Ideology does not vanish when cultural theorists explain it. Material relations and unconscious desires recapitulate it. Theory does affect practice in subtle ways. However, the common sense assumption of philosophers directing action is an idealistic one. Language, which originates in one context, quickly becomes appropriated for use in quite different ones. Language functions like what Roland Barthes, in his essay, “Myth Today,” called a “constantly moving turnstile.”1 Alternating between meaning and catachresis, ideological critique is a contingent and tactical operation. It attempts to take back signs and sign systems from dominant social "histories," which have deprived them of meaing, and guide a process of recovery.
During the late 1950s, Barthes applied semiology to the “language of the so-called mass-culture” and attempted to explain how these “collective representations” led French people to accept “petit-bourgeois culture” as “a universal nature."2 Choosing an eclectic array, “guided by [his] own current interests,” of media from “French daily life,” Barthes wrote Mythologies in response to “a feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history.” He initiated postmodern cultural studies by explaining how quotidian forms like an item from the supermarket, a new Citroën automobile, a popular film, or a wrestling match mystify capitalism and imperialism to a point at which these regimes seem natural.
This historicization of popular culture does not attempt to unveil some reality hidden beneath it. Instead, it challenges the perceived universality of a social world. To explain this difficult process of challenging cultural assumptions, Slavoj Žižek cites Karl Marx’s definition of ideology from Capital—“Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es” (“They do not know it, but they are doing it”)—and argues that the process of educating “naïve consciousness” does not aim to reveal some kind of “true” consciousness:
It is not just a question of seeing things (that is, social reality) as they ‘really are,’ of throwing away the distorting spectacles of ideology; the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot reproduce 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.3
The difficulty involved in explaining ideology results from the depth at which it operates. In this way, popular myths resist historicization. They structure the field in which many historical narratives are written. The “real” situation evades text like a sublime object. Thus, social critics cannot transcend ideology, but they can “interrupt this turnstile of form and meaning” by focusing on “each separately” and going “against its own dynamics.”4
In Barthes's analysis, mid-twentieth-century French culture relied upon an intense “privation of history,” which evaporated knowledge of how things came about and reduced people to consumers, those for whom “all that is left for one to do is to enjoy.”5 When Marx analyzed this problem in nineteenth-century Germany, he provided the image of a cherry tree, an object that the “common sense” of Ludwig Feuerbach took to be “of the simplest ‘sensuous certainty.’”6 What Feuerbach forgot or failed to see was that the tree was “only given through social development, industry and commercial intercourse” because it “like almost all fruit-trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into [their] zone.”
Although intellectuals cannot solve these problems alone, they can raise consciousness to a point at which it no longer takes comfort in ideology. They can help people from being blind and comfortable about it. Barthes provides a salient example of this kind of critique in Mythologies. His chapter on the social realim of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times argues that the British actor and filmmaker led audiences to recognize their own myopia. He writes,
Chaplin, in conformity with Brecht’s idea, shows the public its blindness by presenting at the same time a man who is blind and what is in front of him. To see someone who does not see is the best way to be intensely aware of what he does not see.7
Figs. 1 and 2. The police arrest the Tramp for stumbling into a communist protest and looking like “the leader.”8
Barthes describes this jail scene as follows,
Charlie Chaplin is in a cell, pampered by the warders, and lives there according to the ideal of the American petit-bourgeois: with legs crossed, he reads the paper under a portrait of Lincoln; but his delightfully self-satisfied posture discredits this ideal completely, so that it is no longer possible for anyone to take refuge in it without noticing the new alienation which it contains.
Figs. 3, 4, and 5. The Tramp reads the news about the protests outside then sighs and goes back to resting “happy in his comfortable cell.”
Fig. 6. This negative portrait of “Chaplin-Man,” an icon of American consciousness, “perhaps represents the most efficient form of revolution in the realm of art."9
No solution is provided, only the impetus for one. Of course, Barthes and Chaplin are ideological themselves.
Chela Sandoval furthered these socialist recalibrations by connecting them to the de-colonial analysis of race by Frantz Fanon and the U.S. Third World women’s movement. Her book, Methodology of [Emancipation] the Oppressed, provides hermeneutic tools—“semiotics, deconstruction, meta-ideologizing, democratics, and differential consciousness”10—for negotiating sign systems in twenty-first century daily life. Examining and assembling cultural theories and tactics from postwar progressive movements, her
Theory uprising moves through and with the works of Fredric Jameson, Donna Haraway, Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Jacques Derrida, Frantz Fanon, Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, Barbara Noda, Paula Gunn Allen, and Roland Barthes . . . in order to better identify and specify a mode of emancipation that is effective.11
In this bricolage, Sandoval attempts to provide practical “inner and outer technologies” for understanding and resisting “neocolonial postmodern global formations.” According to her analysis, cultural critics and political actors from all kinds of social locations work together to produce “love in the postmodern world.”
The argument here is not that the multi-ethnic cadre of postwar intellectuals, listed above, are all involved in the same project. They are obviously not. What Sandoval is arguing is that people, regardless of the social locations they call family and home, can resist capitalist and (neo)colonial oppression. Like the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar in the Wachowskis’ film, The Matrix, struggling yet hopeful people inhabit a postmodern landscape of simultaneous devastation and thriving metropolitan life. Sandoval writes of this situation,
It is important to discern how [European and American] theorists . . . align with each other in their desire to defy and remake the more traditional and sacred forms of Western thought and organization. But it is even more crucial to understand how their thinking also aligns with that of de-colonial theorists . . . Recognizing the alignments between these ideological forces becomes critical to the project of identifying citizen-subjects and collectivities.12
Post-structural thought drew its strength and support from diverse coalitions of resistance movements, led in large part by “U.S. peoples of color” during the late twentieth century.
Sandoval finds in Barthes’s semiotics a generative source for confronting Western ideology. “Reformatting out of another, third site,” his critique of French culture “represents one white man’s attempt to speak back.”13 During the political confrontations between Western colonial powers, like France, and “the stubbornly resistant cultures and languages of conquered peoples of color,” like Algeria, “Barthes recognized that an emancipatory consciousness is not necessarily linked to one’s class, colonial, or racial location.”14 He wrote in alliance with Frantz Fanon against the oppression of the proletariat and the colonized.
Further interpretations are needed. While it is important to understand history and jettison frozen ideological terms, it is also possible to think beyond what is possible. Marx provides the searing allegory of the “valiant fellow,” who thinks he can defy gravity by not believing in it.15 The myth of the self-made individual provides salient examples of such "valiant fellows."
Recent research, responding to the president’s claims in last year’s State of the Union address that “upward mobility has stalled,” shows it was never that high to begin with.16 The economist Gregory Clark’s research about mobility is controversial because it punctures or arrests the rags-to-riches myth. In The Son Also Rises, he tracks the histories of elite surnames and concludes that rather than hard work, inheritance largely determines social status. When asked by interviewer Josh Harkinson why people identify with the Horatio Alger myth despite ample evidence to the contrary, he describes the intransigence of ideology:
GC: . . . We somehow think that everything should be possible for people. I think maybe it's part of how we have to feel about the world in order to make our own way through it.
MJ: Of course, on an individual level, going from rags to riches is possible.
GC: Yes, and in the long run, everyone is the same. But it's a long run. We find that 90 percent of the elites in a society are coming from people who are just slightly below that level. Very, very few are being drawn from families who fall way down the distribution. These transitions are good stuff for magazines and inspirational presidential speeches, but their frequency in real social life is quite, quite limited. The current differences in status will persist for hundreds of years.17
In a country where the top 0.1% richest families have about as much wealth as the bottom 90%, progressive reform is needed.18 Yet this reform cannot proceed if everybody believes themselves to be termporarily embarrassed millionaires.
Sandoval concludes that meta-ideology or the process of critque can become "only another version of dominant ideology, another version of supremacism.”19 This danger is inherent to the turnstile dynamics of critique. Any discourse of reform can unhinge "from its political commitment[s]." Cultural sign-makers can motivate dialectics toward freedom by portraying human beings on the eve of revolution, and in this way start discussions about the possibility of change.
1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 123.
2. Barthes, Mythologies, 9.
3. Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 28.
4. Barthes, Mythologies, 124.
5. Ibid., 151.
6. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (New York: Prometheus Books, 1998), 45.
7. Barthes, Mythologies, 40.
8. Modern Times, directed by Charlie Chaplin (1936; Burbank: Warner Home Video, 2003), DVD.
9. Barthes, Mythologies, 40.
10. Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000), 2.
12. Ibid., 7.
13. Ibid., 85, 87.
14. Ibid., 88.
15. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 30.
16. Barack Obama, “State of the Union,” January 28, 2014, The White House Office of the Press Secretary, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/28/president-barack-obamas-state-union-address.
17. Josh Harkinson, “Is Upward Mobility in America a Fantasy? ‘The Son Also Rises’ Argues That Our Notion of Social Advancement is Oversold,” Mother Jones, February 5, 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/media/2014/02/son-also-rises-gregory-clark-inequality-upward-mobility.
18. Angela Monaghan, “US Wealth Inequality - Top 0.1% Worth as Much as the Bottom 90%,” The Guardian, November 13, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/nov/13/us-wealth-inequality-top-01-worth-as-much-as-the-bottom-90.