The Materialities of Ideology: Reading Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus as the Intersectionality of Culture, Identity and Memory

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Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” argues, rather straightforwardly, that “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” This relationship, however “imaginary,” is based, in particular, on the roles of culture, identity, and memory, as conceptualizations of the way that ideology works as in the world as “real conditions of existence.” In other words, we confront ideology by confronting culture, identity, and memory—all three are “the real conditions of existence,” which form a web of belief about ideology is and does.

What this means, then, is that culture, identity, and memory, if Althusser’s “central thesis” holds true, all serve, at their intersectionality, as the authenticating, grounding entities of “the structure and functioning of ideology.” While the concepts of culture and identity are respectively shaped by “the State” and “the Apparatus,” memory is projected from “the Ideological”—just as “the State,” “the Apparatus,” and “the Ideological” have an interconnectedness at the structural point of “ideology,” the concepts of culture, identity, and memory are post-structural, deconstructive articulations of what Althusser describes as the “negative” and the “positive” aspects of ideology. For Althusser, the notion of ideology having both “negative” and “positive” ramifications is respectively situated in ideology as imaginary and ideology as material. In the “negative” former, when ideology as imaginary reiterates “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence,” the immateriality of culture, identity and memory can be used and abused by, as Althusser notes, “subjection to the ruling ideology or of the practice of that ideology.”

Notions of “subjection,” “ruling ideology,” and “the practice of that ideology” all point to Althusser’s conceptualization of an “ideological state apparatus”—to this end, the production/reproduction of labor power and the production/reproduction of ideology both produce/reproduce an “ideological state apparatus” through the continual proliferation of “infrastructure” and “superstructure.” It is precisely through “infrastructure” and “superstructure” that ideology as material becomes a “positive” part of ideology, rooted in the manner in which “ideology” and the “ideological state apparatus” come to bear for the sake of production/reproduction, or what Althusser calls “the reproduction of the relations of production.” This becomes especially important in the production/reproduction of the material relations between culture, identity, and memory as the imminence of ideology as material, when considering that all three are deferring-differing materialities that have deconstructive “freeplay” in the ideological state apparatus of ideology itself.

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