Freedom is an Ideological Illusion


Nietzsche: “God is dead.”
Althusser: “Man Is Dead.”

To A Student:

All of what you say about Louis Althusser is essentially correct, though it does seem to me that you’re concentrating only on the opening section of his essay. That part, as I said in a previous post, is interesting and important, but in many ways, as Althusser himself avers, is not terrifically different from Antonio Gramsci‘s writings on hegemony. The opening, in retrospect, will appear quite different, far more thematically nuanced and critically insightful, after you’ve read through the end of the essay, which is simply staggering.

It’s in the later half that Althusser puts forth his whole theory of interpelation, wherein he presents not just an argument about the oppressiveness for workers of the relations of production, but, far more fundamental, an account of the process whereby the working $ubject is produced. Yes, churches, schools and offices are sites where this takes place. But the key for Althusser, something I tried to point out in class with my presentation of the semiotic square, is that one is not a subject who after the fact enters into “the relationships of the relations of production”.


Just to bring you up to speed, not only should the duplication of the stem “relat-” catch your eye, but in particular Althusser’s use of the word “relation-ships“. This is not a Marxist economic terms of the sort Gramsci would have used but rather an anthropological term, one taken directly from Claude Levi-Strauss. It refers to the superstar anthropologist’s presentation, in Structural Anthropology, of the “elementary structure of kinship”, an atomic set of basic familial relationship which inform all identities, activities and even attitudes within primitive cultures. The point Levi-Strauss wants to make in this essay is that within such structures the individual means nothing. Each individual body enters into the structure, which is to say into culture, only insofar as loses its individuality and takes up a functional role within the larger whole. Not only does the discrete biological body no longer exist in the raw form after this moment of “interpelation” (as if it ever did in the first place), but indeed the individual unit of consciousness does not exists before this moment of entry into larger structure. Even before its birth, as Althusser insists, the individual was “always already” a $ubject.


This is the crucial difference between Marx and Althusser; or, between the early Marx and Althusser. Because one of Althusser’s greatest projects, a life-long project, was to demonstrate something I discussed in class yesterday – that at a certain moment in Marx’s life, around 1848, a fundamental epistemological shift (“decalage”) occurs. In the same way that pre-history of modern sculpture, at a point around 1900, can be seen to meet an agonized end in the failed commisions of August Rodin; or just as the historical “moment” that was modernist sculpture in turn meets its demise around 1964, when a welter of previously unimagined but nevertheless mappable forms begins to arise; so, at a certain moment in the mid-19th century it becomes possible to think the end of another historical “moment”, that of Man. The end of Humanism, a tradition apparently going back a number of centuries, according to this argument which is made in structuralist terms akin to those used by Krauss, in fact only dates back to the late 18th century, with the rise of a particular set of ideas, question and disciplines known as the Sciences of Man – all of which focused on the human body as a scientifically knowable entity, and all of which maintained a face that the scientific investigation of Human nature would eventually lead to a just, equitable and peaceble brotherhood of Humanity.


Althusser’s argument, quite simply, is that sometime just around 1948 – when he wrote the “Theses on Feurbach” (the last and greatest exponent of Humanism) and The Communist Manifesto, Marx was able to think the end of Man, to realize man is neither the apex of creation nor the perfection of nature, nor is Man even an entity which has a continuous and unified history which will eventually culminate in self-knowledge and self-actualization. Rather, Man is an ideological construct of relatively recent advent. I say ‘advent’, instead of ‘invent’, specifically because Marx, as Althusser constructs him, does not believe anyone in particular invented the myth of Human History. Rather, Human History arises as an “event”, and takes the form a total “moment”, a comprehensive structure outside of which it is not possible to think at all. Or, to say it contrariwise, it is only by fully mapping out the extended field within with the Human is but one term or position (and for that reason it can no longer be seen as a privileged), that one is able to project the end of Man. One can only think the end of Man from within, and at a particular moment during, the History of Man. In other words, the critique of Man must be a radically immanent critique, because thought itself, consciousness itself, only exists within a structure.


To put it in psychoanalytic terms, which Althusser also admits to adopting, it is only possible to map the Unconscious from the position of consciousness. This is the fundamental difference between the early Marx and the later Marx, the early Marx and Althusser. The former believe in the original dignity and eventual sovereignty of Man. Ideology, according to this view, is a state of false consciousness into which humanity fell. In the middle of his essay, Althusser points out the two prevailing beliefs about this fall: 1) That of the 18th-century French philosophes was that false ideas has been foisted on the majority by the priest and despots in order to exploit them. God, here, is a weapon to crush. 2) That of the 19th-century German philosophers and historians (a veritable new science) was that false consciousness was a phase that humanity needed to pass through over the course of it natural development. God, here, is a fantasy construct through which humanity darkly contemplates its own image. Of course, for Althusser, both of these are wrong. Because each supposes that it is possible to overcome ideology, to start, “in the final instant”, outside of ideology and come to consciousness per se. Hence, the obvious contrast is between false consciousness and free consciousness. What Althusser claims Marx saw, though still dimly because he lacked the methods and insights later furnished by structural anthropology, what the free consciousness was itself a form of false consciousness.


In fact, free consciousness, the belief that we are in control of our own minds and actions and destinies, is false consciousness par excellance. The very feeling, to put it as plainly as can be, that we have finally stepped free of all ideology and at last stand in the clear, this is the surest indication that in that very moment we have entered into Ideology completely. This, again, is the famous moment of recognition, the moment of the production of the $ubject, of his entry not into the relations of production but into the relationships of the relations of production; which Althusser calls “interpelation”, or “hailing”. It is both a total event which happens at various key moments in our individual lives, but even more importantly for Althusser, it is a ongoing process we repeat, moment by moment, every instant of our waking lives. Each time we say to ourselves not just, That’s where I work; or, Now it’s time to pay my bills and do my taxes; but indeed each time we say to ourselves, These are my pants and thank God the key are in the pocket; or, Man, I really feel like myself today; we are in that same instant hailed into $ubjectivity, as term which must be heard in its pure ambivalence.

Robert Gober
“Untitled” (1992)
Site-Specific Installation (2007)
At Schaulager, Basel

There is no outside to Ideology. In the same way the outside of the total social practice we call Text can only be thought as a logically necessary aspect of Text, one which must properly be understood as Not-Text; so the outside of the total social practice we call Enlightenment, or Freedom, can only be thought as a logically necessary aspect of the same structure which must be properly be understood as Ideology, or Necessity. As Lacan, so famously put it, “There is no other of the Other.”

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