Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reality vs Ideology

I recall my perplexity upon finishing Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” for the first time. I knew that the book had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I believed (and still believe) that its author was one of the true heroes of the 20th century. I was interested in reading it partly because of its status as a work of great literature, and partly because I was interested in its critique of Soviet totalitarianism and ideology. When I finished reading it, I was confused because the book contained no explicit denunciations or critiques of communist ideology. Instead, in simple and straightforward prose, it told the story of a single day in the life of a concentration camp prisoner without ever making any direct commentary on the system that had led to his being present there.

What I recently realized, years later, is that that, in fact, is one of the main sources of the novel’s power. The critique of ideology present in the book is not in the form of an explicit theoretical treatise, but rather in the form of a simple exercise of bearing witness, in showing the reader a snapshot of what is, or was, albeit in fictionalized form. The character of Ivan Denisovich is not a cypher or a symbol of some larger ideal, he is exactly and only what he appears to the reader as in the novel's pages, a human subject attempting to survive and even thrive under conditions of ideologically imposed brutality.

The reason for this, I now see, is that the language of ideology is the language of theoretical abstractions. While theoretical language is an unavoidable and necessary part of writing and speaking, it is more easily detached from the reality of ordinary human experience and therefore, more susceptible to abuse. This is because formulating a set of beliefs about the way the world should be, always involves abstracting away from what is. The ideologue often becomes committed to this vision in a way that makes him or her impervious to the realities of lived human experience, attempting to force his vision onto the world at all costs. When given the power to force others to conform to its vision of how things should be, this fanaticism can lead to oppression and suffering.

It is easy to recognize the destructiveness of particular ideologies and the toll they take or have taken on human beings. Most of us recognize the evils of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. What is less easy for some to recognize, is that even the critique of ideology can itself become ideological. In the words of Georgetown University professor Patrick Deneen, “Can the principled stand against a politics based upon the application of universalized principle avoid becoming universalized?” Or, as conservative thinker D. G. Hart observes when discussing the conservative critique of ideology,

Conservatism arose as a denunciation of theoretical (read: ideological) approaches to politics, such as the French Revolutionaries’ attempt to rationalize and even mechanize traditional French society. Of course, the temptation for conservatism is to respond with a rival theory of politics for the good society.

This leads us back to Solzhenitsyn’s novel. It’s strength lies precisely in its failure to provide a counter ideology to that of the Soviet system it exposes. It does not give us a theoretical tool that we can abstract and use to advance our own ideological causes. It simply shows us the human reality of life under an ideological tyranny. It presents us with a reality to which we must respond. This is the novel’s lasting power and genius. 


Djas said...

This was a terrific post. My desire to say more has been muted by the way you pulled your argument together so beautifully. Last night I was reflecting upon a similar thought which was ... Pfh, never mind. Your point was clear enough. Blessings dear friend.

Gordon Hackman said...

Thanks Dave. Blessings to you as well.

Andrew Engelhardt said...

Yeah, sounds like a very interesting book and sounds like you have been able to grasp something from it beyond what seems immediately apparent.

This is such a terribly difficult topic. The witness that the man in the book presents (rather than a theoretical tool in the abstract) sounds great, as does the life which we hope for in Westmont as witness versus theoretical abstraction. The difficulty arises because this type of witness needs to be formed, and the formation often happens as a result of dreaming, being creative, thinking in "non-realities" or "better realities."

With that said, isn't this just another ideology? To be a person who can witness to a counter narrative requires that that person has been formed by ideologies.

I don't know, maybe I'm not getting it.

Thanks for your post!

Gordon Hackman said...

Yes Andy. I think the two thinkers I quote in the post are wrestling with this very thing. I've wrestled with it too, and I think that it is inevitable that at some point we have to articulate ideas about the way we live, especially in an age like ours. Even Solzhenitsyn himself did this in other writings and speeches. I don't think this is necessarily bad, but it does introduce the danger of becoming beholden to abstractions and more detached from reality in a way that can have negative consequences.

I think a lot of it has to do with how we adhere to our ideas. Are we committed to them in a way that is rigid and inflexible, or are we willing to continually reassess them according to how they serve the needs and mission of the community?

I think the history of the church shows this to be the case, even with important things like the determination of theological orthodoxy and the formation of the canon. My understanding is that the books of the canon were selected, at least in part, because they were recognized as being helpful in forming the life of the community. Or again, the set of of beliefs that became what we call orthodoxy (the creeds) were articulated, in part, because they explained in a helpful way, the churches experience of salvation in Christ. They were not just a set of beliefs dreamed up in isolation from the experience of the community.

On that note, I was also thinking about the Bible in this regard and was thinking that could be one of the reasons God did not simply hand us a systematic theology text that is nothing but propositional statements that all line up with one another perfectly. Instead he gave us a book full of poetry, narrative, letters, apocalyptic literature etc., as well as directly propositional content. This helps to keep us, I think, from falling prey to the belief that we can own the truth as a set of intellectualized abstractions that we then apply to reality.

Anyway, don't know if any of that is relevant to your question or helpful, but I hope it might be. Thanks for entering the conversation.

thekid said...

Great post Gordon. I really appreciated this during the week when I was thinking about Liberation Theology and dogmatics in general (and writing a take-home exam on it. It was interesting to me to think of the way the Church has also at times used abstracted language and stiff frameworks to dismiss the real lives of people rather than meet them in places of brokenness.

Can't believe I made it through the week with all of that writing actually. Thank you for contributing to my thought-life in such a way that spurred me on!

Gordon Hackman said...

Hey sister,

Thanks for the encouraging words. I'm so glad you found this post helpful.

I agree with your statements about the church. I think the struggle is to hold onto the things that are non-negotiable while also being willing to meet people in their brokeness. We can never see the claims of orthodoxy as merely abstractions in a void to which we must simply give mental assent. They are truths born of the church's experience of salvation in Christ and we must wrestle to understand their implications for our lives and to live in that.

Judah said...

Great post! I love it, Solzhenitsyn wins with real life experience. I believe truth is derived from love and love is a medium between abstraction and practice.