The Schizoanalytic Critique of Althusser on Ideology

This is the first installment of an essay on “Nomad Citizenship revisited” (announced and outlined in a post here at the beginning of February).

Deleuze and Guattari’s fundamental agreements with Althusser are numerous: the attempt to salvage Marxism from Hegelianism by drawing instead on Spinoza; the “Problematic” status of the economic as a virtual structure expressed and masked by actual solutions; the importance of the division of labor as social multiplicity (relative to class struggle); and the “becoming-necessary” of a mode of production as a result of machinic processes rather than as a point of departure.  Yet despite these fundamental areas of agreement, Deleuze and Guattari vehemently reject the notion of ideology – even the new and improved version Althusser proposed, drawing on Lacan, in his famous essay on Ideological State Apparatuses.  They rejected standard notions of ideology for overemphasizing cognition and ignoring the primacy of desire: ideology would not be an instance of “seeing is believing,” but of “believing (desiring) is seeing”: people see what they want to see, what they desire.  But Althusser’s Lacanian version of ideology does center on desire: desire as desire of the Other.  Althusser ingeniously redefines ideology as the constitution of the Subject through interpellation by what Zizek calls the “big Other” – a composite and ultimately fictitious figure based on such real-life authorities as fathers, teachers, preachers, leaders, the police, and the boss.  Crucial for Althusser is that all these figure-heads operate within various Ideological State Apparatuses, and these Apparatuses all align to reproduce the capitalist mode of production, which is the core function of the State.  While recognizing the preponderance of (usually State-run) school-systems in fulfilling this function, Althusser dramatizes the structure of ideology by staging a scene where the Subject emerges through interpellation by turning around when a police officer shouts “Hey you!”

Deleuze and Guattari would agree that a kind of chain of equivalence links the various figure-heads ranging from father to boss as Oedipal authorities, since the father’s authority within the Oedipus complex is itself derived from various forms of despotic authority within social institutions such as the church and the State to begin with.  But what Althusser actually describes is not the ideological constitution of the Subject, but only of the citizen.  This is most dramatically evident in the scene of interpellation with the policeman; but insofar as the function of ideology in all institutions is to reproduce (or challenge the reproduction of) the State, what Althusser indentifies as subjectivity is actually no more than citizenship.  Subjectivity is in fact far more polymorphous than this: the subject qua child, sibling, student, worker, hobbyist, parent, lifestyle-consumer – don’t all align on the citizen-subject, which exists alongside them rather than subsuming them.  The State is not, in other words, the “big Other” from which other instances derive, nor does it found or guarantee their coherence or alignment: just as much as the mode of production, the State only tends toward consistency or is always only becoming-necessary as a result of machinic processes which are themselves disparate, heterogeneous, multiple.  (This is to say, in a very different idiom, that subjectivity is always radically “intersectional”.)

Yet schizoanalysis never denies that the nuclear family contributes to the constitution of subjectivity.  What schizoanalysis does deny is that the nuclear family is the only or even the most important factor in the formation of subjectivity: rather, the family operates along with other institutions; indeed, it serves to relay determinations from these other institutions to emergent subjectivity in its earliest stages of formation (infancy-childhood).  And it also denies, perhaps even more importantly, the Oedipal precept that the relation to the Father or the name-of-the-Father is ultimately the most important axis of intersubjectivity within the nuclear family.  For placing the Oedipal Father at the core of the nuclear family privileges relations of obedience/disobedience in the constitution of subjectivity – precisely the relationship that is central to the Subject’s interpellation by the police and the other big Others in all of Althusser’s ISAs: citizen-subjects either consent or refuse to contribute to the reproduction of the mode of production at the behest of the State.  (Notice that the relationship to the big Other and the binary alternative obey/disobey situate the Father-relation predominantly in the Symbolic and Imaginary registers.)  What’s more, focusing on the Father obscures relations with the Mother, which Deleuze and Guattari consider more important and more fundamental.

Originary maternal relations are comprised not by the binary alternative between obeying and disobeying, but by an exceedingly complex admixture of pleasure and nourishment.  They are part-object relations situated in the body, rather than whole-object relations defined by meaning.  They are Real relations that subsist even while getting over-written in the Imaginary and Symbolic registers, and even when the placenta and then the breast get displaced by other, more worldly sources of nourishment and gratification, as the Subject moves beyond the nuclear family through other institutions such as school cafeterias, grocery stores, and restaurants, nightclubs, shopping malls, and online dating sites – each and every one of which contributes in some degree to the polymorphous constitution of subjectivity.  And these institutions do so not by means of interpellation alone, but also by a process of “solicitation” or attraction promising some measure and form of nourishment and/or gratification, however attenuated, sublimated, varied or perverse.  So these originally “maternal” relations are not “pre-Oedipal” in any chronological sense: they remain in effect, as Real and as necessary, throughout life; in this sense, they are as much “post-Oedipal” as they are “pre-Oedipal”.  But in a more important sense, they are anti-Oedipal: as part-object relations, they defy all logics of identity and unification, denying the (Imaginary) authority of the big Other, the (Imaginary) coherence of the Symbolic order – and any (equally Imaginary) alignment of institutions on the sole State function of reproducing the mode of production.  In reality, then, Althusser’s “apparatuses” are neither ideological nor state-centric: what they constitute is not a citizen-subject – or not only a citizen-subject – but a polymorphous, intersectional, schizophrenic subject.

The next step will be to explore the dynamic of “interpellation/solicitation” within complex institutions operating without a big Other authority-figure, or whose operation involves forces and relations of which an authority-figure-head is merely an expression, a lightening-rod, and/or a mask.


4 thoughts on “The Schizoanalytic Critique of Althusser on Ideology

  1. Hi Eugene,

    Loved the post and looking forward to see how you return to Nomad Citizenship! One thought crossed my mind as I read this and am curious as to how one might respond to the assertion that Althusserian ideology, regardless of its merits, can only account for the constitution of the citizen-subject and not the subject of ideology as such.

    What is especially of interest in the piece is this remark: “Subjectivity is in fact far more polymorphous than this: the subject qua child, sibling, student, worker, hobbyist, parent, lifestyle-consumer – don’t all align on the citizen-subject, which exists alongside them rather than subsuming them.” Now, regarding Althusser’s essay on Ideology and ISA’s, how does this critique of Althusser take into account Althusser’s treatment of the university system as one site of ideological production? Namely, it appears that Althusser himself understands that the citizen-subject is not the only way in which ideology is circulated and rendered effective in society. Rather, and a bit against the citizen-subject reading, the student-subject is also caught up wholly within the drawn out process of education and the university.

    To elaborate a bit more, and to give you a sense as to what I have in mind, we could ask something like the following question, which I think your post is rightly touching upon: Even if we are willing to grant that Althusser makes reference to other forms of subjectivity, namely the student-subject, and not simply the citizen-subject, does Althusser’s account of the student-subject still rely on a more fundamental conception of the citizen-subject? In other words, even with this example of the student, does the student-subject rely, in the last instance, on a deeper conception of the student-as-citizen? Regarding this question it would definitely be interesting to read Althusser’s passages on the University alongside someone like Edward Said’s account of how the French University system functioned as the mechanism of assimilation in French colonies. The reason for reading these two thinkers in relation being that the University system can function as this big-Other/Father-function as well as a mechanism of soliciting, educating, and manipulating the desires of the colonized with the aim that their desires line up with the desires of the colonizers (an important thinker here would also be Fanon and his account of the ‘bourgeois intellectual’ who exists as thinking themselves as French while being structurally constituted as not-quite French and as one of the colonized through their immediate corporeality).

    As a last remark, the impetus for teasing out these things within Althusser isn’t to save Althusser from criticism but rather to point to elements within his own account of ideology to show how they are already doing some of the work that we want them to be doing. On this point, I wonder if the real, or the more meaningful, divergence between Althusser and D&G/Deleuze would be regarding the notions of contradiction and negation and what weight they give to these concepts for political analysis. That is to ask, namely, is Althusser still all-too-Hegelian in his Marxism?

    Thanks again for the post and look forward to reading more!

    • I think you’re right that there is a lot more potential in Althusser than he follows through on – e.g. the relations between the citizen-subject and the student-subject or the colonized subject. What hems him in, though, and prevents him from realizing this potential, is his insistence that (a) these institutions are all ISAs, and (b) ISAs’ function “in the last instance” is to reproduce (or not) the mode of production.
      I think this is a major difference between him and D&G: for him, all ISAs converge on the reproduction function by definition, whereas for them, the contribution of institutions to the reproduction of the state and mode of production is contingent.

      • I see. Thanks for the clarification. I think you’re right to point out the aspects of Althusser’s account of ISA’s that fail to account for ways in which ISA’s can both fail to fully interpolate individuals, as well as fails to account for, unlike D&G, the ways in which desire finds avenues of escape from ISA’s themselves (also, this distinction you’re drawing out is reminiscent of the passage in AO where D&G charge Althusser with collapsing ‘structure’ with ‘mode of production’).

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