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notes on ideology and absence

notes on ideology and absence, thursday 3-11-21

I’m slowly reading Jan Rehmann’s book on ideology and I had a thought today I thought I’d write down. In Therborn’s book on ideology he claims ideology can be sorted into three primary categories, matters of what exists, what is good, and what is possible. I don’t know if that’s right or not but I find it generative to ask of anything understood to be ideological ‘what claims is this making about what does or doesn’t exist, what is or isn’t good, what is or isn’t possible?’ That said, it struck me today that claims-making is a potentially misleading way to pose this because often ideology doesn’t say ‘X does not exist’ - like Thatcher stating ‘society does not exist’ - so much as ideology fails to depict X and depicts a world without it.

More concretely, I’m thinking about the industrial physicians I looked at in my book who examined peoples bodies and wrote down some findings of those examinations. The sorting of what counted as a finding and what did not was partly a matter of documentation - what didn’t count as a finding went unrecorded. Then the documentation went elsewhere in the organization, determining who did and didn’t get hired. That had serious effects in terms of disabled people being discriminated against in hiring. It also meant that a lot human reality when unrecorded and so had no institutional life outside the doctor-examinee encounter. This means that others in the organization, and especially higher ups, were shielded from having to know about any of the non-findings, such as that, for instance, the person might really need the job, might look desperate, or might be angry at being touched and looked at for the examination. Those processes of information handling and organizational divisions of labor produced a set of representations wherein authority in the organization correlated to not having to know anything about important human consequences of decisions made by people high up in the foodchain. If someone at the top of a company fell off a donkey and saw a flash of light and decided they had to know the real human consequences of the policies of medical examination and discriminatory hiring, they’d have really struggled to do so - that knowledge was dispersed institutionally hard to acquire. Engels makes an analogous point in The Condition of the Working Class when he talks about the organization of urban space being such that no one but impoverished workers ever went to those workers’ neighborhoods and so never had to know the terrible living conditions people were assigned to. That’s a kind of representational nonexistence and serves a kind of ideological role I think, but not a claims-making one so much as a perceptual one preventing certain kinds of claims from being made or from being comprehensible.

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