The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Phillip E. Wegner

The difficulty of the concept of ideology, Slavoj Žižek argues, lies in “its utterly ambiguous and elusive character”; it “can designate anything from a contemplative attitude that misrecognizes its dependence on social reality to an action-orientated set of beliefs, from the indispensable medium in which individuals live out their relations to a social structure to false ideas which legitimate a dominant political power” (1994, 3—4). Further problems arise because ideology is often defined by what it is not—not truth, not reality, not science. However, it is this multiplicity that makes ideology such an effective tool for reading the novel.

Marx's Two Strands

The term idéologie is first used by the Enlightenment philosopher Destutt de Tracy (1754—1836) to refer to “the science of ideas” (Raymond Williams, 1976, Keywords, 154). It took on pejorative connotations when Napoleon attacked the espousers of democracy as “ideologues.” Ironically, this dismissive sense is often applied to Marxism, the body of thought that contributed most to its development (see MARXIST).

The concept appears early in Karl Marx's work, influenced by the “Young Hegelian” Ludwig Feuerbach's (1804—72) description of religious alienation. Ideology is at the center of The German Ideology (1845—46; pub. 1932), the manuscript in which Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820—95) “invert” Feuerbach's idealism. They first draw a distinction between how individuals “appear in their own or other people's imagination” and how “they really are” (1970a, 46). Thus, “in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura.” If philosophy begins with “what men say, imagine, conceive,” historical materialism “sets out from real, active men” and demonstrates “the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process” (1970a, 47).

Marx further expands this notion in A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859). He distinguishes between the base, the “totality of these relations of production [that] constitutes the economic structure of society,” and “a legal and political which correspond definite forms of social consciousness” (1970b, 20). He notes that “it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophical—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out” (1970b, 21). While this may offer a more “neutral description” (Williams, 156)—and makes possible formulations such as “proletarian ideology”—it has often been understood to establish a mechanical causal or reflective relationship between economics and ideology.

Étienne Balibar notes that by the 1850s ideology becomes extremely rare in Marx's writing. However, its problematic is “taken up again under the heading of fetishism” in Capital, Volume 1 (1867) (Balibar, 42). Marx argues that the commodity is a “strange thing” because in it “the definite social relation between men...assumes...the fantastic form of a relation between things” (1976, 163—5). Fetishism is thus “not a subjective phenomenon or a false perception of reality,” but “rather, the way in which reality...cannot but appear” (Balibar, 60). This formation is original to modern capitalism, and hence it no longer requires older “extra-economic” legitimation: “The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker” (Marx, 1976, 899).

Ideology from Engels to Žižek

This shift produces two distinct trends in later theorizations of ideology. The first explores questions “Hegelian in origin,” including education, intellectuals, “symbolic violence,” and the “mode of domination inherent in the State.” The second takes up problems raised by the economic, “the mode of subjection or constitution of the ’world’ of subjects and objects inherent in the organization of society as a market and its domination by market forces” (Balibar, 78).

The first trend reemerges in Engels's later work, where he introduces the concept of “false consciousness”: “The real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process. Hence he imagines false or seeming motive forces” (R. Tucker, ed., 1978, Marx—Engels Reader, 766). Engels also reinforces the link between ideology and the state when he later asserts, “The state presents itself to us as the first ideological power over mankind” (V. Adoratsky, ed., 1933, Karl Marx, 1:463).

One of the most significant contributions to the concept's development occurs in Antonio Gramsci's (1891—37) Prison Notebooks (1929—35). Gramsci coins the term “hegemony,” “The ’spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” (12). He shows that this “consent” is anything but spontaneous, but rather inculcated by the institutions of civil society—intellectuals, schools, novels, and so forth. Thus, “Every relationship of ’hegemony’ is necessarily an educational relationship” (350). Even if hegemonic ideas appear as collective “common sense,” they nevertheless must be reinforced, renewed, and adapted. A “philosophy of praxis,” by which Gramsci means Marxism's unity of theory and practice, “first of all, therefore, must be a criticism of ’common sense’” (330).

One major non-Marxist study of ideology is Karl Mannheim's (1893—1947) Ideology and Utopia (1929). As his title suggests, Mannheim links ideology with a fourfold typology of “utopian mentalities” (and to these “interested” worldviews he contrasts a “sociology of knowledge”). The utopian mentality introduces historical becoming into ideology's closed repetitive structure; as Paul Ricoeur puts it, “utopia is situationally transcendent while ideology is not” (1986, Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, 272).

Roland Barthes similarly reimagines ideology in his concept of myth (see MYTHOLOGY). Influenced by both Bertolt Brecht (1898—1956) and structuralism, Barthes defines myth as a second order of meaning added to an existing signifying chain—any text, object, or practice, be it wrestling, ornamental cookery, anti-intellectualism, images of a black soldier saluting the French flag, or toys (or, in James Joyce's explorations of myth's labor, the game of cricket or Latin grammars in colonial Ireland). While myth deploys a number of different rhetorical strategies, its essential function is to transform “history into nature” (129).

Building upon Gramsci and influenced by Jacques Lacan (1901—81), Louis Althusser famously defines ideology as the “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (1971, 162), the latter grasped by the “subjectless” discourse of science. Moreover, no society is without ideology: “ideology is as such an organic part of every social totality...the ’lived’ relation between men and the world” (1977, 232—3). Althusser's second major intervention is to identify a series of “Ideological State Apparatuses,” the “dominant” being the school (1971, 155), whose pedagogical labor is to produce, “hail,” or “interpellate” “concrete individuals as concrete subjects” (1971, 173).

Fruitful applications of Althusser's model to novel studies soon emerge. Pierre Macherey's Theory of Literary Production (1966) develops a strategy of “symptomatic reading” in which “what is important in the work is what it does not say” (87); while Terry Eagleton explores literary texts as “a certain production of ideology” (1976, Criticism and Ideology, 64). However, a number of more critical responses appear as well. In Discipline and Punish (1975), Althusser's student Michel Foucault broke with both Althusser's insistence on the “ultimately determining instance” of the economic and his lingering representationalism. Foucault argues that a diffuse structure of power he names “discipline” deploys institutions—schools, factories, barracks, hospitals, “which all resemble prisons” (228)—to form and distribute individual “’docile’ bodies” (136).

Some marxist cultural theorists also challenged the static nature of Althusser's concept. Henri Lefebvre critiqued the structuralist privileging of “mode of production” and “coherence” at the expense of the dialectical concepts, “relations of production,” and “contradiction” (1973, Survival of Capitalism, 59—68). Raymond Williams argues: “A lived hegemony is always a process. It is not, except analytically, a system or structure....It has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified” (1977, 112). Williams then develops a model of culture that would include, in addition to the dominant, alternative, oppositional, residual, and emergent practices. Williams replaces the “more formal concept” of ideology with “structures of feeling,” “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt” (1977, 132). Emergent structures are most effectively registered in literary forms like the novel, something Williams demonstrates in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970) and The Country and the City (1973).

Williams also influenced theorists who examine how individuals and groups respond to what Althusser theorized as an ideological hailing. British cultural studies, as in Dick Hebdige's influential study of punk, Subculture (1979), explored playful productive subversions of dominant values. Judith Butler investigates the “range of disobediences that such an interpellating law might produce” and the “resignifications” practiced by a variety of queer communities (1993, Bodies that Matter, 122) (see SEXUALITY).

Žižek returns to Lacan to develop his original theorization. Žižek argues: “ideology is not simply a ’false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already conceived as ’ideological’.” Ideology is a “symptom,” “a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence” (1989, 21). This generates a “paradox of a being which can reproduce itself only in so far as it is misrecognized and overlooked: the moment we see it ’as it really is’, this being dissolves itself into nothingness or, more precisely, it changes into another kind of reality” (1989, 28). However, this is no simple task, and Žižek investigates how subjects, including intellectuals, resist relinquishing their symptoms.

Reification and Culture

The most influential development of the second trend is found in Georg lukács's History and Class Consciousness (1923). Drawing upon Marx's analysis of fetishism and Max Weber's of rationalization, Lukács develops the concept of “reification.” Lukács argues that in modern capitalism, the commodity becomes a “universal structuring principle,” with the power “to penetrate society in all its aspects and to remold it in its own image” (1971, 85). Lukács shows how reification expresses itself in the division of labor, the creation of academic disciplines, modern science, and the law, each of which destroys “every image of the whole” (1971, 103). The location of the collective proletarian subject within this structure enables it to overcome these divisions, a knowledge articulated by an intellectual occupying this standpoint or transformed into practice by the party.

The concept of reification also influenced the Frankfurt School's analysis of instrumental reason. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) analyzes the principles of calculation and identity that dominate modern society: “Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes dissimilar things comparable by reducing them to abstract quantities....anything which cannot be resolved into illusion” (4). This logic is also evident in the standardized, mass-produced commodities of the culture industry. Both mass culture and modernist art respond to reification, the former internalizing its repetitive logics, the latter resisting them (see Fredric Jameson, 1990, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” in Signatures of the Visible).

In the same moment, Lefebvre launches his study of “everyday life.” He expanded sociology's focus to include “work, leisure, family life and private life” whose interrelationships “make up a whole” that is “historical, shifting, and transitory” (42). These everyday activities are at once expressions of alienation and its critique (40). Lefebvre influenced later Marxist studies of contemporary life, including the Situationist Guy Debord's “society of the spectacle” (1995, Society of the Spectacle) and Fredric Jameson's postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism” (1991, Postmodernism).

Ideology, Utopia, and the Novel

All Marxist-influenced criticism investigates ideology in the novel. These would include, in addition to studies cited above, Lukács's later examination of the HISTORICAL novel; Mikhail Bakhtin's work on the novel's representation of various class and group ideolects and their dialogic interactions; Lucien Goldman's exploration of the relationship between the novel's form and its context; Michael McKeon's discussion of the novel's “explanatory and problem-’solving’ capacities” (1987, Origins of the English Novel, 202); Nancy Armstrong's reading of the novel's role in a British middle-class cultural revolution (see CLASS); Kojin Karatani's estranging interrogation of the categories underlying the formation of the modern Japanese novel; Gayatri Spivak's analysis of the native informant; and Franco Moretti's exploration of the bildungsroman's role in nineteenth-century Europe). As this partial list suggests, studies of content tend to emphasize the ideology—state relationship, while studies of form focus more on economic determinations.

A groundbreaking work that brings together both is Jameson's The Political Unconscious (1981). Jameson develops a three-part hermeneutic of the novel. The first two levels focus on “political history,” and “society, in the...sense of a constitutive tension and struggle between social classes” (75). In the first, “the individual work is grasped essentially as a symbolic act”; and the second investigates the “ideologeme,” “the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourses of social classes” (76). Jameson illustrates the first approach through Balzac, whose plots he reads as “the imaginary resolution of a real contradiction” (77). Jameson then uses George Gissing to illustrate how ideologemes function as “the raw material, the inherited narrative paradigms, upon which the novel as a process works and which it transforms” (185).

The second trend comes into focus with Jameson's third horizon, “history now conceived in its vastest sense of the sequence of modes of production and the succession and destiny of the various human social formations” (75). Here the text is interpreted as “the ideology of form...formal processes as sedimented content in their own right, as carrying ideological messages of their own, distinct from the ostensible or manifest content” (98—9). In his reading of Joseph Conrad, Jameson argues that modernist form (see MODERNIS) more generally be understood as “an ideological expression of capitalism, and...the latter's reification of daily life,” and “a Utopian compensation for everything reification brings with it” (236). Jameson names this Utopian horizon in The Modernist Papers (2007) the “content of the form” (xix). A dialectical analysis thus should be attentive to the “form of the content,” encompassing “everything called ideology in the most comprehensive acceptation of the word” (xvi), and to more Utopian “possibilities for figuration or representation” (xix).

SEE ALSO: National Literature, Novel Theory (19th Century), Novel Theory (20th Century), Realism.


1. Althusser, L. (1971), Lenin and Philosophy.

2. Althusser, L. (1977), For Marx.

3. Balibar, E. (1995), Philosophy of Marx.

4. Barthes, R. (1972), Mythologies.

5. Eagleton, T. (1991), Ideology.

6. Foucault, M. (1977), Discipline and Punish.

7. Gramsci, A. (1971), Prison Notebooks.

8. Horkheimer, M. and T. Adorno (2002), Dialectic of Enlightenment.

9. Jameson, F. (1981), Political Unconscious.

10. Lefebvre, H. (1991), Critique of Everyday Life, vol. 1.

11. Lukács, G. (1971), History and Class Consciousness.

12. Marx, K. (1970a), German Ideology.

13. Marx, K. (1970b), Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

14. Marx, K. (1976), Capital, vol. 1.

15. Williams, R. (1977), Marxism and Literature.

16. Žižek, S. (1989), Sublime Object of Ideology.

17. Žižek, S. (1994), Mapping Ideology.