The Critique of Ideology Today

Simone A. Medina Polo
14 min readSep 2, 2022

[Note: This editted essay was written originally for Pyriscence, but it was never published there. Still, support Pyrisence. They rule.]

Since its conceptual inception, the notion of “ideology” has gone through several changes and revisions. And it is the intention of this piece to address three major transformations of this notion with a core end in mind: a given notion of “ideology” determines the kind of task that is an adequate critique of such a notion of ideology. These three major transformations of the notion of ideology will be tied to three thinkers we will broadly discuss — Karl Marx, Louis Althusser, and Slavoj Žižek. And in each of these transformative movements, we will note the increasing influence of psychoanalysis onto the theory of ideology and its critique as it departs from classical Marxist orthodoxy. This intervention by psychoanalysis has played a role in transforming how we ask questions pertaining to ideology as well as any criticism and navigation of ideology.

In Marx, we find that ideology at its most basic is a predicament of false consciousness. This is best expressed by the phrase, “they do not know it, but they are doing it.” For Marx, being subject to ideology constitutes a problem of epistemology — in other words, a problem pertaining to knowledge, beliefs, and their grounding. Ideology is shaped as a narrative and myth that systematizes ideas, values, beliefs, and knowledge over a particular situational state. In turn, the critique of ideology is accomplished by dispelling the ideological illusion. This is accomplished by a “sobering” historical-material analysis. In Marx’s account of history, ideology belongs to the superstructure which lags and ideology is always catching up to its material infrastructure. Therefore, the critique of ideology in Marx treats ideology as a distortion, an illusion, and a stumbling-block of knowledge found in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 271). In these myths and narratives that try to bind our situation together, we try to put together values, beliefs, and knowledge over the relations we hold with ourselves, other people, our dwelling-spaces and objects, as well as the broader world as it is ordered and turned consistent.

The lag between the ideological superstructure and the material infrastructure becomes apparent when something is not quite clicking in the story that we are trying to tell about ourselves and the world it claims to be orienting us around. For example, in the critique of capitalism, what Marx is trying to make apparent is that we are failing to recognize those implicit, latent relations between ourselves to their full, systematic extent — at best, we only find ourselves symptomatically entertaining an antiquated, idiosyncratic story in toying around with some commodity or another. In turn, this is reflected in Marx’s fourfold sense of alienation, either as alienation from our acts of labour, alienation from the products of our labour, alienation from our species-being, and our alienation from other labourers (Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 269).

These alienations and antagonisms are the sustaining glue of capitalist mode of production, where labour is both what makes a commodity as well as a commodity itself — an internal tension which is nevertheless productive and susceptible to exploitation (Marx, Capital, vol 1, 131–132). But this specific mode of production can only be arrived at through certain historical, material developmental movements that have laid down the basis for the capitalist mode of production. For instance, in stating that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” Marx and Engels describe contemporary society developing out of hunter-gatherers, then the agricultural mode of production, followed by the feudal mode of production, which then turned to the capitalist mode of production (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 57–60). The magic of the commodity is dispelled by pointing back at a historical materialism that accounts for such a structure of the commodity-form and its seeming necessities which are only the vanishing point making the way for the communist mode of production (Marx, Capital, vol 1, 163–165). As Marx and Engels write in The German Ideology:

Empty talk about consciousness ceases, and real knowledge has to take its place. When reality is depicted, philosophy as an independent branch of activity loses its medium of existence…. Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 271).

In line with this form of classical Marxist critique, it is worth considering how the critical theory of the Frankfurt school adopts this approach to the critique of ideology. In Max Horkheimer’s essay “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Horkheimer clears the ground to set a distinction between the traditional sense in which the term theory has been used as opposed to the critical approach that the Frankfurt school comes to spouse. The crux for the turn to critical theory is that traditional theory and scientific practice are largely uncritical and detached from any consideration of how its work is neither self-explanatory nor purely insightful (Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 196). For Horkheimer, the question of scientific inquiry and theory has to be critically reconsidered in light of the implicative modes of industrial production and market value which endorse certain forms of questioning for a value and use which is ultimately extrinsic to the science itself (Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 190–191).

When Horkheimer is interested on constructing a notion of critical theory, he stresses that in scientific revolutions, the propelling movement is not just the logical simplicity of a scientific discovery, but it is also a part of socio-historical action (Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 195). While traditional theory assumes its own revolution as self-explanatory without considering the socio-historical context that is implicated in its revolution, critical theory emphatically embraces this — and in the contemporary context of the capitalist mode of production, this means acknowledge that the scholar and their science are integrated into the social apparatus as existing state offers which includes the division of labour for production (Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 196). Thus, the critique of ideology for Horkheimer remains within the classical Marxist terms when he claims that:

The false consciousness of the bourgeois savant in the liberal era comes to light in very diverse philosophical systems… The ideal to be striven for is a unitary system of science which, in the sense just described, will be all-powerful… The determinative, ordering, unifying function is the sole foundation for all else, and towards it all human effort is directed. Production is production of unity and production is itself the product (Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 198).

Thus, the stakes of the critique of ideology remain purely epistemic in this instance where scientific inquiry is brought to the front. And though the critique of ideology is to undo the false consciousness that obscures the social apparatus of production and labour, Horkheimer stresses that the position of the proletariat does not guarantee correct knowledge as its awareness is still imposed from without (Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 214). Thus, the process of critical theory is to bring out the truth both of the bourgeoise and the proletariat to highlight the irrationality at the heart of their respective positions. Furthermore, like Marx for whom the end of the historical process is communism, critical theory aims towards the rational state of society to relieve both the individual and society from their antagonisms (Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” 218–219).

Now, in Louis Althusser, ideology pertains to a structure of its own rather than just the false consciousness of individuals and collectives of people. Althusser’s theory of ideology is best expressed by the phrase “they do not know it, but it is doing them!” It is not that we are subject to ideology from a prior, more “sober” state; but rather, we emerge only as subject to ideology.

An example of someone who is still took on this point by Althusser would be Judith Butler, specifically in her analysis of gender identification. One is not born, and then becomes gendered. Rather, gender is performative, shaped into form by repetitions and iterations of it — and with a phenomenon such a gender reveal parties, we reiterate that one is not born and then becomes gendered; but rather, even before we are born, we are subject to gender (Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, 95–96).

This is illustrative of the role that interpellation and recognition play in the Althusserian theory of ideology. We are born into and marked by ideology, and we recognize ourselves as subject to it. As the example goes, you could be walking down the street and suddenly you hear a cop yell in your direction “Hey you!”, and you turn towards the call. The exchange here is exemplar of interpellative recognition, where a network of relationships are assumed and enacted as always already there — for instance, he is a police officer, he has authority, I am suspect, perhaps even criminal (Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, 174–175).

In this respect, for Althusser, ideology is still a problem of epistemology. But whereas for Marx, the problem of ideology and its epistemological critique is still localized onto the individual person and collectives of people; the Althusserian theory of ideology de-centralizes knowledge from the subject, as it is rather the ideological structure that knows and through which people know. Or as Althusser writes: “the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subject” (Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, 171). It is not that the problem of ideology is that of a distortion or an illusion in our way to true knowledge, but rather, the very conditions in which we know are structured by ideology. The ideological structure works through ideological state apparatuses (education, economic, cultural, religious), as opposed to the more overtly violent repressive state apparatuses (policing, military, administration), which pave the way for state’s reproduction of its own conditions by slipping into private life rather than the public (Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, 142–144). In being subject to ideology, and only catching ourselves being so in moments of interpellation and recognition, we are reproducing its state with no radical outside in sight (Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, 127 and 160–161).

In the Althusserian theory of ideology, as opposed to Marx’s, ideology is not just a passive myth that is the effect of lag between a superstructure and an infrastructure, but rather, ideology is actively at work in reproducing its mode and conditions of production under both the relative autonomy that the superstructure has in respect to the infrastructure and the reciprocal action of the superstructure upon the infrastructure (Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, 135).

Ideology is certainly a stumbling block to thinking about reality — we can perhaps recall V.I. Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism where materialism has to be defended from idealist and agnostic notions which are sneaked in or overtly included into the formulations of materialism (Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism). In this respect, both Marx and Althusser agree that it is a stumbling block of knowing regardless of whether we adopt Marx’s centralization of knowledge in people or Althusser’s de-centralization of the subject of knowledge. In turning to Slavoj Žižek, we note a major turn in the theory and critique of ideology. Ideology is not so much a stumbling block in knowing, but rather in action and in doing.

In the work of Slavoj Žižek, ideology is portrayed as a cynical fantasy best expressed by the phrase: “They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it!” After the Cold War and the Fall of the Soviet Union, the smooth sailing project of Communism was seen as a loss, a failure, and a lost cause — the historical materialism of Marx that simply predicted communism as emerging from capitalism as its condition became too unlikely, the Leninist call for vanguardism unable to rally up any spirit for any cause anchored on the working class, and the Althusserian structural theory of ideology gave too much room for capitalism and its state to become total. It is in this context that Žižek points at the contemporary problem of ideology as a problem of perversion, characterized by a tendency to disavowal. Regardless of however much we know about our predicament, it is all the same to us. The subject enjoys a semblance of consistency as well as the constitutive symptoms of its own emergence.

In this respect, Žižek uses a borrowed term from psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in referring to ideology as extimate, as in that the most intimate core of the subject is nevertheless dis-located from it in the outside. Though I never completely possess any object of desire, this is nevertheless an objective, constitutive lack around which the subject construes itself, its desire, and enjoyment in such a way that in commodities that I fetishize and accumulate I am trying to tell and built something up about myself in what I am not — to the extent that if you were to break my vintage, porcelain tea set from 1878, you are breaking me; or if you crash my lambo and my bitcoin economy, you are crashing me.

The extent to which this form of extimacy pertains to capitalist perversion rather than a neurotic fantasy pertains to what this extimate representation means to the subject and how the subject anchors itself in relation to the object. As Joan Copjec notes in her book Read My Desire, in fantasy, “the subject establishes a relation to the object-cause of its desire, that ‘presentifies’ the subject’s loss” (Copjec, Read My Desire, 109). Fantasy operates through the presentation of the loss in an externalized form as well as through the representation of the subject’s internal impossibility — fantasy works through filling in the blanks of this objective lack around which the subject constitutes itself. Or as Adrian Johnston concisely formulates fantasy in the introduction to Time Driven, if it were not for external obstacle’s x, y, and z, the subject would be able to unproblematically enjoy life — in short, there is such a thing as jouissance. (Johnston, Time Driven, xxxiv).

In perversion, all recognition of this lack and this internal impossibility are dismissed. The pervert does not set up a relation to an object that eludes them imaginarily, rather, the pervert positions themselves in the position of the object in its real form. It sees everything, quite voyeuristically and fragrantly. The constitutive gap is not minded, but denied as if the pervert were in a position where nothing is lacking and knowledge is certain. The pervert tries to avoid the split generated by the tension between the presentified loss and the subject’s internal impossibility, as the pervert tries to place themselves outside this division. As Copjec writes, “as a perversion, it ex-planes [the splitting of the ego], unfolds the split onto a flat surface, and thus conveniently displays it for the analyzing eye. ‘I know very well, but just the same [I]….’” (Copjec, Read My Desire, 111).

In traversing the fantasy and assuming the constituitive split of the subject, the critique of ideology is deeply, intimately disturbing in confronting the subject’s internal impossibility in desiring. Yet, ideology is perversely disavowed in the enjoyment of ideological symptoms. In this respect, the commodity fetish, for example, is in practice, not in theory (Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 29, 30). And only to reassert the major shift into this kind of theory of ideology: the illusion or madness of ideology is not on the side of knowledge, but on the side of reality itself…. of what people are doing. As Žižek notes:

This is probably the fundamental dimension of ideology: ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’ — ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence — that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’. ‘Ideological’ is not the false consciousness’ of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by false consciousness: Thus we have finally reached the dimension of the symptom, because one of its possible definitions would also be ‘a formation whose very consistency implies a certain non-knowledge on the part of the subject’: the subject can ‘enjoy his symptom’ only in so far as its logic escapes him — the measure of the success of its interpretation is precisely its dissolution. (Žižek, Sublime Object of Ideology, 15 and 16).

To conclude, my intervention is to contribute to this displacement of the theory and critique of ideology from knowledge to action. What continues to be a running thread in psychoanalysis and marxism is the possibility of an immanent intervention — the philosophy that inherits from both of these traditions today is concerned with the possibilities of intervening upon its conditions, which are quite non-philosophical as both psychoanalysis and marxism highlight in questions of the erotic and the political.

The necessities of reason that philosophy expounds are only possible within conditions upon which reason can build itself, whereby axiomatic decisions found reason just as much as its radically contingent and excessive blindspot. It is in this manner that the necessities of capitalist reason can be dismantled as a radically contingency in the assemblage of drive and its tendencies. Capitalism is not some transcendental, eternal way of being; but rather a tendency in process characterized by the immanent expansion of itself as Capital accumulation (Land, “Machinic Desire”, Fanged Noumena, 338–339). Capital expands itself through the exhaustion of its means to building and accumulating what counts and is valued as wealth, such as labour. As philosopher Nick Land writes on this matter: “Capital only retains anthropological characteristics as a symptom of underdevelopment; reformatting primate behaviour as inertia to be dissipated in self-reinforcing artificiality. Man is something for it to overcome: a problem, drag” (Land, “Meltdown”, Fanged Noumena, 446). The fulfillment of capitalism is only possible on the condition of its implosive exhaustion of the humanity that has carried it on thus far. Thus, in capitalist accelerationism, what is proposed is an acceleration of the tendency that is capitalism, as it is alleged that capitalism as we know can only be overcome through this exhaustion of itself which is paradoxically its fulfillment.

However, I will add that with these considerations, the critique of ideology is not just registered on the side of fantasy that pertains desire and enjoyment, but also fundamentally that of drive and drive-assembly which constitutes the tendencies of desire — including the radical thirst for annihilation we see in Land. Yes, in neoliberal capitalism we are free to the extent that we can will what we want, even our own entropic exhaustion; however, the more troubling problem that the psychoanalytic theory of ideology and its critique introduces is whether we are free in that wanting. Therefore, the end of the critique of ideology rests both in a disturbance and transformation of desire as well as in a fundamental dismantling and re-mantling of the drive-assemblage that constitutes such tendencies in desire and capitalist reason to begin with. This is what rests at the core of the non-epistemological critique of ideology and the destituitive moment of the subject. As doing and practice, I must undo myself in reorienting desire and drive-assemblage that propels it onwards into its movements and processes.

References and Citations:

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy: And Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. Print.

Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997. Print.

Copjec, Joan. Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists. New York: Verso, 2015. Print.

Johnston, Adrian. Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive. Evanson, Il: Northwestern University Press, 2005.

Horkheimer, Max. “Traditional and Critical Theory” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays. New York: Continuum, 2002.

Land, Nick. “Machinic Desire” in Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007. Ed. Robin MacKay and Ray Brassier. UK: Urbanomic, 2011. Print.

— — — “Meltdown” in Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007. Ed. Robin MacKay and Ray Brassier. UK: Urbanomic, 2011. Print.

Lenin, V.I. “Conclusion” in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy. Marxist.org. Accessed June 19, 2022: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/concl.htm

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol I. Trans. Ben Fowles. England: Penguin Books, 1990. Print.

— — — “The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” (pp. 265–269) in Readings on Human Nature. Ed. Peter Loptson. Canada: Broadview Press, 1998. Print.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Samuel Moore. New York: Pocket Books, 1964. Print.

— — — “The German Ideology” (pp. 270–276) in Readings on Human Nature. Ed. Peter Loptson. Canada: Broadview Press, 1998. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 2008. Print.

--

--

Simone A. Medina Polo

Simone A. Medina Polo is a philosopher and an PhD candidate at the Global Centre for Advanced Studies for Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.