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On Ideology: Insights into Social Constructs, Beliefs and Mechanics of Control
On Ideology by Louis Althusser - Book Overview and Thoughts
Today, we'll look at Louis Althusser's book 'On Ideology,' especially his essay 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,' which is the first chapter.
This work, after ‘The German Ideology’ and other texts, is one of the most influential texts in the field of ideology and has had a significant impact on intellectuals such as Žižek, Foucault, and Derrida.
Althusser emphasizes the continuous reproduction of the conditions of production, including the means of production and labor power, crucial for the functioning of a society's economic systems.
Althusser highlights the significance of skilled and capable labor power, which is sustained through wages and the education system, reinforcing submission to the established order’s laws and existing power structures.
Althusser defines the State from a Marxist perspective as a repressive apparatus used by the ruling class to establish control and maintain surplus value extraction, utilizing means such as police, prisons, and the military to suppress disagreement and maintain authority.
Althusser develops the concept of Ideological State Apparatuses as opposed to Repressive State Apparatuses. He adds that ISAs, which include institutions such as religious, educational, family, legal, political, and cultural apparatuses, serve as significant outlets for propagating values and beliefs throughout society.
Althusser emphasizes the importance of ISAs in sustaining dominant ideologies and aiding the reproduction of production relations, emphasizing that ISAs interact with repressive apparatuses and play an important role in shaping ideas, values, and worldviews.
Althusser claims that ideology has a material existence, emphasizing the effect of ideas and beliefs inside ideological frameworks on human behaviors and actions, as well as their link with material practices and rituals.
Althusser introduces the concept of interpellation, illustrating how individuals are constituted as subjects within any ideology, emphasizing the role of recognition and misrecognition in shaping consciousness and belief.
Althusser points out how ideology imposes "obviousnesses" as undeniable truths, and influences individuals to accept these truths as self-evident.
Althusser claims that ideology's eternal nature continuously interpellates individuals as subjects throughout history, making them subjects even before birth. This is demonstrated by the social and cultural rituals surrounding the anticipation of a child's identity within the family's ideological framework.
Now, without any further delay, let's get started!
On the Reproduction of the Conditions of Production, Reproduction of the Means of Production and Reproduction of Labor-Power
As we progress through Althusser's work, one crucial theme that emerges is the notion of the continuous reproduction of the conditions of production.
How do societies ensure the reproduction of the fundamental elements necessary for the functioning of their economic systems?
He begins his text by saying that it is clear that every social formation must reproduce the conditions of its production at the same time as it produces. This means that it must reproduce the means of production, as well as the reproduction of labor power, in order to keep the production process within a society.
In further detail, Althusser points out the significance of the reproduction of the means of production. This process encompasses the replacement of raw materials, buildings, and machines necessary for sustaining the production process. He stresses that this process cannot be controlled by individual firms, as the interconnectedness of production involves a chain of suppliers and producers at various levels. The process creates a complex web of production and reproduction forms that Althusser refers to as an “endless chain,” where the demand for means of production is met by the supply from other producers, creating a cyclical process of continual reproduction.
What’s more, Althusser emphasizes the reproduction of labor power as an essential component in the production process. He argues that labor power must be capable and skilled to be integrated into the complex system of production. The reproduction of labor power is ensured through the provision of wages, which allow workers to meet their basic needs and reproduce themselves as labor power.
Moreover, the development of skills necessary for different roles within the production process is a vital aspect of labor power reproduction.
With this in mind, he asks: "How is the reproduction of these diversified labor-power skills, provided for in a capitalist regime?"
And the answer is: through the capitalist education system, as well as other instances and institutions.
Now, all of this may seem obvious, but recall that the key question on this thesis was: How can we secure the ongoing reproduction of production conditions?
That is, how do we assure that individuals continue to work the system?
As mentioned earlier, this is provided by education. Children learn a variety of things at school, including not only how to read and write, but also "rules" of good behavior, morality, civic and professional conscience, which actually means rules of respect for the socio-technical division of labor and, ultimately, the rules of the order established by class domination.
In other words, Althusser is saying here that we must not only teach people skills, but also secure the reproduction of submission to the established order's laws by teaching them how to behave and act, that is, by instilling a particular worldview that reinforces the existing power structures.
Infrastructure and Superstructure
Althusser has already given a brief explanation of the reproduction of the means of production on the one hand, and of labor power on the other, but he has yet to address the reproduction of the relations of production. And to that end, he asks another question: what is a society?
To begin to answer this question, Althusser makes a distinction between the Hegelian “totality”, which we had already discussed in this newsletter before, and the Marxian “social whole.”
Moreover, he argues that the Marxian definition of the "social whole" revolves around the idea that the structure of society can be metaphorically likened to a building, with an economic base forming its foundation and a superstructure representing the various ideological, political, and cultural institutions. This metaphor helps us in understanding how the stability and existence of the upper floors of the superstructure are reliant on the firm support of the economic base.
Additionally, Althusser uses this metaphor to emphasize the concept of "determination in the last instance,” which stresses that the economic base fundamentally shapes and determines the functioning of the entire society. This implies that the underlying economic conditions, such as the mode of production, resource distribution, and ownership relations, have a definite impact on the broader social structure.
However, while the economic base holds primary importance, it's crucial to acknowledge that the superstructure retains a certain level of autonomy. This means that while the superstructure is fundamentally shaped by the economic base, it also possesses a degree of independent agency, allowing it to exert influence and impact on the base.
The State and the Repressive and Ideological Apparatuses
Althusser claims that the metaphor of the structure has limitations, primarily because it is simply that: a metaphor. Having stated that, he believes it is crucial to go beyond it, not by rejecting the traditional metaphor but surpassing it. He suggests a shift in thinking about the essence and nature of the superstructure through the lens of reproduction, so that we can understand the delicate connections between practice, production, and reproduction more clearly.
To further elaborate this, he starts by describing the nature of the State through a Marxist perspective. He argues that through this lens, the State is explicitly conceived as a repressive apparatus. In other words, the State is perceived primarily as a tool utilized by the ruling class to perpetuate their control over the working class and facilitate the extraction of surplus value, which is fundamental to capitalist exploitation and reproduction.
As a result, in Marxist terms, the State is the State Apparatus, and it includes not only specialized repressive institutions like the police and prisons, but also the military, which is used as a supplementary repressive force when the police and other specialized agencies are insufficient to put down disagreement or protests. This term also includes the head of the state, the government, and the administrative institutions.
With this in mind, Althusser introduces the Marxist-Leninist perspective, which is a political and socioeconomic framework that combines Marxist principles with Vladimir Lenin's ideas and interpretations in the Soviet Union, to illustrate a specific interpretation of the State and help emphasize its oppressive and coercive nature.
Furthermore, by referring to this perspective, he is able to emphasize the idea that the State primarily serves the interests of the ruling class and serves as a tool for sustaining their rule over the working class. In other words, by including this perspective into his text, Althusser strengthens his argument about the repressive and exploitative nature of the State.
Now, Althusser argues that the theory of the State is still limited, because it is still descriptive.
However, he further adds that this is how great scientific discoveries begin, with a “descriptive theory.” He describes this phase as a transitional one that further develops into an actual theory.
Moreover, he claims that it is transitional because the name "descriptive theory" is a contradiction. A descriptive theory indicates the unavoidable start of the theory-building process; its descriptive form needs further elaboration that goes beyond description.
With this in mind, the descriptive theory of the State is correct since it describes what happened in many instances of repression and exploitation throughout history, but it does not provide us with a clear definition of the State, i.e, a scientific theory of the State. To address this problem, Althusser proposes expanding the classical definition of the State in order to overcome its limitations.
But first, he points out an important difference between State power, which is the primary goal of the political class struggle, and the State Apparatus, which is the institutional apparatus and institutions through which State power is carried out. This distinction is significant because the State Apparatus can withstand substantial political shifts or revolutions, demonstrating its ability to thrive in the face of shifting State power.
Furthermore, he adds that these distinctions and concepts are already embedded within the Marxist theory of the state, which asserts that the Marxist classics know that the state essentially acts as an oppressive apparatus.
Following that, the theory already indicates that there is a clear distinction between state power and state apparatus. Thereby indicating that the goal of the class struggle is primarily the acquisition and exercise of state power, with various classes or class alliances utilizing the state apparatus to serve their respective class interests; and finally, the theory indicates that the proletariat must seize state power, in order to eliminate the existing ruling class state apparatus and eventually start a revolutionary process that leads to the abolition of the State itself.
However, he argues that, as previously said, the theory remains descriptive. This is due to the fact that, while it has intricate and differential elements, its functioning and implications need additional theoretical development.
This is when Althusser's contribution begins to take shape. He argues that in order to advance the Marxist theory of the state, we must distinguish not just between state power and state apparatus, but also another reality that is obviously on the side of the repressive state apparatus but should not be mistaken with it. He refers to these as the Ideological State Apparatuses.
Now, he is insistent that these Ideological State Apparatuses must not be mistaken by the Repressive ones. While the repressive state apparatuses, such as the police and the army, generally act through methods that involve violence, the ideological ones, or ISAs for short, are a collection of organizations that act on the ideological front. These apparatuses include institutions such as the religious apparatus, educational apparatus, family apparatus, legal apparatus, political apparatus, communications, and cultural apparatus.
As we can see, there are a lot more Ideological Apparatuses than repressive ones. However, this isn’t immediately visible. The reason for this, he claims, is that the Ideological ones are predominantly private. Churches, families, some schools, most newspapers, cultural ventures, etc., are part of the private domain, and are therefore less evident.
Moreover, Althusser points out that we should not get caught up in whether these Ideological State Apparatuses are public or private according to legal definitions, because these classifications are simply bourgeois law constructs that apply primarily in domains where bourgeois law exercises authority. The important thing, he argues, is that, despite the fact that many of them are private, they still act as powerful channels for spreading values and beliefs throughout society.
In other words, their impact on society shouldn't be underestimated just because they operate outside the public domain.
This brings us back to the Repressive Apparatuses and Ideological Apparatuses. As said before, the Repressive Apparatuses use violence, while the ISAs use ideology. However, he claims that these two types of apparatus interact with one another.
For instance, the military and police rely on shared values and beliefs to maintain internal cohesion and an external image. As a result, they do not only function through repression and physical force.
The Ideological State Apparatuses, on the other hand, operate primarily through ideology, shaping beliefs and values, but they also employ repression as a secondary tool in a more subtle symbolic manner. For example, Althusser argues that schools, churches, and cultural apparatuses use various forms of punishment, expulsion, and censorship to maintain discipline and control over their members.
This relationship, he claims, is critical for us to understand. Because, while the State Power can more directly enforce its authority through laws and regulations in the Repressive State Apparatuses, its control over the ISAs is more subtle and operates through the dissemination of their ruling ideology; this is significant because it becomes the backbone that shapes the functioning and guides the operations of the State.
Furthermore, the Ideological State Apparatuses become not only platforms for promoting the ruling ideology but also as arenas for contestation and conflict between social classes. Althusser suggests that unlike the Repressive State Apparatus, where the dominant class can more easily assert its authority, the ISAs offer more intricate spaces where the ruling ideology encounters resistance from the exploited classes.
In other words, Althusser points out that the exploited classes within the ISAs may take an active role in challenging the dominant ruling ideology. They can use internal contradictions and inconsistencies within the ruling ideology to challenge its dominance. In this context, the exploited classes may seek positions of authority and influence within the ISAs in order to erode the ruling class's control and promote their own interests.
This is something we see a lot in schools nowadays. There has been a shift in worldview; the educational system has not yet changed for obvious reasons, but the Internet and, more broadly, external cultural influences have influenced the way many young people think today. They not only prefer not to work a 9 to 5, but they also prefer more sustainable lifestyles that involve consuming less; we can say that many of them do not want to follow the traditional family path. In other words, ideology evolves as a result of inconsistencies and contradictions, which, as Althusser points out, naturally evolve into another worldview, another ideology.
Another way Althusser proves how powerful ISAs are, is by referring to Lenin once more. He points out that Lenin had a big concern to revolutionize the educational Ideological State Apparatus, in order to make it possible for the Soviet proletariat, who had seized State power, to secure the future of the dictatorship.
On the Reproduction of the Relations of Production
With a comprehensive understanding of all the distinctions we just discussed, Althusser raises his most important question once more: How is the reproduction of the relations of production ensured? The answer, largely, lies in the protective function of the legal-political and ideological superstructure.
Moreover, the State, with its repressive capabilities, acts as a shield for ideological systems. Althusser argues that these structures play a crucial role in upholding the beliefs of the ruling class. They foster a sense of cohesion between the repressive functions of the State and the various ideological systems in operation. This dynamic interaction between the State, its repressive functions, and ideological systems, contributes to the persistence and perpetuation of existing power structures over time.
Following this, Althusser moves away from the present and looks into the past to examine how ISAs functioned in earlier social formations. For example, during the feudal era, the main ISA was the Church, which provided a variety of functions, including educational and cultural ones, which are now represented by numerous ISAs rather than just one.
This dominance of the Church, he argues, led to intense ideological struggles from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, starting with the first shocks of the Reformation, which was an anti-clerical and anti-religious struggle.
In addition to this, Althusser emphasizes that the French Revolution accomplished more than just the transfer of State power from feudal aristocracy to a merchant capitalist economy. It also effectively targeted the number-one Ideological State Apparatus of the time: the Church.
Furthermore, he mentions that this did not happen without its complexities. During the nineteenth century, the struggle between the landed aristocracy and the emerging industrial capitalism was crucial in establishing the capitalist's control over functions previously carried out by the Church, particularly through schools.
By doing so, the bourgeoisie aimed to secure not just its own political power, but also the ideological domination required for the reproduction of capitalist production relations. As a result, Althusser claims that in capitalist societies, the educational apparatus emerged as the dominant ISA after the struggle against the previous dominant apparatus.
Now, Althusser further elaborates on how all the Ideological State Apparatuses contribute in different ways to the reproduction of the relations of production. The political apparatus promotes political ideologies, the communications apparatus disseminates nationalism and liberalism, and the religious apparatus reinforces certain moral values.
However, he stresses again that, despite the apparent silence of its impact, the educational system performs the most significant role in this symphony of ideological forces. This silence, he claims, hides the educational apparatus's enormous impact in shaping the ruling class's dominant ideology and maintaining capitalist production relations, effectively replacing the Church.
Althusser claims that “ideology” isn’t a term that he came up with. The term itself was invented by Cabanis, Destutt de Tracy, and their contemporaries, who primarily associated it with the theory of ideas. However, Althusser notes that when Marx later adopted the term, he gave it a different meaning, referring to it as the system of ideas and representations that dominate an individual's or a social group's mind.
He points out that Marx's earlier works indicate his involvement in an ideological political struggle that pushed him to confront the reality of ideology and dive further into its understanding. Despite this, Althusser observes a contradiction. Although everything seemed to point Marx in the direction of developing an ideology theory, particularly in "The German Ideology" and "Capital," these works do not clearly represent a fully formed Marxist theory of ideology. As a result, Althusser begins his study on ideology by outlining this idea.
First, he begins by highlighting the need for a theory that encompasses ideology in its general form rather than focusing only on specific, individual ideologies, as he believes all ideologies ultimately reflect class positions. Althusser underscores the importance of considering ideologies within the context of social formations, which are shaped by the history of modes of production and the class struggles that unfold within them.
Furthermore, he highlights an apparent paradox coming from Marx's claim in The German Ideology: “Ideology has no history.”
According to Althusser, ideology is considered in this sense as a pure illusion, a creation of the mind detached from material reality. It is compared to a dream, an imaginative construction made out of the “day's residues” and tangible historical processes.
In brief, the idea of ideology as perceived by Marx is presented as a construction of various ideas and beliefs that are not firmly grounded in material reality. He portrays it as a collection of fragments that lack a solid foundation. Marx sees ideology as a kind of illusion, disconnected from the actual historical events and processes that shape societies. He considers it to be hollow and lacking in substance when compared to the real concrete history of people engaged in tangible activities.
Furthermore, because its history is outside of it, where the only existing history is the history of concrete individuals, ideology lacks its own history in The German Ideology. In other words, while ideologies may draw on historical events, they do not have an existence independent of the concrete historical realities they reflect.
Now, after outlining this theory, he proposes something different. He argues that while he does not oppose The German Ideology or its interpretations, his perspective is "radically different" from these. He proposes that ideologies do have a history of their own, although this history is ultimately determined by the class struggle.
However, he also argues that ideology, in general, does not have a history, not in a negative sense, but in a positive sense. This means that it possesses a characteristic that makes it not subject to change over time, essentially making it exist outside of history, or “non-historical” in nature. He refers to this quality as “omni-historical,” which implies that the structure and functioning of ideology remain constant throughout what we typically understand as historical events. In this context, he aligns this idea with the definition of history provided in the Communist Manifesto, which highlights the history of class struggles and societies.
Althusser then illustrates his point by using the theoretical framework of Sigmund Freud's conception of the dream. He draws a parallel between the proposition that ideology has no history and Freud's proposition that the unconscious is eternal, implying that both share the fundamental characteristic of being unaffected by historical changes. He claims that the comparison is not arbitrary, but rather theoretically necessary, because the two propositions are organically linked.
Building on this analogy, Althusser claims that ideology, like the unconscious, can be considered eternal, implying that it exists beyond the limitations of temporal history. This analogy serves as a theoretical foundation for Althusser's proposal of a general theory of ideology, similar to how Freud presented a comprehensive theory of the unconscious.
Ideology is a ‘Representation’ of the Imaginary Relationship of Individuals to their Real Conditions of Existence
On this section, Althusser starts setting up the stages for his exploration of the structure and function of ideology by presenting two theses, one negative and the other positive.
The first thesis he introduces is that ideology represents the imaginary relationship that individuals have to their actual material conditions of existence.
Furthermore, he illustrates how various forms of ideology, such as religious and political ideologies, can be perceived as "worldviews'” that are primarily composed of imaginary elements and do not accurately reflect the tangible reality. However, he claims that although these ideologies are not direct representations of reality, they do contain allusions to it.
He then introduces two different answers to the question of why individuals need this imaginary representation of their real conditions of existence. The first one is derived from the eighteenth century, and attributes this phenomenon to the manipulation of a small group of cynical individuals, such as Priests, who fabricate false representations to maintain their domination and exploitation over others. The second answer, originating from Feuerbach and adopted by Marx, delves deeper into the concept of material alienation, suggesting that individuals create an alienated representation of their conditions of existence because these conditions themselves are alienating.
Althusser then emphasizes that the essence of all these interpretations relies on the presupposed idea that what is reflected in the imaginary representation of the world found in an ideology is the real conditions of existence of individuals.
However, he argues that what individuals represent in ideology is not their actual, tangible conditions of existence, but primarily their relation to those conditions of existence. He claims that this relationship forms the core of every ideological representation of the real world, constituting the fundamental cause that explains the imaginary distortion within these representations.
With this understanding, Althusser shifts the focus from the cause of the imaginary distortion of real relations in ideology to a new question: Why is the representation given to individuals of their relation to the social relations governing their conditions of existence an imaginary one?
He proposes that rephrasing this key question leads to an exploration of the nature of this imaginary conception, essentially causing an investigation into why individuals perceive their relationship to the social relations that structure their lives through an imaginary lens.
In addition to this, he emphasizes that approaching the question in this way rules out simplistic explanations that attribute the creation of ideological distortion to specific groups or individuals who intentionally manipulate information to their advantage. As well as rejecting the idea that the imaginary representation is the result of an alienated nature of the real world.
Moving forward, the second thesis he presents is that ideology has a material existence.
According to him, the 'ideas' or representations within ideology possess a material, as opposed to spiritual, existence. This perspective is consistent with his Marxist philosophical approach, focusing on a perspective in line with materialism, which prioritizes material conditions and the physical realm over spiritual or idealistic aspects, distinguishing itself from idealism.
To move forward with this proposition, Althusser invites us to remember his argument on the Ideological State Apparatuses and their practices. He goes on to add that, while these apparatuses do not take the same form as the material existence of physical objects, they do focus on the implementation of a worldview through practices, and so their existence is material in the same way that tangible objects are.
In other words, they have a tangible impact on society.
Furthermore, he argues that individuals who exist within ideologies live in a predetermined perception of the world shaped by their imaginary distortion, which is dependent on their imaginary relationship to their conditions of existence. He points out that this distortion is ultimately connected to the relations of production and class relations within society. He argues that ideology represents an imaginary relation to these real relations.
He then adds that this imaginary relation has a material existence. This means that the ideas and beliefs individuals hold within an ideology have a tangible and material impact on their lives, even if they are not physical in the same sense as concrete objects.
To put it another way, Althusser claims that people within ideologies see the world through the lens of their own interpretations. Their perspectives are influenced by their circumstances and relationships, as well as how they perceive their status in society. He argues that this distorted view is closely linked to how society operates and how people are classified into different social classes. These beliefs, while not physically tangible, have physical consequences. In other words, people's beliefs can influence how they live and interact.
Ideology = an imaginary relation to real relations
Moreover, he provides some examples on how this works. For instance, the actions and behavior of a person who believes in god, impacts society in certain ways. This person might attend religious services, pray, confess, and participate in religious rituals. The same applies to someone who believes in justice, they may adhere to legal regulations, engage in protests, and support legal reform. In other words, he argues that an individual's material behavior follows naturally from their ideological beliefs.
In addition to this, ideology always causes people to align their actions with their beliefs. If they fail to do so, they are considered inconsistent, cynical, or malicious. This indicates that a person's behaviors should reflect their professed beliefs, according to any ideology. The rituals or practices inside ideological institutions establish and preserve the link between beliefs and actions, indicating how ideologies are embedded in everyday material practices.
He then goes on to explain that with everything that has been said, we can reorganize the conceptual schema of ideology and accept the disappearance of the term "ideas" as a result of recognizing their material inscription within practices and rituals.
This gives rise to the remaining concepts: “subject, consciousness, belief, and actions,” as well as new terminology like “practices, rituals, and ideological apparatus.”
Furthermore, he clarifies the relationship between ideology and the subject, emphasizing how the subject's actions are influenced by a system made up of ideology, material practices, and rituals. He develops two interconnected theses from this: first, that practice does not exist unless it is mediated by and contained inside an ideology, and second, that there is no ideology except by the subject and for the subjects.
Ideology Interpellates Individuals as Subjects
This is where Althusser presents his concept of Interpellation, which is a very important contribution that explains how people accept certain roles and values. He argues that the notion of the subject serves as the foundational category in all forms of ideology, regardless of their specific historical or regional context. He claims that the category of the subject operates to “constitute” concrete individuals as subjects within the framework of ideology. Therefore, ideology functions as the process by which individuals are shaped and constituted as subjects, and it manifests in the material forms of this functioning.
Moreover, he gives a good example in his book while he writes. He states that both the writer, that is him, and the reader, that is us, are themselves subjects, and therefore ideological subjects. Meaning that, the author and the reader of his book both live ‘spontaneously’ or ‘naturally’ in ideology.
In other words, he argues that humans naturally exist within and are shaped by ideological constructs.
Additionally, Althusser introduces the idea that when an author writes a scientific discourse, like the one he is making, they become absent as a 'subject' from their own writing. In other words, the process of producing scientific knowledge is not only determined by the author's personal output or beliefs. Instead, it is shaped by a broader set of ideological factors that influence the way knowledge is produced, communicated, and received. In other words, science is influenced by ideology.
This brings us to his argument regarding the subject's "obviousness" within ideology. He claims that it is a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes 'obviousnesses' as irrefutable truths, leading us to regard them as self-evident without realizing their ideological purposes.
Furthermore, Althusser highlights that the process of ideological recognition is an essential function of ideology, which operates in two distinct ways: through recognition and misrecognition.
For instance, he discusses how we recognize a friend behind a closed door when they respond to our query with “It's me.” He also mentions the act of recognizing someone on the street by greeting them and shaking their hand. These examples serve to demonstrate how the rituals of ideological recognition operate in our daily interactions, reinforcing the notion of ourselves as distinct, recognizable, and irreplaceable subjects.
Moreover, he acknowledges that the very act of recognizing ourselves as subjects and participating in these ideological rituals provides us with a 'consciousness' of our participation in ideological recognition. However, this recognition does not give us a scientific understanding of the mechanism underlying this recognition, and this is what he is attaining to decipher.
To move forward with this, he formulates this proposition: “All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects through the functioning of the category of the subject.” He distinguishes between concrete individuals and concrete subjects, highlighting that concrete subjects exist insofar as they are supported by concrete individuals.
Now, to further understand this concept, Althusser uses the metaphor of a person being called upon in the street to demonstrate how ideology 'recruits' or 'transforms' individuals into subjects through the process of interpellation. He demonstrates how even a basic act, such as someone responding to their name being called, can be interpreted as a type of ideological recognition, because the individual perceives themselves as the intended subject of the call.
In other words, interpellation refers to the process through which individuals are addressed or called upon by ideological systems, such as the state or societal institutions, to assume particular subject positions.
He then points out the paradoxical nature of ideology, where individuals often believe themselves to be outside of ideology while simultaneously existing within it. He argues that the practical denial of the ideological character of ideology itself is one of the effects of ideology.
To put it another way, ideology never says,“I am ideological.”
Furthermore, he concludes by claiming that it is only possible to recognize one's immersion in ideology from a standpoint outside of it, specifically from a position of scientific knowledge. He argues that it is rare for individuals to acknowledge their own ideological positioning, and that it is more often that the accusation of being in ideology is directed at others rather than oneself.
To conclude, he claims that ideology operates in such a way that it constantly interpellates individuals as subjects since ideology is eternal. In fact, he claims that because ideology is eternal, it is more accurate to argue that it has continuously declared individuals as subjects throughout history. This means that ideology has always declared individuals as subjects, leading us to the conclusion that individuals have always been subjects from the very beginning. Individuals, in other words, are both themselves and something more abstract.
To illustrate this, Althusser mentions a Freudian concept that explains that individuals are essentially 'abstract' in relation to the subjects they already are. He draws attention to the social and cultural rituals that surround the anticipation of a child's birth. He argues that an unborn child is already expected to assume a specific identity or role within a family's ideological framework, and that this ensures that the child is assigned a specific identity before birth, making each individual a subject even before they come into the world.
An Example: The Christian Religious Ideology
One of the best ways to explain the structure of ideology is through religion, and that is because it is now mostly perceived as ideological.
Now, in order to be able to continue with this part of the book, it is necessary to mention the following Christian discourse that Althusser writes in his book to begin his analysis:
“I address myself to you, a human individual called Peter, in order to tell you that God exists and that you are answerable to Him. It adds: God addresses himself to you through my voice. It says: this is who you are: you are Peter! This is your origin, you were created by God for all eternity, although you were born in the 1920th year of Our Lord! This is your place in the world! This is what you must do! By these means, if you observe the ‘law of love’ you will be saved, you, Peter, and will become part of the Glorious Body of Christ! Etc..”
As we can see, this excerpt shows that Christian ideology operates by interpellating individuals as subjects who are answerable to God. It also highlights the fact that individuals have a predetermined place in the world and a particular role to fulfill, all under the guidance of God's commandments.
Moreover, one important aspect of Christian, or nearly any religious ideology in general, is the notion of an Absolute Other Subject, in this case, God. This Subject, with a capital "S," is fundamental to religious interpellation, because it functions as the ultimate authority and source of guidance for individuals.
Additionally, Althusser points out that God's interaction with individuals, particularly figures like Moses, serves as an illustration of the interaction between the Subject and the subjects. The interpellated subjects recognize themselves as subjects subjected to the authority of God, and they demonstrate this recognition through their obedience to his commandments.
In other words, as he writes in his book, "God is thus the Subject, and Moses and the innumerable subjects of God's people, are the Subject's interlocutors: his mirrors, his reflections. Were not men made in the image of God?"
Another point worth mentioning is that when God sends his son to Earth, there is a paradoxical nature of the son being both a subject and the Subject. This reveals the relationship between the Subject and the subjects, and it emphasizes the ultimate goal of the subjects, as proven by the Resurrection of Christ, to re-enter the divine realm and become one with the Absolute Subject.
Now, what is significant about this religious ideology example is that it highlights the fact that every ideology has some sort of mirroring structure. This means that all ideologies operate by interpellating individuals as subjects in the name of an Absolute Subject. The concept of the mirror signifies that the ideology duplicates the image of the Absolute Subject, placing it at the center, and interpellating a multitude of individuals around it.
Moreover, Althusser argues that this process of reflection allows individuals to contemplate their own identity in connection to the Absolute one, giving them a sense of assurance that their existence is relevant within this ideological system.
He concludes by saying that every ideology works first through a process of interpellation, which, again, means calling individuals by their names and addressing them as subjects within a particular ideological framework.
Then, once individuals have been interpellated as subjects, they are subjected to the authority of an Absolute Subject, which holds a central position in the ideological framework. This means that the subject adheres to the beliefs, values, and commandments dictated by this Absolute Subject.
Following this subjection to the Absolute Subject, individuals recognize not only the authority of it but also their own position and the one of other subjects, which solidifies the collective identity within an ideological structure.
Ultimately, the entire ideological structure provides an absolute guarantee that the beliefs and practices it propagates are valid and legitimate, assuring individuals that things will go well as long as they recognize and conform to the ideology's principles.
To put it another way, ideology creates a quadruple system in which individuals are interpellated as subjects and are subjected to the authority of an Absolute Subject. Individuals recognize one another as subjects and are given an absolute guarantee that conforming to the ideology will ensure their well-being.
However, the question, or the mystery, that Althusser points out is the ambiguity of the term "subject." He claims that the term implies both a sense of free subjectivity, capable of independent action and responsibility, as well as a subjected or submissive being, obedient to a higher authority and devoid of personal autonomy except the ability to accept subordination. He observes that individuals successfully "work by themselves" within an ideological system by carrying out the ideology's principles, which have been internalized through the interpellation process.
In Christian ideology, for example, the phrase “Amen” functions as a testament to the necessity of the ideology itself. It signifies that certain things must be a certain way for the established order to be maintained.
Furthermore, it indicates the indispensable role of ideology in shaping the consciousness and behavior of individuals in a society. It implies that the reproduction of the existing social and economic relations must be ensured continuously, not just in the overarching structures of society but also in the everyday attitudes and actions of individuals.
Lastly, the most important reflection of this book is that Althusser points out the deep impact of the mirror recognition mechanism of the Subject and the individuals interpellated as subjects in the perpetuation of power relations and economic structures. His observations draw attention to the underlying reality within ideological mechanisms, and how they are frequently overlooked as a result of the ideology's misrecognition which essentially keeps the reproduction of the currently existing and future power dynamics.
With all this, we can now begin to introspect and examine the ideologies that underpin our beliefs and actions. We can start to observe critically the systems that govern our lives, and achieve a deeper understanding of the forces at play within our society.
Is it possible to live a life that transcends ideology? Is it possible to live a life free of repressive and divisive ideologies? One that is more in line with the realities we experience? Or are we imprisoned in systems that appear unescapable?
Althusser, L. (2). On Ideology. Verso.
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