Project 1-4: Ideology and Interpellation

This project requires reading the essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses (notes towards and investigation)” by Louis Althusser in the course reader (Evans and Hall, 1999) before considering the questions below.

How does Althusser’s structuralism show here?

 First we need to understand what is meant by structuralism. According to Sturken and Cartwright (2009), structuralism is a set of theories which came to prominence in the 1960s the premise being that cultural activity (that is the laws, codes, rules and conventions that structure human behaviour) can be measured objectively as a science. Macey (2000) also notes that structuralism was an attempt to unify the human sciences by applying a single methodology.

Structuralism originates from the work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (although in ‘Course in General Linguistics’ he used the term system rather than structuralism) who attempted to show humans can be understood as though they are structured like language. Structuralism became a global movement adopted by other disciplines, for example, anthropology (Levi-Straus and Jakobson), philosophy (Merleau-Ponty), literary theory (Barthes – led to semiology), film studies (Metz), and Marxism (Althusser).

In the essay, Althusser first presents two theses as an approach towards this central argument on the structure and function of ideology. The first concerns the object which is presented in the imaginary form of ideology:

“Ideology represents the imaginary relationships of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”

Examples of ideologies being imaginary such as belief in God are given. Althusser says that it is only when you do not share the ideology that you can see it is imaginary.

The second thesis is that ideology has a material existence – Ideological State Apparatuses:

“an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice or practices. The existence is material.”

The thesis is explained through Althusser’s observations of religion – an individual adopts a practical attitude and participates in the regular practices of the ideological apparatus, that is, he goes to church, attends mass, kneels, prays, confesses and does penance. Examples of belief in duty and justice are also given.

Subjects are said to have a consciousness, that is, they believe and freely accept the ideas of the ideology. However, they must act in accordance with these ideas and if they do not are thought to be ‘wicked’.

Althusser talks of  ‘obviousness’ – that which we cannot fail to recognise as true and defines this as an ideological effect. The example given is of a friend who knocks on the door – we recognize their voice and on opening the door find that what we have believed to be trues is so – that is that the person we are greeted with is the friend we recognised from their voice.

Althusser’s main thesis is that ideology hails or interpellates individuals as concrete subjects: if an individual shouts a greeting at us in in the street, we turn 180 degrees and recognise that the hail is directed at us and thus become a subject through the recognition that we are being addressed.

The idea of an individual as a an always-already subject is given through the example of a new child being born. The ideological ritual surrounding the birth forms part of the familial ideological configuration through the rituals, rearing and education of the family. Freud’s theories of the pre-genital/genital stages and studies into the unconscious are used to add weight to the argument here. The article ends with a consideration of Christian religious ideology.

In essence, Althusser shows his structuralism through the development of his argument and the examples/metaphors he uses to illustrate them through the essay. Through my reading I only managed to gain an overall rather than in depth view of structuralism with the majority of sources discussing how structuralism was a precursor of semiotics – theories that are discussed in much greater depth. Post-structuralism originated from  Derrida’s criticism of structuralism and the fact that the theory has moved on can perhaps explain why many of the books I have do not give it a great deal of consideration. Interestingly, Althusser is not always cited as a key figure in structuralism which leads me to wonder how closely he associated himself with this school of thought.

What does Althusser mean by ideology?

 The wording of the question suggests what I have learned to be true through my reading about ideology – there is no straightforward definition, in fact, it has multiple meanings. Howells and Negreiros (2011) consider ideology to be a “complex, shifting, frequently misunderstood term.” It is often invested with negative connotations, however, in the simplest sense it is the study of ideas, system of thought and systems of belief.

New Keywords’ (Bennett et al, 2005) gives an interesting extension from the point that Williams analysis in ‘Keywords’ ends. Williams states that ideology first appeared in English in the late 18thC as a direct translation of the French word idélogie originating from the work of a group of French enlightenment philosophers who aimed to bring scientific method to understanding the mind. Napoleon began the modern pejorative definition of ideology as an attack on enlightenment ideals and this definition expanded throughout the 19thC, used primarily by conservatives to label any supposedly extreme or revolutionary political theory or platform. Marx and Engels continued to use ideology in the pejorative sense to mean abstract or false thought, false consciousness, or unreality. In ‘The German Ideology’ (1845-7) Marx and Engels used the metaphor that ideology presents the world as if being viewed through a camera obscura – always upside down. Bennett et al (2005) describe ideology as a narrow set of conflicting beliefs (such as liberal, conservative, socialist) – it is always the opposing point of view that is ideological rather than ones own. They argue that in the ea.21stC, ideology as a political concept has diminished due to the end of the cold war and the seeming lack of alternative to democratic capitalism. The modern meaning of ideology is that it is likely to be a clash of civilizations (often religion) and that ideology is equated to idealism and opposed to realism.

At the beginning of ‘Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses’, Althusser defines ideology as world outlooks – for example religious, ethical, legal or political. However, he quickly begins to pick apart failings in ideology: he challenges us to think about an ideology we do not share, such as God, duty or justice, and points out that from the non believing point of view we can see that these ideologies constitute an illusion: “ideology = illusion/allusion.” He continues to state that ideology equals an imaginary representation of the real world.

The method in which ideology exists in the world is described as the ideological state apparatus –  the material existence of an ideology. Individuals who live in an ideology have an imaginary relationship to their conditions of existence, that is, relations of production and class. Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects, has no history, and has the effect of obviousness – that is, what we cannot fail to recognize. Subjects freely believe in the ideas promoted by the ideology accepting and acting accordingly to these ideas. There is the illusion of free will (false consciousness) as subjects choose to conform to ideologies, not conforming is seen as inconsistent, cynical or perverse:

“those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: the ideology never says I am ideological.”

Individuals are “always-already” ideological subjects. This can be demonstrated by the way the rituals surrounding the expectation of a birth play out and the way a child is formed into the ideology of the family with all of the expectations that go with this:

“[there] is a mutual recognition of subjects and Subject, and the subjects recognition of each other, and finally the subjects recognition of himself.”

Is there in your view an area of visual culture where this idea may seem to act in an overt way? Find examples and make notes on them.

 The keyword in this question is ‘overt’, Althusser seems to go to great lengths to describe how the interpellation of ideology is a mainly covert process. A parallel can be drawn between the ‘soft power’ of ideological state apparatus that requires persuasion rather than the violent, physical coercion that would define the ‘hard power’ of repressive state apparatus. In the modern age where we are bombarded with visual culture and are quite sophisticated in reading their messages (although it could be argued some of these readings are based on understanding conventions rather than having a conscious understanding.) It is difficult therefore to think of many overt representations of ideology in western visual culture, perhaps the most obvious example of this is advertising.

As I write this in November, the advertising cycle is gearing toward the peak Christmas season. The most discussed commercials are for John Lewis and Sainsbury’s – interestingly neither of these directly sell the viewer anything each having a strong sense of narrative and boasting production values that would not be out of place in a Hollywood film.

Over the past few years, John Lewis Christmas adverts have become something of an event. Indeed this year the first showing of their commercial was advertised itself and greeted with a degree of anticipation. The adverts are interesting in that although they are different each year, (2013 featured an animation for example)  they follow a set of conventions that make them clearly identifiable – there is a narrative conforming to the John Lewis brand identity of family as well as being aspirational. They have high production values and are artfully put together without being fussy – they are classy. And lastly, their soundtrack is a well known song given a completely different interpretation, usually only a voice and guitar or piano. The adverts are all about reinforcing our trust in the John Lewis brand rather than being overtly sold anything – products do not feature. We are being reassured that spending our money with John Lewis will lead to happiness and satisfaction, the adverts are a hit with the public and commentators alike being a topic for discussion at work or being shared on social media (have you seen the new John Lewis advert?) In fact, the only criticism I have heard in the media about this years advert is that the stuffed penguin soft toys (2014s star)  the chain are selling are low on availability and too highly priced at £95.

See the John Lewis Christmas 2014 advert here:

The Sainsbury’s Christmas advert has caused much more debate however as it depicts the famous football match between British and German soldiers on Christmas day 1914. The reasons given for the subject matter are that Sainsbury’s have long been a supporter of the British Legion and they wanted to mark the centenary of World War I (they are also raising money for the charity as part of the campaign.) The production values are as high as any top end Hollywood film and there is no doubt that the piece is a well put together piece of work. The advert has been accused of cynically exploiting the public mood for remembrance in this centenary year of the beginning of the Great War, currently opinions seem to be stretched between the two opposing poles of for and against and I guess only time will tell if the advert promotes or damages Sainsbury’s as a brand.

See the Sainsbury’s Christmas 2014 advert here:

There seems to me to be a great deal of truth in Althusser’s arguments about the subtle nature of ideology and the fact that I struggle to find overt examples of ideology in modern visual culture demonstrates this. True there are many examples of how the norms of society such as the presentation of beauty and glamour, and concepts of good and evil are presented in a variety of media. In this age of multi channel media outlets it is no longer the case that only one ideology is presented – there are always a great deal of opinions and voices that oppose any particular point of view. And yet despite this, the normalcy of democratic capitalism and the requirement to aspire to more consumer wealth is all pervasive and anything opposing this is seen as deviant.

Notes on Althusser:

Louis Althusser (1918-90) was an Algerian born French Marxist philosopher, regarded by Macey (2000) as “perhaps the most sophisticated of post-war Marxists.” Althusser aimed to revive the revolutionary purpose of Marxism and construct a theory that could make real, practical difference to the world. Although his legacy is uncertain, he succeeded in reworking many of Marx’s key concepts and introduced a degree of intellectual rigour into Marxist philosophy.

Althusser’s education at the prestigious Parisian institution Ecolé Normale Supérieure (ENS) was interrupted in 1939 when he was drafted into the army. He was almost immediately captured by the Germans however and spent the duration of the war as a POW. Resuming his education after the war he became a tutor in 1948 and, although he gained renown his academic career was unconventional and he never held a senior University position. His entire career was spent teaching at ENS and many of his students went on to have influential careers including Foucault and Derrida. Althusser’s physical and mental health was always uncertain and he was hospitalised several times. His goal as an author was to produce a complete reinterpretation of Marx’s theories and establish a theoretical link between Marx and psychoanalysis. Although prolific, he failed to produce a full theoretical account and a substantial corpus of unpublished work was discovered after his death.

Althusser reasoned that the scientific understanding of society could enable a program of change to be implemented. He argued for a ‘return to Marx’, he believed in his ‘mature’ works Marx had founded the science of historical materialism (the general laws of the development of society) however, his work remained incomplete and it was the purpose of contemporary Marxism to continue this. He renovated Marx’s base/superstructure metaphor into the concepts of repressive state apparatus (RSA) and ideological state apparatus (ISA) along with the idea of ideology as interpellation.

Although Althusser was a member of the French Communist Party from the 1950s he was often an isolated and embattled figure within the organisation whose writings appealed to a young audience rather than the party leadership. This can be encapsulated by his disagreement with the party following Khrushkev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956. Although he was sympathetic to the anti-Stalinist positon he felt this betrayed the revolutionary spirit of Marx and was designed to discredit the heritage of Lenin. His enthusiasm for Mao also went against the FCP’s pro Soviet stance.

Althusser’s stock as a theorist went into decline following the Paris student uprisings of 1968: Althusser was expected to participate and although it was illness that prevented him doing so he was also highly critical. His inadequate responses to China’s cultural revolution and lack of acknowledgement of Solzhenitsyn and the existence of gulags in the USSR also contributed. Despite this, in the 1970s the influential British film studies journal “Screen” championed his thoughts and he became an influence on upcoming theorists Pierre Machery and Terry Eagleton.

In his final years his controversies were personal rather than political: in 1980 he strangled to death his partner of 34 years. Although he was never convicted of murder he was hospitalised for 3 years following this and spent the rest of his life unable to be published.

Key Works: ‘For Marx’ (1969), ‘Reading Capital’ (1965 with Balibar), ‘Lenin and Philosophy’ (1971)


This is by far the most complex project I have undertaken so far, both in terms of scope and complexity of the text. I made the decision at the beginning of this exercise to read as much as I could about the subject – this meant also researching points that were raised in my general reading. My understanding has certainly moved forward, but, I am nowhere near proficient in my knowledge of the subject. A quick search on Amazon for books about ideology brought up scores of titles – it is probably no exaggeration to say that I could have researched for the next year and not read enough!

I found Althusser’s writing style to be complex yet repetitive. It seems to me that he is not concerned about the clarity of his prose for the reader. (I at least felt a little better that the blogs of fellow students I looked at seemed to have the same difficulty with his writing style.) The reproduced essay in Evans and Hall is an extremely truncated version of the full text which was published in ‘Lenin and Philosophy’, reading the full essay helped extend my understanding and the development of Althusser’s arguments seemed more logical. Writing down my thoughts was a struggle as I kept hoping that the next piece of study or rereading of the essay would further my understanding, and although it has to an extent I realise I have not been able to give the full response to the questions I would like. Interestingly, the process of putting finger to keyboard has highlighted to me both strengths and weaknesses in my understanding and this is a technique I will try in the next project to see if I can find my blind spots quicker and then return with to more research to fill them in.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Ideology, interpellation, hegemony, structuralism, post-structuralism, empirical, imperialism, alienation, bourgeois, proletariat, alienation, the enlightenment, common sense (Gramsci), ideological consensus, ideological struggle, dominant ideoology, ideological state apparatus, repressive state apparatus, false conciousness, class conciousness, end of ideology, epistemology.

Key figures for further research:

 Karl Marx, Frederick Engels (The German Ideoology), Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations), Morris (workshop based system of production), Antonio Gramsci (Prison Notebooks), Lacan, Satre (bad faith), Geertz, Daniel Bell (end of ideology thesis), George Lukacs, Hegel, Karl Mannheim, Ernesto Laclau, Stuart Hall.


Althusser, L. (2001) Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Bennett, Tony; Grossberg, Lawrence; Morris Meaghan (Eds.) New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, (2005)   Wiley-Blackwell, Revised Edition

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage.

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed, Polity Press

Macey, D. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (2000) London: Penguin books p.9

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, R. (2010) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana Press.