In the second part of his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, Louis Althusser talks about the idea of what ‘Ideology’ actually stands for. Looking at the historical evolution of the term, he narrates how the term ‘Ideology’ first coined by Cabanis, Destutt de Tracy and their friends who ‘assigned to it as an object the theory of ideas’ was given a completely different meaning by Marx fifty years later. According to Marx, ideology is the system of ideas and representations which dominate the mind of man or a social group.
Althusser, however, formulates different theses on Ideology based on the project of a theory of ideology in general and a theory of particular ideologies. Both these premises involve class positions at some point in time. He also finally explains how the theory of ideologies is not possible as it always depends on history of social formations, whose determination is situated outside ideologies alone. He thus proposes the project of a theory of ideology in general which is based on the idea that “Ideology has no history”.
The thesis that “Ideology has no history” is inspired by Marx’s definition of ideology in The German Ideology as a pure illusion, a pure dream, i.e as nothingness. Here Althusser draws comparison as to how the same terms he adopts from The German Ideology (Ideology has no history) is starkly different in meaning to his definition. He says that even though he theorises that Ideology has no history, he thinks that ideologies have a history of their own which is ascertained in the last instance by the class struggle. On the other hand, he also proposes that ideology in general has a history which is external to it, thus ‘it is endowed with a structure and a functioning such as to make it a non-historical reality i.e. an omni historical reality”. Relating the idea of ideology as an imaginary construct to Freud’s proposition that unconscious is eternal; Althusser surmises that ideology is eternal. He thus justifies in proposing the theory of ideology in general as Freud also presented a theory of the unconscious in general.
In his discourse on the structure and function of ideology, he presents two contradictory theses:
Thesis I: Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.
According to him, so many of the ‘world outlooks’ are all imaginary and they are only required to be interpreted so that we are able to discover the reality of the world. Among the various interpretations, the most popular one is the mechanistic and the hermeneutic types which is based on the fact that ‘men represent their real conditions of existence to themselves in an imaginary form’. In answering why men needed this imaginary transposition he proposes two solutions. First, priests and despots with their beautiful lies dominated and exploited other people on a falsified representation of the world. Second, the material alienation which reigns in the conditions of existence of men themselves.
Thesis II: Ideology has a material existence.
By this he does not mean to compare the existence of ideology to the existence of a physical object but referring to his discussion of the ideological state apparatuses and their practices, he means to say that an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice or practices. This existence is material. Thus according to him, the ‘ideas’ of a human subject exists in his actions.
Althusser concludes his essay by ‘interpellating individuals as subjects’. In discussing this he says that there is no ideology except by the subject and for the subjects. The category of the subject is a primary obviousness and at work in this reaction is the ideological recognition function. The subjects thus are habituated to constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition which establishes that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and irreplaceable subjects.
Author Sagorika Singha