Habermas and the Problem of Ideology: Or, Can the Real Rescue the Universal in a Post Metaphysical World?

In Habermas’ formula of the principle of discourse, the truth is an anti-essentialist notion, thus agreements can exist without understanding (instrumental actions), but rational understanding cannot exist without a truth validity claim. There is no room for objective truth in a field of communicative action as the truth is only considered within the formal structure of a validity claim. But the real world does not work this way and Habermas recognizes this through the designation of “system” to clarify the problem of action stripped from the categorical imperative – or communicative action infected with instrumetnalized action – or action only concerned with the final outcomes. But what is the role of ideology within Habermas’ view of system?


Take for instance the following situation that Habermas uses as a thought experiment to ground validity claims as the source of rationally grounded truth:

A (the speaker) asks B (the hearer) to switch off the light in a room shared by both of them. In order that B will be able to reach an understanding of the utterance coming from A, B has to know the reason behind A’s requirement. Imagine that B asks for the reason of the requirement. A then explains that he has an eye problem, which is exacerbated by the light (a validity claim). B is now in a position to understand the reason that justifies A’s petition, and both can reach a rational agreement on switching off the light in the room.

Zizek’s criticism, leveled against Habermas’ theory of communicative rationality, if he were to level one that is, might argue that it confuses truth with reality, and is thus a falsification of the truth. Taken further, the theory of communicative rationality locates ideology as an external force subjugated by “system” onto the subject. Zizek offers a very interesting twist to the role of ideology in the field of the subject that problematizes Habermas’ theory. Ideology in Zizek’s view is located within the internal subjectivity of the individual as it consists of an overlooking of reality itself.

By locating ideological misconceptions “in the act of doing not in the act of knowing,” the fundamental illusion that structures reality comes into play, i.e. Zizek’s Lacanian incorporation of fantasy into the field of social reality. As Camargo notes, important in this view of the fundamental fantasy is Zizek’s objective understanding of beliefs. Since Zizek claims that beliefs are always radically exterior, embodied in the practical effective procedure of the people, i.e. any individual who follows a custom believes in something without really knowing it. Therefore, to Zizek, all belief is always materialized in the social activity. There is always a residue of ideology that is left over by symbolic apparatus that ideology acquires its real potentiality.

In a Zizekian intervention, the ideal speech situation can be met, but the validity claims are still a falsification of the truth. The outcome is that a validity claim in the field of communicative action is not always sufficient to get a rational agreement between two free agents. Let’s revise the rationally agreed upon validity claims with a Zizekian intervention:

Suppose now that B knows that A’s reason to switch off the light in the room, despite being formally true because A has a widely known eye infection, has also been exaggerated due to A’s well-known melodramatic character. B still decides to agree to give validity to the truth claim of A (the eye problem) because he secretly thinks that in this way he is fulfilling the requirements of a high morality standard imposed by his ideal type of citizen (mandating for a religious or an ideological belief) that he aspires to become one day.

In other words, he agrees to give rational validity to A’s claim because he has constructed a fantasy to support his agreement. Then, B’s agreement on switching off the light is going to be based on a cynical reason (he knows very well that despite the fact that A’s petition is true, it is also exaggerated, therefore not totally true, but he — rationally — agrees on that as if it were unquestionably true) as well as on a supporting fantasy-construction mechanism (his dream of becoming an ideal citizen). Therefore, despite B knowing very well that the rational agreement reached with A is a falsification of the truth, he is not — subjectively speaking — ideologically deluded.

However, as he follows in practice the agreement as a rational one — moved by his fantasy — he is in fact affected by a delusion. Moreover, it is worthwhile noting that the cynical distance that allows B to realize the ideological illusion operating in his social relation with A, is one way — ‘one of many ways’ asserts Žižek — that gives efficiency rather than obsolescence to the structuring power of ideological fantasies (Žižek, 1989, 33).

Aside from these obvious problems of communicative rationality with the advent of fantasy and ideology internal to the subject, what about the role of truth as a universal? Habermas grounds the principle of universalizability in communicative rationality and thus denies the possibility of any objective metaphysical truth. Within this post modern truth constellation that limits the capacity for a universal truth from being realized, how can a critique of ideology happen in an era under the reign of a “non-vantage point mantra.”

Does not the critique of ideology have a privileged place, outside of social life which enables some subjects to perceive the very hidden mechanism that regulates social visibility and non-visibility. Social ideology demands an embracing of a God’s view, and ideology is a part of reality itself in Zizek’s praxis. Therefore, we don’t depend on any external, transcendental vantage point (which would itself be an ideological position through the creation of another false construction). How then do we know that we are inhabited by ideology if it is the air that we breathe? The real.

The Real: The primordial repressed as a hypothetical universal notion of truth

As Ian Parker has claimed, the real is the structurally necessary limit to representation that is resistant to a simple recoding (Parker, 2004, Pg. 64). What we experience as the real itself is always already a symbolized part of the real that returns, what Derrida refers to as spectral apparition. Although and because reality is present in the ideology it does not conceal reality at all, but rather it masks the kernel of society which is at the core of all ideological constructions. Hence Zizek’s statement that society is impossible and depends on a fundamental lie – the ideolgoical lie to sustain its symbolic fiction.

It is the repressed antagonism that makes possible the critique of ideology. Thus the postmodern ideology critique is designed “to designate the elements within an existing social order which point towards the system’s antagonistic character, and thus estrange us to the self evidence of its established identity” (Zizek, 94, pg. 7).

The higher vantage point that both Habermas as postmodernism deny is constituted in the domain of the real as it is neither part of the imaginary nor part of the symbolic. Consequently, what the postmodern lack of any single perspective by which to criticize ideological projects, the real serves as the structural primordial process by which ideology can be both located as structurally necessary and then challenged. Reality is supported by an extra reality place – the real, which at bottom is a non-symbolized failed reality. The real allows the determination of what is ideological and what is non-ideological through the critique of ideology. Thus we can assume that the real is a stand in for the lack of a universal notion of truth that Habermas rejects out of hand but still claims can be reached via discourse and communicative rationality. This hypothetical universal notion of truth, as constituted in the real would allow the distinguishing of the non-ideological from the ideological.

Can the real then be a way to rescue a form of universal truth in a post metaphysical world?

4 Replies to “Habermas and the Problem of Ideology: Or, Can the Real Rescue the Universal in a Post Metaphysical World?”

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