What Is Ideology?

With the continuous discourse on ideology that is often accompanied by words such as terrorism, globalisation or imperialism, the definition is not only ambiguous but has an unsavoury association to other terms that are themselves vague. Indeed, there certainly exists an adverse meaning to ‘ideology’ as being a belief system that legitimises a doctrine for violence and subordination. But what exactly is ideology? An ideology is said to be, “[a] cultural representation of the social order that makes this order seem immutable and supremely legitimate… placing it beyond change by human agencies, outside the history of human actions and social relations, and beyond the framework of material constraints, which are its ultimate determinants.”[i] According to Karl Marx, ideology or the superstructure is a conceptual method of social organisation. The collective are enticed into believing in ideological and material values, the latter of which is merely invented by the bourgeois; the oppressed are thus inadvertently supporting the ruling class’ domination. “Everyone believes his [bourgeois] craft to be the true one… [i]n consciousness – in jurisprudence, politics, etc. – relations become concepts.”[ii] Thus the superstructure contains a collection of historically retained ideas that legitimise the dominate classes.

Conversely, Michel Foucault analysed ideology – what he later names discourse – as a social function of truth that authenticates social stratification and hierarchical arrangements, whereby “like it or not, it [ideology] always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth.”[iii] Power in discourse can only emerge effectively when interpretation is no longer needed and is automatically processed as truth, which prompts repression and power. However, power in discourse is not always negative, but provides a pleasant and a productive network that efficiently conditions and closes the gap between politics and culture. This distinctly coincides with the superstructure, for not only are the elite exercising dominance over the masses but ideology exists because citizens desire it. Eric Hobsbawm highlighted the existence of what he referred to as the imagined national community,[iv] namely that the values set within ideological beliefs are merely invented to hold the administration of a State together by motivating a national character and providing political and social cohesion. “Politics is so deeply rooted in the native genius of each nation that the continuity of separate political traditions constantly resist the levelling forces at work in the social and economic spheres of modern life.”[v] However, this does not make the nation ‘unreal’ but should instead be viewed as a concept that enables, “[e]xperience and the interpretation of the world.”[vi]

Ultimately, power requires recognition.

The relationship between power and identity is most obvious in the new concept of the nation: the nation, first as a community of equal individual citizens and then as a community founded upon a shared culture, becomes the legitimate locus of power… strategically, identity not only legitimizes power but provides also an effective instrument for mobilization.[vii].

The legitimisation of ideological constructs often involve Othering or the proposition that x is more legitimate than y within essentialists categorisations, which is the view that all properties in an entity must contain the same attributes. Jean-Paul Sartre claims that the anti—Semite creates the ‘Jew’ by becoming an object representing what is loathed and thus causally becoming the very purpose or reason for his being and identity.[viii] The belief in the existence of properties or characteristics that are either universal or essential consequently legitimises these properties that are apparently eternally fixed. For instance, if the properties in x are eternal or essential, than it must be that the properties in y are not and in such instances, the legitimisation of x leads to the domination or subjugation of y. Membership thus requires the acknowledgement that certain properties within the entity are eternal or essential, leading to recognition and thus power.

Nevertheless, subjugation is not always violent and can contain positive elements that are tolerated even by those being subjugated.[ix] As an instrument for political and social development, the ideological attitudes to modernisation have often been used as an apparatus in Turkish political rhetoric. Ziya Gökalp, a Turkish sociologist and political activist who influenced Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, claims that there are two functional processes of modernisation that have caused such massive structural changes in society. “The first was in culture-nations (Durkeim’s term for societies) where the advanced division of labor was creating an occupational group structure in which individuals were incorporated… the second level was that of civilisation, which Gökalp saw as the supranational grouping to which different nations belonged and in which they related.”[x] Atatürk believed that secularisation and modernity will gradually relegate the position religion has in both politics and society, yet, along with many secularists, this imagined interpretations of the possible future has thwarted the possibility of understanding alternative social and political processes. Instead, radical fundamentalism and religious and cultural revivalism are interpreted as a retrograde condition where people are reverting back to the old and inferior position because of their failure to adapt to the precipitating social transformations.

“The sense that religion has no place in contemporary politics is evidence in common claims that people “retreat” or “take refuge” in religion to escape so-called rapid socio-political change. The implication of this language is the theopolitical actors and movements are at odds with historical necessity (almost pathologically so), and should not be as predominant as they are.”[xi] Modernity has paradoxically increased the vitality of religion. Originally thought to be unsympathetic to culture and society, globalisation has instead provided the room for religious and cultural development. Andrew Davison labels this as interpretative perplexity; what we once thought to be clear becomes more perplexing than originally presumed.[xii] Davison attempts to analyse the meaning behind these political prejudices (made especially by political scientists who engage in policy assessment), particularly the convincing idea of historical development and the saturation process of social and political globalisation. Prejudices regarding the apparent direction of secularism have interrupted a better comprehension of theopolitics (theocracy) in contemporary political discourses.

Instead of acknowledging these prejudices and attempting to work comparatively, political theorists and scientists have adopted methodological attitudes that only justify secularisation. Thus, using hermeneutics to explain the interpretation of political language and the deeper expressive meanings behind these interpretations, Davison references Hans-Georg Gadamer’s idea that prejudice guides interpretation.[xiii] Though some have argued that cultural change and development through global expansion and modernity threatens the existence of past traditions and long-established customs, others maintain that it is a necessary historical process that improves the conditions of society. “[P]atterns of behaviour identified as modern tend to prevail over those considered to be traditional… when universalistic norms supersede particularistic ones.”[xiv] Emile Durkeim was an early figure who sought an understanding of the function and significance religious has vis-à-vis maintaining the balance of society. Structural functionalism is a social systems paradigm that analysis how smaller elements in society play a functional role in the whole of the social system.

According to Durkheim, collective representations are conditioned ideals, a type of intellectual and emotional semiotic interaction within a group or society that legitimise shared historical meaning. “It is also a symbolic resource: an actor who does not conceive of him/herself as a link to an historical chain cannot elaborate a discourse of legitimization or a teleological vision that gives a sense to his actions’ he/she cannot give a meaning to his/her present combats.”[xv] According to Lowell Dittmer, symbols transcend objective interpretations and are no longer dependent on referential meaning, thus extending space and time.[xvi] Symbols become the autonomous link between a political structure and political psychology, whereby “[s]ymbols tend to merge with ‘language’ on the one hand and with the substantive ‘reality’ that language represents on the other.”[xvii]

Semiotics expose features of cultural symbolism and the interaction with belief-systems since group symbols can illustrate peculiar features that the materialist approach to social analysis may not achieve. It can provide a useful introduction to the influences and properties of a given culture by reducing communication to symbolic exchanges. “Although it is legitimate to treat social relations – even relations of domination – as symbolic interactions, that is, as relations of communication implying cognition and recognition, one must not forget that the relations of communication par excellence – linguistic exchanges – are also relations of symbolic power in which the power relations between speakers or their respective groups are actualized.”[xviii]

While Sartre believed that all people are essentially free and are built by nothing but the choices that they make, identity and recognition plays a pivotal role in current political and social dynamics that therefore makes it wholly deterministic. This dichotomy between individuality and the deterministic social environment is that the latter can facilitate the decision making process and since individuality or freedom is isolating and thus fearful by extension, or at the very least the co-deterministic environment substantiates this fear of individuality so as to endorse conformity, what eventuates is the diminishment of one’s humanity.[xix] To overcome this fear and escape from freedom, the individual makes one choice and that is to submit to the precipitating social environment; thus identity becomes symptomatic of this conformity and ‘being’ or individuality becomes unconscious and identity inauthentic. This is particularly effective in a social environment that lacks agencies that support individual autonomy, such as education and justice. Thus prejudice becomes a product of this dynamic between the individual and society and is utilised as a socio-communicative tool to interpret the dialectic of nature and historical determinism, albeit the formula is paradoxically detrimental to a just social environment since state legitimacy can be undermined by exclusive identity politics and antagonising relations between citizens and the state.

[i] J. Oppenheimer, “Culture and Politics in Druze Ethnicity”, 1:3 (1977) 623
[ii] Karl Marx, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976) 101
[iii] Paul Rabinow, The Foucault Reader (London: Penguin Books, 1984) 60
[iv] E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Sine 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 159. See Also Benedict Anderson’ ‘Imagined Communities’
[v] Lucian W. Pye and Sidney Verba, Political Culture and Political Development (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998) 111
[vi] Martin Sokefeld. Struggling for Recognition: The Alevi Movement in Germany and in Transnational Space (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008) 22
[vii] Ibid., 29
[viii] Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate
[ix] Martin Sokefeld, op. cit., 30
[x] Andrew Davison, Secularism and Revivalism in Turkey: A Hermeneutic Reconsideration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) 111
[xi] Ibid., 2
[xii] Davison, op. cit., 114
[xiii] Hans-Georg Gadamer is a German philosopher who wrote Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method).
[xiv] Pye and Verba, op. cit., 12
[xv] White and Jongerden, op. cit., 13
[xvi] Lowel Dittmer, “Political Culture and Political Symbolism”. World Politics 29:4 (July, 1977) 577. To extend space and time is to emotionally – rather than rationally – accept words to be true even if it is clearly to be proven false, i.e. Holocaust deniers.
[xvii] Ibid., 558
[xviii]Pierre Bourdieu and John B. Thompson, Language and Symbolic Power, Harvard University Press (1991) 37
[xix] Jean Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason

Guest Post: Modernism, Postmodernism and the Sublime

By Phil Cava


The impact of  Greek culture on the world  from the 5th Century BC forward has had long lasting foundational effects on Western Culture. Man’s concept of himself  expanded and evolved through the works of philosopher/scientists, poets, tragedies, historians, sculptors, architects, and others, during this  period.

The Greeks invented a conception of beauty, which still sways us. Classical beauty gave privilege to the purity of form, to proportion and to symmetry over content, and matter  The thoughts of Plato and Aristotle were foundational for Western Culture’s determination of what constitutes Beauty. Against this sway mid-twentieth century artist Barnett Newman in his famous essay “The Sublime is  Now”  (1948)  said that the Greek conception of beauty was conflated with Christianity which led to:

“Man’s natural desire in the arts to express his relation to the Absolute became identified and confused with the absolutisms of perfect creations…with the fetish of quality…so that the European artist has been continually involved in the moral struggle between notions of beauty and the desire for sublimity.



                                           Adam                                                          Eve

Edmund Burke was “first philosopher to argue that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive” (1) Burke thought of the sublime as a kind of negative pleasure, the delight experienced in the removal of pain or our  attraction to  profoundly disturbing aesthetics  such as Kramer’s portrait,  which no one can look away from.  Or on a more serious note, the figural portraits of Lucian Freud, which repel and attract us simultaneously,  ultimately we, or at least I can’t look away.

Kant picks up on Burke’s concept of sublimity in his 1790 “Critique of Judgement”. Kant has a lot to say, and it is not possible to bypass his contribution to our understanding of the Greek gift.  He separates general knowledge from our sense of beauty and the sublime. Judgements regarding general knowledge are based on determinate concepts, concepts which are bounded by our imagination and whose totality is grasped by our faculty of reason. This is how particulars become assumed under universals, and how a work of art can be a universal particular.   Kant contrasts determinate  judgements  with reflective judgements. In reflective judgements the limitations of our determinate conceptions are challenged. Our imagination opens up mental space wherein new concepts,  judgements, relationships become possible, in the free play of reason with our imagination pleasure arises.

Kant states that our judgement of taste is aesthetic  (45S1):

“In  order to decide whether anything is beautiful or not, we refer the representation, not by the Understanding to the Object for cognition but, by the Imagination (perhaps in conjunction with the Understanding) to the subject, and its feeling of pleasure or pain

For Kant the feeling of pleasure or pain we experience is based on the ability of our imagination, our reasoning and our judgements to correspond with one another or not. Judgements concerning  determinate concepts can be agreeable, pleasurable, but they are limited determinately. Reflective judgements are pleasurable in themselves, in the very action of their conception. Determinate judgements and reflective judgements are bound by our imagination.  They are finite in the sense that they are bound, unlike the Sublime.

Kant differentiates  beauty from the sublime he states (BkIIS23)  “The Beautiful and the Sublime agree in this, that both please in themselves. Further, neither presupposes a judgement of sense nor a judgement logically determined, but a judgement of reflection.”

The sublime is a formless object whose  totality escapes unambiguous interpretation. The imagination fails to synthesize the power of the Sublime determinately or reflectively, but  reason is able to gape at the whole in its freedom from the determination of the senses.  Kant agrees with Burke that the Sublime attracts and repels, and he too calls it a negative pleasure, it is a dynamic concept for Kant. Unlike Burke, he includes a subjectively beautiful  aspect to the  sublime.

Kant tracing of the pleasure/pain we experience in the beautiful seems correct enough, but in the playful congruence of our conceptions with our understanding generating pleasure/pain he accepts the Greeks gift.  The physical source of pain and pleasure is the body.  We learn what it is to feel pleasure and pain and these feelings drive us erotically, where the erotic is thought of as man’s instinctive drive to reproduce, to conceive, it invent. (as in Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium, a “pregnant soul”)

Evidence for man’s instinctual drive to create  seen on the walls of the Ice Age caves in various parts of the world. The fantastic renderings of animals in these caves demonstrates accomplished art dating back 40,000 years.  The distribution of these caves in  disparate places during the same time periods, in France/Spain and Indonesia, suggest that man’s desire to create art  is an integral part of what it means to be a human, as  Newman said:  “For artists are the first men.

The Renaissance conflated the Greek ideal of Beauty with the Christian legend.  “It was no idle quip that moved Michelangelo to call himself a sculptor rather than a painter, for he knew that only in his sculpture could the desire for the  grand statement of Christian sublimity be reached…Michelangelo knew the meaning of Greek humanities of his time involved making Christ, the man into Christ who is god…” (Newman-2)

The Renaissance view of the absolute as perfection, as beauty remained the controlling value system that subsequent generations of artists have had to struggle with.  Not until the 20th Century that artists began to search for new ways to realize their works.   Still most artist’s works remained bound to the representational world either directly or by metaphor.

images (1)


Comparing  Picasso’s Guernica to Jackson Pollock’s 69:

Where Picasso’s Guernica uses the pictorial plane to express the fear and the terror of war, in pictorial representation, Pollock’s 69 suggests an urgency, a sense of conflict with no representation beyond the paint on his canvas.  We can wrap our heads around what Picasso’s is intimating; Pollock’s work is much more ambiguous, it draws us in and we wander and wander, feeling its sense of conflict and urgency, but it denies any determinate point of view. Its formless formal purity is foundational but this purity is not based on the Greek conceptions of the purity of form and matter. Pollock allows matter to be itself on the pictorial plane.

Fransaw Lyotard railed against  the meta-narrative of classical beauty and the absolute that has dominated art values since Plato’s time.  Modern science has taught us that the what we see does not include all that’s there in what we see. Lyotard’s sees modern artists such as Joyce, Kandinsky, Picasso, Dali and others attempting to  put forward  the inexpressible in their works.  A negative space, that defies representation, the sublime.

His theory separates these artist into two groups:  1) those whose works intimate the ineffable indirectly, modern as in Picasso’s Guernica and  2)those whose works are directly aimed at conveying what can’t be conveyed in the classical meta narrative, postmodern works such as Pollock’s 69 (or  look at Rothko’s Chapel which also includes Barnett Newman’s Broken Olelisk.)  

This suggests, in a  non-periodizing way the structure difference between  Modern Art and Postmodernism  lies in a methodic difference in which the aesthetic affect, how we feel upon viewing these works differ and what those feelings suggests to us. Where Modernism’s uses representation in the pictorial plane to  express the Sublime,  Postmodernism uses the pictorial plane itself  as its  expression of the Sublime, Lyotard’s expression of the inexpressible.  



Broken Obelisk



Barnett Newman, http://art310-f11-hoy.wikispaces.umb.edu/file/view/Newman+The+Sublime+is+Now
Edmund Burke, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sublime_(philosophy)#Edmund_Burke
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment 1790, Section 1  (pg 44) and Book 2 Section 23 (pg 97)
Plato’s Symposium 208/209