“Ideology” is a loaded word… meaning different things – not necessarily fact but innuendo


Source: Introduction to Ideology http://bit.ly/1HyM2u9

“Ideology” is a loaded word. It can mean many different things, and it almost always carries some invective. Too often, that invective is accompanied by a lack of precision about just which of the many possible meanings is being used. Using the word “ideology” effectively and honestly requires some care.

One common meaning of the term is “false consciousness,” i.e. a system of ideas that is a problem because it presents a false picture of the world (and often, it is assumed, is maliciously propagated, i.e., propaganda). For example, for several decades, the US supported undemocratic right-wing governments like Kuwait’s and Guatemala’s dictatorships, but was hostile to relatively democratic left-wing governments like that of Chile’s Salvador Allende. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman explain this pattern as the result of systematic distortion or lying on the part of the mainstream media coupled to “the ideology of anticommunism.” People were mislead by the falsehoods in the media; if the media had been more truthful, the argument goes, Americans would not have tolerated such an unjust policy.

In the cases they discuss, Chomsky and Herman make many important points. The media do at times lie and distort, and this does have an effect on people’s beliefs. But there can be problems with this line of reasoning. On the one hand, it’s not entirely clear that if people were exposed to the “truth” they would invariably adopt enlightened views. There are cases where the media provides quite a variety of viewpoints and yet many people’s views are troubling; American commercial television tends to support racial integration, for example, yet a great number of Americans seem lukewarm to the idea. On the other hand, since in the US alternative views are available in places like the alternative media, the implication is that common people are too preoccupied to do their own investigating and make their own reasonable judgments about events. At its worst the implication of this line of reasoning is that ordinary people (unlike left media critics) are simply too stupid or lazy to uncover the clear truth of the matter: common people are dopes. For anyone committed to democracy, this is not a very good starting point from which to win large numbers of converts.

Semiotics is often associated with a broad range of thinking that characterizes “ideology” differently. Ideology, many have argued, is best understood, not as false consciousness, but as something embedded in a culture’s “common sense,” in the everyday habits of thought that shape how we think and act as we go about our day-to-day, routine activities. Ideology in this second sense is not a manipulation of consciousness, but it thrives beneath consciousness, in the taken-for-granted; it doesn’t pull the wool over our eyes, but it brings us to take some things for granted, as so obvious that we need not reflect on them.

In this second sense of “ideology,” the key questions are not ones of truth or falsehood; because everyone takes certain parts of their life for granted, there’s no such thing as non-ideological consciousness. Hence, the only honest way to use the word ideology, to study and unmask ideology, is if one includes one’s own ideologies in the process; besides trying to figure out others’ ideologies, we all need to continuously ask ourselves about our own “common sense.” The analysis of ideology then becomes a continuous process of asking questions about the common sense assumptions, the taken-for-granted background, of both others and our own everyday thought.

What would it take for you to willingly sacrifice your life? Or to take someone else’s life? In wars, people do both. Why? What does it take to convince large numbers of people that dying and killing are worthwhile? One might think it only requires someone giving an order, but there are many cases of people refusing to fight: many American college students during the Viet Nam war, for example. When called upon to fight and die for their country, sometimes people comply. But sometimes they walk away, or join the other side. Determining why is in part a problem of ideology, in the second sense of the word as “cultural common sense.”

Look at this image. What do you think is going on? Most people assume the man is from an Arab country in the Middle East: his headdress and beard are part of the cultural paradigm of “Arabness” that most of us have learned from the media, as are the camels in the background. But what is he doing?

Now what does it look like he’s doing? Is he wiping his mouth on a large cloth, perhaps after having had lunch?

How has your understanding changed now?

Physically, it’s still possible that he was wiping his mouth, but most people don’t think that; because it’s an American flag (and because of the position of his head and expression), most people imagine he is kissing the flag.

Here’s where the image came from: the front page of the weekend edition of USA Today, March 1-3, 1991 — the end of the Persian Gulf War.

Now how do you understand the picture of the man?

The important point here is this: Your different interpretations of the man’s actions came not from his image, but from what you assumed based on what surrounded his image. The image of the man did not change, but the context of the image did.

So the reason you now understand the man to be kissing the American flag in gratitude (and not, say, wiping his mouth) has little or nothing to do with the image itself.

It has to do with the relation of his image to things that surround it, to its place in a system of signs. Assumptions we make based on the image of the flag, and its placement on the front page of a newspaper at a particular time — not his expression or the position of his lips or anything about the photo of the man himself — ultimately determine how we understand what he is doing.

What are the connotations of this news photo? Kissing a particular flag connotes respect and gratitude for the nation the flag signifies (in much the same way that kissing the ground of a nation upon first arrival does). So an obvious connotation is that this particular man has respect and gratitude for the United States because of its part in the Gulf War.

But is the image just about this particular man?

What do you actually know about the particulars of this man, his life, and his relationship to the war? Not much. You don’t even know his name. (The caption refers to him simply as “a Kuwaiti.”) So if the particulars of this man’s life are not known or considered newsworthy, why was his image selected for the front page of this national newspaper? The answer seems clear: the man’s Arab headdress.

The image was selected not because it’s newsworthy that this particular man kissed the flag and expressed gratitude to the US. The image was selected because the man kissing the flag also looks stereotypically Arab: in American minds, his headdress invokes a cultural paradigm of “Arabness,” the same paradigm that contains camels, deserts, figs, and oases.

So it seems that a key connotation is not just that this particular individual kissed the flag out of gratitude to the US, but that Arabs were grateful to the US.

So, the photograph and its placement connotes an image of Arabs as a whole that are grateful for the American military intervention.

An immensely powerful myth is being invoked here. The other signs on the page — e.g., images of “Fallen Warriors” in uniform — as well as signs elsewhere in the paper and throughout the culture at the time — powerfully invoked a familiar narrative of the just military victory, of the liberation of a grateful, downtrodden people — in this case, Arabs — from an evil dictator. It’s a story that has been constantly told and retold to Americans for the last half century, principally in novels, films, and documentaries about the American contributions to defeating the Nazis in World War II.

As a matter of historical fact, this myth might be misleading. While it seems clear that Kuwaitis were in general grateful to have their country back, in fact, many, perhaps most, people in Arab countries (though not their governments) were against US involvement in the Gulf War; by most accounts the predominant sense in Arab countries like Jordan and Egypt was that this was another case of US imperialism. Even the members of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein who were living in exile were against the American effort. If you carefully read news stories at the time you might have been aware of that fact, and if you read a news story asserting that Arabs were delighted at American involvement, you might have been doubtful.

Many people undoubtedly glanced at a copy of USA Today on March 2, 1991, perhaps in a newspaper vending machine as they walked down a street. Think about what that would have been like. You have been bombarded with war coverage in newspapers, magazines, the radio, and television for months; you most likely are aware already that the war has ended in the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait. So when you glance at the newspaper, you simply “see” a picture of an Arab kissing the American flag in gratitude for US military intervention.

In that moment of simply “seeing,” of course, a lot happens: you make sense of the image, interpret it, by applying your existing knowledge of the connotations of kissing the flag, the narratives of victory, and the entire myth of subjected peoples grateful for US military intervention. So the notion of grateful Arabs is invoked in your mind, not necessarily because you believe the myth, nor because it’s stated in so many words, but because it’s part of the framework you use to make sense of the image, part of its conditions of intelligibility. The image promotes the myth, not by making an explicit argument for it, but by getting youto fill in the details.

Something peculiar is happening here. In part because it’s an image, but also because of its context, when you glanced at this picture you weren’t likely to think you were reading a controversial proposition: after all it was “just” a picture. So the photo seems to be two, mutually contradictory things at once: on the one hand, an elaborate and misleading myth about grateful Arabs; on the other, just a picture of a man kissing a flag.

A key figure in the history of semiotic analysis, French critic Roland Barthes, analyzed a similar photograph. In cases like this, he wrote,

the signifier has, so to speak, two aspects: one full, which is the meaning [e.g., the real person in the photograph], one empty, which is the form [e.g., the myth of Arabs grateful for US intervention]. . . .What must always be remembered is that myth is a double system;. . . . the signification of the myth is constituted by a sort of constantly moving turnstile which presents alternately the meaning of the signifier and its form, a language object and a metalanguage, a purely signifying and a purely imagining consciousness. . . . The meaning is always there to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning. And there never is any contradiction, conflict, or split between the meaning and the form: they are never at the same place. In the same way, if I am in a car and I look at the scenery through the window, I can at will focus on the scenery or on the windowpane. At one moment I grasp the presence of the glass and the distance of the landscape; at another, on the contrary, the transparency of the glass and the depth of the landscape; but the result of this alternation is constant: the glass is at once present and empty to me, and the landscape unreal and full. The same thing occurs in the mythical signifier: its form is empty but present, its meaning absent but full. (quoted from “Myth Today.”)

Ideology , in the semiotic tradition, is the point where semiotic systems and codes intersect with the exercise of power in social life. It’s the process whereby codes reinforce or become congruent with structures of power.

What the peculiar character of this image illustrates is how ideology in this sense works, not by persuading people of the value of explicit ideas (e.g., an editorial stating that Arab people want American military intervention), but largely by creating forms of “common sense,” of the taken-for-granted in everyday life — as does this picture. Ideology is most powerful when it seems obvious, natural, not worth questioning — as in, “it’s just a picture.”

If signs, connotations, myths, and codes shape people’s behavior, then signs about war, government, peoples, and patriotism might help play a key role in people’s decision to fight or not during war time. And what this analysis suggests is that some of the more effective forms of persuasion in our world today work not on the level of explicit arguments or facts, but on the level of taken-for-granted signs and symbols: on the level of ideology.

The preceding analysis of signs in the media suggests that people’s attitudes and actions in cases of things like war may not be simply a matter of facts, lies, and distortions in the media, of truths and falsehoods. It suggests that structures of cultural common sense addressed and reinforced in the media — the “folklore” of the industrial world — operate less on a level of truth and falsehood than on a level of association and imagery. And the hope of this web site is that these analyses might provide students with some tools for becoming more aware of, and thus less susceptible to, the forms of common sense these images promote.


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