skip to content

Ideological Criticism

As we’ve already seen in our review of cluster and narrative criticism, rhetorical acts and artifacts can reveal a great deal about the values and beliefs of the rhetor and the rhetor’s culture—but the critic has to know how to look for them. An ideological critic looks past the surface meaning of an artifact, and past the success of the specific argument to uncover the beliefs and values driving the argument.

An ideological critic offers a lens through which to focus not (only) on the rhetorical strategies of a particular artifact, but on its social and political goals and presumptions.

Ideology. An ideology is a coordinated body of ideas or beliefs about social existence that a subgroup or culture shares in common; it defines a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture. Your book calls it a “mental framework—the language, ‘concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation’ that a group deploys to make sense of and define a world or some aspect of it” (209). Ideologies are made up of what ancient rhetoricians called “commonplaces,” beliefs held in common by a the members of a particular community.

If we describe someone as a conservative or a liberal, we are implying that her political practices are guided by a distinct set of beliefs about human nature and social existence. If we refer to someone as an environmentalist, we imply that his ethical, economic, social, and political practices are governed by a specific body of beliefs about human and social existence. Capitalism, socialism, anarchism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, individualism, multiculturalism, patriotism, environmentalism, AA, karate, yoga, ayurveda, Western medicine's "hippocratic oath"—these are all examples of specific ideologies.

Hegemony. The power of an ideology is measured by the degree to which it influences the beliefs and actions of relatively large groups of relatively powerful people. Ideologies embraced by large and powerful groups are called dominant or hegemonic; ideologies embraced by small or marginalized groups called subordinate. Hegemony is the name we give to the privileged ways of seeing or thinking about the world, which dominate ways of seeing or thinking held by subordinate groups. Hegemony thus constitutes a “kind of social control, a means of symbolic coercion or form of domination by more powerful groups over the ideologies of those with less power” (Foss 210). One of the reasons rhetoricians are interested in ideology, iow, is because it has persuasive power; hegemonic ideology aims to move you to a particular attitude or action, with or without the rhetor’s knowledge or intention. “When an ideology becomes hegemonic, it accumulates ‘the symbolic capital to map or classify the world for others.’ It invites ‘us to understand what participants see as natural or obvious by establishing the norm. Normal discourse, then maintains the ideology, and challenges to it seem abnormal’” (210). Hegemonic ideology presents its particular view of the world as the natural view, as the way things are or have to be.

One of the critic’s goals is to expose and articulate the persuasive force of ideology in rhetorical acts and artifacts.

Counter-Hegemony. Of course, the status of a minority or a dominant ideology is subject to change. A few decades ago, environmentalism influenced the practices and discourses of only a few people. But today, environmentalism has challenged the hegemony of far more powerful ideologies: individualism and capitalism. In the State of the Union address a few weeks ago, President Obama claimed combatting global warming as one of the top policy goals of his second term. Those who do not ascribe to this environmentalist ideology, which challenges other ideologies, responded with anger and frustration.

“To maintain a position of dominance, a hegemonic ideology must be renewed, reinforced, and defended continually through the use of rhetorical strategies and practices. Resistance to the dominant ideology is muted or contained, and its impact thus is limited by a variety of sophisticated rhetorical strategies” (210). And again, part of the critic’s job is to expose these rhetorical strategies.

There are ideologies embedded in 12-step programs, dieting plans, dog training courses, online dating sites, health care plans, and so on, each of which includes a “set or pattern of beliefs that evaluates relevant issues and topics for a group, provides an interpretation of some domain of the world, and encourages particular attitudes and actions to it” (Foss 210). The job of the critic would be to identify and articulate those patterns of belief.

In this class, we will attend to three types of ideological criticism: Marxist, feminist, and deconstructionist, each of which aims to expose, through very different means, the ideologies operating in rhetorical acts and artifacts.

Hart and Daughton note that ideological criticism of all stripes embrace three general themes (311-312):

  1. All criticism is politically self-interested. That is, even Neo-Aristotelian criticisism, for all its claims to objectivity, necessarily makes all kinds of "latent historical or theoretical assumptions." Ideological critics do not feign objectivity in their assertions. They affirm their assumptions, and from there, they attempt to expose particular assumptions operating in a rhetorical artifact. 
  2. Criticism should be expansionistic. Ideological critics often study previously ignored texts, those not produced by "the monopoly of officialdom," as Hart and Daughton put it (e.g., by "white, Anglo-Saxon, centrist males"). The ideological critic tries to "re-read culture so as to amplify and strategically position the marginalized voices of the ruled, exploited, oppressed, and excluded."
  3. Criticism should be oppositional. Ideological critics do not feel obliged to "honor the text the author had in mind." That is, they are not constrained by the author's intentions (what the author meant to write or accomplish); that approach, say Hart and Daughton, resulted in "a gospel of 'intentionalism' that reproduced the author's worldview." Ideological critics resist this gospel and instead examine what's happening in the text, often despite the author's intended interpretation. 

Typical questions all stripes of ideological critics ask include (312): 

  • What kind of social or political attitudes or statements would fit in with this text? What would not? Why?
  • How is this text contributing to oppression and/or helping to throw it off?
  • What elements of the message contradict and/or reinforce the status quo?

Powered by Drupal. CrystalX theme created by Nuvio | Webdesign.