One of the basic mistakes that intellectuals specifically tend to make about ideology — a mistake against which Marx took pains to warn us — is to imagine that ideology is a matter of what people think. Marx insisted, on the contrary, that it is “their social being [gesellschaftliches Sein] that determines their consciousness.”
This is easily demonstrated. After all, to adopt an opinion, to assert a propositional content, one has to rely on one’s acquired competence or facility in navigating meaningful contexts, in the manner of pre-cognitive engagement. But that is precisely a matter of practice. In participating in a practice, one “knows” (in the practical sense of “know-how”) what one is doing, without having to think about it. Indeed, we may be quite unable to (readily) state what we are doing, precisely because our mastery of the practice is so thorough. How does one swing on a swing-set, exactly? It’s a little complicated, but we could explain it, if we thought about it for a while and developed — for the first time — an explicit account of what we do. But in no way does this count against us having known how to do it from our earliest days.
If one were to ask a child who speaks her mother tongue effortlessly to state three or four of the grammatical rules of the language, the child would likely stumble in the attempt. And yet everyday she deploys these ‘rules’ (which are better called ‘practices’) with impressive proficiency.
Since ideology is often misconstrued as a matter of “opinions” that people come to have, it is important to insist that practical competence of the sort considered above is more basic and “originary” than opinion formation. After all, it is that background of competent ease which furnishes both (1) the kind of inferential know-how (e.g., being able to recognize and keep track of the implications of affirming or denying a claim) upon which meaningful opinion formation depends, and (2) the countless non-discursive forms of life that lend determinacy, at the level of practices, to the concepts and descriptions that we deploy in our opinions.
For instance, suppose I say, “There’s a wooden sculpture on the desk.” At the risk of crudeness, we can say in a simplified way that, first, this act of assertion relies on our prior competence in handling the practices that determine proper usage for terms like, “wooden,” e.g., to cite trivial instances, that this rules out liquidity and gaseousness. As a practical matter, when we say that the sculpture is wooden, we’re committing ourselves to denying that it is liquid or gaseous. If we lack the competence to navigate the thick and inexhaustible terrain of commitments and entitlements that give content to the claim in question, then we cannot subscribe to the claim via the act of assertion. Second, language (in the narrow and primary sense) aside, we can only form opinions about works of art, e.g., sculpture, if we are competent in the practices associated with understanding things as art objects. A wooden object of a certain shape can only be recognized as a sculpture if we are competent participants in the social practice of conferring aesthetic import on objects that are created (in the central types of case) by one or more persons whose aim was to present a work for just that type of (aesthetic) engagement or appreciation. (Note: I’m not trying to define art, but to draw attention to the fact that there is a practice, in which artists and audiences share a differentiated — artist/spectator — competence, within which specially prepared objects are presented by artists for aesthetic appreciation by spectators; on the margins of this practice, attempts to complicate or subvert these categories are also part of the practice, just as constitutional amendment processes are part of the practice of constitutional law, as a deviation allowed for by the practice itself. Such “reflexivity” is a hallmark of specifically “modern” practices.) If one has no competence to navigate the practicalities, the “social being,” that constitutes the wooden object as a work of art, then one cannot make assertions about it being a sculpture. That is, one cannot form the opinion that it is a sculpture. It is in this sense that the form of life, the social practice, lends determinacy to the terms deployed in the asserted claim, not in an inferential sense, but in the sense that a whole domain of connected practices (aesthetic judgment, artistic creativity, critical appreciation, insulation of the object from the demands of certain standards of utility, etc.) has to be part of one’s cultural know-how or competence-repertoire before the very idea of “sculpture” can seem pertinent to talking about wooden objects.
But what does this idea, that “gesellschaftliches Sein,” social being, determines consciousness, tell us about ideology?
It tells us that, by the time we get around to engaging in political discourse (opinion-formation), there is a whole domain of pre-discursive, pre-cognitive (pre-opinion) know-how through which we glide effortlessly as a taken-for-granted field of obviousness. And that is where ideology resides.
In short, ideology is not what we think; it is that which is so obvious (in the sense of “obvious,” i.e., deeply questionable) that we don’t have to think it. Almost all of our thinking already presupposes it and takes it for granted. Ideology is what needs no special mention.
Some examples? Let’s start with something — an opinion or claim — that is not ideology, even though it might seem to be. Here’s one: “Canada is a democratic society that treats its citizens fairly.”
It may be bullshit, but it’s not ideology. The ideology is this: that one barely notices the fact that there are “borders” instituted around “nation states,” and that one of these is “Canada”; that this “Canada” is “a society,” in the singular, rather than multiple societies, or multiple systems and structures some of which cross borders, etc.; that “countries” can be labelled “democratic,” rather than institutions or practices or specific decisions, so that the question of whether it is or isn’t democratic is a sort of total judgment, appealing to some unspoken but supposedly obvious criterion; that many of the people in the supposed “country” are “citizens,” while some are “non-citizens”; that the standard for treating “citizens” “fairly” will differ from the standard for treating “non-citizens” fairly. And so on. Ideology lies here, in this stew of unexamined obviousness. None of it is stated in the claim under consideration (“Canada is a democratic society that treats its citizens fairly”). But all of it is presupposed by that claim. (Note: I state these “obvious” points as a series of opinion-like propositions for explanatory clarity; but my claim here is that we “learn” all this not by the formation of opinions, but by socialization into practices in which all of this is embedded in competences, like being able to differentiate between ‘countries,’ to recognize ourselves as implicated in citizenship practices, like having a social insurance number or a passport, etc. It all consists, in the first instance, of practical know-how, skill in navigating practices, and only at the level of higher order discursive competence does it show up in the things we say or believe.)
If we need a definition (to be unpacked along the lines laid out above), it could be this: Ideology is the zone of forgetfulness or the oblivion-structure that sustains the obviousness of practices presupposed by opinion-formation processes. Or just this: Ideology is the way “social being…determines consciousness.”