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).