For Žižek, we are not so much living in a post-ideological era as in an era dominated by the ideology of cynicism. Adapting from Marx and Sloterdijk, he sums up the cynical attitude as “they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it”. Ideology in this sense, is located in what we do and not in what we know. Our belief in an ideology is thus staged in advance of our acknowledging that belief in “belief machines”, such as Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses. It is “belief before belief.”
One of the questions Žižek asks about ideology is: what keeps an ideological field of meaning consistent? Given that signifiers are unstable and liable to slippages of meaning, how does an ideology maintain its consistency? The answer to this problem is that any given ideological field is “quilted” by what, following lacan, he terms a point de capiton (literally an “upholstery button” though it has also been translated as “anchoring point”). In the same way that an upholstery button pins down stuffing inside a quilt and stops it from moving about, Žižek argues that a point de capiton is a signifier which stops meaning from sliding about inside the ideological quilt. A point de capiton unifies an ideological field and provides it with an identity. Freedom, i.e, is in itself an open-ended word, the meaning of which can slide about depending on the context of its use. A right-wing interpretation of the word might use it to designate the freedom to speculate on the market, whereas a left-wing interpretation of it might use it designate freedom from the inequalities of the market. The word “freedom” therefore does not mean the same thing in all possible worlds: what pins its meaning down is the point de capiton of “right-wing” or “left-wing”. What is at issue in a conflict of ideologies is precisely the point de capiton – which signifier (“communism”, “fascism”, “capitalism”, “market economy” and so on) will be entitled to quilt the ideological field (“freedom”, “democracy”, Human rights” and so on).
Žižek distinguishes three moments in the narrative of an ideology.
1. Doctrine – ideological doctrine concerns the ideas and theories of an ideology, i.e. liberalism partly developed from the ideas of John Locke.
2. Belief – ideological belief designates the material or external manifestations and apparatuses of its doctrine, i.e. liberalism is materialized in an independent press, democratic elections and the free market.
3. Ritual – ideological ritual refers to the internalization of a doctrine, the way it is experienced as spontaneous, i.e in liberalism subjects naturally think of themselves as free individuals.
These three aspects of ideology form a kind of narrative. In the first stage of ideological doctrine we find ideology in its “pure” state. Here ideology takes the form of a supposedly truthful proposition or set of arguments which, in reality, conceal a vested interest. Locke’s arguments about government served the interest of the revolutionary Americans rather than the colonizing British. In a second step, a successful ideology takes on the material form which generates belief in that ideology, most potently in the guise of Althusser’s State Apparatuses. Third, ideology assumes an almost spontaneous existence, becoming instinctive rather than realized either as an explicit set of arguments or as an institution. the supreme example of such spontaneity is, for Žižek, the notion of commodity fetishism.
In each of these three moments – a doctrine, its materialization in the form of belief and its manifestation as spontaneous ritual – as soon as we think we have assumed a position of truth from which to denounce the lie of an ideology, we find ourselves back in ideology again. This is so because our understanding of ideology is based on a binary structure, which contrasts reality with ideology. To solve this problem, Žižek suggests that we analyze ideology using a ternary structure. So, how can we distinguish reality from ideology? From what position, for example, is Žižek able to denounce the New Age reading of the universe as ideological mystification? It is not from the position in reality because reality is constituted by the Symbolic and the Symbolic is where fiction assumes the guise of truth. The only non-ideological position available is in the Real – the Real of the antagonism. Now, that is not a position we can actually occupy; it is rather “the extraideological point of reference that authorizes us to denounce the content of our immediate experience as ‘ideological.'” (Mapping Ideology) The antagonism of the Real is a constant that has to be assumed given the existence of social reality (the Symbolic Order). As this antagonism is part of the Real, it is not subject to ideological mystification; rather its effect is visible in ideological mystification. Here, ideology takes the form of the spectral supplement to reality, concealing the gap opened up by the failure of reality (the Symbolic) to account fully for the Real. While this model of the structure of reality does not allow us a position from which to assume an objective viewpoint, it does presuppose the existence of ideology and thus authorizes the validity of its critique. The distinction between reality and ideology exists as a theoretical given. Žižek does not claim that he can offer any access to the “objective truth of things” but that ideology must be assumed to exist if we grant that reality is structured upon a constitutive antagonism. And if ideology exists we must be able to subject it to critique. This is the aim of Žižek’s theory of ideology, namely an attempt to keep the project of ideological critique alive at all in an era in which we are said to have left ideology behind.