On the Death of Ideology

I picked up a friend from Italy at Dulles airport this evening, who will be staying with us for a couple of weeks, and we had a pretty interesting conversation on the ride home. The conversation immediately erupted into news about Barak Obama’s candidacy for president. And there was a real energy in the conversation, she was fresh off a nine hour flight from Milan, and she was truly excited about the prospect. And while I’m deeply wary of America’s two party system and often see their “different” positions as a matter of calculated degrees rather than heartfelt belief, I have to admit that as we were talking I was fired up as well. I got excited about US politics for the first time in a long, dreadful while, and it’s an energy I think I have been reading in other people’s work as well. Call me crazy, but reading Stephen Downes’s quote from Robert F. Kennedy on his Half an Hour blog last week, and then his post Friday on the OL Daily talking about his visit to RFK’s grave on the fortieth anniversary of his death, I was again excited. Did I mention that the sky in Northern Virginia was alight with electricity during our ride him, an intense lightening storm lit up the windshield and the scattered explosions were wild—-I wish you could have seen them.

But I digress, our excited talk about Obama quickly moved to the current state of things and how generally stagnant and asleep the US is currently. We have begun descent into an insane mortgage crisis fueled by speculative greed and unrepentant capital run amok. We are currently entering an oil crisis that we are all just waiting to see spiral out of control, not to mention the long, drawn out war premised on more misinformed speculation and reactionary nationalism left unchecked. And the question of why everything has been pretty quiet here during the 21st century, despite all these facts, was raised. Valentina said matter of factly, it’s “the death of ideology…no one has anything to really believe in anymore.” She was right, and it totally made sense to me, just goes to show you that an Italian is not afraid to use the word ideology in a conversation without entirely discounting it as something odious—rank with connotations of the Berlin Wall.

Creative Commons License photo credit: oskay

This discussion got me thinking about a couple of things, and they all have to do with this question of ideology which is on my mind a lot lately. What does this word mean exactly? And has it died? Well, given I have been spending some time on Wikipedia, I clicked over there and did some preliminary research. Here is an interesting definition:

An ideology is an organized collection of ideas. The word ideology was coined by Destutt de Tracy in 1796[1][2] (during the French Revolution) to define a “science of ideas”. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things (compare Weltanschauung), as in common sense (see Ideology in everyday society below) and several philosophical tendencies (see Political ideologies), or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society. The main purpose behind an ideology is to offer change in society through a normative thought process. Ideologies are systems of abstract thought (as opposed to mere ideation) applied to public matters and thus make this concept central to politics. Implicitly every political tendency entails an ideology whether or not it is propounded as an explicit system of thought.

The “ideology in Everyday Society” section of this article notes the following:

In public discussions, certain ideas arise more commonly than others. Often people with diverse backgrounds and interests may find themselves thinking alike in startling ways. Social scientists might explain this phenomenon as evidence of ideologies.

Dominant ideologies appear as “neutral”, holding to assumptions that are largely unchallenged. Meanwhile, all other ideologies that differ from the dominant ideology are seen as radical, no matter what the content of their actual vision may be. The philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the concept of apparent ideological neutrality. Ideology is not the same thing as philosophy. Philosophy is a way of living life, while ideology is an almost ideal way of life for society. Some attribute to ideology positive characteristics like vigor and fervor, or negative features like excessive certitude and fundamentalist rigor.

Organizations that strive for power will try to influence the ideology of a society to become closer to what they want it to be. Political organizations (governments included) and other groups (e.g. lobbyists) try to influence people by broadcasting their opinions.

When most people in a society think alike about certain matters, or even forget that there are alternatives to the status quo, we arrive at the concept of Hegemony, about which the philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote. Modern linguists study the mechanism of conceptual metaphor, by which this ‘thinking alike’ is thought to be transmitted.

Wow, there’s a mouthful. But if you have gotten this far, the question is not so much that ideology is dead, but that our moment is projected back to us as one without alternatives. The dominant ideology (and given the apparent lack of alternatives may qualify as hegemony, or even post-hegemony)  which I would argue  we are immersed in currently is characterized by a push to consume mindlessly and develop irresponsibly in order to rack up as much capital as possible—so many “everyday people” were mainlined into this speculative market logic during the stock boom of the mid to late 90s and the housing boom of the turn of this century. After 9/11, the US went to war while most home owners in this country were calculating how much equity they accumulated, and then taking out loans to consume more. Neo-liberalism? I think so—it’s “the normative thought process” that remains the predominant ideology of our cultural moment. So, I don’t think we are without ideology, I just think the dominant one we have is premised on making itself appear as if there is a vacuum of alternatives fueled by the feeling that one can’t make a difference. The apotheosis of ideology is when it manifests itself as a naturalized reality. As if humanity was somehow tossed back into a world without ideology—a kind of cultural facticity (to borrow a concept from Heidegger).

And therein lies the problem, and it is a creative problem. Think about what else is out there right now? Communism? Socialism? A New Deal? The Civil Rights movement? What? Where is there an alternative? And while our culture is currently slumbering beneath the covers of one predominant ideology, why should “all other ideologies that differ from the dominant ideology [be] seen as radical”?

Meme vs. Ideology

Recently I have been involved in what many have referred to as a “meme.” A word I feel uncomfortable with, and I think I finally have the occasion to think it through a bit more specifically.

What is a meme? Well, according to Wikipedia….

Memes propagate themselves and can move through a “culture” in a manner similar to the behavior of a virus. As a unit of cultural evolution, a meme in some ways resembles a gene. Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene,[2] recounts how and why he coined the term meme to describe how one might extend Darwinian principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. He gave as examples tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothing-fashions, and the technology of building arches.

Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (similarly to Darwinian biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity’s reproductive success. So with memes, some ideas will propagate less successfully and become extinct, while others will survive, spread, and, for better or for worse, mutate. “Memeticists argue that the memes most beneficial to their hosts will not necessarily survive; rather, those memes that replicate the most effectively spread best, which allows for the possibility that successful memes may prove detrimental to their hosts.”[3]

I kow what you meme t-shortHow many of you knew that this idea of a meme was so closely allied to a Darwinian notion of natural selection? This is fascinating to me! The scientific language used in the passage above smacks of a kind of survival of the fittest, laissez faire social darwinism that diagnoses a cultural phenomenon in order to explain it away. The very language is eternally fatalistic: “‘Memeticists argue that the memes most beneficial to their hosts will not necessarily survive; rather, those memes that replicate the most effectively spread best, which allows for the possibility that successful memes may prove detrimental to their hosts.'” What? —memes are a cultural virus that we catch and then hope and pray that they are not detrimental? Jesus, we have all become powerless hosts of our own culture, invaded by ideas that will or will not propagate regardless of any thought we might have. This may very well be the most anti-intellectual definition of a social phenomenon I have ever read.

Yet, it is the normative logic of how we “host” ideas that we catch regularly on the internet. What could be a more naturalized framing of an idea, complete with natural sciences jargon and theories, presenting information as a series of ideas that may seem closer to some genetic design that we have to accept rather then one which we come to with some kind of critical examination. In many ways the definition of a meme frames it as natural invasion of information, but if you think about it, it is entirely external to any kind of individual will. It is something we have no control over and have to accept as our lot—and this may account for why it is so easy for people to write off a meme as such. They have no mode of discourse within it, it is in many ways sealed off from them, they can be a host but that is not the same as being a vessel.

So, it is of particular interest to me that this recent meme, I’ll name it: EDUPUNK, has been defined in its fledgling (and most probably short-lived) Wikipedia article as an ideology:

Edupunk is an ideology referring to teaching and learning practices that result from a do it yourself (DIY) attitude. Many instructional applications can be described as DIY education or Edupunk. It describes inventive teaching and inventive learning.

What is interesting to me is that this definition of EDUPUNK as an ideology has seemingly won out over meme. In fact, the wikipedia article never referred to it as a meme, it was first described as a term at the article’s inception on May 30th, 2008 thanks to David Warlick, and then on June 2nd changed to ideology by a person at IP address They also added a reference later on in the article remarking that it was “somewhat similar to punk ideologies.” So the relationship of this term (primarily the PUNK part, because EDU doesn’t really have any ideologies, just websites and emails 🙂 ) to a pre-existing set of “Punk ideologies” which “are a group of varied social and political beliefs associated with the punk subculture.”

So, what we have here is something that is quite different from the scientific definition of a meme grafted upon this social phenomenon (how did that work out for Social Darwinism, huh?) apparently because we can identify a set of “varied social and political beliefs” in punk. A pluralistic vision of ideologies that are premised on social struggle and political visions. As much as other musical genres have been thrown around in response to EDUPUNK over the last two weeks, I’m not sure how many of them have had such readily apparent and articulated social and political beliefs.¹ Hmmm, why is that more appealing to me than some term that invokes social darwinism in order to exploit the speed of information during our moment to discount the exchange of ideas and concepts as viral. A meme becomes something entirely denatured from any kind of political and social belief system.

So running with this idea, EDUPUNK is an ideology because it names a social and political struggle over the future of teaching and learning and it implies a series of beliefs, however varied, uncertain, and ill-defined. I like that, and I know if anyone actually reads this far, the word ideology in the Wikipedia article will be changed shortly to meme, and I like that too. I like it, because it draws into sharp focus what so few people seem to understand about the value of wikipedia (and the best of the internets more generally), it’s one of the few public places where an open, at times collaborative and others contentious, struggle over the meaning of ideas transpires. That’s important, and I think the morewe believe in ideas and preparing ourselves to struggle with them and over them, the further away we’ll get from memes and hopefully a bit closer to the very condition of possibility for our work: thinking and imagining creatively about the politics of our moment, and what it is we do.

Let the meme die, long live the ideology!!!

1. What are Pop music’s social and political beliefs? Disco? And how about Funk? Or even Rock? One might make a case for hippie music (does it have a name other than the Grateful Dead? Folk? psychedelic?) and Jazz, issues which I will defer to the myriad experts out there, one of which I am not.

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11 Responses to On the Death of Ideology

  1. lucychili says:

    imho Expression of ideology is different.
    The mechanisms whereby ideology could effect useful change through good public process and debate is missing. The mechanisms by which people express and practice their personal ethics and ideology are disconnected from the economics and governance and law of nations.

    This is because there is no room for ecological or social priorities or even for negotiated outcomes in an economic rationalist capital oriented system which as Lessig suggests, can only hear as money would tell it.

    Obama has managed to engage people with his authenticity and his hope. The people have ideology hope and caoncerns about social and ecological matters. This is a good achievement but the primary challenge is to unpack the mechanics of economic rationalism so that they are reconnected to the consequences and costs of impact and actions.

    If the real world with its diversity and subtle interrelationships between organisms, matter, life, time is 100% fidelity, then our understanding of that mesh is only very approximate, and we are losing the cultural perspectives which have functioned wtih high fidelity in local ecological contexts in order to function at greater scales. In order to shift from a network of diverse interoperating value to a model of monoculture culture and physical and of fenced ownership whereby value is within a context and conquest is without.

    This kind of value proposition has been scaled up from humanist faith based or regional patterns of value to something which is completely abstracted and without foundation or responsibility.

    In that context ideology is not visible.
    It functions for example in colour or subtletlies of grey
    and the global models we use are like a 10 generation photocopy
    and only have very black and white approximate blobs left.
    Those blobs are mobile and the money, war and activity move according to those blobs acting in the best interests of the sources of funds.

    Law is reshaped by levers such as the USFTA and makes local legal structures incongruent and unbalanced. Copyright functions as a single source of value with distributed costs in a time when we are making value in distributed ways. All of the frameworks we have are engineered for that scale and orientation of value. They increasingly reduce the footprint of that value proposition and concentrate value while generating wider dysfunction without responsibility.

    So people do make ideology but the mechanics of participation are now more oriented as consumer choices and do not have the means to maintain coherence or fidelity even at the social level for actions or infrastructure which is in the diffuse public interest unless there is capital or strategic advantage.
    This makes society neo-feudal. Participative culture operates at higher fidelity using distributed practice. The challenge for people interested in humanist and ecologically responsible economics is to find ways to make change which keeps the fidelity and the comprehension of the value of diverse complex biological and cultural systems and is also able to effect common ground and consensus on shared priorities.

    Hope, open participative practice, social ecology, and skills for negotiating contention which do not aspire to binary patterns of system v maverick, win v lose, might is right, and thereby lose the capacity for pluralist outcomes.

    We need to choose participative skills in negotiation of contention instead of fences and filters around value in order to make changes which can hear differently.

    Perhaps there might be new ideologies and understandings if we are working with better data and skill.

    In our current mode we are increasingly like Speedracer.
    Doing what we always do because thats what we know.

  2. Reverend says:

    Wow! that is without question the most intense and thoughtful comment I have ever received. Not only have you thought about all of this far more intelligently than I have, but seems like you have worked out the framework for a kind of ideological alternative—it may be dangerous to call it that—and this idea you suggest:

    Hope, open participative practice, social ecology, and skills for negotiating contention which do not aspire to binary patterns of system v maverick, win v lose, might is right, and thereby lose the capacity for pluralist outcomes.

    This quote marries some really fascinating initiatives within a communal based society, that —and this seems so key to me—can finally move away from the logical dichotomies that ultimately frame, and by extension restrict, most of our thinking currently. And this post is an excellent example of that.

    As I continue to digest your comment, I’ll return with more…

  3. Jim, you and Lucychili have both put some interesting thought in to your post and comment – I will admit I went to bed early last night while you filled the night with some intriguing thought! Yet your underlying premise was one I was thinking through while lying in bed last night. I am by nature an optimist – I expect things to work out and get better. But as the old saying goes, pessimists are never disappointed and sometimes delightfully surprised by the turn of events, whereas optimists are routinely disappointed. I seem to be surrounded by pessimists who have thrown up their hands and state that nothing can be done, while I purchased a scooter (125 MPG) to actually do something. As Lucy noted, it is the open, participative practice that I see playing out worldwide that gives me hope.

  4. Reverend says:


    As Lucy noted, it is the open, participative practice that I see playing out worldwide that gives me hope.

    I couldn’t agree with you more here, and it is what has kept me more engaged with a group of fascinating and thoughtful people that aren’t afraid to act on their convictions. I think imagining alternatives and taking action on an idea is the most political of acts one can do at this moment, and I am hopeful as well because I am surrounded by folks like you from all over the world who aren’t afraid to try. We may fail, but that rally doesn’t matter, it’s the not being afraid part that is so damn important.

  5. fascinating thoughts here! As a scientist, I am infuriated by the lack of open participative practice in environmental research. There is only one perspective, one direction, one thought, one mind. As a citizen of the US, I am infuriated by similar practices of the current administration in international relations. In both cases, we are explicitly informed “you are with us or you are against us”.

    “Doing what we always do because thats what we know”, as lucychili puts it, is half of the motivation. The other is the desired control of thought, word and deed of the individual. It is the antithesis of the truly creative mind.

    “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.” ~Ayn Rand

  6. Jen says:

    I believe those uncomfortable with the ideology have created an associated meme. EDUPUNK is both. The meme will die. Maybe we can have some fun with creatively DIY’ing its death in some dramatic fashion.

  7. Chris Lott says:

    If it looks like a meme, smells like a meme and tastes like a meme…

    You’ll find a natural ally in this battle with my friend Phaedral who detests the whole idea of the ‘meme’ for (I think) somewhat different ideas.

    I think you’ve hit the part I am least comfortable with on the head– the aspect of the idea of the meme which grows out of a kind of technological determinism.

    The meme is advertisement. It rightly should have nothing to do with the idea(s) that it might be carrying.

    As advertising memes are Good which means that, because they are phenomenally good at getting the memed thing out there, that they can appear Bad because it’s harder and harder for the idea to fly under the radar. That’s the Good Bad.

    The Bad Bad is that the meme gets mistaken for the ideas that it represents. It’s inevitable because to be passed from person to person to rapidly and successfully it has to be a simple object, no matter how complex the concept it refers to. So people express frustration with the meme and, sadly, end up discarding the idea too. Kind of like the Net Gen meme– people are frustrated, and rightly so, with the shallow thinking that gets tossed around as part of the term. The sad part is when, as a result, the thinking that the meme represents– in the Net Gen case the observable phenomenon of learner change, in the EDUPUNK case a complex ideology– gets tossed out like the proverbial bathwater baby. That kind of thinking drives me up the wall!

    Meme transmission follows a kind of Bell curve, I am sure… surviving the peak with a term that is still useful intact is probably rare… who knows what will happen with EDUPUNK!

  8. jeffmason says:

    God Save the Queen (and us) should the edustatusquo usurp the ideology, slow the tempo by fusing it with mainstream reform, add dissonance and distortion with learning theory and, voila, edugrunge capable of being pounded out by any flannel-frocked educator only to die an angst-filled death as a meme.
    Never Mind the Bollocks…..

  9. Pingback: Silence and Voice » Blog Archive » Where Is Learning 2.0?

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