The Victorian Sage

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Tag: foucault

And Another Thing: Ideology and the Base/ Superstructure Divide

(Further to my last post on Michele Barrett’s book.)

Barrett states that: “Foucault believed that the concept of ideology was irretrievably contaminated by the unilinear economic determinism characteristic of Marxism” (130). This is an important point, because the most common objection to the term ideology is that it is implicated in the Marxist economic determinism, aka the base/ superstructure divide. This is more a measure of Marx’s ubiquitous influence in academia than a true reflection on the term itself. Histories of the term are found in potted form in Raymond Williams’ Keywords and the more recent edition of same by other authors. But even more interesting is consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives four usages:

1: The original usage of the term was to designate the study of ideas, and this is still meaning number one in the OED.

2: The second usage, both historically and in the present OED, is:

“Abstract speculation; impractical or visionary theorizing. Now rare.”

3: Third is as a synonym for idealism, also now rare.

4: This is the everyday, man-in-the-street version:

A systematic scheme of ideas, usually relating to politics, economics, or society and forming the basis of action or policy; a set of beliefs governing conduct. Also: the forming or holding of such a scheme of ideas.

Again, in four, the economic is only a secondary and optional element of ideology; as a term it is given no more weight than politics or society.

In short the OED would give no support whatever to the general academic notion that Foucault expressed and that Barrett supports. And even within academia, the economic basis for ideology is far from the only one. An avowed Marxist, Stuart Hall, defined ideology thusly:

By ideology I mean the mental frameworks – the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation – which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, figure out and render intelligible the way society works. (Qtd in John Storey, “Introduction”, in Storey, ed., Cultural Theory, p. vvii)

Again, no mention of an economic basis. The economic argument against ideology, in other words, is lazy and straw-mannish. It’s not even clear that Marx himself held an economic determinist view of ideology – that is to say, his pronouncements, as is clear from Barrett’s discussion of them in her opening chapter, are somewhat contradictory and don’t add up to a clear position. But it suits opponents of ideology to treat it as implicated in economic determinism. It suits them, because if that is ideology, then ideology is clearly a concept of limited usefulness, and space is open for a new term such as discourse, etc. But if ideology has a far wider and richer usage-history than Foucault realizes, then the debate is far from settled.

Ideology v. discourse

In Michele Barrett’s book The Politics of Truth (Polity 1991), she gives a cogently written history of the term ideology, devoting about two-thirds of the book to this topic, before moving on to Foucault and his emphasis on discourse. Foucault considered the term ideology as not useful for cultural analysis, for several reasons. Barrett agrees, and suggests that Foucault’s “discourse” provides the way forward, fundamentally because while discussion of ideology supposedly implies the possibility of non-ideological, objective truth, the use of the concept of discourse to analyze society and culture does not presuppose a non-discursive knowledge.

But surely we all consider our own reflections on a given topic to be, if not absolutely truthful, at least more valid than those of our opponents. Or does one think as one expounds a critical analysis: “I know that my own opinions are wrong, but I hold them nevertheless”? It is impossible not to have an epistemological stance of some sort, so “discourse” really just avoids the issue by pretending that it takes no position. Ideology has to actually take responsibility for its own position, as it says, “Yes, I am correct, and you, who believe otherwise, are misguided.” This, I submit, is rather a pro than a con. Responsibilty and answerability for one’s own position are key. The critic disappears entirely behind discourse analysis; there is nobody who speaks, there is just “analysis” that is performed, and that thus takes on an objective character. Ideology, because of its usage by Marx in a spirit of epistemological certainty, and because of the critical energies which have been devoted to debunking the concept, demands of the analyst a far greater degree of self-awareness and self-criticism.

The easy thing to do is to take the much vaunted Foucauldian approach, which is the official methodology of contemporary social studies and humanities. This is precisely the reason why it should not be taken. For he or she who aspires to the condition of having something worthwhile to say, it is imperative to struggle against the methodological strictures of the academy. Ideology provides a way in to the thought of earlier epochs, epochs which may yet have something to say to the contemporary individual. It is possible to close off intellectual life from all such influences by creating a new conceptual language which undercuts all previous approaches while not making the grounds of its own clear. Indeed, Barrett comes close to admitting this in discussing The Archaeology of Knowledge:

[T]here is a sense in which Foucault’s own achievements when “skimming along” and selecting some statements rather than others remain unexplained by the formal method he outlines. (127)

But she simply forgets about this critique, which is an important one that basically negates any advantage Foucauldian discourse might appear to have over ideology as a methodological tool (note 1). So, in summation, new is not necessarily better, and if we want to get a wide-angle view of humanity’s intellectual development we need to use concepts which work not just by being formally acceptable (which is basically only the newer ones, because they haven’t been debunked yet), but concepts that allow a wide-ranging exploration of the thought of the past, which we can then be in a position to criticize, but not necessarily wholly dismiss.

Note 1: “The description of the events of discourse poses a quite different question: how is it that one particular statement appeared rather than another?” (Foucault, Arch. of Knowledge, quoted in Barrett, 126)

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