Louis Althusser: ISA and RSA

Louis Althusser, the French Marxist philosopher, born in Algeria, has been widely regarded as a Structural Marxist, though he himself was critical of many aspects of Structuralism. He analysed various aspects within Marxism including the influence of empiricism on Marxist theory, humanist and reformist socialist orientations which manifested as divisions in the European communist parties, as well as the problem of the “cult of personality” and of ideology itself.

althusser_ens.jpgTo Althusser, ideology does not simply mean a set of ideas, or “false consciousness”; instead, it is a mode of “representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” He adds that a great work of literature is not merely a product or reflection of ideology; it creates for the reader a distance from which to recognise and expose “the ideology from which it is born… from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes.” The social structure is not monolithic, but consists of a variety of “nonsynchro.nous” social formations or “ideological state apparatuses”, or “ideological, structures” (ISAs), an assortment of institutions in ideological practice, including religious, political, educational, media, legal and literary institutions and agents by which our values, desires and preferences are inculcated in us. ISAs foster an ideology that will be sympathetic to the desires of the state and conducive to the political status quo. Thus, the power of the state is maintained by the ISA in a very subtle manner through the internal consent or “willing compliance’ of the citizens.

This is in contrast to the working of RSAs (“Repressive State Apparatuses”) or “repressive structures”. including institutions as the Police force and the army that produce involuntary compliance by direct external force. The RSA functions as a unified entity, an organized whole, as opposed to the ISA which is diverse and plural. However, what unites the disparate ISAs is the fact that they are ultimately controlled by the ruling ideology. The RSA functions predominantly by means of repression and violence and secondarily by ideology whereas the ISA functions predominantly by  ideology and secondarily by repression and violence. The ISAs function in a concealed and a symbolic manner. No single ISA produces in us the belief that we are self-conscious agents; instead, we derive this belief in the course of learning what it is to be a daughter, a schoolchild, a black and so forth. Althusser’s conception of the ISA and its exploration of the link between the Unconscious and social structures has been believed to be inspired by Lacanian insights.

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