To Those Who Want to Live Outside Ideology

Hi Joel,

Of all the horseshit that Caitlin Flanagan could have written in her vapid Atlantic article about misogynist Jordan Peterson, this was the horseshittiest:

With identity politics off the table, it was possible to talk about all kinds of things—religion, philosophy, history, myth—in a different way. They could have a direct experience with ideas, not one mediated by ideology.

(I’m glad that it’s the quotation you focused on, because it’s reveals how very difficult it is to find conservative thinkers with something smart to say. When Jordan Peterson is your intellectual leader and Caitlin Flanagan is where you turn to insightful commentary, you know that your movement simply doesn’t have a deep bench.)

What does this even mean–to have a “direct experience with ideas, not one mediated by ideology”?

It means that Flanagan doesn’t know what ideology means. But she uses the word anyway–which is so much of the problem with conservative commentators. Peterson, Maclean’s suggested last fall, is a “stupid man’s smart person” (“he never seems to say ‘know’ where he could instead say ‘cognizant of’”), and Flanagan seems to have fallen for it.

I’ve taught a lot about ideology, including to the the type of young white men that Flanagan asserts have been marginalized by identity politics. And I’ve seen them thrash a bit as they learn about ideology for the first time. But, by and large, through careful reading, respectful conversation, and thoughtful analysis, they get it–and, unlike the young men Flanagan describes, they find it enriches their understanding of the world rather than diminishing it. They don’t give up, as Flanagan’s men do, because it is hard and because they prefer a world in which they can ignore ideology. Indeed, writes French theories Louis Althusser, denying it is a sign of its power over us:

what thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology [….] That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, “I am ideological.”

Here’s the short version:

Marx argues that ideology creates “false consciousness”–a false understanding of the way the world works. For example, women buy Virginia Slims cigarettes because smoking them promises “freedom”–when, in reality, the tobacco industry was built on slave labor, continues to place precious workers in dangerous situations, lies about health risks, passes the harms of its business to the public, and is in a business that literally kills its customers. Neither farm workers nor those dying of lung cancer are enjoying the kind of “freedom” that cigarette companies show in ads.

Image result for virginia slims ad

Above, a Virginia Slims ad from the 1970s. An attractive blonde woman steps toward the viewer. She wears trousers and a matching jacket and carries a briefcase under her arm, a cigarette extending from her hand. Behind her and on the left, women of the late 19th/early 20th centuries congregate. The familiar slogan–“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”–is printed above two packs of cigarettes on the right.

That’s not hard to see at all–capitalists lie to us (“You’ve come a long way, baby!”) to convince us to ignore reality (emphysema). And, yes, racial messages work the same. White people tell ourselves all kinds of lies (like that race is biological) in order to convince us to ignore reality (it’s a cultural invention used to justify oppression).

Althusser pushes the idea of ideology a different direction: there is no “reality” out there that we can penetrate if we just can see through the ideology. In part, this is because the only way we can access reality is through language: if we don’t have a word for it, we can’t think it, and so it’s not real to us. If that seems radical, do this experiment: ask both a man and a woman what color your hair is. In general, women have a larger lexicon of words to describe color (a “focal vocabulary”)–not because we see more colors but because we are inundated with messages about cosmetics and fashion. Unless a man is a hair dresser, he’ll probably describe your hair as brown. A woman is more likely to describe it as “chestnut” or “dark ash” or one of the dozens of other colors they can find in the hair color aisle at CVS.

So, for Althusser, the fact that we think in language always prevents us from thinking outside of ideology. Ideology informs our language, right down to the grammar–which is why, in some languages, certain objects are masculine and others are feminine (die/der in German and la/las in Spanish, for example). Through language, we tell a story about ourselves to ourselves, and how we tell that story has tremendous consequences, even if it’s a total lie. Or, as my students eventually grow tired of chanting at the start of each class session, “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Thesis 1 of Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus). Because we rely on language to define reality but language itself is ideological, we can only ever see the reality our language lets us create.

But ideology doesn’t stop with language–it “has a material existence” (Thesis II)–that is, it is enacted in rituals, practices, conventional behaviors, etc. We perform our ideology every day. For example, when an opposite sex couple walks hand-in-hand, it is most common that the man’s hand faces backward while the woman’s faces forward, just as an adult’s hand faces backwards when it clasps a child’s forward-facing hand. This is a practice that reflects a particular gender ideology (men’s protectiveness/possession/leadership of women).

We perform our ideology without even thinking about it. This is because, according to Althusser, “all ideology hails or interrelates concrete individuals as concrete subjects (Thesis III). That is, it calls to us–“Hey, you there!”–and we respond because we know it’s talking to us. Ideology does this to us from all directions–through what Althusser calls ideological state apparatuses (religion, family) as well as repressive ones (the police) but also through the media and popular culture (Horkheimer and Adorno’s insight into ideology).

And we’re always the subject of ideology–even before we are born! Althusser, writing in the mid-1900s, notes that, even before we’re born, we are identified as our father’s child and will bear his name. Gender theorist Judith Butler notes that it happens when the the obstetrician yells “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl.” But we don’t have to wait for the baby to be delivered to make them the subject of gender ideology: the wild popularity of “gender reveal” parties is evidence that Americans have a deep (and tacky) obsession with making even fetuses ideological subjects.

Image result for gender reveal party

Above, snacks for a gender reveal party. A glass bowl with blue and brown candy-coated nuts sits next to one with pink, red, and white candies in it. A blue onesie made of paper sits in the first bowl with the word “Nuts?” on it, while a pink onesie sits in the second bowl, the words “No Nuts?” written on it. Get it? Get it? Guests are invited to bet on whether the baby has a penis or a vagina, according to the sonogram, and later in the paper, the parents will reveal the baby’s sex–perhaps by popping a ballon filled with either blue or pink confetti or cutting open a cake with either blue or pink icing inside.

This system works really well to reproduce society as it is. And lots of people like it! It’s pretty easy to convince men that they are superior to women, to convince whites that they are superior to people of color. In fact, if ideology is on your side, then you don’t feel “convinced” at all–you feel entirely free, as if you are, indeed, having “direct experience with ideas,” as Flanagan’s men yearn to have. Ideology is so smart–it tells that we are in fact free! That’s part of its appeal. And then, we freely accept our subjection to it.

Which is cool if ideology leaves you on top, like it does for Peterson’s fans. It’s less cool if it leaves you on bottom, though. Turns out that many people who are not well-served by the dominant ideology fight against it. Sure, there are oppressed people who buy into their own oppression, but many also fight back. There are Ben Carsons in the world but also Nat Turners. Just as defenders of ideology embody it in practice, so is it practiced on the bodies of the poor, vulnerable, and weak. For them, ideology isn’t a mental exercise performed by college students angry about their ethnic lit or world history requirement but a hungry belly and a broken back.

You know who doesn’t need Flanagan’s lecture on why ideology is a distraction from “real” issues? Everyone who is oppressed by the white supremacy and misogyny that Jordan Peterson advocates. Also, the enslaved Africans helping white enslavers get “direct experience with ideas” in Hale Woodruff’s Rising Up.

Still, Althusser’s version of ideology is much harder to get around that even Marx’s. But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck–or that you have an excuse to smoke Virginia Slims or be a white supremacist. Careful, honest, critical thinking helps us see that we are implicated in ideology–and we can resist it and change it and shape it, even if we can’t escape it.


Can we dedicate posts? If so, I dedicate this to Bobbie, Charlie, Claire, Meagan, and the many, many other first year college students who plunged into Althusser with me over the years.

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