“It’s like it needs to be imaginary before it becomes real. Well, there’s like a cyclical, the chicken and the egg, which was first? I guess reality was probably first, but it can’t — for us to interact with it, we need to imagine something before we can put it into action.
Ideology, noun, an imaginary relationship to a real situation. In common usage, what the other person has, especially when systematically distorting the facts. But it seems to us that an ideology is a necessary feature of cognition, and if anyone were to lack one, which we doubt, they would be badly disabled.
There is a real situation that can’t be denied, but it is too big for any individual to know in full. So we must create our understanding by way of an act of the imagination. So we all have an ideology and this is a good thing.
So much information pours into the mind, ranging from sensory experience to discursive and mediated inputs of all kinds, that some kind of personal organizing system is necessary to make sense of things in ways that allow one to decide and to act.
Worldview, philosophy, religion, these are all synonyms for ideology as defined above, and so is science. Although it, the different one, the special one by way of its perpetual cross checking with reality tests of all kinds and its continuous sharpening of focus.
That surely makes science central to a most interesting project, which is to invent, improve and put to use an ideology that explains in a coherent and useful way as much of the blooming, buzzing inrush of the world as possible.
What one would hope for in an ideology is clarity and explanatory breadth, and power. We leave the proof of this as an exercise for the reader.
—Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (2020, p. 41)
Stephanie Jo Kent: I’m delighted to welcome our guest, Charles Hobby, to the podcast today. Charles is the host of When Will It End, and is the producer of this podcast as well. Hello, Charles. Thanks for being here today.
Charles Hobby: It’s nice to be on this side of it.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Yeah.
Charles Hobby: It’s fun. Sometimes I get jealous listening in, so this is good.
Stephanie Jo Kent: That’s good. Well, that’s great. We always have you primed as a stand-in to rescue us.
Charles Hobby: Though this is very different podcasting than what I’m used to, so I’m usually just — I don’t have to do anything, so this is much more investigative and intense than maybe I’m up for, but I guess we’ll find out.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Well, I guess, yeah. I think having an open conversation is really all that I want here too. Pretty relaxed and just, what’s our understanding? What comes to mind based on this prompt from this reading? Ideology is something.
Charles Hobby: It’s interesting. I don’t even know. Obviously, I think the context-lessness of this conversation is important to you and the podcast, so I don’t need to know too much about “The Ministry of the Future”. But the very first sentence, I don’t even know if I agree with that definition.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Interesting.
Charles Hobby: Or that ideology is something that can be defined as something that, just it’s that. I think it could be that, but I think it could also be other things.
Stephanie Jo Kent: What is not here? What seems not included by — he’s saying ideology is a necessary feature of cognition, everybody has one.
Charles Hobby: Well, he’s saying that it seems to us that ideology is a necessary feature, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. And then also he used the word “imaginary”, I find really interesting because I think some ideologies are real relationships based on real situations.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Huh! All right. Now I’m like, okay, we have to go back and parse this line by line. So maybe it’s not quite as loose a conversation, but I feel like, oh, we’re not even understanding it in the same way yet, so that requires a little bit of work. The definition, ideology as a noun is an imaginary relationship to a real situation. Okay, there’s a real situation and something in our relationship to it is imaginary and you are not sure you agree with that or you found that part interesting?
Charles Hobby: Both. I do think that some ideologies are imaginary, but I don’t know that all ideologies are imaginary. I think some are really based on real experiences and their relationship to that real situation. I don’t know that there’s always anything lost in that bridge.
What do you think of that word, “imaginary”? Because in my mind something like thinking about how we as people can change those structures of politics, I don’t know what tagging imaginary onto someone’s belief system does to that belief system.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Right, I can see that. But I think what he’s trying to do is establish a framework that’s even deeper. Belief is one form of ideology, science is another form of ideology, your political perspective is a form of ideology. To me, they’re all in effort to put language onto an experience, and language is never the same as the experience itself. So I think that’s, to me, how the imaginary comes in.
Charles Hobby: I guess so. I never studied philosophy and I think I always got a little bored with the signifier and the signifying and whatever that was because it is true — I guess in some ways, obviously all languages translation. But I think that that specific word imaginary really — it just connotates some sort of falseness, which I don’t know.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Wow.
Charles Hobby: Maybe I’m just taking the wrong feeling from that word, but for me, like an imaginary friend doesn’t exist.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Sure, no. That’s cool, because I think of imaginary in the sense of imagination. There’s a way in which neither one exists, the imaginary friend doesn’t have a material corporeal form. But there’s an idea in your head about this imaginary friend that you interact with and it gives you a sense of communication.
I’m imagining all kinds of things that I hope will happen in the future, forecasting them based on whatever, whatever, whatever. It’s just not here yet and we’ll live into it and it’ll be like that or it’ll be different from that, or there’ll be some overlap.
Charles Hobby: Okay. So you’re thinking Kim is using the word imaginary as meaning in the mind?
Stephanie Jo Kent: Yeah.
Charles Hobby: Yes, that makes sense to me. To me, I was feeling like it was almost dismissing someone’s ideology because it felt like it was a non-existent relationship. But I guess that’s true. It’s a way that we think about something that’s happening and what we want to happen.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Then he basically says, usually when we say ideology we’re like, “You have an ideology and I don’t agree with it because you’re messed up in what you’re thinking.” Then when I think it seems to us that ideology is necessary is that everyone has one. The piece of the communication, then, is how do we work back and forth between them?
Charles Hobby: That’s very cool. Maybe philosophy isn’t as bad as I thought it was. I’ll probably check it out.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Probably is.
Charles Hobby: We’re always translating, whether it’s just between two people trying to figure out what to have for dinner or countries trying to figure out how to deal with each other. It’s like language is always acting as a translation, and then I guess the mind is all we have as our translator.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Perception mixes in some kind of way. What’s fascinating to me is that we both read this passage and I had an immediate positive association and you had an immediate negative association. There’s this word that I’ve been using a lot in the last year and I think it’s the right word from communication, it’s called phatic, P-H-A-T-I-C.
It’s about the feeling that you get from the use of the word. It could be about the person’s tone, it could be about anything, but it’s really about how does it land emotionally?
Charles Hobby: Yeah, because I feel like if the imaginary had been replaced with ideology noun, what conceptual relationship to a real situation or something — less to do with like imagination and more about thought; that would’ve definitely felt different.
Stephanie Jo Kent: That’s interesting. I think it’s pretty cool that he puts science in the same category then he separates it out and he’s linking it as cognition. It’s a necessary aspect of cognition.
Charles Hobby: What do you make that Kim doesn’t include politics in the list?
Stephanie Jo Kent: Let’s see, what does he say?
Charles Hobby: We have worldview, philosophy, religion, but to me political ideology is the one I think of first.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Well, I think it’s the one that we’re being force-fed right now. It’s the one that’s on the high stage acting out, it’s high drama. But it’s a worldview, I think. I think politics is the action of trying to implement the worldview.
Charles Hobby: Okay. I see worldview; I guess politics is a subset of worldview. I feel like so much of the world is political. Almost everything important is political in some sense.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Everything important is.
Charles Hobby: If I were Kim, I would’ve put that in the list.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Why isn’t it in the list here? I wonder if it’s not in the list because — oh man, are we going to go back to signified in signifier? But the object of the ideology is politics.
Charles Hobby: Okay.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I don’t know. I’m making it up.
Charles Hobby: Great. I think that’s what they all did too, so that’s fine.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Right?
Charles Hobby: So you’re saying that what starts as worldview becomes politics after action?
Stephanie Jo Kent: Action makes it political. There’s a feminist philosophy, but it says that the personal is political. Anything we do, what we do or what we don’t do, there’s a political ramification because it has to do with how we organize our society.
Charles Hobby: Absolutely. I’ve found some people’s — and I don’t need to judge anyone because I know that they’re fighting for very important things. But to see like gun violence and racism as trying to stage as to be more palatable by saying that it isn’t a political issue, it’s like a personal issue, it’s like, I think we just need to get that upfront that politics aren’t bad.
We need to be structuring how we treat each other and the world works. Gun violence is a political issue, racism is a political issue, and that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing. We should be fighting for political change.
Stephanie Jo Kent: That’s exactly right. I think this idea of ideology here, why I was drawn to this as a passage to read and reflect on and have this conversation about is, it’s also a word that’s used, as we said, in insulting, it’s used as a putdown. There’s something wrong with having an ideology, and it’s like, no, we all have a set of ideas about how we think things could go or we would like for them to go, or maybe there’s some moral we think they should go a certain kind of way.
But we don’t all agree, and we never are all going to agree because we’re not the same, and our experiences — the whole entire way this earth works is on difference. So our ideas are going to be different also, so we need to have structures and systems that allow us to accommodate the difference, but we’re not getting much practice at that, the way politics are being bandied about today.
Charles Hobby: That’s true. The first paragraph was so — I think having no context for who this speaker is and what the point of this paragraph is. It made it really the whole, “But it seems to us that an ideology is a necessary feature of cognition, and if anyone were to lack one, which we doubt, they would be badly disabled.” That’s such a strange way to put it.
It’s like throwing a thought into my mind as though I own it, but I’ve never thought that. So it just felt like they’re trying to make me think that I’ve thought something before and it’s a weird way to structure a paragraph.
Stephanie Jo Kent: It’s been a while since I read the book and first did this recording, and I can’t find the book, it’s vanished. I must have loaned it to someone who I can’t remember.
Charles Hobby: It seems like an argument rather than an idea, like “But it seems to us that an ideology is a necessary feature of cognition,” I’m included in the “us” by the way that that’s phrased and there’s no way for me to escape it.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I think the author, Kim Stanley Robinson, has a narrator’s voice in the story, and this is that voice. I don’t think it’s a character in the story, I think it’s the narrator coming in and setting something up for all of us, but I’m not completely sure I’m right.
Charles Hobby: Well, I don’t know. I guess we could read it again, but that sounds less fun.
Stephanie Jo Kent: We could read it again.
Charles Hobby: I’m reading it now.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Are you? It gave me so much hope when I read this book. I read it soon after it was published in 2020, and it was the first time that I read someone actually grappling with all the elements of our complicated, global, interconnected capitalist, racist, caste-based system, actually, a hierarchical global human society that positions people in different strata.
He actually applied the craft of science fiction to thinking about, well, here’s the situation, these are the conditions, how do we get out? How does global warming possibly get addressed by homo sapiens in time to prevent the cataclysms that are coming? I hadn’t seen anybody or anyone do anything even remotely like this, and it made me feel like if someone can begin to conceptualize a path, there is a path.
Charles Hobby: That’s what this whole little mini section seems to be. It’s like it needs to be imaginary before it becomes real. Well, there’s like a cyclical, the chicken and the egg, which was first? I guess reality was probably first, but it can’t — for us to interact with it, we need to imagine something before we can put it into action.
Whether that’s I’m completely walking, we don’t really think about it, or if it’s trying to make change on a community level. We’re always thinking about it first before we can act on it.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Or we’re acting just out of what feels what our emotional and our ideological experience tells this is the right way to behave in this instance. So if someone challenges how I believe, I challenge them back.
Charles Hobby: Maybe thinking is the wrong word, but it does have to enter that realm of non-physical, just like purely conceptual before it can come back out as a physical real action in the world.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I think we have to communicate about it. We have to talk it into being basically. What are the words and phrases and the kinds of conversations that allow an imaginary about getting through all of these different ideologies that are currently in conflict?
Charles Hobby: These philosophers, they might not have been wrong. They sound like they might have been onto something.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I have no idea.
Charles Hobby: One thing I loved, the blooming, buzzing in-rush of the world is such a wonderful phrase. I think associating that to the ideology of science is such a vibrant emotional way to describe science that I think is often overlooked. It seems language is usually more clinical and factual when they’re talking about science, and that’s such a great — it is all about what our senses can take in, and those three words are — I really like that passage.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I like it too, and I like how it really pops out of the rest of the passage because it’s like, oh, there’s life in this, it’s not computer algorithm, it’s alive.
Charles Hobby: Very specifically chosen words. Definitely. Do you think that science is that different from the other ideologies listed? What do you think?
Stephanie Jo Kent: I go back and forth. I think it is a set of ideas and a framework for organizing what to believe, what’s worth believing in, so I think it guides action and behavior. That to me doesn’t make it infallible. Plenty of mistakes and misuses of the scientific method and facts that we’ve figured out through science. I think it’s incomplete because there’s very little — there’s lip service and there might be some law that imposes some ethical boundaries, but they’re pretty thin.
Charles Hobby: It’s interesting because you think about science as something pure than ideology, but it is such an imaginative — we wouldn’t really have the strength to hypothesize without some sort of imagination to start there, and without that imagination, that dictates initially what science is going to be looking at. Again, I think that’s cool that none of this is judged.
I don’t know, it felt a little judgy at first, but it’s like ideologies aren’t really good or bad. And they’re based on real stuff, but it’s all directed by what’s inside mostly.
Stephanie Jo Kent: And what other people around us, how they treat it and what they say about it. We are socialized into ideologies. We come to take on what’s normal and normative to the people that we’re hanging out with. There might be resistance or rebellion to it at certain phases, but we can’t escape it. Whatever that exposure is, it establishes a reference point. And then the question is, are we going to hold that reference point with any kind of skepticism?
Are we just going to go whole heart, “This is it. This is the way I was raised and so this is the way it is,” or, “well, this is the way I was raised and wow, there’s some truth and some beauty and some value in this”? There’s a whole lot of this other stuff that, no, can we do that parse our own sense of what matters, and what we value, and whether our behavior and actions in the world are doing what we think they’re doing or something else?
Like perpetuating differences, and perpetuating disagreement, and perpetuating conflict. But I’m right, and I’m independent, and I know what I mean, and that’s okay.
Charles Hobby: Yeah, exactly. And then also science has been used for all these terrible, awful ideologies throughout history.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Awful.
Charles Hobby: It’s sort of this passage overall just makes me wonder what went around it and why this is what this character or narrator is trying to talk about because the way it’s phrased to start at this larger definition and to end with specifically looking at science as an ideology is an interesting journey that it takes place over just five paragraphs.
Stephanie Jo Kent: I’m also thinking economy isn’t listed as a separate thing either.
Charles Hobby: Yeah, that’s true. It’s also a big one. That one might be purely imaginative, it’s hard to say. Obviously it has real world situations, but the science of economy might be —
Stephanie Jo Kent: The science of economy has been pretty well blasted.
Charles Hobby: Yeah. I just read Debt.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Oh, interesting. Okay.
Charles Hobby: Have you read that?
Stephanie Jo Kent: I haven’t read that one.
Charles Hobby: I read it a couple months ago. If anyone is listening and wants to read a very readable, look at 5,000 years of economic history, it’s absolutely wonderful and basically just throws a lot of questions at what people just take for granted and accept about capitalism and economic theory. It’s just evolved, so much more going on than what we are taught.
I guess that’s what ideologies are. This whole first sentence is based on, we have very limited information and ideologies are still forced to exist based on the very small interaction that we as individuals have with the world. So reading books like Debt, you will be like, “Oh wow, this is another person’s ideology coming forward, in our case, Communist, probably Occupy Wall Street guy and it’s —
He brings like, oh, what if the world didn’t work based on the last just couple 100 years of awful, just corruption of what people want to be doing with their lives? It’s really interesting, I highly recommend it.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Why do we accept the concept that debt is something normal that we have to live our lives with?
Charles Hobby: That there’s a moral judgment on it and that now we’re all just so forced into a debt narrative that we don’t even question why debt exists and why power structures allow for a certain type of debt to exist. If you have a debt, you just should pay it rather than thinking like, “Why is everyone in debt?”
Stephanie Jo Kent: Well, this is close to the theme of the show, Structures of Interaction, that these little actions and these little beliefs and these little ideas that we keep circulating lock us in to a structure. It seems inevitable to me, we have to use our imagination if we’re going to improve it or change it or alleviate it or address it in any kind of way.
Charles Hobby: This might be a great way to close out. I think if I were just to call up Kim, send him an email, if I were editing this book, I’d say, “What if you chose imaginative rather than imaginary?”
Stephanie Jo Kent: Ooh.
Charles Hobby: I feel like one is optimistic and based on forward thinking and the other is distorting the truth into something inside you. But that’s also just what I think. But I think if I were editing the book, I would say, “What if you tried imaginative and see how that felt for you?”
Stephanie Jo Kent: One thing that I’m struck by is that it could be either.
Charles Hobby: Right. I guess that’s the thing; I want to think my ideologies are right so I’m like, “They’re not imaginary, they’re imaginative, but that guy’s –”
Stephanie Jo Kent: Is that what it is?
Charles Hobby: Yeah. The other person’s ideologies are, those are silly and fake.
Stephanie Jo Kent: That’s the deal.
Charles Hobby: Yeah.
Stephanie Jo Kent: Thank you for joining me today on this episode of Structures of Interaction and we’ll be looking forward to more guest conversations with Charles Hobby in the future.
Charles Hobby: Thanks so much for having me though, it was fun.
This short reading of an excerpt from Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (2020, p. 41) and the conversation about the reading with guest Charles Hobby was recorded on May 1st, 2023.
Original music written and performed by Richard Guild Kent.
Transcript by Esther Wokabi.
Shownotes and Transcript are published at www.reflexivity.us.