Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Daniel Shaw

It All Depends On What You Mean By 'Ideology'

 


 

 

 

Noel Carroll

_A Philosophy of Mass Art_

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998

ISBN 0198742371

425 pp.

 

'I think that Mass Art is predominately like other forms of narrative or representational art -- at least at a certain level of analytic generality.' (9)

 

This by no means casual observation, made by Noel Carroll in his introduction to _A Philosophy of Mass Art_, sets the tone for what follows. In as unhysterical a manner as could be imagined, Carroll attempts to defend mass art against its blanket detractors. This is the main rhetorical motivation behind his insightfully analytic discourse on the nature of mass art, which delves into the purposes and methods utilized by purveyors of the art form (or is it a style?) most characteristic of the twentieth century. Carroll is a cinephile, so it is no surprise that he would defend the merit of one of his main research interests. In so doing, he has written one of the most thought provoking books on aesthetics of 1998.

 

Part of what makes it so engaging is Carroll's willingness to grapple with the giants of the discipline. This also makes it an excellent textbook. In Chapter One, 'Philosophical Resistance to Mass Art', Carroll demolishes the objections raised by such philosophical critics as Dwight MacDonald, Clement Greenberg, R. G. Collingwood and Theodor Adorno. His logical reconstructions of their objections are useful, if sometimes oversimplified, and his criticisms are generally convincing, especially in ridiculing the notion that audiences are rendered passively mindless and uncritical by mass art. Most intriguing is his observation that their common motive in attacking popular culture was an intense desire to champion avant-garde (especially abstract) art over the mainstream narrative, representational tradition.

 

Enlisting support for his cause from Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan, Carroll offers a brilliant gloss on their familiar writings. The ostensible heart of the book is Chapter Three, 'The Nature of Mass Art', where he offers his characteristically traditional necessary-and-sufficient-condition definition of the concept, and defends it against the competing theories of David Novitz and John Fiske. Having been convinced years ago by Morris Weitz that such 'real' definitions were never attainable, and would be relatively useless if purely descriptive anyway, this was, to me, the least interesting reading.

 

The next foe to receive Carroll's withering analysis is Plato, with whom he differs greatly on the issue of 'Mass Art and the Emotions'. Deftly citing recent developments in cognitive theories of the emotions, which link the having of certain emotions with the rational beliefs they presuppose, Carroll explodes Plato's dualistic account of the opposition of reason and emotion. Without such an exclusive opposition, Plato's objections to art in general, and hence to mass art, must collapse.

 

The rest of Chapter Four continues Carroll's concerted attack on the notion of identification with fictional characters, in favor of what he now wishes to call 'criterial prefocusing'. I frankly have yet to understand his objections to the notion, or the virtues of the alternative that he offers. It still seems to me that such identifications are crucial to our emotional (and rational) responses to art works.

 

'Mass Art and Morality' is a spirited defense against the determined objections of Plato and his successors (like former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett), who continue to scream about the morally corrosive effects of popular art on contemporary culture. Carroll makes a strong case for the value that mass narratives can have in depicting concrete particular actions in situation, which serve to clarify the alternatives of moral agents. Such agents can make more autonomous choices as a result. Avoiding the usual polar opposition between 'monkey-see-monkey-do' advocates of censorship and cathartic Freudians, he claims that both camps have exaggerated the general impact of works of art, regardless of their intended audiences.

 

Carroll concludes his inquiry with a highly intriguing chapter on mass art and ideology, which indicates its importance in the present critical context. This is a topic in cinema studies on which I have been focusing for over a decade, and with which the balance of my remarks will be concerned. Carroll begins developing a theory of ideology by noting that the term has been used in pejorative and non-pejorative senses. According to its earliest formulations by Marx and Engels, ideology produces false consciousness by inverting social reality, in order to protect the vested interests of the dominant class. This is clearly a pejorative sense of the term, that assumes that Marxism itself is not ideological, because it tells the truth and champions the interests of a future classless society.

 

Louis Althusser, though a Marxist, considerably broadened the meaning of the term by claiming that ideology is an organic part of any society; even a communist one could not do without an ideology. Such a broadening implied that the term can be stripped of its pejorative implications, and understood as a general facet of cultural productions of any society or social group.

 

I would like to recast the debate in postmodern terms. The non-pejorative sense of the term 'ideology' is lent powerful support by the relativising tendencies of postmodernism, which find their roots in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. In this sense, analysis of the ideological nature of political and philosophic discourse focuses on its value-laden-ness, and the extent to which one's value commitments turn on ultimately unprovable claims about human nature, the purpose of life, and/or purportedly universal standards of morality.

 

Carroll calls particular attention to this issue by defining a proposition x as ideological if and only if x is false (or otherwise epistemologically defective) and if the belief in x is favorable to a practice of social domination. He then proceeds to pronounce absolutely on a fundamental human nature issue:

 

'Suppose greed is advanced as a piece of human nature in a context where a certain form of aggressive capitalist behavior represents a practice of social domination.

'My theory says that this is ideological because the claim that greed is natural is false and that its presumed truth is a tenet that has implications favorable to a certain practice of social domination.' (385)

 

I have no such confidence in essentialist claims concerning human nature of whatever stripe. What is most surprising is Carroll's announced motivation for opting for the pejorative sense of the term ideology:

 

'Academic critics of the ideology disseminated by mass art are committed to the autonomy of oppressed peoples, including their students. They engage in the study of ideology for the sake of justice. But, if they employ a broad, non-pejorative conception of ideology, then they will lose their moral edge . . . Why should a student trade in her traditional ideology for a new one, if both are equally ideological?' (368)

 

His touching concern for cultural critics is somewhat hard to fathom, since he has spilled a good deal of ink in indicting them for the very activities (stemming from procrustean theories) he is now so concerned to legitimate. While he is right that it makes their task somewhat harder to claim that all value dialogue is ideological (since the politics of suspicion has no firm ground of truth from which to deconstruct dominant cultural practices), such a ground is not necessary.

 

What Carroll seems to overlook is that many postmodern cultural critics (myself included) have inherited the mantle of existentialism, and that it is part and parcel of our championing autonomy to deny the existence of a discoverable, essential 'human nature' that could rationally and factually settle some of these ideological disputes. In an unpublished manuscript, I have characterized democracy, feminism and Freudianism as 'ideologies', though I remain committed, to a greater or lesser extent, to the basic tenets of each of these philosophical movements.

 

It is interesting in this connection to note that many left liberals have begun to shy away from such intellectual modesty, to the detriment of an open society. Political correctness has forged unholy alliances between, e.g. radical feminists and Christian conservatives over censorship of pornography. These radicals, who are as aware of objections to absolutism as anyone, indulge in such rhetoric when it suits their political purposes (and it does so increasingly these days).

 

To my mind, more havoc has been wrought by such absolutism than by all the morally corrosive relativism that has been said to have characterized this century. Stalin's purges, the Holocaust, atrocities in the Middle East and the Balkans, all have been done by people believing that they were in possession of the truth, and were furthering its cause by genocide. One can reveal the ideological presuppositions of any value discourse without thereby debunking the enterprise of ideological criticism. For, if one believes, pace certain existentialists, that we define ourselves through action, in service to a hierarchy of values we can fashion with relative autonomy, then the ability to recognize rhetorical devices and their operation in works of mass art can be seen to free one from their insidious grip.

 

That having been said, I must observe that the inventory of concrete rhetorical devices crucial to the ideological representations of mass art, begun by Carroll in the second part of the chapter, brings the book to a stunning close. He is at his best in generating empirically based typologies of aesthetic phenomena. The ways in which argumentative fables, narrative enthymemes, commonplaces and tendentious exemplifications 'may proffer ideological tenets to audiences' are illustrated with some great cinematic examples.

 

Consider his analysis of the centrality of the narrative enthymeme to mass fiction. Incidents in D. W. Griffith's _Birth of a Nation_ make no sense, and are hence repugnant to many in the modern day audience, unless one ascribes to the then commonplace notion that white people are morally superior to black people. As this is never explicitly stated, the audience must actively provide this commonplace prejudice to complete the enthymeme. Couple this with the frequency with which such commonplaces provide the moral of the story, and title of the film: _You Can't Take It With You_, _It's a Wonderful Life_, _Father Knows Best_, _The Life of Riley_, etc., and one begins to realize how often Hollywood confirms cultural truisms. _The Wizard of Oz_ and 'There's no place like home' sprang to my mind immediately.

 

Tendentious instantiations are truths that are distortedly used to support some process of domination (hence not all ideological propositions are, strictly speaking, false). Carroll discusses such distortions as the character Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) misleading viewers about the social status of black people in America, and the casting of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in a positive light as the vigilante in _Death Wish_. _Dirty Harry_ is an archetype, because 'by offering Zodiac as the paradigm of the urban criminal, the film has favourable implications for authoritarian police practices' (407). While there are upper-middle-class blacks in America, they are not the norm. While crazy urban criminals like Zodiac do exist, they are in the minority. While urban police do sometimes fail to protect their citizens, vigilantism is not the only alternative. The epistemological defect here is in depicting true circumstances as misleadingly characteristic of the whole in question, in a fashion that invites the audience to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization.

 

So, while differing with Carroll as to whether all value talk is ultimately rhetorical, I admire his ability to identify the rhetorical devices that are particularly (but not solely) characteristic of mass narratives. He remains too much of a Platonist, embracing an absolute dichotomy between rational argumentation and rhetoric. Showing a decided preference for the former, Carroll seems to cling to the notion that logic will lead us to the truth about values, and that rhetoric is pure sophistry with a marked tendency to falsehood. It is part of the radical nature of the postmodern deconstruction of Platonism to deny that dichotomy, and to claim that, in the battle between the Platonists and the Sophists, the wrong side won.

 

For, the non-pejorative sense of the term 'ideology' implies that all value discourse is ultimately rhetorical (and not, by the way, that all cultural artefacts are ideological, a much broader claim). The use of sophistry also loses its pejorative connotations in such an intellectual landscape. For all it now means is that the production of certain cultural artefacts (like films) is intended to help persuade audiences to make certain value commitments. Since life is given what value it has by the strength of the commitment of individuals to those values, value talk is necessarily rhetorical. To put it another way, while rationality may indicate the most efficient means to certain ends, it cannot determine the ends to be pursued. Pragmatists, existentialists and most postmodernists (imagine the Venn diagram of those overlapping sets!) share this realization.

 

The upshot of my disagreement with Carroll, then, is to question his pejorative definition of ideology, which requires ideological propositions to be false, or otherwise epistemologically suspect. With that strong reservation having been voiced, I heartily recommend _A Philosophy of Mass Art_ to anyone interested in film aesthetics and/or mass communications, and enthusiastically join him in his project of identifying the characteristic rhetorical devices in film.

 

Lock Haven University, Pennsylvania, USA

 

______________________

 

Daniel Shaw, 'It All Depends On What You Mean By 'Ideology'',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 3, January 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n3shaw>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

  

 

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