I have lately been troubled by the question of false consciousness, partly because none of my comrades, girlfriend included, believes me when I say that the concept is pointless because it presupposes metaphysical realism, or a correspondence theory of truth, or a notion of objectivity that is quaint at best. Everybody shrugs off my position as another instance of my irritation at (with?) the Left. It is that, to be sure, but it’s more than a minor irritation, I believe, because it leads so many smart leftists into an unwitting Leninism.
Herewith, then, an excerpt from an email exchange with a smart young leftist who can’t believe that I won’t accuse workers of being wrong when they vote to balance budgets. The crux of the matter is this: the social reality he designates as “objective” is not, strictly speaking, sociological, but is rather saturated with and constituted by language, or, if you like, ideology. So my guess is that the objectivity of this social reality is out of anyone’s intellectual reach, Althusser included. But you go ahead and, uh, make up your own mind.
I begin by quoting his urgent question.
Dear [ ],
I’ll address the question you asked me:
“But look, let’s drop the theoretical disagreement because I’m curious to know if you agree with the following statement. “Poor workers who think that balancing the budget is the most responsible fiscal policy, and best for their economic prospects, are wrong. When they vote for a candidate who takes that position, they vote against their own interests.”
My initial response, was “No, they’re not wrong.”
Now you say “let’s drop the theoretical disagreement” at precisely the moment you posit this hypothetical, which, all by itself, is a remarkable, and hilarious, rhetorical move.
So let me be as plain as I can be. Poor workers who think that balancing the budget is the most responsible fiscal policy, and best for their economic interests, are wrong only if you believe–I do not say think, because this is now a matter of faith–that you can invoke “the objectivity of a social reality” (I”m quoting you) as against, I take it, a natural reality. These “poor workers” you invoke, who also crowd the Kansas of Tom Frank’s lurid imagination, are wrong only if you believe (a) that there is a fixed, unitary social reality, an objectivity, which gets distorted by ideology, and (b) that you are immune to this ideological distortion.
Put it this way. You actually believe that someone like you is better able to grasp the “objectivity of a social reality” than are poor workers, because your privilege, your education, has better equipped you to see the world as it really is, without the ornamentation of language, without the bias of place or time–absent the subaltern subject position they suffer from. You’ve been able to rise above ideological distortion. Notice what you have made of yourself: God. Your perspective is from nowhere. In the name of those poor workers, you have turned yourself into the God who will judge them for their sins against the “objectivity of a social reality,” the sins that usually congregate under the heading of false consciousness.
If you already know their interests, you’re omniscient. Is that what you want to be? If so, write novels, not history.
Put it another way. The so-called distortions of ideology are not incidental to human existence, to be struck through as if there’s a deeper layer of reality or meaning (“the mask”) that somehow remains. To be human is to have language and therefore to make mistakes–to discover that the relation between a word and the thing is a joke, that we’re always missing the mark, realizing that there’s no fixed correlation between the signs and the reality they signify. To be human is to be metaphorical. To be or not to be? Make the mistake–make the commitment to what will probably kill you–and then see what is to be done.
Error, and therefore truth, are only possible where there is language. I’m quoting Anthony Wilden, who’s quoting Lacan, who’s quoting Kojeve, who’s quoting Hegel.
Let me see if I can translate or summarize what they have taught me. The meanings incarnated by our words cannot be known outside of our discourse, but it is the free play of discourse that permits words to combine, and produce meanings, in ways that do not and cannot correspond to any natural or fixed or external essence. Fantasy is what we call this freedom from the essential, and it is the motor of human history: causative in the most fundamental sense. Kojeve called it the ontological category of Negativity, a cool way of saying the Cunning of Reason. Freud called it many names, Althusser wore himself out trying to explain how it worked. In any case, ideology is a version of fantasy that blurs the R-I-S, as comrade Zizek reminds us.
The bottom line. False consciousness is the worst possible way of explaining anything, and that includes yourself, because all consciousness is false, and, as Hegel said in passing–or maybe not–in the Phenomenology, “The false is no longer false as a moment of the true.”