What does it mean, Ideology?


[Ideology, the strategy game]

To take the term literally, a system (-logy) of ideas (ideo-). That is to say, a collection of ideas (either about different things/aspects, e.g. on the economy, on social issues, on political power, etc. or as more or less similar positions (i.e. variants) on a given issue (whose differences are not as important as their (more apparent) similarities)) that—together—compose (or could be made to compose) a coherent system (e.g. a general way of thinking, a body of doctrines, a set of principled responses to particular problems . . .) due to the reliance of the different components on some (the same?) defined set of basic assumptions (i.e. the “philosophical foundation”). This “system of [. . .] ideas and representations,” Althusser points out, “dominate[s] the mind of a man or a social group” (107).

To put it simply: a particular way of thinking (which necessarily (this is what makes it an ideology) relies on a certain set of basic (ideological) assumptions/persuasions). Putting it in another way: a statement that, rather than merely informing (delivering facts disinterestedly), instead (either outrightly or implicitly) evinces a particular attitude (i.e. puts forth “opinions”) about what it is “reporting.” In other words: an issue and a certain take on it (a certain point of view), perhaps the most prevalent instance of which is the thesis statement, i.e. the topic + a controlling idea, i.e. a subject and the attitude that controls its elaboration, shaping how it is to be approached/handled, how the discourse will proceed.

For Karl Marx, ideology is the superstructure. Ideology, in other words, is the way of thinking leveled on top of the economic base (the economic structure of society, its workings, what is produced there and by what means, the relations of people in the production process, how the fruits of production are to be distributed . . .) that provides its mental/ideational support, that, by legitimating it (or overshadowing other ways of thinking about it), perpetuates the system. (The means of production, of course, can change, as with technological innovations, but the relations of people with each other, specifically the uneven distribution of the fruits of production to the different sectors of the population (the different classes, to use Marxist terminology)—thanks to ideology, so the argument goes—are maintained.)

Translated by the dominant ideology thesis, ideology comes to be equated to the (one) ideology that dominates society. This (one) ideology, it is argued, is so dominant that it is the only possible way (or it is the widespread way, i.e. the mainstream way) to think—such that no other way of thinking (no other ideology) succeeds (in breaking through the public forum and entering the public Imaginary) or such that (the dominant) ideology is able to discount all other possible ways to think (that do emerge in the public space (but are then quickly invalidated)). This dominant ideology is, of course, the ideology of the ruling class, the group (or alliance) who has the same hold over the forces and means of production (i.e. the economic base).

The consequence of this (and this is the main claim of ideology thinkers) is that everyone in society (composed as it is of different classes, in the main the capitalist and the laboring classes) ends up seeing through the ruling ideology. That is to say, everyone (including those that are ruled) sees through the ruling class’ eyes. Everyone thus looks at (his/her own (perhaps lowest-class)) social and economic conditions like members of the ruling class (as though they themselves were members of it), takes to be true what is true for the ruling class (the main beneficiaries of the fruits of production in the uppermost echelons of society) (as also true for themselves)—thereby preempting the risings of discontent and the stirrings for social change (i.e. the Revolution). (Hence the caricature of s/he who—as confirmed by his/her factual economic conditions—belongs to a lower class, but who (thanks to ideology) believes him/herself part of the ruling class, possessing the same rights, reaping the same benefits (or at least someday will) . . .)

Antonio Gramsci finds this formulation reductive. As an alternative, he portrays the social field as a site in which ideological battles are fought (to win hegemony), implying that there is not one but many—competing, conflicting, battling—ways of thinking, i.e. many ideologies—dependent upon one’s socioeconomic status (i.e. one’s class) (of which, according to him, it is the task of Marxism (the philosophy of praxis) to awaken people to the ideology of their own (although not necessarily true (in the absolute sense, i.e. the “truth” as opposed to the false set of ideas mystifying objective socioeconomic conditions) (as the false consciousness school like to posit)) class). What Marxist discourse thus contributes to the conceptualization of ideology is to give to ideology (as form) a specific (political) content. Specifically, in Marxism, ideology comes to mean the specific political attitude taken/manifested (by a certain (social) group) toward socioeconomic conditions (and, to speak broadly, toward the S/state of society).

But perhaps a better question is: What does it do, ideology? I.e. what does ideology do? Adding two dimensions to the Marxist definition, this is what Louis Althusser, in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” attempts to demonstrate: the a/effect of ideology. Althusser does this first by stressing the material character of ideology—of any (but with special emphasis on the ruling (since the ruling class is in control of social institutions, where ideology’s materiality is manifested)) ideology.

Ideology to Althusser is material first because it is (inherently, ontologically?) tied to social institutions. Ideology, according to Althusser, is manifested by each and every institution/apparatus of the State—both repressive and ideological—in fact provides them with their unifying basis (although ideology is deployed in the ISAs, it immediately connects with the RSA (to support it (hence consolidating the State))), whose primary purpose is to reproduce the relations of production in which the laborer is exploited by the capitalist. (In this way, Althusser is able to posit ideology both in the superstructure (in the ISAs and the RSA) and the base (in the relations of production).)

What makes ideology institutional—although it consolidates the (whole) State (i.e. not just the ISAs but the RSA as well) and although it can be found in both the superstructure and the base—is the fact that it—any, but mostly the ruling, ideology—is deployed primarily in the institutions of the ISAs (although Althusser does point out that “ideologies are not born in the ISAs but from the social classes at grips in the class struggle: from their conditions of existence, their practices, their experience of the struggle, etc.” (126)). Althusser is implying, in other words, that ideology is inseparable from the (primarily, but not only, ISA) institutions of the State because it is the institutions that deploy it.

Approaching it from the other direction, it can be (just as accurately) said that as soon as one has/encounters/enters a social (State) institution, one is bound to encounter ideology. In Althusser’s own words, “an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices” (112). Ideology, in effect, lives its life in social institutions—and this in a double sense, i.e. not only because social institutions (in deploying it) give ideology life, allows it to do its work, but, at the same time, because social institutions presuppose ideology (i.e. the ideology of the ruling class)—which, in fact, is what unifies them, gives them their purpose, allows them to be considered as a coherent body in the first place. Ideology and social institutions are thus (doubly) bound to each other. Ideology is institutional and social institutions are ideological. Thus the first meaning of Althusser’s assertion that ideology—in its immersion in/of (material) institutions—has a material existence (112).

Althusser demonstrates this intertwining of ideology and institutions (as elaborated in a previous post) by asserting that “each of [the different ideological apparatuses and their institutions] contributes towards th[e] single result [of the reproduction of the relations of production] in the way proper to it [. . .] dominated by [the] single score [. . .] of the Ideology of the current ruling class” (104). In other words, each institution (of each ISA), in its own unique way, disseminates the ruling ideology, imbues it on State subjects, both capitalist and laboring.

It would seem that Althusser, like the dominant ideology thesis, is asserting that there is only one ideology in society, the ruling ideology (this is in fact one criticism that has been leveled against him). While Althusser’s position is more nuanced than this, he does emphasize (more so than Gramsci, whose picture of battling ideologies, it must be pointed out, also sometimes echoes in Althusser) the structural unity of the S/state made coherent by the dominant ideology. While there are in fact different (perhaps even competing) institutions within apparatuses of different types in society, in the end they are all (including those most opposed) caught up in the intense weight and broad sweep of the ruling ideology (think of a protester making a scene and the president stating, “That’s democracy at work!”). Similarly, different types of institutions may focus on different parts or aspects of the ideology (e.g. business on economic doctrines, family on social values, the military on weapons investment). They may even have disagreements with each other (e.g. the dogmatic quarrels of the different religions, or the bickering by political parties). At a more general level, however, when it comes to certain basic and core things (especially power and desire), these seemingly disparate elements do not only reveal striking similarities but in fact are revealed to compose one coherent body: the ruling ideology, whose function, it must not be forgotten, is to preserve, even if not the State per se, the state of things. This is the way in which the ruling ideology is dominant both in terms of (overall) function (in the system) and content (despite the miniscule varieties).

Institutions perform the inculcation of (the ruling) ideology strategically, i.e. using very effective (subtle, but also direct, open) dissemination tactics. The ISAs, Althusser explains, “drum into” people, along with whatever it is they officially provide (e.g. know-how in schools, religious doctrine in the church, skills in the office)—often subtly, but even openly and directly (blatantly!)—the ruling ideology (104). Ideology, in other words, is (necessarily, inevitably!) mixed with the facts, information, skills, or whatever disinterested element people feel the need (or are conditioned to think that they need!)—in order to survive in society, to make do, earn a living, etc..—to gain. Mere survival in the social thus implies necessary education (training, instillation, acceptance) in ideology.

One of course does not stay in the same institution all his/her life. When it does comes time for exiting an institution (of ideology) (the one that one is currently in), however, ideology has already (partly) done its job, i.e. it has prepared different subjects to the role that they are to play in society. In Althusser’s description, “each mass [is] ejected en route, practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfill in class society: the role of the exploited (with a ‘highly-developed’ ‘professional,’ ‘ethical,’ ‘civic,’ ‘national’ and a-political consciousness); the role of the agent of exploitation (ability to give the workers orders and speak to them: ‘human relations’), of the agent of repression (ability to give orders and enforce obedience ‘without discussion,’ or ability to manipulate the demagogy of a political leader’s rhetoric), or of the professional ideologist (ability to treat consciousnesses with the respect, i.e. with the contempt, blackmail, and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, of ‘Transcendence,’ of the Nation, of [a State's] World Role, etc.)” (105). Each (wo)man, in other words, is produced ready-made to be an able and obedient subject in the service of the State. Exit from one institution is, of course, but followed by entrance into another (a new one), where ideology continues its work (strengthens, solidifies, intensifies, extends what it has already achieved (in the inculcation of the subject)).

Althusser portrays this mechanism of ideological inculcation as operating subtly, which is how he explains its adoption by people outside of the ruling class. As he explains, “The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology [. . .]: an ideology which represents [the institutions that disseminate ideology (the school especially),] as a neutral environment purged of ideology (because it is . . . lay), where [bureaucrats] respectful of the ‘conscience’ and ‘freedom’ of the [people who (have to) go through the institution] open up for them the path to the freedom, morality and responsibility of [good citizens] by their own example, by knowledge, literature and their ‘liberating’ virtues” (105-6). The adoption of the ruling State ideology, Althusser implies, is equated with ostensibly universal values (of good), such as good citizenship, freedom, responsibility, even morality itself (which are taken to compose the modern, liberal man, the perfection of his/her education the representation that s/he is of the reigning, triumphant, universal ideology: liberalism). In this way, indirectly, subtly, one is coerced to adopt an ideology that is not his/hers (i.e. that is not of his/her own class, representative of interests not his/her own (in fact, deprives him/her precisely of that)).

While there are certainly elements of subtlety (You slinky ideology, you!) involved in the inculcation of (the ruling) ideology, some of its workings and especially the values that the ruling ideology espouses (work ethic, discipline, obedience, good citizenship . . .), it seems to me, are ostensible to the people as such. That is to say, the people see—discern—the ideology that they are being fed and the fact that it is being fed to them. (The people are not stupid, stupid!) There are elements of openness, I would say, in this (ideological) inculcation mechanism. I would even go so far as to say that sometimes, the imposition of (the ruling) ideology is direct, explicit, blatant (as made evident by self-proclaimed pronouncements of non-business-owning people such as: “I am a capitalist!”). Nonetheless, the people accept it. The people allow/accept their own inculcation.

Why is this? Why do people accept/assume an ideology that is not theirs, that, in fact, in preserving the social structure—the relations of production, the assigned distribution of the pie—that cause them to gain but a part of what they have contributed to the system (what they deserve?), i.e. cause them to be openly—sometimes even directly, blatantly, in their face!–cheated, exploited, to, as it were, be had?

Explaining it in terms of ideology (in contrast to Deleuze and Guattari’s explanation based on (microfascist) desire), well: the people must be convinced of it. The people must be convinced of thinking within the ruling ideology. That is, they must really believe (in) the ruling ideology. While they see that (the ruling) ideology works on them (convincing them, persuading them, coercing them (to allow and even participate in their own exploitation (repression/oppression in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms))), they must nonetheless at bottom accept its terms. They must really believe that they are in fact benefited by the system just like the members of the ruling class are (or, at least, that someday (given enough hard work and patience—themselves values of the system, i.e. capitalist ruling-class values!) they will be). They must really believe in the ruling ideology (its way of seeing things, its promises). (Would that mean that they are “fooled” (which is the explanation that Deleuze and Guattari would not accept)?)

Another explanation is to say that even though people see that the ruling ideology (that they are made to adopt) forces them to believe in things that presents an inaccurate (non-objective, in false consciousness terms) picture (representation in their head) of their actual situation, there is no other ideology forceful enough to be able to effectively challenge the dominant ruling one, such that, even though the ruling ideology is not exactly theirs, well, there is no other ideology that can undermine it and be shown to be not their (own!) ideology (i.e. the ideology that is capable of forwarding their own (class) interest). The result, then, is that while one criticizes (in the Kantian fashion?) the ruling ideology (e.g. people can bitch about their work, about TV shows, about the lives they live, their status/position in the social system), the critique remains within the bounds of this (ruling) ideology, such that people do not have the means for—are not even able to think about—destroying the system, seeing as there is, in effect, for them no outside this (one) system and ideology. Thus people are relegated to believing in reforms that the system may enact and hope that, in the future, if they work hard enough (if only!) (i.e. if they get imbued with the ruling ideology even more!), things would get better.

There is, in effect, as this explanation suggests, no choice but the ruling ideology. Even as one sees (the ruling) ideology’s workings (the way that it intricately imbues itself as one’s own ideology; hence the equation ideology = ruling ideology made possible by the latter’s dominance, its hegemony) and its faults, well, one is relegated/resigned to it. There is, in other words, at bottom a fundamental acceptance of this (ruling) ideology somewhat, in the sense that, even though it does not give a completely accurate picture of society, it is still the only way to see things. That is to say, there is an acceptance of (the ruling) ideology’s basic framework, its basic form, its basic methodology (for thinking), if not its content (the resultant picture of society that it gives). A consequence of this is that it itself—the ruling ideology—comes to be taken as its own solution, i.e. its own framework and methodology come to be considered as providing the means by which to tackle its own problems/contradictions, the means by which to change the things that it itself leads to and misrepresents, including (perhaps) the misrepresentation itself.

Once disseminated and inculcated, the subject receives (the ruling) ideology as such—which, Althusser argues, then has an effect on his/her (material) behavior. Althusser explains that belief “derives [. . .] from the ideas of the individual concerned, i.e. from him as a subject with consciousness, which contains the ideas of his belief. In this way, i.e. by means of the absolutely ideological ‘conceptual’ device (dispositif) thus set up (a subject endowed with a consciousness in which he freely forms or freely recognizes ideas in which he believes), the (material) attitude of the subject concerned naturally follows” (113). In other words, the (ruling) ideology that the subject receives (recognizes as his/her own) (after coagulating into what Althusser calls a “belief”) influences his/her behavior, ultimately producing a material effect. This is the way in which ideology is able to incite—in fact leads to—something material, namely the (material) action of a person and its material effects (e.g. material things that one creates/produces) (based, of course, on the ideology in the subject’s head). This is the second sense in which ideology is material.

Althusser is quick to point out that the (material) action that the subject is able/allowed to enact is limited—because, as he explains, the subject “must ‘act according to his ideas,’ must inscribe his own ideas as a free subject in the actions of his material practice” (113). In other words, the subject must follow the course of action that the ideology (instilled in his/her head, which, according to Marxist discourse, is not his/her own, but the ruling class’!) leads him/her to, i.e. the rational course of action rationally based on ideology (that, again is not his/her own!). Over and above, then, the assertion that human beings produce both material things and ideological ideas, Althusser posits ideology as bound with materiality, thereby evading the base/infrastructure and superstructure dichotomy by emphasizing structural unity.

Complicating it further, Althusser explains that the subject’s “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” (114). The subject’s actions, in other words, are already defined (thereby constricted) by practices and rituals—which are themselves defined by ideology! Thus, “the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system [. . .]: ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, prescribing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief” (115). Otherwise, if the subject, in acting, does not follow (social rituals, conventional practices, his/her “own” belief, and ultimately,) ideology, s/he is branded unprincipled, irrational, inconsistent, in Althusser’s own words, “wicked,” “perverse” (113, 114). In that way ideology—unconscious, potentially dangerous, and tactical (comparable to the double bind of the psychoanalytic Symbolic)—does its job.

In addition to portraying ideology as material, the second thing that Althusser does to the Marxist conception of ideology—this time by abstracting it from its political content—is to show just how pervasive (and general) ideology is as it is related to the constitution of the subject. The first step that Althusser takes is to distinguish “a theory of ideology in general [. . . from] a theory of particular ideologies, which, [as he points out,] whatever their form (religious, ethical, legal, political), always express class positions” (107). He argues that, seeing as they depend on concrete social structures and their historical formation, ideologies “have a history, whose determination in the last instance is clearly situated outside ideologies alone, although it involves them” (107).

In contrast to ideologies (Is he deliberately critiquing Gramsci here?), Althusser asserts that “ideology has no history” (107). By this he means something different from the view expressed by the Marx of The German Ideology for whom ideology is but “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” (108). Althusser, in contrast, means by this formulation that ideology is “endowed with a structure and a functioning such as to make it a non-historical reality, i.e. an omni-historical reality, in the sense in which that structure and functioning are immutable, present in the same form throughout what we can call history” (108-9). Ideology to Althusser, in other words, is an abstract, general, structural, functional, ahistorical reality underlying particular (the specific) ideologies. It is in that sense that ideology is eternal, much like, Althusser argues, Freud’s unconscious. In fact, Althusser goes so far as to claim that “the eternity of the unconscious is not unrelated to the eternity of ideology in general” (109).

Now, how does this work exactly? How does ideology function (which, being the abstract foundation/model, will then provide insights to the workings of specific ideologies themselves)? In Althusser’s formulation, “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (109). Describing it as imaginary, Althusser implies that ideology is (as becomes apparent when criticizing a world outlook assumed by someone else (i.e. by someone other, i.e. not by us) wherein, since we are outside of the particular world view, we can take a position outside of its claim to (being the) absolute truth)) “largely imaginary, i.e. [that it does] not correspond to reality,” that, it “constitute[s but] an illusion” (110). Ideology, it would seem, is but illusionary (much like the view propounded by the Marx of The German Ideology).

Althusser points out, however, that while this is so, ideology does “make allusion to reality and that they need only be ‘interpreted’ to discover the reality of the world behind their imaginary representation of that world” (110). Ideology is thus an illusion (in the sense that it is imaginary, compared to the “real” production that takes place in the economic base)–but an illusion that does allude (in the least, has something to do with, something to say about) the real conditions of existence (which in Marxism most often than not refers to the forces and relations of production, i.e. the economic base). Thus Althusser’s formulation: ideology = illusion/allusion (110).

An implication of this formulation by Althusser is that “men represent their real conditions of existence to themselves in an imaginary form,” i.e. the formulation implies that people “‘need’ this imaginary transposition of their real conditions of existence in order to ‘represent to themselves’” those (real) conditions (110). In other words, mediation is inevitable, even necessary. From (wo)man’s encounter with the real (which, again, usually means economic conditions in Marxism, i.e. the base, the “real” infrastructure of the system), s/he necessarily translates those real things into (imaginary) representations in his/her head. These idealized mediations/(mis)representations/ideas are what Althusser designates as ideology (posited in the superstructure).

Now, why is this inevitable? Why do people do this? Why represent the real (economic base) in the (ideological) head? In Terry Eagleton’s reading of Althusser in Literary Theory: An Introduction, he explains that ideology is simply the very medium (the realm of signs and practices) in which one lives his/her relation to society (149). In truth, the structural laws of the society in which he belongs determine him/her (e.g. as a laborer, as someone who has to work for long hours and minimum wage . . .) (149). Through the imaginary representation of ideology, however, one is able to imagine him/herself as a unified individual self (comparable to Lacan’s Imaginary) with whom society relates to, who is somehow connected to and plays vital role in society (149-50). Ideology, in other words, plays a comforting—albeit imaginary—function for the subject.

In Althusser’s own account, he clarifies that “Marx defends the Feuerbachian idea that men make themselves an alienated (= imaginary) representation of their conditions of existence because these conditions of existence are themselves alienating ([. . . i.e.] because these conditions are dominated by the essence of alienated society—‘alienated labor’)” (111). Althusser distances himself from this view, on the grounds that “it is not their real conditions of existence, their real world, that ‘men’ ‘represent to themselves’ in ideology, but above all it is their relation to those conditions of existence which is represented to them there” (111).

Althusser claims is that this relation is imaginary (by virtue of the relation–thanks to (the ruling) ideology—not accurately reflecting economic reality, i.e. by virtue of the relation not being as they should, i.e. with each laborer having his/her due, his/her proportional share to the fruits of production (which would presuppose radically different relations between capitalist and laborer, boss and worker, compared to the ones existing in capitalist society (hence current relations can be said to be “imaginary”)?). From this Althusser concludes that “it is the imaginary nature of this relation which underlies all the imaginary distortion that we can observe (if we do not live in its truth) in all ideology” (111). “What is [thus] 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,” which, moreover, (due to its imaginary character, driving people to complacency) prevent/preempt those real relations from being challenged/changed (111). The imaginary character of ideology thus has a double meaning, referring to the fact that it is both an idea and (thanks to its appropriation by the ruling class)—in a very real sense—an illusion.

Althusser then relates this abstract (thus generalizable), imaginary (illusionary) ideology to the constitution of the subject. He explains, “There is no ideology except for concrete subjects, and this destination for ideology is only made possible by the subject” (115). “The category of the subject [. . .] is the constitutive category of all ideology, whatever its determination (regional or class) and whatever its historical date” (115-6). Althusser qualifies this, however, by saying that “the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects” (116).

Althusser buttresses this argument by stressing the obvious character of ideology. Following Saint Paul, he asserts that “it is in the ‘Logos,’ meaning in ideology, that we ‘live, move and have our being.’ [. . .] The category of the subject is [thus] a primary ‘obviousness’ [. . .]: it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc. . . .)” (116). It is precisely obviousnesses like this that, Althusser argues, are “ideological effect[s, in fact] the elementary ideological effect. [In other words,] it is [. . .] a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the ‘still, small vice of conscience’): ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’” (116). This is the ideological function that Althusser calls recognition.

What the obviousness of ideology (that we recognize) implies is that, in Althusser’s words, “You and I are always already subjects [precisely because we recognize the ideology (as obvious) (thus we are already inculcated by ideology and as such are subject to it . . .)], and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects” (117). (Otherwise, if we don’t recognize ideology (like if we don’t succumb to the Symbolic, to Oedipalism), we are in what, the, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, an-Oedipal undifferentiated?)

Now (and this is what makes ideology even trickier, ever more slinky and strategic), “this recognition only gives us the ‘consciousness’ of our incessant (eternal) practice of ideological recognition—its consciousness, its recognition—but in no sense does it give us the (scientific) knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition” (117). While we thus recognize ourselves as subjects, the mechanism by which this happens (through ideology)—and the fact that “taking on” (since we don’t really take it on; rather, it is imposed on us as a “free choice” (Wow! The free choice to be a subject!)) subjectivity itself implicates one to ideology—we are unaware of. Althusser is arguing, in other words, that while we are aware of what ideology imbues in us (and recognize it as such, as obvious, whose injunctions (as its subjects) we then follow . . .), the process in which it is inculcated is unnoticed, unchecked. (It is this knowledge, this awareness that Althusser espouses that we (perhaps through Marxism?) reach, in other words, “while speaking in ideology, and from within ideology [. . .] to [be able to] outline a discourse which tries to break with ideology, in order to dare to be the beginning of [what Althusser calls] a scientific (i.e. subject-less) discourse on ideology” (117).)

Althusser sums up this mechanism with the formulation: “All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as subjects” (117). More concretely, “Ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation [. . .] of interpellation or hailing” (118). In other words, an individual becomes a subject “because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else)” (118). However, what is alarming is that this subject is called/interpellated (which is the only time that s/he becomes a subject) (to be) a certain way, i.e. to be an able and obedient (ideological) subject of/to the capitalist system (in which, by maintaining the current relations of production, s/he is exploited)!

Althusser adds that while this process (of interpellation, of subjectification (into ideologically-formed subjects)) seems to be a narrative, “in reality these things happen without succession. The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing” (118). Thus, as soon as one is (considers himself) a subject, s/he is immediately immersed in ideology (without him/her knowing it (not in the least because it is obvious, or is this what makes it “obvious”?)). A subject, in other words, is necessarily constituted ideologically.

Hence Althusser’s polishing of his earlier formulation: “Ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects, [. . . i.e.] individuals are always-already subjects. Hence individuals are ‘abstract’ with respect to subjects, which they always-already are” (119). In other words, ideology from the beginning. Subjection (exploitation/repression/oppression), to begin with.

This leads to Althusser’s assessment:

What thus seems to take place outside ideology [. . .] in reality takes place in ideology. What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take place outside of it. 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.’ It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology. As is well known, the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself [. . .]. Which amounts to saying that ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time that it is nothing but outside (for science and reality). (118-9)

Ideology in the beginning, of course (as already mentioned), but means subjection to begin with. Althusser makes this link by describing the (ideological) interpellation of subjects as speculary:

The structure of all ideology, interpellating individuals as subjects in the name of a Unique and Absolute Subject is speculary, i.e. a mirror-structure, and doubly speculary: this mirror duplication is constitutive of ideology and ensures its functioning. Which means that all ideology is centered, that the Absolute Subject occupies the unique place of the Center, and interpellates around it the infinity of individuals into subjects in a double mirror-connection such that it subjects the subjects to the Subject, while giving them in the Subject in which each subject can contemplate its own image (present and future) the guarantee that this really concerns them and Him. (122)

This Subject that Althusser refers to has, of course, changed its face through the course of history (and is coherently reinforced (thanks to the State (i.e. both types of apparatuses)) by different aspects of life, i.e. by religion, nation, economic laws . . .). The basic (ideological) mechanism, however, (leading to docility, to entrapment in “the leash”) as Althusser points out, remains the same.

Now, the underlying strategic tactic involved in this ideological interpellation/recognition is none other than (via the mirror) identity (the same target of Deleuze’s critique). As Althusser explains,

The duplicate mirror-structure of ideology [thus] ensures simultaneously the interpellation of individuals as subjects, their subjection to the Subject, the mutual recognition of subjects and Subject, the subjects’ recognition of each other, and finally the subject’s recognition of himself, [and] the absolute 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: Amen. (122-3)

This is how, Althusser concludes, the “vast majority of (good) subjects work all right ‘all by themselves,’ i.e. by ideology (whose concrete forms [let's not forget] are realized in the ISAs” (123).

Recognition is thus in truth misrecognition—whose very misrecognition (i.e. the fact that we do not recognize) (that recognition (of one as a subject) is misrecognition (as a specific kind of subject, i.e. as a subject subjected to the current system, the established order)) is precisely (the ruling) ideology’s tactic. In Althusser’s mocking words, “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.’ There are no subjects except by and for their subjection” (123).

Connecting it all back to the purpose of all this (ideology) in the first place, Althusser reminds, “The reality in question in this mechanism, the reality which is necessarily ignored [or misrecognized] in the very forms of recognition (ideology = misrecognition/ignorance) is [. . . of course none other than] the reproduction of production and of the relations deriving from them” (124). Preservation (by willing subjects!) of the current system (that exploits them). Perpetuation (by free subjects!) of the established order (that represses/oppresses them).

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9 thoughts on “What does it mean, Ideology?

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  5. Maybe this is a good summary:

    Louis Althusser defines ideology as the representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence. As soon as an individual is constituted as a subject (someone with some sense of himself and his relation with others), some representation of the subject’s relatedness or situatedness is constituted (or the subject enters the realm of representation), which is what is called ideology. In the sense that this representation is not the real relation itself but is an imaginary representation in the form of ideas, ideology is said to be an illusion, something imaginary. At the same time, it does have as its content reality (the real, material conditions of existence), to which it refers or alludes to. Ideology is thus both and at the same time an (imaginary) illusion/allusion (to reality).

    Nonetheless, there remains in ideology, despite its double functioning as illusion and allusion, a gap between representation and reality. This allows for the possibility of further imaginary distortions. A particular ideology (as opposed to ideology as a concept, as defined above)—usually the ideology of the ruling class, the class-specific ideology dominant in society—is able to be presented, through institutions supposedly neutral, invoking value judgments supposedly universal, as the universal ideology, the ideology of one and all. Thus ideology is, in a second and more direct sense, an illusion (i.e. not only a representation but a misrepresentation). This illusion, as mentioned above, at the same time constitutes an allusion. Being as the ‘real’ content of ideology are the material conditions of existence, which it is the ruling ideology’s function to reinforce, the effect is that, in the mechanism of an allusion that is but an illusion, subjects in society, despite their different class positions, consider it their ‘general’ interest that the established mode of production and the relations deriving from them be reproduced.

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