althussian concept of ideology


From “Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” “

“Hence the final part of Althusser’s argument: How is it that individual subjects are constituted in ideological structures? Or, in other words, how does ideology create a notion of self or subject?

All ideology has the function of constituting concrete individuals as subjects–of enlisting them in any belief system, according to Althusser. That’s the main thing ideology as structure and ideologies as specific belief systems do–get people (subjects) to believe in them. There are three main points that Althusser makes about this process of becoming subjects-in-ideology.

1. We are born into subject-hood–if only because we’re named before we’re born; hence we’re always-already subjects.

2. We are always-already subjects in ideology, in specific ideologies, which we inhabit, and which we recognize only as truth or obviousness. Everybody else’s beliefs are recognizable as ideological, i.e. imaginary/illusory, whereas ours are simply true. Think, for example, about different religious beliefs. Everybody who believes in their religion thinks their religion is true, and everyone else’s is just illusion, or ideology.

3. How does ideology (as structure) get us to become subjects, and hence not to recognize our subject positions within any particular ideological formation? How do we come to believe that our beliefs are simply true, not relative? Althusser answers this on 245b with the notion of INTERPELLATION. Ideology INTERPELLATES individuals as subjects. The word “interpellation” comes from the same root as the word “appellation,” which means a name; it’s not the same as the mathematical idea of “interpolation.” Interpellation is a hailing, according to Althusser. A particular ideology says, in effect, HEY YOU–and we respond ME? You mean me?? And the ideology says, yes, I mean you.

You can see examples of this every day in commercials. I saw one the other night for a home gym system, claiming that “this machine will give you the kind of workout you desire, meeting your needs better than any other home gym.” Each instance of “you” in that ad was an interpellation–the ad seeming to address ME PERSONALLY (in order to get me to see myself as the “you” being addressed, and hence to become a subject within its little ideological structure). This is also what Mr. Rogers does, when he looks sincerely into the camera and says “yes, I mean you.” It also happens in the Uncle Sam recruiting posters which say “I want YOU for the Army.”

Althusser makes some final points about ideology working this way to “hail” us as subjects, so that we think these ideas are individually addressed to us, and hence are true. He says that ideology, as structure, requires not only subject but Subject. In using the capital S, he invokes an idea similar to that of Lacan (whom Althusser studied and wrote about), that there is a small-s subject, the individual person, and a capital S Subject, which is the structural possibility of subjecthood (which individuals fill). The idea of subject and Subject also suggests the duality of being a subject, where one is both the subject OF language/ideology (as in being the subject of a sentence) and subject TO ideology, having to obey its rules/laws, and behave as that ideology dictates.

The interpellated subject in the ideology of the home gym commercial would thus order the gym, behave as if bodybuilding or rigorous exercise was a necessity, something of central importance. The Subject here would be some notion of physical perfection, or body cult, the rules that the subject is subjected to. Althusser uses the example of Christian religious ideology, with God as the ultimate Subject–the center of the system/structure.

On p. 248 Althusser links his ideas about ideology to Lacan directly, noting that the structure of ideology is specular (like Lacan’s Imaginary, like the mirror stage).”


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