Althusser, who died in 1990, became a very influential French thinker – not only because he was a teacher for many intellectuals, but also because of his outspoken Marxist and anti-humanist opinions. He is known as a philosopher who tried to develop a structuralist version of Marxism. With the general demise of Marxist thinking, however, Althusser’s influence in the intellectual debates has faded away. For most of his life, he was an intellectual ally of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, from whom he took some inspirations especially in regards to his theory of ideology. He was a very clear thinker who was not afraid to take a radical and critical position.
We can summarize his position with the following four points:
He is one of the more conservative interpreters of Marxism today.
His emphasis on the "mode of production" moves Marxism closer to a structural position, and leads to an anti-humanistic stance.
He claims that in Marx we find an epistemological break with the history of thinking before him; including with Hegel.
He suggests a theory of ideology which functions like a link between infrastructure (economy/society) and superstructure (culture/ideas/institutions), and explains the reproduction of an essentially exploitative and destructive constitution of society.
Human subjects are a product of political and socio-economic structure to such a degree that it is impossible for them to return to an underlying inter-subjectivity, or to any form of primordial authenticity. They are not initially intact subjects with a potential to communicate, or to behave in a primordially "authentic" way, who then get thrown into a capitalistic order and experience alienation relative to their position within that order. Any original wholeness – if it ever existed – is lost forever. This de-emphasis of the role of the individual subject, which goes hand in hand with Lacan’s view of the ego as "object" of the unconscious, substantiates the claim of the subject’s complete de-centeredness in relation to truth. The subject is a captive of the ruling ideology; any individualized bourgeois breakout-attempt would already be viewed as a manifestation of this same ideological context.
Althusser wants to develop a structuralist version of historical materialism. He critiques the structuralism of Levi-Strauss as a-historical. His answer: Periodize the history of human societies in terms of the modes of production, as Marx did with his historical materialism.
To use the "mode of production" as central term in the analysis of history is seen as a major epistemological break with all philosophy. Since philosophy (and especially academic philosophy) does not systematically reflect the conditions of its existence relative to the larger society at economic conditions, it continues to propagate the ruling ideologies, and thereby remains a form of thinking permeated by major delusions.
According to Althusser, the epistemological break in the development of Marxism occurs between the young Marx, who is still humanist and Feuerbachian; and the old Marx who broke with the Hegel/Feuerbachian paradigm.
He claims that Marx has achieved 2 things:
He discovered the concept of the mode of production in history
He discovered historical materialism, the science of history, whose object is the mode of production
Althusser disagrees with Marx’ statement that he turned Hegel from the head on his feet.
In the Introduction to the Philosophy of the Spirit Hegel argues against the idea that philosophy could be summarized. You either do it or you don’t; and many people who think they philosophize really just report other people’s thinking. Hegel concludes that because of this there can be no distinction between method and content; dialectics is the movement of the content itself.
Althusser turns this theme against Marx: If dialectics is the movement of the content, then obviously the common denominator between a Hegelian and a Marxian version of dialectics is only the name. Althusser suggests the notion of "over-determination" to replace Hegelian dialectic. He introduces this notion (which is borrowed from Freud) as the result of a reflection of the relationship between infrastructure and superstructure. (To answer Lenins question: why did the socialist revolution happen first in Russia? Answer: The relationship between infrastructure and superstructure is not one-dimensional; other local factors play a role and form a constellation which prepare or does not prepare a country for the revolution.)
Over-determination means that events, structures, totalities and the contradictions which constitute, reproduce, and transform them have multiple determinations. The concept of over-determination is an interpretation of the relation between infrastructure and superstructure; it moves this relation towards a structural understanding of the whole process of historical-materialistic dialectic. As a result of a more structural view, the lines between science, philosophy, and ideology get blurred. A criterion to differentiate between science and ideology, or between Marxist theory and ideology cannot easily be established any more.
Another question arises at this point: Doesn’t the concept of over-determination imply the existence of a meaning as the motivation for events? The de-centering of the subject via the notion of over-determination cannot fully exclude subjectivity. Concepts like over-determination may function to hide the subject, but they cannot completely eliminate it.
Althusser defines ideology as the "lived relation between men and their world." The real relation is transformed into something more "livable"; the distortion between experience and the real is captured by Althusser’s concept of ideology.
Althusser uses the concept of over-determination to show that the reality of the economic level, or the mode of production, is not directly expressed in ideology or in consciousness, but exists in a displaced form in the social formation in question. Therefore, he concludes, the contradictions in the system are over-determined. The subjective appropriation of the over-determination manifests itself as ideology.
Examples for ideological formations are:
Humanism: It speaks of human existence without considering fully the structures into which such speech is embedded.
State: It has two functions: a) as a repressive instrument, and b) it facilitates the reproduction of ideology. Ideology serves to keep the oppression in place.
Ideology has a reality which Marx underestimated in his "German Ideology". Althusser argues that we will always have ideology. It is the "secretion" of societies; it occurs with necessity because people want to make sense out of their lives. In its positive aspects, ideology can be seen as a system of meaning through which we try to adjust to the actual conditions of life in general within society. As long as society is determined by capitalistic contradictions, the real conditions of production function like an unconscious to the ideological self-understanding of a given society or a segment thereof and the members of which it is comprised.
The problem with this view of things is obvious: Althusser treats ideology simultaneously as the illusionary content of a socialized consciousness and as an explanatory concept which he opposes to science. A clean delineation of these two aspects of the notion does not seem to be a simple task any more.
The field of ideology becomes so wide because the subject is excluded as agent from a science of history which has the mode of production as its object.
Althusser insists upon a distinction between the real and the thought process. In "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" Althusser borrows the distinction between the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real from Lacan. He does this in order to explain the relationship between subject and ideology. A subject is constituted in a process of recognition. Ideology formats individuals through the process of socialization; thus creating them as subjects. The act of constitution is simultaneously an act of distortion: the subject itself is in its core ideological.
The real is for him a quasi-Kantian limiting concept , a kind of absolute reference point for thought. Thought is for him either science or ideology; but mainly the latter. Interestingly enough, he drops Lacan’s symbolic dimension in favor of the imaginary mirror relation, the expression of a narcissistic relationship of the subject to itself. The Lacanian imaginary gives weight and substance to the Althusserian conception of an ideological subject.
The distinction becomes clearer if we recall that for Althusser what is represented in ideology is not the real conditions of existence, but the relations one has to those conditions of existence. Althusser, however, understands this symbolically mediated dimension of ideology also as determined by the same imaginary relation between humans and the condition of their existence. An independence of the symbolic (as with Lacan in the emphasis on language) is excluded for Althusser. But if there is no symbolic structure, then what can be distorted? Would this not require an internal differentiation within the imaginary, or within the notion of ideology?
The de-centeredness of the subject is driven to such an extreme that Althusser leaves the language of representation behind (i.e. in the above-mentioned essay) and begins to speak about "apparatuses" and "devices" ("dispositif").
One is reminded on the philosophy of Spinoza (who was influential for Althusser as well as for Lacan) who developed the notion of a divine substance which exists through itself (causa sui) and is the cause of everything else. Whatever else exists is only an attribute of this substance (natura naturans). Althusser constructs a similarly consistent system; Being itself is replaced by a supreme materialism which determines us via the mode of production.