In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” — an essay excerpted from a longer work only recently available in English, On the Reproduction of Capitalism — Althusser offers a definition of ideology: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” On this definition — and contrary to classic Marxist approaches — ideology is not an imaginary (i.e., false) depiction of our real conditions of existence. Rather, ideology is the set of processes by which we imagine ourselves into our real conditions of existence.
Consider, for instance, the depiction of farms in children’s toys in the images below.
When talking with students about how certain social demands or restrictive classification schemes are experienced as oppressive, I often find that their proposed solution is to remove as many social constraints as possible. Of course, this makes sense according to the liberal theory of subjectivity: social demands are seen as nothing more than constraining, and consequently subjects are most free when they are liberated from the most number of social demands. Unfortunately this view completely misses the positive or constructive role of social constraints.
Recently, my go-to example to challenge this liberal theory of subjectivity is feral children. Arguably, the individuals leastconstrained by human social norms are those feral children whose earliest childhood is experienced without human contact, such as the two Indian children — Kamala and Amala — who were famously raised by wolves as infants but later found and adopted by Christian missionaries in the early 20th century. Continue reading “Mythical Liberations”
Earlier this week Stephen S. Bush responded to one of my posts on his recent monograph, Visions of Religion. In my post I suggested that Bush’s work arguably props up the status quo in our field, and as such he could resort to rhetorical enthymemes that leave certain assumptions unstated and unargued — particularly since sympathetic readers in the mainstream of the field already share those assumptions. In his response Bush claims that I’m unfair to him, since he did provide argumentation for the assertions or assumptions I claimed were unstated or unargued. In addition, he objected to my characterization of his work as representing the center of the field. According to Bush, my work — which focuses on discourse analysis, ideology critique, and power — is closer to the center of the field, and his work — which includes a focus on experience and meaning — is more likely to be considered passé and thus on the periphery. Continue reading “Response: Center and Periphery”
I recently came across the following video (somewhat dated now in the US, since federal rulings have made this political issue a moot point), which offers a clever critique of appeals to “traditional marriage,” specifically regarding appeals used to justify heteronormative marriage laws. It works by drawing attention to the massive variety of all that fits into our collective past, history, or “tradition.”
From this video it is clear that there are always multiple pasts to draw from, and our choice of which elements we pick out and lift up as the real “tradition” — which we want to make normative for ourselves and others — is always motivated by our interests in the present and for the future.
In the classroom, when I point out that people pick and choose from their “traditions,” students often take that as if I were criticizing practitioners, or as if I were calling them hypocrites. Then I point out that although most of them are Americans, none of them wants to hang onto the 3/5ths rule in the constitution. The point? We’re all picking and choosing, all the time. Rather than refereeing which truth claims, or in this case which traditions, get to count as legitimate, I encourage my students to consider the issues at stake in these debates and the speakers involved. In doing this, we are able to see how different social groups construct contradictory, if not competing, historical narratives in very stragic ways to further their own social agendas. Cherry-picking historical traditions isn’t necessarily hypocrisy, but rather is just social group formation.
I recently finished reading Stephen S. Bush’s Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (Oxford University Press, 2014). The book argues that scholars of religion who focus on power (e.g., those who use the theories of Foucault or Bourdieu) to the exclusion of the role of religious experience and symbolic meaning of emic discourses do a disservice, and that all three — power, experience, and meaning — should be included in an account of religion. He attempts to offer an argument as to why all three are important, and to counter objections that the different approaches are intrinsically at odds.
One thing that struck me about Bush’s writing style was how often he made a number of explicitly normative claims, as well as a number of “should” statements, which were put forward as if they were self-evidently authoritative. Consider the following passages. Continue reading “Academic Style and the Voice of Authority”
According to this news story from a few years ago, a “living” man from Ohio was legally ruled “dead”:
A US man declared dead after he disappeared nearly three decades ago cannot now be declared officially alive, though he has returned home and is in good health, a judge has ruled.
Donald Miller of Ohio left behind a wife, two children and significant debt when he fled his home in 1986.
He was declared legally dead in 1994, then re-emerged in 2005 and attempted to apply for a driving license.
A judge this week found death rulings cannot be overturned after three years.
Judge Allan Davis handed down the ruling in Hancock County, Ohio, probate court on Monday, calling it a “strange, strange situation”, according to media reports.
“We’ve got the obvious here. A man sitting in the courtroom, he appears to be in good health,” he said, finding that he was prevented by state law from declaring Mr Miller legally alive.
“I don’t know where that leaves you, but you’re still deceased as far as the law is concerned.”
What we have seems to be a case of competing discourses. If this man went to the hospital, it seems unlikely that the doctors would direct him to the morgue. On the other hand, from the court’s perspective he is dead and thus not eligible to get a driver’s license. Continue reading “Competing Discourses on Life and Death”
In History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People’s Republic of China, John Powers surveys a wide variety of histories of Tibet, written by Tibetan, Chinese, and western (i.e., American or European) authors. The story of the relations between China and Tibet — is Tibet an independent state or merely a small part of China’s empire? — can be told in many different ways, depending on the interests or agenda of the author spinning the narrative. Of particular interest to me is how Powers notes the normative vocabulary of the historians he surveys. The authors tend to systematically use normative nouns and adjectives — with positive and negative valuations attached to them — in their narratives. See the following two tables: Continue reading “On the Systematic Use of Normative Vocabulary”