‘To rethink everything through once again in terms of linguistics!’ writes Fredric Jameson in The Prison-House of Language (1972), the exclamation mark a kind of gasp at the sheer audacity of the project. He is speaking of structuralism and post-structuralism, on the threshold of which Ken Hirschkop’s new book, disappointingly, comes to a halt. Yet enough previous linguistic turns are discussed in this remarkably rich study to compensate for its inevitable absences (Freud and Heidegger, as the author wryly confesses, are also among the roads not travelled); and what these various fascinations with the word seem to have in common is an idea implicit in Jameson’s declaration—namely, that they are not moves away from the world to language, but new ways of modelling the world itself. As Hirschkop puts it, in a succinct statement of his thesis: ‘linguistic turns are social theory by other means’.

Though it means stopping short at the Roland Barthes of Mythologies, there is a reason why the book’s focus is on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is to say roughly the period of modernism, and the key is in the plural of the title. A whole cluster of linguistic turns—a ‘constellation’ is Hirschkop’s preferred image—takes shape in these intellectually exhilarating years, from Saussure, Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Frege and Russell to Wittgenstein, Mikhail Bakhtin, I. A. Richards—and Antonio Gramsci. But this is also the historical moment when organized labour and democratic government, however fragile and contested, are finding a foothold in Europe, and Hirschkop’s bold claim is that there is a relation between the turn to language among the scholars and the anxieties of the ruling class about the growing power of the masses.

The problem for the rulers is how to maintain order and cohesion in societies pitched into disarray by political and economic transformation. How is a social order to cope with the fact that the people are both the foundation of the nation and a destabilizing force within it? It is at this point, Hirschkop argues, that language makes its entry on to the political stage in the work of the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure is aware from the outset that language in its ramshackle, heterogeneous, everyday state is not the kind of object that can be captured in thought. Contrary to the belief of the 19th century philologists, with their insistence on the lawfulness of linguistic evolution, the orderliness of language can no longer be taken for granted. Even so, a more shapely phenomenon lurks within our random utterances, an entity of uncertain ontological status to which Saussure gives the name of langue. In this way, the problem can become the solution. This notion of ‘a force or structure’ latent in ordinary language, a power of ‘vitality’, coherence and ‘lucidity’ that needs to be released, is among the guiding motifs of Linguistic Turns, though as we shall see later, the force in question is not always a positive one. It may also be that myth, illusion and deception are equally inherent in the apparently innocuous stuff of daily speech.

If language is to provide an image of social cohesion, it must be stripped of its historical contingencies and excrescences, along with the spontaneous, unpredictable speech acts that Saussure consigns to the category of parole. Discourse, as we know it today, cannot be an object of systematic knowledge, though for some ancient and early modern scholars, who knew it as rhetoric, it was precisely that. As a good modernist, Saussure is as conscious as Mikhail Bakhtin that language is a productive process in a perpetual state of flux. However, the system of langue absorbs and readjusts to such mutations, rather as for T. S. Eliot a literary tradition is constantly reconfigured by new works of art while remaining essentially self-identical.

Saussure is also a modernist in his anti-foundationalism. Language, suitably demystified, is no longer to be grounded in the divine Word, the structure of Reason, the spirit of the nation, the psychology of the race or the nature of things. The consensus it establishes is arbitrary and self-supporting, but no less solid for that. In this, it resembles democracy, which in a disenchanted world is similarly anchored in nothing but itself. Language is also an image of democracy in the fact that everyone participates in it without coercion. It provides some of the glue that binds the increasingly discrete, autonomous individuals of modernity together. Yet though linguistic consensus is unenforced, it is also unreasoned and unreflective. It is neither established by rational argument nor open to dispute by it. Langue is systematic but irrational. Saussure embeds language in the crowd, then, but at the expense of neutralizing conscious collective action and debate. It is thus, in Hirschkop’s words, ‘a marvellous synthesis of democracy and political quiescence’.

Analytic philosophy, by contrast, draws reason and language together, but at the expense of the masses. Frege, Russell and the early Wittgenstein are in search of a logical form or syntax that exists beneath the surface of regular speech, purging its fuzziness and indeterminacy in order to bring to light this purer language concealed within it. As with Saussure, the rhetorical, intersubjective dimension of language must be erased, which means (again with Saussure) that language is no longer tasked with the business of argument and persuasion in the public sphere. Yet the deep structure of a sentence is not enough to make it meaningful, and in any case there is abundant evidence that the populace tend not to find the imprecisions of language particularly misleading. For the later Wittgenstein, they are no more flaws than the handle of a cup is a defect in the pottery. On the contrary, such roughness is part of what makes discourse work.

Hirschkop is a Russian specialist as well as a musicologist and cultural theorist, and he explores some intriguing connections here between Saussure and the Soviets. In 1906, a young Russian named S. I. Kartsevsky was arrested as a member of the Socialist-Revolutionary movement, and later took refuge in Geneva, home of Saussure and his acolytes. When the tide turned in 1917, he went back to Russia and began presenting Saussure’s theory to linguists at home. These theorists were preoccupied among other things with the question of whether language can be collectively changed—whether a linguistic revolution could accompany a political and economic one. Saussure himself thought not—partly because the arbitrary nature of the sign meant that there was no reason for it to change, and partly because of the ‘collective inertia’ of the body of speakers themselves. In his view, language that involves conscious, collective will or reflection doesn’t really count as language at all. But if there is no inherent reason for an arbitrary sign to change, there is no reason why it shouldn’t either; and the collectivity of Soviet citizens had scarcely proved inert in other matters. For the Futurists, poetry, which frees the word from the shackles of representation, was the pre-eminent example of conscious linguistic intervention, and might inspire a wider transformation. Every society, observed Saussure, is content with the language it has inherited; but Hirschkop asks what you do when language is a source of anxiety, frustration and resentment rather than satisfaction. The answer is to change it; and perhaps the primary instance of this in our own time has been the discourse of gender and sexuality.