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About this book

This concise introduction to the concept of ideology provides an overview of the term and considers its impact on literary theory. James M. Decker analyzes the history of Western ideology from its pre-Enlightenment roots to its current incarnations, providing readers with both an essential overview of key terms and issues and a thoughtful assessment of some of the important critical thinkers associated with the notion, including Marx, Gramsci and Althusser.

Ideological theories are introduced within three broad categories - the subjective, the institutional and the political - which helps students to synthesize a concept that sprawls across the traditional disciplinary lines of philosophy, politics, economics, history and cultural and literary studies.

Close readings of key texts demonstrate the impact of ideology on critical practice and literary reputation. Texts include:
- Toni Morrison's Sula
- William Faulkner's 'Barn Burning'
- George Orwell's 1984

Compact and easy-to-follow, Decker's study finally asks: are we now in a 'post-ideological' era?

Table of Contents

Theory and Terminology

Frontmatter

1. Introduction to ‘Ideology’

Abstract
What do Adolf Hitler, Bill Gates, and the Spice Girls have in common? Reasonably expecting the answer to this ostensibly irreverent question to contain a sexually oriented punch line, many people might overlook a less obvious — though intriguing — possibility: ideology. Although media pundits of the latter half of the twentieth century tended to pursue a fairly uniform — and pejorative — definition of ideology, the term possesses a rich, contentious history that covers far more terrain than the contemporary sound-bite version suggests. According to this dominant representation of the concept, ideology primarily manifests itself as an unthinking — whether brutal and oppressive or merely selfish — other, whose rigid, irrational adherence to an overdetermined system or policy defies common sense. As characterized by various western media outlets, then, the ideologue sacrifices open debate for a hermetically closed set of values, and, thus, will refuse to listen to — and may attempt to destroy — anyone with an opposing viewpoint. Ideologues prey on weak and hungry nations. Ideologues reject human rights. As CNN and the BBC would have it, ideologues behave quite like Hitler and not a bit like the Spice Girls.
James M. Decker

2. Ideology and the Paradox of Subjectivity

Abstract
Defiant in their subjectivity, two citizens — one from Kosovo, one from Serbia — expressed to an American reporter strikingly similar sentiments regarding their own respective futures and recently completed peace negotiations. The two declarations, edited so as to appear back-to-back in the broadcast, both revealed a stalwart sense of independence. The first speaker, a Kosovar refugee whose tone exhibited ebullient resolve, declared that although Serbian troops forced her to abandon her land, they could ‘never take away [her] hope and heart.’ The second interviewee, a resident of Belgrade, echoed this assertion with his own avowal that NATO could bomb the city, but it could ‘never take away [his] pride.’ The interviews, granted, perhaps, 30 seconds of air time, offer an excellent example of an almost Cartesian optimism in the subject, for both seemed to aver that their enemies may persecute them but never objectify them: their minds will remain independent despite bodily harm. The political and cultural ideology of the other, in short, will never permeate their subjectivities, for the other may dominate the material realm by annihilating cities or burning identification papers, but it may never penetrate the ideal province of the self. I think, therefore I am.
James M. Decker

3. Ideology and Institutional Authority

Abstract
Few non-academics would question the assertion that childbirth represents one of the most natural human enterprises, a bridge linking women of all political ideologies and epochs. From the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, however, many western women experienced childbirth much differently than how most females engaged in it for millennia.1 Until the mid-seventeenth century, most women did not assume a supine position for the delivery of their children.2 Instead, as evidenced by birthing chairs and other apparatuses, most employed the squatting posture favored by midwives, who felt that lying on the back prolonged labor. What prompted the sudden shift to the conditions most frequently encountered — and deemed the ‘natural’ way — by latter-day western women? Clearly, the metamorphosis resulted from the effects of institutional ideology, and birth historians credit Louis XIV of France — whose credo, ‘I am the state,’ crystallized his autocratic propensities — with popularizing the supine position (Cohen and Estner 1983, 158). In effect, the king’s desire to observe the births in his court — the supine posture allowed him to see more — paved the way for the procedural ritual that followed and became so institutionalized as to appear natural. As doctors compelled midwives to yield responsibility for labor and delivery, the practice born of absolute power received technical rationalization: the doctor ‘needed’ to see in order to complete the ‘procedure.’3 In this way, labor transformed from an event in which midwives assisted women in discovering the position most suited for their own unique birthing processes into an intellectualized operation effectively divorced from biological imperatives.
James M. Decker

4. Political Ideology

Abstract
Ostensibly far removed from academic debates over such niceties as false consciousness and superstructures, questions of political ideology frequently center on realpolitik issues of power. While academics might shudder at such a loose — even simplistic — application of the term, they could hardly dispute the overwhelming evidence that the majority of the population accepts the definitions of ideology propagated by media outlets and politicians. Such definitions, while in no way precise or systematic, broadly fall into two categories of practical usage. The first, and probably most common, characterization of political ideology involves extremism. In this usage, political models that deviate — whether sharply or not — from those of the speaker represent dangerous ideas that will lead, or have led, to serious repercussions for the audience. Furthermore, this pejorative definition of ideology necessitates either an individual or group that would zealously adhere to, and enact, such hazardous dogmas. This definition is inextricably linked to the concept of threatening action. One thinks, for example, of Ronald Reagan’s reference to the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire,’ or of Hillary Clinton’s allusion to a ‘conservative conspiracy.’ The second widely employed definition of political ideology owes somewhat to the ‘neutral’ usage of the concept offered by political scientists such as Andrew Vincent. Such a depiction of ideology refers to general belief systems, whether they are perceived as menacing or not. Emptied of negative connotation, ideology in this sense applies to beliefs as diverse as anarchism and fascism. In fact, speakers often substitute the slang term ‘ism’ for ideology.
James M. Decker

‘Reading’ Ideology

Frontmatter

5. Toni Morrison’s Sula and Subjective Ideology

Abstract
Critical interpretations of the title character of Toni Morrison’s 1973 volume, Sula, vary sharply in their assessment of her subjectivity. Staunchly ‘individual,’ Sula subverts the communal ideology of the ‘Bottom’ — Medallion, Ohio’s African-American quarter — repeatedly. Through such acts as watching her mother, Hannah, burn to death, accidentally (?) hurling Chicken Little to a watery grave, fornicating with Nel’s husband (among many others), and assigning her grandmother to a nursing home, Sula distances herself from the sensus communis of her birthplace. Although few commentators will unequivocally endorse Sula’s behavior, many laud her disregard of ‘normative’ social standards as an emblem of a subversive feminist consciousness. Jill Matus, for instance, regards Sula as ‘a woman … intent on opening all parts of herself rather than folding them away’ (Matus 1998, 60) while Wilfred D. Samuels and Clenora Hudson-Weems posit that the character seeks an ‘authentic existence’ (Samuels and Hudson-Weems 1990, 32). For such critics, Sula offers a critique of the stultifying ideology of the Bottom, which, despite its ostensible reliance on African-American tradition, shadows the ‘dominant’ ideological paradigm of Medallion and its attendant race-, class-, and gender-based hierarchies.
James M. Decker

6. William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’ and Institutional Ideology

Abstract
Most critics of William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning,’ written in 1938, view the story as a ‘coming-of-age’ tale which pits blood ties against societal responsibility. Proponents of this interpretation generally argue that Sarty Snopes experiences a crisis in which he must negotiate the murky waters of duty. Sarty, torn between a desire to maintain loyalty to his family and a nascent moral sense that — increasingly — condemns his father’s actions, ultimately discovers as a mature man that a code of ethics grounded in binary categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is unsatisfactory in comprehending the range of human actions. Sarty’s jejune moral confusion, coupled with Faulkner’s intricate narrative technique, thus makes ‘Barn Burning’ a complex background on which critics may consider a series of ideological ‘opposites,’ including Southern/Northern, agrarianism/industrialism, aristocracy/sharecropper, violence/nonviolence, and individualism/communalism, to name just a few. Complicating this picture, Faulkner’s own views — as well as the perspectives of his contemporaries — frequently come into play as foils to the choices of characters such as Sarty, Ab, Flem, and Major de Spain. For such critics as Edmond L. Volpe, then, the text becomes what Terry Eagleton disparagingly labels the ‘expression of ideology’ (Eagleton 1978, 64). In this way, the work supposedly reveals a tension between ‘competing’ ideologies that is or is not resolved in varying degrees. Volpe, for instance, may therefore confidently remark, ‘the clue to Sarty’s conflict rests in its resolution’ (Volpe 1980, 75).
James M. Decker

7. George Orwell’s 1984 and Political Ideology

Abstract
From its release in 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 has been considered a stinging indictment of totalitarian ideology. Unlike many other texts, Orwell’s novel seems overtly to suggest its ideological underpinnings and place aesthetic considerations squarely in the background.1 For critics such as Richard Lowenthal (1983, 209) and Tosco R. Fyvel (1984, 73), Orwell provides a transparent — but nevertheless powerful — condemnation of Stalinism and a prescient warning against the proliferation of totalitarian methods. In this light, Orwell, working from a ‘common sense’ socialist position that eschews dogmatic rhetoric, exposes the dehumanizing qualities of systemic terror. Both sympathetic and hostile critics usually ground their discussions of 1984 in the assumption that Orwell offers ‘substantially little more than an extension into the near future of the present structure and policy of Stalinism’ (Rahv 1987, 14). For the inhabitants of Oceania, ideology — irrational and sadistic — crushes not only the feeble resistance of ‘rebels’ like Winston Smith and Julia, but also disintegrates the human spirit and transmogrifies it into a repository of platitudes. Aided by what Rob Kroes deems a ‘dislocation of human understanding by linguistic sabotage,’ the Inner Party employs ideology to eliminate the very possibility of thought (Kroes 1985, 85). According to such interpretations, Orwell sets his dystopia in England as a check against factions within British socialism that he feels are open to influence from Stalinism.
James M. Decker

Conclusion

Frontmatter

8. The ‘Post-Ideological’ Era?

Abstract
Responding by telegram to an obituary in the New York Journal, Mark Twain announced that ‘the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’ (1897). One would certainly not be misguided to follow Twain’s advice with regard to the beleaguered concept of ideology, whose death-knell has prematurely tolled for over half a century. As Andrew Heywood wickedly proclaims, ‘history [and with it ideology] has ended on a number of occasions in the last few centuries’ (1992, 278). Despite the over 2100 books pertaining to ideology that one discovers on an unscientific search of amazon.com, theorists as diverse as Francis Fukuyama, John Horgan, Katie Roiphe, and Slavoj Žižek trumpet that we now live in a ‘post-ideological’ age. Although none of the above would claim that world turmoil has ceased, many would posit (at least during the 90s) that the struggle over the mechanism for change has been replaced by debate over pragmatic solutions to local problems. For example, echoing — and often citing — the work of earlier ‘end-of-ideology’ theorists such as Raymond Aron, Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset, conservatives such as Fukuyama and Milton Friedman confidently announce that Marx’s formulation regarding historical inevitability was incorrect: free-market capitalism, not socialism, was the final step in the process of historical evolution. The decline of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe marks the culmination of ideological struggle.1 While conflicts will continue to exist, democratic capitalism contains the ‘solutions’ for such problems within itself. For such theorists, ideology per se is as outmoded as a whalebone corset.
James M. Decker
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