“Rapid innovations in communications technology and new media have made it so that any individual can access more knowledge at their fingertips than prior generations could have by traveling to the world’s most esteemed centers of learning.”
A short time ago, I published a brief article on classical theories of ideology ranging from Marx through Mark Fisher and others. In that piece, I observed that these classical theories have much to teach us in our increasingly complex age but are, nevertheless, subject to substantial limitations. In particular, they tend to frame ideology exclusively as a tyrannical and oppressive force, which operates purely from the socio-cultural level downwards. While this may occasionally be the case, it misses a key actor in the process of becoming an ideology—in particular: the individual who comes to accept an ideologically-determined vision of the world. It is crucial to understand how and why it is easier and more satisfying to accept such a vision than to accept the complexities inherent to reality. This sequel article will put forward two reasons for this: one related to the influx of information we experience within post-modern culture and the second speaking to a more basic human desire for simplicity.
The Information Bomb and the Retreat from Complexity
“In contemporary society and culture—post-industrial society, postmodern culture—the question of the legitimation of knowledge is formulated in different terms. The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.”
Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
We live in an era where there is too much information available for anyone to handle (discussed here). Rapid innovations in communications technology and new media have made it so that any individual can access more knowledge at their fingertips than prior generations could have by traveling to the world’s most esteemed centers of learning. This is a remarkable development, which should be applauded given that it brings with it the possibility of mass learning and interdisciplinary understanding such that we have never seen. But at the same time, this brings with it specific challenges; we live in a postmodern era where the grand and unifying narratives under which we subsumed different kinds of information have broken apart. Once upon a time, it was possible to unify scientific, moral, and philosophical facts and concepts within a comprehensive framework such as religious scholasticism, Darwinian naturalism, or Orthodox Marxist utopianism. This is increasingly difficult as these grand narratives come under relentless intellectual assault while also facing a crisis of faith amongst many believers. The consequence of both of these developments is that we now inhabit a culture where information is readily available, but we have no unifying framework in which to incorporate it.
Once upon a time, it was possible to unify scientific, moral, and philosophical facts and concepts within a comprehensive framework such as religious scholasticism, Darwinian naturalism, or Orthodox Marxist utopianism. This is increasingly difficult as these grand narratives come under relentless intellectual assault while also facing a crisis of faith amongst many believers.
This can make the Faustian appeals of ideology extremely tempting. In Goethe’s Faust, the titular character is a genius who knows many things in many different fields, but he finds it impossible to find grand meaning in any of them. His response is to make a deal with the demon Mephistopheles, who promises to show him worlds and wonders beyond what he has seen. The only catch is that if Faust ever wants to settle, the demon claims his soul. We live in such a Faustian era, where the sheer influx of information can seem so empty that we may turn either to mere cynicism and idle indifference—or demand dogmatic reductionism pull us to the ground again before the earth swallows us up. The second possibility discussed by Goethe can be interpreted as symbolizing the dangers of ideology. It offers the promise of a new grand narrative to replace those which have fallen before, so long as one ignores the conceptual and concrete contradictions of the ideology. But to do so means retreating from the complexity of world for sentimental reasons: for instance, nostalgia and a desire for identity in the case of post-modern conservatives. Sadly, reality and complexity cannot be eliminated by fiat or desire. This means that ideologues driven by sentiment will only ever have recourse to such a retreat from complexity—or, in extreme cases, they may demand political force be used to eliminate anything which challenges their ideological supremacy.
Conclusion: The Psychological Appeals of Ideology
There are deeper reasons still why ideology can prove appealing at any time—not just in the post-modern epoch. Many of them relate back to our inability to cope with the often overwhelming and ontological mystery of existence—and, more generally, to answer Heidegger’s question, “Why is there something instead of nothing at all?” When we engage in authentic and critical thinking, we often run up against the immensity of what we do not and cannot know, including on issues which are of tremendous importance to framing the value of human life and its endeavors. This include the aforementioned question about the meaning of being, as well as related existential problems such as why we are here, what should we do, do we have any control over our lives or is it simply so much vain ambition and frustrated hopes? These are, of course, the themes of great literature, perhaps most artfully expressed by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When the protagonist encounters the skull of his childhood companion, Yorick, the melancholy Dane muses about the frailty of all human projects and expectations in the face of cold eternity:
“Let me see. (takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. —Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen?”
Faced with such conditions, as we all are, ideology presents an even more seductive way out. It can enable us to hide from the contingencies and uncertainties of the world by flattening them to one dimensionality. We can insist that such existential problems are easily solved through the application of a little dogma and ignoring anything which contravenes it. This is why Slavoj Žižek points out that ideology is more than a political concept. We all engage with it in order to simplify and act in a world, which is too vast and unknowable for anyone to grapple with fully. There is no avoiding ideology’s appeals, but we must move as firmly in the direction of rejecting ideology as soon as possible, if we are to make any incremental steps towards resolving the problems it carries with it.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof