August 16th, 2008 by waynemellinger
We Swim in Oceans of Ideology that Pass as Commonsense
My goal throughout “Doing Modernity” is to articulate an approach to studying everyday life that brings together several distinct intellectual concerns. In particular, I am interested in “grafting” approaches concerned with the dynamics and particulars of social interaction in concrete instances of social life with critical theoretical concerns for domination, inequality, alienation and ideological hegemony. I call this approach Critical Interactionism, and draw inspiration from many others attempting to develop similar interests, such as Harvey Molotch, Dorothy Smith, Norman Denzin, James Forte, and many others.
Recently, I have explored reflexivity in several blogs, including “Reflexive Praxis and Being an Ally” and “Reflexivity and Reflexive Modernity“. I am particularly interested in our potential awareness that our mundane actions create and re-create the social world. Moreover, I have argued that this supposedly increasing consciousness of our ability to change the world through altering the specifics of our actions is a constitutivefeature of modernity. Supposedly, earlier humans often treated the social world as “out there”, merely constraining personal actions, but not really created by them.
For example, I and many others are aware that our shopping patterns and modes of consumption have consequences for the sustainability of our planet. When we stop and thoughtfully consider a purchase and contemplate its effects on our planet we are engaging in reflexive praxis. As I have written (July 18, 2008):
“To engage in reflexive praxis is to take action in the social world based upon awareness and insight into our role in perpetuating or not perpetuating societies structured in dominance.”
I referred to reflexive passivity as knowingly not taking an action that could make the social world better, and being aware of how one’s inactions contribute the maintenance of the status quo. My concern here is with how much of our behavior remains unreflexive, that is, we remainunaware of how our actions help to maintain a society structured in dominance. We often swim in oceans of ideology that pass as commonsense.
There is so much of our world of which we are absolutely unaware. As much as some of us attempt to become conscious of our roles in reproducing societies structured in dominance, we are going to be blind to much of our complicit behavior. This fact is sad but true.
In talking to students about the “social construction of social problems”, I am reminded that before the concerted efforts of organizations such as MADD (Mother Against Druck Driving), people had little conception of “drunk driving” as a social problem. And the same is true for numerous other important social issues–before vast organizational efforts did the “work” of raising people’s awareness, most people had no inkling of their existence–sexual harassment, domestic violence, litter,… It can take extensive consciousness-raising efforts to get people to be aware of many critical concerns of our world. I have learned this first-hand in my years as an anti-oppression educator.
That being the case, the question must be asked: how many of our own society’s current social problems remain hidden from our awareness and remain unarticulated in the realms of social discourse? In this particular class I argued that 50 years from now our MIStreatment of mentally ill people, children, and pets and other animals will be seen as utterly appauling. As we today look back on hundred-year-old photographs of crowds of laughing children at public lynchings and wonder in horror “what were they doing?”, people will similarly look back at our age and at activities we can’t even fathom and react similarly.
Increasingly as I approach the topic of the “knowledgeability” of social actors, I realize the immensity of the issues, and the challenges faced by social analysts if they are to avoid the Charbydis of “cultural dopeyness” and the Scylla of “enlightened resisters“. By cultural dopeyness I refer to the image of modern humans as passive, unreflexive ‘no-nothings’ who are well socialized into their roles as happy consumers. This was the dominant image of social actors in the Parsonian functionalism of the late 1950s. By enlightened resisters I refer to the image of modern humans as active, reflexive ‘know-it-alls’ who have perfect awareness of the dominating structures of contemporary societies and who ongoingly engage in creative acts of resistance. This was a prevalent image of social actors in some versions of American cultural studies in the late 1980s.
It seems that every generation of social theorists reacts against the previous generations. My teachers, reacting against the orthodox consensus of the early 1960s, and its conception of social actors as “oversocialized” (Dennis Wrong) “cultural dopes” and “cheerful robots” sought to return robust knowledgeability and agency to modern subjects.
The social theories that I was drawn to as a graduate student during the 1980s (i.e., ethnomethodology and the cultural studies) sought to conceive of social actors as knowing why they do what they do, reflexively aware of the domination of the systems in which they operate, and creatively resisting the cultural ideologies circulating around them. This is what I mean by ‘robust knowledgeability and agency’.
Anthony Giddens, drawing upon these traditions famously articulated his “stratification model” of consciousness and motivation, in which societal members are seen as possessing varying levels of discursive and practical consciousness, and remain unconscious of other matters (Giddens 1984). Drawing upon Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor, the classic British ethnography of working-class youth dropping out of secondary schools, a powerful image emerged of the “lads’s” awareness of what the dominating structures of the schools were doing to them (preparing them for working-class jobs) and actively struggled with those sytems through creative acts of resistance.
The reflexive awareness and creative resistance of Willis’s lads is the dominant image of the knowledgeability and agency of social actors as found in that generation (1980s) of social analysts. Accordingly, oppressed people are not mere “cultural dopes”, blind to the powers of dominant ideologies. Moreover, they react against these systems and these powerful ideas through their mundane actions. It is against this image of “enlightened resisters” that I now react.
My point is that many modern social actors are often unreflexive and unaware of the oppressive ideologies that circulate around them and through them. I have learned this first-hand in my efforts for the past 20 years as an anti-oppression educator. People are often blind to dominant ideologies and creative resistance can be much more marginal than the cultural populists proclaim. While Willis’s lads might be aware of the role that schools play in reproducing capitalist inequalities, many working-class college students that I have worked with are unaware of their own sexist, racist and homophobic behavior. We swim in oceans of ideology that pass as commonsense.
I also learned about this through my study of early racist imagery in American popular culture. Specifically, I was concerned to see if senders of postcards with images of African Americans sent between 1893 and 1930 ever produced “resistant” readings of those images, as found in their flip-side messages. I examined about 1000 blatantly racist postcards and their flip-side handwritten messages. I NEVER found a resistant interpretation of these degrading images of “happy darkeys” and “savage brutes”. (Of course, why would the consumers of these images oppose their racist content?). The predominantly white postcard senders bought into the “dominant ideology” of the time. (Duh!) Resistance to these images was easily found in the wider culture and I explored the creative resistance found in the artwork of John Henry Adams, a prominent proponent of the image of the “New Negro” (Mellinger 1997).
Of course, this is not very surprising. Yet, the cultural theory emerging in the late 1980s when I conceived and launched this study suggested that “resistance” would be readily found, and that ordinary people are wise to the ways of ideological domination. As I wrote, the power of dominant ideologies “… may blind consumers to other interpretations” ( Mellinger 1994:775).
The Power of Ideologies to Blind Us
There is a prominent social theoretical tradition that speaks to human unawareness, “false consciousness”, and our vulnerability to ideological blinders. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’s project of historical materialism famously created an approach to modernity which highlighted workers’s lack of awareness of their own oppression under capitalism. “Class consciousness” is a reflexive understanding of one’s place in the capitalist relations of production. “False consciousness” is an unreflexive consciousness about one’s place in the capitalist relations of production.
For Marx, dominant ideologies often become accepted by subordinate classes as “the ways things actually are”. Following in Marx’s footsteps, Antonio Gramsci developed these ideas into the notion of ideological hegemony, in which ruling ideas become commonsense. For a review of my approach to understanding “dominant ideologies” as discursive texts, see my blog entry: “How Ideologies Work“.
Our understanding of the world is powerfully shaped by our culture. The dominant ideologies of our times can be so powerful that they blind us to other interpretations. I want to take the line of thinking used by Marx to talk about class consciousness and broaden it to incorporate all systems of ideology, including racism, sexism, homophobia, and also our ideological notions of progress, justice and our relationship to the Earth.
Unreflexive consciousness might be another way to discuss our lack of awareness of the dominant ideologies to which we fall victim. We remain unaware of how our ideas help to perpetuate a society structured in dominance. Obviously, there are varying levels of this, and to some extent we must all remain unreflexive about some issues.
One of the important things to note is that unreflexive consciousness can be “raised“. To raise consciousness is to remove ideological blinders, to become reflexively aware of power dynamics in modernity, and to understand one’s role in reproducing these oppressive systems. For example, a worker’s “false consciousness” can be removed and the worker can become class consciousness.
I have been greatly impressed with Erica Sherover-Marcuse’s work on “unlearning oppression“, and have developed hunks of my life and significant coursework around many of her insightful understandings on how oppression is learned, what it consists of and how it can be “unlearned”.
That there is so much oppression to be unlearned is a testament to the power of dominant ideologies to blind us. From my experience, most people have “work” to do on these topics, and I see myself as ongoingly unlearning oppressive attitudes from my childhood–around women, people of color, around gays and lesbians, disability, around adultism, speciesism, … Yes, we swim in ocean of ideology that pass as commonsense, but we can also unlearn oppressive ways of thinking and acting!
Rightly, the cultural populists have taught us that culture is a “site of struggle” and that domination is not total nor complete. They have rightly opened our eyes to the possibility of resistance. Now we need to train our eyes and figure out how much resistance there really is. Some workers are reflexively conscious of their position in the class system, others are not. These are empirical questions.
Moreover, the cultural populists have taught us that cultural texts are multivocal and different interpretations are possible. Ordinary people do not have to “buy into” the dominant ideologies offered by popular media culture. We must research people’s consciousness, reflexivity, awareness and levels of ideological ‘indoctrination’.
The concerns for the relationships between knowledge and society are fundamental to any social scientific approach to society. I want to go back to some of my initial concerns in the sociology of knowledge concerning our “embeddedness” in cultural belief systems that we largely cannot escape. In 1983 when I read Mel Pollner’s dissertation on “mundane reasoning” and “reality disjunctures”, I was fascinated by his discussion of Evans-Pritchard’s work on Azande witchcraft, and how their beliefs frame the very assumptions of their minds. (Back then, I was interested in researching neopagan witches I met in San Francisco and some of their metaphysical beliefs concerning the “personal construction of reality”).
I know that talk about “false consciousness”, “mass delusions” and “weird beliefs” can presuppose an “objective reality” to which the speaker has access. Like everyone else, I think my particular ideas about the world are correct, and that most others believe “unrealistic” stuff. I realize that others think the same way.
Relativism and loving tolerance are pragmatic ways out of this bind. I totally, lovingly accept that you think very differently than me, and I take a “live and let live” attitude on the surface. But deep down, and to myself, I think you are deluded, and wonder why you fall for all these crazy ideas.
Wayne Martin Mellinger
August 16, 2008