Ideology

These past few days, if it hasn’t been one thing, it’s been another.

All I really have to add are some minor points about ideology.

I understand that the term ‘ideology’ is, as we say in the business, polysemous. I also understand that its significance must change with the times. However, there is a very current, very timely notion of ideology floating around cultural theory circles in need of vigorous denunciation.

It’s a reaction to a form of ideology critique that emphasizes mode of production over form or content, the extreme tendency (and thus caricature) of which is the use of simple reference to mode of production as grounds for dismissing everything else, i.e. “all corporate film is by definition corporate ideology and should therefore be denounced/ignored/avoided regardless of other considerations.”

It goes like this: the critic begins by announcing the impossibility of critique, by accepting the irredeemable (yes, we are in an ethical register) conditions of the object’s production. That is, the he or she adopts the argument of their own straw man as an initial premise. It can then be concluded that this observation is no longer ‘enough’ – not interesting, not determining, not comprehensive, etc.

Then the critic capitulates.

The details of this capitulation are not so important; examples range everywhere from the close reading of Sarah Palin (denounced by Shaviro here with some sad/hilarious examples referenced here) to discerning what superhero movies can “tell us about ourselves.” But the upshot is the permission to fall back on older theories of interpretation, most of which are by now almost completely baseless and without rational justification, e.g. Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis. The advantage of these theories, from the critic’s perspective, is that interpretation can remain exclusively within the metaphysics of form and content.

Indeed, the critic reads all resistance to his or her theories as if it were bound by the same metaphysics. Relations provisionally assumed between object, producer, and audience are treated as if formal and absolute; ideology, rather than just something else to be responsible for, is redefined in ethical terms as good or (much more often) evil. Anything to maintain the illusion of closure, in all its ‘ambiguous’ openness to analysis by thought (dialectical, sometimes) and exclusion of every species of reference to social reality.

The larger controversy between liberals and leftists over Obama offers another good example, not least because Zizek, who just repeated his endorsement, is probably the chief popularizer of the version of ideology I’m trying to define.

Here is the theoretical summation:

It is clear, therefore, that confronted with such cynical reason, the traditional critique of ideology no longer works. We can no longer subject the ideological text to ‘symptomatic reading’, confronting it with its blank spots, with what it must repress to organize itself, to preserve its consistency — cynical reason takes this distance into account in advance. Is then the only issue left to us to affirm that, with the reign of cynical reason, we find ourselves in the so-called post-ideological world? Even Adorno came to this conclusion, starting from the premiss that ideology is, strictly speaking, only a system which makes a claim to the truth — that is, which is not simply a lie but a lie experienced as truth, a lie which pretends to be taken seriously. Totalitarian ideology no longer has this pretension. It is no longer meant, even by its authors, to be taken seriously — its status is just that of a means of manipulation, purely external and instrumental; its rule is secured not by its truth-value but by simple extra-ideological violence and promise of gain.

It is here, at this point, that the distinction between symptom and fantasy must be introduced in order to show how the idea that we live in a post-ideological society proceeds a little too quickly: cynical reason, with all its ironic detachment, leaves untouched the fundamental level of ideological fantasy, the level on which ideology structures the social reality itself.

Zizek poses as a maverick who is willing, against the liberal elite establishment, to defend the importance of power for politics. But what he actually defends is authority. The hope he offers is that those instruments of state ideology shared by intellectuals and the media — rhetoric, bureaucracy, classical allusions — have enough intrinsic power that their material bases don’t need to be investigated. Or at least that a certain intellectual division of labor still inheres: we’ll handle the fun philosophizing part, boring math nerds like Noam Chomsky will take care of the rest, and these approaches can remain complementary but nonoverlapping magisteria. That this is essentially Hegelian idealism is no secret; Zizek has never been duplicitous about his loyalties. He just knows how to keep them from being an issue.

For many, Obama offers a similar hope, couched in baby-talk terms like “maybe words do matter after all!” This sort of rhetorical leftist dutifully sets upon his speeches, poring over all those well-crafted, stirringly delivered, predominantly centrist-liberal claims for their “subversive potential.” In an emotionally exhausting bit of irony, this is the same treatment he gets from conservatives.

This piece by Glenn Greenwald (Obama supporter) remains I think the best analysis of the Obama dilemma.

The point isn’t that Obama should be held to some test of ideological purity; it’s that he’s rushing to embrace every standard Beltway platitude for how a Democratic candidate must loudly repudiate the values of the party’s base and can only win by attacking the standard though largely-irrelevant Leftist demons.

(for the sake of argument we’ll let slide that these “Leftist demons” are completely relevant everywhere a conscious battle between people and Capital is still permitted to occur.)

Writing from a moment just after a fair number of acquaintances, most of them Obama skeptics, were going on about how “McCain’s already won” and “all is lost” (this embarrassing bit of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too, unfortunately also by Shaviro, is a good example), when the ever-shifting facts are demonstrating that reaction to be premature, I feel able to say one or two things about the ideological bind American leftists and left sympathizers are finding themselves in.

Basically we have a situation where to be actively involved in left politics requires that one commit an enormous amount of time and energy to one or more local or single-issue campaigns, sometimes risking arrest and/or police violence, and always risking total failure. Voting or not voting is the furthest thing from this sort of politics. Of course I admire the dedication, but unlike some, I don’t see the diversity as a strength in itself. It’s another sign that the left has no coherent national presence (that Ralph Nader remains the American opposition party candidate with the most popular support is even clearer evidence). Maybe this most recent “crisis” (read: blatant act of robbery) will be enough to bring something together, but it hasn’t happened yet, and voting outside the two-party box won’t redeem organizations that are set up for failure in so many ways. It is about as difficult for full-time professionals to contribute more than money to these various decentralized initiatives as it is for them to keep up with anything else outside of their working lives and plush comfort zones. The most meaningful, practical activity within the field of  possible action this class allows itself really is to vote for Obama. Not much, but in the interest of making the U.S. even slightly more livable for the poor, working people, and the many, many targets of social conservatives, far from nothing.

For those who care about (at the very least) the inhabitants of Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, or about corporate accountability, this fact is and should be a source of discomfort. So there are a couple games this hypothetical left-leaning professional — we’ll assume media professional or academic, to focus on those whose opinions are the most visible — can play instead to feel relevant. One can sell out to liberal “pragmatism” a la The New Republic, a position which at this point can be divided into straightforward opportunism and the faith-based politics of willed naiveté. One can play at upholding Marxist orthodoxy, a symptom Karl Korsch effectively diagnosed among his peers in 1938 as “at no time more than a formal attitude by which the leading group of the German Social Democratic party in the pre-war period concealed from themselves the ever-continuing deterioration of their own formerly revolutionary practice.” I think this also holds for today’s American wannabe leftists, with 1968 standing in for revolutionary practice. Finally, one can just check out altogether and become a reactionary. There are still plenty of aesthetic, moralistic, or spiritual retreats to wallow in, until inevitably being found out by the locals. All will continue to uphold the “necessary fantasy” of stupid masses and smart intellectuals, in the face of evidence that suggests “stupidity” is an American universal and has another explanation than genetics or class. These are the pitfalls as they appear to me. There are too many.

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8 Responses to “Ideology”

  1. I responded to you briefly at the bottom of this post, mostly with narcissistic concern that you had me in mind as your sell-out New Republic pragmatist.

  2. “So there are a couple games ”

    Oh, please, lovely, must you write this when you are capable of writing ‘overlapping but non-overlapping magisteria’.

    “Finally, one can just check out altogether and become a reactionary. There are still plenty of aesthetic, moralistic, or spiritual retreats to wallow in, until inevitably being found out by the locals.”

    Of course, I know you were referring to my own retreats, because you know that they are the best, but I must implore you to realize that everybody gets caught by the ‘locals’, if not sooner then later, e.g., I heard a homo who wouldn’t quit screaming ‘I’m cumming, take it, baby…’ get questioned by the police on the street last night, who were telling him his cooperation was not exemplary. They weren’t touching him or anything, but he must have been on crystal, Jesus God, she was screaming to high heaven.

  3. no, gerry, there was only one time i thought you might be a sell-out liberal pragmatist, when you wrote that thing at daily kos about “the important thing is to win,” but i’m well over that now.

    i came across shaviro’s last post when i was about halfway through this one, and yours about 3/4 — while considering the various ethical dilemmas about appropriate citation i accidentally clicked ‘publish.’

    i think there are very, very few criticisms of obama one could make that would convince anyone who’s undecided to vote for mccain instead.

    also besides privileged professorial types the argument of “they’re all the same” is routinely made by anyone trying to argue against voting as the horizon of politics, which is lots of people — given the interests of most people on the planet, obama and mccain are almost the same; a marginal difference is still a difference but marginal political involvement (leaving the by choice/by necessity conundrum out of it for the moment) can only hope to accomplish so much.

    “I know you were referring to my own retreats”

    actually patrick i thought of you AS a local.

  4. actually patrick i thought of you AS a local.

    …in which case I languish at the lost hope of our remake of ‘South Pacific’, which we’d have done so well–because even if Lt. Cable and Liat, the Vietnamese, were close in age, Emile deBecque and Nellie Forbush were many years apart, and there could have been some adjustments made…I think I’ll just go jump out the window, and hope that the locals give me a proper burial…

  5. john steppling Says:

    Very good piece…………and I want to respond more to this….but here is a slightly old piece i did on Obama….
    http://www.bestcyrano.org/THOMASPAINE/?p=943

  6. Sandor Krasna Says:

    Funny, Frederic makes almost this same exact point in his chapter about Dog Day Afternoon in Signatures of the Visible. By no means trying to denigrate or discount your point, but a helpful reference (or influence?), nonetheless.

  7. Sandor Krasna Says:

    Frederic Jameson*

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