Published in 1970, Althusser's essay "Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus" occurs after the May 1968 protests in France: workers occupied factories as students did universities, President Charles de Gaulle fled, and a coalition of communists and socialists through a variety of demonstrations intended a coup d’état for several weeks (Wikipedia). Only months removed from the insurrection, as a professor educated at France’s elite institutions and as a Marxist residing in the milieu of political disenchantment, Althusser likely addresses Marxism with the moment’s recent events in memory. In 1848, Marx and Engels had spurred the workers of the world to action in an intervention of epic proportions. An inevitable revolution was in sight. Advance a century and another intellectual—one of many others—conveys another tone, one not of energy and certainty, but of solemnity and sustained ambiguity in terms of the universal revolution idea. Althusser does not write a manifesto and, one could contend, lacks the spirit do so with any Marxist chutzpah.
Before continuing or embarking in the text, do take a moment if you have not already: search for pictures of “Althusser”—a near majority of your results probably feature a cigarette or a pipe in addition to a face of profound contemplation as well as disturbance. This is the image of the man who does not address workers so much at all but rather intellectuals somewhat disinterested to revolution. In this vein, Marxism is not forestalled but expounded upon as Althusser not only adds to but also to a great extent rearticulates the Marxist theory of state. Explicitly compared to Freud’s unconscious, Althusser’s version of ‘ideology’ implicates the “imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” with materialist theory (162). Due to this essay’s salience to the course (it attempts to bridge works of two threshold figures) and its fascinating complexity (in my opinion), I will start with terms before arguments and conflicts as the first provide a useful framework. Though Althusser presents a unique ‘ideology,’ many of his terms relate to those of other theorists—such as ‘recognition’ and other traces of Hegel.
Within the title, Althusser distinguishes ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ from ‘Ideology’ to an extent announcing the essay’s goals of defining these terms separately in spite of their substantial overlap. He argues that the theory of the state maintains a dormant status in Marx’s work as “the irreversible beginning of the theory” (138). Much of Althusser’s project consists of “supplementary theoretical development” to as well as disagreement with this descriptive theory and, with the Marxist “spatial metaphor” of base and superstructure, the ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ provides an entry into ‘Ideology’ (141, 135). For Marx, the metaphor consists of the base, or the forces of production, serving as a material foundation for the superstructure consisting of ideas, laws, and religion. The base does not only support the superstructure but also materially causes it. Within Marx’s conception, ‘state’ consists of a repressive apparatus:
“The State apparatus, which defines the State as a force of repressive execution and intervention ‘in the interests of the ruling classes’ in the class struggle conducts by the bourgeoisie and its allies against the proletariat, is quite certainly the State, and quite certainly defines its basic ‘function’” (137). Althusser defines this apparatus as the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) and lists its parts: “the police, the courts, the prisons…the army…the head of State, the government and the administration” (137). Yet the state does not only function through “violence,” as with the RSA, but also through “ideology” (142). It is on the operation of the state apparatus that Althusser concentrates his 'investigation.' In defining the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA), Althusser lists a host of institutions ultimately achieving a similarly repressive end such as schools, media, religion, and the family but primarily by way of ideology. The ISA also differs from the RSA in two critical ways: 1) the components of the ISA are more private than public, 2) the ISAs are “multiple, distinct, ‘relatively autonomous’” (149).
Althusser does not only define the Ideological State Apparatus in terms of its counterpart. For Marx, ideology is “an imaginary assemblage…a pure dream, empty and vain, constituted by the ‘day’s residues’ from the only full and positive reality, that of the concrete history of concrete material individuals materially producing their existence” (160). Importantly, ideology is conceived of as ‘imaginary’ in a way that removes it from a consequential relationship with material existence. In a word, it is an “illusion” (159). For Althusser, on the other hand, ideology is neither “a pure dream, empty and vain” and nor a concept without history in the Marxist sense. In his view, rather “ideology is eternal, exactly like the unconscious” (161). This is a problematic analogy between Marx’s and Freud’s critical realms. Nevertheless, ‘ideology’ is a structure without history yet present throughout history.
Since “there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects” (170), it is extremely important to fathom Althusser’s concept of the subject. Indeed, when introducing the Ideological State Apparatuses, Althusser describes them as “a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer” (142). Through ideological recognition, what Althusser also defines as “interpellation or hailing,” individuals are called into existence through continuous obvious statements such as “Hey, you there!” and other rituals (174, 174) Moreover, Althusser argues that through interpellation “individuals are always-already subjects” and provides a host of events, beginning with the mere expectation of an “unborn child,” that assign identity perpetuating obviousness (176).
According to Althusser, a duplicate mirror-structure centers the process of ideological recognition from which a subject emerges from an individual. In Christian Religious Ideology, the example provided, this structure is God. This Subject (capital “S”) is through his own statement “I am that I am” and through his subjection permits subjects (lower-case “s”). It is in the image of the capital “S” structure that subjects exist. It is within an ideology, in a way enabled by a Subject, that not only there is obviousness to the realities of the ISA, but also specifically there is “guarantee that everything really is so, and that on condition that the subjects recognize what they are and behave accordingly, everything will be all right” (181).
After ‘ideology,’ ‘subject,’ and their closely related terms, the third (not at all in an important order) major term to consider is ‘reproduction.’ For Althusser, the question of ‘reproduction,’ of how to materially produce again and again, is the essay’s central issue, a “point of view” (136). While the reproduction of the means of production—raw materials, machines, etc—is almost naturally understood by economists according to Althusser, the second fundamental area to production, labour-power, is not quite as simple. Wages, while set by a “Guaranteed Minimum Wage” and a “historically variable minimum,” (131, 131) are not enough to guarantee the reproduction of labor power for various reasons such as needs for a diverse labor skill-set as well as reproduction of “submission to the rules of the established order” (132) . The third area, the relations of production, involves the relations necessary between people and between base and superstructure for production. Like the second, this area implicates ideology—except unlike the second, by definition, ‘relations of production’ suggests ideology.
With these brief overview of terms—do please note any gaps or issues with a comment—consider this list of major arguments:
1. Site of Class Struggle—The Marxist theory of state’s end goal is summarized as: “the proletariat must seize State power in order to destroy the existing bourgeois State apparatus and, in a first phase, replace it with a quite different, proletarian, State apparatus, then in later phases set in motion a radical process, that of the destruction of the State (the end of State power, and the end of every State apparatus)” (141). In response, Althusser argues that the goal of a class cannot only be state power but also control of the Ideological State Apparatuses. While diverse, the ISAs are connected through the “ruling ideology” of a ruling class that operates through the ISAs in addition to the RSA (146). This class works (literally, that’s their labor) to create “harmony” between the various apparatuses when, in fact, they merely perpetuate their vast, extensive ideological power. As a consequence, Althusser argues that the “Ideological State Apparatuses may be…the site of class struggle” (147).
2. The Dominant ISA—While the Church was once the “one dominant Ideological State Apparatus,” following the French Revolution and its attack, Schools came to compare most to the Church as the dominant “educational ideological apparatus” (151, 152). Althusser argues that Schools represent themselves as ideologically-neutral yet they impart “know-how” as well as “ideology in its pure state” and, significantly, create a hierarchy of production according to ideologically-defined success, not to mention terms of access (155, 155).
3. Structure of Ideology—Althusser claims: “What is represented in ideology is…not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live.” While the relations are imaginary, they can be “interpreted” and their relation to the world found (162). Ideology may seem illusion, yet beneath, it can be found to represent reality.
4. “Belief is material”—Ideology has a material existence because of the relationship between behaving and thinking. After referring to Pascal’s Pensees, Althusser claims: “where only a single subject…is concerned, the existence of the ideas of his belief is material in that his ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject” (169). What is most important is that ideology indeed has a material existence.
5. Ambiguity of the Subject—Althusser argues that, due to the duplicate mirror-structure of ideology (God), a subject is caught in ‘freedom’ as well the misrecognition of ‘it has to be so’: “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 submission” (182). This paradoxical freedom and ongoing misrecognition enable behavior integral to the reproduction of relations of production (183).
As for issues - Althusser calls many of Marx’s assumptions into question, yet, at the same, makes his own. One of his most grandiose involves his comparison of ideology with Freud’s unconscious. Freud’s unconscious is a category in a topographic theory of the mind. As a concept, it is critical to psychoanalysis. On the other hand, Althusser’s ideology is cast over subjects not dreams, and it is by way of ideology that subjects construct themselves. While the unconscious is language-less, in a way, ideology is language-dependent. Further there is the fact that the unconscious consists of irrational, inaccessible dreamy matters and has its contours because of a repressive censor, that it can be described as a category - but is ideology defined in relation to a sort of antithetical concept like conscious - isn't it about making 'things' of the world intelligible, so simple as to be unmistakable and unquestionable?
Freud and Pascale appear conveniently in Althusser’s argument. Freud appears due to the ‘unconscious’; Pascale because of one of his inversions in his Pensees. As with figures, historical examples appear too when convenient and, notably, due to their relevance to the French—which suggests that Althusser was influenced by the events of 1968. For instance, the French Revolution may have attacked the church, leading to a change of hands of many ideological state apparatuses. Yet did the revolutions following that of the French attack a parallel institution? What if the Church was not as pervasive in other states? I am most of all curious about this: If “the formal structure of all ideology is always the same,” then what constitutes a mirror-structure in a secular ideology? What is the unique and absolute subject of the media and other ISAs? What replaced the who-giving-God and since he is not actually replaced what is his name or is it nameless?
Is class struggle fully a contest of who gets to be who? Isn’t the ruling class too oppressing itself even when it continues conditions that lead to members of all other classes maintain their own oppression? Why is it important for Althusser to start a subject-less discourse: “while speaking in ideology, and from within ideology we have to outline a discourse which tries to break with ideology, in order to dare to be the beginning of a scientific (i.e. subject-less) discourse on ideology”? (173)
In conclusion - Why does Althusser claim: “it is extremely hard…to raise oneself to the point of view of reproduction”? (128) For more than one reason, I would argue. Most importantly, Althusser has written about behavior yet he has not hinted, provided a glimmer, that any one person’s may be significantly changed to some broader end than mere intellectual distance and profundity. It is obvious that by virtue of being a subject, individuals are, indeed, subjected to an authority they cannot exist as they imagine themselves to without. Perhaps even for Althusser, the image of his face and his choice of smoke, it is difficult to bear the reality of reproduction because to an extent one may lose or not even have access to one's notion of self and accompanying comforts and stabilizing convictions. As great as the revelation of the site of class struggle within the ISAs may be, it does not clearly lead anywhere forward broadly, such as to a universal revolution. The base and the superstructure, still part of a spatial metaphor, have become more intricately connected, less distinct from each other. Althusser has added words, words, correspondences with reality, matters for interpretation, and maybe what was once a literal, straightforward metaphor of base and superstructure with an accompanying linear agenda has been immersed into metaphorical, linguistic confusion.