09 March 2011
In my Theories of the Past course, we just read Althusser's Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. This was my first reading of Althusser (hopefully my Social Theory professor doesn't find out - I was supposed to have read it in that class last semester!), and in our discussion I was struck by how wrong he was. Not that there aren't gems of insight embedded in the essay, but the overall argument simply doesn't hold up empirically. As I understand it, and as it came out in our class discussion and in the explanation provided by our professor, Althusser's claim is a) essentialist, because he claims that there is one dominant ideology and that this ideology is eternal, and b) functionalist, because all thought and behavior within an ideological system - even those that appear to contradict it - inevitably reinforce the dominant ideology. The two are mutually reinforcing. The dominant ideology is eternal because there is no difference within it - it is internally homogeneous - and all actions reinforce the dominant ideology because there can be no other ideology than the dominant one.
As I said, this doesn't bear out empirically. If these two premises were true, then there would be no change, and ideology would have no history. But Althusser himself claims that ideologies have histories - that they come from somewhere - but this cannot be if ideology is internally homogeneous, for where would they come from? If ideology is internally homogenous, then it is also ahistorical, and if it is ahistorical then it is essentialist. If, on the other hand, ideology is not internally homogeneous, then it is not the totalizing force that Althusser claims - all action and thought within a system doesn't inevitably turn toward the dominant ideology. This leaves room for agency and change - thus hope.
I realize that Althusser has been heavily critiqued by post-structuralists like de Certeau, and by feminists, post-colonialists, etc. I'm not saying anything new here, but it's interesting to finally have read some of his work myself and to have been able to see through it the way they have.