Cynical ideology is a powerful explanatory tool. It is important to be clear about ideology, its function, and the effects of ideology and ideology critique. There is a common sense definition of ideology: the warping of reality. Marx’s definition of ideology in Capital follows a similar path but with a twist of obliviousness: “they do not know it, but they are doing it,” he writes about humans who do not understand abstract labor and thus to unknowingly accept a wage for less than the value of their labor (“The Commodity,” Capital). Ideology in this formulation is the naiveté that emerges when consciousness drifts from reality to delusion. The greater the miscrecognition, the most warped the representations of the social world, and the wider the separation of a subject from effective causes. This problem stated as such implies its own solution: a critical-ideology procedure can “lead the naïve ideological consciousness to a point at which it can recognize its own effective conditions, the social reality that it is distorting, and through this very act dissolve (ideology) itself” (Sublime Object, 28).
Certainly there are some critics of naiveté that promise ways to peer behind illusion to see how things “actually are,” as if there were truer, more accurate ways to see social reality. Frederic Jameson calls this approach to ideology critique ‘conspiracy theory,’ as its focus on ‘unmasking’ or ‘unveiling’ social realities presupposes that action will follow such denuding (“Cognitive Mapping,” 356). Conspiracy theory further approaches ideology through an elitist approach to knowledge whereby a select few hold enough privileged knowledge while the rest are kept in a state of naiveté.
Sophisticated critics of ideology hold no such hope for a distortion-less world. In the work of the Frankfurt School and the late Althusser, for instance, social reality is constituted through ideology as its condition of reproduction (Lenin and Philosophy, 190). Ideology, here, is the path by which any knowledge of the social world is possible and no longer a diversion put in place by an elitist conspiracy. Of concern, is that the critical-ideological procedure that follows installs naiveté at its center, whether by establishing critique as unending process (Althusser), the movement of consciousness into action (Sartre), or the effect of the act on reality itself (Badiou).
But what if the dominant mode of ideology is not naïve consciousness? Slavoj Zizek contends that ideology is cynical, not naïve. He takes the reversal from Peter Sloterdijk, who argues that people embrace an “enlightened false consciousness” whereby “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it” (Sublime Object, 33). On a superficial level, this is hipster irony. Perhaps no less banal but more generalized, it is the “fuck it” attitude of knowing that something is bad for you but you partake in it just the same: junk food, bad relationships, dead-end jobs. Such cynicism is the triumph of neo-liberalism par excellence – for its ideology of “there is no alternative” short-circuits the traditional procedure of ideology critique.
Traditional ideology critique has two functions: the first diagnostic and the second effective. Yet diagnosis does not necessarily lead to action, as evinced by cynical ideology. Cynical ideology offers the rewards of knowing better without barring associated behavior. French sociologist of science Bruno Latour outlines how this mode of critique “has run out of steam,” as becomes a tool of ressentiment for humiliating supposedly naïve believers but provides no path for effective action (“Critique,” 237-240).
It would be absurd to claim that people today are victims of a totalitarian ideology that limits their access to information in order to hold them in a state of naiveté. Neil Postman succinctly captures this sentiment in the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death with the worry that Americans have fixated on the iron fist depicted in Orwell’s 1984 that the velvet glove of Huxley’s Brave New World was a welcome alternative. Our fears of knowledge deprivation have been assuaged through sensorial overload. An in large part, Postman’s warnings are materialized through cynical ideology. Today’s social realities are public, and not even an open secret. The precision of Postman’s claims are perhaps off, however, as we are not a culture of snobbish boors satisfied by a diet of junk culture. Pollsters show that American’s are much discontent than ever: we all happy to declare that we hate work, politicians bicker over who hates the government more, and it is easy to name a million products that are killing us and the environment. Unique to cynical ideology is that even as discourses of dissatisfaction proliferate, the effect is retrenchment and not revolt.