Good Coffee and Ideology

by Mark Wallace

Ideology is a problematic term, one that has been redefined so many times by now that it may seem utterly worn out. It’s certainly still in popular use, but it has been rejected by many scholars. Terry Eagleton asked:

Why is it that in a world racked by ideological conflict, the very notion of ideology has evaporated without trace from the writings of postmodernism and post-structuralism? Ideology (Verso, 2007 [1991]), p. xx.

Eagleton also provides the man-in-the-street definition of ideology: it relates to “judging a particular issue through some rigid framework of preconceived ideas” (3). In this sense, it remains in use. That said, even “framework” is perhaps too systematized; an ideology is is more like a web of ideas and feelings, radiating out, sometimes in unexpected directions, from a few central beliefs, and being interacted on by situational factors. Nobody is so ideological as to be entirely predictable. It has not so much that one has an ideology and always acts according to it, as in many cases that one espouses a strict ideology but imposes it in an irrational and inconsistent manner. It is brought out when appropriate and used as shorthand for argument.

But Žižek makes an important point about the functioning of ideology in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology, probably the single most enduring thing I’ve taken from Žižek’s writing:

[I]n contemporary societies, democratic or totalitarian, […] cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling irony is not meant to be taken seriously, or literally. Perhaps the greatest danger for totalitarianism is people who take its ideology literally […]. (Verso, 2008) p. 24.

It is perhaps through such a conception of ideology that the whole notion can be academically rehabilitated. The reigning ideology is cynicism; we don’t believe in the politico-economic systems within which we operate. But we do our not-believing while sitting in Starbucks. I know I do. Well, I don’t visit Starbucks that often, but I was in there yesterday for a coffee, and sat down and picked up my book. It was The German Ideology by Marx and Engels which I had just bought secondhand in Chapters. I was embarrassed to be there reading that. What sort of a poser, hipster type sits in Starbucks reading Marx? What sort of fraud? What sort of Žižekian theoretical cynic/ practical conformist? Given my knowledge of Žižek’s analysis, I couldn’t even drink the coffee ironically. That would be even worse!

What is to be done? Irony/ cynical distance is not the answer, but the fanaticism Zizek proposes is a questionable benefit, also. With deadlines to be met, and a busy day in front of the computer screen, who can resist a nice refreshing cup of coffee. Not the current author. Yet there stands the matter. In the absence of a coherent theory of Politics/ Things in General, I go along in the way of cynical distance and practical conformity, letting the ideology perpetuate itself as it acts through me. Within, I continue to debate all of these things compulsively, and it may yet all issue in some original and useful insight, an insight which will bring the ideological pillars of our society down around us, meaning that things standing on their heads will be back on their feet, and all things will be seen as they are, finally.

In short, I retain a belief in the possibility of epistemological security, an ability to really know things, and to see things as they are. Thus, contemporary theory is not wholly to my tastes. Deeply implicated as I am in academic practice, I yet aim to see things simply as they are, without a theoretical lens. So ideology remains a term I can use, because the presumption built into it that a non-ideological thought is possible is one I remain comfortable with – such knowledge is, indeed, my goal. Alas, this is somewhat naive, and I have yet to come up with a defense for it. Even in the absence of a defense, it remains my operating principle, which I think proves my point that practice and operating principles trump painstakingly devised theory every time. That is, one can construct a theory, but how does one know that “theory” is what one is “doing” when one writes? Knowledge being as contingent as it is, your knowledge of your own mode of applying theory is by no means guaranteed. You may be doing something quite other than theory.