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Slavoj Zizek: Quotes & Ideology

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about the philosopher Slavoj Zizek's writings on ideology. We'll talk about what he means by this and look at some famous quotes.

Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek was born in former Yugoslavia, in what is now the Republic of Slovenia. He is a philosopher and cultural theorist who has written extensively on many social issues in the contemporary world. Zizek is something of a public figure and has been an outspoken critic of capitalism. He is known for his calls to radically reform society and implement a more truly democratic world.

Zizek has been a prolific writer and many of his ideas are very complicated. In this lesson, we'll focus on the concept of ideology, which is one of the most important ideas in critical theory. We'll talk about how Zizek has defined and expanded this concept in his writings.

Slavoj Zizek at a demonstration
Zizek

Ideology

Ideology is one of the central concepts Zizek deals with in his writings. So what, exactly, is ideology? Basically, social theorists from varying perspectives have defined ideology as a system of beliefs, ideas, or myths that are created by larger social forces and that are mostly unconscious to us. In other words, we come to believe things in our society, but it's almost like we don't know that we believe them. Ideology can blind us to the ills in our society.

The function of ideology, for many critical theorists, is that it covers up power and domination. When we believe in a particular ideology, it makes it difficult for us to see who holds all the power in society and how this might be harmful to us. Zizek sees ideology as having three parts. First, ideology is a set of ideas. Second, Zizek thinks ideology has a material component, or put another way, ideology needs something concrete, like an organization, to help spread it. And finally, ideology becomes part of our social world.

The third moment here -- when ideology becomes part of our social world -- is key, because this is when it starts to seem to us that ideology is invisible. In other words, we lose sight of the beliefs or the systems of beliefs and ideology starts to seem completely natural, seamlessly integrated into our social world. In order for ideology to really work, we need all three of these things, according to Zizek. Ideology needs to remain hidden in order for domination to work.

If you think about it, what if we really knew ideology existed and were aware of it all the time in our day to day lives? It probably wouldn't be as good at masking power. Zizek (and many other critical theorists) use capitalism as an example. We are blind to the way that capitalism is an unequal system, but we accept it and it seems natural to us. This is ideology at work.

Zizek differed from other important thinkers, notably Karl Marx, by suggesting that ideology is not simply an illusion but that reality itself is ideology. Here's an example that Zizek himself used in an interview: When the financial crisis of 2008 created turmoil in the global economy, a famous economist was asked if, now that we know what caused the crisis, will we avoid it in the future? The economist said no. It wouldn't matter and it would happen again. Why? Well, according to Zizek, this is because of ideology. We sort of had an idea that the crisis was happening, but we are almost blinded by it and we can't really escape ideology. So, we can't see a way out of our current economic system. We can't find anything outside of ideology because ideology is society, according to Zizek. This is what is known as an ideological fantasy.

Let's get a better idea of what Zizek is talking about by exploring some quotes from his own writing that explain some of these ideas.

Notable Quotations

Ideology can designate anything from a contemplative attitude that misrecognises its dependence on social reality to an action-orientated set of beliefs, from the indispensible medium through which individuals live out their relations to a social structure to false ideas which legitimate a dominant political power.

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