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09 March 2011

Why Althusser Was Wrong


 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.

4 comments:

michael- said...

and he murdered his wife!

Jeremy Trombley said...

Yeah, that too... :)

Jeremy Trombley said...

It should be said, too, that once the fact that agency must exists is made clear it opens up for debate the extent of that agency. Are agents trapped within a dominating structure? If so, what degree of agency do they possess? However, as I mentioned in a previous post, I think this is the wrong frame for considering the problem - agency vs. structure. I suggest instead that we see structure as the progressive piling on - or maybe composition - of myriad agencies.

michael- said...

"I think this is the wrong frame for considering the problem - agency vs. structure. I suggest instead that we see structure as the progressive piling on - or maybe composition - of myriad agencies."

I couldn't agree more. emergent networks of within brains, among bodies and in relation to structures. Might be better to talk about assemblages or 'ecologies of agency'?

I am enjoying where you seem to be heading with all this J, thanks for sharing.

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