By Mark McConaghy
Some of our most mundane activities- watching hockey, taking in an awards show- can reveal to us how ideology operates in our current society. Taking a moment to think about why we invest emotionally in certain things reveals a crucial problem that we must face as progressive intellectuals: the traditional understanding of ideology is dead. It is no longer a question of being blinded by false consciousness. It’s now a question of embracing false consciousness in full knowledge of its false yet, because of that, ever invigorating nature…and that leaves very little room for traditional cultural critique to operate effectively anymore.
Hockey, Ideology, Investment
I will always be an Edmonton Oilers fan. I would like to reflect on the dizzying paradoxes such an emotional position places me in.
Born and raised in a house that revered the team, I know full well the affective investments that are hard-wired into Canadians regarding the sport of hockey. To cheer for the Oilers is to embrace an intractable contradiction. On the one hand, it means to cheer for the hometown boys, the hardworking symbols of our industrious city, representing us out there as they fly around with such grace and fury. On the other hand, it means to cheer for privileged millionaires whose sense of loyalty to the community stops at their paycheck. One need only to look at the inglorious history of players leaving our town, from Gretzky to Smyth to Pronger, to understand the meaningless nature of loyalty in professional sports. I know that I shouldn’t romanticize these players: they are not symbols of the civic spirit of Canada’s most underrated city. They’re simply plying their trade for a team that will pay them, hired guns who will move on if a better paycheck or playing conditions present themselves elsewhere.
I know I could spend my time far more productively than I do, cutting down the hours I invest in tracking scouting reports, monitoring bloggers’ opinions, and studying coaching interviews for clues on tonight’s lineup. This is an emotional investment in a product whose essential reason for being is not civic virtue but rational profit, no matter how much I want to believe the team represents the hard working, decent people of my city.
And if anyone needs a reminder of the economic realities that stand behind all of the rhetoric concerning hockey in Canada, the violent bullying of the Edmonton community by the Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz in his recent bid to get taxpayers to subsidize a downtown arena is more than enough evidence. Katz loves Edmonton all right: loves us enough to threaten to move our beloved team if we didn’t hand over hundreds of millions of dollars of public money to build a new arena. Of course, despite the public money used to build the arena, 100 percent of the building’s revenues will go to Katz, who is putting only a small fraction of real money up front in the project. And he gets this profit machine built for him for little more than a guarantee to keep the Oilers in the city for 35 years. That’s love all right: love with a barrel of a gun stuck to our heads.
Simply put, I know that the desiring machine that is professional hockey in Edmonton has sucked me in and made money off my obsession. Furthermore, I know that NHL hockey will leave me and my community the moment we stop paying the 300 dollar ticket prices, stuffing the luxury boxes full, and filling our ever expanding wardrobe of team gear with annual regularity. I know the illusion of communal solidarity is just that, an illusion…and yet I invest in it ever more stringently, doubling down on something I know to be fundamentally coercive as a structure of identity politics.
This is, of course, precisely the dilemma so many intellectuals in the contemporary academy face when they critique essentialist constructions of cultural nationalism: they can reveal nationalism to be the historical, constructed, “imagined” ideology that it is, used so often to make people blind to the true economic stakes that define their communities, and yet that doesn’t reduce its emotional appeal one bit. And the academy has certainly critiqued nationalism in spades: god knows academic book shelfs, especially on East Asia, are stuffed full of critiques of the dogmatic ideologies of the nation. And yet, the more we reveal nationalism (or the Oilers) to be a manipulative emotional structure, the more power that emotional structure holds over us.
It is not that we don’t know the true, degraded nature of our investments. It’s that knowing their nature doesn’t stop us from investing in them all the more: their emotional power has not been dimmed one bit because the ideological mask has been stripped away.
This leads us to a truly puzzling problem: the traditional theory of ideology- as a kind of “false consciousness” that makes us blind to our true condition- is clearly useless in today’s society. We know our true condition, we know the coercive nature of the structures of consciousness that define us, and we choose to believe them anyway. Ideology has been flipped on its head: it’s no longer a question of something false masking something true. Rather, it’s knowledge of the truth which leads us to embrace its falseness with ever more ferocity, in full understanding of its blinding and yet sensuously wondrous effects.
I will always be an Oilers fan, no matter how terrible the team owner is to our fanbase, no matter how much money he extorts from our politicians at the expense of far more socially urgent investments in education, infrastructure, and health care, no matter how many players leave our team for warmer climates to play in. What is the mysterious draw that the bright, blood-smashed grace of hockey holds on me?
The Lure of the Shiny Gold Statue
We can think about this problem in another light: the Oscar awards ceremony. Every year a billion or so people tune into this event, where we get to watch a room of obscenely wealthy, achingly beautiful superstars mutually congratulate themselves on the good graces of the largely commercialized, generally staid, and rarely subversive art that they produce. We are supposed to feel suspense over who will get what statue, as if one celebrity rather than another winning an Oscar was worth of any of our emotional energy.
That the most famous people in that room are essentially manufactured via teams of publicists, agents, studios, marketing campaigns, and fashion wizards, to which they give loyal thanks to in their speeches (lest they get kicked out of the in club down the line), is a fact we all know to be true. Indeed, we all know that the Oscars are a ridiculously elitist affair, nothing but a collection of industry insiders lauding one another with puffed up self-importance that far outweighs the actual stakes involved in this event which, to be clear, are none at all.
It is not that the Oscars are smarter than us, tricking us into believing in the importance of those shinny little gold statues. We know the essential vanity of the event itself and yet we choose to embrace it anyways: it’s silly, but why the hell not, it’s fun too! That’s the spirit behind a statement such as the following, from a Review of the Oscar show from the NYTimes culture critic Melena Ryzik: “In a three-and-a-half-hour spectacle of glossy celebration for a roomful of superstars dripping with jewels and self-regard, the question of how much is too much may seem moot. But with the right tone and perspective, even that ego parade can seem fun to watch.”
Fun to watch indeed. The point here is: we know the ego parade is ridiculous, wasteful, and ultimately kind of petty. We know the boundaries of what constitutes great film could hardly be set by the 6000 or so industry insiders who vote on the Oscars, and that there are whole aesthetic worlds- from heart-rending documentary films made in China to the most minute, quiet forms of experimentation to be found on Youtube- that this celebrity industry will always be blind to.
Yet we still want to tune in to see who is wearing what dress, who will make what snarky insider joke, and of course which celebrity will get their vain Oscar hopes dashed and will have to bare the sting while the camera’s are rolling.
Yet We Do It Anyways
The Oilers and the Oscars illustrate to us very clearly that the work of ideological critique cannot be a facile one of revealing the silly, impoverished, false nature of our investments. We know they are silly, impoverished, and false, and yet we can’t say no to their sensuous pull. Whether its the swift grace of the televised hockey match, the dripping jewels of celebrity excess, or the sweet myths of authenticity and origin that the nation provides us, the problem is simply that we choose to believe anyways.
This is a major issue for people who would like to use writing, aesthetics, and cultural critique to change people’s consciousness. Such critique can no longer be about showing them the “true” nature of their investments. They’ve known that truth for a long time, and it has not made one bit of difference in their decision to invest all the more.
The question isn’t any longer what’s true and what’s false. The question has to be only: why do we invest in one structure and not the other?
Why do the emotional appeals of certain things we know to be unproductive sustain themselves over time, indeed even increase in appeal the more we critique them?
What then becomes the point of criticism? You can no longer turn to people and say: “don’t do that, its seems good but its actually bad for you and your community, really actually quite violent.” The answer now is: “oh yes, we know all that…but come on, its still so fun and pleasurable, if taken in the right context.”
Simply put, I will always be an Oilers fan. I will probably always watch the Oscars, because who could say not to all that shinny excess.
These investments are as real to me as they are ultimately false. And that presents a massive problem for thinking progressive politics in the 21st century.
To slay ideology you have to reveal it; by revealing it it hasn’t been slayed at all, but strengthened all the more. A conundrum that I don’t have the answer to.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he is actively thinking of ways to integrate his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.