Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What is ideology?

Those of us who were studying at the time of the great “cold war” tussle between the superpowers would remember that, at that time, one thought of ideology as a more or less coherent system of ideas that demanded a way of living, or certain actions in accordance with those ideas. So, for example, communism was seen as an ideology that regarded the community’s, or society’s well-being as basic, and to this end the means of production (factories, etc) were state-owned. In such a society everyone was supposed to be equal (although this was subverted by the party hierarchy). By contrast, liberalism was understood as being grounded in the liberty of individuals, first of all in political terms, but secondly also economically speaking, which unavoidably leads to economic inequality. Apartheid was a species of race-oriented fascism, insofar as it was oligarchic, conservatively nationalist, headed by a valorised “leader”, and state rule was accompanied by co-opting “collaborators” from those who were oppressed.

These examples of “different ideologies” seemed self-evidently so, because they were easily identified with certain distinctive ideas and ways of behaving. Anyone who was told, at that time, that this was misleading, and that one’s everyday actions, together with your usually unexamined, common-sense beliefs actually constituted the clearest example of ideology, would undoubtedly have been taken aback. And yet, this is precisely what the rise of discourse theory, in conjunction with psychoanalysis, has brought to light: ideology is the very medium of most people’s existence. It is right before your eyes, in your ears, so to speak. The very fabric of common-sense assumptions within which one’s life is embedded comprises the threads from which ideology is woven.

You would probably respond by saying that this cannot be right, and I grant that it is counter-intuitive. But if you are not in the habit of reading discourse-theorists and philosophers like Ian Parker, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Žižek, you might want to watch one of the recent films in which Žižek – probably the world’s most famous, if not notorious, philosopher – explains with a unique combination of insight, wit and entertainment what ideology is.

The film is called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, and was directed by the appropriately named Sophie Fiennes (“Sophia” means wisdom in ancient Greek), who also directed an earlier film featuring Žižek, called The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which I can recommend just as highly. What makes these films such cinematic gems is the fact that Žižek – who is renowned for his effective and insightful use of popular culture to get across complex notions – employs clips from numerous films to clarify or demonstrate what otherwise difficult concepts, like ideology, mean.

(L-R) Producer Martin Rosenbaum, writer Slavoj Zizek, director Sophie Fiennes, producer Katie Holly and producer James Wilson attend The Pervert's Guide To Ideology premiere during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on September 7, 2012, in Toronto, Canada. (Getty Images/AFP)

(L-R) Producer Martin Rosenbaum, writer Slavoj Zizek, director Sophie Fiennes, producer Katie Holly and producer James Wilson attend The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology premiere during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on September 7, 2012, in Toronto, Canada. (Getty Images/AFP)

At the beginning of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology he makes use of a “forgotten” Hollywood classic from 1988 (They Live, directed by John Carpenter) that graphically illustrates one’s immersion in an ideologically structured everyday world (although at a popular level it is an “alien body-snatcher” film, where “aliens” is a metaphor for ideology). Žižek does this to cast light on the claim that, instead of ideology being like a pair of spectacles through which one looks at the world (an analogy often employed), ideology is rather the way one sees the world without any spectacles, so that one could conceive of special “ideology glasses” that would enable you to see through the usual, but thoroughly disguised ideological veneer surrounding you.

This is precisely what happens in the film, where a homeless guy in Los Angeles (tellingly named John Nada, that is, John “Nothing”) stumbles upon a cardboard box containing what appear to be ordinary sunglasses. When he puts on a pair of these, however, he discovers to his consternation that they reveal the “truth” about ideologically structured social reality: when he looks at a wad of dollar notes held in a man’s hand, the dollar signs disappear, and in their place the words, THIS IS YOUR GOD, appear. Similarly, when he looks at a billboard showing a tanned woman in a bikini lying on the beach, advertising a trip to the Bahamas (or some such supposed holiday paradise), the picture disappears to make way for the words, MARRY AND REPRODUCE. Looking at women sitting under hair-driers at a hairdresser, he does not see their faces, but the skulls underneath (the “aliens”), suggesting that their attempt to prettify themselves does not change anything about their mortality. And yet, when he tries to persuade his best friend to put on a pair of these glasses, the fellow resists him violently.

This already reveals a lot about the way ideology works. His friend’s resistance is the normal reaction on the part of people when one tries to disabuse them of their acceptance that “normal” social reality is thoroughly ideological. Or perhaps not “thoroughly” so, but rather “held together” by a kind of ideological “glue”, without which it would seem that it is in danger of collapsing. Another way of putting this is by using the term “fantasy” in its psychoanalytical sense (as something belonging to the “imaginary” sphere). One might say that ideology is made up of the bits of fantasy that fill in social reality to “smooth it over”, that is, to make it seem as if everything fits together seamlessly, even if, without the bits of “fantasy glue”, it would not appear to be as palatable at all.

One can illustrate this by referring to something Žižek discusses in the film. In the history of communism, with its (ideological) claim that it is a social-political system serving “the people”, and driving “history” (or the “historical process”), there were instances where some people (like those in Czechoslovakia) wanted to bring about reforms, only to be brought to book ruthlessly by the Russians. “People” rebelled against communist rule, and yet, the notion of “the people” was used to justify the military force with which the rebellion was quelled. “The people” comprises a fantasy that compensates or justifies the suffering of “people” who dissent in social reality.

Similarly Vladimir Lenin was usually depicted as a man who liked little children and cats – a really humane person – so that, when one discovers that people died because of his interventions and decisions, this little fantasy supposedly indicates, as Žižek says, that Lenin (or Joseph Stalin, for that matter) was really a nice guy, and that he was merely an “instrument” of historical progress when it came to eliminating those who stood in the way of “history”. “Fantasy” might therefore be seen as the glue or the strings holding an ideology together.

This is equally true today, of course, when we witness the “fantasy” of “economic well-being” functioning to cover up all the shortcomings of neoliberal capitalism as far as the actual, concrete life-circumstances of ordinary people are concerned. The GDP of a country may, for instance, seem to indicate that economically speaking, everything is running smoothly, while the truth may be that ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet. The economic and financial figures reflecting the industrial output of the country tell a different, misleading story. In this case the ideological fantasy is that, when the “economy of a country is growing” (as measured by GDP), everyone is happy, because of the (vaunted) “trickle-down effect”. Needless to stress, it is difficult to maintain this ideological fantasy today, especially after the publication of Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which has thoroughly debunked it as a mere myth used to hide the ugly truth about capitalism being unable to eradicate poverty. On the contrary, it exacerbates it.

The film’s viewing time is more than two hours, so I cannot cover everything that is important in it here. Žižek discusses many other interesting aspects of ideology, linking it to dominant discourses and to what he, following Lacan, calls the “big Other” – the idea behind an ideology from which all its vindications arise, like “the market” in capitalism. This brief post therefore cannot do justice to Žižek and Fiennes’s film; it has to be viewed, and more than once.

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