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One of the questions asked about the Marxist theory of ideology is this: if social relations determine our thoughts, ideas, values, opinions, etc; how do we account for the fact that new ideas arrive, some people do think differently, etc. One of the more orthodox Marxist answers to this is that differential social relations (i.e. being a capitalist vs. being a worker, being Black vs being white, or being a man vs. being a woman) produces different ways of interpreting the world, etc. However, the problem remains: among workers, for example, how do we explain different ideas, etc, etc. Intersectionality is one way of explaining this, but at a certain level it leads to finer and finer determinations that risk devolving into individualism again, which undermines the whole concept of ideology and social construction to begin with.

Another way to think about this is through misunderstanding. I’ve been reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations recently, and one of the key insights of that work is that misunderstanding is always possible. Because language is determined by how it is used in particular contexts (language-games), and these language-games are conventional (i.e. not connected in any material or concrete way with any other phenomena; a Marxist would say they are dependent on non-linguistic social relations), anyone without experience of those conventions can always misunderstand what is “meant” by a given word, sentence, proposition, or expression.

This helps to explain the differential of ideology: the language-game conventional to men is different from the language-game conventional to women. Challenging traditional gender-roles or critiquing toxic masculinity is to challenge those conventions of masculine or feminine upbringing: the language-games of being a man or being a woman. Toxic masculinity is the particular language-game in which (some) men are raised which is internalized and forms the limits of men’s world.

But these internalized language-games, which we can think of as structural, in the sense of structural racism or sexism, can and are considered correct prior to the act of critique. This is how they are “traditional”. From the perspective of the internalized language-game, then, critique is not just a challenge, it is incorrect, it is a misunderstanding. (We can see this in the response of conservatives to things like Black Lives Matter or Trans Rights Are Human Rights: at its most ingrained, racism and transmisia are so internalized, so deep and “natural” that any alternative is seen as wrong). But this wrongness, this misunderstanding is precisely what produces new ideas, new ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Misunderstanding opens new horizons of change.

But this also makes it supremely difficult to express those new ideas. When I criticize liberalism from the perspective of a certain kind of postmodern Marxism, I am always open to the challenge that I have simply misunderstood liberalism. My perspective becomes not just wrong, but dismissable, ignorable. (This is one reason why Critical Librarianship is so often ignored in mainstream LIS discourse). My critique of Intellectual Freedom is a misunderstanding of Intellectual Freedom; my critique of Democracy a misunderstanding of democracy; my use of Spinoza or Wittgenstein a mistaken or incorrect use. In this way, ideology and traditional structures of power and oppression erect barriers of self-defense. But according to Wittgenstein, usage can never be correct or incorrect, understood or misunderstood, just different.

I’m not misunderstanding liberalism: I am looking at it within the context of a different language-game. Critical Race Theorists look at race and power from a different language-game than liberalism too; as does radical feminism; as does trans activism. The difference is that these language games - all dismissed as misunderstanding the so-called real world (note the appeal to a non-linguistic, external arbiter) - are not dominant, not traditional, not deeply ingrained within white-supremacist, heteropatriarchal capitalism. These language-games are the challengers, but this challenge comes with its own extra work. Because we are, in a sense, taking the field against an established language-game, we have all the extra work to do in defining and expressing the contours of our language-game, where the other’s is taken for granted, natural, common-sense, correct, and true. It is this extra work that contributes to the exhaustion of critique.

And of course, we rely on extra-linguistic factors to help shore up our case, our argument that we do not misunderstand: PhDs, academic appointments, a track record of publishing, performing professionalism, performing whiteness, playing all kinds of games, help to be taken seriously within the dominant language game. This carries its own risks, of course; we might come to see ourselves as mistaken, or we might find our own language-game swamped by the dominant one, co-opted, defanged, or extinguished.

The recent policies in the US and the UK against Critical Race Theory are attempts to enshrine it as “mistaken” or a “misunderstanding” within law and political power. The BBC directive against participating in Pride is another way to dismiss LGBTQ+ activism (especially trans activism) as misguided or mistaken. The paternalistic reaction of the Toronto Public Library board to the testimony of trans people in October 2019 was a rejection of their lived experience as “self-misunderstood” (the contradiction-in-terms indicates the incoherence of the response).

I don’t really have anything to end with. We have to keep struggling, fighting, arguing, etc. I suppose I just wanted to try to point out one way in which patriarchal and racial capitalism erects its defenses against all challengers. Perhaps one thing we can do is to own our misunderstanding. To paraphrase a cliche, if social justice is wrong, I don’t want to be right.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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