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An essay on Louis Althusser and Ideological State Apparatuses (2006)

Althusser’s description of what he calls ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) is of particular interest to his reader: “I shall call Ideological State Apparatuses a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions.” (Althusser 42) The compelling detail of this declaration is the word ‘realities.’ As he does not at once address the nature of reality, one can be excused for believing that Althusser is not particularly bothered with it. In fact it is an essential component of the concerned work.

Althusser’s thesis on the structure and function of ideology is divided in a way to prevent the reader from deciding which ‘position’ he takes: “two theses, one negative, the other positive. The first concerns the object which is ‘represented’ in the imaginary form of ideology, the second concerns the materiality of ideology.” (44) But which is the negative thesis and which is the positive? The reader could analyze the semantics of his sentence and deduce that the first is negative, and the second positive. But what if this were not so? Althusser attempts to prevent the reader from merely following his lead. He calls his writing and the reading of it “rituals of ideological recognition, including the ‘obviousness’ with which the ‘truth’ or ‘error’ of my reflections may impose itself on you.” (47)

This “incessant (eternal) practice of ideological recognition” (47) at once establishes the existence of a subject, and requires the subject to make a choice: is Althusser telling the truth, or not? Which is his position, and therefore, the one he believes to be right? According to Althusser’s first thesis, ideology (religious, ethical, legal, political) is that which “does not correspond to reality...[and] constitute[s] an illusion.” (44) Why, then, does Althusser call ISAs a number of realities? Is this first thesis (by virtue of semantics) then negative because it concerns that which is imaginary? Furthermore, when speaking of good and bad subjects, Althusser claims that ideology’s “concrete forms are realized in the Ideological State Apparatuses.” (48) If by ‘concrete’ he means ‘reality,’ then illusions do not exist within ideology’s concrete forms, thus negating his own argument.

Althusser is not attempting to get the reader on side. Instead, he brings to the forefront the requirement of all humans, each day, to pick sides. It is not enough to merely observe. The plurality that Althusser sees in ISAs is actually a series of opposites: reality and illusion; public and private; by violence or by ideology; structure and function; true or false; material or imaginary; the recruiting or transformation of subjects. (47) It should come as no surprise that Althusser presents two theses. It makes all the more difficult for the reader to agree or disagree. To make a choice would defy Althusser’s intent.

The reader will make a decision to agree or disagree with Althusser based on reality (ie. lack of illusion). Is this not merely ideological recognition function, inevitable, perpetuated in an ISA (Langara College)? How can one choose not to choose? It is a practice abhorred in our society (and discouraged by many in academia): one must vote; one must have a gender; one must have a sexuality; one must believe in a religion or not; one must be with or against President Bush; one must be entrenched in reality or a world of illusion. One must agree or disagree with Althusser, though this reader suspects that he would be disappointed with this requirement and would view it as an imposition of sorts.

Wherever there is division, there exists a place in the middle, even if it is on top of a razor thin wall. According to Althusser, ideology recruits those who will perpetuate it, and those who will be swallowed by it. One who hails, and one who turns around to the police officer’s cry of “Hey you.” What of the person who refuses to turn around, even when they know that they are being hailed? This refusal, of course, is criminal.


Althusser, Louis. “Ideological and State Apparatuses.” A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, 2/e. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 2004.

© Christy Frisken

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