“Ideology is not all”: Criticism after Žižek
The question of ideology and how it relates to criticism is a highly contested matter in literary theory. For some on the Left, the relation is merely one of subordination: criticism is ultimately reducible to ideology, and one can really talk only of an ideology of reading. Yet ever since his 1989 Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek has reminded us and fellow critics of the Left of the necessity of becoming a good reader of ideology. Indeed, against the twin deceptive attitudes of pessimism and optimism—pessimism about the prospects of effective critique and optimism about the end of history ŕ la Fukuyama, that is, about the fantasy of a post-ideological stance—Žižek vigorously insists:
Ideology is not all; it is possible to assume a place that enables us to maintain a distance from it, but this place from which one can denounce ideology must remain empty, it cannot be occupied by any positively determined reality—the moment we yield to this temptation, we are back in ideology. (Žižek, “The Specter of Ideology” 17)
Žižek’s comment comes after a thorough debunking of prior understandings of ideology. As one would expect, Žižek dismisses the common view of ideology as false consciousness, arguing along with other critical theorists that it is counterproductive to see ideology as being simply about falsification or distortion. Ideology is not so much about the truth or falsity of the matter as about its framing or staging for comprehension; or simply stated, ideology is about the narrative packaging and the communication of a certain kind of meaning. The naturalization of meaning—the presentation of something contingent as self-evident, something that ought to be contested as inevitable—is more or less synonymous with the scene of ideology. But Žižek does not stop here. He is all too aware of the dangerous next step:
Here, however, one should be careful to avoid the last trap that makes us slide into ideology under the guise of stepping out of it. That is to say, when we denounce as ideological the very attempt to draw a clear line of demarcation between ideology and actual reality, this inevitably seems to impose the conclusion that the only non-ideological position is to renounce the very notion of extra-ideological reality and accept that all we are dealing with are symbolic fictions, the plurality of discursive universes, never ‘reality’—such a quick, slick ‘postmodern’ solution, however, is ideology par excellence. (Žižek, “The Specter of Ideology” 17)
It is tempting to counter Žižek’s self-indulgent paradoxical solution with a defense of postmodernism: Who actually celebrates the ubiquity of ideology? Who maintains that everything is simply ideologically contaminated and that we have no recourse to ethical and political judgments? This is surely not the position of either Derrida or Butler—two of Žižek’s favorite targets. In this paper, however, I want to pursue a different response to Žižek’s provocations. What interests me is the type of literary criticism—the type of critical reading—that might emerge after Žižek’s critique of ideology, after his insistence that ideology is not all. If the notion of critique, at least ever since Kant, characterizes the work of philosophers and theorists, criticism is arguably the work of literary critics. Literary theorists might be said to do double duty, troubling somewhat the fault lines separating theory and literature. Having said that, theory’s relation to literature remains highly contested. The recent edited volume Theory after ‘Theory’ by Jane Elliott and Derek Attridge attempts, with relative success, to enlarge the scope and understanding of theory, asserting theory’s hydra-like quality while pulling back against theory’s alleged propensity to hegemonize the field of literary studies. Žižek’s application of theory to artworks has given many critics pause. Tim Dean, for example, argues that while Žižek emphasizes the opacity of the Lacanian Real—what is in excess of symbolization and signification—he nonetheless voraciously consumes any artwork that comes his way, making it adhere, as it were, to timeless Lacanian lessons. This is of course a well-known criticism of psychoanalysis. While Žižek’s writings on cinema and literature have received their share of scrutiny, they usually follow a predictable set of objections: Žižek’s psychoanalytic readings are in large part reductive, ignoring the formal qualities of the artwork; in the name of ideological critique, Žižek can only image the literary work as a cultural symptom, whose meaning requires interpretive exposure at the hands of the masterful reader/analyst. Yet as the first line of my first citation indicates, Žižek insists that “ideology is not all.” I want to explore here what this claim by Žižek might mean both for critique and criticism. To that end, I will turn to Žižek’s brief discussion of Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel Beloved in The Fragile Absolute, not as an exemplification of Žižek’s Theory, but rather, as a kind of testing or essaying of his inventive account of ideology.
Tim Dean, “Art as Symptom: Žižek and the Ethics of Psychoanalytic Criticism,” Diacritics 32, 2 (2002): 20-41.