Ideology and Superstition

With tensions in the United States running super high at the climax of this year’s [very] long presidential election cycle, it sometimes seems as if, for many, the HISTORY OF THE WORLD right now is identical with the AMERICAN ELECTION.

But the economic, political and social structures that underlie and make possible that kind of myopia are important–at least in mind–to submit to interrogation. For me, a big first step toward examining the social/cultural world is by approaching an understanding of IDEOLOGY. That’s what this week’s video essay is all about.

The discussion of ideology in critical and social theory (of the which Terry Eagleton’s book Ideology: An Introduction superbly reviews) can be really complex and hard to get a handhold in. But I think Francis Bacon’s 17th-century essay “Of Superstition” makes for a neat point of entry. Bacon’s description of superstitious thinking’s INVERSION of reality reminds me of some key points about ideology.

Some points of Bacon’s that are interesting but didn’t make it into the video:

  • Another of Bacon’s proposed causes of superstition is “barbarous times, especially joined with calamities and disasters,” which I think is true of the theoretical concept of ideology as well. In many ways, ideology doubles down in times of crisis, particularly threats to its own image.
  • Ideology as such is perhaps inescapable, as theorists like Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci propose. Bacon writes, “There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best, if they go furthest from the superstition, formerly received.” When thinking about ideology, this seems an inevitable question: Is there a way to be “outside” ideology? My favorite introduction to this question is in Eagleton’s introduction, quoting part of a poem by Thom Gunn about World War II:

I know he had unusual eyes,
Whose power no orders could determine,
Not to mistake the men he saw,
As others did, for gods or vermin.

What persuades men and women to mistake each other from time to time for gods or vermin is ideology. … If Gunn’s conscript escaped the ideological conditioning of his fellow, how did he come to do so? Did he act as he did in the name of an alternative, more clement ideology, or just because he had a realistic view of the nature of things? Did his unusual eyes appreciate men and women for what they were, or were his perceptions in some sense as much biased as those of his comrades, but in a way we happen to approve rather than condemn?

The topic of ideology is massive, multifarious and important, and my video can only offer the beginnings of an introduction. It’s not the first video I’ve done where I’ve mentioned ideology, though. Check out my video on the meaning of the Olympics and epistemic violence in Star Trek for some more applied analysis.

And if you like the videos, please subscribe to my YouTube channel for more.


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