Nick Hopkins is an 2015 alumni in History and Sociology and the current coordinator of the Education Justice Project’s Reentry Guide Committee.
Now that I am out of school, I find it difficult to remain engaged with any form of scholarship while also working a full-time job. When I come home after working 12 hours straight, nearly the last thing on my mind is a chi-square test or commodity fetishism. It is simply easier to take a hot bath and watch an episode of Breaking Bad before bed. However, I found myself regretting these choices when I saw political news coverage or overheard a conversation about a controversial topic. Working such long shifts was very stressful and, personally, unfulfilling. This was further exacerbated by a nagging feeling that I, as a recent graduate looking to transition to graduate school, felt out of place. It seemed like I was missing an important perspective, but did not have time to read dense, complicated tomes to search for insight. To get my mind off of these unresolved tensions, I turned to an old friend; Issac Asimov.
My road back to scholarly reading began unintentionally, by re-reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. An absolute classic, the three book series is set in a far future where humans have achieved space flight and have settled the galaxy under a united, albeit corrupt, Galactic Empire. However, this far-reaching amalgamation is increasingly fraught with poor governance and its society falls prey to ideas of positivist grandeur, where everything can be taken care of by technology.
One man, Hari Seldon, predicts the intellectual decline of the empire, where its citizens are no longer able to reproduce the technology needed for space flight or even able to grow enough food to sustain their cities. Seldon devises a complex plan to ensure the survival of knowledge and humanity, using “psychohistory”, the study of laws of mass action akin to real-life mathematical sociology. Seldon gathers a team of artists and engineers, sending them to the edge of the galaxy to study and to produce an encyclopedia of extant scholarship. Periodically, descendants of this group gather to watch a hologram of Seldon who outlines each crisis the group with face, and the course of action they should take. However, Seldon never gives them the bigger picture of events, playing a complex sociological game post-mortem to ensure their survival on the fringes of the galaxy and aid them in restoring an educated and democratic Galactic Empire.
This lighter reading took the place of my evening repose, engaging my mind with tales of the human condition in a far, fantastical future. I found myself thinking more about my own society and the ideas which populate it. I hurried to find time during my lunch and before bed to read and soon finished the three book series. In light of the deterministic, and impossible, science that the protagonist uses in Foundation, I chose to move to a work of philosophy nonfiction, Mapping Ideology. This book is a collection of recent classic and contemporary works on the subject of social ideology, edited by the much-loved (and much-hated) modern philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. The primary thesis of the compilation is that the study of ideology is a worthwhile endeavor, making special effort to present the concept in light of its popular usage; the strong beliefs of people committed to a certain cause. Rather, the works in Mapping Ideology are arranged to posit ideology as the normative ideas which pervade and structure our lived experiences.
The collection presents the works of philosophers of the last century alongside discussion of this material by contemporary scholars. The former authors explore fundamental concepts of perception, while the latter explain how these ideas are interconnected and relevant to the world today. Jacque Lacan’s piece on the mirror stage discusses the formation of self-conception and how everyday stimuli becomes perceived by this “ego”. Theodor Adorno writes on the tendency to only imagine life through subjective experiences, thereby missing the bigger picture of how they are related. Louis Althusser describes how media, business, and governmental agencies shape perceived experience by ascribing narratives to our lives. A philosopher of Marxism, Althusser examines how the ideas of capitalism are reproduced in popular rhetoric. He argues that the pervasiveness of capitalism as a belief system is due to its ability to describe and sort observed events in a way that is widely accessible, regardless of whether its arguments are empirically verifiable.
Mapping Ideology’s selections on how popular beliefs are internalized enthralled me. I was especially interested in the book’s discussion of extricating oneself from everyday ideology. Zizek, the editor of the collection, concludes the book by touching on this idea. He uses a concept of Lacan, the “kernel” of observable reality within all ideology relationships, to describe gaps the capitalism where its claims and effects are disjoint. He applies this concept to ideologies of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany and to Marxism as well. Zizek ends the book by underscoring the importance of studying ideology today, and of trying to understanding one’s unconscious relationship to social narratives.
At this point, I was again reading academic works, but not for class. I was reading at almost every opportunity, and thoroughly enjoying it. I found Lacan’s discussion of the complex psychology that allows ideology to function to be the most interesting chapter. So, the next day I ordered one of Lacan’s works from the University Library and jumped in as soon as I could. After easing back into dense philosophy, the complexities of the books were welcome. I especially enjoyed reading about the challenge of conceptualizing phenomenological experience. Had I not, I’m not sure how I would have gotten through The Language of the Self.
Jacque Lacan is known for speaking complexly (and for being intentionally cryptic). This book sheds light on the author’s allusive (and elusive) theories, refined from Freudian psychoanalysis. Drawing on his many lectures, he summarizes the framework that is the cornerstone of his works, the division of human psychology into three areas: the “real, symbolic, and imaginary”. Lacan argues that language is the primary means by which the exterior world is related to individuals in this triad. Something such as a wedding ring has a particular symbolic social meaning, but also has a uniquely subjective (and imaginary) meaning to a particular person. All the while, the ring is (in stark, observable reality) only a piece of metal. His tripartite structure offers a means of conceptualizing how popular beliefs come to be reproduced across society, as well as the ways in which they are received on an individual level. Making sense of this in relation to my own lived experience was a rewarding challenge, and a welcome daily routine.
Reading has been important throughout my life, and has been especially so during making the proverbially awkward transition from education to employment. It is a great release from quotidian tension and even a means of gaining important perspective on my life. While I found Mapping Ideology intriguing, I actually took the content of The Language of the Self to heart. It is a worthwhile exercise to examine the beliefs that underlie our every routines. For me, it was relieving to consciously disassociate myself from the feeling that I was tragically misplaced simply because I was working at a less than enjoyable job, and had not gone to graduate school. Instead, I felt more invigorated to purse the latter route, as I was confident that it was squarely my own choice. From space tales to deconstructing social reality, reading is powerful, and a pleasant way to stay sane while working 12 hour shifts.