Althusser and Foucault: On the Limits of ‘Ideology’

Phil Thomson

From its roots in marxist theory, the concept of ideology has recently become somewhat problematized in academic discourse. Part of the reason for this has been some of the radical new articulations of the concept of ideology which have taken place in the latter part of the twentieth century, particularly those articulated in structuralist and poststructuralist. This paper will examine two such conceptions of ideology, beginning with Louis Althusser’s structuralist marxist notion of ideology and its role in subject-formation, and then moving to Michel Foucault’s radicalized poststructuralist account of subject-formation in relation to a somewhat different conception of power. From the discussion of Foucault, the limits of the term ideology will become apparent and those limitations will be discussed with regards to some of the advantages of the term “hegemony” instead of “ideology”. From there, the paper will conclude with a meditation on the relevance of hegemony and ideology to a study of the arts. Let me begin, then, by briefly examining Althusser’s view of ideology. In his piece “Ideology and State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)”,_ Althusser introduces the idea of interpellation, by which ideology brings subjects into being. According to Althusser, Ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’ Assuming that the theoretical scene I have just imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he [sic] becomes a subject. Why? Because [he] has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him [sic], and that ‘it was really him [sic] who was hailed’ (and not someone else) (IISA, p. 48). But if this is the case, then how and by what means precisely does ideology perform this constitutive interpellation? That is, what is the interpellative agent in this view of ideology? For Althusser, this agent is an ensemble of what he calls ideological state apparatuses. These apparatuses include religion, education, the family, the legal system, the political framework, the trade unions, communications networks, and the sphere of culture in general (IISA, p. 17). Together these institutions form an interpellative framework from which individuals can never escape; individuals, for Althusser, are always already subjects (pp. 49-50), and can never step outside of or beyond that ideologically constituted and constituting subjectivity. Readers of Foucault may recognize traces of this Althusserian mode of subject-formation in much of Foucault’s later work. For example, in Discipline and Punish_ and The History of Sexuality, Volume I,_ Foucault traces a genealogy of what he calls a micro-physics of power and shows how this micrological power both produces and regulates certain classes of subjects. While Foucault appears not to have much to say about a marxist or even Althusserian notion of ideology per se, his view of the conjuncture of power and discourse, or what he has called power-knowledge, performs much the same function. With this in mind, I want now to examine some of the similarities and differences between Althusser and Foucault’s respective views on subject-formation and ideology. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes what he calls the subjection (assujettissement) of the prisoner’s body. The man [sic] described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself [sic] the effect of a subjection much more profound than himself [sic]. A ‘soul’ inhabits him and brings him into existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. This soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body (DAP, p. 30). This Foucauldian soul, which at once produces and regulates the prisoner’s body, is not the soul of Judeo-Christian theology, but, as he writes, “the effect and instrument” of a micrological power, operating from innumerable points. The history of this micro-physics of the punitive power would then be a genealogy of the modern ‘soul’. Rather than seeing this soul as the reactivated remnants of an ideology, one would see it as the present correlative of a certain technology of power over the body. It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished – and, in a more general way, on those one supervises, trains and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized, over those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives (DAP, p. 29).

namely that any view of power and subjectivity. Further. whereas ideology in the Foucauldian framework is always reducible to the effects of a productive and regulatory power. if and how those frameworks enable the very terms of their own contestation. indeed. If it is. and a desire to shed the term ideology’s problematic multivocity. Foucault argues elsewhere that all power comes from below (HOS.As the last sentence of the preceding passage indicates. it is perhaps appropriate to allow Foucault to have the last word. be understood as always already an effect of power. perhaps hegemony is more easily applicable to Foucault’s conception of a micrological power in which class is one aspect of power among others. Finally. For example. among other things. but I want to focus on just one. For Foucault. For Foucault. “hegemony” is. incomplete in that they frequently (and often tacitly) assume ideology to be irreducible. and thus the necessity arises to rethink the nature of ideology in a Foucauldian or post-Foucauldian framework. ideology in the conventional or even Althusserian sense is always already an effect of power and not the other way around as it seems to be for Althusser. To that end. as the agents that interpellate subjects into existence. a slightly more useful term than “ideology”. then counter-hegemonic cultural production must inevitably proceed from within the bounds of that subjectivity. the term ideology. If this is the case. account for the current decline of the term ideology in contemporary academic discourse. then perhaps that can. such theories become useful in the arts by. to determine if and how such production can operate from within the very frameworks of subjection being contested. a power operating on the level of micro-physics and acting from innumerable points. would always already be an effect of the operations of power. given the traditional application of the term “ideology” to class politics. it has thus far escaped the uncontainable proliferation of meaning that currently makes ideology such a problematic term. or indeed. although in the Foucauldian framework. The task of counter-hegemonic cultural production becomes. for Foucault. power is not reducible to ideology and it is not always imposed from above as Althusser seems to argue is the case for ideology. for Foucault. impossible to step outside of the frameworks that interpellate or produce and regulate subjects. or indeed. To summarize. the term “hegemony”. and thus. most likely as a product and effect of that very reality the artist is said to escape. for Foucault. In this regard. But note how much broader Foucault’s conception of power is than ideology seems to be for Althusser. 94). then. the Romantic view of the artist as standing aloof from socio-political reality must be seen as a myth. if Foucault and Althusser are even partly right. then the task of the artist who intends to resist those frameworks is to figure out if and how that resistance can proceed from within the very frameworks being resisted. then. and that consolidation itself would be an act of power. resistance to power does not have to . for Foucault. it seems. what appears as ideology for Althusser would. then. p. in this case. although it still must. be the consolidation of particular effects of power. the question arises as to what relevance this kind of theory has to the arts. There are no relations of power without resistances._ that term can exceed purely marxist applications much more easily than the term “ideology” can. to figure out if and how those frameworks might open the very possibilities of their own contestation. ideology in the conventional or even Althusserian sense is always already an effect of power. Thus. then it would appear that oppositional cultural production must always proceed from within the terms of subjection in which we are all always already implicated. in part._ Thus. has come to mean so many different things that it now no longer means anything at all. There are many possible answers here. like the term “ideology”. It would seem. In other words. I began this paper by inquiring into the similarities and differences between Althusser and Foucault’s respective conceptions of subject formation. despite the fact that “hegemony” was first introduced in the work of the Italian marxist Antonio Gramsci._ delineates a set of constraints within which subversive or counter-hegemonic cultural production must proceed if it is to accomplish anything at all. that more usual conceptions of ideology are. Foucault conceives of a micrological ‘soul’. whether ideological (Althusser) or post-ideological (Foucault). But no matter what terminology one uses. Where Althusser posits ideology. much as ideology does for Althusser. On these counts. Though the term is used quite broadly. one can extrapolate from the subjection of the prisoner to a more general theory of subject-formation in which power at once produces and regulates other subjects. as that which has the effect of at once producing and regulating particular classes of subject. for several reasons. acting in and through the institutions he calls ideological state apparatuses. providing an account of how subversive or counter-hegemonic cultural production can proceed. Other factors in this decline might include a desire to escape the marxist legacy of the term in light of the collapse of the so-called socialist bloc in Eastern Europe. Foucault might counter that it is actually power in the micrological sense (the Foucauldian soul) that at once produces and regulates those subjects. where Althusser contends that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in and through the consolidation of ideological state apparatuses to interpellate subjects into being. if either Foucault of Althusser’s theories of power and subjectivity have even grain of truth to them and we are all always already subjects. But regardless of whether or not one uses the term “ideology” at all in one’s account of power and subjectivity. it does this by producing the institutions that Althusser calls ideological state apparatuses and constructing those institutions as the agents of the very power that brings them into being. At the same time. it is thus somewhat understandable that the term “hegemony” is currently in ascendance in academic discourse. on this view. the latter are all the more real and effective because they are formed right at the point where relations of power are exercised. that power works to conceal its productive and regulatory operations.

to disguise themselves so as to pervert them. 142. inaccurate to cast power as a subject as I have done here. _ The reader will notice here that I use the grammatical convention of referring to power as a subject. _ Michel Foucault. p. 1980). 1977). 1993). trans. Alan Sheridan (NY: Vintage Books. The History of Sexuality. “power produces”._ Rules are empty are empty in themselves.come from elsewhere to be real. etc.. p. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ [NY: Routledge. Quintin Hoare and Geoffery Nowell Smith. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. followed by page number. i. 1-60. . _ To use the term ‘post-ideological’ is not. but only a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and stability” (Judith Butler. 1972-1977. NY: Verso. ed. power is always both “intentional and nonsubjective” (HOS. they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose. This is certainly not to deny the reality of what is called ‘ideology’. “power acts”. ed. 9). in this case. for example. It bears mentioning. although I have done so for grammatical convenience. Essay first published in 1970 in La Pensée. Counter-Memory.e. 1993]. Language. Further citations will be given as IISA. ed. followed by page number. however. Colin Gordon (Brighton: Harvester. strictly speaking. Volume I: An Introduction. For Foucault. to replace those who had used them. 1971). The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing those rules. that for Foucault. 151. Further citations will be given as HOS. and trans. 1991). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (NY: International Publishers. _ Michel Foucault. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. _ Michel Foucault. ideology is to be conceived as more of an effect (of power) than a cause. Further citations will be given as DAP. p. violent and unfinalized. to concede the ‘end of ideology’ currently proclaimed in post-Cold War capitalist triumphalism. and thus it is.. p. and redirect them against those who had initially imposed them… so as to overcome the rulers through their own rules. pp. Robert Hurley (NY Vintage Books. _ See. invert their meaning. trans. It exists all the more by being in the same place as power. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Oxford: Blackwell. nor is it inexorably frustrated through being the compatriot of power. 1990). Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. _ Michel Foucault. trans. “[t]here is no power that acts. 94). followed by page number. As Judith Butler has put it. but rather to recontextualize that notion within a different framework._ _ Louis Althusser. “Ideology and State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)” in Essays on Ideology (London. but rather to recognize a fundamental shift in how ideology is to be conceived. with a preface by Donald F. Bouchard. Donald F.

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