Althusser’s materialist theory of ideology

This entry takes issue with a thesis central to Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology.[i] In brief, it shall be argued that, if the least to be said about ‘ideology’ is that it denotes a pre-established set of ideas, notions or beliefs that determine in advance an individual’s manifest thought, judgements or attitudes, then Althusser’s theory of ideology can be claimed itself, to a high degree, ideological constrained, and this to the detriment of his theory. The latter deploys his own interpretation of Marx, grounded on the contention that Marx acceded to scientificity by critically overturning certain commonplace philosophical and anthropocentric concepts.[ii] A central target is the concept of ideality, the vigorous opposition to which, in the name of materiality, occupies an important place in Althusser’s theory of ideology. It will be argued that Althusser’s particular insistence upon this staunch opposition frustrates his theory, the problematisation of which gestures toward a significant advance. This does not entail mere submission to certain idealist themes but their intimate examination beyond mere rejection as a matter of principle.

            To economise on space, it has been necessary to sharply foreground what are in effect only few aspects of a whole. To begin, few brief initial comments will provide passing indications of the surrounding context (§I). Althusser’s materialist argument follows (§II). This I seek to evaluate so dedicate most attention. A couple of Althusser’s subsequent considerations will be summarised thereafter (§III) before deploying an argument contrary to his materialist thesis (§IV).  The surrounding theses have not been so analysed but are accepted and explained as given so as to illustrate the context and assess their consistency with the views examined.



            Ideology has no history

Althusser’s belief that Marx became acutely aware of the real preconditions for social existence only after he evacuated universalising idealist principles may be found in various places in his work and determines many of his conclusions. For centuries these principles – including the very closely associated championship of human subjectivity as the bedrock ground for all speculation – dominated philosophical debate. In time, many considered these responsible for the insoluble, now stale, difficulties for which philosophy had become synonymous.

            It is with similar conviction that some writers – Terry Eagleton amongst them – conclude there to exist just too many definitions, uses and concepts for ideology to allow reducing all to some ‘Grand Global’ definition, in the style of some overbearing but vacuous ‘Universal’ philosophy.[iii] The best we can do is maintain the differences so as to appreciate the diversity of signifieds that have nonetheless found expression in that one signifier. Quite contrary to this trend, however, Althusser believes ideology articulable as a universal form, once ideology in general is isolated from ideologies in particular.[iv] At first sight this would appear refractory to the initial standpoint because Althusser employs a typically structuralist distinction, privileging here structure over event, repeating the classic philosophical oppositions form/content, form/matter, general/particular, necessary/contingent, essence/accident, constant/temporal etc.

            Ideologies in particular are products of the empirically observable and statistical historical-material constituents of society. But Althusser wishes to generalise within this domain without raising himself out of it. Ideology does not exclude history, because an ideology will always contain some theory or description of history. Ideology in general therefore always has ‘history’ within it. What’s more, there is something general about ideology such that is ‘present in the same form throughout what we can call history’ (35). This does not place ideology in a transcendent position over above history, but rather a constant position within and throughout history.  This permits, in Althusser’s opinion, a formalization of the topic without snatching at some will-o’-the-wisp philosophical ‘Idea.’ 

            Before approaching our central area of concern, it will be worth briefly noting two contributory theses (while admitting that any near-adequate analysis of the overall theory should take these much better into account).


            1. Ideology is unconscious

First, ideology is unconscious, intimately akin to the unconscious of psychoanalytic theory (35). In both, latent languages engender manifest languages, products of social complexes that pre-exist and predetermine every individual’s entrance upon the scene. One is allocated a place before birth as a ‘subject’ always already subjected to the process of acculturation: ‘the long forced march which makes mammiferous larvae into human children, masculine or feminine subjects’ (158).

            It should be worth pointing out that some version of unconscious determination exists in every theory of ideology. One need only consider that an accusation of ideological presupposition always entails some identification of a tacit system of premises working behind the scenes. Althusser’s version has a distinctly semiological character. That this unconscious is for Althusser a signification-engendering social phenomenon recalls Saussure’s claim that the participation of interlocutors within a wider linguistic community generates the identification of sound patterns with approximately corresponding concepts: a community crystallized by an unconscious and involuntary contract between each of its members.[v] That, crucial to this position, the human ‘subject’ is posited as a point of arrival (not departure) is consistent with Althusser’s anti-humanist interpretation of Marx.[vi]


            2. Ideology is imaginary 

Second, ideology is imaginary. The relations in which people are connected to their real relations of existence (i.e. relations of production, relations of class) are provided an imaginary explanation. One certainly always exists in some way related to the material world and in some way related to the social world (itself in some way or ways related to the material world). The precise nature of the ‘in some way’ in which one relates to them is supplied by the imagination. If such an explanation were itself epistemically accurate one would surely possess an immediate and transparent understanding of things. This would therefore seriously downplay the need for (or existence of) science as well as going no way toward explaining the very many interpretations that have and are made of the world. This is easily explained by the fact that descriptions of humankind’s relationship(s) to its environment far outdate the emergence and development of science. Ideology is therefore illusory because it is not real, even though it always alludes to reality (36). Note that the structuralist theme of relationality and ‘difference without positive terms’ (Saussure) is here rehearsed.[vii] As Lévi-Strauss succinctly puts the point, apropos the transferable value of structural linguistic method, ‘it does not treat terms as independent entities, taking instead as its basis of analysis the relations between entities.’[viii]



            3. Ideology is material

This is, Althusser claims, a thesis vital to his theory. It also constitutes our main point of contention. As he admits, it appears rather counter-intuitive against the background of an argument emphasising the imaginary and unconscious nature of ideology. These words commonly invoke reference to cognitive processes characterisable either as psychical or ideal. But this only derives, for Althusser, from an (‘Idealist’) ideology of ideology and of thought. Ever since the emergence of science ideas have been consistently represented as free-floating ‘ideals’ possessing a somewhat ‘spiritual existence’, but this is incorrect (39-40). To elaborate a contrary thesis he first lays down the following caveat:

[P]resented in affirmative form, this thesis is unproven. I simply ask that the reader be favourably disposed towards it, say, in the name of materialism. A long series of arguments would be necessary to prove it. This hypothetical thesis of the not spiritual but material existence of ‘ideas’ or other ‘representations’ is indeed necessary if we are to advance in our analysis of the nature of ideology. Or rather, it is merely useful to us in order the better to reveal what every at all serious analysis of any ideology will immediately and empirically show to every observer, however critical. (40)

 So Althusser produces an ipse dixit to bolster his surrounding arguments. We shall have cause to examine this later.

            To begin with, ideologies are always fostered and disseminated by, in Althusser’s formulation, ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’: superstructural state institutions that promulgate religious, ethical, legal, political, aesthetic etc. belief-systems (ideologies) (40). Note that Althusser refers here to aspects of the superstructure, even though ideologies in particular have already been characterised as causally determined by the historical-material constitution of society: the socio-economic infrastructure. Althusser would certainly reply that the infrastructure nonetheless determines in the last instance, but it should be worth recognising the emphasis it appears important to place at this moment on superstructural factors – most especially because such considerations are intended to contribute to an argument for the materiality of ideology.    

            Taken together, such ideologies are largely heterogeneous in character and somewhat contradictory. However, a uniform state ideology lies behind, unites and finds expression through these institutions in a variety of only apparently disparate forms (40). These institutions are, first and last, material entities; they consist of churches, statutes, legal firms, political organisations, schools, media organisations, even sports teams and organisations etc. This assertion once again employs distinctions between general/particular, essential/contingent etc. Not only are ideologies said to agree on certain like matters but that very point of agreement supposedly enables and supports them, creates and give them meaning as such, and a fortiori their heterogeneity. The locus and origin of this unity amongst difference (a unity, to underscore the point, which generates meaning through such difference) is not explained. The least that can be said here is that a case for the very existence of ideology is made – implicitly but not intentionally – over against the individuality and particularity of material entities (ideologies). 

            Althusser is keen to mark out a distinction between the materiality constitutive of such entities and that of concrete objects, say, tables or rocks. There are, he claims, different modalities of materiality. The relations imagined by an individual towards their relations of existence are lived through material processes and effects. For an individual to be possessed of an ideology is for that individual to behave in a particular manner, to adopt certain practices and perform certain rituals. Althusser:

 If [s]he believes in God, [s]he goes to Church to attend Mass, kneels, prays, confesses, does penance… and naturally repents and so on. If [s]he believes in Duty, [s]he will have the corresponding attitudes, inscribed in ritual practices ‘according to the correct principles’. If [s]he believes in Justice, [s]he will submit unconditionally to the rules of the Law, and may even protest when they are violated, sign, petitions, take part in a demonstration, etc. (41)

The possession of ‘ideas’ is always already an acting out or practical ‘inscription’ of those ‘ideas.’

            Thus, ideologies are material activities lived out in material practices determined by material rituals defined, buttressed and communicated to individuals by the material ideological state apparatuses (43). Althusser notes that each instance of the expression ‘materiality’ in the foregoing sentence differs in modality from the others.

            One wonders in what such a difference must consist. Surely the above examples are imbued with meaning only because of some abstract determination. If, when we talk of the materiality of a rock or chair, we intend to say, after Frege, the referents not senses of those objects,[ix] the materiality of the above examples appears different in so far as it consists of various material phenomena (in the everyday sense) united only through some meaningful support. They exist as activities combined through and for the sake of signification or symbolization. Rituals, practices and institutions are referents only in so far as they have a prior sense given to them. But they also appear sources of such sense. If the ideological state apparatuses disseminate ideology then practices and rites supply and enforce the ideological state apparatuses. Thus materiality (in our mundane sense) may crucially feed in to and out of ideology.  However, this does not explain the form that holds these materialities together and is held together by them.

            Again, there is an implicit but not intentional similarity here with the earlier emphasis placed upon superstructural factors. Althusser will say that ideology ensures the reproduction of the conditions of production. If this is the case then such ideology will indissolubly contribute to the reproduction of the socio-economic basis that founds the state apparatuses, the ideological facets of which reproduce in turn its foundational basis, ad infinitum. A circle may therefore be identified in Althusser’s theory. This is not a fallacious circularity in so far as it seeks to describe a fact of social perpetuation. We might nonetheless claim, abusing a Marxist phrase, that the conceptual kernel remains hidden within the material shell.[x] An interesting hypothetical analogy here would be to imagine de Saussure, had he followed Althusser, resting content with the physical – i.e. physiological, phonetic and acoustic – aspects of linguistic phenomena simply because they are indissociable from the spoken sign without enquiring as to the meaningful essence that engenders them as elements of the speech circuit at all.    

            It should be noted that the most that is said about the form of ideology in general here is that it is practical and material. Althusser nonetheless believes that he has drawn important consequences from it. We have evacuated all need for use of the term ‘idea(s),’ while successfully maintaining and explaining the terms ‘subject,’ ‘consciousness,’ ‘belief,’ and ‘action’ by way of introduction of the terms ‘practices,’ ‘rituals,’ and ‘ideological state apparatus’ (43). (Presumably, the difference of ‘ideas’ from ‘consciousness’ and ‘belief’ is psychologistic, if practices and rituals are to confer materiality and exclude ideality.)

            These points will be returned to in time. For now, it shall be sufficient to protest that, to insist upon a term (here materiality) as fundamental, especially because it has primacy and causal power over its opposite (there ideality), then to inflate its meaning to incorporate aspects of that opposite is a very curious gesture indeed.



            4. Ideology determines individuals as subjects

So, for Althusser, ideology equates always therefore with practice, and practice by and for subjects (44). We may say that ideology is therefore the material interpellation of individuals by way of the definition and introduction of the category of the subject. The category of subjectivity is thus, for Althusser, constitutive of all ideology. If this is the case, one’s entire being is lived out as a subject, and lived out, therefore, within ideology. This category is so deeply embedded that it assumes the status of ‘a primary “obviousness”’ (45). Subjectivity is always already imposed without appearing to have been so.

            Central to this notion is that of recognition. We are interpellated as subjects, by others as well as by ourselves. This is lived out by a number of rituals. One responds to the call of their name. The reply is of the kind, ‘yes, it is me.’ We are recognised and recognise ourselves as such. This name is conferred either before or at birth. Although the selection is seemingly arbitrary, the name derives from a given stock of acceptable names. Within our culture, human beings are rarely named, for e.g., ‘Pooch’ or ‘Fool’ or ‘Obstreperous.’ One may reply that there is nothing in place to prevent this. But such an act would nonetheless present a marked departure from the norm. Within our culture too, children tend to inherit patrilineal surnames. A title and other variously conferred genitives (widow of, father of) will also serve to circumscribe individuality but always within a context of subjectification. Any divergence from rules such as these will often provide information about different ideological values, i.e. of ‘undesirable’ variations, different cultural backgrounds or different social statuses (e.g. a matrilineal surname as a result of some form of paternal absence or as a product of a different culture; a strikingly different kind of name bestowed by a celebrity parent; a name which has a given ‘meaning’, etc.).

            Birth is received by a number of rituals. It is thereafter celebrated annually, a ritual that is gradually inculcated and exercised by the person to which it refers. One is cultivated by a system of ‘correct’ behaviour through self-recognition, e.g. to ‘be a lady’ or ‘be a man’ – with all the many meanings packed into those expressions.

            It would intuitively seem that, as an ‘individual,’ one exists outside ideology. But, as a ‘subject’, an individual-cum-subject, as we have seen, this is merely an appearance. The outside is the inside, and this is an indissociable effect of the ‘primary “obviousness”’ with which ideology constitutes us as subjects. The denigration of one’s position within an ideology is therefore a necessary element of all ideologies (49).


            5. The Christian world-view is archetypical of ideology in general

Althusser selects for an example the Christian religious ideology. Because they are formally the same, what will be said about this instance holds for all ideologies (51). One might remark here that, nonetheless, Christian religious ideology appears to have been chosen for a distinct peculiarity of contentor­ to possess a form which is for Althusser the form of ideology par excellence. There will be occasion to reflect upon the implications of this later.

            Christianity promotes a particular subject, one possessing predicates such as ‘creator,’ ‘absolute,’ ‘total,’ ‘perfect,’ ‘universal,’ etc., i.e. it is the subject, the Subject: God. As ‘creator,’ ‘last judge,’ etc, God summons (interpellates) the human individual.  He hails the individual by name so as to reveal their created, secondary, subordinated nature. The individual is a subject conceived and created by the Subject, subjected to Him, and shall return to Him on condition they obey his Laws and Commandments, believes and acknowledges Him etc. Thus, for Althusser, a ‘speculary’ ‘mirror-structure’ enables a multitude of individuals to recognise one, central, unique and divine Subject, who calls upon and interpellates them as subjects. (In Jesus Christ, God manifests himself materially, as Subject amongst subjects – both as Himself, incarnated, and from Himself, begotten, therefore created, secondary, etc. – but as a supernal and superlative instance of which. The mirror- structure is therefore redoubled and enhanced.)   

            Thus, subjects recognise themselves as subjects, as subjects themselves, ‘free’ to obey or disobey the Law – instantiated here as God’s Love (52) – but always as a law eternally inscribed, ineradicable whether ‘chosen’ or not. In their ‘freedom,’ subjects therefore submit and work all by themselves. They become who they are, ‘free,’ assimilated to a system through which they recognise themselves and so doing their own-most duties and responsibilities.

            One might say here that theses 4 and 5 metaphorically illustrate the operations of an instituted master signifier the effect of which produces social cohesion in and through a form of self-recognition. The elaboration of these points is here very far from complete. Sufficient to remark as an aside that an interesting point of contact may be opened between Foucault’s discourse on panopticism, Heidegger’s reflections on the determination of being as presence and Derrida’s elaboration of which in terms of the transcendental signified.

Thus, for Althusser, relations of production are continually reproduced. As ‘subjects,’ individuals submit to the demands and procedures of economic life. They acknowledge through recognition of themselves their determined and circumscribed locations within the functioning of the socio-economic order, as an instrument utilising an aspect of some given force of production.



            The argument

In framing the distinction between ideology in general and ideologies in particular, Althusser has surely deployed a prior distinction between form and content (‘…the formal structure of ideology is always the same’ (51)), a distinction determined by certain traditional predicates. That Althusser insists this ‘form’ to be omni-historical and not transcendent to history goes no distance toward attributing materiality. Materiality in all its ‘modalities’ surely always denotes something contingent, spatio-temporal, and causal – unless the notion of ‘materiality’ is here to be considerably revised. Such revision would prove circumspect precisely because the word (‘material,’ ‘materiality’) would clearly be upheld by some overriding intention in spite of the fact that it is utilised to signify that which it is intended to oppose and dominate. A generalisation of historical factors in terms of ‘omni-history’ must nonetheless bracket off (we may say ‘transcend’) contingent, spatio-temporal, causal factors. In some sense alike the Husserlian procedure, paranthesising such phenomena should not involve their deletion. One must admit that, of course, empirical reality is certainly indispensable for our investigation. To talk of ideology in general we must, and do, begin and end with ideologies in particular.  But to state the case in Kantian terms: ideology in general may very well rely for its existence upon support and concrete expression in and through the material world, but it does not necessarily follow that it arises out of the material world. Otherwise it is very unclear how something entirely material and not at all ideal may be both imaginary and ‘omni-historical’. Certainly psychological misrepresentations are themselves material (i.e. neuro-physiological), but such phenomena are not themselves eternal realities. They are private and internal, easily discredited in the face of ‘objective’ counter-evidences. Ideologies, on the other hand, are, as Althusser has argued, shared, socially cohesive phenomena, not to be reduced to the level of the individual precisely because they function in spite of the contingent differences of particularity – which, when they are to count as ideological phenomena, instances or events are as such only because of some unifying level of significance through which they cohere. If it is fundamentally intersubjective, the unconscious of ideology cannot therefore reside in the deep recesses of the subject (alone). Althusser effectively admits this point himself when he refuses, with Lacan, to locate the unconscious within the field of psychology (153-4, 158). Althusser’s vigorous opposition to the ‘bourgeois’ ‘humanism’ of idealism and transcendentalism appears therefore to constitute something of a dogma.[xi] This entire discussion appears to turn on an obstinate refusal to admit the existence of ideal objectivity.

            Althusser’s logic appears to run thus:


[P1]:   There exist many different particular ideologies

[P2]:  Every particular ideology shares a general form with all the others

[C]:    One may distinguish ideologies in particular from ideology in general.


And from this Althusser appears to draw the further conclusion that whatever is the same for every ideology in particular is true of the formal structure of ideology in general. So,


[P1]:  Whatever is the same for every ideology in particular is true of the formal structure of ideology in general.

[P2]:  Every ideology in particular is (in four modes) material.

[C]:    The formal structure of ideology in general is (in four modes) material.


However, to begin with, it would appear that materiality in general is a concept, that is formal, ideal, not itself material. This agrees with the oft-cited criticism against Plato’s doctrine of the self-predication of Forms. The concept of liquid in general, is, for example, not itself liquid. If we say of every instance of x that it possesses certain properties, it does not necessarily follow that there exists a real all-x that possesses such properties. One only claims the existence of a formal structure which endows or selects those properties at every instance of x. Such a formal structure exists only insofar as it is formalised, which is also therefore idealised, that is, not simply one amongst the manifestations to which it refers. To talk of properties in general is to constitute those properties generally on the strict condition that such generality occurs only at the level of formality and ideality. Generality is itself formal and ideal. To be material is therefore never to be ideal. To generalise is always to ascend to the level of formal ideality, and this is true even when we invoke the concept of materiality in general, which cannot therefore be itself material.

            Althusser has claimed that the notion of a Subject, observable in Christian religious ideology but true for all, interpellating subjects as subjects through which certain values are assimilated, is the fundamental operation of every ideology in general. The concept of God, that is, an absolute centre which grasps diverse materialities by multiplying around its universalising mirror-structure the form of a derived but secondary and imperfect image of itself, is the concept of ideality par excellence.

            The Christian God (archetypical of ideology in general) is not corporeal, spatio-temporally constrained; not manifest in the fallen here below but divine, spiritual, ideal. It is this fact that permits its application across a multiplicity of material contexts: its absolute generality and therefore its universal scope of application. And if this is formally the case for every ideology – including the ‘regulative ideals’, one surmises, of ethical, religious, juridical and philosophical ideologies-in-particular – it would seem even less the case that recognised predicates, whatever they are, should belong in any way to the structure itself unless they are to be thought of as formal and ideal. Ideality is the very condition of possibility for the formal identification of particular qualities within a general system.

            An obvious objection here would be to state that general principles may still refer to the material world. The principles are ideal, their referents material, and one can of course generalise, without absurdity, about the material world. However, Althusser’s discussion appears to claim (without saying it) either that ideology is the very source of identification and generalisation, over against the differences, particularities, contingencies of empirical, transient matter or that it shares something profoundly intimate with some other faculty which produces them. (In which case ideology and science would be species of the same genus, even if they differ in epistemic value.) I would like to suggest that this faculty shares remit with thought and language themselves, as unconscious products and manufacturers of social interaction. After all, as Althusser says, we interpellate others as subjects; we refer, speak to ourselves as selves, etc. 

            It should therefore come as no surprise that similar problems have been dealt with by philosophers and theorists of language. As Derrida asks, apropos Husserl, ‘is it not language itself that might seem to unify life and ideality?’[xii] And it is precisely the problem with Husserl that an objectivity of socially-synthetic intersubjective meanings may persist in a word despite the sensible (thus material) and psychic differences it undergoes through repetition.[xiii] It is only through recognition of the same despite theoretically infinite repetitions that language can carry meaning at all, that language can exist as such. Language precedes and enables subjectivity – the self-presence of the speaking subject in silent soliloquy. In speaking silently to ourselves we believe we escape the trappings of ideological ‘illusion’ but in fact receive the words, significations, laws of grammar and logic, accepted customs of combination, criteria for verification and justification etc. from the society in which we find ourselves and in so doing, as Althusser so well explains, constitute ourselves in the ‘obviousness’ (the ‘common sense,’ the ‘of course’) of subjectivity. Prior to ideology, the conditions of such factors must begin with those already animating language. 

            Take also as an example the difficulties tackled by Saussure[xiv] (even though he ultimately failed, in Derrida’s summation, to recognise the phenomenological problem of language).[xv] A single phoneme is notoriously difficult to analyse. It will, to begin with, sound different in the mouths of different speakers. The concepts associated with that phoneme will be different for each speaker. What’s more, that phoneme is the product of a long history of development, and it will continue to develop. (Althusser has attached predicates of very similar kind to ideologies in particular.) The trick is to not conceive the phoneme as occurring in an empirical context at all, where it is enmeshed within a multitude of psychological, physiological, and physical processes and will change with time, context and use. (All of these are material.) The value it has as signifying sound – ensuring that it is recognisable and repeatable by different speakers, across a variety of different contexts and situations – is generated at a formal level, by the relation of difference that holds between it and the other phonemes within the language. A signifying term is to be conceived as a point within a particular system of differences. To understand such a language, or ‘system of signs’ is to conceive it in isolation from its process of development. It is thus, the structural linguist will claim, that we understand and use languages at all, be they modern Russian, Old Dutch, Sanskrit, Begriffsschrift, or whatever.  A very similar process, it appears, produces the different ideologies.

A conclusion here must therefore be very open-ended. This discussion merely indicates the beginning of an examination of ideology in terms of language and meaning. Analyses of language will therefore be for us more than just borrowed methodologies or heuristic metaphors. For ideology produces and sustains meaning, as does language. It is certain that the material processes and effects of ideology (as also language) are important contributory factors. But we risk sliding into the ‘sterile empiricism’[xvi] of common sense if we fail to deny that such processes and effects are all there is.

            In light of this, the foregoing discussion leaves open to examination that which it has taken for granted: the unconscious, the social (the relation between these), relationality, possibility and necessity, transcendentality, ideality, Althusser’s ‘speculary’ mirror-structure as a metaphor for ideality, and the locus of thought with relation to all of these notions as also to language itself.






[i] Althusser, Louis, trans. Ben Brewster, For Marx (Verso, 2005); On Ideology (Verso, 2008)

[ii] See ‘Marxism and Humanism’ in For Marx (op. cit.), pp. 219-48; for example, p. 227: ‘This rupture with every philosophical anthropology or humanism is no secondary detail; it is Marx’s scientific discovery.’

[iii] Eagleton, Terry, Ideology: An Introduction (Verso, 1991), p.1

[iv] Althusser, Louis, On Ideology (op. cit.), p. 35; hereafter referred to by page number in the text.

[v] Saussure, Ferdinand de, trans. Harris, Roy, Course in General Linguistics  (Open Court, 1983), p. 13ff

[vi] See Althusser, Louis, ‘Marxism and Humanism’ in For Marx (op. cit.), pp. 219-48, and ‘Reply to John Lewis’ in On Ideology (op. cit.) (61-140), pp. 82-5

[vii] Saussure, Ferdinand de, Course in General Linguistics (op. cit.), p. 118

[viii] Lévi-Strauss, Claude, trans. Jacobson, Claire and Schoepf, Brooke Grundfest, Structural Anthropology (Basic Books, 1963), p. 33

[ix] Frege, Gottlob, trans. Geach, Peter and Black, Max, ‘On Sense and Reference’, in Analytic Philosophy: An Anthology, Martinich, A.P. and Sosa, David (eds.) (Blackwell Publishers, 2001), pp. 7-18

[x]Cf. the very well known, oft-cited declaration in Marx’s ‘Postface to the Second Edition’ of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One (Penguin Classics, 1990), p. 103: ‘With him [i.e. Hegel] it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.’

[xi] See especially Althusser, ‘Marx and Humanism’ in For Marx (ibid), 219-248 and ‘Reply to John Lewis’ in On Ideology  (ibid), 61-140

[xii] Derrida, Jacques, trans. Allison, David B., Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs (Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 10

[xiii] Ibid., p. 9-10

[xiv] Saussure, Ferdinand de, Course in General Linguistics (op. cit.)

[xv] Derrida, Jacques, Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs (op. cit), p. 47

[xvi] Lévi-Strauss, Claude, Structural Anthropology (op. cit.), p. 51

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2 Responses to Althusser’s materialist theory of ideology

  1. Scott Kemp says:

    Your explication of Althusser’s thesis on ideology is cogently argued. It points to the many fallible aspects of believing that ideology is material. To see a ‘uniform state ideology’ underlying the entire fabric of the superstructure is persuasive, its heterogeneity masking the actual homogenous nature of the ideologies ‘fostered and disseminated’ by the ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’. However, as much as we are born into an ideological system, the quest finds Althusser leading himself into a theoretical cul-de-sac. To find a material substance behind ideology and its state led promulgators does fall foul to close analysis. As you write, meaning is ritualised by the state, yet it must only be ‘imbued with meaning…because of some abstract determination’. Althusser strives to find a universal formula for ideology. Nevertheless, are the abstract and material simply inseparable?

  2. Pingback: Althusser’s Materialist Theory of Ideology Blog | Get with the Times

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