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Demystification in
Cultural Theory

University of Cambridge
Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages
Tripos Part II 2015
Year Abroad Project: Dissertation
Candidate number: 301805298
Word count:

Table of contents

Preliminary material
Table of contents 2
Preface 3

Introduction 4
Méditation: Pascal‟s dialectical method 7
The object of demystification 11
„Qui la ramènera à son principe l‟anéantit‟: Foundation myths? 21
Méditation: „the automatic subject‟ 29
Epilogue: conjuncture 32

Bibliography 33


This dissertation has been formatted according to the most recent Modern Language
Association (MLA) guidelines.
Except when the fragment number has been previously given (in which case, as usual,
only the relevant page number will be given), references to the Pensées contain both the
fragment number and the page number. For example: (fr.94, 83) = fragment 94, on page 83,
of the Sellier edition.



La « démystification » […] n‟est pas
une opération olympienne
Barthes, Mythologies

If the main two authors involved here are Pascal and Marx, it is because they both attempt to
show that there are obstacles to intelligibility: that is, to rendering reality – and especially
social reality – intelligible.
The concept of intelligibility has not escaped ideological abuse, however. In the
„grand spectacle‟ of „le catch‟ (17) where „rien n‟existe que totalement‟, the excess of
signification and the luxuries of gesture conspire to produce „l‟intelligibilité parfaite du réel‟
(23): as Barthes observes, for the crowd at the wrestling match, intelligibility is heightened
to the image of Nature, which balms in full light „sans ombre‟ and exists without
contradiction (13).
But intelligibility does not stand for „an inevitable component of the human
condition‟: it is „the product of a history‟ (Moriarty, Roland, 29).
If Pascal were to narrate this history, it would point to the Fall as the ultimate source
of the present distortion in our relation to ourselves and to God. Fragment 94 clarifies this
history in the phrase: „Il y a sans doute des lois naturelles, mais cette belle raison corrompue a
tout corrompu‟. Here, three temporalities – present, past participle, past perfect – found,
respectively, the impossibility of certain knowledge („lois naturelles‟), the corruption of
man‟s intellectual faculty („corrompue‟: as quality), and the corruption of all that the faculty

relates between itself and the world ever since the Fall („a tout corrompu‟: as action with
effects enduring to the present). For Pascal, intelligibility has been separated from its original
home; the present but entrenches its alienation from „la chère patrie‟ (fr.460, 325).
If Marx were to narrate this history, it would account for intelligibility as a social
product, a concrete determination of an individual belonging „to a particular form of society‟
(Theses, 199). What are the conditions for intelligibility? „The conditions of [man‟s] material
existence‟ and these presently characterized by „the exploitation of one part of society by the
other‟ („Manifesto‟, 21). Two aspects of intelligibility would thereby be emphasised: the
rendering of social life intelligible to those who are exploited; social revolution as „the free
development‟ of intelligibility, as „the free development of all‟ (23).
No doubt these interpretative histories can be written differently. There is, after all, no
essential point, but only an assemblage of accounts of these authors, arranged differently
culturally and historically, with different emphases. In either case, for the present author, and
in order to set in motion the aims of this dissertation, it is clear that intelligibility for Pascal
and Marx represents „an alienated present‟ (Moriarty, Roland, 29).

„Demystification‟ is inextricably linked to „intelligibility‟. Demystification is a
theoretical tool which seeks to render obscure relations intelligible. Its disclaimer is that
social relations and cultural material are obscure: it seeks not to bring them into full light –
the „grand spectacle‟ of le monde où l’on catch – but to reveal the laws, contradictions,
effects, and interests involved in these phenomena. The various texts dealt with in this
dissertation emphasise certain phenomena over others as to the methods and the object of
demystification. Reciprocally, the field of the dissertation will widen its scope beyond that of
„cultural theory‟, to theoretical discussion of concepts found in Marx, Pascal, and other
practitioners of demystification.

Practitioners: because the author conceives of theory and practice as mutually
reinforcing, but notes the role of practice – empirical research, for example – as a corrective
to mystificatory philosophizing. Presently, this is an overriding concern:

„All social life is essentially practical. All the mysteries which urge theory into
mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of
this practice‟ (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, 199)

The raison d’être of the two „méditations‟ in the dissertation stems from this idea of
„practice‟: but if practice is to have any self-critical role, their purpose cannot be the sense of
an „exercice spirituel‟, nor of „pensée réfléchie et concentrée‟ – though I would claim neither
is irrelevant to any practice. It is, rather, the Cartesian moment of personality and of

„ce dessein est pénible et laborieux, et une certaine paresse m‟entraîne insensiblement
dans le train de ma vie ordinaire‟ (Descartes, Méditations métaphysiques, I 69).


Méditation: Pascal’s dialectical method

If, for Marx, „the philosophers have only interpreted the world differently‟ (Theses,
199), these ways are nonetheless necessarily one-sided. Pascal came to this conclusion
regarding the philosophies of his day: „on ne peut être pyrrhonien sans étouffer la nature, on
ne peut être dogmatiste sans renoncer à la raison‟ (fr.164, 116). Each position entails
abandoning a certain phenomenon (nature or reason), because it cannot make room for it. In
this way, both positions are one-sided.
As Michael Lebowitz argues, one-sidedness is a major thematic in Marxist thought
(vii). In one way, it is foundational to Marx‟s method: what is capitalism from the point of
view of Capital? In another, it is a criticism levied at the project: where is the wage-labourer
in all this?
That nineteenth-century socialist discourse promoted the opposition between the
„bourgeoisie‟ and the „working-class‟ is derived from an idea about one-sidedness and class
struggle. The opposition relates two groups of individuals as bearers and personifications of
their social interests.
Workers form unions „to keep up the rate of wages‟ (11); the bourgeois
class attempts to lengthen the working day. As Marx and Engels observe in The Communist

„the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and
more the character of collisions between two classes.‟ (11)

That the „various interests‟ of the proletariat should be progressively „equalized‟ is, in my view, contentious.
For this reason, the question of individuals and interests is returned to throughout.

One-sidedness both limits and sustains this conflict of interests: sustains, because each
group only promotes its particular set of interests; limits, because neither group can accede to
the perspective of the other. Hence the revolutionary theoretical task: the subject of Capital is
Capital, so as to reveal to the proletariat the perspective of capitalism (Lebowitz, viii). This
is the aim of demystification in the critique of political economy.
We have managed to contextualize the concept of „demystification‟ with reference to
the thematic of „one-sidedness‟. Now we shall elaborate a problematic.

What is the object of demystification in this context? Importantly, class struggle is not
self-produced: it is the product of the capital–wage-labour relation, the labour relation unique
to capitalism. Marx develops the concept „contradiction‟ to express the „inner and necessary
connection‟ or laws which make it prone to crisis (Capital Vol. 3, 331). It is thus internal to
this relation and not to class struggle that the contradictions of capitalism are to be located.
To demystify Capital is essentially to reveal these contradictions. Overproduction, for
example, is described as „the fundamental contradiction‟: as the productivity of labour grows,
the consumption of workers cannot keep up (Lebowitz, 12). The result is periodic crises,
which can be interpreted as „modes of appearance of structural contradictions‟, contradictions
brought „„to the surface‟‟ (Osborne, 20).
Pascal, too, has a concept of „contradiction‟. Its sense, however, is rather that of
„contestation’. The philosophical context of fragment 208 is the argument of universal
consent as a mark of truth (Descotes and Proust, 2011). Against this argument, the fragment
reads: „Contradiction [read: contestation] est une mauvaise marque de vérité‟ (151). The
criteria of truth and the criteria of „contradiction‟ are lexically ordered: the first is not
reducible to the second, it constitutes a qualitatively different „ordre‟ (fr.339, 229).


By what method could one relate both terms: that of contradiction as inner law and
contradiction as ‘contestation’? I want to suggest Pascal‟s method of dialectic, since it relates
back to our thematic of „one-sidedness‟. The method, as articulated by Moriarty, is that of

„juxtaposing opposing perspectives, each of which enables the perception of some
aspect of reality invisible from the other. They do not themselves, however,
generate a resolution: they need to be resolved and placed in their true
relationship by a revelation external to the process of human reason. But the
opposition prepares us to conceive the need for such a revelation. (Early Modern,
n.63, 134)

To paraphrase: in the present case the „opposing perspectives‟ of the respective concepts of
„contradiction‟ are inherently one-sided. Each concept „enables the perception of some aspect
of reality invisible from the other‟:
On the one hand, if for Pascal „Contradiction [read: contestation] n‟est marque de
vérité‟, Marx can show that „contestation‟ can, in a major way, be taken as a source of
truth: since crises are that which periodically reveal the logical and essential
contradictions in the capital-labour relation, and thus are the loci of potential
contestation, in the sense of resistance or revolution.
On the other hand, if for Marx these contradictions, which stem from „immanent
laws‟ (332), are not to be confused with their appearance „on the surface‟ (337) – the
level of crises, which reveal Capital‟s nature – Pascal can radically claim that the
obscurity of social reality does not cease there: a more radical gap between ourselves
and the world is at work, problematizing the attempt of theory to go beyond forms of
It is in these precise considerations – about truth and resistance, about intelligibility
and social reality – that the two concepts of „contradiction‟ each render visible some aspect of
reality formerly invisible to the other.

To reflect: by deploying a particular method, a problematic has been generated whose
concerns results will be brought to bear on further considerations. This problematic will now
be worked out through considerations of the object of demystification in certain
demystificatory discourses and the kind of problems of intelligibility they raise.

2 Note the underlying assumption of this „méditation‟: the practice of distinguishing concept and method, and
uprooting them, so to speak, from their soils. This is a central theoretical concern. Consider, for example, the
employment of Pascal‟s dialectic method outside of a guaranteed framework of „revelation‟: is the method no
longer fit for use or can it dispose one today to „conceive the need for such a revelation‟ (Moriarty, 134)?
Compare Iris Murdoch‟s attempt, in The Sovereignty of Good, to transpose prayer as an attitude towards the
Good in ethical and aesthetical life (53-54).

The object of demystification

Is the question of demystification one of „invisibility‟? Our presentation of Pascal‟s
dialectical method has been couched in the terms of „visibility‟ (a term perceives some aspect
of reality „invisible‟ to an opposing term). The couple invisible/visible in fact occupies a
prime place in Marx‟s philosophical heritage. The difficulty in rendering reality intelligible is
formulated by Kant, for example, in precisely these terms:

„…l‟intelligence la plus commune, qui, comme on sait, incline fort à toujours
attendre derrière les objets des sens quelque réalité invisible agissant par soi, mais
qui en revanche corrompt cette tendance en se représentant immédiatement cet
invisible sous une forme encore sensible, c‟est-à-dire en voulant en faire un objet
d‟intuition, et qui ainsi n‟en est pas plus avancée‟. (135)

There is a tendency to suppose some kind of law unavailable to perception which acts
„behind‟ the objects of the senses: this is corrupted when we present the „invisible‟ in a form
amenable to the senses.
But there is more involved than mere sense-perception. Of course, the „réalité
invisible‟, as noumenon, is never available to human perception. Yet the text suggests that the
obstacle is not merely that our knowledge is limited (to phaenomena), but that human
judgments override this by interpreting what is visible as precisely those laws we have no
knowledge of. The obstacle to intelligibility thus lies in the interpretative faculties of the
subject. In this way, demystification would have to respond to a problem more fundamental
than that of visibility: to the level of our judgments.
Some of the terminology of Capital might suggest that Marx merely translates Kant‟s
vocabulary into a „critique of political economy‟: the subject who interprets the visible as the
invisible reality „agissant par soi‟ (135) becomes the political economist, whose concepts are
mere translations of the forms of appearance of the capitalist mode of production, not

perceiving the „réalité invisible‟ in its laws. This is to some extent correct. However, Marx
does not have reference to a „transcendental subject‟ as Kant did, but neither is it a problem
merely of interpretation. To employ a term that will subsequently become clearer, if political
economy presents social and economic relations „upside-down‟, it is because of reality itself.

To demonstrate this, we might have brief recourse to Marx‟s Critique of Hegel’s
Doctrine of the State, the subject of which is the constitution of the state on the one hand and
the family and civil society on the other, as according to Hegel‟s Philosophy of Right.
The critique has two points: on the one hand, empirical facts, such as the family and
civil society, are transcended, because Hegel only considers them in so far as they are
dependent on the state; they are denied reality in themselves, because they exist in „eternal
necessity‟ to something beyond them. In reality, „the family and civil society are the
preconditions of the state‟; but „in speculative philosophy [Hegel] it is the reverse‟ (Marx,
Early Writings, 62). The state is thus reified, representing the self-sufficient „act of the Idea‟.
But, on the other hand, it is the state that generates empirical form, since „this reality [the
state] has to transform itself into real objects‟ in order to exist (Colletti, 19). For Marx, this
represents „an obvious mystification‟ (70).
The two points of critique are also couched in the logical terms of „subject‟ and
„predicate‟. Firstly, Hegel inverts the usual relationship of subject and predicate (where the
„universal… [is] the predicate of some real object and so…a category or function of that
object‟ so that now the universal (the state, the Idea) exists „in its own right‟, is self-sufficient
(Colletti, 19). Secondly, Hegel conceives the empirical world as „a manifestation or
embodiment‟ of this Idea, and thus „a predicate of the predicate‟, not a predicate of a subject
(Colletti, 19-20). These two positions are distinguished in the Economic and Philosophical

Manuscripts as „uncritical positivism‟
(deny the empirical world; true reality only in the
Idea) and „uncritical idealism‟ (restore the empirical world as manifestation and meaning of
this Idea) (Colletti, 23).
So, the source of mystification in Hegel‟s theory is that it reifies the state into a self-
sufficient substance and transforms the empirical into merely the means by which the state
exists. Interestingly, Marx‟s subsequent gesture is to explain the failure of political economy
by the same token, since it

„[substitutes] for the specific institutions and processes of modern economy
generic or universal categories supposed to be valid for all times and places; then
the former come to be seen as realizations, incarnations of the latter‟. (27)

As a conceptual tool employed by Marx in his critiques, the subject-predicate
inversion thus employs the fundamental terms of classical Western logic (subject, predicate)
to show up the mystification at work in the Hegel‟s Philosophy and classical political
economy. This is where the terms „naturalized‟ and „historical‟ enter the picture
: the state

Interestingly, the first position is employed by Lefebvre in the concept of „illusion de la transparence‟ (36) one
of two mutual reinforcing illusions which conceal the fact that „l‟espace (social) est un produit (social) (35).
Lefebvre‟s critique of the illusion of transparency recalls Marx‟s critique of „uncritical positivism‟, in that the
illusion posits that in space, action and thought have free rein, and speech and writing can fully grasp their
objects (37). For Lefebvre, there is a problem of intelligibility in the theoretical programme. Demystification –
in this case, of philosophical illusions – is in this way practically linked to reflexivity.
The terms are commonplace in discussions of ideology and in demystification. Mythologies, for example, has
as its object „la mystification qui transforme la culture petite-bourgeoise en nature universelle‟ (Barthes, 7)
while for Bourdieu it is „l‟historicisation qui permet de neutraliser, au moins dans l‟ordre de la théorie, les effets
de la naturalisation, et en particulier l‟amnésie de la genèse individuelle et collective‟: „l‟historicisation‟ is thus
the major critical conceptual tool in „la science sociale‟ (262). Eagleton also discusses the terms „naturalizing‟
and „universalizing‟ (9).

appears to be founded on natural, eternal laws undetermined by history, while historical
conditions (the family and civil society) are reduced to its manifestation. Compare Marx‟s
discussion of the concept of production in the Grundrisse: the aim of political economy,
Marx claims, is

„to present production […] as distinct from distribution etc., as encased in eternal
natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are
then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the
abstract is founded.‟ (The Marx-Engels Reader, 255)

Marx elaborates by explaining that political economists will argue that there is „no production
possible without an instrument of production… No production [possible] without stored-up,
past labour‟. Yet, by identifying „capital‟ as „an instrument of production‟, as „past labour‟,
they conclude that „capital is a general, eternal relation of nature‟ (224). The mystification is
But the inverted logic involved is grounded not in Hegel‟s discourse, nor in political
economy. Marx‟s crucial gesture – as a response to our initial point of departure: the question
of the source of „upside-down‟ reality – is to propose that the inverted logic runs through
reality itself. It is no longer a problem of discourse or interpretation. Hegel was simply
translating the current state of affairs:

„Hegel should not be blamed for describing the essence of the modern state as it
is, but for identifying what is with the essence of the state‟. (127)

Political economy likewise, identifies what is with the essence of labour in general, because
reality appears that way to them (in the surface-forms of capitalist economic relations).
It follows that the source of mystification is built into reality: „Marx makes it clear that
the „veil‟ is not added by bourgeois interpreters of „the social life-process, i.e. the process of

material production‟.
Instead it „belongs to this process, which therefore appears to political
economy as what it really is‟ (Colletti, 38). This allows Marx to develop several critiques
which are no longer interpretative issues but concern the nature of contemporary social
reality. For example, with reference to private property: the reification of private property, as
the „universal bond of the state‟ (178) and its very constitution, entails inverting the
relationship between man and property:

„…the state appears as private property, whereas private property should really
appear as the property of the state. Instead of making private property into an
attribute of the body politic, Hegel transforms the body politic…into an attribute
of private property‟ (180).

Likewise, the state itself is an estrangement and abstraction, a reified body over and above
civil society. The next development is to demonstrate how civil society develops into the
division of society into private interests.
To summarise: Marx‟s argument is a critique of Hegel‟s inverted logic, whose
mystical character is explained with reference to the reality of the modern state and of civil
society. Mystification is built into reality.

Two issues, relevant to demystification, can be gleamed from our recourse to Marx‟s
Firstly, Hegel is described as the „interpreter‟ (151) of the role of legislature in the
modern state. Indeed, his „uncritical, mystical‟ method of interpretation is „the key both to the
riddle of modern constitutions… and also to the mystery of the Hegelian philosophy‟ (149).

The idea of a „veil‟ in reality is also found in the theme of the „Dieu caché‟ in Catholic liturgy which inspired
„toute une conception du monde‟ at Port-Royal. Sellier cites a letter of Pascal to a certain de Rovannez in
October 1656: „Il est demeuré caché sous le voile de la nature, qui nous le couvre jusqu‟à l‟Incarnation. […]
Toutes choses sont des voiles qui couvrent Dieu‟. (28)

Hegel is even described in a singularly aggressive passage as „thoroughly contaminated by
the wretched arrogance of Prussian officialdom‟ (196).
The question this gives rise to is the capacity of critique. In this sense, Adorno‟s
problematic of „transcendent critique‟ and „immanent critique‟ becomes relevant (Bernstein,
18). Now if the critique‟s position outside the social totality – the „transcendent critique‟ – is
condemned for „its lack of inwardness, sympathy and attention to particulars‟, i.e. to the
specific objects of cultural production, is not the alternative – „immanent critique‟, which
aims „to correspond to reality‟ and to embody „the contradictions, pure and uncompromised‟
in the „inner-most structure‟ of „the specific content of the object‟ in some way epitomized by
Hegel‟s method itself (18-19)?To Marx, the section on „The State‟ in Hegel‟s Philosophy
does literally embody his encounter with reality: this is how it appears to him, and thus how
it really is.
Of course, Adorno would not endorse Hegel‟s kind of idealism. Hence why a
resolution of the immanent and transcendent positions is necessary, which takes the form of
the „non-position‟ of „dialectical criticism‟ (19): „The dialectical critic of culture must both
participate in culture and not participate‟ (20). In Adorno‟s terms, demystification would
have to work externally of and internally to its object.
As we have seen, it is through a critique of Hegel that Marx is able to point to the
abstraction of property from man, of the state from individuals. This latter abstraction is
expressed in the distinction between political life and civil society mentioned earlier. The
second insight to be gleaned from the Critique is that the nature of the individual in civil
society has changed. This shall now be considered and developed with reference to
contemporary society, Pascal, and the concept of „alienation‟ in both Pascal and Marx.


For Marx, the change in the social nature of individuals is due to the division of „civil
society…within itself into class and social position‟ (147). „Civil society does not sustain the
individual as a member of a community, as a communal being‟ as it did previously in the
Middle Ages: there is no substantive good that joins individuals but only private interests that
estrange them (147). „Class distinctions‟ which existed before under absolute monarchy
„remained political‟; now, with democracy, they „become merely social differences in private
life of no significance in political life‟ (146). Hence why the „representative systems‟ that
developed alongside the modern democratic state are contradictory, and in two ways: the
„formal‟ contradiction is that the „deputies of civil society‟ are „not connected it its electors
by any „instruction‟ or commission‟; the „material‟ contradiction, that there is no „public‟
interest, as Hegel imagines, but only „particular interests‟ (194). Class distinctions pertain to
the sphere of civil society and to the sphere of political life. They are thus doubled: as private
interests within civil society with no political meaning (the material), and as an illusory
„public‟ interest (the functioning of formal, abstract politics). The individual is thus socially
transformed: „the same subject [i.e. man] is given different meanings‟, entailing the creation
of „a double subject‟: in Marx‟s terms, „an allegory [has been] foisted on it‟ (149).
There is thus a crisis of form and meaning, at the intersection of formal equality as an
abstract subject, material interests which divide individuals, and political life as separate and
disconnected. Marx argues, rather, that it is only by starting with the „essence and true
realization‟ (150) of the subject that we can authentically determine what should be
predicated of it. „Real form and real meaning‟ (149) would in this case coincide.
Has Marx committed himself here to an ethical demand: to commence with the
realization of man – involving terms like essence and (human) nature – and to then see
whether the alleged subjects (the state, private property) are its „real predicate[s]‟? (150)
No answer will be attempted now, but there are two suggestions to be made.

Firstly, this crisis of forms and meanings could plausibly be related to the Marxist
notion of „alienation‟. The disjunction between forms and meanings is a source of
estrangement and an interpretative error: it is to „interpret an old view of the world in terms of
a new one‟ (149). Hence the dislocation of Hegel‟s interpretative terms: the substantive
notion of „public interests‟ (only previously valid) and their referent, civil society as actual
estrangement and internal division.
Perhaps we could interpret Osborne‟s contemporary account of „abstract social and
economic forms‟ in capitalist societies with these terms. Take the notion of „collectivity‟:

„Collectivity is produced by the interconnectedness of practices, but the broadest
forms of interconnectedness and dependencies that are produced exhibit the
structure of a subject… only objectively – that is, in separation from both
individual subjects and particular collectivities of labour – at the level of states
and beyond‟. (24, emphasis added)

Moreover, the „dominant forms of economic subjectivization‟ – such as the constitution „of
individuals as constituents of variable capital and consumers of commodities‟ – „are now
accompanied by forms of financial subjectivization‟ – „individuals as subjects of loans,
credit-card debt‟ etc. (24, emphasis added). The similarities with Marx‟s critical vocabulary
(italicized) point to a possible dislocation between the political potential of the concept
„collectivity‟, which was only previously valid (an „old view of the world‟), and the
„essentially abstract‟ nature of capitalist societies. This is what „alienation‟ would then
express. Perhaps our (political, sociological) forms and concepts lag behind, are at odds with
the experiential meaning of deeper entrenched alienation, subjectivization and division within
society. Theory can only play catch up if experience is not made to slow down.
The second suggestion is to relate Marx‟s formulation to Pascal. In fact, I want to
suggest that the problematic is perhaps the reverse, i.e. an inversion of Marx‟s formulation
with which he condemns Hegel. This would now read: „to interpret a new view of the world

in terms of an old one‟. Since we are dealing with modern political authority, the Discours
sur la condition des grands proposes itself as a pertinent text, for it deals with a
contemporary political problem for Pascal. The Discours concerns the grounds of political
authority. Addressed to a contemporary noble, it involves these propositions: there is no „lien
naturel‟ (230) which attaches the soul and the body of the king to his condition; royal
authority is „[un] établissement humain‟. Yet the admiration of the king by „le peuple‟ is
founded on a misrecognition of this „noblesse‟ as „une grandeur réelle‟ (230). This is an
illusion since it is only (but nevertheless importantly) a „grandeur d‟établissement‟ (231). If
there is „no intrinsic quality‟ to „the rulers of this world‟, then only an imaginary relation
sustains their power: this involves the „misperception of‟ an imaginary quality as „essential‟
and natural, whereas authority itself is a historical construction, „dictated in the past‟ which
„could have [been] imagined… quite differently‟ (Moriarty, Early Modern, 116).
To recall the theological context of the Fall: „depuis que [l‟homme] a perdu le vrai
bien, tout également peut lui paraître tel‟ (fr.181, 134). I want to suggest that „alienation‟, in
the way we interpreted it via Marx (a crisis of form and meaning), expresses at least to some
extent the fallen subject as Pascal conceives it. It as if the form of the framework which
„l‟homme‟ inherited from before the Fall has lost its determinations: the „justice‟ of earthly,
political authority now appears as „man‟s‟ „vrai bien‟, to fill the gap. And this distortion, to
recall the Discours, is then doubled, due to the misrecognition that founds social reality:
earthly, political authority appears essentialised and ahistorical. In this way, it is intelligibility
itself which is alienated. Only „la foi‟ can found knowledge of „le vrai bien‟ and it would
have to exceed the radical alienation of human intelligibility.

A central disjunction between form and meaning – the new political forms of the old
world; the old concepts of the new Fallen world – seems to offer itself as a way of conceiving

„alienation‟ in relation to „intelligibility‟, the term with introduced this section. An answer
now suggests itself to our initial question – „why demystification?‟ – in relation to Pascal: for
the very reason that political authority foists its own form and meaning on subjects, filling „la
marque et la trace toute vide‟ (fr.181, 133) with its own distorted content, and exploiting
thereby the central misrecognitions of the social imagination that, in reality, sustains its own
power. In short, a „demystifying critique‟ is necessary precisely because God is absent
(Moriarty, „Žižek‟, 128).
To the question of how political authority sustains itself we shall now turn.

‘Qui la ramènera à son principe l’anéantit’: Foundation myths?

All political authority has an initial act of foundation, and that act is an arbitrary
usurpation. Usurpation was the midwife to Rome, who was born in red blood and fratricide.
The thematic of „usurpation‟ is important to several accounts of how political authority

founds and legitimises itself; it is through it that we come to a certain idea about „ideology‟
and the role of demystification. Of course, „Romulus killed Remus‟ is a myth in itself, as one
of many ideologies with which the early Romans conceived themselves. In this way, I want
to tie together two threads: the reality of usurpation and the role of ideology, which will form
the node of this reflection on foundations.

The approximation of ideology to „myth‟ could seem to say nothing more than that
ideology is a fiction, or a falsehood. This cannot be the case, since ideologies can be true
albeit at the same time fulfilling „a particular kind of deceptive or mystifying function within
social life as a whole‟ (Eagleton, 7). In this way, a formal study of myths becomes possible:
myths as idées-en-forme.
In Mythologies, Barthes conceives the concept of „mythe‟ so as to make sense of how
„l‟abus idéologique‟ functions (7). As a discipline, „la mythologie‟ belongs both to semiology
(concerned with forms) and the ideology (concerned with ideas in history) (219). Conceded
that ideas have an „active political force‟ (Eagleton, 6), the aim is to study how they function
as „mythes‟ to mystify the interests of those who deploy them. This mystification is more
complex than the metaphor of the „screen‟ (employed alongside discussions of „false
consciousness‟, for example) would have it (Eagleton, 11, 15). Strictly, „le mythe ne cache
rien: sa fonction est de déformer, non de faire disparaître‟ (229). Form is motivated in in
myth, precisely because it functions to deform its raw material so as to make appear natural
the (historical, social) interests of the class that deploys it.
How does it do so? There are two steps: firstly, an usurpation or superimposition
which is strictly linguistic; secondly, a naturalisation or depoliticisation, which relates to the
context in which the myth circulates and relates to wider customs and beliefs.

Barthes uses the terms of Saussurean linguistics to describe the first process. In
language, a signe is composed of a signifiant and a signifié (222). In myth, an initial signe –
whose message is literal and practical (for example, that of „a Black soldier in the French
army saluting‟ [Moriarty, 23]) – is usurped and deformed by emptying its „sens‟, leaving a
mere „forme‟. This latter functions as the myth‟s signifiant. The „concept‟ which fills the
form (as the myth‟s signifié) is „historique et intentionnel‟: it is invested with „[une] certaine
connaissance du réel‟ (226). A new signe is thus produced, composed of an emptied „forme‟
(signifiant) and a full „concept‟ (signifié). So, in the present example, the literal message of
the photograph of the soldier is emptied and deformed so as to produce a new sign: France as
„a great empire faithfully served by black and white alike (and not an oppressive colonial
regime)‟ (Moriarty, 23). Barthes describes this transformation of a „sens‟ into a „forme‟ as a
theft of language; whereas, „s‟il y a une “santé” du langage, c‟est l’arbitraire du signe qui la
fonde‟ (n.7, 234). That the „signe‟ is arbitrary is the central Saussurean insight; Barthes
reveals that myth usurps this healthy relationship and deforms the relation. Myth is the
parasite of language.
The study is not limited to the discussion of form and concept, because in order to
„passer de la sémiologie à l‟idéologie‟, that is to „expliquer comment [le schéma mythique]
répond à l‟intérêt d‟une société définie‟, we have to understand how it appears to „le lecteur
de mythes‟ (236). This is where the second process, naturalisation, enters the picture. The
myth can employ diverse „rhetorical figures‟ to perform it (Moriarty, 26): for example,
„l‟identification‟, where „l‟autre‟ is ignored, denied, or reduced to the same, or constituted as
a kind of „exotisme‟. The result is immobility and fixity of language and of historically
constituted interests, which take on the appearance of physis, of Nature (exoticism is
grounded on an idea of l’homme as ainsi fait) (261). In this way, myth becomes the perfect
„démarche‟ for bourgeois ideology (251): it can conceal its identity (in concrete terms its

interests) behind an image of Nature, by not naming itself (the process of „ex-nomination‟),
thus enabling the bourgeoisie to maintain its dominance in a different guise (248). The
question of intelligibility is linked with the question of interests: if bourgeois interests appear
natural (because detached from real, social interests) and depoliticized in the cultural material
it employs, Barthes offers critical tools for demystifying its products, so as to reveal the
means by which political messages achieve dominance.
The example given by Barthes of „ex-nomination‟ is the myth of the nation. The myth
recurs also in Marx‟s discussion of the So-Called Primitive Accumulation. In the „pre-history
of capital‟ (875), it is noted that defenders of „the systematic theft of communal property‟ and
„the theft of the state domains‟, which made the way for the capitalist mode of production,
had recourse to a certain idea about „the wealth of the nation‟, in order to conceal the bloody
methods actually employed (Capital Vol 1, 886). Marx‟s use of parenthesis and irony
throughout the exposé has a similar force to the sarcasm of Barthes‟ semiological analyses:
the former undercuts, the latter demystifies through parody and hyperbole. However, Marx is
comparably less interested in how the notions function, more in its truth-content. For
example: the expropriation of the agricultural population is defended in one passage cited by
Marx as „an advantage which the nation… should wish for‟, since „there will be a surplus for
manufactures‟ which itself is „one of the mines of the nation‟: after the first use of „nation‟,
Marx inserts the following parenthesis: „(to which, of course, the people who have been
„converted‟ do not belong)‟ (888). The parenthesis is used here in order to show up the
concept of „nation‟ as unfounded. In short, the central battleground is the narration of the
history of Primitive Accumulation, played out in the chapter between „actual history‟ on the
one hand and „bourgeois historians‟ on the other (874-875). If the „nation‟ serves an
ideological end, it is that the concept it promotes discursively conceals the real interests of

those who deploy it. Both concept and form here are motivés, as Barthes would have it:
ideology becomes a matter of falsehood and myth in discourse.
We might pause here to ask: Does the discursive notion of ideology (ideology as
myth, political message depoliticized) exhaust the experience of domination for subjects in
capitalist society? Though Barthes – at least early Barthes – refers to the context and
customs which sustain myth and to how they may be read, one might argue that no account is
given of subjectivation: what does it mean to speak of a „consammateur du mythe‟ (237)?
How is this subject constructed?
The difficulty underlies the account of „the silent compulsion of economic relations‟
in the same section of Capital:

„The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by
education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of
production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process
of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance‟ (Marx, 899)

Domination is fundamentally economic: the worker‟s „dependence on capital, which springs
from the conditions of production themselves‟ „sets the seal on the domination of the
capitalist over the worker‟. The point here is that the laws of capital appear as natural and its
power guaranteed by „the ordinary run of things‟ (899).The same concealment that Barthes
points to in „mythe‟ is here built into the very nature of capitalism. Here is in seed form the
idea of „false consciousness‟.

Our concepts – ideology, usurpation, foundation – can thus be related in two ways:

1) Barthes conceives of ideology
as myth, which functions via the usurpation
of the „signe‟;
2) Barthes and Marx show ideology as concealing real foundations: the
foundation of social interests and the foundation of capitalist production.
We can relate the remaining pair of terms – usurpation and foundation – via a
discussion of the contemporary „foundational notion of the political‟ (Valentine, 49) as found
in Žižek. The insight to be gained here is that it offers a critical elaboration of the concept of
„false consciousness‟: in short, by relating the foundation of authority and the amnesia of its
violent origins with mechanisms of belief.
To use a term from Žižek, the object of Marx‟s discussion on Primitive Accumulation
was the ideological battle in „narrating the origins‟ (the pre-history of capital) (For They
Know Not What They Do, 203). This question of origins for Žižek is situated within an
extended analysis of the „symbolic‟, which argues that there is an act of concealment inherent
in any „field of symbolically structured meaning‟, because the „symbolic order‟ always
„presupposes and precedes itself‟ (203). It is the symbolic order which sustains political
authority: but given that we are always-already „embarqués‟, to use the adjective introducing
Pascal‟s pari (fr. 680, 461), in this field of meaning, it is impossible to adopt an „external
attitude‟ to it. How, then, can one „narrate [its] origins‟? The problem can be translated,
though not without modification, into phenomenological terms as the „attitude naturelle‟
which regards the world as „allant de soi‟ (Bourdieu, 250). In any case, the common concern
is clear: authority not only conceals its origins, but establishes a field of meaning which one

Strictly speaking Barthes‟ use of the word „idéologie‟ in refers to a particular discipline (Mythologies, ??).
However the use of ideology here is to be taken as a general term, as Eagleton‟s introduction to Ideology, which
was referenced at the start of this section.

cannot exit. There is no Archimedean point from which subjects, who do not have the
privilege of historical discourse (like Marx), could narrate political authority.
How does authority come to be? The „pseudo-historical narrative, or genealogy‟ as
laid out in fragment 668 is insightful in this context (Moriarty, 113). It begins with „…tous
les hommes voulant dominer, et tous ne le pouvant pas, mais quelques-uns le pouvant‟, until
a kind of survival of the fittest establishes a precarious peace. Because „les maîtres…ne
veulent pas que la guerre continue‟, the submission of the weak must become permanent
(443). Hence, force relies on manipulating the imagination of the conquered, in order to
naturalise itself: „peu à peu leur pouvoir est apparu comme naturel, et les conventions
juridiques ainsi établies ont passé pour la justice‟. (Sellier, Port-Royal et la littérature, 32)
Arbitrary convention is passed off as „justice‟. At the beginning was violence, but the
permanent establishment of authority requires a kind of amnesia of this „primordial
„usurpation‟ (Moriarty, 12/9): „„Il faut la faire regarder comme authentique, éternelle et en
cacher le commencement si on ne veut qu‟elle ne prenne bientôt fin‟ (85): this is the insight
of fragment 94, from which Žižek takes his cue. Intriguingly, the fragment articulates both
the narrative about the „vérité de l‟usurpation‟ and a more anthropological description: the
role of „la coutume‟, for example, which exists in all places, derives its power „par cette seule
raison qu‟elle est reçue‟ (fr. 94, 83). Likewise, „la justice‟ is „ce qui est établi‟ (fr.530, 363).
In this way, our conclusions concerning political authority in the Discours are now concretely
related to subjective experience, and we have moved from an idea of ideology in discourse to
the subjective mechanisms at work in the constitution of authority. The appearance of
arbitrary conventions as natural and eternal relies on the distorted mechanisms situated in the
human subject

Today, the purest example of this is surely money: „it functions only if there is trust in
the social link. […] its worth is purely reflexive, the result of people‟s belief in its worth‟
(Žižek, ciii-civ).
But money has real effects: for the homeless woman who has none but nevertheless
recognises its value, it is the difference between a meal and the shelter of a department store
entrance on the Faubourg St. Antoine.
This is where Bourdieu‟s concept of „la double naturalisation‟ is important. The
legitimacy of the established order is facilitated by the almost automatic way it functions:
there is a „double naturalisation qui résulte de l‟inscription du social dans les choses et dans
les corps‟ (260). This naturalisation is a mechanism by which the „ordre social‟ establishes its
„sociodicée‟, but functions only to the extent that bodies and things are inscribed, overridden
and penetrated by social relations (262). And this has real effects: in the order of emotions,
for example. If Barthes and Marx considered the myth of the nation, for example, in relation
to discursive ideology and the concealment of real interests, this is not the whole picture:

„…c‟est que la nation, la « race » ou l‟« identité », comme on dit aujourd‟hui, est
inscrite dans les choses – sous forme de structures objectives, ségrégation de fait,
économique, spatiale, etc. – et dans les corps – sous forme de goûts et de dégoûts,
de sympathies et d‟antipathies, d‟attractions et de répulsions, que l‟on dit parfois,
viscérales.‟ (Bourdieu, 260)

The spatial organization of cities, for example, represents a mechanism by which domination
enforces itself; the „nation‟ will be inscribed in the articulation of its suburbs, in the
arrangement of communities. Ideology cannot be limited to the order of ideas and action, but
extended to consider conscious and unconscious mechanisms of domination and legitimacy.
This is one of the central insights that Bourdieu reads back into Pascal.


The scope of demystification has widened considerably. En filigrane, this section has
aimed to put forward the thesis that as ideology is interpreted anew, so too are the methods of
demystification. We can now make a distinction by resuming in our initial terms: in its
limited sense, the „foundation‟ of political authority entails an initial act of „usurpation‟; in a
name other than its own, „ideology‟ conceals this act and its real interests. In its broad sense,
„foundation‟ is the reality of a variety of mechanisms by which „usurpation‟ is forgotten and
„ideology‟ penetrates our bodies, daily.


Méditation: ‘the automatic subject’

This méditation bears on the constitution of theoretical discourse.
Its inspiration is Marx‟s analysis of the „general formula for capital‟. This is the
movement M-C-M’: „the boundless drive for enrichment‟ or „buying in order to sell‟ (Capital
Vol 1, 254, 248). In the presentation of the formula, there develops an account of the subjects
involved within the sphere of exchange. The possessor of money is both a concrete person
„endowed with consciousness and a will‟ who in the sphere of exchange bears (Trägen) the
movement, thus becoming „capital personified‟, or simply, a „capitalist‟ (254). To be sure,
that capital is personified means that a social soul can occupy a physical body: in this way,
capitalist relations condense on individual subjects.
However, the true subject of the relation is strictly neither the capitalist nor capital:
the subject is value:

„The money [M, M‟] and the commodity [C] function only as different modes of
existence of value itself, the money as its general mode of existence, the
commodity as its particular or, so to speak, disguised mode‟ (Marx, 255).

Value is the insidious and sinuous subject which pumps the blood of exchange. To study the
„forms of appearance assumed in turn by self-valorizing value‟ leaves us with „capital is
money, capital is commodities‟; yet „in truth…value is here the subject of a process‟ which,
while „assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, […] changes its own
magnitude‟. This „occult ability to add value to itself‟ is the kernel of Marx‟s argument: it is
the source of mystification (255).
Consider further the designation of value as „the automatic subject‟. Value works
beyond human control („automatic‟) and asserts „its identity‟ in the form of money. In the

social relationship of exchange, then, the subject is not the capitalist, despite her
consciousness and will. Value is „the dominant subject of this process‟ (255).
I want to suggest the concept of „the automatic subject‟ as a kind of theoretical
manifesto, in the vein of Bourdieu‟s promotion of practical self-criticism: „…the process of
self-criticism… is, as it were, a necessary personal condition for any kind of communication
on ideology‟ (Žižek, Mapping, 270)
A concrete example is needed.
In a note to his essay „La domination masculine‟, Bourdieu analyses the philosophical
discourse of Sartre in L’être et le néant The passage in discussion is Sartre‟s description of
the female sex as a „trou visqueux‟ which is shown to operate via a triad of metaphors: the
hole, and specifically the mouth; viscosity; and the image of the bee‟s sweet death („more
sucrée‟) as it drowns in jam (15). In order to relate the analysis to la domination masculine,
Bourdieu suggests that the foundational oppositions of masculine mythology come to the
surface in objectivized form in the philosophical discourse of Sartre. There is an
„objectivation inconsciente de l‟inconscient masculin‟ (15). As with value, the „automatic
subject‟, the fundamental oppositions of masculine mythology take on
„des formes…, après
transformation, dans le discours philosophique‟; a „phantasme privé‟ is sublimated into an
„intuition fondamentale du système philosophique‟, whereby philosophical discourse, like
value, „lays golden eggs‟ (Marx, 255).

7 The verb in French, revêtir, means both „to put on‟ (as in clothing) and „to invest, to endow‟ (with authority,
for example). The literal and figurative senses condense in fragment 123: „cet habit, c‟est une force‟ (97). The
notion of investment is also important in the „conception « fonctionnaliste » des régimes politiques‟ in Port-
Royal: „dans tel État particulier, il fallait reconnaître comme investi indirectement par Dieu le régime qui
assurait la paix, grâce à un consensus‟ (Sellier, 33).

The point to note in all this is that there is an „automatic subject‟ at work as much in
the general formula for capital as in theoretical discourse. Self-criticism would entail a
demystification of discourse to reveal how this „subject‟ functions in any given text.
Adorno conceived of social research in practice as an important corrective to
philosophical discourse. The construction of interpretive models and categories that
reconstruct its object should be paired with empirical research. This was the „double demand‟
of sociology: „reflection on the concept of society‟ and „confrontation with facticity‟ (Müller-
Doohm, 284). The double demand is only possible, however, if sociology „remains conscious
of its own limits as a particular discipline‟, i.e. „to take up a self-critical position vis-à-vis its
own categorical and methodological instruments (285). In Bourdieu‟s insistence on the
practice of self-criticism, and in the concept of the „automatic subject‟, there is perhaps a
sketch of how to respond to the demand.


Epilogue: conjuncture

Demystification deals with objects that are obscure. It may be an „erreur scolastique‟
to project this obscurity onto contemporary experiences, as constitutive of „life‟ for subjects
in capitalist societies. But, to amend a phrase of Bourdieu‟s: „As soon as we think in [the
terms of demystification], it becomes clear that the work of emancipation becomes very
difficult‟ (Mapping Ideology, 270).
The capacity to resistance today runs up against the distortion of individual social
relations. In Act V, sc. iii of Le Mariage de Figaro, we find a definition of this individual.
Here is Figaro, se promenant dans l’obscurité. He expresses the failures of his professions,
the burden of censorship, unemployment, and his anger towards the Count for reneging on his
denunciation of seigniorial privilege. „Vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de
plus‟: the play might herald the demise of privilege and the rise of a new system of value
(money) „in pre-revolutionary society‟ (Pucci, 64). But it is nevertheless an account of real
distortion. Despair is directed at individuals: „Qu‟avez vous fait pour tant de biens!‟
(Beaumarchais, 224). Competition fosters division: „chacun pillait autour de moi‟ (225).
Figaro finds it difficult to subsist, „perdu dans la foule obscure‟ (224).
Bourdieu has elsewhere noted the discourse of blame in his observations on racism
(La domination masculine, 12). Just as the „nation‟ or „race‟ is brought to bear on individual
subjects – one only has to think of the experiences of immigrants – so too the injustices and
havoc of capitalism cower behind the neoliberal fantasy of the free individual.
With compassion, the task is to demystify the obscure relations that constitute what
we are, in order to practice, in solidarity, what we ought to be.



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