What does Slavoj Žižek mean when he talks about ideology?

He goes on and on about ideology, but what does it mean?

Slavoj Zizek
Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images
  • Žižek is often a profound thinker, but he can be difficult to understand.
  • His ideas about ideology are well known, but not often understood.
  • The fact that his best explanation of the idea involves a John Carpenter movie is the most Slavoj Žižek thing ever.

Slavoj Žižek is one of the most famous philosophers in the world. Known for his mannerisms, frequent use of film references, and love of a shocking statement, he has been interviewed, parodied, and discussed for years.

However, most people only know him for his occasional stunts and fun interviews. His actual thought often eludes people. This is a shame since it is often insightful and profound. Today, we'll look at what he means when he turns to his favorite topic, ideology.

What is ideology?

When most people hear the word "ideology," they think of a large set of socio-political beliefs that typically end in "ism;" communism, liberalism, conservatism, etc.

When Žižek uses the term "ideology," he is using it in a Marxist sense. For Karl Marx, ideology is a series of discourses that push false ideas on people. When people buy into these false ideas, they develop a "false consciousness" about the world, how it works, and their place in it. According to Marx, without ideology, no society could function for very long.

As an example, in Medieval Europe, religion was used as an ideology to support the structure of society. Serfs were told that the people in charge were put there by God and that the way the world worked was the only divinely ordained way it could work. No wonder people who were essentially slaves didn't rise up; they were told God wanted them at the bottom.

According to Marx, other ideologies like capitalism or liberalism work the same way. They are created, work to help sustain a particular social structure, and ultimately fall out of favor when a new idea comes to force. When this happens, the whole structure of society can change in a hurry as a new ideology fills the void.

Žižek, himself essentially a Marxist, starts with this idea and goes further.

Taking off on the development of the idea of ideology done by Louis Althusser, Žižek incorporates psychology into ideology. While for Marx, ideology is a conscious exercise, Žižek suggests that ideology is also a subconscious phenomenon that helps to shape the world we live in.

Woah, slow down. What?

This part is a little more confusing, so bear with me.

Žižek is building off Althusser, who fused the idea of ideology with the psychology of Jacques Lacan. According to Lacan, we don't interact with the world as it is, but rather as we represent it through language. Because of this disconnect, ideology moves down from being about the world as it is to being about how we view the world to begin with.

In technical terms used by Dino Felluga at Purdue:

"Ideology does not 'reflect' the real world but 'represents' the 'imaginary relationship of individuals' to the real world; the thing ideology (mis)represents is itself already at one remove [sic] from the real. … .In other words, we are always within ideology because of our reliance on language to establish our 'reality'; different ideologies are but different representations of our social and imaginary 'reality.'"

With this understanding, ideology takes on a new role. It no longer merely hides how the world works from people but helps to shape how they view and talk about it in the first place.

To help understand this, have a joke that Žižek likes to tell.

"A man comes into a restaurant. He sits down at the table and he says, 'Waiter, bring me a cup of coffee without cream.' Five minutes later, the waiter comes back and says, 'I'm sorry, sir, we have no cream. Can it be without milk?'"

This joke, from the movie Ninotchka, shows how the same object, black coffee, can be changed by how we think about it. While physically the coffee is the same, we conceptualize coffee without milk and coffee without cream as two different things. Ideology, which influences how we subconsciously view the world, is one of the factors that determines if we see our black coffee as lacking cream or milk.

This line of thinking can be applied to everything, not just coffee.

Crucial for Žižek is his argument that we are all influenced by the prevailing ideology even if we think we aren't. In the same way that we may think we are looking at the world as it really is when we think of all black coffee as "coffee without milk," ideology can cause us to look at things in a very subjective way while also telling us we are entirely objective about it.

While some thinkers, like Richard Rorty or Tony Blair, have suggested we're are in a post-ideological age, Žižek argues that the appearance of such a thing is evidence that the dominant ideologies have finally "come into their own." That is, they are so entrenched that people are no longer able to see them.

To conceptualize this, we'll use another one of Žižek's favorite examples; think of how many people sincerely believe there is no alternative to modern liberal capitalism. Not just full-blown laissez-faire types, but those who think that the only possible changes to the system are minor tweaks like a higher minimum wage or different tax rates.

Žižek argues that this very line of thinking is an example of ideology in action. It isn't that there aren't alternatives to our current model of capitalism — there are — it's that people are so taken in by capitalist ideology that they cannot even fathom an alternative way of organizing a society. The brilliance of it is that they don't think they're being taken in by anything; they'll tell you they're neutral and objective the entire time! This mechanism makes ideologies self-sustaining and so difficult to critique or escape from.

How seriously should I take this notion of ideology?

Perhaps obviously, these ideas, from Marx's starting point all the way down to Žižek's stance, are controversial.

Noam Chomsky, who has had a bit of a spat with Žižek in the past, held Lacan to be a "charlatan" and you can imagine what he thinks of a theory that relies heavily on his psychoanalytic theories to work. Žižek's work, in general, is often accused of being muddled, unclear, and occasionally mistaken when he tries to take ideas from other fields into philosophy.

Zizek also uses the idea of ideology to express other notions he has about psychology, society, and government that even more controversial, but we won't get into them here. So, don't take this idea of ideology as gospel just yet.

On the other hand, the idea that we make certain assumptions about the world around us or about what is "natural" or "obvious" and that the prevailing ideology around us often influences these assumptions isn't too bold a claim. After all, most intelligent people would admit to thinking about things the way they do, at least in part, because of where they're from and how they were raised.

How can I use this idea in my life?

In his entertaining film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, Žižek relates the idea of ideology to the glasses in the movie They Live by John Carpenter.

For those who haven't seen it, the film is about a man who realizes that the world is controlled by aliens who use subliminal messages to influence the human race. It is only by the use of special glasses that he can see through the illusions and understand the world as it is.

It sounds weird, but it's a good film.

Žižek, while spliced into They Live, explains that ideology is much like the glasses in the film — only backwards. We are all wearing glasses all the time that prevent us from seeing the world as it is and show us the world through the lens of ideology. Most people don't understand this and will strongly object to this notion. The trick is to try to get the glasses off, or at least to know how they change your perspective.

Thus, the most immediate use of this idea might be the simplest. Remember that you're probably not as objective as you think and that things that you think are obvious, common sense, and far beyond political discussion may be none of those things. Žižek wants you to question everything about society, especially when something seems to be so obvious it shouldn't be questioned.

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