Louis Althusser's "Ideology and
Ideological State Apparatuses"
Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor of
University of Colorado, Boulder, November 6, 2001
Althusser is a structuralist Marxist.
This should make you ask, how can that be? How can you
combine Marxism, which relies on social/historical
analysis, with structuralism, which relies on
ahistorical/asocial analysis? Althusser answers that
initially with distinction between ideologies
(historical/social) and ideology (structural).
This essay as it appears in Critical Theory Since 1965 is
an excerpt from a longer piece discussing the relation
between the State and subjects. Althusser is asking why
subjects are obedient, why people follow the laws, and
why isn't there a revolt/revolution against capitalism.
His view of ideology and ideologies comes out of his
understanding of the relations between State and subject
(between government and citizens), so it's worth while to
examine those ideas for a minute.
The State, for Althusser, is the kind of governmental
formation that arises with capitalism; a state (and you
can substitute the word "nation" here to help
conceptualize what the "State" is) is determined by the
capitalist mode of production and formed to protect its
interests. It is historically true (whether you are a
Marxist or not) that the idea of nations as discrete
units is coterminous with capitalism. It is also possible
that democracy, as an ideology and/or a governmental form
is also coterminous with capitalism, as democracy gives
the "illusion" that all people are equal, and have equal
power (and hence masks relations of economic
Althusser mentions two major mechanisms for insuring that
people within a State behave according to the rules of
that State, even when it's not in their best interests
(in regards to their class positions) to do so. The first
is what Althusser calls the RSA, or Repressive State
Apparatuses, that can enforce behavior directly, such as
the police, and the criminal justice and prison system.
Through these "apparatuses" the state has the power to
force you physically to behave. More importantly for
literary studies, however, are the second mechanism
Althusser investigates, which he calls ISAs, or
Ideological State Apparatuses. These are institutions
which generate ideologies which we as individuals (and
groups) then internalize, and act in accordance with.
These ISAs include schools, religions, the family, legal
systems, politics, arts, sports, etc. (as listed in the
footnote on p.239). These organizations generate systems
of ideas and values, which we as individuals believe (or
don't believe); this is what Althusser examines. How do
we come to internalize, to believe, the ideologies that
these ISAs create, (and thus misrecognize or misrepresent
ourselves as unalienated subjects in capitalism)
Althusser's answer starts with the
distinction between ideologies and ideology. IDEOLOGIES
are specific, historical, and differing; we can talk
about various ideologies, such as Christian ideology,
democratic ideology, feminist ideology, Marxist ideology,
etc. IDEOLOGY, however, is STRUCTURAL. Althusser says
that ideology is a structure, and as such is "eternal,"
i.e. to be studied synchronically; this is why Althusser
says (on p. 240) that ideology has no history. He derives
this idea of ideology as a structure from the Marxist
idea that ideology is part of the superstructure, but he
links the structure of ideology to the idea of the
unconscious, from Freud and from Lacan.
Because ideology is a structure, its
contents will vary, you can fill it up with anything, but
its form, like the structure of the unconscious, is
always the same. And ideology works "unconsciously." Like
language, ideology is a structure/system which we
inhabit, which speaks us, but which gives us the illusion
that we're in charge, that we freely chose to believe the
things we believe, and that we can find lots of reasons
why we believe those things.
Althusser's first premise or thesis (p. 241a, in italics)
is that "Ideology is a 'representation' of the Imaginary
Relationship of Individuals to their Real conditions of
existence." He begins his explanation of this
pronouncement by looking at why people need this
imaginary relation to real conditions of existence. Why
not just understand the real?(p. 241b).
The first answer to this question, Althusser says, comes
from the 18th century, and the idea that ideology comes
from priests and despots. This is basically a conspiracy
theory, which says that a handful of powerful men fooled
the populace into believing these (falsified)
representations/ideas about the world. (This is the
eighteenth-century version of what I've said about
feminism: that the men all got together one day and
invented sexism, and the women were fooled by it).
The second (and, from the Marxist perspective, the
correct) answer is that the material alienation of real
conditions predisposes people to form representations
which distance (alienate) them from these real
conditions. In other words, the material relations of
capitalist production are themselves alienating, but
people can't quite deal with the harsh reality of this,
so they make up stories about how the relations of
production aren't so bad; these stories, or
representations, then alienate them further from the real
(alienating) conditions. The double distancing involved
here, or the alienation of alienation, works like an
analgesic, a pill, to keep us from feeling pain of
alienation; if we didn't have these stories, we'd know
the alienation of the real relations of production, and
we'd probably revolt--or go nuts.
These ideas about representation and reality assume that
what is reflected in the imaginary representation of the
world found in ideology is the "real world," or real
conditions of existence. Althusser says that ideology
doesn't represent the real world per se, but human
beings' RELATION to that real world, to their perceptions
of the real conditions of existence. In fact, we probably
can't know the real world directly; what we know are
always representations of that world, or representations
of our relation to that world. Ideology then is the
imaginary version, the represented version, the stories
we tell ourselves about our relation to the real
So the "real world" becomes, not something that is
objectively out there, but something that is the product
of our relations to it, and of the ideological
representations we make of it--the stories we tell
ourselves about what is real become what is real. That's
how ideology operates.
In more Marxist terms, what ideology does is present
people with representations of their relations to
relations of production, rather than with representations
of the relations of production themselves.
Marxism originally formulated ideology as an illusionary
representation of the relations of people to real
conditions. For example: my real condition, as a
professor, is that of a "cultural worker," someone paid
to perform intellectual labor in teaching. My salary is
not nearly as large as that of a doctor, lawyer, movie
star, or athlete (not even in minor league baseball!!).
What might be considered my "exploitation," or my "real"
economic conditions, are "masked" with an ideology--that
teaching and being a college professor is of high
moral/social value, if not of high economic value, that
the rewards of teaching are immaterial, that I get social
status and respect (instead of money) for being the
repository of knowledge, etc.
That's one notion of ideology: it keeps
me happy, thinking that I am really an important
person, when the real conditions of my economic
existence show how relatively unimportant I am. I buy
into that ideology (that being a professor is
important), and am therefore willing to tolerate my
exploitation (and my alienation from the products of my
own mental labor, i.e. the surplus intellectual value I
create in you) by believing that I get "other" rewards
besides money for doing this job.
Althusser says, by contrast, that my
ideology is an illusion, but it's an illusion, or an
imaginary understanding, not of the relations of
production themselves, but of my relation to them. Thus I
think I'm cool because I'm not working in a factory, and
I think I'm smarter than factory workers because I assume
that factory workers aren't very bright, or they wouldn't
be working in factories.
The relations of production here are in
assuming that factory workers lack education (that
relations of production have structured a relationship
between job and education); my relation to that relation
of production is to feel superior to it. That's what
Althusser says is ideology. Althusser's Thesis II appears
on p. 242b: "Ideology has a material existence."
It's important for Marxists always to be
grounding their analysis in material practices, material
relations (since Marxism is, after all, grounded in
dialectical materialism)--so if we want to talk about
IDEAS, we need to be able to talk about them as MATERIAL
(so that we don't lapse into idealism, or an argument
that ideas are more "real" than material objects).
So, what Althusser does to assert that
ideology is material is to say that ideology always
exists in two places--in an apparatus or practice (such
as a ritual, or other forms of behavior dictated by the
specific ideology) and in a subject, in a person--who is,
by definition, material. Note the insistence on the
material in the italicized quote on 243.
On p. 244, Althusser says that ideology, as material
practice, depends on the notion of the subject. Hence the
two theses on 244: "there is no practice except by and in
an ideology" and "there is no ideology except by the
subject and for subjects". In short, there are no belief
systems, and no practices determined by those belief
systems, unless there is someone believing in them and
acting on those beliefs.
Hence the final part of Althusser's argument: How is it
that individual subjects are constituted in ideological
structures? Or, in other words, how does ideology create
a notion of self or subject?
All ideology has the function of constituting concrete
individuals as subjects--of enlisting them in any belief
system, according to Althusser. That's the main thing
ideology as structure and ideologies as specific belief
systems do--get people (subjects) to believe in them.
There are three main points that Althusser makes about
this process of becoming subjects-in-ideology.
1. We are born into subject-hood--if
only because we're named before we're born; hence we're
2. We are always-already subjects in ideology, in
specific ideologies, which we inhabit, and which we
recognize only as truth or obviousness. Everybody
else's beliefs are recognizable as ideological, i.e.
imaginary/illusory, whereas ours are simply true.
Think, for example, about different religious beliefs.
Everybody who believes in their religion thinks their
religion is true, and everyone else's is just illusion,
3. How does ideology (as structure) get us to become
subjects, and hence not to recognize our subject
positions within any particular ideological formation?
How do we come to believe that our beliefs are simply
true, not relative? Althusser answers this on 245b with
the notion of INTERPELLATION. Ideology INTERPELLATES
individuals as subjects. The word "interpellation"
comes from the same root as the word "appellation,"
which means a name; it's not the same as the
mathematical idea of "interpolation." Interpellation is
a hailing, according to Althusser. A particular
ideology says, in effect, HEY YOU--and we respond ME?
You mean me?? And the ideology says, yes, I mean
You can see examples of this every day in
commercials. I saw one the other night for a home gym
system, claiming that "this machine will give you the
kind of workout you desire, meeting your needs better
than any other home gym." Each instance of "you" in that
ad was an interpellation--the ad seeming to address ME
PERSONALLY (in order to get me to see myself as the "you"
being addressed, and hence to become a subject within its
little ideological structure). This is also what Mr.
Rogers does, when he looks sincerely into the camera and
says "yes, I mean you." It also happens in the Uncle Sam
recruiting posters which say "I want YOU for the
Althusser makes some final points about ideology working
this way to "hail" us as subjects, so that we think these
ideas are individually addressed to us, and hence are
true. He says that ideology, as structure, requires not
only subject but Subject. In using the capital S, he
invokes an idea similar to that of Lacan (whom Althusser
studied and wrote about), that there is a small-s
subject, the individual person, and a capital S Subject,
which is the structural possibility of subjecthood (which
individuals fill). The idea of subject and Subject also
suggests the duality of being a subject, where one is
both the subject OF language/ideology (as in being the
subject of a sentence) and subject TO ideology, having to
obey its rules/laws, and behave as that ideology
The interpellated subject in the ideology of the home gym
commercial would thus order the gym, behave as if
bodybuilding or rigorous exercise was a necessity,
something of central importance. The Subject here would
be some notion of physical perfection, or body cult, the
rules that the subject is subjected to. Althusser uses
the example of Christian religious ideology, with God as
the ultimate Subject--the center of the
On p. 248 Althusser links his ideas about ideology to
Lacan directly, noting that the structure of ideology is
specular (like Lacan's Imaginary, like the mirror
There are a couple of things worth noting about Althusser
as a "bricoleur" of other theorists. Althusser was
enchanted by Freud, and even more enchanted by Lacan; the
ideas of the imaginary, the mirror, the specular, and the
subject/Subject are all gotten from or parallel to
Lacanian notions. Also, as a Marxist, Althusser
privileges SCIENCE as a form of knowing that is outside
of any ideological structure, a type of knowledge that
really IS simply true, because objective and
material--hence his comment on 246 that the only way to
know when ideology is ideological is through scientific
Is this theory useful to literature? Yes, because it
enables us to talk about how a literary text, as a subset
or transformation or production of ideology (or of
specific ideological formations) also constitutes us as
subjects, and speaks to us directly. The most obvious
form of how a literary text might interpellate us as
subjects is one that uses direct address, when the text
says "dear reader" (as Uncle Tom's Cabin does with
annoying frequency). All texts interpellate readers by
some mechanism, in some ways; all texts create subject
positions for readers, whether that construction of
subject positions is obvious or not. We will look at this
idea of subject positions within literary texts further