The Political

John Phillips




There is a connection between the various domains of knowledge that reveals a common basis in rhetoric.  This rhetorical bridge proves to be decisive and wide-ranging, linking anthropology, psychology, politics and aesthetics, as well as the variety of natural and social sciences.  Notice that in the distinction between the types of science a rhetorical and, even from a scientific point of view, entirely unsatisfactory boundary has already been drawn between the natural and the human.  It is as if the two realms are utterly different, and require different types of logical procedure--two incommensurable types of logic (with no logical connection between the two).  Aristotle divided knowledge into its natural and political dimensions, so that in his texts we read about the universe, about physical and biological nature, on the one hand, and aesthetics, politics and ethics, on the other.  There is even a text in Aristotle’s work that sets out a philosophical ground more fundamental than this distinction.  This text came to be known as The Metaphysics (meaning after, on or about the physics) and it deals with the most general questions of philosophy, notably thought and being.  However a number of Aristotle’s works deal with what we would now recognise as the field of discourse.  The extant remains of his Poetics (most of which has never been recovered) deals with the nature and function of tragedy in art and manifests an extremely sophisticated aesthetics.  His Rhetoric charts the ways in which discourse functions to persuade and construct arguments.  His Interpretation examines the relation of thought to language.  His Logic begins what was to unfold over centuries as a systematic exploration of the processes of human reasoning.  A careful reading of Aristotle would reveal that the rhetorical investigations (interpretation, rhetoric, aesthetics and logic) could be reduced neither to nature nor to politics (in Aristotle phusis and politeia).  But rather, the works on knowledge itself, including the Metaphysics, show that a rhetorical dimension affects and compromises each attempt on Aristotle’s part to arrive at a clear and unchanging ground for understanding in any of the relatively distinct areas.  The explicit or at least implicit assumption of any metaphysics (which can take numerous diverse forms) is that something, some logic, some order, whether hidden or essentially discoverable, determines things and thus can itself become the object of knowledge.  An inescapable meta-knowledge is thus implied, a knowledge on or about or after knowledge.  Aristotle was not the first to attempt to chart knowledge, systematically bending knowledge back onto knowledge itself (asking what can we know about the process and the ground of knowing?) but his metaphysics is amongst the most influential and systematic.  At its heart are the problems of rhetoric.


The Being of Things

What is implied at the very basis of metaphysical questioning is the question of Being.  Here things get broken down into empirical and transcendental dimensions.  In natural knowledge the empirical is made up of what appears to us, e.g., rocks, trees, skyscrapers, sun, moon and stars.  The empirical thus reaches out to the infinite heavens beyond which we may only imagine.  The empirical is the dimension of beings, that is, things that are (as in the phrase there is a moon).  The question of being thus concerns the dimension of the phrase there is.  What is involved in asserting there is (there is a moon, there are stars)?  We seem to assert of particular beings an essence or some kind of essential predicate, that is, their being.  In traditional western thought, which is a sophisticated grafting of diverse theological and philosophical traditions, being as an essential predicate takes the form of a transcendental determination, a determination from beyond and outside empirical experience.  The eternal, the infinite, the being whose existence is essence, God, the order of things, each of these phrases indicates some sense of how the transcendental realm is systematically opposed to the empirical.  The eternal can only be assumed to exist outside and beyond mutable worldly existence.  Plants, animals and people die, as do suns and planets eventually.  The infinite as such is outside experience, though the mathematical versions of it are suggestive and can inspire startling intuitions of infinity, as can certain kinds of poetry.  God or, in one Catholic version, the being whose existence is essence is just everywhere, wherever there is existence God is its essence.  According to this account, if something exists the source of its existence just is God.  Everything else is a creature whose existence is owed to something not itself.  The order of things may refer us to the obscure but perhaps real system of ordering of the universe and all the things in it.  Discoveries in cosmology always strongly hinted at an order to the universe even though there are innumerable chaotic counter-examples.  The development of modern empirical science always hinted strongly that there was an order that eventually scientists would discover, in the meantime adding up all the accumulated facts until a total picture emerged.  This supplemental faith links science to the great world religions in its own way.  Sadly for many scientists this kind of faith is no longer possible.  The point, finally, is this.  The transcendental indicates a kind of ordering or structuring of the empirical, an ordering that cannot be discovered or embedded within our experience.  We assume, without witnessing, the existence of some universal or grand principle of ordering, which in its absence needs to be intuited or hypothesised on the basis of what we do have.  We have access only to our traditions, histories and customs, the appearance of things in the world, our mode of reasoning and the events and actions in which we participate.  In the absence of that universal principle of ordering we do have a range of rhetorical strategies for producing critical yet faulty versions of “the universal” that may stand in, as it were, temporarily.


Being and Beings

One of the most important, yet controversial, philosophers of the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger, concentrates his attention on the relation between finite beings and their Being by focusing on the phenomena of finitude itself.  Thus predicates like time, anxiety, guilt and death, come to organise his earliest writings (specifically 1927’s Being and Time).  Dasein (“being here”) is the name he gives to that being for which Being is first of all a question (i.e., philosophers like you and me) and an issue.  Very briefly put, one can say that Being (in the English translations with a capital B) stands for the modes of interpretation that constitute what traditionally would have been the transcendental determination of empirical experience.  The separation of the transcendental from the empirical is seriously compromised by Heidegger, increasingly so after his major work (Being and Time) ground to a halt uncompleted.   (It was published anyway after pressure from his University authorities; nothing changes in this sense, I am thinking, as I type this section at a rate of knots you wouldn’t believe).  The importance of Heidegger’s work is reflected in terms of its influence on our reading of the tradition.  His understanding of western modernity is based upon a series of quite extraordinary readings of traditional philosophical and poetic texts, from the pre-Socratics to his own contemporaries.  It seems odd to think that a deep understanding of the ancients should provide him with prophetic insights into the most modern trends of modernity, specifically the direction of technology and the uprooting of cultures that many have observed is the key to postmodernism.  But this would follow as a matter of course if his most consistently stated thesis turned out to be the case.  That is, that Dasein is grounded in its historicity--humanity is a historical being--and in the modern era this has been forgotten as technics takes over and dominates every other mode of being.  Technics, in this sense, is not just technology and machines; it is, rather, a specifically technological interpretation of the world.  The greatest danger, thought Heidegger, was that the alarming successes of technology, which reaches deep into the earth and stores up its energy as standing reserve, would enslave and ultimately destroy humanity on the basis of a promise to cure the inevitable condition of finitude (Dasein’s temporal and finite condition).  Being is in fact essentially ungrounded but watched over by poets, artists and philosophers, who remember the modes of interpretation by which experience is produced.  The key distinction is between the ontological (Being) and the ontic (beings).  The former is the dimension of ungrounded historical being.  But no access can be achieved to the realm of Being without passing first through the dimension of the ontic, which we know through our particular modes of being (Caucasian professor of literature in a South East Asian University).  The difference between the two (my particularity experienced empirically and my Being, barely glimpsed) becomes known as the ontic-ontological difference.  However, it is a little difficult to think about what is meant by this difference unless we recall our previous discussions of the alterity of the other.  Heidegger, it seem, is determined to think Being through as a kind of presence or event towards which only the greatest effort is required.  But, as I am suggesting, our only real access to the universal ground of our existence and responsibility appears to be radically absent, so I suspect that we will never arrive at Being--that radically there is no Being.



Being Political

Aristotle’s famous phrase, “Anthropos is a political animal,” was intended to resonate beyond what is often regarded as the political field today.  But he did intend a clear distinction, in so far as there are other beings that are not in his sense political.  It is his version of what marks out the human from all other things, and what makes the human special.  What is the definition of human?  Aristotle would say, the political.  Just as there have been numerous diverse attempts to discover the underlying order of beings in nature (phusis) there have been numerous diverse attempts to discover the hidden order of the political.  In the wider sense the political concerns the organisation of social relations.  In a more focused and personal sense it implies the problem of ethical action.  So the distinction between the empirical and the transcendental is operative here too, in almost the same way as with the order of things.  The empirical stands for actions and passions of people in their historical, geographical specificity.  It implies relations of economics and force.  The transcendental thus implies a realm where these relations are determined.  Aristotle’s Politics charts the different modes of government that are possible and explores the conditions upon which one might arrive at the best form of government. 


Best, Most and Generally

In order to arrive at a general sense of any being Aristotle’s analysis sets out to find a model for the best example of the thing under analysis.  The function of the thing is first established.  What is an eye for?  It is to see.  What is the best kind of eye?  It is an eye that sees well.  What is a government for?  It is to govern with an eye for everyone’s interest.  What is the best kind of government?  It is the government that most approximates the ideal of government where all interests are taken into consideration in matters of legislation.  The circularity of the argument is a genuine problem.  But implied is a strong teleological factor.  To ask about the final purpose of something, is to ask what is its telos?  When Aristotle asks the question of man (what is the function of anthropos?) his answer is a little obscure.  The function of anthropos is praxis or ethical action.  But praxis has no example that can be generalised (like the seeing of the eye).  A brave action may not be brave if I just copy someone’s bravery in a different context.  Praxis demands the simultaneous skills that make up deciding and acting in the midst of unpredictable contingencies.  Thus, according to an inescapable logic, humanity is perpetually indefinable.  The essence of the political is in perpetual retreat.  It is as if the telos of humanity, its final purpose, is somehow just itself, which means that individuals must write their own telos, their own final purpose.  What is the function of man?  The function of man can be discovered with reference to the best of men.  Who is the best of men?  That is the kind of question that will cause fights.  Again, the circularity of the argument is likely only to get us in to trouble philosophically.


What lies at the heart of the problem of government is the evident fact that people are different and they have different interests.  Some desire more freedom, others wish for greater wealth.  Some require better transport or healthcare.  Some require more security, more policing.  Others require less.  There are some interests that often go unnoticed or that represent the needs of those with little influence or power (the homeless and hungry).  Yet in some cases a minority may have influence over decisions that affect everybody, thus putting them in a position of privilege (members of parliament with business interests).  Furthermore it is impossible to predict in advance what particular antagonisms might arise.  We never go for long without reading about some dispute between neighbours.  Someone has loud music playing.  Someone else grows his or her trees too high.  Neighbours have been known to fight, often with fatal consequences.  The courts are flooded with such disputes.  Analogous situations occur on every level and, in severe cases (though never rare), neighbours wage war.  Therefore any conception of justice, on whatever level, must include laws according to which one can act but with enough leeway to account for situations that cannot be predicted according to those laws.  The keeper of these laws must also be their interpreter in such cases that arise.  The judge is also always an arbitrator--a perpetual third party who must decide according to principles divorced from the immediate empirical interests of the two parties.  Even when one of the parties is right that right does not belong to his selfish interest but to the law as neutral arbitrator.  In this way it is possible to promise (if not to deliver) a universal or “human” right. 


The transcendental thus stands for all those modes of theory that attempt to approximate the obscure order of things that would solve the ills of social relations (whether within a state or internationally).  And, in a more focused way, it stands for the hidden imperative of a moral law that seems always to be off the edge of experience.  In so far as laws are unavoidable they are based upon some existing rationale.  That rationale, in its rhetorical dimension, will always have been a gesture towards a transcendental determination. 


The argument for sovereignty might run as follows: why must I give my money to the King?  It is the King’s law.  Where does the King get the right to make such a law?  As the King it is his divine right.  Against this type of argument it would always be possible to oppose a kind of empiricism.  According to the above logic one would only owe fealty to a ruler in a social environment where belief in the divine was dominant.  Once that is shaken then the divinity argument is going to look a little fragile.  But it takes seismic cultural shifts of immense historical structures to shake such arguments.  And the appeal to the bluntly empirical must itself assume the rhetorical power that makes such ungrounded belief possible in the first place.  So the empirical cannot simply be opposed to the transcendental.  But rather, empiricist rhetoric can be opposed to transcendental arguments.  Rhetoric would then be in the service not of right or truth but of an alternative power base.  Once again it is the absence of a universal principle that comes to organise the political, for a universal principle seems always to be what is desired.  We are stuck with a subtle play of often-antagonistic forces each gesturing outside to some unimaginable exterior that would ground them all.


False Consciousness

In the modern period the subtle yet powerful forms of fealty, which I’ve just simplified with my example of the King’s divinity, come to be known as types of false consciousness.  False consciousness is a notion that allows the philosopher or critic to assert and demonstrate that our most deeply held beliefs about ourselves and others, about right and wrong, about the universe in general, are based upon assumptions about these things that are complacently accepted and culturally produced.  Our culture is made up of stories or narratives that support a dominant version of things that is generally accepted as true.  The stories are not simply false, of course, but rather they are related to the true situation by distorting it, disguising it, distracting from it and lulling its subjects into the false way of thinking.  Analysis of false consciousness tends to aim for a kind of enlightenment that provides an understanding of 1) how the false situation came about and 2) what the true one is.  The problem for contemporary critical theory is that the narratives of false consciousness are in no clearly discernible or final way less fragile than the narratives they would expose.  The narrative of false consciousness opposes a rhetorical procedure against another rhetorical procedure. 


There is a story by Jorge Luis Borges called “The Circular Ruins” in which a wizard goes to the jungle and arrives at the ruined temple of Fire.  There he dreams a man into being with the help of the god of Fire.  This man believes he is real and is terrified by fire, but the wizard knows that he is not real and thus also knows that fire cannot harm him.  The story can be understood as a fictional commentary on narratives of false consciousness.  In the western tradition Plato’s allegory of the cave is the best-documented reference point.   The cave itself represents the finite world of our experience, the empirical, which, Plato assures us, is a deception.  However in order to move beyond the deception Plato’s only resources are the very means of representation that are also the sources of our deception--allegory, analogy, and metaphor.  These sources together add up to the field of discourse that we call in general figurative. 


Figurative Language

Figurative language is the language of tropes.  A trope is a form of substitution whereby a metaphor, simile, allegory or even parable stands in for another way of speaking.  The ideal form of discourse is often regarded as the literal.  However the phrase literal language is an oxymoron.  An oxymoron (itself a kind of trope) puts two contradictory words together and is often used in poetry.  William Wordsworth’s description of his experience of a trickling mountain stream as “peopled solitude” is a good example.  The notion of literal language is a logocentric dream because language, just in terms of what it is at the most basic level, already stands in for something other than what it is (for what we assume it means).  So by the same account the phrase figurative language is a tautology.  A tautology (which is also a kind of trope) is a phrase which more or less says the same thing twice (e.g., an “evil devil”).  A literal use of language takes advantage of the essential ability of language to stand-in-for things other than itself.  Thus literal language is just a particular form of language generally.  The condition of being always somewhat literal and somewhat figurative (somewhere between contradiction and tautology) marks language.   


In order to step outside the cave--to see it, as it were, from outside experience, that is, from a transcendental viewpoint--the cave has to be constructed and represented.  In other words we are still inside the cave but now looking at a representation of it in order to imagine what it might be like to get outside if only it were possible.  Imagine that you enter the town hall and find yourself looking down at a model of the town with the town hall in beautiful scaled down reproduction.  You are stuck in there, says Plato, and you cannot get out, except by means of representational models like these.  This is the basic pattern of the false-consciousness narrative.  It involves a kind of rhetoric that builds a representation of the world as somehow being contained within a larger one, which we can imagine only by virtue of the representational model.  Of course you can leave the town hall but can you ever get beyond your own experience?  What is important to understand about this is that without getting us to an outside the rhetorical dimension is still able to take us beyond experience.  The beyond is not necessarily what we’d happily call real (remember fire in the story of Borges’s dreamed man), as Plato demanded.  But if representations like the cave and the miniature town hall could not have been made then what kind of experience would ours be?  Doubtless it would be entirely different.  Experience would not be what it is without the possibility of these representations.  Thus something of the empirical does always seem to involve a passage through what we are for the moment calling the transcendental.  This is the dimension that traditionally is called theory. 


Graven Images

The narratives of false consciousness move through several variants throughout western history and they each deserve careful analysis.  Here I can only provide a few directions and pointers.  I have already introduced the Medieval Dominican scholar Thomas Aquinas, whose writing is among the most majestic and impressive.  He managed systematically to integrate Christian teaching and Greek philosophy, through a series of close commentaries on Aristotle’s texts that run parallel with readings of the Christian pedagogy.  For our purposes we should focus on two related issues.  The first is iconic representation and the second is language more generally.  Iconic representation occurs when a figure or an image of some kind stands in as a sign for something, often an elusive entity like a God.  Every culture, it seems, has some image of their god, representing the object of their belief.  Pictures of saints, the Christian cross, carved Buddhas and the Ancient Greek statues of Zeus are all totemic images or icons.  In the strict sense an icon is symbolic or representative of something.  Christians worship in front of an image of Christ on the cross as a symbol of Christ himself and his suffering sacrifice.  Thus the word icon comes to mean any kind of symbolic image, including the icons on your computer screen, which are images of pathways into some densely written store of digital information.  This icon stands for “My Computer” on the Microsoft desktop:



Nowadays you can replace the stock icons by downloading uncountable alternatives, characters from Star Wars to animated figures of all kinds, which will give you a personalized shortcut to wherever you tend to go in the digital universe.  What makes this possible is no different from the conditions that make all substitutions of tropes possible, the tautology figurative language.  So an icon might look like the thing it symbolizes (a tiny computer screen for my computer) or it might not (a Star Wars Gungan can be used instead).  In the case of religious icons we are dealing with representations that are often images of something no one has ever seen.  They are sensuous personifications of abstract or otherwise impossible concepts.  Notice in that last sentence that the difference between the empirical (sensuous, visible) and the transcendental (spiritual, invisible) is strongly implicated.  Aquinas, working with a Christian theological philosophy that owes as much to Greek as to Hebraic influences, can make use of a pattern of thinking, a teaching in fact, that is common to both.  This has to do with the supposed tendency of fallible and mortal creatures (men and women) to fall into the worship of false images.  A representation of the spiritual realm can become fetishized and be taken for the thing itself. 



The word fetish is very interesting here.  Its etymology, from the Latin facticius meaning factitious, via the French and Portuguese, fétiche and feitiço, associates the word with senses of artificial or false.  It comes first of all to describe an object (perhaps a small stone or wood carving of an animal) that is believed to have magical power that can protect or aid its owner.  A lucky rabbit’s foot or other mascots are often brought to competitive sports or during exams.  The use of the term fetish implies the recognition that these are objects of occult superstition.   So, more broadly, fetish comes to describe a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence.  People also come to fetishize ordinary belongings or things, which become objects of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion.  In the domain of sexuality, of course, a fetish is an object (for instance, a whip, leather gloves, suspenders, or stilettos) or a bodily part (for instance, breasts, feet, fingers or toes) whose real or fantasised presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification.  The fetishized object thus stands in for the supposed real one.  It is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression; a fetish sometimes becomes a barrier to the thing itself.  In each of the above examples, the fetish has come to stand in for the supposed real object of devotion or trust.  When Karl Marx coined the phrase commodity fetishism what he had in mind was the fetishizing of things in terms of their commodity value, divorced from their actual use value.  The trouble with using the notion of fetish is that it too easily refers us to some as yet unanalysed “real,” some thing-in-itself beyond the circulation of substitutions.  In other words the word fetish is itself a fetish, implying an extravagant trust in the real on behalf of its user.


In the case of both Hebrew law and Platonic philosophy icons too easily become objects of devotion themselves, no longer simply symbols but actual manifestations of the divine.  So in Yahweh’s commandments from Exodus we read the following:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water that is under the earth.  (Exodus 20: 3-4).

The commandment is decisive.  There is only one God.  And nothing in experience, nothing in the universe, can represent it.  Hebrew monotheism and Hellenic philosophy thus have in common this insistence on a single spirit, a single truth, a single good, that nonetheless cannot be represented or embedded in the world, which is otherwise full of shadows and graven sensuous images.  Aquinas explains the situation in terms of language and, specifically, analogy.


We have observed that he insists on only one God and that everybody worships the same one.  Even pagans worship the same single God, though they may have many gods, with many different names and diverse icons to represent them all.  They just do not realize it.  The Christian, on the other hand, knows what God is so when he worships he worships the true God.  Why, then, does Aquinas think that heathens fall into error?  He suggests that the error is connected with a failure of language.  He shares with his tradition an assumption about language that holds until well into the 20th Century.  That is, in an ideal situation, words should be used univocally, they should have a single meaning in whatever the context of use.  But they don’t.  Words are equivocal in so far as they tend to mean different things in different contexts.  Now the assumption, which we can recall here as logocentrism, isn’t about the words themselves but their meanings. 



According to the dream of the univocal word, or the logocentric dream, a word should always have the same meaning.  Because the dream cannot possibly be fulfilled, words have to be held in check by strategies of containment, hierarchies and oppositions, etc., which authorize and, strictly speaking, institute meanings.  In other words the dream (or naive assumption) is maintained by an attempt to relate marks to each other in a more (rather than less) fixed way.  Actually though, the dream is rather more involved and has its source in higher and brighter concerns, i.e., truth and God.  It has always been known that words fail in their assumed task (to represent meanings univocally).  The knowledge is the source of a metaphysical hatred of writing, the language form which best exemplifies the failure of the univocal word in so far as written expressions most clearly exemplify a tendency of addressees to misunderstand.  The dream and its failure support each other in so far as the unchanging identity of that which is more or less well represented by the word (or concept), the transcendental truth or God, must remain untouched by the miserable failure of human language, especially in its most alienated form--writing.  In other words the finite and fallible languages of man have always been a handy demonstration (through negation) of the perfection of the truth that they can in no way approximate. So logocentrism involves the belief that meanings are anchored by a principle of identity-of-meaning.  The logocentric assumption accepts, even affirms, that languages are shifting and context bound while meanings are invariant (i.e., what I mean is what I mean but what I say may not convey it well and may certainly be misunderstood). 


So Aquinas can assert the unchanging necessity of the single and absent God with reference to the shifting languages of fallible man.  He says that only divine language can be univocal and thus there are many names for God because human language is equivocal.  It is Aristotle’s notion of analogy that serves to square things in this instance.  Analogy lies somewhere between equivocality (difference) and univocity (identity) in so far as it gestures towards the same yet it involves finding a relation between differences, squared only in the relation.  When pagans worship their multifarious gods and goddesses they all in fact worship the single Catholic God by analogy.






Nomos is the Greek word for Law.  Significantly, Aristotle introduces his notion of analogical predication during the central discussion of the Nichomachean Ethics, where he discusses the nature of the social bond, that is, the essence of the political itself.  The usual distinctions are made, as follows: humans obey a law (nomos) that is not a law by nature (phusis).  It is a law by convention and is designed to bond people in a community.  The law works through analogy, which can be seen in the example of economic exchange.  Tailors and bakers need to exchange their goods but a robe is worth a good deal more than a loaf of bread so a single measure must be assumed that would square the baker’s labour with the tailor’s.  So the labour is broken up into units of exchange, according to which its price can be calculated.  Because needs and quantities are always changing, the “single measure” that would determine the relative prices of everything in the market place cannot be fixed.  However, the idea of the single measure remains in place as the principle of analogical predication by which tailors and bakers are put into relations of economic justice.  A is the Baker and B is his labour (bread).  C is the tailor and D is his work (clothes).  A is to C as B is to D according to price (which determines how many loaves are equal to a robe).  This example is supposed by Aristotle to account for the totality of social relations.  What is important is that this single measure (analogically it is the same as Plato’s transcendental truth and Aquinas’s God) cannot actually be fixed and embedded in the world.  It is a principle only.  But it seems that we cannot as political animals do without it, ever.     


Some of the terms we have explored in this section can briefly be repeated here because a relatively consistent pattern is emerging.  Analogy lies somewhere between univocity and equivocality.  The naïve and simplistic univocal dream, that a word always means just what it means, is often mistaken for what we can nearly always recognize as a literal use of language.  So equivocality might be mistaken for figurative uses of language.  However, all language is figurative to the extent that substitution is always implied.  The key terms upon which these oppositions rest are, in fact, identity and difference.  In the logocentric dream it is assumed that identity-of-meaning (what a word refers to) is represented by something different (language generally or a figure, i.e., metaphor, metonymy, simile, analogy).  But it is figurative language that grounds all discourse and all expression.  By no coincidence we also find that in the earliest accounts, from the Ancient Greeks onwards, some pattern that is precisely equivalent to figurative language accounts for the political bond that holds people together in social relations (association).  Social relations, too, are grounded in the difference between identity and difference.  For this reason these terms will come to play an increasingly greater role in working through the problems of the political.



The best known versions of the false-consciousness argument are contained in various versions of the term ideology.  The joint influence of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels cannot be disputed.  For many years the political was simply equated with Marxist--or more broadly--left-wing political positions.  The Enlightenment notion of “Emancipation” is important here, but what we have with Marx and Engels is a specific mode of critical engagement with the intent to foster revolutionary change.  The most famous quotation from Marx is the Ninth of his “Theses on Fuerbach,” which reads: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”  A careful review of the first two theses would reveal in what ways that change is expected to come about.  Marx Writes: 


The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism -- which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.  Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity.


The point he is making here constitutes a dialectic between what traditionally is conceived as the empirical (real) and transcendental (ideal) realms.  The contradiction is found where the object is regarded as sensuous thing and the subject is regarded as abstract thinker, with no actual relation between them but the object’s passivity in the gaze of the subject’s understanding..  Marx, on the contrary, considers the subjective realm of ideas to be worthy in itself of objective understanding.  Ideas are concrete images, constituent components in the world of actions.  So understanding must turn back critically upon it own ideas, systematically (dialectically) locating them within the historical process.  In other words, the very notions of philosophical subject and passive object are also objects, ideal objects (subject/objects), susceptible to dialectical upheaval.  For Marx the consequence was a contradiction not only in philosophy, but also a corresponding one in the world of social relations, most famously, in class contradiction. 


The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.  The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.


Revolutionary practice would thus involve a position that goes beyond the ideology that disguises, or distorts, the economic reality of social relations.  It would involve manipulation of changing circumstances in terms of the contradictions that underlie ordinary experience.  So the proletariat (the labouring classes) who are supposed to be alienated from their economic interests by an ideology that distracts them from the facts of their exploitation, should be enlightened and then emancipated through the revolutionary activity of intellectuals.   Marx’s version of false-consciousness does not, unlike many of the others,  gesture to some actually existing truth, but to a reality of struggle and contradiction that is discovered only in the contingency of social relations.  An understanding of ideology is thus a means of engaging socially within the intellectual sphere.  This has not prevented certain dogmatic assertions from arising in the name of Marxism, of course, and a continual critical vigilance appears to be always necessary.


The study of ideology, begun in the eighteenth century, sets out to understand the effects of ideas on consciousness and raises the question of what an idea, as a historical and thus concrete entity, actually is.  You remember that, for Plato, an idea is only ever represented by its repeatable and imperfect real forms (e.g., writing).  Plato’s philosophy also serves as a prototype of theories of ideology in so far as his analogy of the cave provides an image that describes the world of our experience as fundamentally false and posits a real truth somewhere outside the cave in a wonderful yonder that we unfortunately cannot experience.

          Marx and Engels are responsible for the (often contradictory) statements that form the basis of contemporary notions of ideology.  The following quotations, from The German Ideology, will give an idea of the various things ideology can mean:


The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas . . . The class that has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production. (47)


This might suggest that the ruling classes have their specific ideology, in that a certain dominant class within society imposes a set of beliefs, values and ideas upon the whole of society.  The notion of the dominant or ruling class can be generalised beyond the class arguments of Marx and one sees similar approaches in studies of ethnicity and sexuality, in which various racist, homophobic and misogynistic ideologies can be seen to be at work in cultural texts.  There are more complex variations, however, as a second quotation illustrates:


If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process. (25).


This notion (another philosophical analogy) suggests that ideology is a false consciousness that alienates subjects from political and economic reality (and their own interests), both veiling the reality of social relations and naturalising the alienated condition. Marxist criticism (and Marx too in places) can thus be criticised for having a spurious claim to the actual truth (not dissimilar from Plato’s sense of truth).  In his own critique of Fuerbach, which we examined above, he finds an unanalysed aspect of material ideology in Fuerbach’s text (the ideal).  However Marx himself retains an unanalysed element in his own discussions. That truth, in classical Marxist terms, is the political economy, which lies outside and beyond the rhetoric of substitutable (thus supposedly false) tropes.  A yet more sophisticated version is suggested by the following quotation:


We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh.  We set out from real active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. (25)


What this last statement gives rise to is the dialectical consideration of the mediation between what Marx and Engels call “real life-process” and “ideology.”  The dialectic mediates “real life-processes” and types of discourse, “what men say,” the words, images and ideas of (actual) men, the discursive habits of human subjects as well as images and ideas about men, the mythical human subject as dreamed up in discourse.  Underlying these types of discourse--what men say and the men that are “spoken”--is a kind of substratum, a “reality” of actions and passions manifested by economic relations. The ideological forms might include all media (books, newspapers, journals, broadcasting, cinema, advertising, etc., all manifestations of distinction and class, traditions, artistic movements and tendencies, while the mediation between these and “real life-processes” can be considered in terms of the role of institutions: i.e., church, family, school, university, media organisations, etc.  The mediation involves the participation and the lived experience of subjects who thus have some agency in opposing and contesting ideologies.  In cultural and critical theory reading protocols become one of the main focuses of attention. 


Fake Snuff

A number of recent Hollywood blockbusters, including 8mm and Matrix appear to be peddling false-consciousness narratives.  Matrix is basically Plato’s cave without the sun.  The premise is as follows: late in the twentieth century humanity has destroyed the clear sky leaving only a bustling civilization and a ruined world complete with scorched earth.  The machines, dominated by intelligent computer technology take over.  Mankind is now bred in captivity and used for body energy, stored in little cave-like structures embedded in huge cavernous walls.   There the little humans spend their lives plugged into what is called the matrix, a computer simulated version, complete with taste, sound, colour, light and feelings, of late twentieth century civilization.  Things have been like this for some time.  A few are able to resist the Matrix and live as outlaws eating tasteless food and entering into the Matrix only sporadically.  These last are Hollywood’s latest incarnation of Plato’s enlightened philosopher.  Clearly the matrix stands for the fake transcendental while the empirical is the dull outside.  In 8 mm Nicholas Cage plays a detective hired to discover whether the apparently real on-film killing of a young teenager was actually real or faked, thus tapping into the mythology of the snuff movie.  The film thematises the real through a number of carefully constructed oppositions, centrally contrasting the uniqueness of the single copy snuff film (on 8 mm) to the repeatability of the pornographic video.  The fake snuffs, oddly, are made in the Philippines.  The only way he can recognize that they are fake is because in two of the films the same woman dies.  The emphasis seems to be on the repetition of pornographic (fake) death and it affirms, by its negation, an off-screen reality that not even 8 mm, with its armoury of gothic devices (heavy rain--wetness everywhere--huge gothic arches, graveyards and dark contrasts) can attain.  The rhetoric of the film, as with Matrix, is designed to illustrate, describe or evoke an actual reality beyond rhetoric, which it cannot do.  In this case the pornographic is the denigrated paradigm for a fake reality nonetheless too close for comfort to a dull and horrific real that only love (well this is Hollywood) can redeem.  Many other contemporary films could be considered in this light.  There seems to be an obsession on the part of the mass media with its ability to produce fake realities and its corresponding inability to produce reality as such (given that cinema promises precisely this).


The implicit argument of the canon of the false consciousness is not only that you are deceived, but that you are the deception itself, a doubt in the face of which even Descartes’ subject might tremble.  What the canon sometimes tries to say in its subtlest moments is that the narrative of the origin of narrative is another narrative of origin; consciousness of false consciousness is more false consciousness; the account of the origin of myth is just a myth of the origin of myth (etc.).


For these writers the empirical (and objective world) always has to be fitted in to the “matrix” of principles, axioms, rules, laws, cultural representations, patterns of memory, etc., before the subject has access to it.  But that too is a construction based upon the opposition between the empirical (object) and the transcendental (subject), and fails to account for the iterability that remains its principle. 



Iterability contains the two senses of repetition and difference, or same and alteration.  It is the name that Jacques Derrida gives for the law of repetition: what repeats must be the same but can never be identical.  We will explore this law in detail in the chapter on deconstruction.  It is out of repetition that all identities emerge.  Yet in the repetition identity is always corroded by its difference. 


As for false consciousness: on one level an argument would presuppose the possibility, existence (or something) of a true or correct consciousness (e.g., authentic as opposed to illusory being).  This kind of argument can take all kinds of different forms.  On the one hand, the empirical world is a false representation of a true one, either A) to which we cannot get access, or B) to which we can only get access in certain ways.  Or, on the other hand, the empirical world just is the real one and all assertions of a transcendental reality or truth are themselves false pictures of the world.   In each case the opposition of truth and falsity is based upon the opposition between the transcendental and the empirical.  On another level (that of appearance perhaps) an argument about false consciousness might refuse to accept the opposition true/false and reinscribe falsity as the condition per se, i.e., deception with no reference to the truth.  At this stage the dialectic is radically incomplete, the telos is absent and particularity is given free rein in every direction to satisfy its needs, accidental caprices, and subjective desires.  So it destroys itself.


Access to the Transcendental

Dialectic first of all is the Platonic way; interlocutors are brought to the way of truth via the permanently negating activities of Socratic dialogue.   Analysis would be the Cartesian way of presenting a demonstration through the phenomenology of the “I.” Aporia would be the way of the sophist, revealing your assertions and beliefs to be based upon contradictions you cannot go beyond.  Empirical research would describe the recourse of the Enlightenment scientist, convinced that the truth lies in the direction of simple provable facts with the power of safe prediction.  The modern logician might rest on the repeatable and immutable consequence of mathematics.  But the list is endless.


Even the enigmatic twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein should be included in the growing canon of false-consciousness arguments.   He talks the metaphor of waking from the dream (as so often, echoing Kant), but also of being “held captive” or being “taken in” by pictures, propositions, similes and repetitions.   He say that “Philosophy goes to work when language goes on holiday.”  For him it is to the peculiar ability of language to create false pictures of the world that the philosopher must attend.  “What we do is bring words back from their metaphysical to their every day use.”  He claims that this is necessary because language, like pictures, can produce false appearances.  His sentences are “correctives” to be transcended, “then you'll see the world aright.”   The following argument is typical: “A simile that has been absorbed into the forms of our language produces a false appearance, and this disquiets us [. . .] if only I could fix my gaze absolutely sharply on this fact, get it in focus, I must grasp the essence of the matter [. . .] One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which one looks at it.”


The metaphorics of light and dark shade Wittgenstein's pictures.  In the introduction to Philosophical Investigations, he says, “It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another” (that is the--“unlikely”--power to stimulate thinking).  And, pointing out what is wrong with this picture, he manages to dissolve one false-consciousness myth by opposing another false-consciousness argument to it:

The evolution of the higher animals and man, and the awakening of consciousness at a particular level.  The picture is something like this: Though the ether is filled with vibrations the world is dark.  But one day man opens his seeing eye, and there is light.  What this language primarily describes is a picture.  What is to be done with the picture, how is it to be used, is still obscure.  Quite clearly, however, it must be explored if we want to understand the sense of what we are saying.  But the picture seems to spare us this work: it already points to a particular use.  This is how it takes us in.

The quotation finds Wittgenstein exploring the so-called picture theory of meaning.  The result of this was the famous statement, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”  I would argue that where Wittgenstein leaves off, critical theory begins.  The ethical and political obligation of contemporary critical thought is to affirm what cannot be spoken of, not as a reality or a ground upon which we must someday hope to land, but as the impossible space that makes politics and the social relation possible.  There is no universal ground.  Instead we affirm its singular absence.


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