return to, the home of critical reviews

Re: Rodchenko at the Hayward

From:     91
Category: Art
Date:     25 March 2008
Time:     07:56 AM



Criticism of Ideology as “False Consciousness”

In a way that is oddly reminiscent of Nietzsche, Zizek generally presents his work in a polemical
fashion, knowingly striking out against the grain of accepted opinion. One untimely feature of
Zizek’s work is his continuing defence and use of the unfashionable term “ideology”. According to
the classical Marxist definition, ideologies are discourses that promote false ideas (or “false
consciousness”) in subjects about the political regimes they live in. Nevertheless, because these
ideas are believed by the subjects to be true, they assist in the reproduction of the existing
status quo, in an exact instance of what Umberto Eco dubs “the force of the fake”. To critique
ideology, according to this position, it is sufficient to unearth the truth(s) the ideologies
conceal from the subject’s knowledge. Then, so the theory runs, subjects will become aware of the
political shortcomings of their current regimes, and be able and moved to better them. As Zizek
takes up in his earlier works, this classical Marxian notion of ideology has come under theoretical
attack in a number of ways. First, to criticise a discourse as ideological implies access to a Truth
about political things the Truth that the ideologies, as false, would conceal. But it is now widely
disputed in the humanities that there could ever be any One such theoretically accessible Truth.
Secondly, the notion of ideology is held to be irrelevant to describe contemporary sociopolitical
life, because of the increased importance of what Jurgen Habermas calls “mediasteered subsystems”
(the market, public and private bureaucracies), and also because of the widespread cynicism of
today’s subjects towards political authorities. For ideologies to have political importance, critics
comment, subjects would have to have a level of faith in public institutions, ideals and politicians
which today’s liberalcosmopolitan subjects lack. The widespread notoriety of leftleaning authors
like Michael Moore of Naom Chomsky, as one example, bears witness to how subjects today can know
very well what Moore claims is the “awful truth”, and yet act as if they did not know.

Zizek agrees with critics about this “false consciousness” model of ideology. Yet he insists that we
are not living in a postideological world, as figures as different as Tony Blair, Daniel Bell or
Richard Rorty have claimed. Zizek proposes instead that in order to understand today’s politics we
need a different notion of ideology. In a typically bold reversal, Zizek’s position is that today’s
widespread consensus that our world is postideological gives voice to what he calls the
“archideological” fantasy. Since “ideology” since Marx has carried a pejorative sense, no one who
taken in by such an ideology has ever believed that they were so duped, Zizek comments. If the term
“ideology” has any meaning at all, ideological positions are always what people impute to Others
(for today’s left, for example, the political right are the dupes of one or another noble lie about
natural community; for the right, the left are the dupes of well meaning but utopian egalitarianism
bound to lead to economic and moral collapse, etc.). For subjects to believe in an ideology, it must
have been presented to them, and been accepted, as nonideological indeed, as True and Right, and
what anyone sensible would believe. As we shall see in 2e, Zizek is alert to the realist insight
that there is no more effective political gesture than to declare some contestable matter above
political contestation. Just as the third way is said to be postideological or national security is
claimed to be extrapolitical, so Zizek argues that ideologies are always presented by their
proponents as being discourses about Things too sacred to profane by politics. Hence, Zizek’s bold
opening in The Sublime Object of Ideology is to claim that today ideology has not so much
disappeared from the political landscape as come into its own. It is exactly because of this
success, Zizek argues, that ideology has also been able to be dismissed in accepted political and
theoretical opinion.
Back to Table of Contents

b. Ideological Cynicism and Belief

Today’s typical first world subjects, according to Zizek, are the dupes of what he calls
“ideological cynicism”. Drawing on the German political theorist Sloterditj, Zizek contends that the
formula describing the operation of ideology today is not “they do not know it, but they are doing
it”, as it was for Marx. It is “they know it, but they are doing it anyway”. If this looks like
nonsense from the classical Marxist perspective, Zizek’s position is that nevertheless this cynicism
indicates the deeper efficacy of political ideology per se. Ideologies, as political discourses, are
there to secure the voluntary consent – or what La Boetie called servitude voluntaire of people
about contestable political policies or arrangements. Yet, Zizek argues, subjects will only
voluntarily agree to follow one or other such arrangement if they believe that, in doing so, they
are expressing their free subjectivity, and might have done otherwise.

However false such a sense of freedom is, Zizek insists that it is nevertheless a political instance
of what Hegel called an essential appearance. Althusser’s understanding of ideological
identification suggests that an individual is wholly “interpellated” into a place within a political
system by the system’s dominant ideology and ideological state apparatuses. Contesting this notion
by drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis, however, Zizek argues that it is a mistake to think that, for
a political position to win peoples’ support, it needs to effectively brainwash them into
thoughtless automatons. Rather, Zizek maintains that any successful political ideology always allows
subjects to have and to cherish a conscious distance towards its explicit ideals and prescriptions –
or what he calls, in a further technical term, “ideological disidentification”.

Again bringing the psychoanalytic theory of Lacan to bear in political theory, Zizek argues that the
attitude of subjects towards authority revealed by today’s ideological cynicism resembles the
fetishist’s attitude towards his fetish. The fetishist’s attitude towards his fetish has the
peculiar form of a disavowal: “I know well that (eg) the shoe is only a shoe, but nevertheless, I
still need my partner to wear the shoe in order to enjoy”. According to Zizek, the attitude of
political subjects towards political authority evinces the same logical form: “I know well that (for
example) Bob Hawke / Bill Clinton / the Party / the market does not always act justly, but I still
act as though I did not know that this is the case”. In Althusser’s famous “Ideology and Ideological
State Apparatuses”, Althusser staged a kind of primal scene of ideology the moment when a policeman
(as bearer of authority) says “hey you!” to an individual, and the individual recognises himself as
the addressee of this call. In the “180 degree turn” of the individual towards this Other who has
addressed him, the individual becomes a political subject, Althusser says. Zizek’s central technical
notion of the “big O Other” closely resembles to the extent that it is not modelled on Althusser’s
notion of the Subject (capital “S”) in the name of which public authorities (like the police) can
legitimately call subjects to account within a regime for example, “God” in a theocracy, “the Party”
under Stalinism, or “the People” in today’s China. As the central chapter of The Sublime Object of
Ideology specifies, ideologies for Zizek work to identify individuals with such important or
rallying political terms as these, which Zizek calls “master signifiers”. The strange but decisive
thing about these pivotal political words, according to Zizek, is that no one knows exactly what
they mean or refer to, or has ever seen with their own eyes the sacred objects which they seem to
name (eg: God, the Nation, or the People). This is one reason why Zizek, in the technical language
he inherits (via Lacan) from structuralism, says that the most important words in any political
doctrine are “signifiers without a signified” (i.e. words which do not refer to any clear and
distinct concept or demonstrable object).

This claim of Zizek’s is connected to two other central ideas in his work:

        * First: Zizek adapts the psychoanalytic notion that individuals are always “split”
subjects, divided between the levels of their conscious awareness and the unconscious. Zizek
contends throughout his work that subjects are always divided between what they consciously know and
can say about political things, and a set of more or less unconscious beliefs they hold concerning
individuals in authority, and the regime in which they live. (see 3a) Even if people cannot say
clearly and distinctly why they support some political leader or policy, for Zizek no less than for
Edmund Burke, this fact is not politically decisive, as we will see (see 2e below).
        * Second: Zizek makes a crucial distinction between knowledge and belief. Exactly where and
because subjects do not know, for example, what “the essence” of “their people” is, the scope and
nature of their beliefs on such matters is politically decisive, according to Zizek (again, see 2e

Zizek’s understanding of political belief is modelled on Lacan’s understanding of transference in
psychoanalysis. The belief or “supposition” of the analysand in psychoanalysis is that the Other
(his analyst) knows the meaning of his symptoms. This is obviously a false belief, at the start of
the analytic process. But it is only through holding this false belief about the analyst that the
work of analysis can proceed, and the transferential belief can become true (when the analyst does
become able to interpret the symptoms). Zizek argues that this strange intersubjective or
dialectical logic of belief in clinical psychoanalysis also characterises peoples’ political
beliefs. Belief is always “belief through the Other”, Zizek argues. If subjects do not know the
exact meaning of those “master signifiers” with which they political identify, this is because their
political belief is mediated through their identifications with others. Although they each
themselves “do not know what they do” (which is the title one of Zizek’s books [Zizek, 2002]), the
deepest level of their belief is maintained through the belief that nevertheless there are Others
who do know. A number of features of political life are cast into new relief given this
psychoanalytic understanding, Zizek claims:

        * First, Zizek contends that the key political function of holders of public office is to
occupy the place of what he calls, after Lacan, “the Other supposed to know”. Zizek cites the
example of priests reciting mass in Latin before an uncomprehending laity, who believe that the
priests know the meaning of the words, and for whom this is sufficient to keep the faith. Far from
presenting an exception to the way political authority works, for Zizek this scenario reveals the
universal rule of how political consensus is formed.
        * Second, and in connection with this, Zizek contends that political power is primarily
“symbolic” in its nature. What he means by this further technical term is that the roles, masks, or
mandates that public authorities bear is more important politically than the true “reality” of the
individuals in question (whether they are unintelligent, unfaithful to their wives, good family
women, etc.) According to Zizek, for example, fashionable liberal criticisms of George W. Bush the
man are irrelevant to understanding or evaluating his political power. It is the office or place an
individual occupies in their political system (or “Big Other”) that ensures the political force of
their words, and the belief of subjects in their authority. This is why Zizek maintains that the
resort of a political leader or regime to “the real of violence” (such as war or police action)
amounts to a confession of its weakness as a political regime. Zizek sometimes puts this by thought
saying that people believe through the big Other, or that the big Other believes for them, despite
what they might inwardly think or cynically say.

c. Jouissance as Political Factor

A further key point that Zizek takes from Louis Althusser’s later work on ideology is Althusser’s
emphasis on the “materiality” of ideology its embodiment in institutions and peoples’ everyday
practices and lives. Zizek’s realist position is that all the ideas in the world can have no lasting
political effect unless they come to inform institutions and subjects’ daytoday lives. In The
Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek cites Blaise Pascal’s advice that doubting subjects should get
down on their knees and pray, and then they will believe. Pascal’s position is not any kind of
simple protobehaviourism, according to Zizek. The deeper message of Pascal’s directive, he asserts,
is to suggest that once subjects have come to believe through praying, they will also
retrospectively see that they got down on their knees because they always believed, without knowing
it. In this way, in fact, Zizek can be read as a consistent critic not only of the importance of
knowledge in the formation of political consensus, but also of the importance of “inwardness” in
politics per se in the tradition of the younger Carl Schmitt.

Prior political philosophy has placed too little emphasis, Zizek asserts (whether rightly or
wrongly) on communities’ cultural practices that involve what he calls “inherent transgression”.
These are practices sanctioned by a culture that nevertheless allow subjects some experience of what
is usually exceptional to or prohibited in their everyday lives as civilised political subjects –
things like sex, death, defecation, or violence. Such experiences involve what Zizek calls
jouissance, another technical term he takes from Lacanian psychoanalysis. Jouissance is usually
translated from the French as “enjoyment”. As opposed to what we talk of in English as “pleasure”,
though, jouissance is an alwayssexualised, alwaystransgressive enjoyment, at the limits of what
subjects can experience or talk about in public. Zizek argues that subjects’ experiences of the
events and practices wherein their political culture organises its specific relations to jouissance
(in first world nations, for example, specific sports, types of alcohol or drugs, music, festivals,
films) are as close as they will get to knowing the deeper Truth intimated for them by their
regime’s master signifiers – “nation”, “God”, “our way of life”, etc (see b above). Zizek, like
Burke, argues that it is such ostensibly nonpolitical and culturally specific practices as these
that irreplaceably single out any political community from its others and enemies. Or, as one of
Zizek’s chapter titles in Tarrying With the Negative puts it, where and although subjects do not
know their Nation, they “enjoy (jouis) their nation as themselves”.
Back to Table of Contents

d. The Reflective Logic of Ideological Judgments (or How the King is King)

According to Zizek, like and after Althusser, ideologies are thus political discourses whose primary
function is not to make correct theoretical statements about political reality (as Marx’s “false
consciousness” model implies), but to orient subjects’ lived relations to and within this reality.
If a political ideology’s descriptive propositions turn out to be true (eg: “capitalism exploits the
workers”, “Saddam was a dictator”, “the Spanish are the national enemy”, etc.), this does not in any
way reduce their ideological character, in Zizek’s estimation. This is because this character
concerns the political issue of how subjects’ belief in these propositions instead of those of
opponents positions subjects on the leading political issues of the day. For Zizek, political speech
is primarily about securing a lived sense of unity or community between subjects something like what
Kant called sensus communis or Rousseau the general will. If political propositions seemingly do
describe things in the world, Zizek’s position is that we nevertheless need always to understand
them as Marx understood the exchangevalue of commodities – as “a relation between people being
concealed behind a relation between things”. Or again: just as Kant thought that the proposition
“this is beautiful” really expresses a subject’s reflective sense of commonality with all other
subjects capable of being similarly affected by the object, so Zizek argues that propositions like
“Go Spain!” or “the King will never stop working to secure our future” are what Kant called
reflective judgments, which tell us as much or more about the subject’s lived relation to political
reality as about this reality itself.

If ideological statements are thus performative utterances that produce political effects by their
being stated, Zizek in fact holds that they are a strange species of performative utterance
overlooked by speechact theory. Just because, when subjects say “the Queen is the Queen!”, they are
at one level reaffirming their allegiance to a political regime, Zizek at the same time holds that
this does not mean that this regime could survive without appearing to rest on such deeper Truths
about the way the world is. As we saw in 2, b, Zizek maintains that political ideologies always
present themselves as naming such deeper, extrapolitical Truths. Ideological judgments, according to
Zizek, are thus performative utterances which, in order to perform their salutary political work,
must yet appear to be objective descriptions of the way the world is (exactly as when a chairman
says “this meeting is closed!”, only thereby bringing this state of affairs into effect). In Sublime
Object of Ideology, Zizek cites Marx’s analysis of being a King in Das Capital to illustrate his
meaning. A King is only King because his subjects loyally think and act like he is King think of the
tragedy of Lear. Yet, at the same time, the people will only believe he is King if they believe that
this is a deeper Truth about which they can do nothing.
Back to Table of Contents

e. Sublime Objects of Ideology

In line with Zizek’s ideas of “ideological disidentification” and “jouissance as a political factor”
(see 2b and 2c above) and in a clear comparison with Derrida’s deconstruction arguably the unifying
thought in Zizek’s political philosophy is that regimes can only secure a sense of collective
identity if their governing ideologies afford subjects an understanding of how their regime relates
to what exceeds, supplements or challenges its identity. This is why Kant’s analytic of the sublime
in The Critique of Judgment, as an analysis of an experience in which the subject’s identity is
challenged, is of the highest theoretical interest for Zizek. Kant’s analytic of the sublime
isolates two moments to its experience, as Zizek observes. In the first moment, the size or force of
an object painfully impresses upon the subject the limitation of its perceptual capabilities. In a
second moment, however, a “representation” arises where “we would least expect it”, which takes as
its object the subject’s own failure to perceptually take the object in. This representation
resignifies the subject’s perceptual failure as indirect testimony about the inadequacy of human
perception as such to attain to what Kant calls Ideas of Reason (in Kant’s system, God, the Universe
as a Whole, Freedom, the Good).

According to Zizek, all successful political ideologies necessarily refer to and turn around sublime
objects posited by political ideologies. These sublime objects are what political subjects take it
that their regime’s ideologies’ central words mean or name extraordinary Things like God, the
Fuhrer, the King, in whose name they will (if necessary) transgress ordinary moral laws and lay down
their lives. When a subject believes in a political ideology, as we saw in b above, Zizek argues
that this does not mean that they know the Truth about the objects which its key terms seemingly
name – indeed, Zizek will finally contest that such a Truth exists. (see 3c, d) Nevertheless, by
drawing on a parallel with Kant on the sublime, Zizek makes a further and more radical point. Just
as in the experience of the sublime, Kant’s subject resignifies its failure to grasp the sublime
object as indirect testimony to a wholly “supersensible” faculty within herself (Reason), so Zizek
argues that the inability of subjects to explain the nature of what they believe in politically does
not indicate any disloyalty or abnormality. What political ideologies do, precisely, is provide
subjects with a way of seeing the world according to which such an inability can appear as testimony
to how just how Transcendent or Great their Nation, God, Freedom, etc. is – surely far above the
ordinary or profane things of the world. In Zizek’s Lacanian terms, these things are Real (capital
“R”) Things (capital “T”), precisely insofar as they in this way stand out from the reality of
ordinary things and events.

In the struggle of competing political ideologies, Zizek hence agrees with Ernesto Laclau and
Chantale Mouffe, the aim of each is to elevate their particular political perspective (about what is
just, best, etc.) to the point where it can lay claim to name, give voice to or to represent the
political whole (eg: the nation). In order to achieve this political feat, Zizek argues, each group
must succeed in identifying its perspective with the extrapolitical, sublime objects accepted within
the culture as giving body to this whole (eg: “the national interest”, “the dictatorship of the
proletariat”, etc.). Or else, it must supplant the previous ideologies’ sublime objects with new
such objects. In the absolute monarchies, as Ernst Kantorowicz argued, the King’s socalled “second”
or “symbolic” body exemplified paradigmatically such sublime political objects as the unquestionable
font of political authority (the particular individual who was King was contestable, but not the
sovereign’s role itself). Zizek’s critique of Stalinism, in a comparable way, turns upon the thought
that “the Party” had this sublime political status in Stalinist ideology. Class struggle in this
society did not end, Zizek contends, despite Stalinist propaganda. It was only displaced from a
struggle between two classes (for example, bourgeois versus proletarian) to one between “the Party”
as representative of the people or the whole and all who disagreed with it, ideologically positioned
as “traitors” or “enemies of the people”.

return to, the home of critical reviews