Althusser on “Ideology”
Louis Althusser (1918-1990), was a French Algerian Marxist philosopher who, among other things, developed the philosophy of socially based ideology and coined the term “interpellation”. His philosophy of ideology rests on 4 main tenets: “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”, “ideology has a material existence”, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects”, and “individuals are always-already subjects”.
The first ‘tenet’ focuses on the way we perceive the ‘real’ world. We don’t see the real of the world, but an image that is reflected back to us. As I mentioned to a colleague recently, our brains translate the images of what we see into a ‘real’ that is meaningful to us. Basing his understanding on Jean Lacan’s supposition that what we see is ‘one removed’ from the real, reminds me of Plato’s philosophy of mimesis, and his example of the bed. In very simple terms, somewhere in the ether of the cosmos exists the perfect Form of “bed”. When a person thinks of “bed”, they envision the ideal of “bed”. Along comes a carpenter who builds a bed that possesses all the attributes a bed should have when one thinks of “bed”. Yet it is not the real “bed”. It is twice removed from the perfect Form. Then along comes a painter who paints a portrait of the bed. He includes all the detail he sees, but his painting is “of” the bed, not the bed itself. Thus, it is three times removed from the Form of bed. When we see a red chair, for instance, we accept it as such because the references upon which we rely upon to distinguish a red chair from, say, a black dog have said that if it is shaped in this way, is colored this way, and serves this purpose, then it is a red chair. (Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck…) However, the thing is, is that we understand it as a red chair only because our previously informed ideology has made it so. And everything we see, all the ways we interact, are also previously informed. We live in our world as subjects of ideology.
His second point is that our world of subject ideology manifests itself materially–that is, it’s not just some esoteric beingness that cannot be pin-pointed. For instance, when we see someone we know, we recognize them. We perform the “ritual” of perhaps waving or saying hello. We do this because we are subject to our own inescapable ideology in which we are completely immersed. For instance, most of us will not pass by our mothers in the street without some form of greeting. We are drawn to speak–compelled to perform the ritual of our own ideology which includes the truth that “there’s my mother whom I love, and I want to give her a hug and ask how she is.”
The third tenet is the one I have a bit of a problem with. Yes, we are all confined within our own selves, we are all limited by our incomplete perceptions of the Real, and we all find ourselves within the motions of ideologically motivated “ritual”. Althusser says this is the same for everyone without exception. But there is a tiny hole in his argument. He uses the “Hey! You there!” example of a police officer in the street calling out. When the officer calls out to a person he wishes to speak to, invariably, the person he is speaking to knows who he is, and will usually look up. It’s like the shop-lifter in the crowded store and the security guard saying “stop thief!” to which the shop-lifter runs away–knowing he himself is the thief the guard is yelling at. No one else runs. They know they are not stealing. They know that they are not the one, even though the guard has not called anyone by name. That said, a friend of mine had just finished a business meeting at his downtown bank. He crossed the street at the crosswalk, and continued down the sidewalk toward his parked car. As he approached his car and pulled his keys out of his pocket, he heard a woman’s voice shouting loudly, “Sir!! Are you drunk, sir? Stop where you are! Sir! Have you been drinking?” Yes, he heard the words, but he was in a hurry to get back to his office, and didn’t take the time to see who was yelling at some random drunk on the street. He unlocked his car and put his briefcase in the passenger side, and suddenly realized that the woman shouting “Sir! Sir!” had stopped beside him. It was only then that he looked up and realized she was an RCMP officer, and that she was shouting at him! She demanded again loudly if he had been drinking, and then the horrible realization came to him. People had actually stopped and were watching. In fact, everyone had looked EXCEPT him. Humiliated, he explained that he has a physical disability. In essence, Althusser’s “hail” is only true if the “hailer” is right, and because we all live within our ideologies that see only a shadow of the Real, then we are all subject to misrecognitions–“hailers” and “hailees” alike. My friend was not subject because the hailer (RCMP woman) misread the “real”. We can only be subject if the ideological item applied to us in a moment is actually true. When the idea of multiple or conflicting ideology is presented to Althusser’s argument, his philosophy seems a bit shaky.
Althusser’s fourth point that we are and have been “always-already” subjects starts even before birth, and when we are born, we are given a name, a home (usually), and our identity is informed accordingly. We perceive who we are by what we perceive as the real of our world. Althusser makes a good point, and he’s spot on when he says that we are generally accepting of our own outside-informed ideology, and subject ourselves to it usually without a thought or care. And he remarks that the outer ‘world’ or ‘State’ (society) punishes those who resist the ‘natural’ or ‘acceptable’ interpretation of their own self. And this is seen very clearly in those individuals born in a certain physical body but who comprehend their gender (if ‘gender’ exists for them) as ‘else’. These people are not subject to the ‘natural’. They are often considered subversive, and are punished for their ‘aberrant’ ideology by the ‘State’ that imposes the ‘truth’ of the ‘real’ on everyone.
To be honest, I agree with most of what Althusser is saying. We don’t have a pristine view of the world. We can only understand what is real as far as our understanding of anything allows us. After that, we founder. It’s the same for everyone. And we do what we do and are as we are because of what we believe ourselves to be. Part of this is informed by the people we know, and part is informed by the dictates of our communities (State). Althusser is suggesting that we all see the world “through a glass, darkly”, which is not original to him but to St Paul in his Letter to the Corinthians. And on that note….
“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”