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Poststructuralist Conceptions of Ideology: Implications of the Linguistic Turn
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Introduction to the Study of Ideology

This chapter explores the implications of the linguistic turn for the conceptualization of ideology. In particular, it focuses on distinctive poststructuralist answers to the question of the specificity of ideology. It concentrates specifically on two main contemporary ap­ proaches to the study of ideology—post-Marxist and psychoanalytical accounts—both of which share a poststructuralist concern with the constitutivity of language to political practices and subjectivity, and take the ubiquity of ideology as a starting-point. These ap­ proaches, exemplified in the writings of Laclau and Mouffe, and respectively, share much. Yet they also differ in the analytical tools on offer. The former focuses on disloca­ tion, the articulation of myths and imaginaries, and the constitution of empty signifiers, while the Lacanian conception of fantasy is central to the latter. Both, it is argued, are necessary for the analysis of the mechanisms that make ideological decontestation possi­ ble.


‘WHAT creates and sustains the identity of a given ideological field beyond all possible variations of its positive content?’ With this question, opens a discussion of ideology and its characterization that could be argued to capture a key distinction within post­ structuralist approaches to ideology. Yet, the answer he provides to this question also por­ trays the extent to which poststructuralists share many core starting-points of analysis. Ideological space, he suggests, ‘is made of non-bound, non-tied elements, “floating signi­fiers”, whose very identity is overdetermined by their articulation in a chain with other ements—that is, their “literal” signification depends upon their metaphorical surplus-sig­ nification’ (Žižek 1989: 87). This answer, moreover, encapsulates the importance of the linguistic turn in the poststructuralist reformulation of what goes under the heading of ideology analysis and critique. The full implications of the ‘linguistic turn’,1 a turn not on­ Poststructuralist Conceptions of Ideology

Indicative of a renewed interest in the nature and functions of language but also of the realization ‘that our language does not merely mirror the world, but is instead partially constitutive of it’ (Ball 1985:740), have been elaborated over the last five decades (Dall­ mayr 1984: 1–27). In political theory, it is associated with writings emanating from the late 1960s and it took a good decade or so longer for the consequences of a focus on the constitution and reconstitution of reality to become the object of reflection in political and social theory in general,2 and for the study of ideology in particular. If the theory of ideol­ogy has traditionally been intimately bound up with metaphysical assumptions—ranging from systemic conceptions of society and the (p. 156) laws governing it, to sovereign con­ ceptions of subjectivity—the linguistic turn could not but further put into question these deeply held assumptions.

Poststructuralist Approaches to Ideology


In the light of that questioning, and since ideology had always been conceived of in con­trast to some order of truth or knowledge from which it would be possible to discern its misleading and false character, it has to be asked whether it is appropriate to continue to deploy the term in a context in which the dualism between absolute truth and absolute falsity is questioned?4 Would it not be more appropriate to banish the term ‘ideology’ from our analytical vocabulary altogether, rather than invest it with new and different post-metaphysical meanings? Contemporary poststructuralist theoretical writings on the question of ideology offer a resounding negative response to these questions.


Expressed within poststructuralist writings drawing on the Continental tradition, as well as on post-Marxist insights, resonate strongly with views expressed by writers writ­ ing within an English tradition of ordinary language analysis. A too narrowly confined
conception of poststructuralism would preclude these conversations from emerging and becoming established.


The consequences of this interest in language in the wake of the linguistic turn for the study of ideologies have to be spelled out. From this point of view, the task of the analyst of ideologies is to investigate those forms of representation, convention, political courses, and so on, which contribute to shaping our worlds. To be amenable to (p. 157) systematic investigation, it has to be assumed that these matters are sufficiently ‘sedi­ mented’ or conventionalized to display characteristics which, while not unchangeable have, nevertheless, reached a certain degree of stability; in short, that they have become decontested.7 The focus here is on the poststructuralist study of ideology as an analysis of such naturalized, conceptual formations, practices, and images for identification, as well as on the concomitant processes of subject formation and contestation of such provision­ ally decontested practices.

I concentrate on two main contemporary approaches to the study of ideology—post-Marxist and psychoanalytical accounts—both of which share a poststructuralist concern with the constitutivity of language to political practices and sub­ Sjectivity, and take the ubiquity of ideology as a starting-point. However, before turning to an in-depth discussion of these approaches, it is necessary to place them and this interest in language and its consequences for the study of ideology in the context of the wider in­ tellectual traditions that facilitated their emergence and shaped the form the arguments have taken.


What seemed to many, about 1956, the subversion of political philosophy by lin­guistic analysis helped to liberate the history of political thought by converting it from a history of systematization (‘philosophy’ in an old sense) into one of linguis­tic use and sophistication (‘philosophy’ in a new)

Drawing on material from the reading and the seminar discussions, analyze the different facets, or dimensions of ideology. In doing so, make as many connections as possible amongst the different facets or dimensions. Use the framework developed in your response to to analyze any two substantive accounts of political ideologies that we have discussed in class social democracy, liberalism, economic libertarianism, African political Ideologies, Chinese political ideologies, the Audra Simpson chapter on Mohawk community membership. If you can, try to compare and contrast your analyses of the two political ideologies. No outside source needed. No in text or citation needed. No APA. If you are using text material just the name of author and reference to the page number is fine. Each question can be up to 500-600 words as long as it explaining the answer needed.

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