An A-Z of theory Althusser (part I)
In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, February 18, 2011 0:00 - 14 Comments
By Andrew Robinson
We live in a world dominated by a particular way of seeing, in which neoliberal, socially authoritarian and pro-capitalist views are taken for granted by most of the population, at least in some parts of the world. This phenomenon, referred to as ‘ideology’ in Marxist theory, is the main field in which Louis Althusser is of relevance.
Though no longer widely studied in university courses, the structuralist Marxist Althusser has had a major influence both on critical theory, and in the development of Marxism since the 1970s. Badiou, Ranciere and Balibar are among his best-known followers, Laclau and Castells are among his former apprentices, and Spivak, Zizek, Foucault and Negri all show strong signs of his influence.
He has become unfashionable for a whole number of reasons, some biographical, some theoretical. Yet being unfashionable does not necessarily entail being any less relevant. Althusser’s theory of ideology continues to provide insights into the functioning of an increasingly closed dominant discourse, though as suggested below, it also has fundamental difficulties.
The Function of Ideology
To understand Althusser’s work, it is necessary to make sense of the way he uses ideas of social structure. Althusser is a synchronic, not a diachronic, theorist. This means that, rather than looking at the historical origins of aspects of the social structure, he looks at how they fit together into a system, the functions they perform, and how they can be reconstructed theoretically as outgrowths of the system’s underlying logic.
For instance, from a diachronic perspective, the state preceded capitalism, and in many ways created it (the view taken by Hannes Lacher and Ellen Wood). From a synchronic perspective, the state can be deduced from the structural needs of capitalism. This might be parallelled with a case where someone buys a disk drive, but it doesn’t work, so they use it as a doorstop. From a diachronic perspective, it starts out as a disk drive, gets removed from this use, and is reinscribed as a doorstop; what it is, is a disk drive used as a doorstop. From a synchronic perspective, it is defined by its function in the arrangement: it is a doorstop, it exists and persists because it performs the function of a doorstop where one is needed, and its history as a disk drive is almost incidental.
This kind of synchronic approach creates an interesting perspective which often provides insights. It blasts things out of their origins, and conventional assumptions of their meanings, showing in blunt terms what they are at present, in their actual functioning (hence avoiding the common fallacy of excusing how things “are” by how they are “meant to be”: real prisons by the myth of deterrence or real states by the social contract for example).
On the downside, it also tends to be crudely reductive, ignoring the complexity of how social assemblages operate. Social institutions such as the state and the media are assumed to be part of an integrated totality driven by capitalism, without apparent remainder or dysfunction. This perspective can thus be both helpful in some ways, and unhelpful in others, in thinking through the specificity of social structures.
Althusser presents his work as extremely orthodox in its Marxism, but in fact it involves important theoretical innovations. He has a peculiarly self-abasing style, in which he refused to attribute to himself the theoretical insights he formulated, instead preferring to pass them off as already present in Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Mao, and so on.
The reason for this is that partly he believes that a ‘scientific’, i.e. ‘subjectless’ discourse can escape the constraints of ideology (which are effects of the subject), and may also have to do with the people he was trying to influence and persuade, who might let such ideas under their radar under the cover of professed orthodoxy. One rather irritating effect of this is that it promotes misconceptions of the authors he uses. (In particular, the English-language reception of Gramsci includes at least as much Althusser as Gramsci). Another effect is that Althusser’s continuing influence is vastly underestimated. Along with Lacan, many of his ideas provide the foundations for what has become poststructuralism.
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 (which Althusser considers not truly Marxist; much of Althusser’s work, not discussed here, focuses on interpreting the later Marx as a structuralist and arguing that he underwent an ‘epistemological break’ between his earlier and later 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 is analogous to dreams and the unconscious in Freudian theory, not simply a residue but central to people’s imagined relationship to their experiences. Althusser effectively applies the Lacanian theory of the imaginary in understanding ideology.
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).
For Althusser, ideology actually comes from practices, which are embedded in the rituals of an ideological apparatus. Each person’s ideas actually derive from these practices. People participate in practices which cause beliefs, rather than beliefs causing them to participate in practices. The subject (each individual) acts only as a result of being acted on by apparatuses.
This renders ideology primarily performative and material. By “material”, Althusser means that an ideology always exists in an apparatus and its practice. It is by repeating the practices of the apparatus that people perform ideology. This “material” view of ideology is counterposed to views which focus on its content in terms of ideas or beliefs. For Althusser, beliefs actually stem from practices, rather than causing them.
Althusser claims that things can be material in different senses, and an apparatus or ideology is not “material” in the same sense as a stone or a rifle; his theory is, however, related to theories of material culture, in which practices and subjectivities are taken to be dependent on physical objects – the consumer, for instance, depends on tills and shopping trolleys – and ideology is taken to be embedded in physical objects through practices such as architecture, which literally materialise ideology in physical space.
The analysis of ideology as ‘material’ also affects Althusser’s view of the ‘subject’, or the self-as-agent. In everyday discourse, and in the existentialist and humanist philosophies prevalent when Althusser was writing, people are taken to act as agents, creating meanings on the basis of which they act. This idea of an individual who believes and resultantly acts is according to Althusser an ideological device in its own right. People do not choose ideologies based on a prior consciousness. Consciousness, and the subject (the individual who acts), do not exist prior to ideology.
This means that we are all subjects of ideology, created by ideology, and fundamentally inside it – how we experience ourselves is an effect of ideology. The repetition of everyday gestures such as greetings guarantee oneself that one is a subject. What is more, all of us are ‘always already’ subjects, even before we are born: one is expected to find one’s place as the subject one has already been declared to be in advance.
A baby, for instance, might be classified as culturally male or female even before their birth, and then forced into the corresponding gender-roles. At least to the extent that people remain ‘good’ subjects, Althusser is a determinist: he does not believe people actually have free will; what people think is an effect of the social apparatuses which operate upon them.
So how do people come to be subjects (or to feel themselves to be agents with free will)? The answer, for Althusser, is that people are ‘interpellated’ as subjects by apparatuses. This process of producing subjects is the main function of ideology. It is by recognising oneself (usually unconsciously, and in a way one cannot help) in the ritualised practices of ideology (anything from an individual greeting to a police command to halt) that one is subsumed within ideology. Ideology ‘recruits’ people as subjects or ‘transforms’ people into subjects.
This process is sometimes given the technical term “interpellation” in Althusserian theory, a term which refers to the way someone is “hailed” or called to by ideology, and thereby caused or encouraged to “recognise” her/himself as a subject. Interpellation occurs when an individual recognises a call or a representation and says, ‘yes, it really is me’. It thus constructs a range of subject-positions within ideology. People recognise themselves in these subject-positions, but this is always in fact a ‘misrecognition’.
Individuals wrongly believe that their identities, which are really effects of ideology, are freely generated. As a result, they accept and even celebrate their own subordination to the system. Even in the event that they resist, they remain within the interpellated frame. Interpellation applies not only to the experience of being an individual, but also to all the specific experiences of belonging to a particular category – being black, gay, French, a youth, a mother, insane, and so on.
In one of Fanon’s examples, a person is interpellated as black through being subject to racist gestures such as a child saying, “look mummy, a Negro, I’m scared”, or through being singled out for humiliations. This can also be compared to the phenomenon of ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’ in psychology: people often come to be what they believe themselves to be, or what they’re told they are, by acting in ways which respond to the way they’re labelled (if they’re seen as intelligent, they’re encouraged and rewarded in intellectual efforts, hence become intelligent; if they’re labelled as criminal, they’re harassed and judged in a way which makes them feel oppressed by social standards and therefore actually break laws; etc). Althusser is here making two crucial arguments: firstly, that what we think we are is socially constructed, and secondly, that it is largely socially determined, rather than chosen. Foucault’s theory of subjectification and Guattari’s model of subjection in capitalism are both derived from this account.
Althusser also has a psychoanalytic account of the subject in ideology. Interpellation relies on the ‘Other’ or ‘Subject’ (with a capital; in Althusser’s work, capitalised and small-case versions of words often express different concepts). The Subject is another imagined subject assumed to be interpellating the self, and serving as a mirror-image of the subject. (This analysis is clearly strongly influenced by Lacan).
The subjection of individuals to the Subject (the gaze of authority) is a fundamental effect of ideology, implicit in their interpellation as subejcts. It also provides an illusory guarantee that things really are the way they seem. Subjects only exist because of their subjection to authority, and this is why they accept such subjection. It is based on an implied guarantee: that reality will remain predictable and everything will be alright as long as they accept subjection. This process is necessary to reproduce the relations of production.
On one level, Althusser is right about ideology. There is more to the social construction of subject-positions than simple belief in empirically untrue claims. How people relate to their material conditions affects their perspectives. Scholars such as Francois Debrix continue to use Althusser productively to interpret phenomena such as humanitarian intervention. Althusser has also been influential in postcolonial theory. For instance, Spivak’s idea of sanctioned ignorance is constructed from Althusser’s theory of ‘lacuna’. Spivak’s famous critique of Deleuze and Foucault also follows a broadly Althusserian line, criticising the politics of desire for relying on what she takes to be ideological subject-positions and for failing to theorise social interest. The issue of the subject is the issue of contention between Deleuze and Spivak: Spivak takes a politics of desire to wrongly believe in a subject, which is necessarily a subject of ideology in Althusser’s sense.
While Spivak’s critique would take more detailed engagement to respond to (among other things, Deleuze does not base his theory on a subject), it points to certain tensions between Althusserian theory and the philosophy of desire. Althusser takes the position that ideology is prior to subjects, that “who we are” is determined by how we are ideologically interpellated.
He is right that conventional notions of subjectivity (the molar self, consciousness, etc) are constructed in this way, but he is wrong to impute that there is no force within each person to which ideology must appeal.
The account articulated by theorists such as Althusser, Lacan and Spivak for the fact that some people become ‘bad subjects’ is thus inherently limited, missing the need for pre-existing ‘hooks’ in desire in order for ideology to function. I would argue that people don’t automatically recognise themselves in the ways they’re represented by particular institutions. This is shown by the failure of interpellation in some cases. There are people who, for reasons of psychological difference, do not conform in school, do not engage in everyday greetings, who would not recognise a police command, and in some cases, do not even develop language. This shows that the functioning of ideology requires underpinnings in people’s sensory and conceptual capabilities in order to gain a hold. For this reason, many people are, to one degree or another, outside ideology.
In a politics of desire approach, interpellation cannot be seen as primary. Rather, people always begin with autonomous desires, which have to be attracted in order for people to be interpellated or otherwise articulated into a social assemblage. We can be thought of as starting out like a ball rolling down a hill, trailing tendrils or vines; some of these tendrils will become snared on the trees and bushes on the hill, some will unravel themselves, and perhaps some can snap. Only a certain kind of tendril will hook on a certain kind of tree, and ideology depends on this process of hooking, which is neither an automatic effect of the obstacle being placed in the way of the ball, nor a force in constructing the ball or the tendrils.
Sometimes, the ball will not hook onto the particular obstacles the system puts in its way, either because the system has the wrong kind of obstacles to catch it, because the ball has vines which do not hook onto these trees, because it is rolling too fast, simply misses the obstacles, or becomes ensnared but is put under too much force and snaps. For instance, according to Lacan, ‘psychotics’ never develop a master-signifier, which is crucial to ‘normal’, neurotic language-use (equivalent to Lacan’s Subject or Other). Arguably, such people are never interpellated; desires overflow their dominant entrapment, people cease to experience themselves as ideological subjects, etc.
This suggests that desires exist as forces which are more basic than interests or subject-positions. Since these desires are prior to interpellation, the ‘subject’ is never entirely reducible to ideology, nor entirely an effect of its lacunae; rather, it contains autonomous forces which can in principle be unbound from their current moorings, and others which may never have become moored. Further, each person may well be different in the exact configuration of forces which can be articulated, and the points at which they are inserted into social ideologies.
Of course, in practice, we rarely encounter the ball rolling down the hill, we encounter subjectivities which are equivalent to a ball tied in place by certain tendrils caught on certain trees (and not always the same ones for every person). What’s more, the tendrils are transformed by each tree they become entwined with, even if they later become detached. But still, the tendrils are not merely effects of the trees they become entwined with. It is, indeed, the case that the entwinement can be unsettled in cases of mass struggle, but also in many other circumstances, as a result of individual crises and traumas, a lack of fit with new configurations of the system, slow transformations through everyday life practices, gestures of refusal and exodus, therapeutic or spiritual transitions, and so on.
And those which have escaped can often be reattached to the dominant assemblage by new means. Much of the work of radical politics is about detaching and reattaching tendrils – in particular, detaching them from trunks and attaching them to rhizomes. This approach provides a path beyond the difficulties of Althusser’s theory of the subject, while also recognising that many people are ideological subjects constructed in the way Althusser suggests.
There is also a certain danger that the emphasis on structure and function leads to a neglect of the subjective meanings involved in social construction. Althusser is sometimes accused by other Marxists, such as Carter and Virdee, of neglecting subjectivity and agency, particularly the role of class struggle in transforming subjects. This issue often draws Althusser into the feud between Marxists and poststructuralists in academia, as a trajectory of what is taken to be a disempowering approach to capitalism.
This controversey, which is as much about boundary-policing and competition for institutional influence as about theoretical or empirical stakes, has been decidedly unproductive of useful insights, tending to turn both sides into parodies of themselves. This said, there seems to be insufficient space for agency in Althusser. It was Marx’s view that people are able to change (through struggle or collectivity) that created in his theory a horizon of emancipation in spite of his structural determinism. Without this assumption, it is hard to see how a Marxist theory can maintain a possibility of revolution.
It is easier to see how a non-Marxist theory can do so, since it does not have to rely on a totalising theory of capitalism. The alternative is to take a more dynamic view of social integration, recognising that there are more than two social logics at play, and that social assemblages often involve the recuperation and hybridisation of antagonistic social logics as a dynamic process, as opposed to a functionally integrated system. In Deleuzian theory for instance, the state is said to ‘capture’ a war-machine which is initially outside itself, so as to tame its force, turning it reactive in the process. This kind of dynamic interplay restores a diachronic dimension to an otherwise structural approach.
Similarly, the welfare state needs to be seen as multi-sided – certainly a means whereby capitalism and the state integrate people, but also a field of the “social wage” fought for by workers, and a terrain in which professionals assert autonomous discourses of their own. The defence of the welfare state often functions as a defence of the social wage, and not simply a campaign for the reproduction of ISAs.
This said, Althusser’s theory does give a certain necessary counterbalance to the overly simplistic emphasis of most of the left on simply resisting cuts and school closures. Without insisting on the replacement of authoritarian with critical or libertarian schooling, preventing a school closure simply helps the system to function more smoothly, or increases certain people’s chances within it at the expense of others. Such campaigns should be supported, but from a position of seeking to deepen them, to take questions beyond the quantity and funding of education to its basic content.
Often, Althusser seems to move from observing how social assemblages normally function to a view that certain phenomena are functionally necessary, perhaps even unavoidable in any society. This tends to reduce his awareness of contingency. Is it not possible to partake in the practices of an institution without believing in them? One might think of ironic participation, or a kind of time-serving which covers up a deeper resistance (such as a prisoner who stands in line while hiding bolt-cutters behind his back), or even of the activities of an undercover agent.
Does every situation of rituals, assemblages and mutual recognition involve an assumption of authority or a “Subject”? I would suggest that it is also possible for speech-contexts to exist based on translation, or the difference of the other, and that, where some network of power constructs menaings, it may operate diffusely instead of hierarchically. Althusser’s mistake in such cases is typical of many critical theorists, and suggests a need for a more open, less “system-building” approach to theory, which distinguishes between the social forces at work in a situation and the complex assemblages through which they operate.
Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.