© 2017 Steve Campsall

IDEOLOGY - a brief guide

© Copyright 1997 by John Lye.

Ideology is a term developed in the Marxist tradition to talk about how cultures are structured in ways that enable the group holding power to have the maximum control with the minimum of conflict. This is not necessarily a matter of groups deliberately planning to oppress people or alter their 'consciousness' (although this has been thought to happen), but rather a matter of how the dominant institutions in society work through things such as values, attitudes, conceptions of the world, its institutions, cultures and peoples and symbol systems, in order to legitimise the current order and power structures so that these are perceived to be "for the best", "natural" or "common sense".

Briefly, this legitimisation is managed through the widespread teaching (the social adoption) of ideas about the way things are, how the world ‘really’ works and should work. These ideas (often embedded in symbols and cultural practices) orient people’s thinking in such a way that they accept the current way of doing things, the current sense of what is ‘natural,’ and the current understanding of their roles in society. This socialization process – the shaping of our cognitive and affective interpretations of our social world – is called, by Gramsci, hegemony it is carried out, Althusser writes, by the ‘state ideological apparatuses’ – by the churches, the schools, the family, and through cultural forms (such as literature, rock music, advertising, sitcoms, etc.)

While the concept of ideology is most generally associated with power relations, we have to keep from being too simplistic. Power is not a unitary force or phenomenon, nor an exclusively ‘political’ phenomenon. Power and power relations are woven throughout all our practices and ideas – power is exercised in every relationship, group, and social practice, and it is not necessarily detrimental (what if a mother decided she did not want to operate in a power relationship to her newborn?). On the other hand, one must not forget that social order relies, in varying degrees, but ultimately, on the ability of one person or group to coerce another person or group, and that the basis of Law, however rationalized, is the authorized use of force.

Some conceptions of ideology de-emphasize the power aspect and see ideology as the structure of assumptions which form the imaginative world of groups. Ideology, writes Althusser, is “a representation of the imaginary relation of individuals to the real condition of existence.” Further, Althusser writes, ideology creates us as persons: it “hails” us, calls us into being.

According to Marx, ideology naturalizes, it historicizes, and it eternalises. That is:

1. Ideological structures appear to be natural, “according to the order of things” (naturalization)

2. Ideological structures appear to be the logical conclusion to an historical development (historicisation)

3. There is an assumption that now that this (natural) state of affairs has been reached, things will be that way, barring regression (eternalisation).

E.g. “Democracy is the political system most in keeping with the nature and needs of humans history has been an evolution of political forms towards democracy once states have all reached democracy, all they have to do is avoid reverting, there is no ‘farther’ to go in terms of political organization.” We assume that democracy is the political system best suited to the nature and aspirations of humans, we see history as a movement towards democracy, we assume that once all nations have achieved democracy they will continue to be democracies forever, unless they erode. These assumptions are ideology.

Any ideology will contain contradictions, will repress aspects of experience, will ‘disappear’ that which tends to contradict it or expose its repressions. Ideology’s cultural activity will include the construction of pseudo-problems which are given pseudo-solutions – e.g. our culture’s obsession with stories about ‘love’ relations which are ‘solved’ by individuals realizing the true worth of the other, as if these issues were really central to our most fundamental human concerns, our moral and mental health, the justice and equity for which the world is calling out all sorts of moral and social problems get ‘disappeared’ in the process.


Ideological analysis: some questions to ask of the text

1. What are the assumptions about what is natural, just and right?

2. What (and who) do these assumptions distort or obscure?

3. What are the power relations? How are they made to appear as if they are normal or good? What negative aspects are excluded?

4. Look for binaries, oppositions (good/evil, natural/unnatural, tame/wild, young/old). Which term of the binary is privileged, what is repressed or devalued by this privileging of one term over the other?

5. What people, classes, areas of life, experiences, are ‘left out’, silenced?

6. What cultural assumptions and what ‘myths’ shape experience and evaluation? What is mystified (e.g. a pastoral setting for cigarette smokers, a gentle rocking chair in a lovely room for motherhood)? I use “myth”, also known as “second-order signification,” in the sense in which it is used by Roland Barthes: as a sign which refers to a broad, general cultural meaning see his Mythologies. An experience or event or thing is mystified when a broad cultural meaning obscures the particulars of that experience, event or thing this obscuring usually covers up or ‘disappears’ contrary or inconvenient facts, as in the examples I have given. To demystify, pay attention to the particulars, the specifics, the concrete reality, with all its blemishes and contradictions.

7. What enthymemes can you see in the ‘logic’ of the text? In a general sense, enthymemes are statements which exclude the expression of key assumptions which ground conclusions – e.g. “Karen studies really hard. She’ll ace this exam for sure” Unspoken assumption: What it takes (all it takes?) to ‘ace’ an examination is hard study.

8. How does the style of presentation contribute to the meaning of the text? Style always contains meaning.

9. What ‘utopic kernel’, that is, vision of human possibility, appears to lie at the heart of the understanding of the ideology? The assumption is that there will be some vision of the good that drives that ideological perspective’s imagination of the world.

An Ideological reading of a Poem

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers

Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.

Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

– Adrienne Rich (1929 –)

One might say that this is a poem which takes a certain ideological position. It is clearly a ‘feminist’ poem which is critical of the male world for terrifying and oppressing ‘Aunt Jennifer’ – causing her to create an alternate world of freedom, one which she could not inhabit other than imaginatively or aesthetically. The desolating effects of patriarchy are assumed and exposed, in three quatrains.

The poem has some ideological assumptions and implications of its own, however, which render it, potentially, something less than – or at least other than – a forceful expression of the evils of patriarchy. The struggles for existence of so many in a harsh world, and the deep conflicts of bondage and freedom humans wrestle with on so many planes, are reduced to gender conflict. The genders are polarized, so Aunt Jennifer is totally victimized and the absent Uncle, represented only by his wedding band, the figure here of the oppression of custom and law, is implicitly entirely guilty – though of what is not certain (fear, in the first stanza, implied slavery, in the second, ordeals in the third). The point is however that Rich has herself created an ideological structure which silences or excludes much of human experience. Children, hunger, war, disease, the struggles of the spirit, racial and religious injustice and oppression, are dissolved into the tragedy – which it is on one level – of an apparently upper-middle-class woman who could express her desire for freedom only in her art. Now, I am not saying that that is not a tragedy. But it is a mystified tragedy, one that is constructed so that it looks as if it were the sole conflict and opposition standing in the way of Aunt Jennifer and human fullness. We do not know what terrors Aunt Jennifer had to live with, nor why her friends and relatives did not, if she was so terrified, step in. All we see is the gender difference – an absolute difference, unproblematic in any way. All social context, in Aunt Jennifer’s personal and domestic world and on the broader human plane, mysteriously vanishes.

The ideology of the individual lies deep in this poem. Aunt is divorced from her social milieu in the poem, for instance – the social is not a consideration. The way her society has structured her life, the involvement she has with it, are strikingly absent. It is her individual loss that is tragic. In keeping with American ideology, its sense of the subject, of the natural and of the human, the ultimate good is personal freedom. If Aunt were free, then things would be okay. There is no social here.

In fact, there is really no sense of what freedom is it itself is mystified. Pacing in sleek chivalric certainty? Not, as Camus suggested, the recognition of just limits? Or as Lye has written, the possession of the power to pursue justice and mercy? Or as Jesus is reported as having remarked, in seeking truth in his teachings? As freedom from fear, oppression, terror, we can understand it, but the positive expression of freedom has no articulated components, no ideal (in fact as I will later suggest, quite the opposite).

This is a poem which assumes a middle class, a bourgeois, understanding of meaning and identity. Now, one might object to my characterization in that this is a lyric poem, and as such makes no pretence at examining anything more than the emotional realities of the individual: but –

1. ‘The individual’ is itself an ideological concept

2. This lyric in fact functions as a social critique and hence bears the responsibility of its enunciations. (It should come as no surprise that Marxist critics have traditionally preferred the epic, the tragedy and the novel, forms in which social relations are explicit.)

3. It is also the case that the ideology of the Enlightenment created an entity known as ‘the individual’ (and in doing so theorized the ‘rights’ of the individual), and that the concept of the individual was thoroughly and repeatedly inscribed by subsequent thought.

This poem is an unwitting paean to the individual, the separate and autonomous being, existing independently of social context or reality, whose tragedy is a loss of a freedom which is clearly too ‘obvious’ to have to be articulated.

The struggles basic to existence are mystified in this poem, as are the conditions of a genuine freedom. The first stanza gives an idealized, romanticized picture that shows that the Aunt was trapped in something more than gender oppression: she was protected from almost everything we know of the real world. Her tragedy may seem of diminished proportions for those people lining up at the food bank, for those who find that when they go to see an apartment for rent the landlord smiles apologetically into their coloured faces and says that, unfortunately, he has just rented it, for those dying of diseases, and the list can go on. The poem in its opening statement locates us in Aunt Jennifer’s bourgeois, privileged world, and as we assent to that line we assent to the assumptions that keep us from challenging it. “Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen.” In how many households in the world can ‘screens’ with tigers prancing across them be assumed to be normal? What would the function of this screen be, how would it advance the survival of the family or the society? Presumably it is not for privacy. Drafts?

The poem locates Aunt Jennifer as an oppressor as well as a victim and, as a victim, a victim of different powers than the poem obviously suggests. Let me begin with the second point. She is imprisoned but is perhaps imprisoned more, or as much, in the prison of ego-psychology, and in the prison of the ideology of the family which isolates her from rescue (a man’s home is his castle, it’s their private business, we don’t talk about family secrets, they will just have to work it out together), in the prison of that understanding of the world which says that it is all right for this person to spend her time knitting while people suffer the terrors of violence and poverty in her very city: she is imprisoned more in these than in the gender and domestic relations which these ideologies help create and support.

Aunt Jennifer is located as well as an oppressor. The tigers which symbolize the freedom of spirit which she dreams of but never achieved except in her dreams as rendered in her art, are themselves figures of her location as an oppressor, because they locate her in relation to India, and hence to imperialism and to cultural and economic exploitation, and they also locate her as a person who never actually had to live in the vicinity of a real tiger at all, whose very insulation from the terrors of the world of raw desire and need, of the violence of survival, is inscribed in her use of them as figures of elegant freedom and playful power.

The wonder of the art of Aunt Jennifer is that, working her dreams as an escape from the terrifying power of the husband, living locked in an isolated, bourgeois consciousness, she produces the very image of her oppression, yet her art is presented as positive, buoyant, triumphant, trans-historical (the tigers will “go on prancing, proud and unafraid,” presumably forever). The men beneath the tree are not feared. But the tigers are inherently male they are chivalric, hence tied to the long tradition of male authority and power and they are of course Indian (guaranteed by both tigers and the screen), that is to say, they represent the site of colonial empire. (The echoes of colonial domination reappear in the second stanza, in those “ivory needles” – no steel or plastic for Aunt Jennifer, rather the spoils of Africa, see Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.) Given India, oddly enough, and given the history of Buddha, so attached to India and to a moment beneath a tree, the men beneath the tree cannot be unambiguously assumed to represent the evil they may seem to represent.

There is here as well in the poem an ideology of art. As an expression of the spirit, Aunt Jennifer’s art will survive long after the Aunt is dead. The function of art is then is to express and immortalize the struggles and dreams of the human spirit. But the tragedy of this aesthetic is that the art, in itself, contributes nothing but a eulogy. Her art, the tigers on the screen, ‘represents’, is symbolic of, a freedom that has no responsibility, which has no suffering, which has no grounding, in fact, in the world. Rich’s poem, itself a eulogy, doesn’t do much better: it gives us sentiment without social presence or conscience. Having little to say about human experience except inadvertently in the ideology which a reading of it reveals, it remains a bright object whose well-formedness would be its only excuse did not our culture privilege this form of discourse, accord it special economic and particularly cultural privilege and place.

We can look at little farther at how this poem functions ideologically, or how it has its existence as a cultural text, which two statements amount to the same thing. This poem is a form of discourse which ties the reader into certain material and ideological structures, and which is derived from or created through certain material and ideological structures and bears their meaning inherently. Let me take the statement I just made about it as a starting-point: “Having little to say about human experience, it remains a bright object whose well-formedness is its only excuse.” Of course, culturally and practically, for us, this is not the case. Its main excuse is that it is literature, and as literature it ties us as readers to the whole structure of ‘culture’, including i) to the values which we attach, socially and culturally, to Culture (“high culture”), and ii) to the learning required to participate in high culture and the values inherent in that learning, the ‘idea’ of liberal education for instance. As we read ‘literature’ we are ourselves structured as subjects, having certain values and expectations. The poem is a material product – there it is, on the page, it required work to produce it, it required work to negotiate its reproduction in a book, it required work to insert it into the flow of cultural products – the book had to be designed, marketed, and so forth. As a material product it takes its place in the circulation of value of the society. Adrienne Rich gets prestige, she gets money, she gets a more authoritative voice in the formation of the culture, and so forth. All of the values which support all of those factors are also inherent both in the poem and in the reading of the poem. It is embedded textually and materially, as public language and as public language’s requirements and effects. But as we are structured by our reading of the poem in its ideological placement (as art, as a poem about art as the expression of the spirit, as high culture), we mystify these very material conditions.

Our own reading is itself materially as well as ideologically located – in this case we are reading it as members of a university, as people earning money for or paying money for a course leading to a university degree, as those who perpetuate the privileged place of literature as a discourse protected from social accountability by its ‘quality’. Aunt Jennifer’s screen perfectly expresses the bourgeois understanding of art and its place in culture, in every sense.

Copyright 1997 by John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes.