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Althusser and Foucault: On the Limits of ‘Ideology’

Phil Thomson

From its roots in marxist theory, the concept of ideology has recently become somewhat
problematized in academic discourse. Part of the reason for this has been some of the radical new articulations
of the concept of ideology which have taken place in the latter part of the twentieth century, particularly those
articulated in structuralist and poststructuralist. This paper will examine two such conceptions of ideology,
beginning with Louis Althusser’s structuralist marxist notion of ideology and its role in subject-formation, and
then moving to Michel Foucault’s radicalized poststructuralist account of subject-formation in relation to a
somewhat different conception of power. From the discussion of Foucault, the limits of the term ideology will
become apparent and those limitations will be discussed with regards to some of the advantages of the term
“hegemony” instead of “ideology”. From there, the paper will conclude with a meditation on the relevance of
hegemony and ideology to a study of the arts.
Let me begin, then, by briefly examining Althusser’s view of ideology. In his piece “Ideology and State
Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)”,_ Althusser introduces the idea of interpellation, by which
ideology brings subjects into being. According to Althusser,
Ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all),
or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have
called interpellation or hailing and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday
police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’

Assuming that the theoretical scene I have just imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn
round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he [sic] becomes a subject. Why?
Because [he] has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him [sic], and that ‘it was really him [sic]
who was hailed’ (and not someone else) (IISA, p. 48).

But if this is the case, then how and by what means precisely does ideology perform this constitutive
interpellation? That is, what is the interpellative agent in this view of ideology? For Althusser, this agent is an
ensemble of what he calls ideological state apparatuses. These apparatuses include religion, education, the
family, the legal system, the political framework, the trade unions, communications networks, and the sphere of
culture in general (IISA, p. 17). Together these institutions form an interpellative framework from which
individuals can never escape; individuals, for Althusser, are always already subjects (pp. 49-50), and can
never step outside of or beyond that ideologically constituted and constituting subjectivity.
Readers of Foucault may recognize traces of this Althusserian mode of subject-formation in much of
Foucault’s later work. For example, in Discipline and Punish_ and The History of Sexuality, Volume I,_
Foucault traces a genealogy of what he calls a micro-physics of power and shows how this micrological power
both produces and regulates certain classes of subjects. While Foucault appears not to have much to say
about a marxist or even Althusserian notion of ideology per se, his view of the conjuncture of power and
discourse, or what he has called power-knowledge, performs much the same function. With this in mind, I want
now to examine some of the similarities and differences between Althusser and Foucault’s respective views on
subject-formation and ideology.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes what he calls the subjection (assujettissement) of the
prisoner’s body.
The man [sic] described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself [sic] the effect of a subjection
much more profound than himself [sic]. A ‘soul’ inhabits him and brings him into existence, which is itself a
factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. This soul is the effect and instrument of a political
anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body (DAP, p. 30).

This Foucauldian soul, which at once produces and regulates the prisoner’s body, is not the soul of
Judeo-Christian theology, but, as he writes, “the effect and instrument” of a micrological power, operating from
innumerable points.
The history of this micro-physics of the punitive power would then be a genealogy of the modern ‘soul’. Rather
than seeing this soul as the reactivated remnants of an ideology, one would see it as the present correlative of
a certain technology of power over the body. It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an
ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the
body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those punished – and, in a more general way, on those
one supervises, trains and corrects, over madmen, children at home and at school, the colonized, over those
who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives (DAP, p. 29).
As the last sentence of the preceding passage indicates, one can extrapolate from the subjection of the
prisoner to a more general theory of subject-formation in which power at once produces and regulates other
subjects, much as ideology does for Althusser. But note how much broader Foucault’s conception of power is
than ideology seems to be for Althusser. For Foucault, power is not reducible to ideology and it is not always
imposed from above as Althusser seems to argue is the case for ideology; indeed, Foucault argues elsewhere
that all power comes from below (HOS, p. 94), and thus, what appears as ideology for Althusser would, for
Foucault, be the consolidation of particular effects of power, and that consolidation itself would be an act of
power. In other words, where Althusser contends that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in and through the
consolidation of ideological state apparatuses to interpellate subjects into being, Foucault might counter that it
is actually power in the micrological sense (the Foucauldian soul) that at once produces and regulates those
subjects. At the same time, that power works to conceal its productive and regulatory operations; it does this by
producing the institutions that Althusser calls ideological state apparatuses and constructing those institutions
as the agents of the very power that brings them into being._
Thus, for Foucault, ideology in the conventional or even Althusserian sense is always already an effect
of power and not the other way around as it seems to be for Althusser. It would seem, then, that more usual
conceptions of ideology are, for Foucault, incomplete in that they frequently (and often tacitly) assume ideology
to be irreducible, whereas ideology in the Foucauldian framework is always reducible to the effects of a
productive and regulatory power. If this is the case, then perhaps that can, in part, account for the current
decline of the term ideology in contemporary academic discourse. Other factors in this decline might include a
desire to escape the marxist legacy of the term in light of the collapse of the so-called socialist bloc in Eastern
Europe, and a desire to shed the term ideology’s problematic multivocity; the term ideology, it seems, has
come to mean so many different things that it now no longer means anything at all. On these counts, it is thus
somewhat understandable that the term “hegemony” is currently in ascendance in academic discourse.
Though the term is used quite broadly, it has thus far escaped the uncontainable proliferation of meaning that
currently makes ideology such a problematic term. Further, despite the fact that “hegemony” was first
introduced in the work of the Italian marxist Antonio Gramsci,_ that term can exceed purely marxist
applications much more easily than the term “ideology” can. Finally, given the traditional application of the term
“ideology” to class politics, perhaps hegemony is more easily applicable to Foucault’s conception of a
micrological power in which class is one aspect of power among others, although in the Foucauldian
framework, the term “hegemony”, like the term “ideology”, would always already be an effect of the operations
of power.
But no matter what terminology one uses, the question arises as to what relevance this kind of theory
has to the arts. There are many possible answers here, but I want to focus on just one, namely that any view of
power and subjectivity, whether ideological (Althusser) or post-ideological (Foucault),_ delineates a set of
constraints within which subversive or counter-hegemonic cultural production must proceed if it is to
accomplish anything at all. For example, if either Foucault of Althusser’s theories of power and subjectivity
have even grain of truth to them and we are all always already subjects, then counter-hegemonic cultural
production must inevitably proceed from within the bounds of that subjectivity. Thus, the Romantic view of the
artist as standing aloof from socio-political reality must be seen as a myth, most likely as a product and effect of
that very reality the artist is said to escape. If it is, then, impossible to step outside of the frameworks that
interpellate or produce and regulate subjects, then the task of the artist who intends to resist those frameworks
is to figure out if and how that resistance can proceed from within the very frameworks being resisted, or
indeed, to figure out if and how those frameworks might open the very possibilities of their own contestation.
To summarize, then, I began this paper by inquiring into the similarities and differences between
Althusser and Foucault’s respective conceptions of subject formation. Where Althusser posits ideology, acting
in and through the institutions he calls ideological state apparatuses, as the agents that interpellate subjects
into existence, Foucault conceives of a micrological ‘soul’, a power operating on the level of micro-physics and
acting from innumerable points, as that which has the effect of at once producing and regulating particular
classes of subject. For Foucault, ideology in the conventional or even Althusserian sense is always already an
effect of power, and thus the necessity arises to rethink the nature of ideology in a Foucauldian or
post-Foucauldian framework. To that end, “hegemony” is, for several reasons, a slightly more useful term than
“ideology”, although it still must, for Foucault, be understood as always already an effect of power. But
regardless of whether or not one uses the term “ideology” at all in one’s account of power and subjectivity, such
theories become useful in the arts by, among other things, providing an account of how subversive or
counter-hegemonic cultural production can proceed; in this case, if Foucault and Althusser are even partly right,
then it would appear that oppositional cultural production must always proceed from within the terms of
subjection in which we are all always already implicated. The task of counter-hegemonic cultural production
becomes, on this view, to determine if and how such production can operate from within the very frameworks of
subjection being contested, or indeed, if and how those frameworks enable the very terms of their own
contestation. In this regard, it is perhaps appropriate to allow Foucault to have the last word.
There are no relations of power without resistances; the latter are all the more real and effective because they
are formed right at the point where relations of power are exercised; resistance to power does not have to
come from elsewhere to be real, nor is it inexorably frustrated through being the compatriot of power. It exists
all the more by being in the same place as power._

Rules are empty are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any
purpose. The successes of history belong to those who are capable of seizing those rules, to replace those
who had used them, to disguise themselves so as to pervert them, invert their meaning, and redirect them
against those who had initially imposed them… so as to overcome the rulers through their own rules._
_ Louis Althusser, “Ideology and State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)” in Essays on Ideology
(London, NY: Verso, 1993), pp. 1-60. Essay first published in 1970 in La Pensée. Further citations will be given
as IISA, followed by page number.
_ Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (NY: Vintage Books,
1991). Further citations will be given as DAP, followed by page number.
_ Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (NY Vintage Books,
1990). Further citations will be given as HOS, followed by page number.
_ The reader will notice here that I use the grammatical convention of referring to power as a subject, i.e.,
“power acts”, “power produces”, etc. It bears mentioning, however, that for Foucault, power is always both
“intentional and nonsubjective” (HOS, p. 94), and thus it is, strictly speaking, inaccurate to cast power as a
subject as I have done here, although I have done so for grammatical convenience. As Judith Butler has put it,
“[t]here is no power that acts, but only a reiterated acting that is power in its persistence and stability” (Judith
Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ [NY: Routledge, 1993], p. 9).
_ See, for example, Quintin Hoare and Geoffery Nowell Smith, ed. and trans., Selections from the Prison
Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (NY: International Publishers, 1971).
_ To use the term ‘post-ideological’ is not, in this case, to concede the ‘end of ideology’ currently proclaimed in
post-Cold War capitalist triumphalism, but rather to recognize a fundamental shift in how ideology is to be
conceived. For Foucault, ideology is to be conceived as more of an effect (of power) than a cause. This is
certainly not to deny the reality of what is called ‘ideology’, but rather to recontextualize that notion within a
different framework.
_ Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon
(Brighton: Harvester, 1980), p. 142.
_ Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. with a preface
by Donald F. Bouchard; trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977), p. 151.