Project Ideology and interpellation

This project involves reading an essay by Althusser entitled Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses (notes towards an investigation) and explores a number of questions arising from this work.

How does Althusser’s structuralism show in the essay

Structuralists work from the point of view that all signifying practices can be analysed to determine their underlying structure. This analysis would reveal the patterns that characterise the underlying system. In the essay Althusser looks at the concept of ideology, analysing the underlying structures which determine how they work. He proposes  two opposing  theses of how  ideologies might be structured and analyses the pros and cons of each. This method of analysis is known as binary opposition and is often used in Structural Analysis.

What does Althusser mean by ideology?

Althusser’s fundamental definition of ideology is Ideology is a representation of an Imaginary Relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence. This definition begs the question of why do men ‘need’ this imaginary representation? A simplistic and historic view is that it is because Priests and Despots have tricked people into believing that by obeying them they would be fulfilling the wishes of God. Marx’s ideas follow on from those of Feuerbach. He contended that it is the workers themselves who become ‘alienated’ or separated from their real conditions of existence, resulting in a condition which Marx calls ‘false consciousness’. Althusser proposes an alternative structure based on the concept of Ideological State Apparatuses.

Althussers’s view is that ideologies have a material form made up of the practices and systems of the particular ideology. At the heart of an ideology is what he calls an ideological ‘conceptual’ device or dispostif. This might be a belief in God, or Duty or justice etc. Individuals believe in these concepts and because of this they freely participate in the practices and processes of the relevant Ideological State Apparatuses. For example, an individual who believes in God, will freely participate in the practices of the Church, which is an Ideological State Apparatus. Althusser proposed that individuals are hailed or interpellated by the ideology and are transformed from individuals to become ‘subjects’.

Overt examples of Althusser’s ideas in contemporary Visual Culture

One example which immediately came to mind is the idea that photographs represent reality. This is a myth which the media has sought to perpetuate, which is also supported by the fact that individuals associate photographs with real events or people in their own lives. Notions such as ‘the camera cannot lie’ have entered folk law and have been used by the media to  sway public opinion. As photography developed and printing of photographs became technologically possible photographs came to be used with text and to support a particular line of argument and to add legitimacy views expressed. These days the use of digital film capture in still and moving form are used in the same way by all media channels. The approach has also been used in Advertising, where  idealised images of models and celebrities are proffered as the ‘truth’ and entice individuals to believe that they too can look like their idols if only they buy the clothes, perfume etc etc.


Althusser, Louis (1978). Lenin and Philosophy. New York:Monthly Review Press.

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