Project : Ideology and Interpretation

Summary: The OCA guide

Alienation: Marx conceived that the working class was alienated from the totality of  the product of his labour. Groups and individuals become alienated. William Morris introduced the idea of workshop production in Arts and Crafts partly as a response to this.

Hegemony: Antonio Gramsci introduced the idea of Hegemony, as the control exercised by the ruling classes over the working classes, via their confidence and position in the production system.

Ideology: Marx used the term critically for ideas only without any empirical evidence, but later began to change the use to mean a system of philosophy, economics and power. Idealism (Utopianism) is different. Althusser changed the classical Marxist view of society by saying that the Arts had some influence on it (he was a Structuralist).

False Consciousness:  is the state of the working class in thinking they have similar interests to the ruling class. This is due to self delusion but also the influence of the dominant ideology.

(Haveland, 2009:25)



Text: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

Althusser defines ideology in his initial thesis as ‘a ‘‘representation’’ of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their existence’ (Althusser,1993:317). He goes on to discuss 2 important aspects of ideology-it’s structure and function, which I think of as what and why it is.  Several ideologies (religion, justice, duty…) are cited, and we are told that these are understood by some (eg. Non believers-in the case of religion) to be imaginary or illusion/allusion, but which can be interpreted to show the underlying reality.  The ‘interpretation’ by ‘non believer’s’ allows that the imaginary illusion represents the actual world of men. Althusser then reposes the what and why question by asking why is the relationship of man to his world/society set up as this imaginary ideology, and what the nature of the imaginariness is.

Althusser’s second thesis states that ‘Ideology has a material existence’, and he remarks that Ideological State Apparatuses exist to subject the ideology of the people to the ruling ideology. Additionally ideology is always present in an apparatus and how it functions. Whilst the existence of the ideology is not material (like something we can see or touch), it is material in the sense that it is rooted in material things. This then leads the author to deduce that the imaginary relation of the people to their world/society/class and production relationships is real too.

I agree with this idea that an imaginary thing is to some extent real. It seems to be accepting that words can be used to define ideas, and that words can be imbued with subtle shades of meaning (is this semantics or semiology?), which allows for subtle arguments and conclusions. Is this deduction or induction in process? I think the author defines his basis, using words like  ideas, ideology, practice etc  and then draws out further meaning, statements, and structure  based on this; which therefore implies an Inductive argument. (Deduction = working from the general to the specific, and Induction is working from the specific to the general (Trochim, 2006).

In the case of the individual subject, Althusser posits that the ideas which his own consciousness freely accepts, require him to behave in a certain way, practice according to his own ideology’s particular ISA’s, and that not to do these things is ‘wicked’ ie he must ‘act according to his ideas’ (Althusser, 1993: 319).  Even if he does not do these things it is not because he has no belief in the ideology, but that he does not conform to the good of the imaginary scheme-rather to the bad/wicked in it.

As I understand it Althusser has thus attempted to extend the Ideology has a material existence’, and he remarks that Ideological State Apparatuses exist to subject the ideology of the people to the ruling ideology In a final clarification of the different material manifestations of this imaginary belief, the author suggests that the individual’s  imaginary ideas are made material through his material acts, which are themselves subsumed into the  larger material concepts of practice-ritual- and the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) of his belief system.

Althusser now (rather arbitrarily?) says that the word ideas has disappeared from the system, whilst other words remain (eg. beliefs, subjects), and new words have appeared (eg. practice, ritual, ISAs) (Althusser, 1993:319). Although the arguments here are subtle and difficult, the author uses plenty of highly illuminating concrete examples throughout, which clarify the argument for the reader.  I can easily visualise how these word lists might be used to label the individual constituents within the framework of a church mass, for example.

Due to the complexity of the language and argument here, many of the conclusions almost seem like arbitrary word trickery! The only way to discount this would be to read and reread the passage carefully, in order to follow and ascertain that the argument is logical and fair given the assumptions (this is an inductive argument). My lack of experience of following this style of argument makes it difficult to follow.  My difficulties and my  assumption of a certain amount of arbitrariness and trickery is most likely due to the vague and narrow definition I preconceive of the important words eg idea, belief, etc… These words seem almost identical to me, but for the purposes of the argument here they are not, and must be, mutually exclusive -otherwise how can one drop out but the other survive? On closer inspection the word idea here implies a free consciousness, whereas belief implies an enslaved agreement with a set of material acts. Perhaps this argument could be rewritten  in the alternative language of mathematics and set theory?

Althusser clarifies his argument saying that ideas (as defined spiritually) have been replaced with a set of objects thus;

Ideas (spiritual/freely accepted)–beliefs–actions—practice—ritual–ISA–ideology of ISA

and that crucially, the nature of the existence actually flows from Right to left (beliefs are determined by the system of ideology), and not left to Right (beliefs inform all the consecutive concepts-ending with ideology). By now the underlying argument has become much clearer

Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects

There follows a rather complicated and subtle section, from which I understand that according to the clarification summarised above, ideology is determined by the subject alone, and that the category/actions of the subject determine the category of the ideology.  Another useful clarification is now made –that we exist as subjects of ideology (which is obvious) to the same extent as the concept of an elephant exists in the word ‘elephant’- which Althusser calls the ‘elementary ideological effect’ (Althusser, 1993:320).

The ideological recognition function is clarified by an example of the dual  meaning within the words ‘’it’s me’’ uttered from behind a door. As I understand this example the voice  is the voice of X (and it is the person of X), clarified only as the person (X) when you open the door to them. We are recognised as individual/ subject in the same way as ‘its me’ is a voice which may not be specific to a person, but is a part of a bigger subject of a specific person.

Althusser continues ; Ideology acts or functions on individuals by interpellation, rather like the exclamation ‘Hey you! acts on (by interpellation)  an individual, (who becomes a subject when he thus turns round showing it was he who was hailed-not another). This rather complicated argument then states that by analogy the ‘hey you’ scene acts both inside the street/outside ideology and also outside the street/inside ideology and that everything that takes place within ideology can also take place without ideology. The subtle and complex language used in this section can be appreciated by the following statement

‘one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says ‘’I am ideological.’’ (Althusser,1993:321)

Another concrete example of an analogous example follows. That humans are already subjects before they are born (its assumed that it will be a happy day, they will be a boy or girl, be given a form of  first name according to this, and that they will take the paternal surname, and that once born they are subjects of a system which expects them to develop as sexual subjects in set ways, and into adults through education etc.

Here again words seem to be used in complicated ways with many shades of meaning. Is it possible to think of words here in the same way as we do during semiological arguments? Althusser suggests this is so by stating earlier that we are subjects, and this is obvious, in the same way as we know that a word can both ‘name a thing’ and ‘have a meaning’(Althusser, 1993:320). If we take an analysis of a bunch of roses given to represent passion (Barthes, 1993:52), Barthes analyses the language through the use of the roses (the signifier), passion (the signified), and roses given with passion in mind (the sign). He suggests that the rose and passion exist beforehand, and they are both united to give the sign. Barthes states that there are ‘functional implications’ between the 3 semiological terms, which seems to me to make them useful tools in the analysis of ideology.

With this in mind my attempt to analyse the relationships between the words given in Althusser’s next  example of ‘Christian Religious ideology’(Althusser, 1993:321) might proceed as follows.  Peter is an individual-the signifier, a Christian is one who believes in God and the Church-the ideology – here labelled the signified, and Peter the Christian, is the subject (the sign) -who is at the centre of a specular relationship with God. These words seem somehow to have taken on different amounts of carrying capacity for ideas, which may loosely equate with semiological terms?

I would like at this point to broaden the scope of ideology, from the examples given within this essay to other ideologies. The two ‘ism’s’ colonialism, and racism,  may be less  obvious ideologies, but they do fit Althusser’s definition of the word.

The first example comes in a brilliant discussion of Alexander Von Humboldt travels in South America in the late 18th – early 19th Century, and the reinvention of the continent for his European readers, through dramatic travel writings and descriptions which concentrate on  the dramatic untamed power of the plains, mountains and lakes of this continent (Pratt,1993). The author intelligently argues that Van Humboldt’s approach to his description of the continent for his European readers is not informed solely by the Romantic ideology (spiritual aesthetics, industrialism, occult forces and scientific developments etc.).  Instead, we must recognise that the factors at work within this Romantic style ‘were conditioned by a particular historical and ideological juncture, and particular relations of power and privilege’ (Pratt,1993:430), and were rooted firmly in Spanish colonial infrastructure.

Kobena Mercer’s sophisticated  discussion of  racism in the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe (Mercer, 1993), seems to suggest that it has aspects of ideology. The author discusses the stereotyped way that Mapplethorpe photographs black male nudes.  He suggests that aspects of the practice of Mapplethorpe’s photography ‘facilitate the imaginary projection of certain racial and sexual fantasies about the black male body’ (Mercer, 1993:436). These include subjects being uniformly nude, and having no other context, suggesting stereotypical anxiety about white male sexuality and black male hyper-sexuality.

In Mercer’s discussion we meet ideas as acts/practice, and an ‘imaginary projection’ of reality, so I feel that an alternative way of stating the charge is that the artist is accused of being what Althusser would call the subject of racist ideology. The idea of a fixity imposed by the white man’s stereotypical view of the black male image is also discussed, and could correspond to Althusser’s idea  that ideology corresponds to  ‘imaginary distortion’ of reality (Althusser, 1993:318). Fixity is also central to the ‘idealogical construction of otherness’ (Bhabba cited in  Mercer, 1993) which is important to colonialism, and presumably to many other prejudices.

To return to Althusser’s essay, he next develops the idea of ‘subjects’ of ideology further. Through the example of the Christian religious world  Althuusser lists the many interpellations/callings which religious subjects are subjected to  as individuals (this seems to be important to the argument, though why can’t they be god’s children ie a group?) by GOD. These include- the things you must practice (rituals etc), that you will be saved, will go to heaven (or hell), and the wide range of doctrinal and behavioural ideas they must accept. Althusser says that all this ‘‘procedure’ to set up Christian religious subjects’’ implies the strange fact that there must be a ‘Unique,  Absolute  ‘Other subject’ ie. God…’ (Althusser,1993:322)

The concept of a speculary (mirror like) relationship is then described. In all Ideologies, the subject is interpellated (called) through a Unique and Absolute Subject (ie the structure is mirrored), and also ensures its function (doubly speculary?). Althusser describes a quadruple system of interpellation where the individual is interpellated as a subject, is subjected to the Subject, is universally recognised (by Subject, other subjects, and themselves), and is guaranteed ‘OK ness’ if they comply. This ensures that individuals work at their assigned practice, with obedience to the Subject, and with a sense that this is OK.

I found the final discussion on the subject rather difficult to understand fully.  Its possible that rereading the text and relating the ideas to other examples of ideologies (concerning sex, social status etc…) may help me to understand this better.



In your BLOG…….

Althusser’s take on Marxist Literature has a strong bearing on contemporary attitudes to the way the viewer, reader, or spectator becomes the subject.

How does Althusser’s structuralism show here?

The free dictionary defines structuralism as

‘ A method of analyzing phenomena, as in anthropology, linguistics, psychology, or literature, chiefly characterized by contrasting the elemental components of the phenomena in a system of binary opposition and examining how the elemental components are combined to make larger units’   (The Free Dictionary (2016))

The structuralism probably explains some of my difficulty in following the argument- I am unused to the method.  Althusser has looked into the structure of the language and the meaning of the words in order to come up with the final theses.  The first thesis is stated ‘ideology is a ‘representation’  of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real  conditions of existence’, and Althusser begins to execute a route towards its justification (I have made bold important words).

Althusser begins to prove that each of the terms/words in this thesis are reasonable, by deconstructing it.

  1. Ideology is similar to world outlook (more similar than  dissimilar) (step 1 of the  breakdown)
  2. We admit world outlooks are largely imaginary (an illusion) (do not correspond to reality) (step 2 of the breakdown)
  3. But we admit that these imaginary illusions can however be interpreted to discover the reality behind them (they allude to the reality of the world). (step 3)

Conclusion: ideology (outlook) does not correspond to reality but does allude to it.


By looking at the words, and by comparing them with their opposites, and seeing which is more rational, Althusser seems to justify the words and therefore the thesis. The method is not totally clear to me, but the basics are visible.  He builds up the thesis by examining what is meant by the individual words (the meanings they carry).

Structuralism therefore adds some specific theory to help me overcome my previously more vague understanding. I thought  his argument was in some way inductive (and he does seem to define thesis by analysis of the meaning of smaller words)  and connected to the subtle meanings of the words ( the meaning of the words is connected to their relationship to one another), and a little arbitrary (representing my lack of knowledge of the method!)


What does Althusser mean by Ideology?

Althusser gives us many broad statements of the word/concept, and perhaps the most succinct corresponds to thesis 1 (see above). However, the more sophisticated breakdown of the term includes

  1. Interpellation of individual subjects
  2. Subjection of subject to a Unique other Subject
  3. Recognition of subject by subject, subject and Subject, and subject of himself
  4. A feeling that things are really like this, and will be ok if a subject plays by the rules

and the involvement of  Acts, rituals, and idealogical state apparatuses within Ideology.



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 Hollywood film industry seems to overtly satisfy the conditions of an Ideology. It interpellates its subjects by asking them if they want to be involved, via adverts which are big and glossy and glamorous (huge billboards, TV adverts etc). The moving picture ads are formulaic, often showing exciting, multiple edited clips, with plenty of emotion, flashing lights, drama, explosions, noise, often winding up into an orgasmic ending –followed by  a calmer finish with the films details and roll  call. One is attracted to the film through its story, its stars, director, or its ‘look’ and becomes the subject of the Hollywood machine for the price of cinema entry.

The unique Subject can be considered the Hollywood star or dream. It consists of actors and directors who are outrageously famous, rich, brave, clever, sexy, good etc, such as Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in the film Allied (Fig 1.). They are a distillation of ‘the perfect being’ and as such are a unique entity. We gladly subject ourselves to their glamour and fame. According to Althusser’s plan subjects recognise each other and themselves; we all enjoy going to the cinema (it is  in some ways an iconic venue), and we enjoy it because of the atmosphere we get which can’t be  matched by home viewing. The movie stars recognise us as subjects, when they discuss their latest films for us on TV talk shows, or through their endorsement of their official fanclub or website.  We carry out our cinema  ideology through the acts and rituals of  inviting a date to the cinema, queing for tickets, buying supplementary  fizzy drinks, popcorn and burgers, and the gigantic multiplex cinema is the main Ideological state apparatus.  Hollywood films often have distinctly predictable endings, consisting of heroic rescues, heroic retribution, or heroic consummation of  romances (compare to the smaller budget independent films which often have edgier content and more artistic vision). This is the dream sold to the subjects, and we believe that this is how the world is (at least for the duration of the film-or until we get through to next weekend and the next film). Because we believe in the story and people in the film our lives are made better, we are hopeful, and happy, and everything is OK.

Interestingly, the ideas and ethos behind Hollywood films could be thought of as very ‘white’. In an excellent dissection of the stereotypical portrayals of Whites and Blacks in the film Simba (1955), Richard Dyer highlights aspects of the film which are associated with the white characters, and contrasts them with their binary opposites which accompany the black ones (Dyer, 1993). White characteristics include modernity, reason, order, stability, light, high key lighting, highly technical editing processes, and emotional/character development of  the central character (played by Dirk Bogarde) during the course of the film. This is a complex film and analysis, and portrayal of people of colour has moved on considerably since 1955. However, in 2016 there were no black nominees for the best actor and actress at the Oscars, and black faces are still far less numerous on the silver screen. It would be interesting to analyse modern Hollywood films to see if the stereotypes of white and black were still working to some degree.

Fig.1 Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in ‘Allied’ (2016)




Fig.1 Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in ‘Allied’ (2016) [poster]. At (Accessed Dec 2nd  2016).



Althusser, L (1993). ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’. In visual culture: A reader. Evans, J and Hall,,S (eds), London. SAGE Publications.   p317-324

Barthes, R (1993).  ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   P33-41

Bhabba, H. K. (1983) cited in Mercer, K. (1993). ‘Reading racial fetishism: the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.     p435-448

Dyer, R. (1993). ‘White’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.     p457-466.

Haveland, P. (2009)  Visual Studies 1 Understannding Visual Culture. Barnsley : Open College of the Arts

Mercer, K. (1993). ‘Reading racial fetishism: the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe’. In visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.     p435-448

Pratt, M.L. (1993). ‘Alexander Von Humboldt and the reinvention of America’ in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.    p421-435.

The Free Dictionary (2016). Farlex Ltd. at accessed 2nd December 2016.

Trochim, William M (2006) . The Research Methods Knowledge Base, 2nd Edition. At [], accessed on 2 December 2016.