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Žižek on ideology

Slavoj_ZizekI have finally got round to reading Žižek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology and it is absolutely fascinating. I’d like to share this very short extract because a) I’m too lazy to blog properly tonight and, b) I’ll never look at ideology the same way again. Some context is necessary.

The traditional Marxist understanding of ideology – and by traditional I mean dominant – positions it as a sort of naive consciousness. That is people under the spell of ideology misrecognise the true state of affairs. They cannot identify their real position in the order of things, nor apprehend society as it really is – a stratified social formation in which the majority are exploited by a tiny but immensely powerful ruling class, who rest on their private ownership of the economy’s commanding heights. To frustrate this state of affairs, it is the job of Marxists/revolutionaries to help people become conscious of the fact they’re part of a collective mass with a direct material interest in getting rid of capitalism.

Žižek argues we need to get past this understanding. It’s old hat.

If our concept of ideology remains the classic one in which the illusion is located in knowledge, then today’s society must appear post-ideological: the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism; people no longer believe in ideological truth; they do not take ideological propositions seriously. The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way … to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them. (Žižek 1989, p.33)


Ideology does mystify the real state of affairs, but it does not operate primarily at the cognitive level. Ideology is something other than people walking round with wrong ideas in their heads. It’s far more powerful than that. Žižek demonstrates his argument in relation to Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. Because of our separation as wage earners from the fruits of our labour, as individuals that are simultaneously atomised and collectivised by the gigantic endeavour of commodity production, society can appear to be an immense collection of commodities. Objects – things – stand in for real relations between people. Commodity fetishism which is continuously reproduced is therefore responsible for promoting different ideologies, depending on your position within the overall scheme of things, that fundamentally misrecognise the fact that all of this is the alienated activity of human beings.

The step Žižek takes is on the basis of a very simple observation. People know that this is the state of affairs. When someone hands over money in exchange for a good, they are aware that money is not imbued with magical powers, that it doesn’t grow by itself, and that it is a simple sign that works as an agreed medium of exchange between people. The thing is the way we have to act towards one another is as if money possesses fantastical powers, as if the whole system is one of objects, not people. Commodity fetishism is not observed by thought, rather it is a result of our practice. Thus the immense conglomerate of commodities, the roller coaster ride of a global economy driven by capital accumulation structures the activity of our species across the planet. But it, the alienating power, the abstract processes of capitalism are just that. They do not as such exist. It’s just that we act as if they do. Hence we are guided by fetishistic illusions – and it is this what ideology really denotes, or rather as Žižek puts it, ‘ideological fantasy’.

This post first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist. Photo by Mariusz Kubik

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