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This review is taken from PN Review 58, Volume 14 Number 2, November - December 1987.

DESERT OF DISCOURSE Diane Macdonell, Theories of Discourse: An Introduction (Blackwell) £21.00, £6.95 pb.

Diane Macdonell's Theories of Discourse is a short, but awkwardly written and repetitive book, of some use as a guide but more significant as an example of the incoherence and impoverishment that prolonged subjection to the later work of Louis Althusser produces. The subjects of King Louis are increasingly scarce today, though the residual presence of his ideas is still considerable; loyalists remain, however and Macdonell hails Althusser's most influential essay, 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses' (in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Verso, 1971) as a 'radical breakthrough' rather than an ingenious but last-ditch attempt to explain why the Western working-class (pace the miners' strike) has consistently failed to play the revolutionary role assigned to it by Marxism. The essay argues that capitalism reproduces itself in non-coercive ways through Ideological State Apparatuses (family, school, church, etc.) that construct consenting subjects who live in an imaginary relation to the real, exploitative relations of production. This position is attractive because it seems, at first, impregnable. Any disagreement with it can be attributed to ideological subjection and thus transformed into inadvertent confirmation. The Althusserian, like Milton's chaste Lady, is clad in complete steel. But the theory has a fatal flaw: its invulnerability leads quickly to inanition: it cuts itself off from those very elements - humanity, history - that give Marxism any dynamism.

But it is on this barren terrain, the Waste Land of Western Marxism, that Macdonell takes her stand, sternly rebuking humanism, philosophical idealism and reformism, reiterating ...


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