What do we understand by “Ideology” in the Theory of Althusser? How does it function in society, and also in subject formation? In what ways do Foucault’s ideas correspond with or supplement Althusser’s, and to what extent do they conflict with them?
One can hardly discuss the ‘ideology’ of Althusser and Foucault without first disclosing the Marxist foundation upon which their views were laid – Foucault’s theories first, becoming foundations for Althusser’s theories. I will discuss these theories in relation to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.
Marx reversed the idea held in his time, the mid-19th century, that human religious and political society was the creation of divine reason and human consciousness, arguing “that all mental (ideological) systems are the products of real social and economic existence.” (Selden & Widdowson, 1993, p. 71) With his famous architectural metaphor of ideology and politics as ‘superstructure’ that rests upon a material/economical ‘base’, Marx argued:
that what we call ‘culture’ is not an independent reality but is inseparable from the historical conditions in which human beings create their material lives; the relations of exploitation and domination which govern the social and economic order of a particular phase of human history will in some sense ‘determine’ the whole cultural life of the society.” (ibid, p. 71)
Behind these statements lies the understanding of the class struggle created with the destruction of the feudal system of production where workers were self-employed with owned equipment, replaced by the Capitalist mode of factory production with profits going to the owners who paid the workers cheaply for their labour. The ‘Ideology’ that Marx presented, as sociologically driven, arranged by the minority upper classes to control the lives and behaviour of the majority lower working classes, was picked up by later philosophers and literary critics – Lukacs, Althusser, Foucault, Macherey, and Eagleton – and used to show how literature ‘reflected’ this ‘ideology’, presented it, developed it, and promoted it.
A historian, Michel Foucault saw himself as an archaeologist who looked at layers of ideas and concepts. Like Nietzsche, who looked at things from the power position, for example how good and evil are dictated by those in power in society, Foucault looked at how power operates in society through people and their language/discourse. He determined that this discourse is language in relation to power – “the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge; the play of signs defines the anchorages of power”. (Foucault, 1977, p. 88) Access to the diverse and ‘professionally specific’ language/discourse of the ruling, educated class, gives individuals power, while those in the lower class with only a rudimentary language/discourse are subjected by their ignorance. Thus the teaching and acquisition of language is used to perpetuate the power of the dominant over the dominated classes.
Not necessarily oppressive, this discursive power is a controlling force or energy that runs through society. For Foucault:
[o]ur society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance; under the surface of images, one invests bodies in depth; behind the great abstraction of exchange, there continues the meticulous, concrete training of useful forces; …. it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies. (ibid, p. 88)
Interested in social and medical institutions, rather than tracing their history, Foucault looked at the discourses of, for example, madness, sexuality, and illness – as social constructs as well as medical conditions. Via their language/discourse these key concepts are constructed explicitly and implicitly.
The ‘economy’ of discourses – their intrinsic technology, the necessities of their operation, the tactics they employ …. such as] the listening technique, the postulate of causality, the principle of latency, the rule of interpretation, [and] the imperative of medicalization …., the effects of power which underlie them and which they transmit – this, and not a system of representations, is what determines the essential features of what they have to say. (Foucault, 1978, p. 92)
Desirous to see a unified relationship between individual subject and society, Foucault believed this uniformity had to be created by force to control society in either of two ways – by rigid expulsion of individuals (moral / ethnic / religious cleansing); or by imprisonment.
Foucault saw Bentham’s Panopticon, a circular prison block around and open to a central control tower, as a metaphor for the way society imposes discipline on its subjects. He believed it had use as a correctional device in various social capacities, for example as a means of instilling discipline in “a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker, or a schoolboy.” (Foucault, 1977, p. 85) Within the Panopticon, the subject is always visible, but cannot communicate with his neighbours; and the watcher is never visible – in fact may not necessarily be there. The subject is not controlled at all times, but is subject to the possibility of continual surveillance. Thus self-discipline is created – the individuals control themselves. Discipline, as a power, operates in society in the same way –
by ‘specialized’ institutions (the penitentiaries … schools, hospitals … or by pre-existing authorities … family … educational and military, … medical, psychiatric, psychological … administrative apparatus … or finally by state apparatuses whose major … function is to assure that discipline reigns over society as a whole (the police). (ibid, p. 87)
More subtle than Foucault, Louis Althusser, a philosopher and political scientist, expanded on Foucault’s discourse/power theory, exploring the threefold way ideology operated in society. He expounded that the ideology of society represented people’s imaginary versions of the reality in which they lived; that conflicting and diverse ideology ‘interpellates’ individuals as subjects; and that this ideology was controlled by Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) which governed their daily existence overtly and covertly. These ISAs, a less rigid variation on Foucault’s prison, were not necessarily repressive, although they did include prisons, police, army, courts, and government agencies. The social institutions/apparatuses which exercised power ideologically mainly consisted of the religious, educational, family, legal, political, cultural, and all forms of communication/media ‘institutions’.
Ideology imposes itself not simply through consciousness nor through disembodied ideas but through systems and structures; ideology is inscribed in the representations (the signs) and the practices (the rituals) of everyday life. Most importantly, though, it is through ideology that individuals are constituted as ‘subjects’ – (mis)recognizing themselves as free and autonomous beings with unique subjectivities. (Rice & Waugh, 1997, pp. 51-2)
An example of ideology as ‘imaginary reality’ is the different viewpoints held and believed in by different social groups/sectors/ individuals, which often make conflicting demands, within the larger society. Each systematically excludes the other as ‘wrong’, and each lives within his own ideology, unable to escape it. Ideology, rather than being conscious structures or sets of beliefs, are sets of pre-suppositions, values, and assumptions, held unconsciously, which we use to make sense of our lives by describing our relationship with the world in which we live. While they help us to construct our perceived ‘real’ world, this differs from individual to individual, group to group. Our personal perception of the real world is ‘imagined’ – to place us in a position of power within it. Thus, ideology can be delusory, with the imaginary conditions not matching the real conditions.
there is no ideology except by the subject and for subjects. …. [A]ll ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects …. [and that] the existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing. (ibid, pp. 57, 58, 59)
Interpellation calls us into some kind of condition of internalised discipline, which causes individuals to ‘do the right thing’ as if constantly subject to surveillance. Almost all our ethical behaviour operates in the same way, for example our reaction to speed cameras (causing us to slow down), or to red lights on deserted streets late at night (at which we stop and wait for the green light), are controlled by ideology and interpellation. This reaction, this process of being subject to demands, is an ongoing process of ideology, and we believe in the ethics behind our behaviour because of interpellation.
The ideological power, according to Althusser, operates only through the people, including those within the ISAs, who are also ‘subjects’; and the way ideological factors are interpellated differs according to the institutions in question. We are constantly hailed, subjected to, and respond to ideology within ISAs, each of which subjects us to often conflicting ideology in and out of which we move as a subject in process. These conflicting parts of society create a multiplicity of powers that cause the subject (as one in a position of power) to become ‘subjected’ (subjugated beneath the power of others). Language/discourse is the vehicle which interpellates individuals into social positions as subjects. Inherent in both Althusser and Foucault is the notion of the subject in a subjected sense, with the subjects within and the systems of society running themselves. However, Foucault sees this happening controlled externally by institutions and by discourse, while Althusser sees the controls as both external (ISAs) and internal (interpellated self-discipline).
Within novels, characters are subjected to ‘calls’ of contradicting ideologies, their temporal and historical location dictates the ISAs that surround and govern them, and their ideology can determine the novel’s thematic subject matter. Like Althusser, nineteenth century novels were concerned with the relationship of the individual to society; one that was not homogenous, not exactly the same all the way through but full of conflicting social groups with their conflicting claims on individuals. The task of the novel was not to confront the irreconcilable social conflicts, but rather to provide imaginary solutions. Novels have a political/ideological unconscious, which, if they are read carefully, can be discerned in the ‘gaps and silences’ within the texts. Even a tragic death is a resolution of a kind, giving meaning to the contradictions caused by the diverse social conflicts.
In Frankenstein, Shelley uses three individual narratives to show ideology at work in society – how the implicit and explicit controls of their respective societies governed their positions within it and their actions to try to escape it. In Volume One, the first narrative is provided via the letters of Captain Walton to his sister in England. Through these we learn as he replies to her, of her fears for his safety as he rushes to find adventure outside the safe parameters of society. He holds an imaginary version of the reality of his life, seeing himself as the finder of the north polar passage and thus beneficiary of the world. In his first letter he raves about the beauty and wonders of the north polar region, ignoring the possibility of blizzards, icebergs and pack-ice that would crush his ship. His views are idealistic, with little contact with reality – yet it is his reality – an imaginary version of reality.
I may discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle …. I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited …. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death, and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery …This expedition has been the favourite dream of my early years … (Shelley, 1992, pp. 13-14)
The second ideological demonstration of society is provided via Victor Frankenstein’s narrative. He reveals his life story, from birth, with details of the characters and type of society that surround him. For his parents he was
their child, the innocent and helpless creature … whom to bring up to good, and whose future lot was in their hands to direct to happiness or misery, … as they fulfilled their duties towards [him, w]ith this deep consciousness of what they owed towards the being to which they had given life … (ibid, p. 33)
Frankenstein fails to follow their example, when he flees in fear from his creation, the monster, without a thought for his responsibility for its care. He tells Captain Walton that the turning point in his search for scientific truths was caused by the dismissive way his father reacted to his discovery of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. According to the ISA of family that existed at the time, a father need not explain himself to his thirteen-year old son – it should have been enough that he “looked carelessly at the titlepage of [the] book and said, ‘Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash.’” (ibid, p. 38) His father is interpellated as head of the family, the power-figure whose word is law, and Victor is interpellated as young inquisitive school student/son who obeyed those in power. His mother has also been interpellated as young defenceless woman in need of protection, pampering and cosseting back to ‘tranquillity’. With his description of the hovel in which Elizabeth is discovered by his mother, Victor reveals the degree of material and social difference between the classes.
Another ISA is the university faculty at Ingolstadt, which directs Victor’s studies in Chemistry and Natural Philosophy. The two professors who teach Victor are interpellated by him as worthy or unworthy of his attention by appearance and class. M. Kempe he classifies as “that conceited little fellow” (ibid, p. 46) because he is “a little squat man, with a gruff voice and a repulsive countenance …. an uncouth man” (ibid, p. 45) who ridicules Victor’s former obsession with outdated philosophers. On the other hand his reaction to M. Waldman, whose “certain dignity in his mien during his lecture, … [at home] was replaced by the greatest affability and kindness”, (ibid, p. 47) is dictated by Victor’s own sense of position in society (his interpellation), his feeling of equality with Waldman, and his search for the truths of natural philosophy.
Until his creation of the monster, Frankenstein had lived an imaginary version of reality, creating the narrative of his life in relation to his esoteric and laboratory research. He believed in what he was attempting to do – construct a living form animated by electricity to “banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!” (ibid, p. 40) After its creation however, the values instilled in him by his family and society’s ISAs, his sense of right and wrong, as dictated by that society’s morals, alter his ‘imaginary version’ of reality to that held by his community. The enormity of his deed affects him dramatically.
Mingled with the horror, I felt the bitterness of disappoint-ment; dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete! (ibid, p.57)
As legal ISA, the court system, constrained to judge on evidence alone, incarcerates, tries, and hangs Justine, who by her innocence is an individual in conflict with society. The ‘indignation’ and animosity of the general public – a collective group, an ISA by their unity – focusses on her as the perpetrator of a heinous crime, “charging her with the blackest ingratitude”. (ibid, p. 82) This triggers in Victor a need to repair the damage he had caused by destroying his creation even if this means the loss of his own life.
The third narrative is that of the monster in which Shelley blatantly spells out the ideology at work in society. In the Introduction, Maurice Hindle (1991) points out that she
cleverly (some might think not so cleverly [and I am one of them]) … manipulates the plot … by having the Creature learn the language, history, ideas and morals of the world [in other words the ideology of the prevailing society] by eaves-dropping upon the fortuitously placed De Lacey household”. (ibid, p. xxxi)
thus creating a “class-consciousness” (ibid, p. xxxi) in the monster. Even with his acquisition of language/discourse the monster still has no power, because his discourse is borrowed, and not recognized by those with whom he comes in contact. They are so traumatised by his appearance that they fail to hear him. With his ‘education’ the monster learns that man exists in a variety of contradicting forms – he can be
so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base …. a scion of the evil principle … noble and godlike …. [He] heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood. …. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages; but without either he was considered … as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few!” (ibid, p. 116)
This is pure Marxist ideology, yet exhibits the Althusserian notions of the interpellation of individuals as subjects of ISAs, some empowered and others disempowered. The monster has no place in society, is constantly rejected by society, has no name, no identity, and is always ‘the other’. Instead of being an empowered subject or subjugated individual, he is positioned as an object, a Monster, Fiend, Daemon, outside of society’s controls, which, as a result, are ineffective on him. In other words the interpellation that calls us into some kind of condition of internalised discipline, which causes individuals to ‘do the right thing’ as if constantly subject to surveillance is missing. The monster is therefore not bound by moral ethics, and feels no compunction in seeking revenge upon his creator through his family.
With the narrative back in the hands of Frankenstein, he relates how the monster will only yield to the values upheld by Frankenstein, his family, and his society if he creates a companion to validate the monster’s existence. When out of fear for the consequences of possible monster off-spring Frankenstein destroys the half-created companion, the fate of both he and the monster is settled. The idea of revenge and reprisal, of crime and punishment, steps outside the regulated control of ISAs like the police or army. The immediate result of Victor’s broken promise to the monster is the murder of Victor’s friend, Clerval, which causes Victor months of ill-health in jail. With the death of his wife on their wedding night, begins the long pursuit of the monster by his creator that leads them across the polar pack-ice and into the company of Captain Walton and his crew.
With the final narrative back in Walton’s hands, we learn that Frankenstein’s tale has destroyed the ‘imaginary reality’ the Captain had originally lived by. In his final letter to his sister he states that while he is unsure whether he will see England and his ‘dearer friends’ there, his “courage and hopes do not desert” (ibid, p. 205) him – traits instilled in him by the ideology of his society and its ISAs. He continues that “it is terrible to reflect that the lives of all these men …. the brave fellows [who] look towards me for aid …. are endangered through me. If we are lost, my mad schemes are the cause.” (ibid, p. 205)
The monster’s last conversation with Walton presents Shelley’s final attempt to show how ideological power works in society, to engender some sympathy for those oppressed because of it, and to question the need to change this class system.
[W]hile I destroyed [Frankenstein’s] hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were forever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me? …. I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice. (ibid, p. 213)
If ever an individual was in conflict with society and the world in which he lived, then the monster epitomised that being.
(C) Jud House 3/06/1999 & 18/10/2012
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