The Talking Lion

Sunday, June 26, 2005


I recently finished reading Immortality (1990) by Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera, and a point he makes in the novel, and what I’m about to write will in no way reveal anything about it, or ruin anything for you, but will more likely intrigue you and push you in the direction of Kundera-reading, an extremely noble activity, makes a very good addition to what I had to say in my last post, regarding the war of images and metaphors in contemporary political discourse, rather than reason and fact (or more likely, reason and fact have been subsumed by metaphor). What Kundera describes is the triumph of “imagology":
The advertising agencies of the Communist Party (the so-called agitprop departments) have long forgotten the practical goal of their activity (to make the communist system better liked) and have become an end in themselves: they have created their own language, their formulas, their aesthetics (the heads of these agencies once had absolute power over art in their countries), their idea of the right life-style, which they cultivate, disseminate, and force upon their unfortunate peoples.

Are you objecting that advertising and propaganda cannot be compared, because one serves commerce and the other ideology? You understand nothing. Some one hundred years ago in Russia, persecuted Marxists began to gather secretly in small circles in order to study Marx's manifesto; they simplified the contents of this simple ideology in order to disseminate it to other circles, whose members, simplifying further and further this simplification of the simple, kept passing it on and on, so that when Marxism became known and powerful on the whole planet, all that was left of it was a collection of six or seven slogans so poorly linked that it can hardly be called an ideology. And precisely because the remnants of Marx no longer form any logical system of ideas, but only a series of suggestive images and slogans (a smiling worker with a hammer, black, white, and yellow men fraternally holding hands, the dove of peace rising to the sky, and so on and so on), we can rightfully talk of a gradual, general, planetary transformation of ideology into imagology.

...Nowadays, however, the imagologue not only does not try to hide his activity, but often even speaks for his politician clients, explains to the public what he taught them to do or not to do, how he told them to behave, what formula they are likely to use, and what tie they are likely to wear. We needn't be surprised by this self-confidence: in the last few decades, imagology has gained a historic victory over ideology.

All ideologies have been defeated: in the end their dogmas were unmasked as illusions and people stopped taking them seriously....Reality was stronger than ideology. And it is in this sense that imagology surpassed it: imagology is stronger than reality...

Public opinion polls are the critical instrument of imagology's power, because they enable imagology to live in absolute harmony with the people....And since for contemporary man reality is a continent visited less and less often and besides, justifiably disliked, the findings of polls have become a kind of higher reality, or to put it differently: they have become the truth. Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function it is to create truth, the most democratic truth that has ever existed. Because it will never be at variance with the parliament of truth, the power of imagologues will always live in truth, and although I know that everything human is mortal, I cannot imagine anything that could break this power.

I want to add to this comparison of ideology and imagology: ideology was like a set of enormous wheels at the back of the stage, turning and setting in motion wars, revolutions, reforms. The wheels of imagology turn without having any effect upon history. Ideologies fought with one another, and each of them was capable of filling a whole epoch with its thinking. Imagology organizes peaceful alternation of its systems in lively seasonal rhythms. In Paul's [a character in the novel] words: ideology belonged to history, while the reign of imagology begins where history ends.

Imagologues create systems of ideals and anti-ideals, systems of short duration that are quickly replaced by other systems but that influence our behavior, our political opinions and aesthetic tastes, the color of carpets and the selection of books, just as in the past we have been ruled by the systems of ideologues.

That's a nice selection of quotes that will give you a fairly good illustration of Kundera's idea, and I think it should be obvious how this hooks up with the conclusions of my last post, so what I want to briefly discuss is the veracity of his diagnosis of the contemporary political and cultural climate, and of "history" as such.

What I'm most immediately struck by is a "that's exactly right" intuition which I've been trying to get at for quite some time but which I haven't exactly been able to put my conceptual finger on--our contemporary political and cultural discourse creates "truths" totally divorced from reality. Furthermore, I think that on the surface the "culture war" (an imagologistic slogan if there ever was one) represents imagologies in conflict (liberal v. conservative, or whatever labels we come up with) rather than ideologies.

However, there is nothing I am more skeptical of that dogmas that announce an "end to history"--and this is what all ideologies, political or religious, in some sense try to do: they promise us a terminal point, either salvation or utopia or whatever, beyond which things stop and justice is meted out and everything is perfect.* (Wrench from oneself the urge to see in the world ends to history!) I think the lesson to take is that we have reached a point in which our talking is not connected to reality in any causal way, so our thoughts are easily manipulated, but I am skeptical of the idea that at any time the common person's view of the world has been more "reality based" (to use a current terme d'art)--reality is always open only to an elite, and it is the elite constituted by the honest and the curious.

My tentative thesis is that our situation is just another episode in history, and that it is intricately tied into having a literate public, and capitalism and democracy. That every person takes in media allows them to be controlled by the media, unless they are of great thoughtfulness. Information is the new mode of production, and the mode of production contains within itself the means of control and the inducement to conformity. So while much of this is regrettable, what in history isn't? Furthermore, I would not rule out ideology as still playing a roll, but it is a roll several layers deep into the world onion, whereas imagology exists on the outer layers. The war on Iraq was motivated by an ideology of sorts, one with its roots in capitalism and imperialism. That is just an example. However, because we live in the country we do, in which some deference must be made to the opinions of the public, it is necessary to control those opinions. Hence imagology. So there are two things going on: 1) imagology is a tool of more covert ideologies that an elite are allowed access to and 2) in terms of culture at large imagology is its own master.

* I am not of course accusing Kundera of an "end of history ideology"--for one thing, this is a novel, and more importantly, I think what he is saying is perfectly compatible with my view.


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