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  • The Death and Resurrection of the Theory of Ideology
  • Ernesto Laclau (bio)


In a recent essay on theories of ideology 1 Slavoj Zizek describes contemporary approaches by distributing them around the three axes identified by Hegel: doctrine, belief and ritual, that is, “ideology as a complex of ideas (theories, convictions, beliefs, argumentative procedures); ideology in externality, that is, the materiality of ideology, Ideological State Apparatus; and finally, the most elusive domain, the ‘spontaneous’ ideology at work at the heart of social ‘reality’ itself.” 2 He gives as an example the case of liberalism: “liberalism is a doctrine (developed from Locke to Hayek) materialised in rituals and apparatuses (free press, elections, markets, etc and active in the “spontaneous” (self-)experience of subjects as “free individuals.” 3 In the three cases Zizek finds an essential symmetry of development: at some stage the frontier dividing the ideological from the non-ideological is blurred and, as a result, there is an inflation of the concept of ideology which loses, in that way, all analytical precision. In the case of ideology as a “system of ideas,” the unity of that system depends on the possibility of finding a point external to itself from which a critique of ideology could proceed—eg. by showing through a symptomal reading the true interests to which a given ideological [End Page 297] configuration responded. But, as Zizek points out with examples taken from the works of Barthes, Paul de Man, Ducrot, Pêcheux and myself, it is precisely the assumption of this “zero level” of the ideological of a pure extra-discursive reality, which constitutes the ideological misconception par excellence. In the case of “Ideological State Apparatuses”—or, in the Foucauldian version, the disciplinary procedures operating at the level of micro-power—we find symmetrical versions of the same petitio principio: does not the unity of the State Apparatuses require the very cement of the ideology they supposedly explain; or, in the case of the disciplinary techniques: does not their dispersion itself require the constant recomposition of their articulation, so that we have to appeal to a discursive medium/which makes the very distinction between the ideological and the non-ideological collapse? And the case is even more clear when we move to the realm of beliefs: here, from the very beginning, we are confronted with a supposedly “extra-ideological” reality whose very operation depends on mechanisms belonging to the ideological realm:

(T)he moment we take a closer look at those allegedly extra-ideological mechanisms that regulate social reproduction, we find ourselves knee-deep in the already mentioned obscure domain in which reality is indistinguishable from ideology. What we encounter here, therefore, is the third reversal of non-ideology into ideology: all of a sudden we become aware of a For-itself of ideology at work in the very In-itself of extra-ideological actuality. 4

Here Zizek correctly detects the main source of the progressive abandonment of “ideology” as an analytical category: “this notion somehow grows” too strong, it begins to embrace everything, inclusive of the very neutral, extra-ideological ground supposed to provide the standard by means of which one can measure ideological distortion. That is to say, is it not the ultimate result of discourse analysis that the order of discourse as such is inherently “ideological”? 5 We see, thus, the logic governing the dissolution of the terrain classically occupied by the theory of ideology. The latter died as a result of its own imperialistic success. What we are witnessing is not the decline of a theoretical object as a result of a narrowing of its field of operation but rather the opposite: its indefinite expansion, consequent to the explosion of the dichotomies which—within a certain problematic—confronted it with other objects. Categories such as “distortion” and [End Page 298] “false representation” made sense as long as something “true” or “undistorted” was considered to be within human reach. But once an extra ideological viewpoint becomes unreachable, two effects necessarily follow: 1) discourses organising social practices are both incommensurable and on equal footing with all others; 2) notions such as “distortion” and “false representation” lose all meaning.

Where does this leave us, however? Are...

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