George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Žižek, Ideology, the Party

December 1, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Slavoj Žižek, in his 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology beings his investigation of ideology with the well-known Marxist definition “They do not know it, but they are doing it”. A Marxist approach identifies ideology as that which masks reality, and if we become aware of the ideology’s presence and are able to look past it, we can the see Reality as it really is. This implies there is a basic naiveté: being unaware of the consequential conditions ideology produces, a distance between so-called ‘social reality’ and the distorted representation the ideology produces. In order to begin a critique of ideology, it must first lead this naïve consciousness to the point where it can recognize itself, its consequential conditions, the social reality it is distorting, and through this recognition, the naïve consciousness will dissolve itself. However, Žižek contends that not only must one look past the distorted representation of reality that ideology creates, but that “the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot produce itself without this so-called ideological mystification. The mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence” (25).

Žižek asks whether the classic Marxist definition of ideology is still relevant today, whether it is still operating. Here he introduces the concept of cynical reason of ideology put forth by German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, the thesis being that ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical and makes the Marxist critique of ideology obsolete. Again this critique is summed up by the quote, “they do not know it, but they are doing it” by now today ideology is cynical in the sense that “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it” (25). Cynical reason allows one to identify ideology, but still one does not renounce it, and continues to accept the ideology and function in accordance with it. The conclusion which cynical reason comes to is that it prevents a critique of ideology, since it says that all we can do is identify the hidden ideologies. It concludes we live in a post-ideological world, because this critique can identify ideology and see social reality without the supposed ideological distortion, and thus nullify the ideology. Žižek disagrees. He says, “Cynical reason, with all its ironic detachment, leaves untouched the fundamental level of ideological fantasy, the level on which ideology structures the social reality itself” (27).

He considers the notion of belief: “Belief, far from being an ‘intimate’, purely mental state, is always materialized in our effective social activity: belief supports the fantasy which regulates social reality” (33). Without belief, the very texture of the social field disintegrates. Believing in Law, for instance, means to obey the Law because, simply, the Law is the Law, not because it could be good or beneficial. We find reasons to justify our beliefs because we already believe in them, not because we have found sufficient reasons to believe them. If I ask you if you will most likely uphold the law on any given day, you will probably say yes, simply because it is the law and you don’t want to break it. Once you decide to obey the law because it is the law, you then find the reasons that would justify your decision to obey. It is not as if you would say you would only obey the law if you found good enough reasons to obey it. What follows from this is the fact that “what is ‘repressed’ then, is not some obscure origin of the Law but the very fact that the Law is not to be accepted as true, only as necessary – the fact that its authority is without truth. So you may not necessarily agree with the law, but still you obey it. “The necessary structural illusion which drives people to believe that truth can be found in laws describes perfectly the mechanism of transference: transference is this supposition of a Truth, of a Meaning behind the stupid, traumatic, inconsistent fact of the Law. In other words, transference names the vicious circle of belief: the reasons why we should believe are persuasive only to those who already believe” (37). This functions with the Party in 1984. The Value of the Party is first articulated and determined by the Party itself (for instance, the Party expresses that it only serves the objective interests of the working class). Since the members already accept and embrace the Party as well as their own constructed identities as Party members, they believe in the Party, and all the sufficient reasons that one would need beforehand to decide if the Party was good or not, only reaffirm their beliefs after the fact. It’s not that they have to be convinced by the Party that the Party is good, or holds value. That wouldn’t be true obedience on the part of the members. True obedience is to blindly accept the Party and then justify that acceptance with the reasons afterwards. The Party exerts its power and influence by not letting the individuals decide for themselves through their subjectivity. They already think its obvious that one should obey the Party because ‘look at all the great things it has achieved’, ‘where would we be without it’, etc. The next step is that this belief is translated through their activity: The members of the Party don’t just live their lives believing in Party, they actively participate in their beliefs; everything they do is in the name of the Party. Social reality itself operates on the level of fantasy, i.e. the Party ideology, which only functions in this manner because the people not only believe, but actively carry out their beliefs. This is why the Party is able to sustain power indefinitely. For instance, Winston’s social activity affirms everything the Party posits. He must live in accordance to everything the Party expects of its members. His greatest pleasure in life is in his work. He can lose himself in it. This is the height of ideology. It helps him accept the cruel reality: the Party exploits labor, lies, controls its peoples, alters the past, engages in a fictitious, continuous war, etc. By working for the Party, he can accept the ideology and temporarily forget about the actual horrors around him. His belief is in his doing, his job, and this constructs his social reality. Once belief is lost, then everything the Party says, all the statistics from the telescreens, for example, would become invalid. This happens to Winston: “Life, if you looked about you, bore no resemblance not only to the life that streamed out of the telesecreens, but even to the ideals that the Party was trying to achieve. How could you tell how much of it was lies?” (Orwell 65). The belief continues because the past is erased or altered, there is no standard with which to compare. The belief also increasingly becomes narrow, completely simplified to its most basic forms. With the emergence of newspeak it “narrows the range of thought”, “the range of consciousness always a little smaller” (Orwell 46). With Newspeak, you won’t even have to reflect upon your beliefs, or control them, because there would be no ways to express anything outside that belief. It will come to a point where belief will not even have to depend on the individual to uphold it, but it will automatically be embedded. “Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness” (Orwell 47) and the height of true obedience to the Party and Big Brother. When Winston is being converted at the end, O’Brien tells him “You must love Big Brother. It is not enough to obey him; you must love him” (Orwell 252). “When you finally surrender to us, it must be of your own free will” (Orwell 227).

Categories: Ideology

0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

You must be logged in to post a comment.