Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Louis Althusser on 'Ideology'

Best known for his theories of ideology and its impact on politics and culture, Louis Althusser revolutionized Marxist theory. His writing changed the face of literary and cultural studies and continues to influence political modes of criticism such as feminism, post-colonialism and queer theory.

Luke Ferretter is a Sesqui Postdoctoral Research Fellow in English at the University of Sydney.

This wonderful excerpt has been culled from his book Louis Althusser.


In The German Ideology (1845), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), his friend and intellectual co-worker for forty years, set out the basis of a new world-view. They called it the ‘materialist conception of history’. Marx goes on to explain a second fundamental principle of the materialist conception of history, namely that the sum total of the forces and relations of production in a given society constitutes its ‘base’ or ‘infrastructure’, which is its first and fundamental reality. Out of this economic base develops a ‘superstructure’, consisting of every other aspect of the life of that society. In the first place, the superstructure consists of the political and legal institutions according to which the society is structured – its constitution, its forms of government, its legal system, its judiciary, its defence systems and so on. In the second place, it consists of all the forms of consciousness in whose terms the members of society understand and represent themselves to each other, namely legal and political theories, philosophy, religion, art, literature, and every kind of cultural production. All these forms of consciousness comprise what Marx and Engels call ‘ideology’.

Clearly, the literary and cultural products of a society, according to this view, are aspects of its ideology – that is, of the forms of consciousness in which its members represent their lives to one another in a way determined by that society’s production relations. This is one of Marxism’s major claims to significance for literary and cultural studies. According to the materialist conception of history, the meaning of literary and cultural works is to be found in their relationship to the economic base of the society that produced them.

The Politics of Culture: Althusser on Ideology

Althusser’s most influential contribution to literary and cultural studies has been his theory of ideology. In this chapter, I will examine this theory, beginning with Althusser’s initial claim that ideology constitutes our ‘lived’ relationship to historical reality, or our ‘world’ itself. I will then examine his concept of ideology as an imaginary relationship to real conditions of existence, discussing the role of popular culture in representing this imaginary relationship. In the main part of the chapter, I will examine Althusser’s most influential essay, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ (1969), a significant development of the Marxist theory of ideology, in which he advances the claim that ideology ‘interpellates individuals as subjects’. I will conclude the chapter with an examination of some of the ways in which this theory has been applied in literary criticism.

An Imaginary Relationship to Reality

Althusser first expounds his concept of ideology in the essay ‘Marxism and Humanism’ (1963). In the course of this essay’s argument that the only authentically Marxist view of humanism must be that it is an ideology, Althusser explains what he means by an ideology. This is his first definition:

An ideology is a system (with its own logic and rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts, depending on the case) endowed with a historical existence and a role within a given society. … Ideology, as a system of representations, is distinguished from science in that in it the practico-social function is more important than the theoretical function (function as knowledge).

Marx and Engels had thought of society as a structure consisting of three fundamental levels – the economic base, and the superstructure, consisting of legal and political institutions on the one hand, and ideology on the other. They thought of ideology as the sum of the forms in which men and women were conscious of the production relations and of the class struggle by which their society was in reality constituted. Althusser adds a fourth level to this concept of society, that of science, first among which is the science of historical materialism. So, by describing ideologies as systems of representation in which the ‘practico-social’ function is more important than the theoretical function, he means that there are two fundamentally distinct forms of discourse at work in capitalist societies – science, which provides us with real knowledge of those societies, and ideology, which does not. Ideology has a social function, for Althusser, but this function is not that of producing knowledge of the real historical conditions of society.

Ideology comes in the form of Obviousness – Common sense, Popular opinion

He means that ideology is primarily the kind of discourse that we do not consciously appropriate for ourselves, rationally judging it to be true. It is not the kind of discourse to which, having critically reflected upon it, a person makes a conscious act of assent. Rather, ideology comprises the stream of discourses, images and ideas that are all around us all the time, into which we are born, in which we grow up, and in which we live, think and act. The messages of the advertisements by which we are constantly surrounded, for example – the images of a healthy family relationship, of a mother’s role, appearance, weight, hairstyle, reading matter, interests, and so on, of the ideal male and female bodies, of the ideal clothes, lifestyle, home, eating habits, entertainments, of the way in which we are supposed to think, look, and want – all these are examples of ideology in Althusser’s sense. It comes to us primarily in the form of obviousness – common sense, popular opinion, what everybody thinks, what we take for granted. Western culture is better than Muslim culture; people should get married and have children, especially women; the British are fundamentally decent, tolerant people; hard work brings success. All these assumptions, insofar as they remain assumptions, rather than becoming objects of critical reflection, are examples of the kind of subconscious conceptual framework that constitutes ideology.

Ideology – The Way in which people understand their World

Althusser puts this most clearly when he describes ideology as the way in which people understand their world. Ideology, for Althusser, is the set of discourses in whose terms we understand our experience – it constitutes the world of our experience, our ‘world’, itself. The science of historical materialism tells me about the material reality of my existence in the complex set of forces and relations of production that comprise the capitalist mode of production. Ordinarily, though, I do not think of my life in these terms. If I am in business, I might think of my life as a kind of competition, in which I need to be more shrewd, intelligent and hard-working than all the others. If I am a socialist, I might think of history as a progression from an increasingly exploitative to an increasingly just society, to which my political activities, from picketing factories to selling newspapers, contribute. If I am a Christian, I might think of my life as a moral progression towards eternity. If a mother, as building in my own small way the kind of community fit for my children to grow up in. These ways in which we understand our lives, these stories we tell ourselves in order to make sense of them are, for Althusser, the ideologies in which we live.

Ideology as False Consciousness

Althusser argues, that ideology can be thought of as false consciousness of the real world, which is instead governed by the exploitative production relations of capitalism.

Next on Althusser: Althusser’s distinctive method of reading which he calls the ‘symptomatic reading’.

Well, this is the book for you -

Ferretter, Luke. Louis Althusser. New York: Routledge Critical Thinkers. 2007. Print.

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