Louis Althusser

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Louis Pierre Althusser (October 16, 1918 - October 23, 1990) was a Marxist philosopher. He was born in Algeria and studied at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he eventually became Professor of Philosophy. He was a leading academic proponent of the French Communist Party and his arguments were a response to multiple threats to the ideological foundations of that socialist project. These included both the influence of empiricism which was beginning to influence Marxist sociology and economics, and growing interest in humanistic and democratic socialist orientations which were beginning to cause division in the European Communist Parties. Althusser is commonly referred to as a Structural Marxist, although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism is not a simple affiliation.

In the work of Slavoj Žižek

The work of French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser is important for Žižek in a variety of ways. This is most apparent in Žižek’s conception of ideology, as it is at least partially against the backdrop of Althusser’s own conception of ideology that Žižek’s is constructed. In order to see this relationship, we should first say a bit about Althusser’s conception of ideology.

Althusser rejects the traditional Marxist conception of ideology as a kind of simple false consciousness that can be completely overcome or set right by proper Marxist analysis. Rather, for Althusser, ideology is always in operation in our subjective awareness. Th at is, as Althusser puts it in For Marx, all consciousness is ideological (Althusser 1969: 33). According to Althusser, even though particular historical ideological forms come into being and pass away, much like the Lacanian concept of the “symbolic”, the structure of ideology is an ever-present feature of conscious life. His theory of interpellation, given in the famous piece entitled “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation” (Althuser 1971: 85 –126), is meant to further expand on and explain this point.

In this essay, Althusser distinguishes between what he calls “Repressive State Apparatuses”, or RSAs, which are those parts of the state (including the state itself) that function to enforce the domination of the ruling class through violence (here, Althusser cites institutions such as the prisons, law, the courts, the police and the military), and what he calls the “Ideological State Apparatuses”, or ISAs, which have the same function (to enforce the domination of the ruling class) but operate differently (ibid.: 143). ISAs work not through violence, but through the reproduction of a given set of historical ideologies. Some of the examples of ISAs that Althusser provides are schools, churches, trade unions, familial structures and other cultural institutions, practices and traditions. In the ISA, ideology itself takes a material form. We are, claims Althusser, immersed in ideology because it is materially represented in the multitude of institutions and practices that we engage in and are engaged by. How do the ISAs enforce ideological structures? Althusser’s answer is that they do this through what he calls “interpellation”.

According to Althusser, one is “interpellated” or “hailed” by an ISA when one recognizes oneself as the “subject” of the ISA’s call or as the one who is being hailed. His example is the policeman who hails a passerby on the street by saying “Hey you there!” It is in turning around and responding to the hail that one becomes a “subject” of the call and is thus interpellated by the hail. This is because, as Althusser points out, one “has recognised that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else)” (ibid.: 174). We are, argues Althusser, always in a state of being interpellated in this way. When one goes to church, one is interpellated by a particular set of religious practices to be the subject of such practices; when one goes shopping, one is interpellated by the practices that are a part of shopping to be a subject that shops; when one walks onto the university campus, one is interpellated by the university to be a particular kind of subject (a student, or a teacher, or an administrator, etc.); and so on. By engaging in any material social practice or with any material institution, we admit (unconsciously) that we are the “subject” of such a practice, and in doing this we become the kind of subject that engages in that practice and thus are constituted by it. Furthermore, the recognition of oneself as a subject of ideology is not just the recognition of oneself as such a subject at that moment. Rather, one recognizes – or misrecognizes – oneself as always having been such a subject. Th is is an important point. When I am interpellated and I recognize myself as the one being hailed, included in that recognition is the misrecognition that I have always already been the subject that is subjected to such practices and is beholden to them. Althusser points out here that: “Ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects, which amounts to making it clear that individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology as subjects, which necessarily leads us to one last proposition: individuals are always already subjects” (ibid.: 176).

Returning, then, to the point above about the ever-present nature of ideology, not only is it the case that since we are constantly in a process of being interpellated we are always already subjects, Althusser also argues that, although ideological practices may diff er at different historical times and places, the structure of interpellation is ever present. This is what is meant by his claim that “Ideology has no history” (ibid.: 175). We always find ourselves interpellated as subjects by the material institutions, traditions and practices that exist for us at a given time and place, and while these change, the process of our constitution by them remains stable.

Though Žižek takes much from Althusser, and he partially agrees with Althusser regarding the latter’s claims about subjective constitution out of the communal social material (the ISAs and their process of interpellation), Žižek wants to claim that the ISAs are not material in quite the way that Althusser envisions them to be. Further, Žižek thinks that, although subjectivity as interpellated can and does often act as a site for the reproduction of existing class divisions and power structures, it is not solely subordinated to his logic, as Althusser argues. On Žižek’s revision of the Althusserian view, it only appears (to subjects themselves) that they are constrained in this way. In explaining this, Žižek invokes the Lacanian concept of the “big Other” (what, in this context, we might liken to the particular totality of ISAs that exist at a given time):

With Lacan’s “big Other” the perspective is completely the opposite: the very “positing” of the big Other is a subjective gesture, that is, the “big Other” is a virtual entity that exists only through the subject’s presupposition (this moment is missing in Althusser’s notion of the “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”). (LC: 113–14) 

The view that there is such a totality of ISAs, which are both external to the subject and inescapable, is itself the result of the interpellative process, in so far as this is placed on the world by consciousness-as-interpellated. Althusser misses this, according to Žižek, because of his belief in the external-as-material nature of the ISA and its power of interpellation. He does not sufficiently recognize what Žižek sees as a dialectical reduplication inherent to the interpellative process and ultimately to the material existence of the ISA itself. A brief discussion of Žižek’s reading of Hegel’s thought (to enlist another of Žižek’s intellectual touchstones) regarding habituation should be helpful in making sense of this. As Žižek argues, habituation is, for Hegel, the means whereby what is external (the Althusserian ISA, for instance) becomes internalized in such a way as to constitute the individual’s awareness (in interpellation), and then is redeployed by that individual as that through which the world is comprehended, structured and organized. The world appears to us in the way that it does as a result of such activity, which is itself a reduplication of that which first constructs this activity:

The conclusion to be drawn is thus that the only way to account for the distinction between the “inside” and “outside” constitutive of a living organism is to posit a kind of self-reflexive reversal by means of which – to put it in Hegelese – the One of an organism as a Whole retroactively posits as its result, as that which dominates and regulates, the set of its own causes (i.e. the very multiple processes out of which it emerged). (MM: 106)

In interpellation, I am, pace Althusser, subjected to the materially existing practices and structures of my socio-historical community, which are then reduplicated in me as the inner structure of my subjectivity (in habituation, I internalize these practices – what I am is the internalization of them), and at the same time the “inner” is then thrust back onto the world and is what acts as the “virtual” or “immaterial” limit of the world itself. In other words, I experience this limit – set by me in my subjective conceptual presuppositions, which posit the existence of the big Other – as an externally imposed limit. In this way, my own positing activity becomes that which limits me (and my conception of my world) without my knowing it. Žižek continues: “In this way – and only in this way – an organism is no longer limited by external conditions, but is fundamentally self-limited. Again, as Hegel would have articulated it, life emerges when the external limitation (of an entity by its environs) turns into self limitation” (ibid.). Put concisely, the Althusserian ISA is, as Žižek argues, not that which is external to me and limits my subjectivity (as Althusser understands it), but is rather that internalized externality that becomes a virtualized subjective positing or presupposition through which I limit myself and thereby also limit my world. In this reduplication, I limit myself but experience this limitation as coming from the world (the ISA is, for me, external to my existence). I do not comprehend it as emanating from me or, more precisely, being supported and propped up by my recognition of myself as its subject in interpellation. So ultimately, for Žižek, the ISAs themselves do in fact operate in the ways that Althusser has described – they are mechanisms of interpellation – but their material existence hinges on the very subjects they interpellate in so far as such subjects act as their support.