Thursday, January 27, 2005

Slavoj Žižek: "The Spectre of Ideology" (excerpts)

Žižek, Slavoj. “The Spectre of Ideology.” The Žižek Reader. ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999: 53-86.

… instrumental reason designates an attitude that is not simply functional with regard to social domination but, rather, serves as the very foundation of the relationship of domination. An ideology is thus not necessarily ‘false’: as to its positive content, it can be ‘true’, quite accurate, since what really matters is not the asserted content as such, but the way this content is related to the subjective position implied by its own process of enunciation. We are within ideological space proper the moment this content—‘true’ or ‘false’ (if true, so much the better for the ideological effect)—is functional with regard to some relation of social domination (‘power’, ‘exploitation’) in an inherently non-transparent way: the very logic of legitimizing the relation of domination must remain concealed if it is to be effective. In other words, the starting point of the critique of ideology has to be full acknowledgement of the fact that it is easily possible to lie in the guise of truth. When, for example, some Western power intervenes in a Third World country on account of violations of human rights, it may well be ‘true’ that in this country the most elementary human rights were not respected, and that the Western intervention will effectively improve the human rights record; yet such a legitimization none the less remains ‘ideological’ in so far as it fails to mention the true motives of the intervention (economic interests, etc.). (Zizek, 61)

1. So, to begin with, we have ideology ‘in-itself’: the immanent notion of ideology as a doctrine, a composite of ideas, beliefs, concepts and so on, destined to convince us of its ‘truth’, yet actually serving some unavowed particular power interest.. The mode of the critique of ideology that corresponds to this notion is that of symptomal reading: the aim of the critique is to discern the unavowed bias of the official text via its ruptures, blanks and slips—to discern in ‘equality and freedom’ the equality and freedom of the partners in the market exchange, which, of course, privileges the owner of the means of production, and so on. Habermas, perhaps the last great representative of this tradition, measures the distortion and/or falsity of an ideological edifice with the standard of non-coercive rational argumentation, a kind of ‘regulative ideal’ that, according to him, inheres in the symbolic order as such. Ideology is a systematically distorted communication: a text in which, under the influence of unavowed social interests (of domination, etc.), a gap separates its ‘official’, public meaning from its actual intention—that is to say, in which we are dealing with an unreflected tension between the explicit enunciated content of the text and its pragmatic presuppositions. (Zizek, 63)

Today, however, probably the most prestigious tendency in the critique of ideology, one that grew out of discourse analysis, inverts this relationship: what the tradition of Enlightenment dismisses as a mere disturbance of ‘normal’ communication turns out to be its positive condition. … what Habermas perceives as the step out of ideology is denounced here as ideology par excellence. In the Enlightenment tradition, ‘ideology’ stands for the blurred (‘false’) notion of reality caused by various ‘pathological interests (fear of death and of natural causes, power interests, etc.); for discourse analysis, the very notion of an access to reality unbiased by any discursive devices or conjunctions with power is ideological. The ‘zero level’ of ideology consists in (mis)-perceiving a discursive formation as an extra-discursive fact. (Zizek, 63-64)

Arguably the most elaborate version of this approach is Oswald Ducrot’s theory of argumentation; although it does not employ the term ‘ideology’, its ideologico-critical potential is tremendous. Ducrot’s basic notion is that one cannot draw a clear line of separation between descriptive and argumentive levels of language; there is no neutral descriptive content; every description (designation) is already a moment of some argumentative scheme; descriptive predicates themselves are ultimately reified-naturalized argumentative gestures. This argumentative thrust relies on topoi, on the ‘commonplaces’ that operate only as naturalized, only in so far as we apply them in an automatic, ‘unconscious’ way—a successful argumentation presupposes the invisibility of the mechanisms that regulate its efficiency. (Zizek, 64) {MB—Ducrot is a French author and the book Zizek mentions Le Dire et le dit is unfortunately not available in English yet}

One should also mention here Michel Pêcheux, who gave a strict linguistic turn to Althusser’s theory of interpellation. His work is centered on the discursive mechanisms that generate the ‘evidence’ of sense. That is to say, one of the fundamental stratagems of ideology is the reference to some self-evidence—‘Look, you can see for yourself how things are!’ ‘Let the facts speak for themselves’ is perhaps the arch-statement of ideology—the point being, precisely, that facts never ‘speak for themselves’, but are always made to speak by a network of discursive devices. … Discourse analysis is perhaps at its strongest in answering this precise question: when a racist Englishman says “There are too many Pakistanis on our streets!’, how—from what place—does he ‘see’ this—that is, how is his symbolic space structured so that he can perceive the fact of a Pakistani strolling along a London street as a disturbing surplus? (Zizek, 64-65) {MB—see Pecheux’s essay in Mapping Ideology}

Last but not least, mention should be made of Ernesto Laclau and his path-breaking approach to fascism and populism, whose main theoretical result is that meaning does not inhere in elements of an ideology as such—these elements, rather, function as ‘free-floating signifiers’ whose meaning is fixed by the mode of their hegemonic articulation. Ecology, for example, is never ‘ecology as such’; it is always enchained in a specific series of equivalences: it can be conservative (advocating the return to balanced rural communities and traditional ways of life), statist (only a strong state regulation can save us from the impending catastrophe), socialist (the ultimate cause of ecological problems resides in the capitalist profit-orientated exploitation of natural resources), liberal-capitalist (one should include the damage to the environment in the price of the product, and thus leave the market to regulate the ecological balance), feminist (the exploitation of nature follows from the male attitude of domination), anarchic self-managerial (humanity can survive only if it reorganizes itself into small self-reliant communities that live in balance with nature), and so on. The point, of course, is that none of these enchainments is in itself ‘true’, inscribed in the very nature of the ecological problematic: which discourse will succeed in ‘appropriating’ ecology depends on the fight for discursive hegemony, whose outcome is not guaranteed by any underlying necessity of ‘natural allliance’. The other inevitable consequence of such a notion of hegemonic articulation is that statist, conservative, socialist, and so on, inscription of ecology does not designate a secondary connotation that supplements its primary ‘literal’ meaning: as Derrida would have put it, this supplement retroactively (re)defines the very nature of ‘literal’ identity—a conservative enchainment, for example, throws a specific light on the ecological problematic itself (‘owing to his false arrogance, man forsook his roots in the natural order’, etc.). (Zizek, 65) {MB—the Laclau comes from Politics and Ideology NY: Verso, 1977}

2) What follows is the step from ‘in-itself’ to ‘for-itself’, to ideology in its otherness, externalization: the moment epitomized by the Althusserian notion of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) that designate the material existence of ideology in ideological practices, rituals and institutions. Religious belief, for example, is not merely, or even primarily, an inner conviction; but the Church as an institution and its rituals (prayer, baptism, confirmation, confession … ) which, far from being a mere secondary externalization of the inner belief, stand for the very mechanisms that generate it. When Althusser repeats, after Pascal ‘Act as if you believe, kneel down, and you shall believe, faith will arrive by itself’, he delineates an intricate reflective mechanism of retroactive ‘autopoetic’ foundation that far exceeds the reductionist assertion of the dependence of inner belief on external behavior. That is to say, the implicit logic of his argument is: kneel down and you shall believe that you knelt down because of your belief—that is, your following the ritual is an expression/effect of your inner belief; in short, the ‘external’ ritual performatively generates its own ideological foundation. (Zizek: 65-66)

… Althusser … conceives these micro-procedures as parts of the ISA; that is to say, as mechanisms which, in order to be operative, to ‘seize’ the individual, always-already presuppose the massive presence of the state, the transferential relationship of the individual towards state power … (Zizek: 66)

What liberal criticism (mis)perceives as Fascism’s weakness is the very resort of its strength: within the Fascist horizon, the very demand for rational argumentation that should provide grounds for our acceptance of authority is denounced in advance as an index of the liberal degeneration of the true spirit of ethical sacrifice—as {MB—Wolfgang Fritz} Haug puts it, in browsing through Mussolini’s texts, one cannot avoid the uncanny feeling that Mussolini had read Althusser! The direct denunciation of the Fascist notion of the ‘community of people’ (Volksgemienschaft) as a deceptive lure that conceals the reality of domination and exploitation fails to take note of the crucial fact that this Volksgemeinschaft was materialized in a series of rituals and practices (not only mass gatherings and parades, but also large-scale campaigns to help the hungry, organized sports and cultural activities for the workers, etc.) which performatively produced the effect of Volksgemienschaft. (Zizek: 67)

3) …

Today, in late capitalism, when the expansion of the new mass media in principle, at least, enables ideology effectively to penetrate every pore of the social body, the weight of ideology as such is diminished: individuals do not act as they do primarily on account of their beliefs or their ideological convictions—that is to say, the system, for the most part, bypasses ideology in its reproduction and relies on economic coercion, legal and state regulations, and so on. (Zizek: 67-68)

Here, however, things get blurred again, since the moment we take a closer look at these allegedly extra-ideological mechanisms that regulate social reproduction, we find ourselves knee-deep in the already mentioned obscure domain in which reality is indistinguishable from ideology. What we encounter here, therefore, is the third reversal of non-ideology into ideology: all of a sudden we become aware of a For-itself of ideology at work in the very In-itself of extra-ideological actuality. First, the mechanisms of economic coercion and legal regulation always ‘materialize’ some propositions or beliefs that are inherently ideological (the criminal law, for example, involves a belief in the personal responsibility of the individual or the conviction that crimes are a product of social circumstance). Secondly, the form of consciousness that fits late-capitalist ‘post-ideological’ society—the cynical, ‘sober’ attitude that advocates liberal ‘openness’ in the matter of ‘opinions’ (everybody is free to believe whatever she or he wants; this concerns only his or her privacy), disregards pathetic ideological phrases, and follows only utilitarian and/or hedonistic motivations—stricto sensu remains an ideological attitude: it involves a series of ideological presuppositions (on the relationship between ‘values’ and ‘real life’, on personal freedom, etc.) that are necessary for the reproduction of existing social relations. (Zizek: 68)

It is as if in late capitalism ‘words do not count’, no longer oblige: they increasingly seem to lose their performative power; whatever one says is drowned in the general indifference; the emperor is naked, and the media trumpet forth this fact, yet nobody seems really to mind—that is, people continue to act as if the emperor is not naked. (Zizek: 71)Today, when official ideology is increasingly indifferent toward its own consistency, an analysis of its inherent and constitutive inconsistencies is crucial if we are to pierce the actual mode of its functioning. (Zizek: 83n9)

Žižek Bibliography

Zizek Speeches/Lectures (scroll down)

More Zizek Readings

London Review of Books' Essays

Yahoo Zizek

Axis Mundi Zizek

Breaking the Waves Through Zizek

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