how still reading begins to fit things together

. . .

While critics concerned with ideology and literature argue that the latter

[the classic Marxist view of ideology as signifying ‘the values, ideas and images which tie (individuals) to their social functions and so prevent them from a true knowledge of society as a whole (Eagleton Marxism and Literary Criticism 17)]

is inevitably ideological, they nevertheless tend to assume a privileged epistemology for literature to the extent that they think of it as simultaneously marked by ideology and transcending it. However, with the exception of Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson, both heavily influenced by the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, few critics have indicated on what theoretical basis they make such an assumption. Developing Marx’s insights, Althusser sees ideology as a ‘social practice’ which helps conceal the true nature of social reality — economic and political. It is ‘a system of representation — composed of ideas, concepts, myths, or images — in which people live their imaginary relation to the real conditions of existence’ (Lenin and Philosophy 162). For Althusser, art’s roots are in ideology but it isn’t purely ideological because its aesthetic forms and devices offer a distance from and perspective on ideology. Where science offers ‘knowledge’ of reality, art ‘alludes’ to it (Lenin and Philosophy 204).

Thus, for Althusser and his followers, art presents ideology in a non-ideological form. The critic’s task is to offer a ‘symptomatic’ reading that, beginning with the surgace of the text, attempts to find its lacunae and contradictions in order to locate the text’s ‘problematic’ (the body of concepts restricting what can be said). Such a reading is important because it reveals how ideology helps construct (‘interpellate’) the individual as a social subject willing to accept a particular view of what is, what is good, and what is possible (Thompson 16).

. . .

In Jameson’s criticism, such an analysis is seen as a prelude to the creation of a more just society. Although indebted to Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness (1923) and to the work of T. W. Adorno and the Frankfurt School, Jameson goes far beyond their pessimistic comments on ideology’s complicit  function in capitalist society and art to suggest that ‘a Marxist practice of ideological analysis proper’ must deal with the utopian impulses within ideological cultural texts’ (The Political Unconscious 296).

From: Makaryk, Irena R. Gen. Ed. “Ideology.” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993. 558-60.

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1 Response to how still reading begins to fit things together

  1. owl says:

    I find this so helpful for understanding not only Althusserian Marxism and his use of ideology, but also how these theoretical notions–really, applications–fit into changing the way we think about the world. I am surprised that more emphasis isn’t given to how Althusser proposes to interact with ideology, as his approach strikes me as one with a real set of tools. Maybe there are sites of resistance and plays to dig in and create change for a better way. For all his exaggerated attention to detailed explanations of what he is doing, his work, at least for me at this particular juncture, offers a rather passionately hopeful perspective on the way things are, or: the way things seem to be among the ways we do not know they might not be, but might have always already been. This is the finale of seem.


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