Theory Rising 2

IMAGE: Ted Hiebert, Excerpts from the Library of Babel (book 19). Kirlian photograph, 2013

Contemporary political history is increasingly a scene of intense ideological struggles, whether the command ideologies of ruling empires, counter-ideologies associated with popular resistance movements or the phantasmatic resuscitation of past ideologies, from the ‘work or starve’ ideology of predatory capitalism and the revival of ‘Eurasian’ ideology in Putin’s Russia to Islamic struggles for the restoration of the Caliphate as an alternative to western colonialism.

With this contemporary scene of immense ideological upheaval in mind, we draw attention to four important theoretical perspectives on the question of ideology, all focused on interpreting the meaning of ideology today, all moving between critically engaged political analysis and discursively based explorations of the concept itself of the ‘ideological,’ and all reaching very different conclusions concerning the direction of future ideological struggles. Consequently, which of these perspectives best approaches the acid test of political theory, namely to provide a compelling description of the public situation? Is Habermas correct in his assertion that ours is an era of glassy background ideology, an epoch, that is, in which the blast of technology is the real ideology of late capitalism? Or, speaking from the complex political materiality that is Balkan politics, is Žižek’s argument that the question of ideology has now devolved into the fanaticism of phantasmatic projections—the world as a cinematic screen jarred by random jump cuts—the more compelling description of current political history? But then again, if we actually follow a language of descent into the historical sources of ideology, its relationship to questions of power, class, and knowledge, wouldn’t it be possible to theorize as does Zygmunt Bauman that the meaning of ideology today can never really escape its relationship to the division of the world into the controllers and the controlled or, for that matter, the increasingly contested, but still, for all that,  founding assumption of the episteme of the western intellectuality—the struggle between reason and superstition, knowledge and supposed ignorance?  Honoring, once again, in writing as she did so well in her practice of the life of the mind, Susan Sontag confronts the question of ideology with an essentially artistic insight, suggesting that perhaps, just perhaps, we might think of the times in which we live in a more indirect, but yet decisive, way by reengaging the intellectual imagination. Here, rising to the defense of aesthetics and social criticism, Sontag’s thought raises the possibility of seeing the contemporary field of ideological struggle for what it has become—a cold and deadly contest over the funeral rights to the sign of dead history, dead society, and dead ideology. In this case, it is to the intellectual imagination of Barthes, Baudrillard, Canetti and Borges, to these lucid observers of the game of the cynical sign, that Sontag appeals as improved pathways to understanding the enigmas of history.

Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors


Original essays/original theory from the CJPST and CTheory