Cultural Criminology and Reification of the Ideological Superstructure: An Argument for the Materiality of Signs

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It has become very fashionable of late for leftist criminologists, particularly those associated with the cultural criminology movement, to embrace semiotics, textual critique and discourse analysis as tools for advancing a richer and more critical understanding of crime and justice. In what appears as a well-intentioned attempt to escape the constraints of over-determination, rigid structuralism and simplistic dualities many in the cultural criminology movement have turned to a safe haven of abstraction. In doing so, however, much of the new criminological discourse has become mired in idealism, endless critiques of mythical floating and detached representations of the superstructure and obfuscating levels of abstract critique. More importantly, perhaps, is that such an approach to understanding crime through the critique of de-coupled cultural products by way of language and signs may merely reify the very mystifications and dualities from which the left purportedly seeks to escape, all the while masking the dialectic nature of the base and ideological superstructure relationship as well as the social practice inherent in language formation. In this essay I show how a semiotics without materialism merely retreats into a more abstract form of structuralist duality. Viewing the sign as material provides a richer approach to cultural criminology. 

Allegorical figure “Dialectic” (Cir. 1585)

With the exception of a few caveats about “cultural convention” and “social production,” structural semiotics analyzes signs as if they are detached from social practice and their material conditions of use. In this perspective of the sign, signifieds and signifiers join to create signs; signs act upon one another in chains of signification, and; meaning is made in an endless series of couplings and recouplings all in a generative abstraction. Likewise, text develops in the stringing together of signs within a logical preexisting structure of paradigmatic and syntactic relationships. In this framework bounded choices and guided positionality determine meaning; as if language constituted an internally self-generating system, divorced from the social and material conditions of use and deployment. Collectively these features of sign and text development constitute an “abstract objectivist” perspective of language. This perspective allows language to be perceived of as a “stable, normative, closed system of linguistic signs, which operates according to its own self-contained laws…” (Morris, 1994: 25). Language, however, is far more materially contingent and socially prescribed than this perspective suggests.

The abstract objectivist understanding of the sign, however necessary to an initial understanding of the analytics of signs, is achieved by an untenable duality. This duality is the distinction between “language and parole” or the written versus the spoken sign (see, Saussure, 1974, 1983)—the hallmark of structural semiotics. This way of reading signs privileges the written word or text over the spoken word or dialog; in doing so, this view effectively severs the social conditions and practices that contour representation as well as the material origin of signs in social and communicative practice. Understanding cultural representations in this fashion is tantamount to trying to understand the properties of a sign without its signified.  

Long before the emergence of written signs came communicative practice in the form of gestures and utterances. Gestures, utterances, and their extended counterparts performance and dialogue, form the foundation for written signs and texts. To view signs and text otherwise, then, is an abstraction detached from social practice in which its logic can only be sustained through the continual application of higher levels of abstraction. Language, in both its written and spoken forms unfolds not only within a structure and according to the dictates of an abstract internal logic, but from changing material circumstances and under shifting social configurations. 

Once signs are conceived of as the consequence of social practice executed by actors under the material-social conditions of use, first uttered and later written, the viability of an abstract objectivist orientation becomes problematic. Turning to the spoken sign or the utterance side of the duality and including the social conditions under which language is created and executed changes the possibilities of understanding. As V. N. Voloshinov (1973:21) states, 

Every sign, as we know, is a construct between socially organized persons in the process of their interaction. Therefore, the forms of signs are conditioned above all by the social organization of the participants involved and also by the immediate conditions of their interaction. When these forms change, so does sign.

This social-material theory of the sign contains several essential assumptions that differ drastically from the objectivist abstraction. First, signs are initially produced by social and verbal practice rather than in print space and they are produced under concrete material conditions. Signs cannot be fully understood in isolation from social and political practice as self-determining containers of meaning. Interactive human subjects within socially and materially ordered derivative contexts deploy signs. The “crime” sign can be spoken in the courtroom, statehouse or classroom among social groups organized by a division of labor. Each of these built social environments contributes to the sign’s generative meaning and each reaches back to these environments. Signs are performed and executed on a socially arranged stage.

Second, different social groups and actors make and use signs; thus, the meaning of signs must also differ with the organization and composition of social groups based on divisions of labor and class position. Lawyers, police officers, college professors and political activists all deploy the “crime” sign with different meanings and under different socially defined and understood conditions of use. The social role, class and position of a speaker all affect the meaning written upon a sign. A police officer’s and college professor’s use of the word “halt” has very different meanings that are not solidly affixed merely in a signified/signifier relationship in a fixed or given text or utterance. Meaning, however, is not merely derived in unilateral fashion from the user’s social status or by the immediate conditions of use; the sign deploys with it not only a command like “halt,” but a contemporary social re-positioning of both speaker and listener, reader and writer. Previous social constructions, positions and expectations are deployed in the use of a sign and meanings are brought to bear on social actors in the moment of production and under conditions of the utterance. Social actors are “hailed” into well-defined subject formations and positions by the use of the word “halt;” but who can be hailed and when they can be hailed is not inherent in the sign itself.  These historic-social constructions are brought to the contemporary foreground under political conditions, not in isolated properties of the sign itself. So a sign is at once a carrier of historically situated/situating meaning and a garnering of contemporarily meaning. 

Third, speaker and audience socially anticipate and react to the use of signs; meaning is made in a dynamic and highly contextualized  “dialogical” stream of anticipation, utterance and understanding. This initial stream then gives rise to a rejoinder or response shaped under the immediate conditions of dialog, which invokes a new iteration of the anticipatory-utterance process. Communication unfolds not merely with the deployment of a single sign or text, but rather in dialectic of historically anticipated meaning under the influence of contemporary social conditions. Thus, the meaning of a sign is produced in the dynamic generative processes of social communication — signs have an antecedent history as well as a moment of meaning making deployment. Signs arise in reciprocal relationships that constitute the moment of production of meaning where the social group, the context of use, a groups inter-intra speech and the historical meaning of the sign are all gathered and deployed in an emerging material moment as the social-communicative condition becomes defined and understood—signs are socially framed and re-reframed.

Fourth, just as there can be no language based on a single sign, seldom are single signs deployed. More often, multiple signs and forms are performed by social actors, which create complex meaning. Intonation, gesture and positioning all affect the meaning of a verbal sign. A hand on the hip, a smile after an utterance, or a well-placed inflection can all alter the meaning of a sign. Signs are deployed along with other signs and with various sign forms under concrete-material circumstances. In many cases signs cannot be decoded without understanding of the material conditions from which they are deployed.

Finally, signs do not merely oppose themselves; they struggle for meaning. Signs are contested, unified and dispersed; they are crystallized and expanded within complex social relations of production and configurations shaped well outside the logic of a self-contained sign system and abstract analytic structure. In this sense, signs are “multiaccentual” and “motivate” not only in intonation and delivery, but also in their emergence and deployment as dialogical living political artifacts. The crime sign, therefore, is not merely an abstract cultural signification, but rather a dynamic and socially living material sign. For cultural criminologists to treat signs otherwise is merely a reification of the ideological superstructure.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
College of Justice and Safety
School oh Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


Morris, P. (Ed.) (1994). The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov. London: Edward Arnold Prentice-Hall.

Saussure, F. ([1916] 1974): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Wade Baskin). London: Fontana/Collins.

Saussure, F. ([1916] 1983): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth.

Voloshinov, V. ([1929] 1973). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (trans. Ladislav Matejka & I R Titunik). New York: Seminar Press.


  1. Sorry can’t help myself, everyone get out there guitars!

    Where have all the Marxists gone, long time passing?
    Where have all the Marxists gone, long time ago?
    Where have all the Marxists gone?
    Young scholars picked them everyone.
    Oh, when will they ever learn?
    Oh, when will they ever learn?

  2. “It has become very fashionable of late for leftist criminologists, particularly those associated with the cultural criminology movement, to embrace semiotics, textual critique and discourse analysis as tools for advancing a richer and more critical understanding of crime and justice.” No references so we don’t know who this refers to or if it just a straw person. Who are these leftist criminologists?

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