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Theorizing Ideology: Modern Theory and Criticism

Ideology Theory ResearchThe concept of ideology holds different meanings for different people. To those not working in the humanities or social sciences, the term only a set of values and ideas, a comprehensive philosophical outlook, which is the first meaning given for the word in most dictionaries. In Marxist theories of criticism, though, it refers specifically to the study of those ideas generated by a dominant social system to justify itself in the minds of those it dominates. Countless variations of this definition abound in sociological literature, but they all tend, ultimately, to define ideology more narrowly as a set of ideas that is in some way false or deficient. Eagleton uses the term in this latter sense, to argue that literature is an ideological tool that serves only to distract the masses from the social realities of material inequalities, that “it could serve to place in cosmic perspective the petty demands of working people for decent living conditions or greater control over their own lives, and might even with luck come to render them oblivious of such issues in their high-minded contemplation of eternal truths and beauties” (Eagleton 22). From a Marxist perspective, this makes perfect sense, but what if one is not a Marxist? What if, in fact, one takes the attitude that the dominant socioeconomic order is not particularly oppressive? In that case, Eagleton's claim that “"Literature, in the meaning of the word we have inherited, is an ideology. It has the most intimate relation to questions of social power. [. . .] As a liberal, "humanizing" pursuit, [literature] could provide a potent antidote to political bigotry and ideological extremism” (Eagleton 22) could be taken at face value, rather than as a bit of facetious cynicism. After all, there is much to be said for the contemplation of “high-minded contemplation of eternal truths and beauties,” nor would very many people today be overly upset if there were less “political bigotry and ideological extremism.” In short, literature would become an ideology in its broadest sense, acting as a legitimate counter to ideology in its narrowest sense.

To achieve this, though, it is first necessary to counter the obvious objections that theorists arguing from a Marxist or Marxist-inspired view of ideology would raise to taking such a step. The first objection, naturally, is that it is possible to argue that ideology is always false because it is always divorced from history. That is, ideology is problematic because it is always rooted in abstract theorizing that is in some sense disconnected from reality. This was one of Marx's main criticisms of ideology in his initial formulation of it: “Marx and Engels, in their critique of the thought of their radical German contemporaries, concentrated on its abstraction from the real processes of history. Ideas, as they said specifically of the ruling ideas of an epoch, ‘are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas'” (Wiiliams 153). This is perhaps unsurprising, give that Marx was thoroughly anti-intellectual in his theories. Indeed, only someone who genuinely believed ideas and intelligence were unimportant could conclude that industrialists and managers contribute nothing to a business save the material means of production, or that laborers seizing those means could run a business successfully, with no background in anything but laboring. In any event, the objection requires a response, if only because the objection is rooted so firmly in Marx's (and Eagleton's) perspective. Moreover, the more “universal” literature becomes, the more divorced it becomes from the historical realities that can remedy ideologies, which is of course Eagleton's whole point, albeit one that only holds up if it is in fact true that abstract ideas are unimportant.

The obvious counter, here, then, is to argue that Marx was wrong - ideas do matter. If they didn't, then Marx wouldn't have bothered writing multiple texts that were all, ultimately, about ideas. Nor can Marx be permitted to reply that he meant to criticize only the dominant ideas of an epoch, for the dominant ideas of each epoch change, on Marx's own accounting of history. A communist epoch, as occurred in the former Soviet Union, would be, as that one was, guided by Marxist ideas, which would then turn communism into an ideology even in the narrow Marxist sense. Marx would presumably have objected that a truly communist state would move beyond ideology, rooting itself in the dictates of history, but that of course would merely be one of the dominant ideas promulgated by the system to justify it to those living in it., and so would not be any less of an ideological thought for the fact that Marx would have agreed with it. If ideas do matter, and are inescapable, then thinking about those ideas by taking a broader view of them makes at lot more sense.

A second, more serious, objection to subverting Eagleton's view of ideology is that literature may be ideological only in ways that reinforce and support the dominant market ideology of the moment. In other words, literature may be ideological in the sense that it supports rather than cures ideologies in the narrow sense. In this case, the contemplation of high-minded truths can still be a good thing, rather than a distraction, and yet Eagleton can still be correct in his assertion that literature is an ideological tool, by abandoning his statement that literature encourages the contemplation of such truths. He could instead simply argue that literature encourages ideological conformity directly. He would have plenty of critical material to draw on in making such a switch. For instance, Horkheimer has written that “Culture today is infecting everything with sameness . . . Films and radio no longer need to present themselves as art. The truth that they are noting but business is used as an ideology to legitimize the trash they intentionally produce” (Horkheimer, Adorno and Noerr 95). Could not the same argument be made, with only slight modification, of literature? For literature too is a cultural product, and a commercial one. Nor can literary authors argue that their work possesses characteristics of originality and thematic depth lacked by popular commercial authors. No one would argue that Jane Austen or Charles Dickens were non-formulaic, nor is anyone widely read likely to find most contemporary literary works difficult to predict, either thematically or in terms of character development or plot. It is also useless for literary artists to protest that they are not in fact commercial, that they do not sell millions of copies of their work after the fashion of a Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum. That claim, if true, proves only that their art is of poor quality, in that it lacks the ability to appeal to a wide audience, for enough of the public is now educated to a degree that high art should be able to find a solid enough market for itself. Besides, the idea that literature should hold itself to a standard higher than commercial success emerged only when those who wrote literature realized that they suddenly had competition in a world in which the majority of people were educated enough to dabble in writing. Prior to that, and even during the social shift, authors like Charles Dickens could be popular with the public, and adopt a deliberately verbose writing style because they were being paid by the word, and still produce work considered literature.

So, if literature is a commercial cultural product, in a society in which culture is becoming monolithic, surely then it will ultimately only reinforce the ideologies its authors wish to challenge, rather than subverting or transcending them. If it is true “that the difference between the models of Chrysler and General Motors is fundamentally illusory. . .The advantages and disadvantages debated by enthusiasts serve only to perpetuate the appearance of competition and choice. It is no different with the offerings of Warner Brothers and Metro Goldwyn Mayer” (Horkheimer, Adorno and Noerr 97), might the same claim be made about Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press (they don't even bother to make their names sound different!) or about Routledge and Norton? Indeed, many of the publishing firms have consolidated and merged, so that books that seem to be published by two different companies ultimately end up being the offerings of a single firm. Even on the level of individual authors, it seems unlikely that any two contemporary, literary authors produce texts that would seem significantly different to anyone other than “enthusiasts” who would argue for the originality an interest of the work they enjoy consuming with much the same fervor, and probably the same arguments, as a horror or fantasy enthusiast might defend his own favorite genre. In this manner, literature, even literature deliberately constructed to criticize the prevailing ideology, merely reaffirms it, by providing a peaceful outlet through which people who oppose that ideology may lodge their protest while striving to make a decent profit of off their endeavors, i.e. by embracing in their actions the essence of the system they criticize, so marginalizing that criticism.

Arnold once wrote that “the exercise of the creative power in the production of great works of literature or art, however high this exercise of it may rank, is not at all epochs and under all conditions possible; and that therefore labour may be vainly spent in attempting it, which might with more fruit be used in preparing for it, in rendering it possible” (Arnold 5). If in fact the current trends towards globalization and hegemony are creating a monolithic world culture; if the power of the market has subverted all cultural expressions to this end, then might this be one of those epochs in which the production of great works of literature or art is not possible, precisely because a single ideology has become so dominant, that no work can at present transcend it. If this be so, then works of literature written by those who accept the ideology will smack of propaganda, and those that criticize it of futility, and high art is never either propagandist or futile in nature.

The only counter to this sort of argument, is the one that one always uses to dismiss a theory such as Marxism or psychoanalysis. Namely, what evidence could ever be brought to falsify it? Proponents of a Marxist view of ideology oppose ideology to something they often label “science”, so they must bear the burden of being scientific in their own arguments. In science, any statement that cannot be tested, that does not have any ability to ever, possibly be falsified, is meaningless. What sort of work of literature, then, would those who make the argument detailed above accept as countering it? If there is none, if their theory of ideology that claims that literature is only an ideological tool does not outline the criteria a work of literature would have to meet in order to establish itself as non-ideological, then the theory is really only a statement of religious belief, something very much akin to how Marxists generally conceive ideology to begin with.

Let us, then, treat Eagleton's claims as if he were not a Marxist, as if his criticism of literature were actually a defense of it. Eagleton claims that: “Literature . . . is an ideology . . .[that] could provide a potent antidote to . . . ideological extremism” (Eagleton 22) This, essentially, is the essence of the first part of Eagleton's quotation. At first glance, an uneducated reader, or rather, one educated only in the basic principles of logic, rather than in theories of Marxist criticism, might think that he was talking nonsense. How, after all, can an ideology prevent ideological extremism? This paradox can only be resolved if the word ideology is being used in two different senses. Presumably, Eagleton doesn't believe that a false consciousness can provide an antidote to extremely well-thought out systems of thought, so the reverse must be true. Eagleton must be using ideology in the first sense as most laymen use it, namely to mean simply a coherent set of ideas and values. Indeed, this could be the use of the term in the broad sense he acknowledges as useful: “it may be felt that there is need here for a broader definition of ideology, as any kind of intersection between belief systems and political power. And such a definition would be neutral on the question of whether this intersection challenged or confirmed a particular social order. The political philosopher Martin Seliger argues for just such a formulation, defining ideology as ‘sets of ideas by which men . . . posit, explain and justify ends and means of organised social action, and specifically political action, irrespective of whether such action aims to preserve, amend, uproot or rebuild a given social order.'” There is nothing wrong with Eagleton's employing a word according to a definition he himself has provided. It is unfortunate, however, that he then proceeds to use the word in a very different sense in the very next sentence.

Surely, though he must, in the second instance, be using the word in a more specific sense, perhaps in the Marxian sense of false consciousness, of false ideas meant to uphold the status quo. This must seem natural to Eagleton, who starts from the idea that, in its truest sense “ideology has to do with legitimating the power of a dominant social group or class. ‘To study ideology,' writes John B. Thompson, ‘… is to study the ways in which meaning (or signification) serves to sustain relations of domination.'” (Eagleton, Ideology). Indeed, one supposes Eagleton means something like this in his second use of the term ideology, or else he could not refer to “ideological extremism” as something that needs an antidote. If one believes in a certain set of values or ideas, the presumably one should always adhere to them and be guided by them, the very definition of extremism. Indeed, even the cultural and moral relativist cannot avoid this, for, though they be willing to accept murder, rape, torture and all manner of evil as not really being evil at all, from the point of view of those engaging in such activity, still they must insist on the primacy of relativism itself as a value. That is, they must defend, with extremist ideological fervor, the notion that one should avoid extremist ideological fervor. This makes the position self-contradictory, hence invalidating it entirely, but it also shows that ideological extremism cannot be an evil in and of itself. It can only be viewed as evil, or as an evil, in those cases where one disagrees with the ideology being held in the extreme.

If in fact Eagleton is using ideology in the two different senses outlined above, then Eagelton's claim would boil down to saying that literature can act as a broad-based form of ideology that can transcend the pettier ideologies rooted in specific social tensions. This connects well with the second part of Eagelton's quote, in which Eagleton goes on to say that “literature, as we know, deals in universal human values rather than in such historical trivia as civil wars, the oppression of women or the dispossession of the English peasantry.” This would mean that literature, because of its universal scope, might be an ideology in the sense of a coherent set of values, but also a scientific, true set of values, because universal, for what greater evidence could there be for the truth of a set of values than the universal willingness of all to accept them? This form of ideology, then would be opposed to the narrower ideologies that cause conflict, of which Marxism would then be one.

This is not at all what Eagleton actually means, of course, but it would be a reasonable interpretation of his statement by someone reading it out of context, without a Marxist background. Eagleton's claims for literature only work if one subscribes to Marxist ideology, to the notion that the masses are being oppressed by living in a non-communistic state. If one disagrees with that basic premise, then his claims for literature become a powerful argument for literature's ability to transcend, rather than to reinforce and hide, ideological divisions. Indeed, the whole point of an ideology is that it is a set of ideas adherents follow unthinkingly. An ideology that is accepted only after repeated questioning and thought becomes something closer to a philosophy. If one sees the world through the lens of class warfare, so that only material relations matter; if, that is, one admits into one's mind only a single narrow set of ideas, then of course contemplation of other ideas will be seen as a distraction. Otherwise, literature can safely be seen, not as a tool of ideology, but as a redeemer of it.

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. The Function of Criticism at the Present Time. 1865.

Eagleton, Terry. Ideology..

Literary Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Horkheimer, Max, et al. Dialectic of enlightenment: philosophical fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Wiiliams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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