relative autonomy

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1. In Althusserian Marxist theory, the relative independence of the ‘superstructure’ of society (including ideology and culture) from the economic (or techno-economic) ‘base’ (in contrast to the stance in classical Marxism that the latter determines the former—a stance similar to that of technological determinism). Indeed, Althusser referred also to ‘the reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base’, a stance reflected in cultural materialism. He insisted that the economic ‘base’ is determinant only in the ‘last instance’. See also base and superstructure.

2. In the context of semiotics, the Saussurean model of the sign assumes the relative autonomy of language in relation to reality (it does not directly feature a real-world referent); there is no essential bond between words and things. In a semiotic system with double articulation (as in verbal language) the levels of the signifier and of the signified are relatively autonomous. The signifier and the signified in a sign are autonomous to the extent that their relationship is arbitrary (commentators also speak of relative arbitrariness or ‘relative conventionality’).

Subjects: Social Sciences — Media Studies.

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