By Word For Peace EditorThe French Marxist philosopher, Louis Pierre Althusser (was born in Algeria in 1918 and studied at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy. His thoughts have been the subject of argument and debate, especially within Marxism and specifically concerning his theory of knowledge called ‘epistemology’.
Althusser is mainly known as a theorist of ideology. His best-known work, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” establishes the concept of ideology. His theory of ideology draws on Marx and Gramsci, but also on Freud’s and Lacan’s psychological concepts of the unconscious and mirror-phase respectively, and describes the structures and systems that enable the concept of the self. These structures, for Althusser, are both agents of repression and inevitable: it is impossible to escape ideology and avoid being subjected to it. On the other hand, the collection of essays from which “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” is drawn contains other essays which confirm that Althusser’s concept of ideology is broadly consistent with the classic Marxist theory of class struggle.
Ideological state apparatuses
Althusser held that a person’s desires, choices, intentions, preferences, judgements, and so forth are the products of social practices. He believed it necessary to conceive of how society makes the individual in its own image. Within capitalist societies, the human individual is generally regarded as a subject endowed with the property of being a self-conscious, “responsible” agent whose actions can be explained by his or her beliefs and thoughts. For him, a person’s capacity for perceiving himself or herself in this way is not innate or given. Rather, it is acquired within the structure of established social practices, which impose on individuals the role of a subject. Social practices both determine the characteristics of the individual and give him or her an idea of the range of properties that he or she can have, and of the limits of each individual.
Althusser argues that many of our roles and activities are given to us by social practice: for example, the production of steelworkers is a part of economic practice, while the production of lawyers is part of politico-legal practice. However, other characteristics of individuals, such as their beliefs about the good life or their metaphysical reflections on the nature of the self, do not easily fit into these categories.
In Althusser’s view, our values, desires, and preferences are inculcated in us by ideological practice, the sphere which has the defining property of constituting individuals as subjects. Ideological practice consists of an assortment of institutions called “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs), which include the family, the media, religious organisations, and most importantly in capitalist societies, the education system, as well as the received ideas that they propagate. There is, however, no single ISA that produces in us the belief that we are self-conscious agents. Instead, we derive this belief in the course of learning what it is to be a daughter, a schoolchild, black, a steelworker, a councilor, and so forth.
Despite its many institutional forms, the function and structure of ideology is unchanging and present throughout history; as Althusser states, “ideology has no history”. All ideologies constitute a subject, even though he or she may differ according to each particular ideology. Memorably, Althusser illustrates this with the concept of “hailing” or “interpellation”. Drawing heavily from Lacan and his concept of the Mirror Stage, he compares ideology to a policeman shouting “Hey you there!” toward a person walking on the street. Upon hearing this call, the person responds by turning around and in doing so, is transformed into a subject. The person is conscious of being a subject and aware of the other person. Thus, for Althusser, being aware of other people is a form of ideology. Within that, Althusser sees subjectivity as a type of ideology. The person being hailed recognizes him or herself as the subject of the hail, and knows to respond.
Althusser calls this recognition a “mis-recognition” because it works retroactively: a material individual is always already an ideological subject, even before he or she is born. The “transformation” of an individual into a subject has always already happened; Althusser here acknowledges a debt to Spinoza’s theory of immanence.
Example of Christian religious ideology
The Christian ideology says that God addresses individuals in order to make each of us a subject, free to obey or disobey His commandments. But Christianity also expects recognition of God’s constituting role back from the individuals concerned. To be a subject in Christianity, you have to subject yourself to God – the human subject merely reflects the Subjectivity of God.
To buttress his standpoint, Althusser also offers this example. The Christian religious ideology, embodied in the Voice of God, instructs a person on what his place in the world is and what he must do to be reconciled with Christ. From this, Althusser draws the point that in order for that person to identify himself as a Christian, he must first already be a subject; that is, by responding to God’s call and following His rules, he affirms himself as a free agent, the author of the acts for which he assumes responsibility. We cannot recognize ourselves outside of ideology, and in fact, our very actions reach out to this overarching structure. For Althusser, we acquire our identities by seeing ourselves mirrored in ideologies.
In his major work on ideology, Althusser theorises ideology in a synchronic way, as part of the structural functioning of capitalism taken as a snapshot. He draws on Marx’s view of ideology as a set of representations and ideas which dominate the mind, but moves beyond this view, arguing that Marx never fully theorised ideology except in his early works. Ideology is a synchronic concept, distinct from ideologies (which have histories). It is thus defined largely by its structural functioning. Althusser rejects the views of ideology as an effect of alienated life-conditions or as false ideas deliberately implanted by leaders. Rather, he theorises it in terms borrowed from Lacan’s theory of fantasy. Ideology is not a misrepresentation of people’s situations, but rather, the way in which they relate to (and reproduce) their situations. It is their imaginary or representational relationship to their real conditions of existence – their imaginary relation to their real relations (or one might say, “what they think they’re doing”). It does not correspond to reality, but nevertheless makes reference to it.
Ideology interprets social conditions so as that people can relate to their conditions. It is not a way people represent their real conditions, but rather, the way in which their relationship to their real conditions is represented to them. Ideology looks like, but isn’t, false consciousness. From outside its ‘truth’ (or perspective), an ideology appears to perform an imaginary distortion of perceptions, almost as if a black-hole in linguistic space is distorting the matter around it. (Althusser’s approach of ‘symptomatic analysis’ often relies on using the gaps or ‘lacunae’ in a text to reveal what it is suppressing). From inside, ideology simply seems obvious and self-evident. (The gesture of claiming not to be ideological is the most ideological gesture of all).