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Mapping the Field 1: Week 6: Marxism and Cultural Studies: Handout

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a student of Hegel who went on to found modern communism.
Broadly speaking, Marx was sharply critical of the way in which society was organized. He argued
that capitalist or free-market economic production was riven by inequalities which allowed the
minority to accumulate vast wealth at the cost of the oppression and wretched domination of the
majority. The injustice of these divisions was, according to Marx, then disguised, promoted and
ratified by the cultural, political and legal framework of society, or what he termed the
superstructure. For Marx, the superstructure was, in large measure, determined by the very ruling
classes who stood to benefit from maintaining inequality in the first place. With scant regard for
detail, Marx proposed an alternative to capitalism – borrowing the term 'communism' to describe it –
in which there would be no divisions or inequalities and in which each individual would be allowed
to realize his or her creative potential. [….]
For Marxists, the whole point of the superstructure – which includes the family, the education
system, government, sport and the arts – is to secure the reproduction of the existing method of
economic organization – what Marx I called the base, which in the present instance is capitalism. If
this seems a strange way to look at pop songs or the latest George Clooney film, then it is because, as
[Marxists] would argue, you have been successfully inscribed within capitalist ideology, or the
system of thought that glues or binds the superstructure together, making you think that it is the
natural way of running society.
Ideology has many definitions in the Marxist tradition. A substantial number of these definitions
centre around the proposition that ideology is simply an incorrect way of thinking about things. So,
for example, while I might think that adverts are small, factual documentaries, you could reasonably
point out the error in my thought here and show that they are actually a way for companies to
manipulate my desires, alter my purchasing habits and persuade me to buy their products. As you can
see here, such a view of ideology is not strictly a question of mistaking facts. If I think that a football
is really a grenade, I am simply confused rather than ideologically misguided. What is ideological is
the way we interpret facts. If I argue that football is simply a game, you might say that I am failing to
interpret the way in which the game of football is inscribed within a whole series of social networks,
providing a forum for nationalism, homo-erotic bonding, commercial exploitation of the working
class, and so on. With this view, then, ideology is a kind of error in perception that can be corrected
in a similar way to that by which you might change the lenses in your glasses if you cannot see
properly.
If, in this definition of ideology, thought is either right or wrong, one of the other main definitions
of ideology holds that ideology is actually a means of describing the very horizon of thought itself. In
this sense it would, for example, be impossible for me to conceive of adverts as anything other than
small, factual documentaries. However much you tried to reason or argue with me … it would be
unthinkable for me to consider adverts in any other way. In a similar, but far less benign respect,
many Marxists argue that capitalism now represents the horizon of our thought and that, as such, we
are, at a practical level, unable to conceive of an alternative way of organizing society. In this sense,
ideology is not something that you can think your way out of, as it represents the actual limit of
thought in the same way that blindness represents the limit of sight. Given these widely differing
views, it is perhaps unsurprising that it has become something of an honourable pastime in Marxist
circles to propose a new theory of ideology every decade or so and then, just as routinely, to have that
theory criticized, vilified and ultimately forgotten.

From: Tony Myers, Slavoj Žižek (London: Routledge, 2003), pp.18-19.