Thursday, February 10, 2011

Notes on Althusser's ISA

Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses- Louis Althusser

the following write up on Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses is by Nidhi V. Krishna


In his essay, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser demonstrates that in order to exist, a social formation is required to essentially, continuously and perpetually reproduce the productive forces (labour-power), the conditions of production and the relations of production. The reproduction of productive forces is ensured by the wage system which pays a minimum amount to the workers so that they appear to work day after day, thereby limiting their vertical mobility. The reproduction of the conditions of production and the reproduction of the relations of production happens through the State Apparatuses which are insidious machinations controlled by the capitalist ruling ideology in the context of a class struggle to repress, exploit, extort and subjugate the ruled class.

The Marxist spatial metaphor of the edifice, describes a social formation, constituted by the foundational infrastructure i.e., the economic base on which stands the superstructure comprising of two floors: the Law-the State (politico-legal) and Ideology. Althusser extends this topographical paradigm by stating that the Infrastructural economic base is endowed with an “index of effectivity” which enables it to ultimately determine the functioning of the superstructure. He scrutinizes this structural metaphor by discussing the superstructure in detail. A close study of the superstructure is necessitated due to its relative autonomy over the base and its reciprocal action on the base.

Althusser regards the State as a repressive apparatus which is used by the ruling class as a tool to suppress and dominate the working class. According to Althusser, the basic function of the Repressive State Apparatus (Heads of State, government, police, courts, army etc.) is to intervene and act in favour of the ruling class by repressing the ruled class by violent and coercive means. The Repressive state apparatus (RSA) is controlled by the ruling class, because more often than not, the ruling class possesses State power.

Althusser takes the Marxist theory of the State forward by distinguishing the repressive State Apparatus from the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA). The ISAs consist of an array of institutions and multiple realities that propagate a wide range of ideologies such as Religious ISA, Educational ISA, Family ISA, Legal ISA, Political ISA, Communications ISA, Cultural ISA etc. He accentuates the differences between the RSA and the ISAs as follows:

1. The RSA functions as a unified entity (an organized whole) as opposed to the ISA which is diverse and plural. However, what unites the disparate ISAs is the fact that they are ultimately controlled by the ruling ideology.

2. The RSA function predominantly by means of repression and violence and secondarily by ideology whereas the ISA functions predominantly by ideology and secondarily by repression and violence. The ISA functions in a concealed and a symbolic manner.

He declares that the School has supplanted the Church as being the crucial ISA which augments the reproduction of the relations of production (i.e., the capitalist relations of exploitation) by training the students to become productive forces (labour-power) working for and under the Capitalist agents of exploitation. The Educational ISAs, which assume a dominant role in a Capitalist economy, conceal and mask the ruling class ideology behind its liberating qualities so that their hidden agendas become inconspicuous to the parents of the students.

Althusser compares “ideology” to Freud’s “unconscious”. In the same sense that Freud had stated that the unconscious was eternal, he hypothesizes that ideology too is eternal due to its omnipresence. Therefore, ideology in general has no history.

Althusser posits that it is not possible for a class to hold State power unless and until it exercises its hegemony (domination) over and in the ISA at the same time. The importance of ISAs is understood in the wake of class struggles because ISAs are not only a crucial stake in class struggle but they are also the site of class struggle. The resistances of the exploited classes are able to find means and opportunities to express themselves in the ISAs to overpower the dominant class. An oppressed class can end its oppression by over powering the dominant/ruling class by utilizing the contradictions within the ISAs or by conquering combating positions in the ISAs during struggle.

The crux of Althusser’s argument is the structure and functioning of “ideology”. Althusser explains the structure and functioning of ideology by presenting two theses. Firstly, he posits that ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence. This distortion of reality is caused by material alienation and by the active imagination of oppressive individuals who base their domination and exploitation on the falsified representations of the world in order to enslave the relatively passive minds of the oppressed. Secondly, he posits that ideology always has a material existence in the form of concrete entities or apparatuses (ISAs). Hence, an individual’s belief in various ideologies (imaginary realities) is derived from the ideas of the individual who is a subject endowed with a consciousness that is defined by the ISAs. This (false) consciousness inspires and instigates the subject to behave in certain ways, adopt certain attitudes and participate in certain regular practices which conform to the ideology within which he recognizes himself as a subject. The ideas of the subject are inscribed in the ritual practices based on the “correct” principles of that ideology. Hence, despite the imaginary distortion by ideology, a subject derives his beliefs from the ideas which become his material actions and practices governed by material rituals which are all defined by material ideological apparatus and derived from the same.

Althusser’s central thesis states that ideology transforms individuals as subjects by a process of interpellation or hailing. The Family ISA is at work even before a child is born because it predetermines the identity of the child before its birth. Hence, an individual is always-already a subject. An individual is subjected to various levels of ideological subjection and each level of subjection or each ISA that subjects the individual influences the individual’s day to day activities and thereby determines his real conditions of existence. Further, Althusser demonstrates that the recognition of oneself as a ‘free’ subject within an ideology is only a misrecognition because the notion of a ‘free’ subject in ideology is only an illusion. In reality, the subject is subjugated, limited, restricted and controlled by ideology to such an extent that he has limited freedom and diminutive individual agency. Due to this misrecognition the subject acts and practices rituals steeped in the dominant ideology that are detrimental to his/her own welfare.

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