Phantoms of the Human Brain

by Mark Wallace

[W]e do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.

Above is a famous passage from Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology (written: 1846; first published: 1932). In a sort of impressionistic way, it is my favourite formulation of the concept of ideology. I am not really a Marxist: at least, I do not accept – or, at least, am not interested in as a form of analysis – the base/superstructure distinction; and certainly, the Althusserian notion that Marxism is a science is not one I share. But, as Marxism is the most well-articulated alternative to the institutionalization of greed that is Capitalism, no reflective person can fail to be interested in it. And ideology, taken in itself – indebted as any usage must be to Marxist use of the term – doesn’t necessitate that we speak of an economic base, nor does it have a pretension to a science in the references in German Ideology. Rather, to define the term at an unacceptably general level, it is a tool for examining the processes by which people come to hold conclusions on political and social issues.

One formulation in the above quote on ideology that appeals to me is that of phantoms formed in the human brain, which applies to all morality, religion, metaphysics. This has that element of naked scorn that I like in my thinkers. But, of course, academically, one has to question oneself before using such a phrase. Who are you (one asks oneself) to dismiss the ideas of others as phantoms? It were better, perhaps, to retreat from such blatant judgmentalism and simply perform a discourse analysis on certain expressions of these ideas, thus, it is argued, avoiding the epistemological assumptions of the ideologist. But the epistemological assumptions of Marx and Engels have a clear basis: observation of real, active men and their real-life processes. That is the key: not to derive a philosophy from arguments in the “discipline” of philosophy, but rather to strip all that away and return to observation of people in their everyday. For observation is relatively reliable, but idealist speculation is not. And here may be the key element missing in a discourse analysis – a commitment to beginning from real-life processes. For by beginning and ending with discourse only, such an analysis, while keeping itself safe from epistemological questionings, is, in precise proportion as it is doing this, sealing itself off from an ability to engage with anything beyond the purely textual. By thus limiting itself, it is keeping itself very much a “discipline”, but a discipline that will have to entirely collapse and remake itself if it is to make a bridge across the divide between textual analysis and a fuller engagement with all elements of being-in-this-our-world.