Saturday, March 30, 2013


Is it all worth it? What have I done with myself? What does it mean? The eternal questions haunt Fun.’s “Some Nights.” While the song is clear about its questions, the manner in which it addresses them is all over the place: gambling metaphors, the persistence of a broken heart, love and rebellion against one’s family, some bullshit martial themes, and other assorted whatnot. Yet the refrain, “What do I stand for?”, rises above the rest of the material. The effect of the song is mimetically compelling for it gives the sense of an undisciplined thinker attempting to come to terms with the contradictory features of his life and returning again and again to what should be one of the central questions of existence. And maybe most of us don’t spend a great deal of time exploring our philosophical, moral, ethical, and political situation, nonetheless nearly all of us would agree that this is a significant problem to ponder. Moreover, nearly all of us believe that even if we don’t really think about what we stand for very often, we nonetheless stand for something that matters. Forgive this conjecture, but if I had to guess, I believe that in answering this question many people would turn to the great slogans of our age: freedom, equality, individualism, democracy, and other terms of equal weight.  What we stand for, I believe, must have some relationship to those ideas, and precisely because those ideas, in their ideological centrality, don’t actually need us to stand for them.

Ideology, as most people use the term, is a dirty word that implies political misinformation. Ideology is the explanation that the other side uses to hoodwink poor fools that don’t know no better. I want to talk about the term as it has been considered in the marxist tradition. As Marx understood it, ideology was the partial and distorted conclusion about economic and social relations that people drew from the world they observed. Marx posited that people’s daily interactions in the market led them to believe that all economic relations could be understood in relationship to market exchange. But so doing, this conclusion left them blind to the power of the relations of production and how capital generated profit not just from the market but also from its exploitation of labor and its appropriation of the surplus value that labor generates through its very activity. Implicit in Marx’s understanding of ideology was the sense that if people only knew more they would be able to transform their world.

But the world was not transformed no matter how much marxists revealed the “truth” to people. The great Italian theorist Gramsci understood the weakness of the orthodox formulation of ideology. Gramsci argued that we should understand ideology not as the partial or half-truths that keep people from understanding their “real” social relations but as the inconsistent yet potent set of ideas through which people understand and imagine their relationship to society. Ideology is the “common sense” of a historical epoch. It is composed of the beliefs that are most widely accepted and most easily agreed upon. More importantly, it generates the consent that creates political and social stability. If freedom, equality, individualism, democracy are ideological as I suggested earlier, it is because we identify with these ideas and seeing ourselves in this way allows us to believe, however weakly and contradictorily, that our society, which we understand as the expression of our collective will, also stands for those things. By believing that we as individuals and as a collective whole stand on the side of freedom and equality, we consent to all of the inequality and the abridgment of freedoms that are at the heart of our society. In my mind only an amoral society that has the collective resources to feed and house everyone allows people to go hungry and without housing and that is also what our society stands for.

As profound as Gramsci’s rethinking of ideology was and as important as it has been to generations of cultural historians and analysts, I think that it also misjudges where the strength of ideology lies. Ideology gains consent, surely, but that is not why it’s powerful. Ideology is powerful because it allows us to recognize ourselves reflected in the dominant ideas of our time. Ideology makes possible social and political stability, but it also makes it possible for us to see ourselves in the terms we want to see ourselves in. For many people, ideology provides the categories through which to answer the question that echoes in Fun.’s song; it makes it possible for them to explain what it is they stand for.

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