Louis Althusser Questions and Answers

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What are some critical questions about "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses"?

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In his essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Louis Althusser applies his theory of ideology to the Marxist theories of the State and the conditions of production. He explains how “the ultimate condition of production is the reproduction of the conditions of production” (127). What he means by this is that in order to perpetuate capitalism, ideology, which is “the system of the ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group,” needs to carry it forth (158).

In capitalism, the reproduction of labor power by the proletariat is required for the system to work, and for this reproduction to happen, there needs to also be reproductions of the “world views” of both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Only under ideological subjection can the reproduction of the skills of labor happen sufficiently.

Althusser proposes a thesis regarding two apparatuses he believes are used: the repressive State apparatus and the ideological State apparatus. Repressive State apparatuses are easy to explain – they are State institutions like the Army and the Police which function by repression. ISAs, on the other hand, are the real power in securing reproduction. State Repressive apparatuses are to secure ISAs. Furthermore, Althusser argues that the ISA which is in the dominant position to protect capitalist interest is the educational system, which replaced the ecclesiastical system.

The way in which Althusser explains ideology makes it easy to understand. Specific ideologies are historical, but ideology has no history. It has existed for as long as human thought and human practice have coincided. It “represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (162). However, a question arises from this definition. Can we ever truly escape ideology? If so, then how? Ideology exists in its practice, and it is impossible to live without “practice” of some sort (166).

This question has deeper implications, because it asks about the argument’s implications itself. How is Althusser’s essay important if this is true? If it is in fact impossible to escape ideology, then what is the point of essays like this or critical arguments against ideology? Is it that by becoming aware of the ideology, we can begin to escape it?

Specifically, as applied to the ideology surrounding and coming from the communist system, how can we overcome ideology? It seems like the system cannot fall without its ideology falling first. As long as there are both bourgeoisie and proletariat who believe that the world works through meritocratic equality and fair competition, the ideology stands. What is particularly illuminating for me is the idea that “obviousness” is an ideological effect (172). For me, this seems to answer the question of how do people believe that capitalism is a fair system that works. For people who are deeply within the system, it simply seems “obvious” that these things are true.

For Althusser, this happens through “interpellation,” a process in which individuals become “subjects” in ideology (170). In general, I find Althusser’s arguments to be strong and useful, especially in describing ideology itself. However, in his idea of interpellation, I find something problematic. Althusser argues that “individuals are always-already subjects” (176). If this is true, that means that individuals are born already submerged in ideology, and there is no “cause” that makes it so. This seems true up to a point, because individuals are born into worlds in which ideology already exists. However, this seems counter-intuitive to me, because it brings me back to my original question. If individuals are born already interpellated into ideological subjects, then how do they ever escape that? If they cannot, then why is Althusser’s argument even important at all?

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