Five Steps For Understanding Althusser’s Concept of Ideology Without Going Insane

1. Skim over Althusser’s book On Ideology after rereading Kapital for Beginners (the comic book). Assuage your guilt about not being truly versed on either philosopher by reminding yourself that Althusser confessed that he’d barely read Marx. In his autobiography The Future Lasts a Long Time he claimed that it was only his knack for catching on quickly, his skill at faking his way along, that made him famous in French intellectual circles. Recall that the point of Althusser’s last book was to explain to the public how and why he’d strangled his wife to death in 1980. The philosopher was apparently in a fugue state brought on by depression when he massaged his wife’s neck until she was dead. Althusser skipped jail and went directly to a mental hospital. He was unfit to stand trial apparently.

2. Buy a Venti Nonfat Latte. Use your iPhone to look up quotes about Althusser while taking gulps of lukewarm latte from your paper cup.

“Ideology is a ‘representation of the Imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.'” -Althusser, On Ideology

Notice the doubling here. Althusser says that ideology is not the way people use their imaginations to represent the world, but rather is the representation of the way people use their imaginations. This means that ideology is not some false picture of the world but our false picture about our false picture.

One ideology might tell us that we have a false picture of the world, that we believe in God for example, because we’ve been manipulated by bad guys. The caste of ancient priests, kings, and queens foisted false stories about the world on us in order to control us.

Another ideology might blame the world itself for our false picture. Living under such poor conditions people needed a God in heaven. After all, who wouldn’t fantasize when faced with the plague?  It was the reality of living in and off our own filth and debris that pushed us into delusion.

But, Althusser isn’t buying these explanations. He says that ideology is simply necessary. Ideologies are fantasies that support our relationships with each other and these false pictures give us our very identities. In fact, we don’t really fantasize about the world, but rather we are the fantasy. Our relationships and thus our very identities are not backed up by anything. There is no true reality being blacked out or denied.

3. Try replacing the word ideology with dream. We aren’t dreaming because we’ve been hypnotized by evil scientists or magicians, neither are we dreaming because we can’t face reality, but rather our dreaming is necessary.

Now at the end of the movie Waking Life by Richard Linklater the director told  a New Age sounding story about a prophetic dream he’d had.  In his dream he’d spoken to an angel.  What Linklater described was his encounter with a messenger of God.

The messenger told Linklater that time is an illusion. It’s an illusion and we always have the capacity to wake up to this fact. We could, at any moment, say ‘yes’ to God and step out of time.  That is, according to Linklater’s dream, life is nothing but the process of our denial, our saying no to eternity. Life is the lie we choose rather than choosing to wake up.
However, Linklater goes on to describe the messenger and it is significant to consider how he described her.

God’s messenger was a dead woman. She was Lady Gregory, Yeat’s patron, and during his dream Linklater realized that Lady Gregory had been dead for decades.  Just as Linklater realized the truth about Lady Gregory she, God’s messenger,  began to vomit up bile and stench.

So, according to Linklater, eternity is the realm of the dead people. Eternity is like something out of a George Romero movie. Eternity is like Michael Jackson’s dead plastic face.

4. Struggle to come up with a fourth step. Think hard and wait for something–a joke, an insight, an ambiguous image– something that will give these four steps a coherent purpose. Finally settle for a quote from a Rolling Stones song. The song “Paint it Black” is being piped into your ears via your Pandora App, and you can’t decide if it, along with the rest of the constant stream of music,  matches your taste or if your taste is being determined by the constant stream of music.

I wanna see the sun blotted out from the sky
I wanna see it painted…black

5. Shrug your shoulders and remain unsure about whether Althusser made any sense at all. TC mark


More From Thought Catalog

  • MaryR

    For sure perplexing, but interesting nonetheless

  • Michael Koh

    I love this, so my brother will love this too.

  • Travis

    We are always hailed by ideology. We always interpret the world via some filter (beginning with language). To believe you have no ideology is an ideology….

    • Douglas Lain

      By George I think you've got it.

  • lsla5511
  • Waicool

    I wonder if this has anything to do with the cavemen trying to figure out what their shadows were.

  • Aelya


    • Douglas Lain


  • hitchins

    you have know idea how useful this would have been a week ago.

    • Douglas Lain

      Sorry about the bad timing.  Any philosophers that you need a cliff notes video for now?  I'll get right on it. :)

  • eferf76
  • Je Sk

    nice one Douglas.

  • eferf67
  • Dave P

    Oh, undergraduates…

    • Douglas Lain

      I'd be glad to know how this brief summary of Althusser's ideas is deficient.  You are either a graduate student or professor?  In any case, what is missing here?

      • Dave P

        The summary is just fine, and good job. It's the references to Waking Life, Starbucks, Rick Astley, and Pandora that made me react that way.

      • Douglas Lain

        The question is whether or not the easy recognition of these pop/internet cultural objects make understanding the concepts in the video and essay easier to grasp, or if I am reducing the ideas to the level of these internet commodities.

      • Dave P

        TC is not the place to expect a detailed explication of ideological state apparatuses. You did a really nice job here and I think your piece will make some people go read Althusser.  And I highly doubt there's much risk of his ideas becoming internet commodities anytime soon. 

        I'm pretty much in favor of nearly anything that can provoke people to read philosophy. Yours is the uncommon piece that actually gets the philosophy right. Too many gloss over or don't even bother reading before writing.Sorry about my initial ivory tower reaction.

      • Douglas Lain

        No problem.  I actually have a BA in philosophy that I earned in the 90s.  I'm returning to philosophy really.  

      • Douglas Lain

        So, in a sense, you're right that this is undergraduate level philosophy.

  • misskimball

    this stuff feeds a hunger in my brain I didn't know I had

    • Douglas Lain

      That's the best compliment I've received in a long time I think.  Thanks!

  • eferf53
  • Thought Catalog

    Reblogged this on The Five Original Hipsters.


    […] Lain, D. (2011). Five Steps for Understanding Althusser’s Concept of Ideology Without Going Insane. Retrieved on January 14, 2015, from:… […]

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