The Meaning of Ideology

ideology all the way down…and all the way up:  a cultural historian’s perspective.
ideology sign 1


I think I am the cultural-historian ringer among the intellectual historians on this panel. Which is not to say that my colleagues do not think about culture. What I mean is that I may the one with the most investment (perhaps even ideological investment!) in working on culture in the sense of aesthetic material and artistic expression. So, in considering ideology, I want to focus on this aspect. What does it mean to think about ideology when it arrives not in the written word, which dominates the field of intellectual history as its core historical type of evidence, but rather in other kinds of expression? How do we address ideology as it travels through or is generated by music, dance, visual arts, film, television, architecture, clothes?

There is another debate to be had about the exact difference, precisely, between, on the one hand, ideas and thought, and on the other, cultural belief systems in the anthropological sense. But I wish for us to set that aside for now and attend to aesthetic form, which, I argue, forces us to ask different questions about ideology than the ones typically posed in intellectual history narrowly defined.

What do we do when we open up what it means to think, acquire, hold, and share ideas beyond language alone? To ask that sort of question in terms of ideology is to move quickly to definitional issues: What is ideology, exactly? And how does it work when it is not expressed in some straightforward or outright way, when it sneaks in around the edges or just below the surface or it is buried deep? Critics and theorists in the Marxist tradition have probably spent the most time grappling with these questions, though in recent decades the term ideology has been increasingly bandied about in the land of American conservatism as well, particularly in its more shrill manifestations of accusation and attempts to silence others (as a side note, I would say that the only thing more nakedly ideological, perhaps, than ideologically-driven scholarship and teaching is the accusation of it against others—thus concludes my ideological dig of the presentation).

In Marx’s writing and subsequent theories of cultural Marxism, ideology marked the substitution of a particular group’s or class’s belief system for the universal truth. This is the notion of ideology as mystification, as a disguising of self-interest within a shell of supposedly total, all-encompassing, self-evident, and natural truths. Whether one takes a hardline material position—a vulgar Marxism—on the origins of ideology in mechanistic economic relations or complicates the picture by teasing out the cultural dimensions of Marx’s focus on social relations—as was done so prominently by Lukács, Benjamin, Gramsci, Adorno, Althusser, Foucault (not a Marxist exactly, true), Rancière, and countless others—ideology becomes a tool for chipping away at the exterior of some kind of expression or act or piece of historical evidence to reveal some secret interior.

An odd quality of ideology is that it has meant many things to many people. For a term that is designed to unveil the key, essential, underlying, hegemonic, or dominant idea guiding all other activities, it is awfully diverse and contested as a concept. Ideology is used to specify revelations, but it is actually a bit of a mess when considered historically as a term itself to analyze the past. There is a paradox here: ideology has a kind of looseness to it methodologically, and yet it is supposed to pinpoint the precise nature of power underlying belief systems and actions. This pinpointing is exactly what makes it such an appealing interpretive instrument for many historians. It can be wielded like a magnifying glass, seemingly able to focus the rays of the sun on the surfaces of the historical past and burn through their bark to hidden inner forces. And yet its magnifications always grow a bit fuzzy upon closer inspection, especially when viewed in comparison to other glimpses into the ideological interior of some phenomenon or text or cultural material.

There is an even more confounding dimension to ideology: any use of its magnifying lens reveals the ideological positioning of the viewer. To tease out—and perhaps torture—the metaphor a bit more, the intensification of the sun’s rays through a magnifying lens to burn through the surfaces of the past functions by refraction, by bending light. That is to say, ideology has to, in some sense, distort to reveal, alter to show. So the challenge is to think carefully about the term, but to do so with some humility as to the ways in which it always warps back on itself, with no fixed point from which to mount inquiry. As Andrew Hartman eloquently put it in an email exchange, any time we turn to the topic of ideology we are almost always trying to put on ideological lenses in order to look at ideological lenses. Can we ever truly see ourselves seeing? Probably not. As Clifford Geertz famously claimed an Indian friend told him when asked what stood below the turtle upon whose back the universe rested, “it’s turtles all the way down.” Might we also say that it is ideology all the way down. And also all the way up?

That famous saying about turtles itself had a rather sneaky ideological interior within its shell of asserted truth, so it is a good one to appropriate. We should also pause to remember that Geertz was, wink wink, playing sly in making a widely-circulated folktale about turtles and cosmology seem like a single illuminating encounter he had. The anthropologist took the destabilizing cosmological remark of his friend and transposed it into a stabilized context in which to examine not the symmetry of fully realized systems of thought, but rather the messy rings upon rings of cultural expression. That was, in its way, an ideological move: it smuggled within its protective covering of seeking to understand “the other” an ideological drive, perhaps colonial and imperial, to reconstruct ordered interpretative ballast in the face of perceived chaos and multiplicity and bottomless mystery.

This is what we do with the term ideology—we peel back layers, burn holes in the bark, find the cracks in the armor, see through to the tender body of thought within the carapace of rhetoric. Ideology lets historians perform the tasty ironic gesture of aha, you thought it was that, but it was in fact this! Yet underneath it there is still that nagging sense of historical mystery rather than clear ideological motives. No deus ex machina really. Which doesn’t mean that ideological accusations are not worth making, just that we should remember that as an analytic tool, ideology often wierdly offers solace in its aggression, a calming sense of order in its combative allegations. It keeps the jumbled disarray at bay. By unmasking, it winds up hiding again the confusion that it seeks to contain. And it does so not merely by providing context—and what are we historians if not believers in the ideological power of contextualization!—but also by arguing for root causes, foundational forces, core logics.

Using ideology as a blunt instrument in historical study has produced more than just a cottage industry of criticism and scholarly practice; it is, in fact, one of the largest machines in the whole factory of history-making. Fabricating—and I use that word purposefully—interpretations upon a kind of mechanized grindstone of ideological revelation is part of what we do. Operating instructions for historians: insert historical context along the conveyor belt here, watch the apparatus of ideological analysis pull away the façade of universal truth to reveal a deeper causal motive, and voila: publish.


What, then, do different types of historical evidence—music and dance and visual arts and architecture and clothes and bodies—force us to face about the use of ideology as an analytic tool in historical study? I would argue that they make the use of ideology as a method of interpretation a far more vexing project. Which is why, often, ideological interpretations of non-linguistic materials have been among the most silly, clunky, or outrageously turgid kinds of analytic writing. Certainly, in terms of disciplines, asking how ideology is at work in non-linguistic modes pushes intellectual history closer to cultural studies (its alter-ego?), a field in which there has been more work struggling to put into words the ideological dimensions of aesthetic forms. One of the problems in cultural studies is that faced with the seeming incoherency of logic in non-linguistic forms, the density of possible meanings, the field has often been too reductionist—trying to nail down the ideological specters haunting or driving certain cultural forms, and thus unsatisfactorily reducing their intellectual complexities; or, if not too reductionist, these approaches in cultural studies have been too wishy-washy—settling for the view that any and all cultural forms are “complex,” as if it is enough merely to state that their history is complicated.

Of course, well, er, um, their history is…complicated. The key question—one that ideology can help us to address—is how they are so. To develop answers to the issue of how ideology works, or at least to continue to improve the questions we ask, requires a rethinking of the methodology in which ideology functions. This is where cultural history might serve as a meeting point, a crossroads, between cultural studies and intellectual history.

For instance, in my book The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture, I examined psychedelic rock music in San Francisco and Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Vietnam, particularly, I discovered that there was no clear evidence that this genre of music was ideologically stable in any particular way. It neither created definitive antiwar attitudes, nor merely became a soundtrack for Americans to wage war. It was neither exactly an outlawed mode of vernacular troop culture, nor was it a musical form accepted by, even imported by, the US Armed Forces. Instead, it turned out to be both. It was most of all a great bundle of contradictions sustained in musical sound in ways that language often undid. Music condensed and intensified the mix of antiwar and prowar energies rather than communicating some kind of fixed ideology. There was nothing stable about it.

Instead of understanding rock music as a static ideological form, what if we thought of it as a medium—a cultural form through which American GIs could experience an interplay between competing sensibilities, attitudes, and actions. What the music did, then, was, in cultural studies and intellectual history terms, to spawn a public sphere, but a funny kind of one that was less a place of rational-critical debate than something more riven by emotional and affective investments and experiences (kudos to Lawrence Grossberg here, and Stuart Hall and the traditions of the Birmingham School). I noticed in my source materials most of all that in the last US war fought through conscription rock music activated the civic or civilian side of the hybrid American GI’s citizen-soldier identity. But it only catalyzed the politicized and ideological possibilities of this turn toward the civic. It did not enforce them (or prevent them).

Was that ideological in any compelling way? Yes and no. Few if any GIs beat their machine guns into ploughshares. Yet by the end of American involvement in Vietnam, there was massive dissent and sometimes outright mutiny and rebellion by GIs themselves against the war machine. How the music contributed to this situation remains correlative, not causal. Ideology was at work in GI experiences of countercultural rock music, but how it was at work in relation to attitudes and actions concerning US involvement in the war requires careful scrutiny. Unfortunately, we have to make a long sentence to describe this process accurately and truly: the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War took place through cultural understandings of the political role of citizenship as they were mediated in the aesthetic form of popular music, which itself arose within and circulated through shifting systems of American consumer and military power that increasingly embraced rebellion against top-down control as an effort to coopt and defang oppositional elements. A kind of “hip capitalism” flourished on the home front—a selling of countercultural difference within the total system of mass consumerism itself, an increased emphasis on associating goods, services, and commodities with transgression against capitalism to expand capitalism. In Vietnam, the US Armed Forces took this new logic of consumer rebellion and ran with it in a desperate effort to salvage troop morale among young GI draftees who were deeply alienated from a confusing and debilitating war of occupation. A kind of “hip militarism” resulted in which rock music arrived as much within as against or below the official state apparatus of the war effort. The Armed Forces sponsored rock bands and encouraged GIs to express themselves as individuals, hoping that by bringing energies of the commercialized counterculture to Southeast Asia, they could coopt rebellion in service of obedience to authority. Many troops nonetheless used the music to think more deeply about the troubling ethics and dismaying trauma of the Vietnam War. It is within this dizzying swirl of appropriation and counter-appropriation that rock music generated a public sphere for civic inquiry.

Vietnam GI with bandolier and peace sign. Photo: Tim Page.
American GI in Vietnam with bandolier and peace sign, Khe Sanh, 1968. Photo: Tim Page.

So ideology mattered here, but again, how it mattered is crucial. Rock music did not retain a consistent ideology, but its processes certainly were ideological in that they generated, I contend, a kind of democratic public sphere. The music was part of the larger systems of capitalism and militarism. To be sure, it drew its inspiration—and often outright stole—from resistant subcultural locations in American society, most obviously African-American culture, but more strikingly it was also made from the very material and cultural things of twentieth-century American consumer and military life—the technological pleasures of electricity, cars, and even (think of public address systems and radios) technologies that had been developed or used for military purposes. As such, rock was ideologically “complicit.” And yet, it also sparked individual and collective questionings of the system, and sometimes it even generated cultural and political opposition. Most of all, rock raised the difficult ideological questions that still haunt many cultural and political rebellions today: how do you oppose a larger system (shall we call it capitalism perhaps, maybe even liberalism?) that embraces opposition as an ideal? How do you rebel when rebellion sells?


The challenge here is not just one for the activist; it is also one for the historian. For these questions point to how we might not wield ideology as a magnifying glass or a turtle or a factory of interpretive production—or a battering ram for that matter. Instead, we might link ideology to the question of meaning-making when it comes to non-linguistic forms and ask what, exactly, the relationship is between ideology and meaning in these kinds of materials. We might move away from the gotcha! tradition of using ideology to unmask fixed truths and reveal the partiality behind seeming impartiality or the nonsense behind common sense or the structural power within more malleable cultural forms and instead grapple with the difference between ideology, thinly veiled, and meaning, thickly ranging.

To do so requires that we move away from the urge to overvalue the link between coherency and power. A guiding and typically unexamined warrant in much historical argumentation is that the more coherent worldview wins the day ideologically. Of course, why wouldn’t historians, trying to make coherent arguments about the past, overestimate coherency? But shifting to cultural forms such as music suggests that we undervalue incoherency. It is to raise the point that incoherency may have a power too, particularly when ideology comes alive and becomes contingent in forms that inspire meaning-making through aesthetic experiences. In those cases, perhaps, it may even be a more powerful historical force than the easily intelligible.

So perhaps, in thinking ideologically about ideology, it might be useful to track and trace ideas through the twisted knots of the seemingly incomprehensible as well as the known and identifiable. And to consider carefully how ideologies might not be coherent kernels shielded by colorful, deflective shells, but rather elements that twine through forms themselves. From top to bottom, side to side, all around, ideology is not waiting to be uncovered; rather it suffuses.

When we do this, when we shift our investigations of ideology from the unmasking model and expand beyond the focus only on the written word and the power of its coherency, we can begin to address ideological factors more effectively by thinking of how they are in play with meaning more generally. We can look (and listen!) for qualities of affect, sensation, and the bodily as they are dispersed across modes of expression. We can start to see how ideologies are in rather than within, shot through instead of underneath. We can see how they are stitched across historical materials rather than concealed—or, to invoke a fancy-schmancy, jargonistic cultural studies term, how they are “imbricated.”

Most of all, we can start to see how the presence of ideological forces in the past requires recognizing ideological forces at work in the present. This, indeed, is one of the great qualities of historical thinking: it almost never strips away falsities from the past without also doing so in the now. This is the way that ideology is no trans-historical category of analysis but instead always a subcategory of history. We perceive it from a positionality in time, in history, but that is not debilitating; rather it gives us the ability to see our own moment interacting with the past, and the past reaching out into our own contemporaneity.

In the end, what cultural history has to offer is an awareness that ideology is at once embedded more deeply in everything around us and also more unfixed, uncertain, and unpredictable. Looking for the power accomplished by inconsistency, partial assertion, contradiction, murkiness, and the thick incoherence of multiplicity—ideology as meaning-making—may be just as crucial as identifying the essential secret ideological code word, buried within the encrypted messages of cultural or intellectual form. It may well be true that bourgeois hegemony, professional-managerial class dominance, white supremacy, patriarchy, neoliberalism, or whatever other form of all-too-true ideological force is present, but the presence in culture is just that: presence. Even when it has already happened in the past, it is still alive and mutating. Ideology is thus, ultimately, changeable.

X-posted from the S-USIH Blog.

An expanded version of talk “The Ideology Problem in Teaching and Scholarship” at S-USIH Conference in Indianapolis.

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