’ itself ‘will be verified or annulled’ (CpA 9.5:92).

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • Althusser, Louis. ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ (1963) in Idem. For Marx. Ben Brewster, trans., London: Verso 2005 (1969), pp. 161-218.
  • ---. ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation’ (1970) in Idem. Lenin and Philosophy and other essays. Ben Brewster, trans., New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001, pp. 85-126.
  • Freud, Sigmund. Introduction à la psychoanalyse, trans. Serge Jankélévitch. Paris: Payot, 1962.
  • Herbert, Thomas. ‘Réflexions sur la situation théorique des sciences sociales et, spécialement, de la psychologie sociale’. CpA 2.6:137-165.
  • Pêcheux, Michel and Michel Fichant. Sur l’histoire des sciences. Paris: Maspero, 1969. (Fascicule III in the Cours de Philosophie pour Scientifiques, 1967-68).
  • Pêcheux, Michel. ‘Discourse: Structure or Event?’, trans. Warren Montag, with Marie-Germane Pêcheux and Denise Guback, in C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 633-650.

Selected secondary literature:

  • Macherey, Pierre. ‘Langue, Discours, Idéologie, Sujet, Sens: de Thomas Herbert à Michel Pêcheux’. Idéologie: le mot, l’idée, la chose, cours de Pierre Macherey, (17/01/2007). Accessible at:
  • Maldidier, Denise, ed., L’inquiétude du discours: textes de Michel Pêcheux. Paris: Éditions des Cendres, 1990.
  • Montgomery, Martin and Stuart Allen., ‘Ideology, Discourse, and Cultural Studies: the Contribution of Michel Pêcheux’. Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 17, No 2, 1992. Accessible at:
  • Pêcheux, Michel. ‘Automatic Discourse Analysis’, in Automatic Discourse Analysis, eds. Tony Hak and Niels Helsloot, trans. David Macey. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995. (Idem., ‘Analyse automatique du discours’, Paris: Dunod, 1969).
  • ---.,Language, Semantics, and Ideology trans. H.C. Nagpal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. (Idem., Les Vérités de la Palice: linguistique, semantique, philosophie. Paris: Maspero, 1975).


1. Herbert claims a passage from Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis suggests that Freud does not neglect the problem of ‘the structurally necessary demand, inscribed in the law, of human reproduction as an aspect of labour power [force de travail]’ (90): ‘From the perspective of education, society must undertake as one of its most important educative tasks to tame and restrict the sexual instinct [Fr. Instinct; Ger. Instinkt] when it manifests itself as an urge to procreation, to limit it and submit it to an individual will that is pliant to the social order […] The base upon which human society rests is in the last analysis economic in nature: not possessing sufficient means of subsistence to permit its members to live without working, society is obliged to limit the number of its members and to divert their energies from sexual activity to work’ (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, SE 16: 312; trans. modified). Herbert uses Serge Jankélévitch’s French translation, Introduction à la psychoanalyse (Paris: Payot, 1962).

2. Pêcheux, ‘Discourse: Structure or Event’, 648