Murderer and French Marxist philosopher.

Born 1918 in Birmandreïs, Algeria, Louis was the child of middle-class French parents. His fathers work saw the family return to Marseille, where Althusser showed promising academic ability. However, World War II disrupted his chances at further study, as he was drafted into the army. His experience of the war was exasperatingly futile; his company was rounded up by the Germans in 1940, and he spent the next five years in a prisoner of war camp. Soon after the war, Althusser graduated from the Ecole Normale where he soon obtained a teaching post. During his student years, he met his future wife, Helene Legotien. Helene seemed terminally unhappy, and by most accounts, the two were held together by the bond of mutual destructiveness. Despite the popular academic revulsion with Stalinism at the time, he jumped on the red bandwagon by joining the French Communist Party in 1948.

The grim post-war reconstruction period that lent existentialism its appeal soon faded with the economic recovery of the 1960s, and structuralism came into fashion. Althusser and his student Michel Foucault were regarded as strong proponents of this vogue, renovating Marxist theory for the new era. The structuralists stressed the persistence of "deep structures" that underlie all culture, leaving little space for changes wrought by history or human initiative.

Starting from Marx's criticism of empiricism, Althusser rejected the positive content of empirical knowledge entirely. Althusser asserts that Essence is not to be found in Appearance, but must be discovered through 'theoretical practice' - "history features in Marx's Capital as an object of theory, not as a real object, as an 'abstract' (conceptual) object and not as a real-concrete object". Thus the 'real' history lies in a 'beyond', behind the 'theory of history', which is the only true object of knowledge. Althusser further rejects the concept of contradiction in Marx and Hegel, which he sees in structuralist terms as "overdetermination". Althusser saw the early chapters of Marx's Capital not as a key, but a barrier to understanding Marx's view of capitalist society, advising readers to begin Capital with Part II. Althusser thus arrives not at a revision, but at a complete negation of Marx.

Much of Althusser's work was an attempt to explain why there hadn't been a Communist revolution. Instead of a cause and effect relationship between ideology and the economic base of society, Althusser redefined ideology as a continuous and all-pervasive set of practices in which all groups and classes participate in their manipulation. With everyone participating, the task of overthrowing the capitalist running dog lackeys was almost impossible. This participatory model, where even the oppressed classes join forces to oppress themselves is similar to Gramsci's notions of hegemony. However, Althusser's theory is more pessimistic insofar as it makes social change appear unlikely. Gramsci, on the other hand, allows a much greater role for resistance, and recognizes the opportunity for social change within a capitalist system.

Over the last thirty years of his life, Althusser was diagnosed as manic depressive and was hospitalized multiple times. Much of his later work reflects his state of mind, with bouts of manic creativity followed by long creative droughts. For quite some time, his colleagues had considered him suicidal but never a threat to others. On November 16, 1980, Althusser ran into the courtyard of the Ecole Normale in a state of confusion, screaming "My wife is dead." The police found no sign of struggle or violence. The authorities attributed Althusser's ravings to his depression. An autopsy revealed that Althusser's wife had been strangled without protest. According to Althusser's memoirs, she had previously begged him to kill her, but he had refused.

Althusser was deemed unfit to stand trial, and languished in a psychiatric hospital for three years. He spent his final years in a flat in Paris, emerging occasionally to accost passers-by with the statement "Je suis le grand Althusser!". He died in 1990, leaving behind his autobiography, The Future Lasts Forever, and an unstoppable juggernaut of Marxist theory.


Key Works

Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever, A Memoir. New York: The New Press, 1994.
_____., Lenin and Philosophy. Trans. by Ben Brewster. London: Monthly Review Press, 1971
_____., For Marx
_____., Reading Capital

Louis Althusser: neo-Marxist (post-Marxist?)


This node is my attempt at explaining Althusser's thoughts on the Subject (I might tend to make Althusser seem a little more Foucauldian than he is..sorry to any Althusser experts.)

What does Althusser mean when he says that “ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects”?

Althusser means that the ‘subject’ is created by the process of general ideology (but always through particular ideological state apparatuses) working on the concrete (historical, material) individual. This complex relation is perhaps better understood if we can better understand the terms being used.

The subject is an entity that is formed through the working of ideology on ‘individuals’. (The separation of individual from subject is, however, purely an abstract one, because for Althusser “individuals are always-already subjects” 97. That is, we cannot separate the ‘individual’ from the subject.) That the individual is ‘always-already’ the subject is a result of the way in which the individual is ‘created’ (a misleading term which indicates some sort of causal relationship) by ideological forces. Though this definition of the subject begs the question posed above, it will be further explained by Althusser’s explication of ‘ideology’.

In defining ‘ideology’ Althusser states that, “the existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing” 96 and also that, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects…”95. So ideology/hailing/interpellation (which Althusser compares to literal hailing: i.e. that ideology says “Hey!” and the subject responds to the hail, and is thus subjectified by the process of hailing) are all the same process, by which the individual is ‘subjectified’. All this is somewhat confusing, so I think it would be beneficial to look more closely at this process of ideology.

To illustrate how this process works, Althusser uses the historical example of the “Christian Religious Ideology98. Within this particular ideological state apparatus (which is illustrative of the general, ahistorical process of ideology), the subject is formed uniquely by the relationship between the Subject (God/the Trinity) and the subject (the Christian individual). Althusser states that:

the Christian religious ideology says something like this: …I address myself to you, a human individual called Peter (every individual is called by his name, in the passive tense, it is never he who provides his own name), in order to tell you that God exists and that you are answerable to Him. It adds: God addresses himself to you through my voice (ScripturePapal Infallibility…). It says: this is who you are: you are Peter! This is your origin, you were created by God for all eternity, although you were born in the 1920th year of Our Lord! This is your place in the world! This is what you must do! By these means, if you observe the ‘law of love’ you will be saved, you, Peter, and will beome part of the Glorious Body of Christ! Etc….” 98.

But, the formation of subjects does not consist exclusively in this hailing by the ideological state apparatus (in this case exemplified by the Christian Church). The individual to be subjectified must also respond to the interpellation/hailing. It must “obtain from them the recognition that they really do occupy the place it designates for them as theirs in the world…” 99.

To revisit the original question again, what does Althusser mean when he says that ideology functions to constitute individuals as subjects? He means that through various particular ideological state apparatuses (the school, the church, the family, etc.) the concrete (material?) individual is transformed into a subject through a process that requires a ‘hailing’ (which designates the individual’s place/role in the world) and also, importantly, some form of recognition of that hailing by the individual. When this process has been completed, the individual has become the subject of ideology.



Yeah, I'm noding my homework, like it or lump it.
All references are to....

Louis Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses", in Contemporary Critical Theory edited by Dan Latimer (San Diego, Harcourt Publishing, 1989).

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