Saturday, December 31, 2011

Anthropology and Popular Culture: Ideology

Anthropology and Popular Culture

Good comp.:


Having considered the processes of aestheticization and commodification, we are now in a position to approach ideology, the most important concept in cultural studies. But - and let's be clear about this - ideology is a challenging concept, and all our preparations to this point, helpful as they are, will not transform this rough hike into a cake walk. As Terry Eagleton's treatment of this concept suggests, ideology means many different things, and our first task is to appreciate its polysemy.

Ideology and False Consciousness

For Karl Marx, ideology is a false consciousness that swaddles people like blankets in winter to ward off the chill of deep critical reflection. An apt paraphrase for the famous Marxian quip that "religion is the opiate of the masses," would be, religion is the ideology of the masses. From his point of view, people would do well to escape any and every ideological moment. To the degree that they do not, they are setting themselves up for self-mystification in service to the economic system. People should crawl out from under ideology, and flee towards a liberated awareness - frighteningly insecure though it might be - towards a truthful take on social life.

As Marx saw it, ideology performs two related functions. On the negative side, it smothers liberal (open) and critical thought. On the positive side, it legitimates power. Here, we should pause to consider this heavy word "legitimates." Consider our common uses: legitimate theater is serious; a legitimate Van Gogh is authentic; an illegitimate child is a bastard. "Legitimacy" is almost always associated with a claim to a bona fide membership in a class. Legitimate theater, legitimate painting, and legitimate children consist of performance, art works, and people who enjoy a well-founded and deeply rooted claim to their status. They seem to come by that status naturally. By contrast, do guerilla theatre, a Van Gogh reprint, or a child born out of wedlock get treated less respectfully? Well, I don't know, but I do remember that I tossed my faux van Gogh out in the rubbish. However vague this notion of legitimacy may be, we can nevertheless recognize the role of ideology in legitimating some form of power insofar as it encourages thought and discourse that naturalizes political regimes, rendering them proper, bona fide, and worthy of respect. You don't toss a legitimate government out in the rubbish.

Ideology and Practice

One feature of ideology that was overlooked by early Marxists is that ideology is a process of practice as well as of thought. Ideology is an accomplishment rather than a static inert system of thought. We grow ideologies just as we grow peas, and we do so by our daily words and practices. The Quakers seemed to sense this when they objected so strenuously in seventeenth-century England to the then common contrast between formal (elite) and informal (common) second-person pronouns. They seemed to understand that the act of talking class distinctions helps to concretize them. And by contrast, to refuse to use pronouns of class is a step in the direction of de-legitimating class distinctions. Such a focus on discourse counters the intuitively heavy emphasis given to thought and ideas when talking about ideology. We should be able to see, with Eagleton, that "ideologies are action-oriented sets of beliefs rather than speculative theoretical systems." Such a notion of words that "grow" ideologies is central to Pierre Bourdieu's so-called "reproduction theory" according to which everyday action reproduces the conditions of ideological domination.

Ideologies are accomplished in and through the repetitious actions of everyday life. Brushing your teeth after waking up in the morning, covering your mouth when you cough, saying "Hi!" to a colleague who passes in the hallway, kissing your kids at night before they go to sleep, all these routine are occasions for reproducing ideology. They reflect our social commitments while simultaneously rooting those commitments deeper in daily practice. With each new rehearsal of such habits, those habits become more solidly entrenched and more thoroughly legitimated. Ideological foundations are built, through these habits, in a sedimentary fashion, layer over layer over layer of action, with the weight of the whole compressed and compacted in memory, as Paul Connerton says, squeezing aside details, and leaving only the most general outlines of our sociality. In this way, as Clifford Geertz has argued, the simple and unconsciously performed social acts of everyday life become "models of" but also "models for" our social lives. They constitute us ideologically at the same time that they reveal our social constitution.

We can better appreciate the ideologies that are accomplished in the dimly lit corners of everyday practice by focussing our attention on ideological accomplishments that take place in more clearly defined and brightly shining areas of social life, namely, in "public performances." Public performances are sharply defined moments of public display of a talent or competence, playful moments of heightened intensity that idealize the management of power in social life. Performances are sharply defined, often physically so, and set off from the practices of everyday life. The curtain goes up to start the play, the whistle blows to start the game, and the heavy silence of the church defines the space dedicated to liturgical performance. In all these ways, public performances are set apart, and endowed with a special kind of seriousness, even if it's the playful seriousness of a Robin Williams or a Steven Wright doing a comic monologue. Public performances are as serious as they are because they embody ideals of how we are to be social and, more specifically, of how we are to manage power, that is, ideological ideals.

Those who take in performances, whether those performances are films, or musical events, museum displays, football games, stand-up comedy acts or advertising photographs in magazines operate by unconsciously inserting themselves into the roles being performed. That's why we get so tense on third-and-eight plays in football. Momentarily, we become Brett Favres. In a basketball game that goes into double overtime, we become Michael Jordans and we expect ourselves to perform to perfection. Some aspects of our identification are more conscious than others. When we see a magazine ad that features a handsome couple sipping wine in a posh hotel room, we can easily recognize the spotlight placed on their grace and beauty. But, we also identify with a host of less clearly spotlighted aspects of the photo. Our eyes, glancing over the glossy, instantly connect disparate points and reconstitute idealized relations. Like the eyes that stare up at a theater marquee and swear that the lights are hopping from bulb to bulb, our manner of discerning a magazine ad is one that discovers habits of sociality and takes them to be models for our social life. In this way ideology is accomplished.

Debating the Concept of Dominant Ideology "Industrialized Peasants" Georg Scholz, 1920
However ideology is portrayed, whether as ideas or as actions, the strong suggestion remains that a single powerful ideology reigns supreme in modern life. This ideology serves the interests of the powerful and shapes the thoughts and actions of the weak.
Such a claim for a "dominant ideology" that serves elites and oppresses the powerless has been criticized by Abercrombie, Hill and Turner in The Dominant Ideology Thesis (1980), by James Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990), and by Terry Eagleton in Ideology (1991). The criticisms of the claim offered by Abercrombie et al. were, according to Eagleton, "a valuable correction to a left idealism which would overestimate the significance of culture and ideology for the maintenance of political power. Such "culturalism," pervasive throughout the 1970s, was itself a reaction to an earlier Marxist economism" (p. 36).

Scott mulled over the links between "dominant ideology" and "false consciousness" and arrived at the following helpful distinction. "I believe we can discern a thick and a thin version of false consciousness. The thick version claims that a dominant ideology works its magic by persuading subordinate groups to believe actively in the values that explain and justify their own subordination. Evidence against this thick theory of mystification is pervasive enough to convince me that it is generally untenable....The thin theory of false consciousness, on the other hand, maintains only that the dominant ideology achieves compliance by convincing subordinate groups that the social order in which they live is natural and inevitable. The thick claims consent; the thin theory settles for resignation. In its most subtle form, the thin theory is eminently plausible, and, some would claim, true by definition. I believe, nevertheless, that it is fundemantally wrong and hope to show why..." (p. 72).


An additional weakness of the claim for a "dominant ideology" is its assumption that ideologies are fabrications of the powerful only and not of the powerful. The assumption that only established power, governments in place, and regimes already in control of a populace get the opportunity to create and promote ideologies is specious. One might get the idea that IBM, GM, and Ma Bell are in the business of manufacturing ideologies, while Joe Sixpack and his family, pure as the driven snow, are never responsible for false consciousnesses. It is to the credit of contemporary critical Marxists that the notion of ideology has been expanded. First, we know that ideologies are historically deep-seated systems of practice-and-thought. However, there were no IBMs or GMs present in the first centuries of Christianity, when believers cobbled together some attractive new ways of talking about and caring for the "self". And no Ma Bell encouraged these Platonic ways to persist in the West for 2000 years to the point that they now serve as the foundation for our market economy, for our legal system that assigns responsibility and culpability for action, and for our political system with its assumptions about the native faculties of citizens and about their rights to exercise those faculties in our democratic system of government.

Furthermore, we know that ideologies are diverse and not unitary. Cultural studies has been forced to rethink both idea of a single "dominant ideology" and the idea that that "dominant ideology serves the interests of those in power. As Raymond Williams argued,, "No mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention."

Finally, a strong opinion has been encouraged by the work of both Antonio Gramsci and Mikhail Bakhtin to the effect that ideological effects are always the result of confrontations and accomodations among competing ideological forces. If power in the modern world is exercised through hegemony, then one can suspect that hegemonic power is multifaceted, the result of a confrontation between multiple forces of domination and multiple forces of resistance. The task of analyzing such complex hegemonic conditions is one that stands high on the list of priorities for cultural studies. We will revisit this issue in the course of examining three domains of popular culture that are bound to be of interest to anthropologists while being, at the same time, riddled with hegemonic contest. These three domains are museum, music, and film.