Friday, February 6, 2009

Althusser on Ideology

Ideology, as the term is understood generally in the Marxist tradition, means something quite different from the word's use in common parlance. Ordinarily, 'ideology' refers to any set of beliefs (usually political) that form some sort of coherent position that might be identified as Left, Right, etc. In the Marxist tradition, however, ideology has to do with the way in which dominant beliefs and values are conditioned and shaped by the political-economic structure of society. In classical Marxism, the economic organization (mode of production, relations of production, etc.) is the central site of analysis and critique. In contemporary society this means that capitalism (the dominant economic/social system) is at the center of analysis, and if we consider also that Marxists radically reject capitalism, it will not be difficult to see why 'ideology' is, on their view, anything but a term of praise.

It is difficult to summarize how a conception of ideology functions in Marx's work since he nowhere offers a fully developed, coherent theory. In his early writings, his critique of ideology takes the form of stripping appearances of their false necessity, thus demystifying and situating products of minded human beings back within the contingency of material life. In late works like Capital, the critique of ideology is aimed more to show how apparently autonomous social phenomena (culture, political systems/procedures) are actually only reflections of the economic base of society. Here it's necessary to invoke the somewhat hackneyed 'base/superstructure' metaphor, but a disclaimer is required first: it is merely a heuristic device (not to be taken too far as an authoritative guide) and it has been, on the whole, more abused and misread than it has been helpful.

Nonetheless, the metaphor is useful to spell out the bare bones of what ideology has come to mean in the Marxist tradition. The base refers to the fundamental economic structure of a society, that is, its mode of production, relations of production, etc. (Its worth mentioning that Marxists who've taken up the metaphor have tended to disagree about what features of the economic order constitute the base). The base is causally determinative such that what appears in the superstructure (ideas, values, political culture, system of government, etc.) as autonomous and free, is in fact largely determined by the fundamental economic structure of society.

What we're talking about here, loosely, is the relationship between ideas and the material world. Very crudely stated, Plato held something like the view that the material world is only a reflection of a transcendent realm of perfect Ideas. For Marx, this schema is totally inverted; our ideas are a kind of reflection of the way the material world is and not the other way around. What Marx means by 'material world' is of course the political and economic history of human societies.

But Marx was not interested in merely showing how certain ideas and beliefs vary according to different historical epochs and societies; Marx's critique of dominant ideas is motivated by a radical political project that submits existing societies to ruthless criticism. Different historical epochs and societies are not simply taken at face value, for Marx. He wants to uncover the ways in which political and economic struggles have shaped dominant ideas, and how these ideas are reflective of the dominant social groups and the prevailing economic order. Marx is anything but sanguine about history: the well-known line from the Communist Manifesto to recall here is, of course, that the history of all societies hitherto has been the history of class struggle. Marx's aim is to show how repressive, exploitative class societies (of which capitalism is the contemporary example) shape prevailing ideas and values and how these ideas, in turn, reinforce or help to reproduce or maintain social relations of exploitation and oppression. Demystifying these dominant ideas that may appear as natural or necessary is only undertaken by Marx to the extent that it facilitates emancipation and aims at freedom. The aim isn't merely to understand the world, but to change it.

So far this is all very surface-level and schematic. All of the really juicy details remain to be fleshed out. For example, precisely how (e.g. by what concrete proceses?) do prevailing ideas and ways of understanding the world attain dominance? Also, if dominant ideas are determined by the structure of society then isn't this also true of Marxism, that is, isn't Marx's work also simply determined by economic conditions (and presumably therefore unfree)? These questions only scratch the surface of difficulties and problems with the conception of ideology in the Marxist tradition. In Marx's writings, we find the beginnings of answers to these problems but no fully developed theory.

One attempt to try to develop this theory further is found in the work of French philosopher (and PCF theorist) Louis Althusser. His project very often took the form of polemics against other "Western Marxist" intellectuals like Korsch, Lukacs, Gramsci and Sartre. Althusser's version of Marxism was very influential during the 1960s and early 70s but was eclipsed (in terms of influence and popularity... neither of which should be decisive in any assesment of Althusser's work) in his own country by less Marxist versions of 'structuralism' and the rise of what is sometimes called 'post-structuralism'.

Ideology, in Althusser’s framework, is a particular organization of signifying practices which constitute human beings as social subjects and which produce the lived relations by which such subjects are connected to the dominant relations of production in society. Ideology is bound up with our affective, unconscious relations to the world: it refers to the pre-reflective, apparently ‘spontaneous’ way in which reality ‘strikes’ us.

The first thing to note here is the, perhaps, strange thought that ideology constitutes human beings as social subjects. What could this mean? Usually we take it for granted that there are people, human beings, social subjects, selves, etc. with a stable identity that they develop freely, and so on. But in Althusser's framework, individuals are neither naturally existing nor freely autonomous choosers who adopt various identities. Rather, individuals (subjects) are produced or constituted by a particular organization of signifying practices that precedes them.

But what does Althusser mean by 'signifying practices'? This is a complicated question to answer. For the sake of simplicity we can understand it as something like 'ways of understanding the world' or 'ways of making sense out of the social field'. And of course, 'ways of understanding the world' require the deployment of concepts, which individuals do not themselves construct out of whole cloth but rather inheret from their social environment, i.e. society. It will thus be crucial to specify how social practices shape as well as prescribe (require) the acceptance of certain 'ways of making sense out of the social field' rather than others. This process is one that is, for Althusser, shaped by political and economic structure of society; thus it is not politically neutral. In general, the status-quo will tend to reproduce itself and preserve the existing distributions of economic/political power.

Now if society impacts and shapes dominant 'signifying practices', then understanding and critiquing dominant ideas must require an understanding of what society is like (politically, economically and otherwise). Here, classical Marxism has a clear answer: under conditions of capitalism, social life is dominated by the economic relations borne out of markets and the class exploitation that constitutes them. Althusser's analysis of society runs along similar lines.

Althusser, in contrast to other more Hegelian twentieth century Marxists (Marcuse and Adorno, for example), retains the base/superstructure metaphor. His reading of Marx has it that a certain 'epistemological break' occurred between his early and late work, and consequently Althusser finds only Marx's mature work (particularly Capital) of primary political/theoretical interest.

According to Althusser's approach, the social field is made up of different levels or 'instances' differentiated by their respective indicies of effectivity. Althusser only retains the metaphor insofar as he believes that despite the fact that the superstructure has a kind of relative autonomy, the social field is 'in the last instance' determined by the economic base. As he puts it "the base, in the last instance, determines the whole edifice." Nonetheless, Althusser is concerned to carve out room for both the relative autonomy of the superstructure as well as the reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base. Despite this relative autonomy, however, the social field is overdetermined (invoking a psychoanalytic metaphor) by the economic base. It is clear why Althusser would want to say that the base cannot be wholly determinative, but the interesting thing will be to see if his theory can adequately explain how the relative autonomy of the superstructure.

As already mentioned, Althusser sees individuals ('the subject') as being constituted by ideology. Thus the subject is an ideological category; it is in this sense that Althusser's Marxism is sometimes called 'anti-humanist'. Ideology tells you who you are, what your origins are, what you’re place in the world is, what your role is, and so on. Subjects are not given, they are constituted, they are 'interpellated' by the dominant social order. Interpellation, drawing on the example of the police act of shouting 'hey you!' followed by a turning around in guilt, is meant to point to the way in which individuals are forcibly called-into-being by the domaint order.

Althusser's primary target in this attack on humanism is the liberal/bourgeois conception of individuals as existing prior to all social, historical and political arrangements. According to this liberal thesis, if you strip all of the marks of society and politics away from individuals, what you're left with are neutral rational agents underneath. Bourgeois economic theory proceeds in this way, via methodological individualism, to explain all of society in terms of the ‘free choices’ of rationally self-interested agents seeking to maximize their own utility. (Think of Freakonomics, or libertarians when they say things like "well if women are oppressed, its because they freely choose to be").

In stark contrast, Althusser's social theory maintains that the individual is always already interpellated (called into being by power), always already marked by the dominant structures that organize a particular social field. It is hardly surprising that this insight has been further developed and situated within the project of many contemporary feminisms that seek to reject the categories of gender/sex as either given or pre-discursive. Explicitly Althusserian versions of feminism can be found in the work of Chela Sandoval, for example. However, the most powerful development of the way in which we are called on or interpellated as gendered/sexed subjects that I've come accross is in Judith Butler's Gender Trouble.

In concrete terms, ideology functions by means of what Althusser calls "Ideological State Apparatuses" (ISA's). These refer to institutions, social practices and rituals. ISAs are not identical or strictly limited to what, in liberal theory, conform to the the State proper. To quote Gramsci:“The distinction between the public and the private is a distinction internal to bourgeois law, and valid in the (subordinate) domains in which bourgeois law exercises its ‘authority’”. The liberal capitalist State is neither public nor private, on the contrary, it is a condition of the public/private distinction.

ISAs include the education system (which breaks down into different public and private schools, etc), the institution of the family, the Church (in earlier epochs, this was the ISA par excellence, but it has since receded in power and efficacy due to changing economic conditions), and so on. ISA's are social institutions that tell you what your role is, how you are understand your place in society, how you are supposed to act, what 'normal' consists of, how to dress, what you should value and aspire to, etc. Think of how schools use methods of punishment, expulsion, selection, etc. to enforce some of these norms. Other ISAs of interest consist of:

-the legal system
-the political system (the relationships between different major parties, etc.)
-communications (press, radio, television, etc.)
-'culture' (sports, film, TV, literature, the arts, etc.)

For Althusser, no class or dominant group can maintain power without also exerting control over the ISAs. The role of 'Repressive State Apparatuses' (the police, army, etc.) that function by violence are clearly important to understanding the distributions of power in a society, but they are alone insufficient to understand any regime of power. By the same token, however, Althusser argues that ISAs never function wholly by ideology alone, but always also have a repressive edge (or bear some threat of repression/violence). I think considering the ways that most repressive dictatorships have functioned throughout the 20th century bears this point out well: think of how such regimes exerted tight control over media, culture and education in addition to their monopolization of repression and violence.


Arvilla said...

Very helpful post.

Just thinking ahead a little, I'm wondering if these repressive apparatuses couldn't include the threat of poverty or even something like social condemnation/isolation, in addition to what we think of as violent force...

It seems so often the answer to someone's bad social position is something like "well he/she could fix it if he/she really wanted to." As if as long as no one is holding a gun to a person's head they still have "choice." I think this imminent-violence-as-only-excuse-for-not-acting-as-free-agent idea is part of the status-quo explanation ideology, so I'm interested to see if Althusser addresses it in his very construction of the theory of ideological state apparatuses.

T said...

interesting, Althusser does try to account for the issue you raise. He says that there are never either purely Repressive or purely Ideological state apparatuses... in concrete terms they are always some combination of the two. And he also wants to say about RSA's that they function by administrative repression, for example, which seems to suggest that there is room here for non-physical forms of outright repression. I think some of the examples you noted should definitely qualify as violent, particularly the threat of starvation/penury, etc.

Its also worth noting here that gender seems to be an institution that functions in just this way (i.e. with both violence and ideology)... consider what would have happens to people who openly transgress gender norms in terms of violent assaults, etc... if that is not the violent maintenance of certain prescribed social norms then I dont know what is.

Judith Butler gives an interesting example here:

T said...


that Cindy Sherman photograph that pans accross the screen at the end of the video is at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago right now..... woot!