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Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 07:50 am
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.

28CommentReply

eptified
eptified
H. Duck
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 06:36 am (UTC)

We may also contextualize Sewell's appearance on Big Brother, where he speaks not in his capacity as an art critic but in his capacity as an amusingly eccentric old crank with a funny voice. I will miss him and the other remaining Allan Blooms of the world when they are all dead (as they will be in under a decade, I think) and replaced by neoconservatives.


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 07:40 am (UTC)

The thought of a neocon art critic is genuinely terrifying. Conservative, anti-intellectual populism dressed up as universal truth, anything challenging written off as espousing "failed" left-wing thought, and prints of The Singing fucking Butler hanging in every home.


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kementari2
kementari2
The green fuse
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 06:55 am (UTC)

There is not a static amount of money in the world. So, some people's getting rich does not necessarily mean other people are getting poor. In a simplified view, total wealth in the world is related to total productivity. Most everyone these days is richer than most everyone a thousand years ago.


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 07:29 am (UTC)

> So, some people's getting rich does not necessarily mean other people are getting poor.

Wealth is relative. If there were no poor people to compare them with, millionaires wouldn't be rich.


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kementari2
kementari2
The green fuse
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 08:03 am (UTC)

True, wealth is relative - just like attractiveness, for example. But if I get a facelift to become more attractive, I don't necessarily steal your skin to graft onto my face. You get to keep your original skin, even if you now look less attractive by comparison.

Most everyone these days is more attractive than most everyone a thousand years ago, for many of the same reasons that they're richer: better hygiene, medicine, labor-saving inventions, etc.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 08:10 am (UTC)

I wish I had as full a head of hair -- and so well-developed a chest -- as this ancestor of mine, photographed exactly a thousand years ago!



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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 08:12 am (UTC)

Most everyone these days is more attractive than most everyone a thousand years ago

Also, you clearly haven't absorbed the fat message of "Supersize Me": being modern is all about being physically unattractive.


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kementari2
kementari2
The green fuse
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 08:24 am (UTC)

Good point. I was thinking more of having all your teeth, not having smallpox scars, not having scurvy, not having a limp from badly healed bone fractures or war wounds, etc. Obesity is unattractive as well, at least to most people in our cultures. (Darn those thin people, making others fat so they can be thin!) Maybe I should say that most everyone fifty years ago was more attractive than most everyone a thousand years ago?

I actually have not seen Supersize Me yet, but I'm hoping to someday.


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 12:27 pm (UTC)

> Darn those thin people, making others fat so they can be thin!

Momus' Shetland ancestors also built big men out of straw.


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bugpowered
bugpowered
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 09:23 am (UTC)

Most everyone these days is more attractive than most everyone a thousand years ago, for many of the same reasons that they're richer: better hygiene, medicine, labor-saving inventions, etc.

Yet, most of those things (hygiene, medicine, labor-saving inventions) don't hold true for India's poor.

Some societes were better off pre-capitalism.


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kementari2
kementari2
The green fuse
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 05:26 pm (UTC)

Exactly a thousand years ago, India had the world's largest economy. So it's not hard to imagine that some of their poor back then were better off than some of their poor now, especially given the overcrowding and pollution they face these days.

But "pre-capitalism" is a curious term. *Wikipedias the topic* For over a thousand years before the British East India Company, India's economy was based on private ownership by families, family businesses, or sreni, which were merchant or artisan guilds that were fairly similar to corporations. The sreni were separate legal entities that had the ability to hold property separately from their owners, construct their own rules for governing the behavior of their members, and to contract, sue, and be sued in their own name. Sometimes the sreni were even para-military organizations as well - how's that for more capitalism than we'd be comfortable with today?


ReplyThread Parent
tchernabyelo
tchernabyelo
Brian Dolton
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 11:21 am (UTC)

Not a terribly useful analogy, because there's no way to exchange beauty as a commodity, whereas in generalmoney (and therefore wealth) IS a medium of exchange. Although the net amount of wealth can be increased over time, the ability to rapidly exchange wealth means that it is a lot more common for someone to become rich by exchange than it is by creation.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 09:38 am (UTC)

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.

Since, by your own admission, your views on Sewell reflect nothing more than a program of presuppositions, presumptions and personal beliefs, why should we accept your views rather than Sewell's? The trouble with this sort of relativism is that it ultimately undermines the kind of argumentation and dialectical reasoning that you use to make the point. So the ideology I extract from this post is just as noxious by your definition, because you're still trying to say: "this way of looking at things is wrong; here is the right way of looking at things". And if you're not saying Sewell is wrong about art, then what are you saying?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 10:00 am (UTC)

Rorty's answer to this kind of question is that his discourse is ultimately a form of literature rather than an attempt to elucidate the truth. I think it's a cop-out: it's having your cake and eating it. He's trying to state what is, while at the same time pretending that he isn't.

There's another problem with Momus's attack on Sewell, though. He assumes that there is such a thing as an ideology that can "nail its colours to the mast", ie step back from itself to see what it really is, and include that as part of its ideology. But such a view from nowhere is impossible, therefore there will always be some core part of ideology that cannot recognise itself as ideology.


ReplyThread Parent
tchernabyelo
tchernabyelo
Brian Dolton
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 11:17 am (UTC)

I more got the impression that this piece was pointing out that Sewell was unable to recognise the presence of a contextual framework around "his" art (indeed, of multiple contextual frameworks, given that the views of what is and is not great art constantly change through historical reappraisal), even while decrying the need for a contextual framework around Amy's. I didn't get the impression it was a "my ideology is better than your ideology", it was more a case of simply "please recognise that your non-ideology is an ideology too".


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mcgazz
mcgazz
McGazz
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 12:30 pm (UTC)

I've not read Gramsci, but doesn't this come down to hegemony i.e. the dominant ideology is always presented as non-ideological - from right-wing shock jocks who say they talk "common sense", to the profoundly neoliberal UK Government claiming that just do "what works".


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harveyjames
harveyjames
harveyjames
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 10:27 am (UTC)

I thought so too, but I enjoyed watching that all the same.


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eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 11:28 am (UTC)

Great entry! Typical, just when a good ol' ideological debate appears on CO, I've got to go prepare an event.

This is all from the heritage of postmodernism. from it comes the idea that there is no ruling ideology and that people can somehow be empowered by subverting the cultural end products of the production system. As 'uses and gratifications' theorists have pointed out, the idea of an audience consciously selecting its media fare in order to maximise its gratification brings out the ideological ambiguities involved in this supposedly value-free approach. it can only go in one direction:towards a justification of the existing situation. It's a focus on the text and the audience, as if these existed in a social vacuum, at the expense of a critical examination of the production system and who really pulls the strings made possible by sheer economic power.

Anyway if you or anyone else wants to continue this chat in person I'll be in Berlin this afternoon and tomorrow night [URL="http://www.myspace.com/daskleinefieldrecordingsfestival"](wesnerstr. 56, Neukölln)[/URL] excuse the plug!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 05:57 pm (UTC)

I'd love to come to your show, but I'm in Spain just now, at a festival on the beach south of Barcelona!


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 01:17 pm (UTC)
linguification

Mo, your point about ideology is quite well taken, but it has nothing to do with syntax. All of your objections have to do with the content and meaning of sentences, not with their abstract structure. Syntax is famously disconnected from meaning of any kind, as exemplified by Chomsky's classic syntactically correct sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

Your post is another example of the phenomenon of linguification:

http://158.130.17.5/~myl/languagelog/archives/003312.html

If you aren't reading language log, you should be.

LS


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
Re: linguification

Ideology (ie semantics, the framing of binaries, "common sense") is hidden in syntax, though.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 01:38 pm (UTC)

Ideologically, Big Brother belongs to the 'pain is dumb but fun', massively-atheist Britain. Self-charmed, hit-and-run, ripe for fascism. Hypocritain. Meanwhile Sewell is a self-hating-gay depressive who spent his life in the wrong job. Plays his bit part in Big Brotherland more than he pretends. Sees the world down a miniscule set of 'correct' paths (based on the past, the Anglican Church, dirt and body-hate). He's our equivalent of those rural US suburban moms - white polo-neck, bouffant, scrupulously cleaned house, a garden of pure geometry – a trashy neurotic plugging holes in their dead s*xuality.


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desant012
||||||||||
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 02:36 pm (UTC)

Western media, particularly English-speaking media (the UK and the US mostly), comes from this perspective that free-market completely deregulated ultra Capitalism is the highest form of human progress. It wasn't always like this; it was actually a concerted effort to make it into the dominant ideology back in the 50s and 60s (when, thanks to things like progressive taxation, a teacher could afford ... a house! without debt! and people could live just about anywhere they wanted if they achieved some degree of mobility through hard work... this ideology was a response to the past ideology which is much like the one we have now).

So, it's true ... you really can see that ideology just oozing out of those words. Imagine reading the Economist through that lens, your brain would probably explode. If you suggest any system, any idea, -anything- outside of this dominant uber free market principle that has become the unquestionable religion, you or your ideas are presented as the enemy. If a nation uses a system other than this one, then their economies are failing because they don't produce enough billionaire hedge fund managers (which, of course, are the arbiters of INNOVATION ... despite us landing on the moon during one of the least economically divided times in history).

It's fun to find these tinges in mainstream media. It's never presented as black and white, but through close reading these subtle language clues you can see concepts presented in interesting ways. Community = Communism = Evil. The government funding necessary infrastructure through taxes = Socialism = Evil. The Anglosphere is truly a strange place.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Fri, Jul. 4th, 2008 05:35 pm (UTC)

I could probably make an aestheticist point about syntax, but... no.

Nobody else thinks of that person or his type as anything other than background noise, I don't know why this Amy isn't replying to him with a simple NO U. Or sparkly text, maybe.


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Sat, Jul. 5th, 2008 01:48 am (UTC)
syntax of "common sense"

The controversy's of the classicists vs the contemporaries make good television. With that accent Sewell could upbraid anyone and sound magnificent,.

The show might gain a broader based audience of millionaires and poor if he admitted that he got a boner talking to her.


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yuaelt
yuaelt
yuaelt
Sat, Jul. 5th, 2008 02:24 pm (UTC)

Simply put - true.

However (syntax again, huh?) we have to bear that in mind that Michaelangelo's art, and generally European art (in sense of culture circle of course) before 19th century is still in most cases bound by the idea of reproducing nature, the furthest it goes is mixing it's parts that are not mixed in the existing world. Nature is one and only form of 'art' that doesn't require any form of social education to be understood. Therefore (and I believe this one piece of syntax is in fact logic that I have to use if I am to make anyone to agree with me) even if you're not well-educated, you can 'deduce' the worthiness of Michaelangelo from his craftsmanship. You can see how well he reproduces nature even if you can't get the idea behind it at all. In modern art, the craftsmanship is often meaningless or at least treated as a 'second-hand' value, the most important thing is the idea.

And that idea can naturally only be understood inside social context that allowed it to be produced.

Shame on me that I don't know who Mr. Sewell is, but his so-called 'ideology' appears to me simply as lack of education in aesthetics. This is a point of view characteristic to people who can't see the difference between 'likeable' / 'pretty' and 'artistic'.

We can call that an ideology if you insist... but is there a way to discuss Sewell's view at all?


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georgesdelatour
georgesdelatour
Sun, Jul. 6th, 2008 08:41 am (UTC)

Wow, Nick.

Have you seen "Farewell My Concubine"?

There's an incredible scene in which the gay opera singer Dieyi discusses art with some Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Dieyi's concept of art is purely aesthetic: a good opera is one with good acting, music, costumes and so on, regardless of the political intent of the story. For the Red Guards it's purely political: an opera with bad acting, bad music, bad costumes but a politically approved story is a great opera - in fact, the only imaginable kind of great opera there could ever be. Dieyi is perfectly happy to perform operas telling how happy everyone is on the collective farm or how Mao's is the only true road to socialism. He merely asks that they are also "good" in the ways that he, Dieyi, knows how to be good. Dieyi's friend Xiaolou can see that he is heading for a re-education camp, but Dieyi lives so completely in the world of the aesthetic that he literally has no sense of the political jeopardy he is putting himself in.

I have a friend who is a Portuguese jazz pianist. Back in the early 1980s the Portuguese communist party was an important patron of the arts - hard to imagine now, I know! Anyway my friend was onstage performing at a communist party festival. Half way through their set the local communist party boss comes up to the band's manager and says, "I detest this petit-bourgeois salon music". The manager replies, "no, this isn't petie-bourgeois salon music - it's the music of the oppressed African American slaves". "In that case", replies the communist boss, "I love it!".


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thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Sun, Jul. 6th, 2008 12:13 pm (UTC)

Good post, particularly the section concerning the polarity of economic wealth in India.
These statistics are often trotted out with a certain inferred Neo-Lib positivism, "sure the majority of Indians live in wretched poverty but these guys are doing good...so it's not all bad".
It is bad and it is also an economic model that seems to be becoming more acceptable globally, the media loves to regale us with the glories of fiscal apex-predators rather than explore the effects of their predation.
The notion of trickle-down wealth is also a dangerous myth, the ultra-wealthy didn't acquire their riches by allowing their capital to trickle anywhere other than into their own coffers.


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