Althusserian Ideology: Main Concepts
The Three-Spheres Model of Society
Louis Althusser’s Marxist or critical approach to cultural analysis examined the connections “between social structure, power and culture” (Smith 52), and how this influences subjectivity. Althusser endeavored to develop a scientific or systematic theory as to how society functions in order to maintain conditions favorable to capitalism. His primary focus was on the relationship between ideology and the roles and identities society creates for people that help to perpetuate these conditions. Althusser’s structural model of society consists of two different levels and of three spheres and is significant in part because it attaches “specificity to Marxist ideas which often tend to posit somewhat free floating dominant ideologies” (Smith 54). The first of these spheres, the economic base, refers to sites of production (including the cultural industries). Two spheres then make up what is known as the superstructure: the politico-legal which consists of the political and legal systems, and the ideological structure which refers to institutions such as churches and schools that perpetuate dominant beliefs and values. Although culture (the economic base) and politics (the superstructure) are independent of each other in Althusser’s model, they still share the ideological interconnections which serve to perpetuate the capitalist system (Fiske 287). One could say that Althusser’s theories suggest that rather than working to live, we are living to work.
ISAs & RSAs
While Marx primarily examined the role of economics in perpetuating the status
quo or ideology, observing that “The ultimate condition of production is therefore the
reproduction of the conditions of production,” for Althusser, the reproduction of the conditions of production is not simply guaranteed by perpetuating existing material conditions such as wages (Norton 1483); rather, he believed that such conditions are “achieved more and more outside production” through the concept which Althusser deems as the state apparatus (1491).
Marx defined the state as a “‘machine’ of repression, which enables the ruling classes ... to ensure their domination over the working-class, thus enabling the former to subject the latter to the process of surplus-value-extortion (i.e. to capitalist exploitation)” (Norton 1487). Althusser refers to this classic tenet of Marxism instead as the state apparatus, referring to its function to repress the working-classes and thus perpetuate the capitalist system (1487). He divides the state apparatus into two different forces: the repressive state apparatus (RSA) and the ideological state apparatus (ISA). Repressive state apparatuses or RSAs – such as the government, administration, army, police, courts and prisons – curtail the working-classes predominately through direct violence or the threat of violence and are mainly controlled by the public sphere. Althusser further departs from Marxist theory by introducing the concept of ideological state apparatuses or ISAs. Unlike repressive state apparatuses, ideological state apparatuses cannot as easily be unified into one cumulative force as they originate primarily from various sources in the private sector. However, differentiating between RSAs and ISAs solely on the basis of the split between the public and private sectors is somewhat difficult, given that institutions such as the media, which Althusser defines as part of the private sector, in fact spans both categories. Althusser seems to anticipate this point of contention by maintaining that the key difference between the two categories is that whereas RSAs function for the most part by violence, ISAs function primarily by ideology. The examples which Althusser provides of ISAs include forms of organized religion, the education system, family unit, legal system, political parties, trade unions, media and the arts (Norton 1489).
In pre-industrial society, Althusser argues that the importance of the family unit as an ideological state apparatus was only seconded by that of the primary ideological state apparatus at that time, the church “which concentrated within it not only religious functions, but also educational ones, and a large proportion of the functions of communications and ‘culture’” (Norton 1493).
The French Revolution (1789-1799), however, displaced the hegemonic power of the church onto other sources. In particular, the all-important task of indoctrinating the youth into perpetuating the status quo shifted from being the responsibility of the church to being that of the education system – the central ISA from our contemporary post-industrial period according to Althusser. The importance of the school system cannot be underestimated for, in Althusser’s own words, “no other ideological State apparatus has the obligatory (and not least, free) audience of the totality of the children in the capitalist social formation, eight hours a day for five or six days out of seven” (Norton 1495).
Moreover, the education system indoctrinates its audience according to ruling-class ideology during “the years in which the child is most ‘vulnerable,’ squeezed between the family state apparatus and the educational state apparatus” (1494).
Althusser proposed that “individuals are transformed into subjects through the ideological mechanism” of interpellation (Chandler 181). He explained that interpellation works primarily through language and occurs when we are ‘hailed’ by a message. To illustrate ‘hailing’ in the most straight forward way, Althusser offered the following example: when a policeman calls out, “Hey, you there!”, most people within hearing distance will immediately assume that they are the ones being summoned, even if they have done nothing wrong. This reaction positions the individual as a subject “in relation to the general ideological codes of law and criminality” (Brooker 122). Althusser believed that the dominant beliefs, values and practices that constitute ideology serve a political function. As we progress through the education system and enter the workforce, ideology works through state institutions to interpellate or construct us into particular subject positions in which our work and lifestyle benefits those who control the processes of production (Smith 208). The subject positions which are most prevalent configure us in terms of commercial culture - as consumers, taxpayers, employees, automobile drivers, homeowners, or parents. For instance, come election time, politicians continuously address their audience in their speeches as voters or taxpayers, thereby referring to the subject positions which most benefit them in their capacity as political leaders.
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