Althusser is a structuralist Marxist. This should make you ask: How can that be? How can you combine Marxism, which relies on social/historical analysis, with structuralism, which relies on ahistorical/asocial analysis? Althusser answers that initially with distinction between ideologies (historical/social) and ideology (structural).
Althusser makes this distinction in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, which discusses the relation between the state and its subjects. Althusser is asking why subjects are obedient, why people follow the laws, and why there isn’t a revolt/ revolution against capitalism. His view of ideology and ideologies comes out of his understanding of the relations between state and subject, between government and citizens, so it’s worthwhile to examine those ideas for a minute.
The state, for Althusser, is the kind of governmental formation that arises with capitalism. A state – you can substitute the word ‘nation’ here to help conceptualize the ‘state’ – is determined by the capitalist mode of production and formed to protect its interests. It is historically true, whether or not you are a Marxist, that the idea of nations as discrete units is coterminous with capitalism. It is also possible that democracy, as an ideology and/or a governmental form is also coterminous with capitalism, as democracy gives the ‘illusion’ that all people are equal, and have equal power, and hence masks relations of economic exploitation.
Althusser mentions two major mechanisms for insuring that people within a state behave according to the rules of that state, even when it’s not in their best interests in regard to their class positions to do so. The first is what Althusser calls the RSAs, or Repressive State Apparatuses, that can enforce behavior directly, such as the police and the criminal justice system. Through these ‘apparatuses’ the state has the power to force you physically to behave. More importantly for literary studies, however, is the second mechanism Althusser investigates, which he calls ISAs, or Ideological State Apparatuses. These are institutions which generate ideologies which we as individuals (and groups) then internalize, and act in accordance with. These ISAs include schools, religions, the family, legal systems, politics, arts, sports – organizations that generate systems of ideas and values, which we as individuals believe (or don’t believe). This is Althusser’s main concern: How do we come to internalize, to believe, the ideologies that these ISAs create, and thus to misrecognize or misrepresent ourselves as unalienated subjects in capitalism.
Althusser’s answer starts with the distinction between ideologies and ideology. Ideologies are specific, historical, and differing; we can talk about various ideologies, such as Christian ideology, democratic ideology, feminist ideology, and Marxist ideology. Ideology, however, is structural. Althusser says that ideology is a structure, and as such is ‘eternal,’ i.e. to be studied synchronically; this is why Althusser says that ideology has no history. He derives this idea of ideology as a structure from the Marxist idea that ideology is part of the superstructure, but he links the structure of ideology to the idea of the unconscious, from Freud and from Lacan. Because ideology is a structure, its contents will vary – you can fill it up with anything – but its form, like the structure of the unconscious, is always the same. And ideology works ‘unconsciously.’ Like language, ideology is a structure/system which we inhabit, which speaks us, but which gives us the illusion that we’re in charge, that we freely chose the content of the things we believe, and that we can find lots of reasons why we believe those things.
Althusser’s first premise is that ‘Ideology is a “representation” of the Imaginary Relationship of Individuals to their Real conditions of existence.’ He begins his explanation of this pronouncement by looking at why people need this imaginary relation to real conditions of existence. Why not just understand what is real?
Althusser’s Marxist answer is that the material alienation of real conditions predisposes people to form representations which distance (alienate) them from these real conditions. In other words, the material relations of capitalist production are themselves alienating, but people can’t quite deal with the harsh reality of this, so they make up stories about how the relations of production aren’t so bad; these stories, or representations, then alienate them further from the real (alienating) conditions. The double distancing involved here, or the alienation of alienation, works like an analgesic, a pill, to keep us from feeling pain of alienation; if we didn’t have these stories, we’d know the alienation of the real relations of production, and we’d probably revolt – or go mad.
These ideas about representation and reality assume that what is reflected in the imaginary representation of the world found in ideology is the ‘real world,’ or real conditions of existence. Althusser says that ideology doesn’t represent the real world per se, but human beings’ relation to that real world, to their perceptions of the real conditions of existence. In fact, we probably can’t know the real world directly; what we know are always representations of that world, or representations of our relation to that world. Ideology, then, is the imaginary version, the represented version, the stories we tell ourselves about our relation to the real world.
So the ‘real world’ becomes not something that is objectively out there, but something that is the product of our relations to it, and of the ideological representations we make of it – the stories we tell ourselves about what is real become what is real. That’s how ideology operates. In more Marxist terms, what ideology does is to present people with representations of their relations to relations of production, rather than with representations of the relations of production themselves.
Althusser’s second thesis states that ‘Ideology has a material existence.’ It’s important for Marxists always to be grounding their analysis in material practices, material relations; in order for Marxists to talk about ideas, we need to be able to talk about them as material, so that we don’t lapse into idealism, or an argument that ideas are more ‘real’ than material objects. Althusser asserts that ideology is material by insisting that ideology always exists in two places – in an apparatus or practice (such as a ritual, or other forms of behavior dictated by the specific ideology) and in a subject, in a person – who is, by definition, material.
Althusser says that ideology, as material practice, depends on the notion of the subject. He states that ‘there is no practice except by and in an ideology’ and ‘there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects.’ In short, there are no belief systems, and no practices determined by those belief systems, unless there is someone believing in and acting on those beliefs. This leads to Althusser’s main question: How are individual subjects constituted in ideological structures? 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. The acquisition of language is the process of becoming a subject, for both Althusser and Lacan.
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 a religion thinks their religion is true, and everyone else’s is just illusion, or ideology.
3. Ideology as structure gets us to become subjects, and not to recognize our subject positions within any particular ideological formation, through interpellation. Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects. The word ‘interpellation’ comes from the same root as the word ‘appellation,’ which means ‘a name.’ 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 seemed 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 ideological structure.
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 also 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 or ideology, as in being the subject of a sentence, and subject to ideology, having to obey its rules and laws and behave as that ideology dictates.
As you might be able to tell from the echoes of Lacan and Derrida, Althusser was a ‘bricoleur’ of other poststructuralist theorists. He was enchanted by Freud, and even more enchanted by Lacan; he links his ideas about ideology to Lacan directly, noting that the structure of ideology is specular, like Lacan’s Imaginary, like the mirror stage.
Althusser’s notion of the interpellation of the subject is directly useful to literary studies because it enables us to talk about how a literary text, as a subset or transformation or production of ideology (or of specific ideological formations) also constitutes us as subjects, and speaks to us directly. The most obvious form of how a literary text might interpellate us as subjects is one that uses direct address, when the text says ‘dear reader,’ as many pre-twentieth-century novels frequently do. All texts interpellate readers by some mechanism; all texts create subject positions for readers, whether that construction of subject positions is obvious or not.