Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Ideology, predestination, and the stories we tell

In one of his fascinating little fragments, the Jesuit thinker Michel de Certeau describes the social function of narratives: “Information, a private code, innervates and saturates the social body. From morning till evening, unceasingly, streets and buildings are haunted by narratives. [The narratives] articulate our existences by teaching us what they should be…. Seized from the moment of awakening by the radio (the voice of the law), the listener walks all day through a forest of narrativities, journalistic, advertising and televised, which, at night, slip a few final messages under the door of sleep. More than the God recounted to us by the theologians of the past, these tales have a function of providence and predestination: they organize our work, our celebrations – even our dreams – in advance” (The Certeau Reader, p. 125).

I rather like this connection between cultural narratives and predestination. Certeau’s “more than” here is not mere rhetoric, but it seems exactly right. The classical Christian belief in an all-determining providence was at the same time a belief in the hiddenness of the divine determination. True, you interpreted all your daily circumstances through a specific theological lens, but in this very act of interpretation you were presupposing a gap between “appearance” and “reality” – or rather, your consciousness itself was this gap.

In contrast, the “forest of narrativities” of which Certeau speaks is much more predestining, since here the gap between appearance and reality collapses. The cluster of narratives which organises our consciousness and even our dreams – that is “reality”; reality is that representation. This disappearance of the gap between reality and appearance is close to Slavoj Žižek’s definition of ideology: “ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ideological” (The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 21). Or as Žižek memorably puts it in his marvellous film, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the illusion of the cinema screen is more real – it has more material “density”, more effectivity – than reality itself.

There is nothing “more real” than the stories we tell ourselves; it’s stories all the way down. And the church exists to tell a different story – to create spaces, for instance, “in which alternative stories about material goods are told” (William Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, p. 94), so that a different kind of social order can emerge. Or to return to Certeau’s remarkable insight – “even our dreams” are organised by ideology – perhaps, as Christians, we need to ask ourselves whether we dream differently.


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