Louis Althusser
Louis Althusser
Born 1918

Birmendreïs, French Algeria

Relevant Work Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

Biography Edit

  • Louis Althusser was born in French-held Algeria and was educated in Marseilles and Lyons before being drafted into the military in 1939.
  • After the war ended, he returned to school at Ecole Normale Superiere, where he completed a master's thesis in 1948. Afterwards, he became a faculty member and began doctoral work.
  • In the mid-1960's he became a "Marxist in philosophy," at which point he "burst into the intellectual world...with a series of important texts"
  • Although he makes important contributions listed below, he was also mentally ill from his experience in WWII, and in a manic fit of rage, he murdered his wife in 1980. He was considered mentally incompetent and lived under house arrest with psychiatric care until he died in 1990.

from Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

Althusser analyzes how "dominant social systems and institutions subtly mold human subjects through ideology, in turn reproducing the system" (pg. 1332). He created methods of structuralism, developed by Clause Levi Strauss, and pyschoanalysis, notably of Jacques Lacan, so that it could be explained how humans consent to societies in which most people are oppressed. He also explains how Capitalism perpetuates itself through the "ideological state apparatuses". For the French and British intellectuals, Althusser changed the face of Western Marxist theory into one that uses Marxism in an effort to recover an alienated humanity. He critiques humanism for its inability to look at both humanism alongside structuralism, and is more of an "antihumanist" because of his emphasis on how societal structures determine lived experience. His critique helped to shape and continues to shape postmodern and post-structuralist theory. Althusser believed that it was a philosophers job to represent the class struggle in theory by taking the side of the oppressed and their ongoing ideological struggle with the ruling class. He wanted to address "how a society achieves stability over time by reproducing its dominant relations of production and what conditions make social revolution possible. 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses' stems from this larger project, which was never completed" (pg. 1333).

Key Words and Terms Edit

Apparatus: a complex structure within an organization or system.

Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs): Work in the private sphere and function with power that is earned through consent. These apparatuses include: churches, the family, courts, political parties, unions, the media, sports, the arts, and, most dominantly, schools.

Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs): Work in the public sphere and function with power that is taken through coercion. These apparatuses include: the police, the military, the prison system, and the government.

Interpellation: noun 1.  A procedure in some legislative bodies of asking a government official to explain an act or policy, sometimes leading, in parliamentary government, to a vote of confidence or a change of government.

Infrastructure: economic base (unity of productive forces and the relations of production).

Superstructure: the politico-legal (law and the State) and ideology (the difference ideologies, religious ethical, legal, political, ect.).

Educational Ideological Apparatus: Althusser believes that "the ideological State apparatus which has been installed in the dominant position in mature capitalist social formations as a result of a violent poliical and ideological class struggle against the old dominant ideological State appartus, is the educational ideological apparatus" (1346).

Ideology: the imaginary relationships of individuals to their real conditions of existence.

Key Quotations Edit

"...the process of production sets to work the existing productive forces in and under definite relations of production" (1336).

It follows that, in order to exist, every social formation must reproduce the conditions of its production at the same time as it produces, and in order to be able to produce. It must therefore reproduce: 1.) the productive forces, 2.) the existing relations of production" (1336).

"How is the reproduction of labour power ensured? It is ensured by giving labour power the material means with which to reproduce itself: by wages" (1336).

"I shall say that the reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order" (1337).

"It is in the forms and under the forms of ideological subjection that provision is made for the reproduction of the skills of labor power." (1337-38)

"It is possible to say that the floors of the superstructure are not determinant in the last instance, but that they are determined by the effectivity of the base; that if they are determinant in their own (as yet undefined) ways, this is true only insofar as they are determined by the base. Their index of effectivity (or determination) is determined by the determination in the last instance of the base" (1338).

"Let me first clarify one important point: the State (and its existence in its apparatus) has no meaning except as a function of State power" (1340).

"But now for what is essential. What distinguishes the ISAs from the (Repressive) State Apparatus is the following basic difference: the Repressive State Apparatus functions 'by violence,' whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses function 'by ideology'" (NATC 1342).

"But no other ideological State, apparatus has the obligatory (and not least, free) audience of the totality of the children in the capitalist social formation, eight hours a day for five or six days out of seven" (1347).

"[I]deology is nothing insofar as it is a pure dream (manufactured by who knows what power: if not by the alienation of the division of labour, but that, too, is a negative determination)." (1349)

"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" (1351).

"Unfortunately, this interpretation leaves one small problem unsettled: why do men 'need' this imaginary transportation of their real conditions of existence in order to 'represent to themselves' their real conditions of existence?" (1351).

"This is the School. It takes children from every class at infant-school age and then for ...the years in which the child is most vulnerable, squeezed between the family State apparatus and the educational State apparatus, it drums into them...a certain amount of know-how wrapped in the ruling ideology...Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected into production..." (1346-47).

Discussion Edit

Schools Edit

In the section "On the Reproduction of the Relations of Production," Althusser discusses in detail the civic and social systems that are in place to reproduce Capitalistic culture and way of life. One of the primary institutions he discusses is Schools, which he claims are "the dominant ideological State apparatus in capitalist social formations " (NATC,1346). Althusser explains that schools took the place of the church in uniting the family apparatus and the state.

Schools function as a way to impart culture norms and class roles to new generations in a way that makes individuals accept their place without question. The author argues that schools children and their most sensitive ages and injects them with a pre-determined amount of knowledge, based on the class the children come from and the roles they are expected to maintain in society. When these children leave school around the age of 16 (or in our case, 18), they are "ejected into production" as relatively unskilled, layman workers (1347). A few students carry on to pursue higher education, eventually being placed in white-collar work. The rest fall into place as the "agents of exploitation" (1347). This category includes managers, politicians, and law enforcement.

The main point of Althusser's argument in this section is that the capitalistic system keeps reproducing itself by educating citizens to fulfill certain roles in society. This works because the education system only trains people for the work that they will need to do in their class, making it very difficult to advance to a higher class or to break out of a given societal role.

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

"The Poverty of Theory or an Orrery of Errors" (1978) by E.P. Thompson criticizes Althusser for being "Stalinist" and completely ignoring the history of empirical evidence (NATC 1334-1335).

Though Althusser did receive substantial criticism, his work has also had wide-ranging influence, serving as the foundation for the theories of leading contemporary Marxist theorists.

Related Works Edit

  • The German Ideology by Karl Marx
  • Capital, Volume 1 by Karl Marx
  • Republic by Plato
  • "The Formation of Intellectuals" by Antonia Gramsci
  • The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 by Michel Foucault
  • Can the Subaltern Speak by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
  • A Manifesto for Cyborgs by Donna Haraway
  • Orientalism by Edward Said

References Edit

  • The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010 - pages 1332- 61
  • Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia