Perhaps one of Zizek’s central contributions to the theory of ideology is his account of belief. Previous critiques of ideology had targeted the intentional states of subjects, what they say, or how they explain their own positions. The thesis was that if one can just debunk these propositional attitudes then the subject in question will disidentify with the ideology. For Zizek, matters are quite different. As he puts it quite early in The Sublime Object of Ideology,

In feudalism, as we have seen, relations between people are mystified, mediated through a web of ideological beliefs and superstitions. They are the relations between the master and his servant, whereby the master exerts his charismatic power of fascination, and so forth. Although in capitalism the subjects are emancipated, perceiving themselves as free from medieval religious superstitions, when they deal with one another they do so as rational utilitarians, guided by their selfish interests. The point of Marx’s analysis, however, is that the things (commodities) themselves believe in their place, instead of the subjects: it is as if all their beliefs, superstitions and metaphysical mystifications, supposedly surmounted by the rational, utilitarian personality, are embodied in the ‘social relations between things’. They no longer believe, but the things themselves believe for them.

This seems also to be a basic Lacanian proposition, contrary to the usual thesis that a belief is something interior and knowledge something exterior (in the sense that it can be verified through an external procedure). Rather, it is belief which is radically exterior, embodied in the practical, effective procedure of people. It is similar to the Tibetan prayer wheels: you write a prayer on a paper, put the rolled paper into a wheel, and turn it automatically, without thinking (or, if you want to proceed according to the Hegelian ‘cunning of reason’, you attach it to a windmill, so that it is moved around by the wind). In this way, the wheel itself is praying for me, instead of me– or, more precisely, I myself am praying through the medium of the wheel. The beauty of it all is that in my psychological interiority I can think about whatever I want, I can yield to the most dirty and obscene fantasies, and it does not matter– to use a good old Stalinist expression –whatever I am thinking, objectively I am praying.

This is how we should grasp the fundamental Lacanian proposition that psychoanalysis is not a psychology: the most intimate beliefs, even the most intimate emotions such as compassion, crying, sorrow, laughter, can be transferred, delegated to others without losing their sincerity. (34)

For Zizek, belief is not to be located in our interiority, in our thoughts or theorizations of the world, but rather in what we do. As Zizek puts it a few pages earlier,

…ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’– ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence— that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’. ‘Ideological’ is not the ‘false consciousness’ of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by ‘false consciousness’. (21)

Thus, to give a few examples, if you truly wish to know what a person believes concerning patriarchy and the equality of men and women, or about homosexuality, you look not at what they say about these things, but what they do. It is in this sense that belief is objective, “out there”, rather than something to be located in ones head or conscious thoughts. Chances are a number of people will have very elaborate things to say about the necessity of overcoming gender inequality. Rather, to know what such a person believes, you look at what they do. How is such and such a person’s domestic life organized? How does such and such a person relate to the homosexuals he works with? It is there, in the doing, that the genuine beliefs are disclosed. Imagine, incidentally, this principle consistently applied to political theorists. Perhaps this is the reason I find myself so impatient with theological discussions. All too often the person presents a beautiful, intricate, intellectually sophisticated, philosophically stimulating account of their religious beliefs that has little or nothing to do with a sacred text like the Bible, Koran, or The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Yet strangely, this same person still appears in the pulpit on Sunday, engaging in all the rituals, engaging in confessional, etc, despite the fact that nothing in the traditions and sacred texts resembles anything in their theology. Even more disturbingly, one and the same person ends up participating in an institution and a set of collective practices that are diametrically opposed to their own expressed (interior) beliefs. Where, then, does this person’s belief genuinely lie? In what they say, in their propositional attitudes, or in what they do? Rather than asking whether or not people agree with the doctrines of their church or find them all plausible, one should instead investigate how they vote, what sort of social relations they form in their friendships and professional relationships, what their domestic life is like, where their money goes, etc. It makes little difference, for instance, whether someone believes in the apocalyptic narratives propounded by the leaders of their church if they consistently give money that then goes to political campaigns, placing people in office sympathetic to these views. Does not the expressed belief in these circumstances function as a lure that keeps the subject attached to a set of basically idiotic and often very oppressive social practices? Have we yet had a study of theology based on what people do? I believe we have: it’s call ethnography and sociology. Of course, some will say that these things shouldn’t be worried about, that they are not genuine concerns, and that they constitute mis-spent energy that could be directed to other more pressing political issues. First, this is based on the absurd assumption that political struggles aren’t fought on multiple fronts at once. Second, it is a variant of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning, as it fails to take into account that the very struggle against these movements is what has so far kept them in check. Finally, this is a bit like telling GLBT folk, women, and parents concerned about whether genuine science is taught at school that they should just sit back and wait until a later day for their struggles and concerns to be engaged with. “If only those uppity negros would quit causing such a ruckus, always complaining and making people angry at them. If they weren’t constantly speaking up about how bad things are, the natural course of progress would eventually bring about equality many years hence.” This has forever been the call of the crypto-reactionary: it’s not time, people aren’t ready for you to be free yet, just sit put and remain patient. One wonders what could possibly motivate an otherwise intelligent person to advocate such an absurd position.