Ideology – I haz it.

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Tuesday’s episode of The Daily Show had an interesting exchange between Senator Ted Kaufman and Jon Stewart that echoed my course readings these past two weeks. Here’s a clip (any excuse to link to The Daily Show):

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Ted Kaufman
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Rally to Restore Sanity


The exchange was as follows:


While discussing the function of the U.S. Senate in passing Congressional bills, Ted Kaufman cites differing viewpoints as reasons for its dysfunction.


Stewart: “Don’t you think that ideology oftentimes trumps practicality?”


Kaufman: “Ideology, I think, stops a lot of things. I mean, I’m more of a pragmatic…”


It’s interesting that in these two statements, both men describe ideology in binary opposition to practicality, pragmatism, and getting ‘things’ done. This binary seems to imply that ideology is some ephemeral flight of fancy that is limited to the realm of thought – irrational thought, no less, because it impedes ‘real’, ‘practical’ progress. However, as any Marxist worth their salt with tell you, ideology is very much embedded in material reality and is far more persistent than a mere false belief – it is, in fact, built into the very social structures that govern us.


AlthusserOne of the first theorists to articulate it as such was Louis Althusser in his seminal essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” He states that “ideology is the system of ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group” (158). He goes on to provide a Marxist analysis of ideology as the process by which the reproduction of one of the conditions of production – labour – is produced.  In his system, there is only one Ideology – the one that drives individuals and social groups to unquestioningly allow for the reproduction of the current political economy. While many theorists since him have argued for a more diverse understanding of the way ideology functions and the goals it fulfills, I still find myself returning to his theories on the subject because, while I agree with the move to fracture the structuralist assumptions of the base-superstructure binary, the economic as a social determinant still seems to be the ‘final’ instance of any signifying system.


In her book, Decoding Advertisements, Judith Williamson argues that advertising is the medium that attaches human sentiment to objects so that they imbued with identities, e.g. “buying x makes more attractive”, where the object now gains the power to give/take away your attractiveness. In this way, advertising allows one to continue Althusser’s arguments of society’s Ideological Apparatuses, with advertising media being one of them. This is interesting in considering the advertising campaigns that have been running in the past year during the recession.


This news article sums up advertising strategies during the recession, but the basic message was loud and clear across products, social classes and industries: spend more. While this is the general purpose of advertising, it becomes even more prominent in times of crisis.


While such clearly ideological messages may arguably be limited to advertising, with viral marketing campaigns, product placement and increasingly innovative branding strategies, it’s hard to clearly outline exactly what advertising is or where its ideological functions end.


The “Will it Blend?” video campaign is particularly interesting in this respect. Though the ads are themselves part of a viral marketing campaign by Blendtec – a company that makes blenders – one reason for its popularity is its reliance on already familiar objects or cultural signifiers. For example, the following video of the iPad in a blender produces an effective response not only because we watch a machine being blended but because it is specifically the iPad – a cultural artefact that already signifies specific things to the audience. I’d argue that the ad also causes effective responses toward the iPad because we’ve already attached some value to it.

So, on the one hand, we have a furthering of the dominant ideology of neo-liberal capitalism through the drive towards increased consumption; i.e., we are given more goods to consume. Simultaneously, we have a commodification of identities; i.e., we as consumers are marketed as goods. With globalization and multiculturalism, we can now find ‘ethnic’ food, clothing, etc. Similarly, ‘hipster’ culture, though much maligned, marks a significant moment in that it seems to be an identity that exists purely through consumption of specific cultural markers (fixed gear bikes, old cameras, unbranded clothes, etc.). While political opinions and cultural behaviors are linked to hipsters, the primary identifier seems to be purely through their commodities.  (As someone who isn’t well-versed in ‘hipsterdom’, I welcome any statements to the contrary.)

Finally, to wrap this rather long post up, it appears that ideology is a productive force rather than an inhibiting one, but productive in specific directions and toward specific goals. For once, Jon Stewart wasn’t right?