Ideology in ELT

Animalising ELT has been on an extended catnap but could slumber no longer. This long-promised exploration of ideology in ELT has been stirred into publication largely thanks to boooooo! hurrah! by Russ Mayne, a post about the ways in which belief, as opposed to knowledge, influences our preference for one teaching method or technique over another.

Mayne’s post calls on some of the late Alan Waters’ articles for support. Much of Waters’ work attacks what he describes as ideology in the field of applied linguistics for language teaching (ALLT). According to Waters, since the 1980s, a critical theory perspective has intruded into ALLT in such a way as to displace certain previously held beliefs. The problem is that the displacements have been politically rather than pedagogically motivated – they stem, in fact, from a kind of guilt-ridden, post-colonial turn to political correctness. For example, authentic language must take precedence over artificial, couresbook-type language (even though there may be sound pedagogical arguments for also promoting the latter); coursebooks themselves are an unjust exercise of the power of author/publisher over the learner; and, therefore, the autonomous learner should now be the central focus in language teaching, at the expense of any meaningful or serious focus on the teacher role.

All these tendencies (in which he includes, variously, task-based learning, coursebook-bashing and English as a Lingua Franca) are, for Waters, ideological; while there may be merit in some of these shifts in focus, for Waters they have become elevated to types of moral imperative which proscribe or occlude other tried and tested approaches.

Leaving aside for now any deeper discussion of the merits of Waters’ arguments and their relevance to the present day, what we are left with is an iteration of ideology which betrays what a dog’s breakfast of a concept it has become. In its dictionary definition, an ideology is simply a consciously-held world view. Marry to this a simplification of Marx’s idea of ideology as “false consciousness” and you pretty much have ideology as it is generally understood and used today – pejoratively. It’s a world view, but a wrong one. Who today owns up to having an ideology? Not me –  it’s always others who are ideological, distorting reality with their dogma.

This is a typical argument of the neo-liberal centre against the margins. The former Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García Margallo, once said that in politics “there are two sides, only two: those who consider the individual as the final beneficiary of politics, and those who place the individual in the service of an abstract idea”. Obviously, Margallo put himself in the first camp. Ignoring for now the distinctly ideological nature of his own position, we are left with an idea of ideology as something you fling at people you don’t agree with.

For this reason, perhaps, the notion of ideology has to some extent been left aside in critical theory and social studies, to be replaced by power and discourse, two key concepts in the theories of Michel Foucault. The work of Louis Althusser in the 1970s, however, offered a new take on ideology that remained influential in the following decades. More recently, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has revitalised the term in a similar way.

There are motives, then, for holding on to the idea of ideology, or the idea of ideological critique as a useful tool. First and foremost, it allows for an analysis which traces political effects in everyday, apparently apolitical practices. It also brings economic relationships into focus. And finally, in positing that ideological belief manifests itself externally in actions, and is not simply a product of conscience or even something that needs to be consciously held, it sheds light on specific practices in the ELT industry which seem to depend on this type of belief.

First of all, however, we need to renounce the popular usage of ideology and, in the same gesture, refrain from any cocky assumptions that we, like Margallo, are somehow safely outside ideology while we accuse others of being in it. This is because ideology as Althusser and Žižek understand it (although there are very important differences between the two) is sustained by unconscious as well as conscious processes (for this, both owe a huge debt to Jacques Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud). For ideology to function, it must be experienced as if it is non-ideological – that’s to say, as a spontaneous, unmediated, obvious experience of reality:

It is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the ‘still, small voice of conscience’): ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’ (Althusser 1971)

In the ELT world as in any other, there is not always consensus on what seems obvious, right or true, but there are some discernible tendencies. One I encountered at a conference earlier this year, Power to the Teacher, run by ELT Jam and Oxford TEFL.  The stated purpose of this event was to focus on teacher empowerment in various forms, including grassroots ELT movements, the promotion of equal rights for NNESTS (non-native English-speaking teachers) and entrepreneurship. I have voiced my objection to the association of these issues elsewhere, although in the end there were many refreshing aspects to the conference: a plethora of unknown speakers, a wide range of issues up for discussion and even the opportunity for yours truly to put his two cents on the table.

There was still, I felt, a kind of party line being put across. It was probably best expressed by ELT Jam’s Nick Robinson in his opening plenary, where he linked the “Power to the Teacher” theme inextricably to entrepreneurialism, to teachers who had “ideas” and went on and did something about them. There was a pleasing rhetoric to it, in the form of “X had an idea … His/her idea was to …. And s/he did something about it …” And many had laudable political or social aims.  But in each and every case the project was the brainchild of an original, autonomous individual who had the guts to transform his/her inspiration (from where, was left hanging) into action. Even the Teachers as Workers collective was reduced to the inspired action of one individual. And so the true theme of the conference was established – teacher empowerment is about what individuals can do first by and for themselves, -“self-propelled” in one awful phrase I heard later – and then, in some cases anyway, for others.

(Of Foucault, of course, there was fuck-all – for that we needed the talk by Paul Walsh, the aforementioned inspiration behind Teachers as Workers. Now Paul is truly inspiring, but I’m sure his reading of Foucault (among other things) will have placed him far from the desire to be cast as the next ELT guru-in-waiting.)

It’s worth noting that many of the regular teachers at the conference were volunteers serving drinks, setting up tables and cleaning up – while most of the delegates seemed to have other, more glamorous feathers in their caps. But there was one in one of the discussion session immediately following the plenary. Describing her precarious work situation in Germany, she asked for advice, so I took  the opportunity to put forward a view that in various forms was being espoused around the fringes of the conference – that the answer lies in a collective approach. That she wasn’t the only one, that there are others willing to collaborate, defend and act to improve the teacher’s lot, whether officially through unions, or cooperatives, or other less formal grassroots organisations. That we shouldn’t read “the teacher” in “Power to the Teacher” as referring to the individual, but “the teacher” as a metonym, representative of the whole, as in “The dog is a faithful animal” or “The cat is a curious beast”, or “The teaching animal is …”

But a different message eventually got through. By the final discussion session, she was now the inspired one – the conference had taught her to have the self-confidence to make her own decisions, to be a self-propelled teacher, to believe in herself … in short, there was an awful lot of self. And there were also a lot of reassuring nods. I objected in vain, feeling like the party saddo everyone wishes would leave. Was this not bourgeois liberal individualism at its most pop, peppered with a dash of neo-buddhist mindfulness, but experienced as spontaneous, natural, unmediated? “It’s so obvious to me now – why didn’t I see it before?” she might have said, while the others assented, “That’s right! That’s true!”

It’s easy to be cynical here, although cynicism itself – as we’ll see later – presents another crucial aspect of contemporary ideology. It’s only worth noting here that in the ELT industry, despite everything, the lack of cynical or critical distance with regard to some of the bullshit that gets dropped is remarkable.

One particular cowpat is this self-propelled teacher, autonomous, self aware, entrepreneurial. Arguably, this is just another expression of one of the prevailing ideologies of our times – what Slavoj Žižek calls “enlightened western buddhism”.  That’s to say, seek spiritual calm, be mindful, look after yourself, enjoy your life but in the right way, but go get ’em all the same (Žižek makes great play of the fashion for buddhism among wolfish Wall Street types). Meanwhile, let the whole damn racket perpetuate itself ad infinitum. And that is really what is at the heart of the Althusserian, and more contentiously, Žižekian theories of ideology – that ideology allows exploitative relations of production to reproduce themselves by implicit consent.

This brings me back to my previous critique of humanism in language teaching: to what extent is the apparently laudable privileging of the whole person, of the autonomous and self-actualised teacher and student, an expression of ideology which unwittingly permits the reproduction of those very economic and other forces which dehumanise and alienate both teachers and students? In the tradition of Paolo Freire, the teacher who presents her authentic self to her students, and permits them to present theirs to her, is countering that banking system of education which casts students as passive receptors or consumers of knowledge. Yet what of the banking system of the educational industry today: namely, the private sector of language schools and providers of linguistic services, the publishers and tech companies and entrepreneurs, and the network of private individuals, companies and corporations for whom the learning of English is primarily an economic concern? In what sense does finding voice for my true inner self, and that of my students, impact on the amount I am paid for preparing my classes or marking homework? Or more to the point, how does it in any way challenge the material injustices inherent to this branch of the education system?

Fundamentally, and this is in no way to dismiss Freire, there is a certain romanticism or even spiritualism in the Freire tradition at times which undermines, in my view, the more transformative aspects of Freirean pedagogy. Here I’m thinking in particular of bell hooks, who in Teaching to Transgress cites spiritual authority in support of her concept of “engaged pedagogy”:

Progressive, holistic education, “engaged pedagogy” is more demanding than conventional critical or feminist pedagogy. For, unlike these two teaching practices, it emphasizes wellbeing. That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own wellbeing if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized that “the practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directed toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people.” (hooks 1994, 15)

hooks also at several points refers to teaching as a vocation (literally a calling), e.g.

All of us in the academy and in the culture as a whole are called to renew our minds if we are to transform educational institutions-and society-so that the way we teach, live and work can reflect our joy in cultural diversity, our passion for justice, and our love of freedom. (34)

My argument is that despite the stated transgressive objectives to hooks’ engaged pedagogy, its emphasis on calling, coming to voice, wellbeing, authenticity to self and others, etc, is just another expression of the aforementioned enlightened western individualism – one of the very ideological mechanisms which permit the reproduction of exploitative relations of production. We are all free individuals with the chance to advance (or even transform) through our own endeavour, or so it goes. However, in the context of industrial ELT (if not also “the academy”), this often means that we must freely and happily sell our labour to private capital, whether we feel called to do so or not.

For Althusser however, the very constitution of individual identity always involves a type of calling and is therefore always-already ideological. Ideology, for Althusser, is a representation of one’s relation to real conditions of existence – in Marxist terms, of the material basis of reality, of relations of production. For the representation to function, ideology needs a subject, and that subject is by definition one who is called.

In Althusser’s famous example, when one is hailed by a policeman, when a cop (or other) says “Hey, you!” and one responds “He really means me” and turns around, “one” as a concrete (biological) individual becomes transformed into a subject, with a proper name and identity which at once bestow the restoring illusion of autonomy and wholeness, yet construct and contain that free subjectivity necessarily within the constraints of symbolic relations of power, here embodied by the state apparatus of the police.

In this Althusser owes much to Jacques Lacan (although his long therapy with Lacan seemingly did little to prevent him eventually breaking down and murdering his wife – the posthumously published memoir which recounts this event, The Future Lasts Forever, became a massive bestseller in France). Lacan’s theory of subjectivity holds that the infant child passes through a pre-lingual mirror stage in which s/he jubilantly (mis)recognises their mirror image as an other exterior self whose movements can be controlled. The child thus begins to imagine (literally from the image) him- or herself as whole and autonomous. On entry into speech, however, a mode of the symbolic (not imaginary) order, the subject is born, dependent on the call or recognition of others – not so easily controlled – for a sense of identity. For Lacan as for Althusser as for Žižek, this generates a fundamental lack in the subject. The subject is by definition split between the subject who speaks, and the subject which is spoken, and within this split unconscious processes come in to play, as we see in the classic Freudian example of the slip of the tongue.

But again it is the very “hailability” of the subject that makes it also the subject of and subject to ideology, which, in Althusser’s terms, is propagated through ideological state apparatuses such as the church, the family, the school and the media. All these institutions address us in certain ways, offer us places (even contradictory ones) in the social order. Ideologies, however, cannot be thought simply as ways of thinking imposed from above. They are generated and circulated at all levels of social identification, at times contradicting official state ideologies, at times reinforcing them, and at others exposing their dark underbelly. We are now more than familiar with how those elements which have traditionally remained unspoken in mainstream conservative ideologies (racism, anti-immigrant rhetoric etc.) are now coming to the surface in ugly but powerful ways.

To take another example from the ELT industry, in contrast to the more progressive or politically correct discourse supporting the rights of non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs), there are also those who speak out for discrimination. They trot out their own series of obviousnesses, presented as unquestionable truths: it’s obvious that native speakers are simply better, obvious that non-natives can’t teach pronunciation because it’s not their language, and obvious that having a language as your mother tongue automatically makes you able to teach it. Lying behind these affirmations, however, are a whole series of less obvious questions about privilege, class hegemony and ethnocentrism (or simply racism) on whose exclusionary logic (“They” (obviously) can’t be real English teachers) are constructed some of the more pervasive subject-positions in our industry today.

I say “our industry” (an ideological gesture in itself – if you feel it’s obvious what I’m talking about) but perhaps I mean more specifically the EFL industry – where native speakers largely teach abroad, and do so largely in the interests of private capital. Here I have witnessed a bizarre and somewhat shocking reversal of the ideological discourse by which the immigrant is cast as a threat to the honest hard-working native. Now the natives are the immigrants, and the threat is the resident NNEST! Other positions are less extreme, but equally telling. Here is a representative comment from a recent social media chat on discrimination against NNESTs:

Go complain to the correct government office stop trying to evoke a response from English people trying to make a living expecting them to feel or guilty or pity you or just to bash on the workers who have no influence over what the “bosses” or “clients” prefer .

In the name of a dubiously “English” workerism, NNESTs can basically do one. A species of self-interested ethnocentricism, which has been referred to elsewhere as native speakerism and may be linked to a wider trend in the UK and USA towards nativism per se, becomes the symbolic reference point by and through which the term “TEFL Teacher” is to be understood, as well as the other signifiers it relates to but differs from: namely NNESTs (a threat to the authentic TEFL teacher), clients (those who obviously want an authentic native speaker) and bosses (whose sound judgement of what the client wants protects the interests of the authentic TEFLer).

Žižek, drawing heavily on Lacan as well as social theorists Laclau and Mouffe, describes such a reference point as a master signifier: in Lacanian terms, a point de capiton or “quilting point” which in itself refers to nothing concrete (a signifier without a signified) but which fixes or quilts the meaning of the other signifiers around it. The native, like nation, is one such master signifier – a sign whose exact meaning is contestable or difficult to pin down – but in reference to which concepts like identity (national identity, ethnicity, mother tongue), difference (not of this nation/mother tongue) and freedom (national self determination, right to teach your mother tongue) are defined. However, were the worker or party to be the quilting point (communism), or the individual or market (neo-liberalism), these signifiers would have quite distinct meanings.

Native speaker, then, is (within this nativist ideology) one of the master signifiers which fixes the meaning of “TEFL teacher”, but which – if the ideology is to function – effectively remains ungraspable. For the illusion to prevail, a certain blindness to the radical instability or contingency of the master signifier is necessary. In Žižek’s theory, the fact that a subject cannot grasp the true meaning of the master signifier is a necessary precondition for ideological belief – firstly because belief in something fundamentally knowable would be contradictory (if I know, I don’t need to believe), and secondly because too much explicit belief is potentially dangerous for social stability.  But even if my belief is not explicit, I can still believe through others. If I don’t really know what is meant by native speaker, or I’m not even convinced that it does me much good to be one, I can still go on quite happily, convinced that others (e.g. the bosses, the clients) do not have the same difficulty as me and can therefore do my believing for me.

Also central to Žižek’s theory is the notion that enjoyment, or more correctly Lacanian jouissance, is central to ideological identification. If, in nationalist ideology, the mysterious National Thing is that which quilts the meaning of all other signifiers in the social field, that Thing also underwrites those cultural practices which permit the subject a little transgressive enjoyment – through sport, music, drugs, alcohol – all of which are necessary in modern societies in allowing a certain distance from explicit ideological belief, while at the same time reinforcing our attachment to the self-same ideology, albeit experienced in a non-political form. Forces which attack or threaten the National Thing are therefore precisely forces which threaten to take away our jouissance, our enjoyment – damn those NNESTs, the refrain might go, we had it so good before THEY came along with their superior qualifications and EU anti-discrimination legislation!

But hold on a second. This is so easy to see through, right? We don’t need Lacan or Žižek to expose nativism as the  ideology it is, it’s such an obviously false way of thinking! So abhorrent! I support those NNESTs! Some of my best friends are NNESTs!

And so it goes. It’s equally obvious to state that such politically correct positions are no less ideological. Political correctness is in fact a particular bugbear of Žižek’s: to paraphrase him brutally, it’s all very well if your boss is nice to you and doesn’t squeeze your arse, or in fact hires NNESTs with all the best intentions – if the material practices in the workplace maintain exploitative conditions, regardless of mother tongue, ideology is still very much functioning. Freedom and equality therefore boil down to the freedom to be exploited equally.

So once again we see that contemporary ideology is fundamentally embodied in social reality, and not necessarily located in an individual’s consciously held beliefs. It’s not just that we don’t need to explicitly believe – in fact, who really believes these days? – our very actions will express our beliefs no matter what we say or consciously think about them.

Here I recall my earlier comment about cynicism. Cynicism, for Žižek, is another contemporary ideological stance par excellence. I know they’re exploiting me, I complain about how much surplus value they extract from me, but I act as if I accept it, and this is sufficient for ideology to function. Or I know that NNESTs are equally capable teachers who are unfairly discriminated against, but I wouldn’t trust them with a class above pre-int level if there were a native available instead.

In order to account for this type of cynical yet utterly conservative position, Žižek was led to reformulate Marx’s definition of ideology from Capital, “They do not know it, but they do it”. In contemporary ideology, we know very well what we are doing, but still we are doing it. The ideological element lies in not recognising this aspect of our social practices as illusory, or indeed that fantasy remains constitutive of social reality as we live it.

If our concept of ideology remains the classic one in which the illusion is located in knowledge, then today’s society must appear post-ideological: the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism; people no longer believe in ideological truth; they do not take ideological propositions seriously. The fundamental level of ideology , however, is not that of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way – one of many ways – to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.

Žižek offers the example of money. We know very well that money is in fact an expression of social relations and not some magic thing, but we act as if it were – as it it could solve all our problems, make us better people, or enrich us without doing anyone else any harm. Spain in recent years has been rocked by the scandal of the “black cards”, credit cards handed out to executives and consultants of Bankia, a public bank formed when the private Caja Madrid had to be bailed out at the start of the crisis. These cards were black in the sense of opacity; that’s to say, in a kind of magical way, they were not expected to be paid back or declared at all, and so millions of public euros were duly lavished on dinners, vintage wine, lingerie and nightclubs. In a parallel case, the Acuamed scandal, one of the accused was reported as saying “It’s public money, it doesn’t belong to anybody!” It’s quite possible that the speaker was joking or doesn’t seriously believe in what he said, but he acted as if he did, and that’s what counts. 

(Another relevant Spanish example is bureaucracy. I know very well that Spanish civil servants are not superhuman beings with the power to erase our very souls, but I act as if they were, and so treat them with meticulous care and respect. To truly gain power over the archetypal bureaucratic tocahuevos (ball-buster), however, one must become even more bureaucratic than they – as depicted brilliantly in the short movie 036.)

To return finally to teaching, I believe we can see two clear modes of ideology at work in the industrial sector of ELT today. The first, naïve one (we don’t know it, but we do it), persists on the one hand on the level of teaching as vocation, which I have aligned with humanism and the more recent figure of the enlightened and entrepreneurial self-propelled teacher, and on the other in the explicit nativist stance adopted against NNESTs. One purports to be progressive, the other not, but proponents of both do seem to take their own propositions quite seriously.

The second (we know very well what we’re doing, but still we are doing it) is a generalised late-capitalist cynicism no less ideological for all its apparent distancing. The illusion here is very powerful precisely because we feel we are too clever to be taken in. This mode sometimes exhibits elements of the first, naïve one, to create a third, hybrid form: a superficial kind of political correctness (is there another kind?) which offers support to specific claims while simultaneously allowing industrial ELT’s (literal) banking model of education to perpetuate itself unchallenged.

If there is a fourth, genuinely progressive or socially transformative ideology in play in industrial ELT, there is much work to be done before it can seriously challenge the party line. It would need to be an ideology in profound tension with its very ideological character – that’s to say, dependent as all ideologies are on subjects and the illusory character of lived reality, but operating on a level which disturbs the illusion by concentrated effort at the level of both knowledge and action. To do this it needs to find a point de capiton in radical counterpoint to the market or the native and which also moves beyond the individual, the human, the teacher or even the learner. What, then? For all the apparent strain the concept is under at the moment of writing, Laclau and Mouffe’s version of democracy, with its master signifier of the people, free and equal may hold the key. But to explore this will require another post – in which the concept of ideology will also need some further scrutiny.

I’ll end by pre-empting some questions along these lines. The most obvious one concerns how we go about disturbing the illusion or even breaking the hold of ideology. If ideology is so omnipresent that even our sense of self is bound up in it, if we are still in ideology even as we denounce others’ positions as ideological, how can the fantasy be dissolved? And what would be the consequences of this?

The second concerns the Marxist underpinning to ideology theory. Is it still possible today to refer to relations of production, to use a language of bourgeois and proletariat (words I have largely avoided until now), in the way Marx or even Althusser understood these terms? And even if we can, is class antagonism really the fundamental antagonism that ideology masks for us? What of other fundamental asymmetries: gender, race or sexuality? Or is a return to the site of class struggle the only ethical, truly progressive choice – the only choice with the possibility of addressing other injustices in addition to class ones?

Oh, and finally – what about Alan Waters then?

References and further reading

The image used is a still from the film They Live (John Carpenter, 1988). Slavoj Žižek refers to this movie in his own film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, referenced below.

Althusser, Louis (1971). “Ideology and ideological state apparatuses: notes towards an investigation”. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Monthly Review Press.

————- (1993). The Future Lasts a Long Time and The Facts. Trans. Richard Veasey. Chatto & Windus.

Butler, Judith, Ernesto Laclau & Slavoj Žižek (2000). Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. Verso.

hooks, bell (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge.

Laclau, Ernesto & Chantal Mouffe (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democracy. Verso (New Left).

Marx, Karl (1887). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol 1, Book 1. Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Progress Publishers.

Sharp, Matthew (unknown). “Slavoj Žižek (1949 -)”. Online. Internet Encyclopedia of Philsophy

Waters, Alan (2007). “ELT and ‘the spirit of the times'”. ELTJ 61 (4).

———– (2007). “Ideology, reality and false consciousness in ELT”. ELTJ 61 (4).

———– (2009). “Ideology and applied linguistics in language teaching”. Applied Linguistics 30(1).

Žižek, Slavoj (1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.

———- (1991). For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. Verso.

———- (2012). The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Film. Dir. Sophie Fiennes. Zeitgeist Films.

———- (2012). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. Verso.

21 thoughts on “Ideology in ELT

  1. Well, well, Neill! I had no idea that you were so influenced by Lacan, Althusser and Žižek. I suppose that what comes of studying philosophy in the 1990s. Mind you, even in the 1960s, when I was at it, theoreticians of the Left had just about disappeared into idealism, disguised behind sophisticated arguments that claim descent from Marx and Freud. Your apparent allegiance to the deconstructionist school, which keeps on keeping on, yawningly insistent on fogging up an already difficult academic discourse, quite surprises me; it sounds as if you actually believe all that propaganda about “uncovering the historical and economic roots that shape our ideas”. I, on the other hand, down here among the profane, believe that all those lofty, impossibly convoluted texts made it clear that their writers had long since lost contact with the material world, and gone down some blind alley on a self-indulgent goose chase after one more rarefied idea of “knowledge”. The only thing that stops this vanishing trick from being more apparent is the obscurantist language your heroes employ, a cacophonous jargon which, to quote the late Tony Judt, is the product of badly translating the terminology of German Idealism into French, then badly translating the result back into English. You write well. Neill, but even you can’t make all this baloney credible.

    Is it in any way helpful (let alone reasonable) for us to see ourselves as so completely socially determined? Are we really to take the assertion that “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” seriously? Do we need to be hailed by the cop or interpellated by the “People like you buy Coke” ad in order to have any sense of individual personhood? Is all subjective experience necessarily riddled with ideology? Are we so completely alienated, hoodwinked, conned? There’s the obvious question of how we can know that we’re so enthralled by ideology, which leads one to sniff the familiar pungent scent of elitism in all this. “Ordinary people” are denied agency and condemned to be deluded and controlled by the ideological state apparatuses, while those in the know somehow manage to rise above it all.

    The fundamental problem with Althusser’s account of ideology is that, like so many others, it’s circular. It sees ideologies as omnipotent and ever successful, and yet there are competing ideologies and conflicting interpellations offered to the potential subjects. The subject is in an environment of competing interpellations (especially in this day and age of information glut). The failure of one interpellation normally means the success of another. To quote Sam Vatkin:

    Advertising leads to the interpellation of the subject to effect the material practice of consumption; other ideologies – propagated through organized religions, for instance – lead to prayer. Could this be the material practice that they are looking for? No way. Money, prayer, the very ability to interpellate – they are all representations of power over other human beings. The business concern, the church, the political party, the family, the media, the culture industries – are all looking for the same thing: influence, power, might. Absurdly, interpellation is used to secure one paramount thing: the ability to interpellate”.

    Your objections to some aspects of the conference are well taken, and I share your general concern for the obvious difficulties that any attempts to challenge the status quo face. We don’t have to read Althusser in order to appreciate the power of capitalism to absorb challenges and to turn critics into members of the establishment. Like you, I oppose the celebration of individualism, the often naïve and romantic forms that protest takes, and the often cynical way in which individuals and commercial interests jump on the fashionable bandwagon of supporting NNESTs, joining the Teachers As Workers SIG, and so on. I think your warnings are worth heeding, as are many of your observations about how we might best organise against the exploitation of teachers and the industrialisation of ELT.

    But what I don’t think we need is the heavy hand of post Marxist mumbo jumbo, or your echo of Althusser’s condemnation of “individualism”, itself an echo of all that “We know best” bollocks evident in the work of Lenin, Trotsky, and others who arrogantly try to drag us out of our alienated subject selves into the light of authentic social existence.

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  2. Well, well Geoff! I’ve been waiting for the day when I got on the wrong end of one of your diatribes – I feel our relationship should now be able to move on to the next level, as we’ve definitely been far too nice to each other up to this point. I do appreciate though that I’ve got off quite lightly, and you even seem to agree with the ends of my analysis – it’s the means that have you more het up than Jean-François Lyotard in a room full of scientific realists.

    You and I both know that there’s little to be gained in trying to win you over on the theoretical angle, but you’ve left too many juicy carrots dangling for me not to make like one of your lovely donkeys and take a nibble.

    1. The accusation that I studied philosophy in the 90s is an outrageous slur.

    2. I agree about circularity in Althusser, although I don’t agree that his theory fails to allow for conflicting or competing ideologies – in fact this is how ideology becomes visible, you don’t need a lofty, elitist, condescending viewpoint to identify them – ideologies are by definition partial accounts of the world conflicting with other partial accounts. But yes you’re right that Althusser did attempt to position himself above the whole mess (Marxism as Science, non-ideological), something I hope to get on to in the next post. Zizek can’t be accused of this however.

    3. If we’re going to talk about mumbo jumbo, I’ve read that Sam Vatkin quote 4 times now and I still don’t really get it. Who are “they”? What does he mean by “ability to interpellate”?

    4. For the uninitiated, Geoff’s surprise at my reading interests is either a) disingenuous; b) ironic; or c) the product of a blockage in those braincells storing memories of the comments he’s already posted on this blog. Most likely, it’s a Gordian knot of all three, twisting itself endlessly around the signifying chain, greased by différance, endlessly deferring its own unknottability … (I’m hoping you can tell the difference between willfully cacophonous jargon and the politically engaged version I’m trying to put across in this blog).

    5. My only heroes are the St Johnstone team who won the 2014 Scottish Cup.

    6. I made no mention of Trotsky, Lenin or even Derrida this time.

    7. You leave Marx himself out of the firing line. But is a traditional Marxist analysis sufficient any more? Or is your own brand of righteous anticapitalist profanity enough to come to terms with the complexities of contemporary capitalism or indeed the incredible inertia that faces those of us trying to effect change? You know I include you in “those of us”, and you hopefully also know that I’m not daft enough to think that reading a bit of Lacan or Laclau is going to achieve much. I just need more tools to get to grips with it all. I still don’t have enough.

    8. I don’t believe we are completely socially determined, which is why I’m up way past bedtime. I’d rather believe that, though, than the other extreme (completely biologically determined), for therein all hope of social transformation is extinguished. As long as we can view at least something of our social selves as constructed, there will always be the possibility of resistance, for what is made can be unmade and remade.

    9. Thanks for not mentioning any form of the word “postmodernism”!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Is complete biological determinism really ‘the’ other extreme of complete social determinism? The ‘other extreme’ of determinism generally is indeterminism, the extraordinary, admittedly barely intelligible, idea that we may actually exercise agency beyond anything that can be explained by either our biological condition or our social circumstances.


    • Hi Neil,

      It’s always a pleasure to shoot the breeze with you, and I’m keen to go to the next level, just as long as it doesn’t mean swopping the bracing breeze of barroom banter for the unhealthy thin air of left bank posing, which I know it won’t. My answers to your comments come after the ***s

      1. The accusation that I studied philosophy in the 90s is an outrageous slur.
      *** It leads to the even worse accusation that you read Althusser when you didn’t have to!

      2. ideologies are by definition partial accounts of the world conflicting with other partial accounts.
      *** Quite so; the trouble is that Althusser has no reference outside them – no “third text” as Sam puts it. “Only through a comparison between a partial text and a complete text can the deficiencies of the partial text be exposed. A comparison between partial texts will yield no certain results and a comparison between the text and itself (as Althusser suggests) is absolutely meaningless”.

      3. If we’re going to talk about mumbo jumbo, I’ve read that Sam Vatkin quote 4 times now and I still don’t really get it. Who are “they”? What does he mean by “ability to interpellate”?
      *** I’m hardly the one to criticise Vatkin for sometimes getting a bit carried away, but I think that he wades through all the mumbo jumbo quite well. As to your specific questions, I think “they” are subjects, and that “Absurdly, interpellation is used to secure one paramount thing: the ability to interpellate” means that hailing or interpellating subjects is not just the explanation but the practice.

      4. For the uninitiated, Geoff’s surprise ….is a Gordian knot of all three, twisting itself endlessly around the signifying chain, greased by différance, endlessly deferring its own unknottability
      *** Very helpful. Thanks, I feel I know myself a lot better now.
      5. My only heroes are the St Johnstone team who won the 2014 Scottish Cup.
      *** That’s hilarious.

      6. I made no mention of Trotsky, Lenin or even Derrida this time.
      *** And your point is?

      7. You leave Marx himself out of the firing line. But is a traditional Marxist analysis sufficient any more? Or is your own brand of righteous anticapitalist profanity enough to come to terms with the complexities of contemporary capitalism or indeed the incredible inertia that faces those of us trying to effect change? You know I include you in “those of us”, and you hopefully also know that I’m not daft enough to think that reading a bit of Lacan or Laclau is going to achieve much. I just need more tools to get to grips with it all. I still don’t have enough.
      *** Most importantly, I’m pleased that you count me among those of us trying to effect change. Marx did a lot to help us understand our world, and his writings have influenced me a lot. But, to quote the man himself “I am not a Marxist”, and more, I think his attempt to stand Hegel on his head with dialectical materialism is mumbo jumbo, and the later work, including Capital, absurdly mechanistic and deterministic. I’m an anarchist, as you know, so I reject all the Marxist tripe about the withering away of the state after a revolution (led by a bunch of puritanical, humourless vanguardists) has replaced what was with something just as bad. Just BTW, I think Marx’s take on ideology is a lot better than Althusser’s (especially once tweaked by Gramsci).

      I’m not sure I’ve answered your question. Ah yes, you ask if my own brand of righteous anti-capitalist profanity is enough to come to terms with the complexities of contemporary capitalism. Well, helped by Kropotkin, Malatesta, Walter, and the writings of my particular tribe – see here: – and all the old favourites, including many who you no doubt dismiss as romantics, I cobble together a fractured world view. Your suggestion that Althusser and Lacan provide helpful tools for understanding our world strikes me as being as weird as suggesting that smoke can help you open a bottle, to take a not entirely random example. .

      8. I don’t believe we are completely socially determined, which is why I’m up way past bedtime. I’d rather believe that, though, than the other extreme (completely biologically determined), for therein all hope of social transformation is extinguished. As long as we can view at least something of our social selves as constructed, there will always be the possibility of resistance, for what is made can be unmade and remade.
      *** As Patrick says, we’re not faced with any silly binary choice. I can’t see the use of seeing “something of our social selves as constructed” and it certainly isn’t a condition for resistance. As a dedicated believer in what Patrick calls individual agency, as someone who is first and foremost opposed to any form of coercive authority, I find too much emphasis on the social scary. For me, the alternative to capitalism is not socialism, it’s anarchy.

      9. Thanks for not mentioning any form of the word “postmodernism”!
      *** Just as long as you never mention Lyotard again. 

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Geoff,

        As you know I thoroughly respect your anarchist position, one which I share on several levels, but one sticking point for me (as for Žižek) comes with those aspects of socialist (state-wide) organisation which I can’t see as being bettered by anarchic, local self-organisation – e.g. the health service. I’m sure that you are much better read in this area and will have an an answer for it, although perhaps this is veering off topic …

        And yes, in some anarchist thought I’ve read there is a romantic/humanist conception of the individual that I don’t hold with. However, there is also much that informs a poststructuralist reading. Todd May’s “poststructuralist anarchism”, as Antliff points out, errs in reducing classical anarchism’s concept of the individual to the fundamentally good person whose freedom is oppressed by power. May (via Foucault) is correct in identifying power as productive, i.e. it produces its own resistance, and can therefore be harnessed and deployed for anarchic purposes. However, it isn’t clear that classical anarchism does not already allow for this. As Antliff points out, “contemporary radicals would do better marshaling classical anarchism to interrogate poststructuralism, rather than the other way around”. (See Personally I’d prefer to see a two-way interrogation. Both strands of thought are, after all, fundamentally about questioning authority, absolute ways of thinking.

        Althusser’s theory IS highly flawed, as I acknowledged in my first response to you and implied also in the list of questions at the end of the post, which I’ve deferred to the next one – but I still feel there is something to be gleaned from it, namely the application of the Lacanian imaginary, concept of the subject and the unconscious to the political/ideological field. However, given your position on Lacan I’m not sure we’re going to be able to come to terms on this one. Lacan was willfully obscure, perhaps to an even greater degree than even Derrida is accused of being. I’m just not with you (or Chomsky, or Roger Scruton) that this is a reason for not reading him. There’s so much there, about desire, identification, sexuality, all entirely relevant to any questioning of contemporary authority/power systems.

        I’ll stick my neck out and say the main problem with Althusser is that he offers social Theory (with a capital T), an arrogant and totalising claim to Truth, but that does not mean that some of his ideas can’t be incorporated into a more progressive, open, small-t theory. Freud too offered Theory (e.g. the universalisation of highly local, culturally situated phenomena) but my feeling is that Lacan gives us theory, despite the pomposity. Judith Butler, to name but one, finds enough in Lacan to offer a theory of sexuality which unpicks his apparent privileging of universal, asymmetric heterosexual patterns of identity; Laclau and Mouffe, on the other hand, find in the Lacanian concept of master signifier a tool to describe the functioning of hegemony. Incidentally, Laclau and Mouffe also reject Althusser.

        I don’t think we are so far apart in that we both cobble together our own fractured world-views from a variety of sources. If our conclusions are so similar, does it matter if Lacan is one of my reference points? And when it comes to flawed theories (Althusser), do we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater each and every time? Here I refer to your comments on Marx, who apparently has offered us something valuable despite the most objectionable bits (dare I mention Krashen here too?).

        The question of individual agency is the one I find both difficult and absolutely essential. You offer the image of the exercise of free agency against coercive power, but so much power these days operates without direct coercion, and this is where I feel the theories of ideology cobbled together above have some application. Prevailing liberal ideologies depend so much on our own perception that we are acting freely, but really, in Žižekian terms, what we mostly have is the freedom of a forced choice (choose freely, but choose correctly). If the anarchist position is to choose against, to choose not to conform, it needs to deal with how conformity is achieved in the first place – and it’s not through coercive injunctions like “Do it because I said so!” This type of father is much easier to rebel against.

        I guess for me agency comes in at those precise points ideologies emerge as ideologies, where antagonisms and points of resistance emerge – somewhere between, against and beyond the forced choices of the standard liberal agenda and the new nativist/racist/protectionist discourses sprouting up everywhere. It’s there we have to act, to somehow reset the coordinates. The Old (and New) Left has failed us miserably here, so I’m willing to grasp onto anything – anarchism, post-structuralism, and yes some aspects of the socialist state – some tactical combination of the three – that will help that happen. From there I’d rather focus on how we exercise that agency (on which I think we largely agree) than argue about how we got there.

        Finally, I think I’m still lost on the Vatkin line. As I understand it in Althusser, interpellation (calling) is the fundamental operation by which ideologies produce subject-positions, in which sense it’s neither an explanation nor a practice. What’s the reference, so I can delve a bit further?


  3. Ok, I’ve been meaning to weigh in on this all week – but very much enjoyed the Geoff and Neil tennis match!

    i) First, Althusser went nuts and killed his wife. I also had to read Althusser at university, best described as dogmatic marxism.

    Jacques Ranciere I find much more interesting. He was a disciple of Althusser, but became disillusioned with him when Althusser refused to support the students in ’68 – because they weren’t organising the revolution through the Communist Party, with him as the leading intellectual! Ranciere pretty much demolished ‘Althusserism’ in the 70s:

    Ranciere is a difficult author but he’s becoming increasingly well-known, he gives a lot back and he’s highly relevant for us teachers too. Check out ‘The Reluctant Schoolmaster’ AND the book I’m reading now ‘Proletarian Nights: the workers dream in nineteenth century France’. Here’s preface:

    This book about the dreams of ordinary workers in the 1830s and their desire to forge their own intellectual identity that came from the grassroots – not handed down from the bourgeois. It’s long-winded in parts, but has some great writing. (I have pdfs of both these books.) And it’s written in direct opposition to Althusser and his belier in Orthodox Marxism and intellectuals leading the masses to heaven. (Or more likely the Gulag.)

    ii) I feel that same way about Zizek that Truman Capote said about Kerouac: “He doesn’t write, he types.” The absolute verbiage he comes out with!

    Zizek was a Slovenian intellectual fighting the Communist Party in Yugoslava. He couldn’t use Marxism against them as an intellectual weapon, couldn’t use nationalism (he’d be straight in prison) – so he used Lacan. Because you can really say anything with Lacan and nobody can argue against you, and you deftly avoid being taken to jail.

    I’m not a fan of Zizek, though many people are. I really lost any residual respect for him when he came out recently and said if he could vote in the US election, he’d vote for Trump.

    He got a LOT of stick for it and rightly so. (It’s the old Leninist idea of ‘an authoritarian brings the revolution closer.’ Crisis theory.)

    iii) Lacan. Writer Dylan Evans (author of ‘The Utopia Experiment’) wrote a Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis – apparently a standard work. Yet gradually he came to see that Lacan’s ideas were not only false – they were, as I remember, positively dangerous. And they did as much harm to mentally-ill patients, as cure them.

    Check out his story it’s fascinating:

    Back to your post. Yes, have sympathy for your views on the conference in Barca; but then again, we all wouldn’t have met face-to-face would we? We really need more face2face events like that!

    “Even the Teachers as Workers collective was reduced to the inspired action of one individual.” – Yes true, that was unfortunate. TaWSIG was never about me. Though it was nice to get a bit of recognition! (The kind remarks I got from other teachers at the conference were a big reason to keep the whole thing going.)

    To be honest, I’m a ‘reluctant organiser’, the only reason I started kicking up a fuss is because I just didn’t give a damn anymore for the social niceties of the ELT world – I saw myself leaving ELT anyway and was thoroughly disillusioned with it most teachers are after a few drinks.. Nicola Prentis also does a lot of work outside ELT now too. (What does that say – that the few people who speak out are often those leaving the profession?)

    OK, that’s enough from me.


    • Hi Paul! Thanks for your comment, it’s certainly given me pause for thought. In some ways it’s quite difficult to know how to respond because you don’t deal that directly with my analysis, more with the thinkers who have informed it. Still, like the good paranoiac I am, and aware that this is probably getting off on the wrong foot entirely, I’m reading here (as I did with Geoff) that my choice of theorists casts doubt on the legitimacy of my arguments from the beginning. I’m also wary of this discussion becoming a caricature of the eternal problem of the left – while we quibble over theory, the right is laughing all the way to the bank. But this is, after all, a blog which makes claims for poststructural and other theories in terms of a critical analysis of the ELT industry, and so I feel compelled to mount some kind of defence.

      Actually, I’m really not that comfortable defending Althusser, Lacan or Žižek as I’m neither an Althusserian, Lacanian or Žižekian, I don’t follow any particular Masters, but I’ll respond in the interests of (hopefully) returning this discussion to some focus on the validity, relevance etc. (or not) of my specific analysis, rather than the question of whether using these thinkers in the analysis necessarily undermines it from the get-go. In short, I don’t think one needs to subscribe to the entire project of any particular thinker to find validity in some of the concepts they’ve come up with, and put them to use. So I’d rather we looked at how I’m using these concepts, how effective they might be as critical tools, in the first instance to examine and question the political inertia we find in our industry.

      First of all, like Geoff before you (and Sam Vaknin, but I’ll get onto that in another post), you’re indulging in a bit of “argumentum ad hominem” caricature there, what with Althusser going nuts and Žižek snaking his way out of prison by becoming a Lacanian. Even if this were to be fleshed out a bit more, I think we’d agree that no critique should base itself on biography. Yes Althusser went with his party in refusing to support the students in ’68, and murdered his wife in 1980, and yes Rancière is much more of a good guy, down with the workers, beloved of presidential candidates, but none of that should have a determining influence on how we read either’s texts.

      Meanwhile, Žižek’s “I’d vote for Trump” thing is such an obvious joke. He’s being interviewed by Channel 4 – every time he gets interviewed by the mainstream media, he drops something like this. He loves winding up the liberal left. Meanwhile I wouldn’t be so dismissive of the idea that the election of Trump (and similar movements in Europe) will stir up a strong progressive response. If it doesn’t, there’s little hope for us.

      (Btw I take Žižek’s rambling public lectures and media outbursts as entertainment – they led me to his texts, some of which at least deserve more serious attention.)

      My final point on this is that even if we are to take Žižek’s statement seriously, and use it as an argument for not taking him seriously, we’d also need to dismiss the work of those two natural enemies Chomsky (who really did support the Khmer Rouge for a time) and Foucault (ditto with the Islamic revolution in Iran).

      OK, on to the more substantive criticism you offer against Althusser and Lacan, namely the two disillusioned disciples who turned on their Masters (sorry, I had to sneak in a bit of caricature myself ..) There is little to disagree with in Rancière’s critique of Althusser’s theory of ideology except to question his own adherence to the concept of class struggle as all-determining. Aside from that, yes Althusser’s theory is circular, yes it undermines itself with its appeal to some absolute Marxist Science, and yes its acknowledgement of the antagonistic nature of ideologies comes too late to save it. But if Rancière demolished “Althusserism” he refrained from definitively obliterating some of the key terms of Althusser’s analysis – it’s just that, for Rancière, Althusser suppressed the antagonism:

      “The realm of ideology is not just the realm of subjective illusion in general, of the necessarily inadequate representations men form of their practices. The only way to give objective status
      to ideologies is to think them through the class struggle. This means that ideology does not exist only in discourse or only in systems, images, signs and so on.” (p. 151 of the text you kindly shared).

      “Not just”, “not only” – but yes ideology is there in discourse, yes there are illusory, unconscious elements in play. These ideas of Althusser’s (and of Lacan’s) are perfectly able to be deployed (and indeed have been employed, by far better writers than me) in a more open, radical theory which takes account of antagonism, ideological discord, struggle … Again, do we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

      As for Evans (again many thanks for sharing, it *is* a fascinating story), I think he says far more about the cult of Lacan than about the validity of his ideas (I really don’t think we can talk about “false” ideas, but their validity according to some chosen measure, e.g. rationality, ethical utility, etc.). There’s a touch of the born-again about Evans: he embraces evolutionary psychology and cognitive science with a little too much fervour to be credible. How are we to take seriously statements like “With an MRI scanner at his disposal, [Freud] may well have never invented psychoanalysis”, or “we see Lacan wandering into a historical dead-end when he could so easily have helped blaze the trail of a future science”? Can we really be so arrogant as to assume that the study of the vagaries of the human mind and irrationalities of human behaviour, desire, gender identification etc. can completely dispense with psychoanalytic theory? Indeed, if we’re going to reduce everything to the empirically verifiable, cognitive behavioural therapy (based on the computational view of the mind of which Evans is now a disciple) has been shown to have much poorer long-term benefits compared to psychoanalysis (I’m not saying the Lacanian version). See e.g.

      I repeat again that I’m not a Lacanian and I’m not even sure I’d choose one if I ever went into therapy (I may need to shortly). I’m deeply suspicious of cults of any kind, and in the case of Lacan it’s true that he did much to bring this on himself, what with all his posturing and at times willful obfuscation, the style in Ecrits and all the “everything I say is a trap” stuff. However, when his basic position is that language is treacherous, that one cannot own the process of meaning-making, would a nice direct Popperian style really suffice – or even one in which the wordplay and allusion can be decoded to reveal a deeper truth? There *is* a lot more clarity in the Seminars, in general, but even there Lacan is actively dissuading us from any interpretative path which depends on metaphors of surface and depth, of unveiling the truth, etc. In that context, there’s a telling reference from Evans to the emperor’s new clothes: “… whereas most of Lacan’s commentators preferred to ape the master’s style, and perpetuate the obscurity, I wanted to dissipate the haze and expose whatever was underneath – even if it meant seeing that the emperor was naked”. Evans must have known that Lacan himself referred to the tale of the emperor in Seminar VII, precisely to challenge the notion that any unmasking will reveal the reality beneath. I think what Žižek’s (and Laclau’s) best writing on Lacan does is show that it’s entirely possible to respect this difficulty while avoiding any aping of the master’s style or perpetuating of obscurity, all the while putting Lacanian concepts to political uses.

      In my view Lacan’s thinking has radical potential primarily in its positing of psychoanalysis as a way of fundamentally disrupting the discourse of the Master, which is by definition contingent and unstable. In this sense it allows its own critique and any treatment of Lacan as just another Master should rightly be questioned. But I don’t hold with the line that you can “say anything with Lacan and nobody will really argue against you” – there *is* serious argument about Lacan and the uses to which his thought can be put, in work I consider vital and which is highly political – Žižek, Butler, Laclau and Mouffe (I haven’t said nearly enough about the last two – I aim to rectify that in a future post). What is evident is that nobody has (so far) bothered arguing with the specific use I’ve made of Lacan in the post above. It’s not that I particularly want anyone to, but if they did it would at least give me something to focus on that could move the discussion forward.

      Finally, I thoroughly respect your decision to get out of ELT, Paul, but I sincerely hope you don’t give up on the organising, reluctant though it may be.


      • A more nuanced, less dogmatic thinker than his biologist colleague Richard Dawkins, Steven Jay Gould introduced the notion of ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ to account for the apparent conflicts between scientific enquiry and religion. The two modes of discourse, he suggested, were literally doing quite different things and it is a mistake to imagine them in competition with one another. Psychoanalysis and the kind of cognitive science that is done with an MRI scanner belong, I think, to non-overlapping magisteria. Freud wrote;

        ‘We know two things about what we call the psyche (or psychical life). Firstly, we know about the brain (nerve system), the physical organ and scene of the psyche; secondly, we know that there are acts of consciousness that are presented to us in their immediate form and that no description can bring any closer to us. Everything in between is an unknown quantity to us; there is no direct relationship between these two end points of our knowledge. If there were such a relationship, it would at most give us an exact location of the processes of consciousness, and would not in the slightest help us to comprehend them.’ (An Outline of Psychanalysis)

        MRI scanners have certainly advanced our understanding of the brain (nerve system). I think Freud makes it clear here that he would not have found that those advances obviated the need for psychoanalysis. At the same time, though, it is not ‘arrogant’ for people working in cognitive science to imagine they can do without psychanalytic theory. Psychoanalysis and cognitive science are doing quite diffeent things. They are non-overlapping magisteria. Psychoanalysis probably has more in common with religion and literature than it does with cognitive science. The pastoral nature of the psychoanalyst’s role has frequently been noted.


  4. Point taken Neil, I took on the low-handing fruit in your post – because it was easier! I just found it hard to get at the kernel of your argument. If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that there are different layers of ideologies in operation in ELT?

    When you say, “agency comes in at those precise points ideologies emerge as ideologies” – where exactly is that?

    I’m just not a Zizek/ Lacan fan so much. There may be some jewels there but the signal to noise ratio is too high for me. Laclau and Mouffe are different, they climb down the ladder of generality a bit – thank god. Creating a new “common sense”, I think, is a clear idea people can latch on to. Am I right in thinking Podemos used their ideas?

    There’s also the whole recent object-oriented turn in philosophy which is extremely exciting – and, in some sense, leaves previous philosophy in the dust to a certain extent. And these writers write clearly! Check out Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, Jane Bennett:


    • Hi Paul,

      When I refer to ideologies emerging as ideologies, I mean when we – through whatever type of intervention, critique, contradiction – are able to recognise their partiality, refuse their call and act in such a way as to reconfigure the reality they represent to us. Such a reconfiguration may resist becoming ideological itself insofar as it takes account of its own contingency and remains open to further restructuring. I find it hard to believe in any kind of pure agency, but I do believe in our power to resist, and that we can best do so when we have come to terms as far as possible with the various discourses that seek our implicit consent in maintaining the status quo.

      I don’t know what you mean by “climb down the ladder of generality” but I accept that my choice of philosophy in this and other posts is not to everyone’s taste. I can’t help wondering that if I had just deployed the analysis without reference to the authors, the reaction might have been different.

      Yes, the founders of Podemos have taken much from Laclau and Mouffe, as well as from Gramsci. The jury’s still out here on their potential as a transformative force (Geoff is very much against their populist stance while I’m prepared to give them more time, although I was not impressed at all by their role in the recent political stalemate in Spain). There’s a bit of an ideological turf war going on in Podemos just now – between the firebrand, oppositional approach of Pablo Iglesias and the softly-softly tactics of their number 2, Iñigo Errejón – so we’ll see how that pans out. I have more faith in the local “gobiernos de cambio” of Barcelona and Madrid, both of which are affiliated to Podemos but maintain a certain critical distance.

      I will certainly check out the writers you mentioned, but I won’t be judging their worth on the clarity of their prose – bearing in mind that a clear style is still a style, and that philosophy post-Derrida (in my opinion) still needs to take account of itself as a type of writing.


  5. Hi Patrick,

    I’ll try to respond to your various comments in one post.

    1) Žižek’s “joke” – I think there are far deeper issues behind Trump’s victory than jibes at the liberal left, badly considered or not. The PC agenda still has such a grip on public discourse on the left, so much breath and so many column inches wasted on being shocked at this, that or the other. I’m not including Chomsky in that, but rather the way the whole question is framed and the debate around it.

    2) On agency: fatally compromised, no, but limited, somewhat hamstrung – most tellingly perhaps when we convince ourselves, in cynical mode, that ideology has been “defeated” – that we’re well aware of its attempts to dupe us, we resist them, but we carry on acting in the ways ideologies call on us to act. Agency here, Žižek argues, consists of making forced choices which masquerade as free ones. He uses the example of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, where the only alternative to the failed communist system that seemed to be on offer was the liberal market model. The adoption of this appeared to be a free choice, a rejection in fact of totalitarian ideology, but the absence of serious alternative models, indeed of offering people any further choice, suggests the ultimatum involved: it’s this or go back to your queueing for bread and secret police! The ability to choose differently comes not only with some awareness of the illusory nature of that ultimatum, that the authority behind it lacks any real substance, but also in realising the possibility of constructing an alternative.

    Another example comes from Frank Furedi (although maybe he wouldn’t use the same terms) with the stress industry – the individualisation of work-related illness, i.e. the pressure to take on individual responsibility for our inability to cope with the ever-increasing demands of work, masks from the subject a range of other choices (e.g. collective action to change work conditions) while s/he freely chooses to seek counselling, get more sleep, be more mindful. At the same time, of course, where alternative discourses exist and are actively (if not officially) promoted, it shouldn’t take much to come to the conclusion that all this self-help crap plays very nicely for the bosses, high time we did something, etc. – although this is not a guaranteed outcome. One does not have to fervently believe in ideological precepts for those precepts to be effective, as long as one goes along with everyone else; one could equally regard the alternatives as (worse) ideological dogma; one could take the cynical stance, and so on.

    Perhaps agency then lies in the move from a becoming-aware of ideology to a practice of discourse, a strategic counter-discourse, tied to social practice, which differs from ideology not only in its awareness of its own contingency but in its challenge to those structures of power that ideology seeks to maintain. With the Lacanian influence on Žižek, the part of his theory of ideology which deals with agency mixes the psychic and the social, drawing on the idea of “traversing the fundamental fantasy” in such a way that reality as the subject has experienced it disintegrates – the king is finally seen as naked beneath his clothes, the master signifier has no real authority, so another can be chosen and another kind of reality constructed. However, based as all this is on the analytical relationship, Žižek struggles to make of it an effective call to action.

    Foucault is more compelling here. Rejecting outright the idea that his work posits the subject as absolutely socially determined, he went as far as to say this: “I firmly believe in human freedom. In questioning psychiatric and penal institutions, did I not presuppose and affirm that one could get out of the impasse they represented by showing that it was a matter of forms that were historically constituted at a particular time and in a particular context, and … that these practices, in another context, could be dismantled because they had become arbitrary and ineffective?” (Power, p. 399) What Foucault would always resist was prescribing concrete strategies for doing so, as well as any justification for the exercise of this type of freedom in some ahistorical ideal freedom, proper to human nature but denied it by oppressive state practices.

    3) On style: you’re probably right that I don’t hold with this distinction, but neither do some of the criticisms on here – which appear to regard an unclear or difficult style as an indication that the ideas are not worth investigating. Strangely though I do try to be clear myself, although clearly not always successfully (and taking comfort from Derrida that the possibility of failure is inscribed into the very attempt).

    I have a question for you Patrick (or anyone else) – if I were to seek recourse in the more academically acceptable philosophies of the mind, cognitive science, etc, would I find more or fewer compelling arguments for human agency? You’re better versed than me in people like Dennett, but doesn’t his line of thinking occlude the possibility of any meaningful exercise of free will?

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    • Hi Neil
      I’ve been trying to formulate an answer to your closing question. This is the best I’ve come up with so far. Not sure if it really does the job.

      To explain an event is to identify its causes. That’s just what ‘explain’ means, right? The causes of an event are those previous events that gave rise to it, that made the difference between its occurring and its not doing so. Explaining an event, then, is showing how it was determined by previous events. To the extent that an act is undetermined by previous events (to the extent, that is to say, to which it is really a ‘free’ act), therefore, that act is strictly inexplicable, not susceptible to explanation. I think this is why Kierkegaard describes ‘the instant of decision’ as ‘madness’ and why Heidegger begins his Letter on Humanism by saying ‘we are still far from pondering the essence of action decisively enough.’ It is also why I described, in a previous comment on this post, undetermined human agency as ‘barely intelligible’. And it is why cognitive scientists generally do not address themselves to the question of human freedom but prefer to investigate more specific faculties of the mind, such as how we process visual information, or how we acquire a language. The explanations they produce sometimes acquire quite a mechanistic tone, but that really is simply because they are explanations. Some authors, such as Dennett and Dawkins, do sometimes seem to mistake the methodological requirements of their own disciplines for the basic characteristics of the world, but there is really no need for people involved in a naturalistic study of humans to do this, and I have little doubt that many do not.

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  6. Myself, the whole ideology ‘supply-side’ isn’t so important. For, I’d like to know what would have to happen for ELT Teachers to:

    a) Think differently about their profession and everyday ‘work’.
    b) Think differently about their ‘teacher selves’.
    c) Act differently as teachers.


    • Hi Paul, sorry for not getting back to you sooner. I’m not sure what you mean by “supply side” because it suggests a supplier. But your questions are good ones, and obviously I don’t have the answers. Every local context will have a different response, a different set of ideologies to work through, different economic conditions, etc. For me the tools of analysis are important but I don’t look to them for a programme of action, but perhaps the basis of one.

      One question that arises from your a), b) and c) is the whole identification of “ELT Teacher”, that’s to say, a professional identification within an industry many see as unprofessional, with teaching unviable as a career. Even those happy to wear the badge will not be doing so in a homogenised way, and if we follow the Lacanian line, there will always be some excess which escapes the identification – and always some Big Other (students, institutions, humanity, a higher calling) attempting to claim that excess as its own in channeling the identification and giving it meaning.

      That’s why I think Teachers as Workers is so important – it offers (in Laclau’s terms) a different nodal point to organise around, one which opens up new patterns of identification which take into account the material conditions of working in this industry, as well as a point of solidarity with other workers and a chance to learn from their struggles. That’s to say, for me it’s not a question of getting “ELT Teachers” to think differently about themselves and their work, it’s more about constructing a place within which small-t teachers can identify as “Teachers-Workers” who already think and act in a different way, and who regard the very identification as provisional, strategic, responsive to local conditions. Part of the counter-discourse arising from this, for me, needs to include some kind of ideological critique, some way of attacking or destabilising those other “ELT Teacher” positions which promote inertia.


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