July 4th, 2008


Ideology is alive and well and living in syntax

We're often told we live in an age where grand narratives and ideologies are dead. This is rubbish; ideology is all around us. But it's mostly our own ideology. What's dead -- or at least endangered -- is alternative ideology and narratives, those consistent and clear ideas which challenge our way of thinking.

If you want to find ideology, just read any piece of journalism. Pay particular attention to the sense, the semantics, the syntax, and what it implies. You'll soon come up against words like "but", "however", "despite", "even though" and "paradoxically", words which tell you how to read the relationships being described in the piece.

Last month I was reading a piece in the Times of India. Entitled Poor India makes millionaires at fastest pace, the article -- datelined Washington -- said that "Despite having the world's largest population of poor people living on less than a dollar a day, India created millionaires at the fastest pace in the world in 2007... India, with the world's largest population of poor people living on less than a dollar a day, also paradoxically created millionaires at the fastest pace in the world in 2007 even though the world grew such "high net worth individuals (HNWIs)" at the slowest pace in four years... In contrast, developmental agencies put the number of subsistence level Indians living on less than a dollar a day at 350 million and those living on less than $ 2 a day at 700 million. In other words, for every millionaire, India has about 7000 impoverished people."

Now, despite, paradoxically and in contrast to the syntax of this article, I would argue that nothing is more natural than that millionaires and poor people co-exist, and that there is an intimate relationship between them. Furthermore, we could argue that the speed at which HNWI are created probably matches the speed at which LNWI are created. Follow the money: where is the rich people's money coming from?

But because Marxism "has been discredited", people have no useful way to account for this relationship. The result is this absurd "it's a mystery why these completely unrelated phenomena are happening simultaneously" phraseology. Only the headline "Poor India makes millionaires" suggests a direct, causal relationship between the poor and the rich. Everything else in the article is skewed to present this as a mysterious paradox, something counter-intuitive. The implication is clearly that millionaires trickle down wealth through the whole population, and that the emergence of millionaires ought to co-incide with everyone getting richer.

Here's another example of ideology masquerading, by using presumptuous syntax, as common sense. This is conservative art critic Brian Sewell on Big Brother, upbraiding contestant Amy, an artist, for the conceptual nature of her work:

"I just wonder where art comes into it," says Sewell, looking at Amy's photographs. "If you showed this photo of a filthy sink to Michaelangelo and said it was art, would he believe you?"

"Perhaps he wouldn't," Amy replies, "but art, to me, is born out of the social context of the period in which you're living."

"This, to me, is the trouble with contemporary art," says Sewell, getting to the nub of his ideology. "It is all about an idea which may or may not make sense. Art must surely be the most direct form of communication, a straightforward pictorial or sculptural "something", whereas yours requires a program to elucidate it. And so I don't understand why you distance yourself from the public that might be interested in art."

The ideology here is really all packed into the "whereas". Sewell's idea of art is of something "direct and straightforward", in other words non-ideological. Whereas the conceptual art he dislikes requires a conceptual apparatus, an instruction manual, an art education, an ideology, to make sense, the "pictorial or sculptural" art he endorses apparently doesn't. Sewell's problem -- his basic philosophical error -- is that he doesn't see that Michaelangelo's work also requires those things; that it needs to be understood within the highly ideological program of Michaelangelo's main patron, the Catholic church, as well as within all sorts of visual conventions like the conventions of perspective.

Sewell's syntax -- his whereas -- is therefore completely spurious. He also fails to see that today's public may well be better plugged into the post-1900 conventions Amy's working within than the 16th century ones Michaelangelo was. Amy understands art's dependence on social context, Sewell doesn't. He wants to present art from an alien and remote social context as "timeless" and "natural" and "direct". But this, in itself, is the most noxious ideology of all: the ideology that fails to see itself as ideology, fails to nail its colours to the mast, and presents itself in the form of the syntax of "common sense" rather than the program of presuppositions, presumptions and personal beliefs it actually is.