Zizek on Ideology and the Relationship Between Ideology and The Real

Zizek on Ideology and the Relationship Between Ideology and “The Real” ` CMNS 410 Professor Rick Gruneau December 13, 2011 Zizek on Ideology and the Relationship Between Ideology and “The Real” Slavoj Zizek is one of the leading theorists on ideology since the 1990’s and his conceptions of the real versus the symbolic versus the imagined are of particular importance when dissecting the question ‘what is ideology? Zizek’s critique of ideology and attempt to unpack it’s inner workings is fascinating, he is a powerful intellectual who aims to expose the ”fake” workings of society. In this paper I will outline Zizek’s definition and approach to the study of ideology, paying particular attention to the relationships he draws between ideology and “the real,” as opposed to “the imagined” and “the symbolic”. Zizek opens the book Mapping Ideology (1994) with the introduction “The Spectre of Ideology”, where he defines and openly criticizes the idea of ideology and its illusory personality.
First he presents us with the idea that ideology is a sort of matrix, “a generative matrix that regulates the relationship between visible and non-visible, imaginable and non-imaginable, as well as changes in that relationship” (italics mine, p. 1). He further explains not everything that seems to be ideological, necessarily is, claiming that unless there is a link to power relations in the social realm he does not consider something to be ideological.
He points out that sometimes what we consider to be ideological in fact is not; but also how at other times, things which we may not perceive to be ideological, actually maintain a very strong ideological orientation. He states that the “starting point of the critique of ideology has to be the full acknowledgment of the fact that it is easily possible to lie in the guise of truth” – ideology that is – and this is an important realization for it ispels a common misconception we have of ideology, especially here in the west that, ideology is about lying or misleading others and society. Instead Zizek posits the idea that the content of a message is not what makes it ideological, but instead it is the “the way this content is related to the subjective position implied by its own process of enunciation” that makes it so (Zizek 1994, p. 8).

In other words, regardless of whether the content (of a message or object or interaction) is true or false, it becomes ideological the moment that content functions to achieve “some relation of social domination” and even more importantly, he adds “in an inherently non-transparent way”, reiterating that often times ideology is in fact of a misleading nature but not necessarily in content (italics mine, p. 8); it is from this standpoint that we can begin to understand and critique the concept of ideology.
It is important to note here, although Zizek stresses the importance of recognizing dynamics of power relations (rather than content) which constitutes ideology, he warns this can also be disadvantageous if it reduces “the cognitive value of the term ‘ideology’ and makes it into a mere expression of social circumstances” (p. 9). Considering this, as Gerofsky (2010) explains, Zizek takes on Hegel’s theory of the triad as a heuristic for further developing the theory of ideology, which is something I will address later in this paper, after we go a little bit deeper in defining ideology.
According to Zezik then, a necessary condition for something to be ideological is that there must be a relation or motivation to power in some way, and it must be done so in a way which is not apparent to the addressees (Zizek, 1994). However this is a rather general and overarching consideration when defining the term ideology and it is important to deconstruct the term even further before we proceed in analyzing its inner workings and effect on society. Zizek states “ideology is a systematically distorted communication: a text in which under the influence of unavowed social interests (of domination, etc. a gap separates its ‘official,’ public meaning from its actual intention – that is to say, “we are dealing with an unreflected tension between the explicit enunciated content of the text and its pragmatic presuppositions” (Zizek, 1994, p. 10). Ideology is a system, he argues, of principles, views, theories “destined to convince us of its ‘truth’, yet actually serving some unavowed particular power interest” (p. 10). An example Zizek presents to illustrate this point is the way media portrayed the conflict and cause of the Bosnian war.
News coverage consisted of innumerable accounts of the histories of not only Yugoslavia but “the entire history of the Balkan’s from medieval times” (p. 5). This incredible amount of information, of the struggles and relations between Bosnia and other countries over decades, if not centuries, gives audiences the impression that they must know and understand all the background information of this issue if they are to have an opinion on it or take sides, again presenting countless hours of information and debate on the issue.
Zizek explains that although this is a sort of inversion of what we normally constitute as ideological messaging, and it is unlike the misrepresentation and incessant demonization of Saddam Hussein which was circulated to give justice to entering into the Iraq war, the Bosnian war ideological messaging that took place is in fact “more cunning,” the over exaggerated and false demonization of Saddam Hussein. ecause “to put it somewhat crudely, the ‘evocation of the complexity of circumstances’ serves to [defer] us from the responsibility to act” (p. 5). He explains that instead of withholding information (as the media most often does), or misrepresenting information (Saddam Hussein), in the case of the Bosnian war the media over saturates audiences with information to the point of immobilizing them to make a decision or take action against the fact that this war is spurred by political, economic and monetary power interests.
Zizek explains the purpose of going into war was portrayed as a need to improve unacceptable human rights conditions in the country, and although human rights conditions may very well be unacceptable in that country, and then improve as a result of the invasion, the true motivations for that war (power, domination, money) were kept hidden. This also illustrates the point made earlier about ideology not necessarily needing to be false in its information, but rather hidden in motive, for the information they presented was by no means false or limited, it was excessive, which proves to be just as debilitating a strategy on the general public.
Zizek’s examples and definitions of ideology discussed above demonstrate the division of ideology from Marx’s false consciousness theory (Gerofsky, 2010), but perhaps one of the most important classifications Zizek makes in the realm of ideology, is its connection to dislocation (dislocating truth from falsity) and how this relates to the idea of “the Real” (Stavrakakis,1997). Coming from the Lacanian theoretical background, the concept of Real versus Symbolic versus Imaginary is an integral part of Zizek’s theory, one which sets him apart from traditional conceptions of ideology.
The question of the Real also cannot be separated from the dislocation and presentation of the truth, so these two must be considered together in asserting the concept of ideology. Zizek’s Real draws attention to a fascinating idea, that there is a difference between what is actually real in our world and what is simply a created real by our social structure and by society (Stavrakakis, 1997). The Real, the true real, is “the part of our world as revealed in our experience, which escapes our attempts to symbolize and represent it in a final way” (1997, p. ). The real is the raw and unstructured experience of what is not yet symbolized or imaged by our social structure, by language, by symbols, and it in fact cannot be symbolized in such a way. Unlike the social reality, the true Real is impossible to represent, explains Stavrakaki of Zizek’s theory, impossible to master or symbolize, whereas the social reality is nothing but symbolism and our desire to categorize any part of our experience into a definition or material conception of some sort.
The real is not only opposed to what is “socially constructed” as real, the symbolic, but also it is even farther removed from the imaginary, which falls farthest away on the spectrum, from true reality. The symbolic comes closer to the Real but there is still a gap and something will always be missing from the symbolic real for language can never be a full representation of the real, the true Real however is always in its place. The symbolic real, however is still of importance to Zizek, for it plays the largest role in our society and is perhaps the integral component to ideology in the most general sense.
The symbolic, although generally in the dimension of lauguage, Lacan (who’s theories Zizek has based his own theories of ideology on) does not describe the symbolic as solely equal to language, because linguistiscs are also present in the realm of the imaginary sphere (Lucaites & Biesecker, 1998). The symbolic rather, is about the relationship to the “Other”, it is about difference and the signifiers which create a symbolic order. For Lacan the symbolic is characterized by the absence of any fixed relations between signifier and signified” (Lucaites & Biesecker, 1998).
Lastly there is the realm of the imaginary, when Lacan discusses this stage he refers to the formation of the ego. Identification is an important part of the imaginary, for “the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image” (Lucaites & Biesecker, 1998). The ego, fundamentally narcissistic, is centered on identification with alienation and this alienation is another feature of the imaginary. The imaginary is most fundamentally, however, a constitution of surface appearances, ones which are formed in deception as part of the social order.
Going back to Zizek’s theory on ideology, he suggests that one of the most problematic areas of the concept, is that we as theorists, try to escape from the grip of ideology in order to observe the world from an objective position, however the moment we feel we have managed to take up a position of truth, from which we can condemn the lie of an ideology, we instantly fall back into the grip of ideology again because our understanding of the concept is structured on a binary arrangement, which is constantly playing on this relationship between reality and ideology.
It is such the issue of ideology, that the moment we feel we are in the realm of truth, at last, we are in fact instantly back into the ideological exchange, without recognizing it (Stavrakakis, 1997). Zezik does not offer a solution to this, however he offers a way to counter the problem, and this is where the concept of the Real (vs Symbolic vs Imaginary) comes into play, to help us recognize and step outside the atmosphere of ideology that surrounds us.
Instead of the binary relationship between reality and ideology, now there is a three way relationship. Zizek favours the Real over the other two constructs because he argues, the symbolic, although it is representing “reality” it is in fact where “fiction assumes the guise of truth” (Stavrakakis, p. 3), and the imaginary construct, is of course even farther away from that reality, therefore the Real should be the focus of our understanding.
The Real is the “only non-ideological position available,” and although Zizek does not claim to offer access to the “objective truth of things”, he explains we must begin with assuming the existence of ideology in every aspect of our society, and to take up an actively critical attitude towards it. This Stavrakakis argues is the main goal of Zizek’s theory, to expose the need for constant critique of the ideological realm, especially in a time where our society has proclaimed that ideology is a thing of the past and no longer relevant in today’s world.
Zizek’s theory of ideology is a contemporary one which moves beyond traditional definitions of this concept and is not concerned with the way ideological practices worked in the past and in history, instead he is intrigued with the here and now and argues strongly that the concept of ideology is far from extinct in today’s society – contrary to what many would like to believe. And he explains that rather than discarding the notion completely, what we need to do to understand today’s politics in a completely new way of looking at it and defining what it means to be in ideological space and time.
Those who believe we are past the concept of ideology, he argues, are in an “archeological fantasy” and this is only a sign of the greater ability of ideology to ingrain itself without our recognition. In some of his famous presentations Zizek talks about the ideological meaning ingrained even in the simplest of human object and appliances, ones we don’t even recognize contain an ideological message. His famous example, and one he self critically acknowledges to be some sort of anal fixation which he needs to address, is the example of toilets and how they are constructed in different ideological environments.
In France he explains, toilets are constructed with the hole at the back, so that when used, the excrement falls directly in the hole and disappears; he equates this with France’s extremely liberal ideology – out of sight out of mind. In Germany, the toilets are constructed with the hole at the front, in a way that holds the excrement on a shelf (not in water or instantly disappearing) but rather in a way for the individual to see and observe the specimen for worms and any other diseases; he explains this is indicative of the strongly onservative ideology of Germany, where everything is business and completed as necessary. In the Anglo-Saxon world, specifically in America, he explains toilets are somewhere in between, when used the excrement falls in the water but still remains, it is not completely hidden but also not completely displayed; this shows the median position the Anglo-Saxon society usually takes on, not too extreme in either respect (Zizek presentation, Youtube. com). This rather disgusting but nonetheless interesting observation does an excellent job of portraying his theory on ideology.
First, ideology is very much still at play in our society and should be actively observed and considered (in order to minimize any negative and violent effects it may pertain), and secondly, in order to even be able to recognize the workings of ideology in our everyday lives, we have step outside of our customary reality to which we are so well accustomed to, for this symbolic reality is not the Real, and in taking ourselves out of the imaginary and symbolic which appears to be truth and reality, we can then perhaps attempt to get a true glimpse of what he calls the Real.
References Gerofsky, S. (2010). The impossibility of ‘real-life’ word problems (according to Bakhtin, Lacan, Zizek and Baudrillard). Discourse: Studies In The Cultural Politics Of Education, 31(1), 61-73. doi:10. 1080/01596300903465427 Lucaites, J. , & Biesecker, B. A. (1998). Rhetorical Studies and the ‘New Psychoanalysis: What’s the Real Problem?
Or Framing the Problem of the Real. Quarterly Journal Of Speech, 84(2), 222. Stavrakakis, Y. (1997). Ambiguous ideology and the Lacanian twist. Journal of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research, 8, 117-30. Zizek, S. (1994a). The spectre of ideology. In S. Zizek (Ed. ), Mapping ideology (pp. 1-33). London & New York: Verso.

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