Between Ideology and “The Real”
Professor Rick Gruneau
December 13, 2011
Zizek on Ideology and the Relationship Between Ideology and “The Real”
Slavoj Zizek is one of the leading theorists on ideology since the 1990’s and his conceptions of the real versus the symbolic versus the imagined are of particular importance when dissecting the question ‘what is ideology?’ Zizek’s critique of ideology and attempt to unpack it’s inner workings is fascinating, he is a powerful intellectual who aims to expose the ”fake” workings of society. In this paper I will outline Zizek’s definition and approach to the study of ideology, paying particular attention to the relationships he draws between ideology and “the real,” as opposed to “the imagined” and “the symbolic”.
Zizek opens the book Mapping Ideology (1994) with the introduction “The Spectre of Ideology”, where he defines and openly criticizes the idea of ideology and its illusory personality. First he presents us with the idea that ideology is a sort of matrix, “a generative matrix that regulates the relationship between visible and non-visible, imaginable and non-imaginable, as well as changes in that relationship” (italics mine, p.1). He further explains not everything that seems to be ideological, necessarily is, claiming that unless there is a link to power relations in the social realm he does not consider something to be ideological. He points out that sometimes what we consider to be ideological in fact is not; but also how at other times, things which we may not perceive to be ideological, actually maintain a very strong ideological orientation. He states that the “starting point of the critique of ideology has to be the full acknowledgment of the fact that it is easily possible to lie in the guise of truth” – ideology that is – and this is an important realization for it dispels a common misconception we have of ideology, especially here in the west that, ideology is about lying or misleading others and society. Instead Zizek posits the idea that the content of a message is not what makes it ideological, but instead it is the “the way this content is related to the subjective position implied by its own process of enunciation” that makes it so (Zizek 1994, p.8). In other words, regardless of whether the content (of a message or object or interaction) is true or false, it becomes ideological the moment that content functions to achieve “some relation of social domination” and even more importantly, he adds “in an inherently non-transparent way”, reiterating that often times ideology is in fact of a misleading nature but not necessarily in content (italics mine, p.8); it is from this standpoint that we can begin to understand and critique the concept of ideology. It is important to note here, although Zizek stresses the importance of recognizing dynamics of power relations (rather than content) which constitutes ideology, he warns this can also be disadvantageous if it reduces “the cognitive value of the term ‘ideology’ and makes it into a mere expression of social circumstances” (p.9). Considering this, as Gerofsky (2010) explains, Zizek takes on Hegel’s theory of the triad as a heuristic for further developing the theory of ideology, which is something I will address later in this paper, after we go a little bit deeper in defining ideology.
According to Zezik then, a necessary condition for something to be ideological is that there must be a relation or motivation to power in some way, and it must be done so in a way which is not apparent to the addressees (Zizek, 1994). However this is a rather general and overarching consideration when defining the term ideology and it is important to deconstruct the term even further before we proceed in analyzing its inner workings and effect on society. Zizek states “ideology is a systematically distorted communication: a text in which under the influence of...