The End of Ideology (Critique)?

(Crossposted at Arcade.)


In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek famously lays out his analysis of claims that we* find ourselves in a postideological age. Žižek doesn’t exactly mean “postideological” in the sense of Daniel Bell or Francis Fukuyama. For Bell or Fukuyama, postideology is characterized by the rise of technocracy, the transformation of great political debates into parochial, microideological questions, what tax rate to set, how to regulate this or that industry, what zoning ordinances to pass in a city. For Žižek, by contrast, postideology refers to the failure or collapse of ideology critique as such.

We used to think that by exposing frauds, lies, and the subtle ideological lacework of high cultural artefacts, we liberated ourselves from self-deception and false consciousness. Now, Žižek admits, everyone practices ideology critique. We have achieved a reflexive cynicism, what Peter Sloterdijk calls “cynical reason.” Recounting Sloterdijk’s argument in Critique of Cynical Reason, Žižek writes: “Cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to this kynical subversion: it recognizes, it takes into account… the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but it still finds reason to retain the mask.” Under such conditions, “the traditional critique of ideology no longer works. We can no longer subject the ideological text to ‘symptomatic reading’, confronting it with its blank spots, with what it must repress to organize itself, to preserve its consistency–cynical reason takes this distance into account in advance.”

In this post, I’d like to question whether traditional ideology critique is as obsolete as Žižek suggests, and eventually question the efficacy of his endrun around its alleged collapse. I haven’t arrived at strong conclusions yet, but I’d love to get a conversation started in the comments section that might help me figure out whether or not Žižek is right.


The Space Merchants, a small masterpiece of science fictional satire, will serve as my model of traditional ideology critique.

Fredrick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s 1952 novel depicts a dystopian future in which the free market has colonized all governmental functions and public space. The House of Representatives and Senate represent not American states but corporate firms, in proportion to those firms’ financial might. The social world is divided between two great classes: immiserated consumers (the overwhelming majority of the population, many of whom rent individual stairs in skyscrapers to sleep upon every night) and wealthy executives (a tiny but powerful minority who enjoy slightly more space in tiny studio apartments).

Government-engineered overpopulation (meant to increase the consumer base) threatens to consume all of Planet Earth’s resources, inspiring the rise of the “Consies,” radical conservationists who engage in sabotague and other acts of dissent against the monolithic consumerist order of the day. Let it not be said that Pohl and Kornbluth’s satire is subtle.  Nonetheless, it dates surprisingly well for Golden Age science fiction. The novel’s plot hinges on an effort by the “Star Class” copysmith, Mitch Courtney of Fowler Schocken Associates, to successfully sell American consumers on the prospect of colonizing Venus, which is by all accounts a hellhole–scalding hot, wracked by 500 mph winds, chemically toxic to biological life–more or less uninhabitable. The novel is thus not only about the social dynamics of its dystopian world, but a commentary on the contemporary function and dangers of advertising, a popular topic at the time (and ever since).

There is much one can say about the novel but for the purposes of this post, I’d like to present one especially interesting scene. Early in the novel, Mitch is trying to convince Jack O’Shea, the first man to land on Venus and return to Earth alive, that marketers can indeed shape consumer preferences using only language, that in fact O’Shea’s various consumer choices have been successfully, subconsciously manipulated by Fowler Schocken Associates.

O’Shea laughed uncertainly. “And you did it with words?”

“Words and pictures. Sights and sound and smell and taste and touch. And the greatest of these is words. Do you read poetry?”

“My God, of course not! Who can?”

“I don’t mean the contemporary stuff; you’re quite right about that. I mean Keats, Swinburne, Wylie—the great lyricists.”

“I used to,” he cautiously admitted. “What about it?”

“I’m going to ask you to spend the morning and afternoon with one of the world’s great lyric poets: A girl named Tildy Mathis. She doesn’t know that she’s a poet; she thinks she’s a boss copywriter. Don’t enlighten her. It might make her unhappy.

‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,

Thou Foster-child of Silence and slow Time—’

That’s the sort of thing she would have written before the rise of advertising. The correlation is perfectly clear. Advertising up, lyric poetry down. There are only so many people capable of putting together words that stir and move and sing. When it became possible to earn a very good living in advertising by exercising this capability, lyric poetry was left to untalented screwballs who had to shriek for attention and compete by eccentricity.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” he asked.

“I said you’re on the inside, Jack. There’s a responsibility that goes with power. Here in this profession we reach into the souls of men and women. We do it by taking talent and redirecting it. Nobody should play with lives the way we do unless he’s motivated by the highest ideals.”

O’Shea reassures Mitch not worry, that his motives in promoting the colonization of a nearly uninhabitable planet are pure. “I’m not in this thing for money or fame,” he says. “I’m in it so the human race can have some elbow room and dignity again.” Mitch is shocked at this answer and informs the reader that “[t]he ‘highest ideal’ I had been about to cite was Sales.”

What may not be obvious, and what it took me a while to wrap my head around, is that Mitch is not — and at no time in the novel can ever be accused of being–a cynic. Mitch is a true believer in the sacrament of Sales. He believes in the virtue of the current order–and sees nothing deceptive or self-interested in his pursuit of what he regards as the “highest ideal.” His uprightness and inability to see the horror before his eyes is, of course, partly what makes The Space Merchants so funny.

When, later in the novel, he comes to understand the ideological flaws in his worldview, he begins acting differently, ultimately bringing theory and action into alignment. Score one for traditional ideology critique!


Have things changed much since The Space Merchants was published? I’d suggest the answer is no.

A similar non-cynical commitment can be seen in the recent vogue for “neuromarketing” and “neurocinema,” a practice that involves using fMRI scans to understand more fully how we process visual and auditory stimuli while watching advertisements and films. Firms with such imaginative names as MindSign Neuromarketing, Neuro-Insight, NeuroFocus, and the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Caltech are leading the effort to figure out what our brains “really” think as we watch film.

Explaining the goals of neurocinema, Peter Katz says:

Movies could easily become more effective at fulfilling the expectations of their particular genre. Theatrical directors can go far beyond the current limitations of market research to gain access into their audience’s subconscious mind. The filmmakers will be able to track precisely which sequences/scenes excite, emotionally engage or lose the viewer’s interest based on what regions of the brain are activated. From that info a director can edit, re-shoot an actor’s bad performance, adjust a score, pump up visual effects and apply any other changes to improve or replace the least compelling scenes. Studios will create trailers that will [be] more effective at winning over their intended demographic. Marketing executives will know in a TV spot whether or not to push the romance- or action-genre angle because, for example, a scene featuring the leads kissing at a coffee shop could subconsciously engage the focus group more than a scene featuring a helicopter exploding.

Their ultimate goal, of course, is to create aesthetic experiences that are utterly engrossing and irrisistable, all in the holy name of Sales, which–naturally!–only occur by supplying the autonomous consumer with What He Demands, even if this consumer doesn’t know what he is really Demanding. This is a version of what the film cartridge “Infinite Jest” does in David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus. But what is interesting to me about neuromarketing/-cinema is the degree to which our “subconscious” responses to stimuli are regarded as our “authentic” responses. The problem researchers seem to face is that consumers don’t remember films well enough to fill out surveys or that when they fill out such surveys consumers feel obligated to respond positively. Social norms and lapses in consciousness get in the way of arriving at the truth.

In short, neuromarketers/-cineasts position what they are doing as giving The People what They Really Want. What could be more non-cynical than that? And yet, the question remains: would a humanistic debunking of the idea that fMRI scans are such “authentic” or “real” representations of desire do much to derail the train of neurocinema? If not, what sort of ideology critique could?


Attempting to expose the reign of cynical reason, Žižek’s develops an idea of “ideological fantasy,” the notion that cynical subjects “do not know… that their social reality itself, their activity, is guided by an illusion, by a fetishistic inversion. What they overlook, what they misrecognize, is not the reality but the illusion which is structuring their reality, their real social activity. They know very well how things really are, but they are doing it as if they do not know. The illusion is therefore double: it consists in overlooking the illusion which is structuring our real, effective relationship to reality. And this overlooked, unconscious illusion is what may be called the ideological fantasy.”

He concludes that to the degree our ideology is encoded not in our ideas but in our collective, unconscious fantasies, “we are of course far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way–one of many ways–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.” I am skeptical that the transfer of ideology from ideas to fantasies solves the problem, for a variety of reasons.

Isn’t the critique of ideological fantasies very much in line with traditional ideology critique, simply transferred to a new object? Don’t the examples of The Space Merchants and neurocinema suggest that the fundamental problem is the content of ideology, not its form? Given these examples, isn’t a little bit of cynicism just what we need?

* Please feel free to engage in ideology critique of my use of the term “we” in the comments section below. Or have I preempted your† ideology critique by anticipating it here in this footnote, in effect sucking you into an unconscious ideological fantasy? Don’t look at me for answers! I have no idea.

† I give up.