Althusser notes


A.W. Frank, Soci 333

taken from Louis Althusser’s 1970 essay, “Ideology and the State” in his collected essays, Lenin and Philosophy and other essays (NY & London: Monthly Review Press, 1971).


general problem: Marxist version of Riesman’s socialization issue: how does society (now capitalism) reproduce its needs (for willing and able workers) by causing individual to experience these as their own desires?


two theses on ideology:

I.                    Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.

·        why do people need this imaginary transposition of their real conditions of existence in order to ‘represent to themselves’ their real conditions of existence?

·        several common but false answers: “Priests or despots are responsible….the existence of a small number of cynical men who base their domination and exploitation of the ‘people’ on a falsified representation of the world…[thus] dominating their imaginations.”

·        also false is the early Marx’s notion of alienation: because conditions are alienating, people create an alienated representation of these conditions of existence

·        Althusser stresses that the representation “given to” individuals of their (individual) relation to the social relations which govern their conditions of existence and their collective and individual life [is] necessarily an imaginary relation


II.                 Ideology has a material existence.

·        ideology always exists in an apparatus, and this existence is material

·        question, again, is how the ideas of the apparatus are understood by individuals to be their own ideas, originating within them, in their perceptions

·        Althusser emphasizes practices, including rituals

·        individuals’ “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”

·        or restated slightly differently: “the subject acts insofar as he is acted upon 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 a belief”

·        “no practice except by and in an ideology”

·        “no ideology except by the subject and for subjects”


thus fundamental paradox:

“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”

·        to which Althusser notes that both he, as writer, and his reader are “both live ‘spontaneously’ or ‘naturally’ in ideology in the sense [that] ‘man is an ideological animal by nature”


central notion of the subject, and “you and I are always already subjects”

·        people (not yet subjects) are born prepared to be recognized (and to recognize others) in certain terms

·        but this recognition is already within ideology

Althusser’s central idea:

·        all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects

·        interpellation is hailing, “Hey, you there!” as one calls to a friend on the street, who is thus recognized (and recognizes himself in the other’s recognition of him)

·        ideology has already interpellated individuals as subjects, “even before he is born”

·        expectations of unborn child are family ideology; for Althusser, central is expectation “that it will bear the Father’s Name” and take identity from that, and will become a sexual subject (boy or girl)

·        Althusser’s main example is religion: “addressed to individuals, in order to transform them into subjects, by interpellating the individual, Peter, in order to make him a subject, free to obey or disobey the appeal”

·        when subject is interpellated by name, response is, “yes, it really is me” as s/he recognizes “that they really do occupy the place it designates for them as theirs in the world, a fixed residence: ‘It really is me, I am here, a worker, a boss or a soldier.’”

·        God, then, is the “Subject par excellence, he who is through himself and for himself (‘I am that I am’), and he who interpellates…the individual subjected to him by his very interpellation, i.e., the individuals named Moses”

·        thus is achieved “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

·        “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”

·        thus, “There are no subjects except by and for their subjection.  That is why they ‘work’ all by themselves.”

·        returning to Marx’s concern with labour,

·        no division of labour except as an ideology of the ruling class

·        division of labour masks class division [i.e., of privilege and unearned accumulation]

·        “The reproduction of the relations of production can therefore only be a class undertaking”

·        ultimately, “the State and its Apparatuses only have meaning from the point of view of the class struggle…[and] there can be no class struggle without antagonistic classes”

·        thus Althusser concludes, “ideologies are not ‘born’ in the ISAs but from the social classes at grips in the class struggle”


What does Althusser assume?

·        people are born into a condition that is inherent un-organized, chaotic

·        to end this chaos (“who am I? what is my relation to others?”), people accept being interpellated (hailed) as whomever the relevant apparatus (first the family, then the school…) hails them to be (boy/girl, sibling, student, worker, patient etc.)

·        people will even defend the identity to which they have been hailed—since the alternative is unthinkable (literally, ceasing to be who you can imagine being)

·        the identity asserted in the hailing is imaginary, in the sense that it creates the reality that it presupposes as already there; this reality is thus taken for granted

·        for individual, apparent choice is always between accepting terms of hailing and losing place in order of things: not to be a subject who is hailed is to be…what? fear of nothingness, annihilation (who is Moses if he doesn’t answer God’s hail? a speck on the desert)


what’s the effect of this human condition?

·        “hails” are already related to practices (education, labour) in which they are refined and reaffirmed;

·        subject’s engagement in practices gives further sense of reality to what/who the subject has been hailed to practice (i.e., if you’re doing it, you must be it)

·        at a macro level, the order that establishes and depends on these practices (ISAs, capitalism) is reaffirmed as the only, real, natural possible order of reality

·        thus people need some imaginary representation of themselves, since their “real” conditions are not inherently real

·        but they don’t need representations that come from ISAs…