What role does writing play in politics? Do we care about intellectuals penning long form essays about the future of the state or about official policy documents setting out frames and ideas for how to approach political issues?
Historically the answer has been a very clear ‘yes!’. The role writing played in the shaping of the 19th century politics seems hard to overestimate. The writings of Marx, Mill and others informed and underpinned political changes in a multitude of ways. The Federalist papers were fundamental in shaping the US political landscape and as communism evolved it evolved in a terrifying mix of violence and writing. Sometimes the writing preceded the violence, sometimes it justified it – but the writing was always there.
Political power wars were fought with texts surprisingly often. In Ezra Vogel’s brilliant study of the multiple rises and falls of Deng Xiaoping we find a story of different memos, documents, texts, opeds and other texts that shaped the political landscape in China, and continues to do so.
Texts were not just words, they were ideology – but where do we see this today?
We do not have to like that ideology, to be clear, and we do not even have to like the idea of ideology to ask this question. It is interesting to study just because of the consequences for politics overall. So, let’s think about the different options – what is it that we really want to say here? There are a few possible hypotheses. We could start with something really broad, like this:
A. Our politics have become post-ideological. Texts no longer are political instruments, and they lack political interpretations. We have lost – forgotten – how to interpret texts as truly ideological, and what remains is an ability to read texts as political emotive.
This is a very broad statement, but it is interesting to ponder. If we have lost the ability to read ideologically, to interpret texts ideologically, then something fundamental has changed in the political field as such. It would mean that there is no real ideological writing available to us to effect political change anymore – politics have become not just post-ideological but post-textual.
If we want to sketch out why this happened, we could suggest that the rise of social media, the explosion of texts and opinions all have devalued the written word to the point where it no longer has the ability to achieve political saliency. With a wealth of text comes a poverty of textual value – and texts no longer sway us in the way they used to. Our capability to write something that means something has faded away.
This is interesting in other ways – we could also argue that what we see here is the thinning of meaning overall. If we wanted to we could connect this back to the overall problem of meaning in a world without religion, and suggest that we have lost the ability to mean something because we have no value anchors in our language anymore. God has left our language, and so how can we really mean anything then? This is a version of Dostoevsky’s dictum that if God is dead, then anything is permitted – but it takes that observation and twists it: if God is dead, then we cannot mean anything anymore.
As texts lost their religious salience, their political and ideological saliency faded as well – because the latter was dependent on either being in support of or opposition to the first.
That would be a somewhat conservative take on the strong statement of our hypothesis – and you could easily poke holes in it by suggesting that there was not a lot of god in Marx – but maybe the comeback then would be that Marx was only possible as Marx in opposition to other values in society – that ideology requires friction and a general agonistic structure in language?
Well, let’s leave that particular formulation and look at a more narrow one.
B. Texts matter less in politics, because mass media and the Internet now compete with the text in more engaging ways. Ideology remains, but its main vehicle now is video and other social media formats. Ideology has shifted vehicles.
This more narrow version of the hypothesis almost seems to make too much sense: of course texts lose some value when there is readily available media that are much more engaging! That seems like a self-evident truth. But the question then remains – is there a video or channel that is to the political debate what the Federalist papers were to the US political awakening? Is there a tweet that can compete with the Communist manifesto?
You could argue that this is asking the wrong question – because the wealth of new media has not just shifted the vehicle of ideology, but the very nature of it as well. Ideology no longer is monological, it is dialogical. What shifts a society today is the interaction between the individual and multiple points of engagement – twitter accounts, video channels, facebook pages – and society really does change in that dialogue.
This idea – of dialogical ideologies – could then draw on Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings about dialogical novels and formats. Bakhtin’s view was that all living was dialogue and that meaning only exists in dialogue, there is no meaning in the single monological statement. He gave, as an example of the dialogical style, Dostoevsky’s novels and suggested that these were the first modern novels because there was no single locus of meaning in them – his novels are poly-centric in the sense that you are equally introduced to all the people in them and forced to choose your stance in relation to them. The text does not tell you who they are, you have to engage in the text dialogically to find out who they are to you.
Dialogical ideology, then, is an open conversation where the need for individual texts has disappeared. There is no need for the federalist papers, because there is a wealth of dialogues to engage in – and these dialogues are much more democratic and open than the discussions about texts in the past. Dialogical ideology is ideology democratised – and the reason we no longer see politics shaped by memos and letters and texts is that politics now is shaped in poly-centric dialogues.
We do not live in a post-ideological world, we live in a dialogical ideological world where ideology is constantly negotiated in a multitude of media and with a multitude of actors.
Is this better or worse? This is a complicated question, because it depends on the model of politics that we employ. If we argue that politics is essentially forces acting on the individual, then politics have, at a very minimum, become more complex. But if we think that we are all politically accountable, then the question of better or worse comes down to our own competence to deal with a dialogical formation of our shared ideology.
Are we citizens enough to assume the responsibility and accountability that follows from the dialogisation of ideology?
Which one of these do I think is true? I am not sure. I sort of hope it is the second, that ideology is still here but that it requires that we step up as citizens to ensure that we do not fall prey to propaganda and misinformation. Because the ability of propaganda to shape politics has remained strong through-out time. Vogel’s book is filled with examples of how propaganda texts shaped politics in ways that benefitted the authoritarian governments – and the loss of textual ideology is also in some ways the loss of efficient uni-centric propaganda.
The challenge is that we now have poly-centric, dialogical propaganda and we do not quite know how to deal with it – and this in turn suggests that there is an intimate relationship between propaganda and ideology.