One can see the divide between Zizek and Chomsky as a battle over the « correct » or the most useful definition of ideology. Zizek has made it clear that on his definition Chomsky, contrary to what he himself may think, is not doing ideological analysis and critique. Zizek defines ideology not as ideas but as a cognitive, affective, and perceptive, ethico-ploitical framework that determines us to have certain sorts of ideas: « a set of explicit and implicit, even unspoken, ethico-political and other positions, decision, choices, etc., which predetermine our perception of facts, what we tend to emphasize or to ignore ». Ideology, on this acception, is not found at the level of explicit utterance so much as in pervasive attitudes and habitual comportment. This is why Zizek can claim that Chomsky’s work though useful does not really come to terms with ideology: « If one defines and uses this term the way I do (and I am not alone here: my understanding echoes a long tradition of so-called Western Marxism), then one has to conclude that what Chomsky is doing in his political writings is very important, I have great admiration and respect for it, but it is emphatically not critique of ideology ».

Yet most poststructuralist Continental philosophers avoid using the word « ideology » and prefer to express their critiques of discourses and practices, and of the social formations they are embedded in, in other terms. To clarify matters a little I would like to give an account of diverse senses of ideology that we can find in Althusser, and discuss Deleuze and Guattari’s subsequent avoidance of the word. I distingish three main senses

1) ideology as opposed to science, the opposite of science – this is the epistemological sense that comes most readily to mind. It is regrettable that in Continental Philosophy a direct confrontation with Althusser’s positions on this sense of ideology never took place. This non-engagement with Althusser’s dualist and demarcationist epistempology left the field free not just for scientism but also for the hegemeony of technocrats and the tyranny of experts, and also for the primacy of management over politics. A distant consequence of this neglect has been the rise of Graham Harman’s OOO packaged ascontemporary  Continental Philosophy when it is in fact its exact opposite, a regressionto a form of Althusserism, only de-marxed, de-politicised, and de-scientised. The idea that ideology does not find an Other in science, and that both are constituted in assemblages of heterogeneous elements was proposed by Deleuze and Guattari (in RHIZOME, for example), but was left to the sociology of science to be worked out in detail.

2) ideology as structure of misrecognition – this is the sense that is taken up and reformulated in Deleuze’s concept of the dogmatic image of thought as State-image. Here Althusser makes use ofnotions taken from Lacan’s works to claim that there will never be any society free of ideology. Deleuze and Guattari have analysed this structure in A THOUSAND PLATEAUS in terms of conformist significations and subjugated subjects. But all these analyses in terms of the illusion of the One and of transcendence can be seen as part of their critique of ideology.

3) ideology not only as system of representations but also as integral part of of state apparatuses. This is Zizek’s sense in which ideology is not only the force of ideas but also a material force. Deleuze and Guattari accept this idea of the material inscription of desire, but ally it to Foucault’s idea that the state is not a determining instance. This leads to the notion of ideology as inextricably structuring desiring assemblages. One could say that the idea that the State holds power is itself ideological. Following Foucault’s lead Deleuze and Guattari preferred to abandon the word « ideology », but the concept remains very present in diverse notions: dogmatic image of thought, plane of organisation, transcendence, and also in the notions of diagramme and abstract machine.

Why did post-structuralism cease to make use of the concept of ideology? This question is raised in Bernard Stiegler’s new book PHARMACOLOGIE DU FRONT NATIONAL. Is there some generalised movement of « forgetting », that led to the weakening or to the abandon of the ideological struggle against capitalism’s theoretical self-justifications and self-legitimations? I think that this is a misreading, and that Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault  carried on “ideological critique” throughout their work, including after May ’68. They did not participate in the neoliberal movement of forgetting ideology, but they were very critical of the binary opposition between « science » and « ideology ». They thus searched for a different terminology to allow them to pursue the critique of another modern ideology: scientism. If Deleuze and Guattari state in RHIZOME that there is no ideology, they also affirm that there is no « science » either, but only assemblages. However assemblages are not all equal, for example some are more individuating (they speak in terms of processes of singularisation and of subjectivation) whereas others are disindividuating.

My understanding of these thinkers (Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida) is that while they may not make use of the word “ideology”, the concept is there nonetheless but in a reconfigured problematic. Foucault wanted to free himself, and us, of Althusser’s idea of science, and I would add free us of demarcationist and structuralist ideas of science. Expressed paradoxically, there is something “ideological” or “meatphysical” in how the separation between science and ideology is conceived, and so in our concept of science itself. This idea has gained substance and received more explicit attention thanks to work in the sociology of science (David Bloor, Bruno Latour, Andrew Pickering). Given the epistemological inadequacy of the metaphysical vision of science and also given the adverse political consequences of such a vision, Foucault and others such as Derrida and Deleuze and Lyotard tried to look at epistemological and ideological formations from the outside, and turned to less formal notions such as micro-political dispositifs of power relations and assemblages of enunciation and desire. This outside vision posed the question of its own source of legitimacy and potency, which explains Foucault’s turn to techniques of the self. Deleuze calls this turn the relation to an outside further than any outside and more interior than any inside. This is what Deleuze calls the line of subjectivation and what I think can also be called, following Stiegler (but also Jung) a line of “individuation”. Foucault talks about the theorist as speaking from a singular practice, which nicely captures the nature of individuation as both individual and collective.

My historical hypothesis concerning the quasi-disappearance of the word « ideology » in the texts of Deleuze, Foucault, and Lyotard is that these philosophers, despite the effacement of the word “ideology”, do not abandon the concept nor the battle against it. They continue to analyse ideology and to carry out an ideological critique. In trying to free themselves from the Althusserian notion of ideology, they elaborate a different set of concepts in order to deconstruct the famous Althusserian binary opposition between science and ideology. This strategy, comprehensible in its strategic intention to transform the concepts and the problematic by also transforming the vocabulary, is in danger of leading to an impasse, that of the impossibility of pursuing a critique of the ideology of scientism. The poststructural perspective goes much further than the narrow point of view of (structuralist) epistemology, which places all the impurity and enslavement on the side of ideology and all the purity and the liberation on the side of science (structuralist epistemology being demarcationist and univocal, incapable of handling ambiguity).

This impasse has always seemed to me to be definitive in the case of Foucault and of Lyotard, but mitigated in the case of Deleuze and Guattari. In their triad composed of collective assemblages of enunciation, of incorporeal transformations, and of machinic assemblages I can see the sketch of the triplicity that allows us to escape from the dualist trap. My question is: does our philosophical vocabulary need to contain the word « ideology » in an essential way, or would it not rather be a secondary term whose diverse meanings are better expressed by the vocabulary of assemblages and networks? Deleuze and Guattari give a positive answer to this question, and their so-called « forgetting » of ideology is in fact its replacement by a set of terms that are more specific, and less immersed in a marsh of deceptive connotations .

ANTI-OEDIPUS contains an application of a very sophisticated theory of ideology and its critique that is elaborated in its generality in A THOUSAND PLATEAUS. However, they do not make use of the word « ideology »because of its dualist implications (the science/ideology distinction), but also because of the eymological association with « ideas », which would seem to assign ideology as a derivative phenmenon to the superstructure. Once you accept that ideology is embedded in practices and not a phenomenon limited to « ideas »(as Althusser, and Zizek argue) one may wish to discard the word as misleading. This is what Deleuze and Guattari (and also Foucault and Lyotard) do. In relation to the concept of ideology, there is no rupture and « forgetting », but rather a continuity and an intensification of their previous work. In relation to the word « ideology » there is the alternative between abandoning and replacing it with more satisfactory terms (the solution of Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard) or of conserving the word but redefining it (Althusser, Zizek) so that it no longer refers to ideas alone.

This setting aside of the word « ideology » is not absolute. It becomes much rarer as a theoretical term, and serves as a simplified translation of more complex and more nuanced analyses. Obviously ideology continues to exist for Deleuze and Guattari, but they do not limit its presence and impact to the superstructure, locating it at the deeper level of the libidinal assemblages. They make this connection between ideology and assemblages in RHIZOME (« There is no science and no ideology, there are only assemblages »), but at the same time they reject the word’s dualist connotations in its opposition to science.

Guattari is even more explicit in LIGNES DE FUITE, written in 1979 but published in 2011. He argues that « Althusser has made ideology into a category that is too general which includes and conflates semiotic practices that are radically heterogeneous » (143, my translation). He prefers to limit its meaning to semiotic processes that are linguistically coded, so as not to preclude the existence of other non-linguistically coded semiotic processes. The goal remains the same: the analysis of our repressive institutions and practices with the aim of transforming them to permit greater freedom.

The important step is to get out of the idea of ideology as mere superstructure, a sort of passive reflection of what goes on in the economic base. Even if this picture can be complexified, as in Althusser’s work, by notions of relative autonomy, non-expressive totalities, different sorts of contradictions, uneven development and heterogeneous phases co-present in the same structure, this more sophisticated picture still leads to trouble as long as we stick to the definition of ideology as (1) the Other of science (dualism knowledge-illusion), (2) an eternal and universal structure of misrecognition (dualism lived relation to the world-truth) and (3) a system of ideas (dualism superstructure-base). This can’t work because there is no magic criterion of demarcation to discern and attribute the status of scientificityor of truth on the one hand, and of illusion on the other. If we take ideology in the wider sense as the unawareness of the material (ie political, economic and technological) origins and/or conditions of our ideas (this sense is close to 2) then it becomes a more plausible notion, but it can no longer be the Other of science, and we have left the space of structuralist epistemology.

Having taken this step outside structuralist epistemology the poststructuralists began to accentuate the tension between their psychoanalytic and the structuralist influences. Structuralism was scientistic and tended to read Lacan in a rationalist vein, but Lacan’s vision of misrecognition as a systemic feature led the poststructuralists to see that even science had “ideological” features, hence the decomposition of the notion of ideology into sub-components, that are then conserved under other names, except for the polemical treatment of ideology as the other of science. But I think that poststructuralist French theory balked at a barrier that in other countries Science Studies breached. Foucault did genealogies of human sciences, but did not touch the natural sciences. Lyotard toyed with relativising the authority of the sciences but eventually just limited it to the cognitive domain, where he gave it unrivalled hegemony. Deleuze talked about ‘nomad science” but it was more a content-level distinction than any heuristic analysis of the processes of construction of scientific results.

The Althusserian idea has certain advantages as situates ideology not just in ideas but as a structuring principle in practices and institutions, eg in the definition of roles and functions. It also adds the notion of a sort of systemic cognitive bias, or even blindness, concerning the factors that structure the very type of subjectivity pervading a society. All this is far more radical than the “Other of science” strand, which makes alchemy for example a case of ideology and chemistry a science. The problem is that by rejecting the crude binary demarcations of the last strand, theorists threw the baby out with the bathwater and lost sight of, or expressed more cryptically, the positive aspects of the two other strands of ideology as structuration of embodied practice and of ideology as misrecognition or cognitive blindness.

In conclusion, the substitution of a variety of more specific words for the over general word « ideology » has certain advantages for the pursuit of philosophical analyses. But it has deprived us of a single word to designate the various unities composed of these sub-parts. This has tended to give poststructuralist thought an allure of élitism, an aristocratic language only for the small circle of the initiated. In compensation certain figures have emerged whose thought is more approachable as they occupy a position halfway between structuralism and post-structuralism. One could call them demi-post-structuralists. Zizek is a good example of this, as since he is still stuck in the problematic space opened up by the Althusser-Lacan conjuncture, he has privileged Lacan as an alternative way out of structuralism, preferring to remain Lacanian in contrast to the more pluralist accounts of his immediate predecessors. Zizek is able to follow the analogical play of translation and of conceptual movement crossing boundaries between traditionally separate domains, but he retains Lacanian psychoanalysis as preferred language capable of specifyng the cognitive content of all the variants.

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5 commentaires pour « IDEOLOGY » AND CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY: avoiding the i-word

  1. Thanks Terence for your very instructive and clarificatory piece. It helps many to understand the intricacies and complications of the debate.

    Aimé par 1 personne

  2. Ping : “IDEOLOGY” AND CONTINENTAL PHILOSOPHY: avoiding the i-word | Research Material

  3. Torn Halves dit :

    A tangential thought: Perhaps the time is ripe for a normative concept of ideology. One of the slightly unpleasant implications of some of the things Zizek says is that ideology is always everywhere alive and well (implied e.g. in his comments about toilet design and Kung Fu Panda, etc.), and yet he says what we really need now is more thinking (which means more ideology in a sense, doesn’t it?). A few decades ago there was talk of the end of ideology. It didn’t end, but perhaps it can be argued that in the West it is on the wane – a blind willingness to let things drift from one crisis to the next. Perhaps the supposed strength of science (that it is not ideology) is actually its weakness (it needs to be part of a larger ideology – a larger understanding of what on Earth we are doing here). One of the worries regarding ditching the negative concept of ideology is that with the negative we also ditch the positive (the positive value of developing richer ideas and beliefs that we can share to make sense of why things have to change).


  4. terenceblake dit :

    Taking ideology in the first sense, as opposed to science, has some paradoxical consequences. One is that for scientific change (and thus progress) to occur something that is not (or not yet) science must intervene in its process of research. Science in the making is pervaded through and through by ideological elements, and this is a good thing. The same necessarily goes for political and social change.


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