Althusser’s Two Key Insights in brief
1) His definition of ideology granted ideology a positive (and not merely a reflective or expressive) role. Ideology was itself a structural determinant in the mode of production. Following from the positive role attributed to ideology, the subject was regarded as a political and ideological effect and its agency diminished.
2) His description of the systematic mechanisms through which dominant ideology both reproduces itself and determines individual subjectivity, which consist of RSAs–Repressive State Apparatuses–(penal system, police, military) and ISAs–Ideological State Apparatuses–(educational curriculum, the media, etc.).
Hegel, Marx, Lukacs and Lacan: Althusser’s Influences
Althusser’s work is a reaction to Marxist economism and Hegelian humanist historicism. Hegel regarded history as the progressive understanding and development of the human spirit or Geist. Forms of Marxism that emphasized Marx’s Hegelian heritage privileged the role of consciousness as an agent of history. Lukacs’s emphasis on class-consciousness as catalyst for revolutionary transformation provides an example of the humanism against which Althusser reacted. For Lukacs literature was valuable precisely in so far as it enabled a recognition of class-consciousness. Novels with a strong sense of realism which made the connection between individual experience and social forces were applauded. This traditional Marxist critique of modernist individualism was still a humanism. There was still a value placed on consciousness; individualism and Modernism were criticized for their impoverishment and limiting of experience. In reading a realist novel, on the other hand, the reader can recognize herself or himself as part of a larger social whole and can see her or his circumstances connected to a broader range of human concerns. The bourgeois individual was criticized as a form of alienated consciousness deprived of a sense of potential historical agency. A critical representation of the social totality in realist art, it was argued, would overcome this alienating modernist illusion of isolation.
Against humanist forms of Marxism which relied upon the historical self-understanding and progression of oppressed consciousness, Althusser posited the anti-Hegelian notion of ‘history without a subject.’ His model for critique worked within ideology’s own contradiction and did not posit a critical or normative subject outside ideology as a critical lever. Althusser’s Marxism was not only opposed to the inevitable movement of Hegelian History as Absolute Spirit, but was also critical of economic determinism. If one accepted the simple Marxist explanation that the economic mode of production determined human existence, then non-economic or social phenomena would be seen as effects (or insignificant illusions) of an economic base. The major problem of this explanation for 20th century Western Marxists was provided by the example of Stalin’s Soviet Union; here an economic revolution had taken place but, as was becoming increasingly apparent, no communist utopia had followed in its wake.
Marxist economism also presented a number of theoretical problems. For literary critics the most significant difficulty lay in reducing aesthetic production to economic causes. Althusser’s concept of ideology and structural causality provided a far less reductive approach to non-economic phenomena which could nevertheless still be interpreted politically.
Hegelian Marxist theory held that once historical consciousness had developed to the point of a recognition of exploitation, then the conditions of oppression would be overthrown and consciousness would be emancipated. A theory of such recognition relied up the idea of a subject who would eventually perceive its alienation and then overcome the distorted representation of itself and its world. Althusser, on the other hand, argued that the relations of power could not be removed in order to reveal an essential subject. On the contrary, the subject was nothing other than an effect of these relations. The subject’s recognition of itself, as a subject, was not emancipatory, but ideological. Ideology was not just a mask or illusion concealing economic forces; rather, ideology played an active or causal role in the structure of capitalist relations. This argument is what enables Althusser’s idea that while the economy may be determining, it is determining in the last instance. There are other determining or structurally essential factors. Ideology is such a factor, for ideology is necessary for the reproduction of relations which enable the mode of capitalist production to continue. Althusser shifts Marxist critique away from a poor economism to a conception of the subject as irrevocably immersed and formed in ideology. This is reminiscent of Lacan’s conception of the subject as irrevocably born into and intrinsically defined according to a symbolic order.
Diminishing Individual Agency: Althusser and Structuralism/Poststructuralism
Strongly influenced by structuralist and poststructuralist conceptions of ideology, Althusser believed that the Sartre’s focus (i.e. Existentialist Marxism) on the power of intentionality and individual agency could not provide adequate explanation for the continued existence of, and mass support for, capitalist society. Accordingly Althusser focused on how agency was shaped and determined by more abstract institutional forces, and on the means through which ideology worked to manipulate the subject in the interest of the ruling elite. He drew on the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan and argued that dominant ideology conferred an identity on the individual which the individual then accepted because it provided him or her with a stable sense of social position and personal orientation.
However, although the subject was positioned, or ‘interpolated’ by ideology, the possibility remained that, through an engagement with forms of what Althusser called ‘theoretical practice’, the individual could become aware of his or her own manipulation, and attempt to transcend or oppose it. Accordingly, Althusser argued for a distinction to be made between ‘ideological’ and ‘theoretical’ practice, in which ideological practice was fundamentally instrumental, manipulative and illusory, whilst theoretical practice was concerned with deconstructing dominant ideological forms in order to reveal their class-based origins and function. For Althusser the most advanced form of theoretical practice was the Marxist philosophy of historical materialism, and it was this which provided the ‘problematic’ (theoretical system) and model for his attempts to expose dominant relations of power.
Althusser made a distinction between the early ‘humanist’ Marx and the later ‘materialist’ Marx. He argued that the work of the ‘later’ Marx transcended humanist delusions and focused on the systematic mechanisms through which capitalism reproduced itself. For Althusser, humanist Marxism was unacceptable because it was not ‘systematic’ enough and he insisted that such a ‘philosophical myth of man’ should be ‘reduced to ashes.’
On Ideological State Apparatuses (RSAs and ISAs):
In his influential essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1971), Althusser attempted to describe the systematic mechanisms through which dominant ideology both reproduced itself and determined individual subjectivity. This provided the basis for his theory of the ‘ideological state apparatus’: social institutions whose function was to socialize the subject in the interests of the system. He opposed ISAs to more institutionally controlled and repressive RSAs (‘repressive state apparatuses’), such as the penal system, the military and police.
According to Althusser, in an ideological state apparatus (public education, the media, etc.), ‘it is ultimately the ruling ideology which is realized.’ However, he argued that since ISAs are not as easily controlled by the state as RSAs, they also offered a potential site for the emergence of struggle and revolt. In this way he did propose a certain conception of agency, but it was restricted to those who were suitably trained in the appropriate form of theoretical practice, whilst those who were not remained deluded and duped. Althusserian post-structuralist Marxism has been criticized as inherently elitist for its suggestion that only an elect of theoretical practitioners trained in Althusserian Marxism had access to the ‘truth.’
Lacan’s “Big Other” vs. Althusser’s ISA
With Lacan’s “big Other,” the perspective is the opposite one: the very “positing” of the big Other is a subjective gesture, i.e., the “big Other” is a virtual entity that exists only through subject’s presupposition. This moment is missing in Althusser’s notion of Ideological State Apparatuses with its emphasis on the “materiality” of the big Other, its material existence in ideological institutions and ritualized practices – Lacan’s big Other is, on the contrary, ultimately virtual and as such, in its most basic dimension, “immaterial.”
1) “New Literary Histories: New Historicism and Contemporary Criticism” by Claire Colebrook (1997)
2) “European Film Theory and Cinema” by Ian Aitken (2001)
3) Slavoi Zizek – “Why Heidegger Made the Right…”
On a related note, here is a very nice overview of the evolution of postmodernism from the philosophical point of view, including Derrida, Althusser and others: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/en/heartfield-james.htm