Scanned, edited and tagged by: Courtney Danforth 9/27/96 Geertz, "Ideology as a Cultural System" I. It is one of the minor ironies of modern intellectual




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scanned, edited and tagged by: Courtney Danforth -- 9/27/96 Geertz, "Ideology as a Cultural System" I. It is one of the minor ironies of modern intellectual history that the term "ideology" has itself become thoroughly ideologized. A concept that once meant but a collection of political proposals, perhaps somewhat intellectualistic and impractical but at any rate idealistic�"social romances as someone, perhaps Napoleon, called them�has now become, to quote Webster's, "the integrated assertions, theories, and aims constituting a politico-social program, often with an implication of factitious propagandizing; as, Fascism was altered in Germany to fit the Nazi ideology"�a much more formidable proposition. Even in works that, in the name of science, profess to be using a neutral sense of the term, the effect of its employment tends nonetheless to be distinctly polemical in Sutton, Harris, Kaysen, and Tobin's in many ways excellent The American Business Creed, for example, an assurance that "one has no more cause to feel dismayed or aggrieved by having his own views described as 'ideology' than had Moliere's famous character by the discovery that all his life he had been talking prose," is followed immediately by the listing of the main characteristics of ideology as bias, oversimplification, emotive language, and adaption to public prejudice No one, at least outside the Communist bloc, where a somewhat distinctive conception of the role of thought in society is institutionalized, would call himself an ideologue or consent unprotestingly to be called one by others. Almost universally now the familiar parodic paradigm applies: "I have a social philosophy; you have political opinions; he has an ideology." The historical process by which the concept of ideology came to be itself a part of the very subject matter to which it referred has been traced by Mannheim; the realization (or perhaps it was only an admission) that sociopolitical thought does not grow out of disembodied reflection but "is always bound up with the existing life situation of the thinker" seemed to taint such thought with the vulgar struggle for advantage it had professed to rise above.2 But what is of even more immediate importance is the question of whether or not this absorption into its own referent has destroyed its scientific utility altogether, whether or not having become an accusation, it can remain an analytic concept. In Mannheim's case, this problem was the animus of his entire work�the construction, as he put it, of a "nonevaluative conception of ideology.' But the more he grappled with it the more deeply he became engulfed in its ambiguities until, driven by the logic of his initial assumptions to submit even his own point of view to sociological analysis, he ended, as is well known, in an ethical and epistemological relativism that he himself found uncomfortable. And so far as later work in this area has been more than tendentious or mindlessly empirical, it has involved the employment of a series of more or less ingenious methodological devices to escape from what may be called (because, like the puzzle of Achilles and the tortoise, it struck at the very foundations of rational knowledge) Mannheim's Paradox. As Zeno's Paradox raised (or, at least, articulated) unsettling questions about the validity of mathematical reasoning, so Mannheim's Paradox raised them with respect to the objectivity of sociological analysis. Where, if anywhere, ideology leaves off and science begins has been the Sphinx's Riddle of much of modern sociological thought and the rustless weapon of its enemies. Claims to impartiality have been advanced in the name of disciplined adherence to impersonal research procedures of the academic man's institutional insulation from the immediate concerns of the day and his vocational commitment to neutrality, and of deliberately cultivated awareness of and correction for one's own biases and interests. They have been met with denial of the impersonality (and the effectiveness) of the procedures, of the solidity of the insulation, and of the depth and genuineness of the self-awareness. "I am aware," a recent analyst of ideological preoccupations among American intellectuals concludes, somewhat nervously, "that many readers will claim that my position is itself ideological." 3 Whatever the fate of his other predlctions, the validity of this one is certain. Although the arrival of a scientific sociology has been repeatedly proclaimed, the acknowledgment of its existence is far from universal even among social scientists themselves; and nowhere is resistance to claims to objectivity greater than in the study of ideology. A number of sources for this resistance have been cited repeatedly in the apologetic literature of the social sciences. The valueladen nature ot the subject matter is perhaps most frequently invoked: men do not care to have beliefs to which they attach great moral significance examined dispassionately, no matter for how pure a purpose; and if they are themselves highly ideologized, they may find it simply impossible to believe that a disinterested approach to critical matters of social and political conviction can be other than a scholastic sham. The inherent elusiveness of ideological thought, expressed as it is in intricate symbolic webs as vaguely defined as they are emotionally charged; the admitted fact that ideological special pleading has, from Marx forward, so often been clothed in the guise of "scientific sociology"; and the defensiveness of established intellectual classes who see scientific probing into the social roots of ideas as threatening to their status, are also often mentioned. And, when all else fails, it is always possible to point out once more that sociology is a young science, that it has been so recently founded that it has not had time to reach the levels of institutional solidity necessary to sustain its claims to investigatory freedom in sensitive areas. All these arguments have, doubtless, a certain validity. But what�by a curious selective omission the unkind might well indict as ideological�is not so often considered is the possibility that a great part of the problem lies in the lack of conceptual sophistication within social science itself, that the resistance of ideology to sociological analysis is so great because such analyses are in fact fundamentally inadequate; the theoretical framework they employ is conspicuously incomplete. I shall try in this essay to show that such is indeed the case: that the social sciences have not yet developed a genuinely nonevaluative conception of ideology; that this failure stems less from methodological indiscipline than from theoretical clumsiness; that this clumsiness manifests itself mainly in the handling of ideology as an entity in itself�as an ordered system of cultural symbols rather than in the discrimination of its social and psychological contexts (with respect to which our ana Iytical machinery is very much more refined); and that the escape from Mannheim's Paradox lies, therefore, in the perfection of a conceptual apparatus capable of dealing more adroitly with meaning. Bluntly, we need a more exact apprehension of our object of study, lest we find ourselves in the position of the Javanese folk-tale figure, "Stupid Boy," who, having been counseled by his mother to seek a quiet wife, returned with a corpse. II. That the conception of ideology now regnant in the social sciences is a thoroughly evaluative (that is, pejorative) one is readily enough demonstrated. " [The study of ideology] deals with a mode of thinking which is thrown off its proper course," Werner Stark informs us; "ideological thought is . . . something shady, something that ought to be overcome and banished from our mind." It is not (quite) the same as lying, for, where the liar at least attains to cynicism, the ideologue remains merely a fool: "Both are concerned with untruth, but whereas the liar tries to falsify the thought of others while his own private thought is correct, while he himself knows well what the truth is, a person who falls for an ideology is himself deluded in his private thought, and if he misleads others, does so unwillingly and unwittingly." 4 A follower of Mannheim, Stark holds that all forms of thought are socially conditioned in the very nature of things, but that ideology has in addition the unfortunate quality of being psychologically "deformed" ("warped," "contaminated," "falsified," "distorted," "clouded") by the pressure of personal emotions like hate, desire, anxiety, or fear. The sociology of knowledge deals with the social element in the pursuit and perception of truth, its inevitable confinement to one or another existential perspective. But the study of ideology�an entirely different enterprise� deals with the causes of intellectual error: Ideas and beliefs, we have tried to explain. can be related to reality in a double way: either to the facts of reality, or to the strivings to which this reality, or rather the reaction to this reality, gives rise. Where the former connection exists, we find thought which is, in principle, truthful; where the latter relation obtains, we are faced with ideas which can be true only by accident. and which are likely to be vitiated by bias. the word taken in the widest possible sense. The former type of thought deserves to be called theoreticai; the latter must be characterized as paratheoretical. Perhaps one might also describe the former as rational, the latter as emotionally tinged �the former as purely cognitive, the latter as evaluative. To borrow Theodor Geiger's simile . . . thought determined by social fact is like a pure stream. crystal-clear, transparent; ideological ideas like a dirty river, muddied and polluted by the impurities that have flooded into it. From the one it is healthy to drink; the other is poison to be avoided.5 This is primitive, but the same confinement of the referent of the term "ideology" to a form of radical intellectual depravity also appears in contexts where the political and scientific arguments are both far more sophisticated and infinitely more penetrating. In his seminal essay on "Ideology and Civility," for example, Edward Shils sketches a portrait of "the ideological outlook," which is, if anything, even grimmer than Stark's. 6 Appearing "in a variety of forms, each alleging itself to be unique"--Italian Fascism, German National Socialism, Russian Bolshevism, French and Italian COmmunism, the Action Francaise, the British Union of Fascists, "and their fledgling American kinsman, 'McCarthyism,' which died in infancy"--this outlook "encircled and invaded public life in the Western countries during the 19th century and in the 20th century. . . threatened to achieve universal domination." It consists, most centrally, of "the assumption that politics should be conducted from the standpoint of a coherent, comprehensive set of beliefes which must override every other consideration." Like the politics it supports, it is dualistic, opposing the pure "we" to the evil "they," proclaiming that he who is not with me is against me. It is alienative in that it distrusts, attacks, and works to undermine established political institutions. It is doctrinaire in that it claims complete and exclusive possession of political truth and abhors compromise. It is totalistic in that it aims to order the whole of social and cultural life in the image of its Ideals, futuristic in that it works toward a utopian culmination of history in which such an ordering will be realized. It is, in short, not the sort of prose any good bourgeois gentleman (or even any good democrat) is likely to admit to speaking. Even on more abstract and theoretical levels, where the concern is more purely conceptual, the notion that the term "ideology" properly applies to the views of those "stiff in opinions, and always in the wrong" does not disappear. In Talcott Parsons's most recent contemplation of Mannheim's Paradox, for example, "deviations from [social scientific objectivity" emerge as the "essential criteria of an ideology": "The problem of ideology arises where there is a discrepancy between what is believed and what can be [established as ] scientifically correct." 7 The "deviations" and "discrepancies" involved are of two general sorts. First, where social science, shaped as is all thought by the overall values of the society within which it is contained, is selective in the sort of questions it asks, the particular problems it chooses to tackle, and so forth, ideologies are subject to a further, cognitively more pernicious "secondary" selectivity, in that they emphasize some aspects of social reality�that reality, for example, as revealed by current social scientific knowledge�and neglect or even suppress other aspects. "Thus the business ideology, for instance, substantially exaggerates the contribution of businessmen to the national welfare and underplays the contribution of scientists and professional men. And in the current ideology of the 'intellectual,' the importance of social pressures to conformity' is exaggerated and institutional factors in the freedom of the individual are ignored or played down." Second, ideological thought, not content with mere overselectivity, positively distorts even those aspects of social reality it recognizes, distortion that becomes apparent only when the assertions involved are placed against the background of the authoritative findings of social science. "The criterion of distortion is that statements are made about society which by social-scientific methods can be shown to be positively in error, whereas selectivity is ; involved where the statements are, at the proper level, 'true,' but do not constitute a balanced account of the available truth." That in the eyes of . the world there is much to choose between being positively in error and rendering an unbalanced account of the available truth seems, however, rather unlikely. Here, too, ideology is a pretty dirty river. Examples need not be multiplied, although they easily could be. Nlore important is the question of what such an egregiously loaded concept is doing among the analytic tools of a social science that, on the basis of a claim to cold-blooded objectivity, advances its theoretical mterpretations as "undistorted" and therefore normative visions of social reality. If the critical power of the social sciences stems from their disinterestedness, is not this power compromised when the analysis of political thought is governed by such a concept, much as the analysis of religious thought would be (and, on occasion, has been) compromised when cast in terms of the study of "superstition"? The analogy is not farfetched. In Raymond Aron's The Opium of the Intellectuals, for example, not only the title�ironically echoic of Marx s bitter iconoclasm�but the entire rhetoric of the argument ("political myths," "the idolatry of history," "churchmen and faithful "secular clericalism," and so forth) reminds one of nothing so much as the literature of militant atheist Shils's tack of invoking the extreme pathologies of ideological thought� Nazism, Bolshevism, or whatever�as its paradigmatic forms is reminiscent of the tradition in which the Inquisition, the personal depravity of Renaissance popes, the savagery of Reformation wars, or the primitiveness of Bible belt fundamentalism Is offered as an archetype of religious belief and behavior. And Parsons's view that ideology is defined by its cognitive insufficiencies vis-a-vis science is perhaps not so distant as it might appear from the Comtean view that religion is characterized by an uncritically figurative conception of reality, which a sober sociology, purged of metaphor, win soon render obsolete: We may wait as long for the "end of ideology" as the positivists have waited for the end of religion. Perhaps it is even not too much to suggest that, as the militant atheism of the Enlightenment and after was a response to the quite genuine horrors of a spectacular outburst of religious bigotry, persecution, and strife (and to a broadened knowledge of the natural world), so the militantly hostile approach to ideology is a similar response to the political holocausts of the past halfcentury (and to a broadened knowledge of the social world).
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