ALTHUSSER builds on the work of Jacques
Lacan to understand the way ideology functions in society. He thus moves
away from the earlier Marxist understanding of ideology. In the earlier
model, ideology was believed to create what was termed "false consciousness,"
a false understanding of the way the world functioned (for example,
the suppression of the fact that the products we purchase on the open
market are, in fact, the result of the exploitation of laborers). Althusser
explains that for Marx "Ideology is [...] thought as an imaginary
construction whose status is exactly like the theoretical status of
the dream among writers before Freud. For those writers, the dream was
the purely imaginary, i.e. null, result of the 'day's residues'"
108). Althusser, by contrast, approximates ideology to Lacan's understanding
of "reality," the world we construct around us after our entrance
symbolic order. (See the Lacan
module on the structure of the psyche.) For Althusser, as for Lacan,
it is impossible to access the "Real conditions of existence"
due to our reliance on language; however, through a rigorous"scientific"
approach to society, economics, and history, we can come close to perceiving
if not those "Real conditions" at least the ways that we are
inscribed in ideology by complex processes of recognition. Althusser's
understanding of ideology has in turn influenced a number of important
Marxist thinkers, including Chantalle Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj
Zizek, and Fredric Jameson. (See, for comparison, the Jameson
module on ideology.)
Althusser posits a series of hypotheses that
he explores to clarify his understanding of ideology:
1) "Ideology represents
the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of
109). The traditional way of thinking of ideology led Marxists to
show how ideologies are false by pointing to the real world hidden by
ideology (for example, the "real" economic base for ideology).
According to Althusser, by contrast, ideology does not "reflect"
the real world but "represents" the "imaginary
relationship of individuals" to the real world; the thing ideology
(mis)represents is itself already at one remove from the real. In this,
Althusser follows the Lacanian understanding of the imaginary
order, which is itself at one step removed from the Lacanian Real.
In other words, we are always within ideology because of our reliance
on language to establish our "reality"; different ideologies
are but different representations of our social and imaginary
"reality" not a representation of the Real
2) "Ideology has
a material existence" (Lenin
112). Althusser contends that ideology has a material existence
because "an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice,
or practices" (Lenin
112). Ideology always manifests itself through actions, which are
"inserted into practices" (Lenin
114), for example, rituals, conventional behavior, and so on. Indeed,
Althusser goes so far as to adopt Pascal's formula for belief: "Pascal
says more or less: 'Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will
114). It is our performance of our relation to others and to social
institutions that continually instantiates us as subjects. Judith
Butler's understanding of performativity could be said to be strongly
influenced by this way of thinking about ideology.
3) "all ideology
hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects"
115). According to Althusser, the main purpose of ideology is in
"'constituting' concrete individuals as subjects"
116). So pervasive is ideology in its constitution of subjects that
it forms our very reality and thus appears to us as "true"
or "obvious." Althusser gives the example of the "hello"
on a street: "the rituals of ideological recognition [...] guarantee
for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and
(naturally) irreplaceable subjects" (Lenin
117). Through "interpellation," individuals are turned
into subjects (which are always ideological). Althusser's example is
the hail from a police officer: "'Hey, you there!'" (Lenin
118): "Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined
takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By
this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes
a subject" (Lenin
118). The very fact that we do not recognize this interaction as
ideological speaks to the power of ideology:
what thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in
the street), in reality takes place in ideology [....] That is why
those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside
ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation
of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never
says, "I am ideological." (Lenin
4) "individuals are always-already
119). Although he presents his example of interpellation in a temporal
form (I am interpellated and thus I become a subject, I enter ideology),
Althusser makes it clear that the "becoming-subject" happens
even before we are born. "This proposition might seem paradoxical"
119), Althusser admits; nevertheless, "That an individual is
always-already a subject, even before he is born, is [...] the plain
reality, accessible to everyone and not a paradox at all" (Lenin
119). Even before the child is born, "it is certain in advance
that it will bear its Father's Name, and will therefore have an identity
and be irreplaceable. Before its birth, the child is therefore always-already
a subject, appointed as a subject in and by the specific familial ideological
configuration in which it is 'expected' once it has been conceived"
119). Althusser thus once again invokes Lacan's ideas, in this case
Lacan's understanding of the "Name-of-the-Father."
Most subjects accept their ideological self-constitution
as "reality" or "nature" and thus rarely run afoul
of the repressive State apparatus, which is designed to punish anyone
who rejects the dominant ideology. Hegemony
is thus reliant less on such repressive State apparatuses as the police
than it is on those Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) by which ideology
is inculcated in all subjects. (See
the next module for an explanation of ISAs.) As Althusser puts it,
"the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order
that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e.
in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in
order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection
'all by himself'" (Lenin