Žižek’s Ideology

by Mark Wallace

In the entry on “Ideology” in New Keywords (ed. Bennett, et al., Blackwell Publishing, 2005), it is noted in that “the academic centrality of the concept in theoretical debates and political analyses has declined in the e21C (178). The one great exception to this rule is, of course, Slavoj Žižek , probably the most famous of all academic cultural commentators at this time. It’s quite characteristic of him to take this theoretically outmoded concept and revamp it to use it against contemporary orthodoxy. But I have problems with his usage of the word as outlined in perhaps his most famous book, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) – an intellectual tour-de-force and a frequently stimulating (if sometimes difficult) read.

Žižek ‘s big move in Sublime Object – well, one of them – is to reverse the standard Marxist position. Marx’s famous dictum is: They do not know it, but they are doing it. This describes ideology for Marx because the members of a society unthinkingly objectify their labour and reduce materiality to abstraction, without being conscious of it. Žižek ‘s inversion is: They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it (25). This inversion is, I suppose, historically specific: they (we) now know what we are doing when we participate in capitalist economics because of Marx and his followers and popularizers. But, yet, nothing has really changed at the level of activity.

We might be tempted to give ourselves a pat on the back here because Žižek allows that we have surmounted the “false consciousness” of ideology that Marx described – unlike our 19th-century forebears, we know. But that’s even worse, because we are still doing it. We are allowing the disconnect between our thoughts and actions to grow and to continue inscribing itself in the mechanisms of our society. Ideology, then, Žižek argues, is  not, at least in contemporary societies, a matter of thought, but of action.

If we want to grasp this dimension of fantasy, we must return to the Marxian formula “they do not know it, but they are doing it”, and pose ourselves a very simple question: where is the place of ideological illusion, in the “knowing” or in the “doing” in the reality itself? (27)

For Žižek it’s in the doing, not in the knowing. We know, for example, that money is not really an embodiment of wealth, but we act as if it is. Of course, the societal and structural pressures to do so are immense, and well-nigh irresistible.

So how do we overcome this impasse, where our doing conflicts with our knowing?

For Žižek, the main technique that is used in contemporary societies is irony or cynicism. Nobody actually believes in the values are social and economic structures are supposed to represent, but while we give free rein to this unbelief, we simply act as if we did believe. The falseness that is incorporated into this cynical worldview is as follows:

The model of cynical wisdom is to conceive probity, integrity, as a supreme form of dishonesty, and morals as a supreme form of profligacy, the truth as the most effective form of a lie. (26)

According to this form of wisdom, there is no alternative to cynicism, so we carry on as we are, while keeping an “ironical distance” from our actions (30). Our actions, then, are ideological: “the illusion is not on the side of knowledge, it is already on the side of reality itself, of what people are doing” (29-30).

So, in the face of ideology having become an outmoded concept, Žižek is basically inverting the entire concept. Now it doesn’t deal with the “phantoms of the human brain“, but with socio-economic “reality”. This may be an entirely un-Marxist concept: if this reality doesn’t actually create epistemological distortions in those who live within it, then Marx’s entire thesis about the relationship between relations of production and ideas falls down. And ideology becomes about material and institutional structures rather than about consciousness. That’s a large sacrifice, and if that is required to make the term acceptable to current intellectual paradigms, then it is proof that “ideology” really is no more. So Žižek ‘s is less, I would say, a theory of ideology than an anti-ideological theory. It has interesting elements, undoubtedly, and the focus on cynicism/ irony is useful and pertinent, but there is more to be said about ideological consciousness than that. Ultimately, cynicism is not the defining mood of any generation because there is an incessant pull away from it: most people still cannot handle too much cynicism, and need something to believe in. It may not be something narrowly political: it’s more likely to be an abstraction like Love. Or what about Tolerance, a term Žižek himself has spoken and written on quite a bit? This, too, is a quasi-official  ideology that people espouse without apparent cynicism. The interplay of such powerful idealist concepts with the economic base is what could still be examined by an ideological critique, so there’s no need to throw it all out the window for an emphasis on a (paradoxical) ideology of doing.

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