Thursday, 19 November 2009

Louis Althusser, Ideology and the Practices of the Institution

In 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)' (1969) Louis Althusser explains how he has developed his term 'ideology' from that of Karl Marx. He explains, that for Marx, ideology was a set of “ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group.” (2006: 107). Althusser then goes on to distinguish the differences between a theory of ideologies and a theory of ideology: a theory of ideologies is grounded in history due to the class positions represented in the social formations taking place around it; whereas a theory of ideology is not oriented in history, because there is no position outside of ideology that can enable history to reflect ideology's position (ibid.).

Althusser explains that in Marx and Engel's The German Ideology the term 'ideology' is reworked, and he describes it as no longer being a Marxist one (ibid.). In this version ideology is completely unreal and can be compared more to a dream: “All its reality is external to it.” (Althusser 2006: 108). Althusser states that it is because of this that ideology's history is outside of it, leaving the individual with only their own concrete bearing (ibid.). It is this that distinguishes Althusser's project – the development of a theory of ideology – from a theory of ideologies in general, and he puts a convincing argument forward to explain how he works on the term 'ideology' in The German Ideology to form his own version in respect to his thesis. He demonstrates that if ideology is a dream, this means it must be a “negative determination”; also if ideology has no history that pertains to it (all it has is a perverted version of history) then this too is a negative thesis as “it has no history of its own.” (ibid). Althusser's main problem with this negative thesis in relation to The German Ideology appears to be with his observation of the work in general being a “positivist and historicist” one. To clarify his position, to propel his own thesis forward, and to demonstrate the difference between a theory of ideologies and one of ideology, Althusser states:
[…] I think it is possible to hold that ideologies have a history of their own (although it is determined in the last instance by the class struggle); and on the other, I think it is possible to hold that ideology in general has no history, not in a negative sense (its history is external to it), but in an absolutely positive sense. (ibid.).

This would be a 'positive' thesis for Althusser because he believes that there is a structure in which ideology rests that transcends history: the form that ideology takes, and how it operates, has been the same throughout time (2006: 108-109).

Before discussing how Althusser's model of ideology fits into my discussion of the educational institution, and in particular the university campus, I would like to introduce Althusser's two theses that make up his essay. The first, which shows a radical displacement of Marx's original model; and the second which materially situates ideology.

“Thesis I: Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” (Althusser 2006: 109). Whereas for Marx ideology is an illusion because it it misrepresents 'reality' to the proletariat, for Althusser it is the actual relationship between the individual and 'reality' that is misrepresented. Althusser concedes that this first thesis is a negative one in its representation of the object which is distorted (ibid.). He also believes that if ideology takes the form that he proposes, then this dispenses both with the idea that the authors of ideologies are powerful groups of people who deliberately mislead the less powerful 'other'; also the concept of alienation that was so important to Marx also, therefore, becomes irrelevant (2006: 112).

“Thesis II: Ideology has a material existence.” (Althusser 2006: 112). This material existence exists in the practices which are oriented in the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) - the ISAs being the following institutions: religious, educational, political, cultural, legal, along with the family and communications (Althusser 2006: 96). Because for Althusser this misrepresented relationship which is ideology, is “endowed with a material existence.” (2006: 113), these practices are “the realization of an ideology” and they “always exist in an apparatus” (Althusser 2006: 112). Althusser offers the church as an example of an institution that provides an apparatus for the individual to partake in a practice and thus realise its ideology. This is what he says about how this process works:
The individual in question behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and, what is more, participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which 'depend' the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject.
(2006: 113).

Althusser sees the actions that are carried out in relation to, for example, belief, duty and justice, correspond to attitudes in the subject that mean that they render themselves to a particular worldview (ibid.). And, for Althusser, both the attitude of the individual, and the practices in which they are involved, are material (ibid.); as he confirms, they are “actions inserted into practices.” (2006: 114).

A particularly interesting point Althusser makes in relation to how these practices operate on ideology is how by actually participating in them belief is produced (ibid.). It does not matter whether you believe or not, because the actions you carry out presuppose a belief that exists within that apparatus. Hence, the effects of the practice retroactively produces its cause through subjecting the individual. Therefore, the individual as subject is both the cause and effect. These actions are the effects of the ideological apparatus of which the individual is subjected, but they are also what produce him as the subject, as the cause of the effects. This is an integral part of Althusser's theory on structural causality. Why this is important for the institution (useful in terms of the promulgation of its ideology), is that those engaging in it, perhaps even at first sceptically, will eventually become subjected to it. This, I believe, is how the administration of the educational institution works, specifically in relation to 'excellence'.

Althusser, Louis. 2006. 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)', Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. by Ben Brewster (Delhi: Aakar Books) pp. 85-126.

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