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Anna Roberts & Maxwell Kee

Prof. Kati Lewis

ENGL-2700: Intro to Critical Theory

26 April 2017

Ideology: A Subjects Preconceived Notion of Existence

Throughout the past several hundred years in Western culture, especially since the

beginning of the Cold War, the term ideology has been used to describe the principles,

lifestyle and actions of an individual within a given society. Guided by cultural and

domestic influences, as well as the state into which they emerged, ideology determines

for a person who they are and how they operate within society, regardless of whether or

not the person in question recognizes or agrees an ideology is theirs, or if theyre

conscious of an ideology present to them at all.

Marxist French philosopher Louis Althusser even went so far in his criticisms of

ideology as to assert that ones ideology is determined for them before they are even born

through a concept he calls always-already identity (Althusser), state that various

influences, both societal and domestic, determine a persons ideology even before

conception. Althussers interpretation of ideology is not one strictly limited to Marxism,

howeverit bleeds into a number of other literary fields of criticism, particularly

postcolonial and postmodern theories that seek to uncover how repressive/repressed

identities are formed and how those without power are subsequently Othered. The

influences can easily be found in the ethnocritical studies where critical theorists explore

the ways in which various texts have portrayed non-white as uncivilized or savages, and

similarly in queer theorys exploration heteronormative dominance over gender and

sexuality in Western culture. This essay specifically will attempt to utilize many of the

aforementioned ideas put forth by Louis Althusser, exploring them through a Marxist

lens, and connecting them to the critical analyses of ethnocriticism via Toni Morrison,

and queer theory through Judith Butler.


Marxism is an ideology and critical theory started by German philosopher, Karl

Marx during the 19th century. Jaded with the ways in which capitalism was directing the

course of the world, Marx adapted the Hegelian concept of the historical dialectica

theory stating that history has been the driving force of shaping people, nations and

economies. Marx asserts that it has instead been materialism and consumerism that were

the driving forces throughout history, and that rather than there being strictly a

master/slave complex existing amongst people, there is instead a binary shaped around

capital. He labelled the ruling class possessing capital and the means of production the

bourgeois, and insisted that the working-class, or the proletarians, were subjected to

working under the unruly conditions of this oppressive ruling class. Furthermore, Marx

stated that workers were alienated and dissatisfied with their unfair working conditions,

the result of which would eventually lead to the proletariat rising up and overcoming the

bourgeois through revolution.

While these conditions appeared to accurately develop over time, coming to

fruition and growing to represent a persons place in society, a later French Marxist

philosopher named Louis Althusser took a different approach to Marxs theory. Althusser

instead argued in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses that people, or

subjects, were represented by ideologies, i.e. the sets principles that represent who an
individual is and how they operate. He contends in his essay that people residing in a

state apparatus are born always-already subjects, meaning they are born subjected to

the ruling Subject, i.e. the state, with an ideology already assigned to their identity. He

used this concept always-already identity or subjectivity to explain how all aspects of a

persons life existing and growing up in a state apparatus shapes who they are, be that

societal, political or domestic, e.g. who a persons parents are and the ideology they

represent, the conditions of the state to which they are born into, the political apparatus

surrounding said state, and a myriad of others have the potential to influence a persons

ideology and will potentially condition the ways a person acts and operates in the society

which they reside. Further, Althusser theorizes that a persons continued existence within

their ideology is reinforced by the continuous material actions they partake ine.g. buying

guns for protection, biking rather than driving to deter greenhouse emissions, etc.of

which are dictated by their own ideology in a cyclical fashion.

Examples of Althusser's philosophy can be seen in Ursula K. Le Guin short story,

Those Who Walk Away From Omelas. In it, Le Guin applies a pseudo-Marxist lens to a

fictionalized utopia where everything is pristine. In Omelas, however, the people who

reside there live with secret they all keep to themselvesa child viewed as abnormal

that they keep locked up beneath the city which by doing, keeps the land a pristine land

immune from anything but good. Le Guins story establishes an allegory for American

society and the ideologies it persists. Le Guin goes further by adding a scathing criticism

of the American dreaman ideology in itself printed onto the mental psyche of an

American a priori in an always-already fashion and implying that those who are

unable to cope with the horrifying compromise made to uphold their perfect lives
eventually walk away from Omelas (Le Guin). These dissenters are the equivalent of

Americans citizens waking up from the ideology of the American Dream and beginning

to realize the horrible confounds their perfect lives are built upon.


A theory stemming from postcolonialism, ethnocriticisms major drive is to

analyze ethnocentric views that persist throughout the American canon. More

specifically, it looks at the how nations outside the scope of Western culture are viewed,

and how various ethnicities and cultures have been exotified, misconstrued, or pushed to

the margins. Ethnocriticism essentially revolves around the exploration of Western

linguistic signs and signifiers and how they influence white European and/or Anglo-

Saxon interpretations of other cultures. It criticizes the inaccurate identifiers applied to

other races, ethnicities and nationality outside of the West, as well as exploring the ways

in which white American culture they tends to Other. The notion of Othering various

non-white ethnicities and cultures makes them out to be subversive to white, European

and/or Anglo-Saxon identities through an ethnocentrist lens.

The identity of a subject therefore, especially in relation to race, ethnicity or

culture, operates in itself as an ideology based on how a person is identified by their

signified racial, ethnic or cultural persona. In addition, the way one person/subject views

another person/subject based on how the latter operates in a given state apparatus is also

informed by their ideology. By extension, someone born African, i.e. on the continent

of Africa to a particular nation or state, is informed by a Western ideology as being

uncivilized, savage, brutish in an always-already fashion. Likewise, the ideology of one

who is misinterpreted as being inferior and/or is oppressed will thus interpret the

interpreter as an oppressor.

Author Toni Morrisonan outspoken critique of ethnocentrism, specifically in

relation to the conglomeration of the numerous African culture and the inaccuracies of

the African identityperforms a deep and fascinating exploration of ethnocentrism and

the ideologies informing an Africanist view in her essay, Black Matters. In it,

Morrisson criticizes how throughout American history, American-liberal ideology,

through the guise of the western Canon has, Africanized black and/or African-

American individuals. Morrison argues that for centuries, the view of individuals born in

Africa have been portrayed as savages, uncivilized humans inferior in racial class than

that of white or European westerners.

Unlike Althusser, Morrison doesnt explicitly state that ideology as a whole is the

ultimate cause for this ethnocentric view, but more directly critiques the white liberalism.

The liberal ideology, especially in American Morrison argues, has a tendency to sweep

the notion of race and/or racial discourse aside. Those whose lives are dictated by

liberalism, however, are often unaware of its dominance over their thoughts and lives due

to the always-already notion of their ideological subjectivity informed by the Subject of

the American Dream (i.e. that anyone can achieve anything so long as they work at it;

that everyone is born with equal conditions). Therefore, rather than making any attempt

to correct their misconstrued views regarding race or ethnicity, subjects of the liberal

ideology seek to unconsciously render the issue of race invisible (Morrison) in a

narcissistic attempt to rid those who fall under the liberal umbrella of any guilt pertaining
to the mistreatment of blacks and Africans throughout history and the furthered Othering

and degradation of the those seen as African or black today.

Queer Theory and Gay & Lesbian Studies

A reaction to feminism, queer theory explores the constructs of gender and

sexuality without focusing on the man/woman binary. The theory focuses on the

greyness of spectrums, not just in gender, but also in all facets of life. Destabilization

of norms and ideals; accepting that reality is only a fabrication; and the performativity of

gender are the major concentrations of queer theory. Queer theorists understand that

everyone is born into an always-already identified role of being, i.e. subjectivity, but that

that role is nothing more than a social construct of which we are initially bound, and from

which we are unconsciously trying to break free.

Judith Butler explores these concepts of gender in her essay, Imitation and

Gender Insubordination. She determines that gender and sexuality are social constructs

defined by our culture. Essentially, we are born into a specific set of expectations

determined by the ideologies that dictate our gender and, by extension, our performance

in society. From the moment a baby is declared a male or a female in the womb or at

birth, they begin performing their gender in order to live up to the societal expectations of

our already-identified gender and sexuality.

Society has created ideal facets that establish and regulate the way men and

women are supposed to behave, from what we wear, to what we eat, and how we sit.

Butler argues that these gender roles are fictitious, and not biological as society and state

apparatuses would have us believe. Just because one is born female, for example, does

not mean that they are attracted to men, are feminine in any specific way, or even that
they are technically a woman at all. Gender is nothing but a cultural ideology coercing

subjects of the state to perform a certain way. Butler discusses that not only is gender a

performance, but it is in fact performativewe actively construct and reinforce these

gender ideals as we continue to perform them, similar in how Althusser argues we

reinforce our ideological beliefs and identities.

To be able to continually reinforce and produce our self, Butler argues that

everyone must perform drag. There is no one right way to be a certain identified gender

or sexuality. Society, however, has instilled the notion that gender is like a script we run

through (Shmoop) and that script has already existed for quite some time and is

continually reinforced. In order to live up to our always-already state of being, or this

script, we must perform certain roles, ones that are ideologically assigned, and from

which no gender or sexual orientation, seemingly, is free.

The ideological state of being concerning gender and sexuality falls into the

heteronormative-cisgender model. Butler argues that Western societies that are bleached

with heteronormativity view heterosexuality is seen as the original and homosexuality

is the copy, the original being the accepted ideal and the base of all sexuality.

However, even in theory, heterosexuality would require a performance, and is therefore

not inherently natural, as everything is, as Butler states, just a copy of a copy, for which

there is no original (Butler). Gender then is a repetition; a habitual mimesis in which we

perform in order to fit these ideologies. When we refuse to perform the gender script we

have been assigned ideologically by our always-already subjectivity, gender becomes

disillusioned and ambiguous, exposing it is as a social construct, and in turn shattering its

image as an ideology.
In conclusion

As shown, Louis Althusser gives an in-depth look at ideology. He explores the

ways in which ideology informs the subjects of the state apparatus; how ideology dictates

the way these subjects operate in society; and how these subjects are born into these

ideologies, growing up with its effects as an intrinsic aspect of their identity. He paves the

way for later theorists and literary authors like Toni Morrison and Judith Butler to each

utilize ideology in their own specific ways in order to discuss and critique their own

fields of specialty (drawing either directly or indirectly from Althussers philosophy on

ideology). Morrison thoroughly explicates the ideology effects enacted upon both those

born in Africa and/or of an African descent by white Western culture. She in turn sheds

light on the repressive implications of these Western ideologies and how they negatively

impact the subjects of said Western states. Butler offers an elaborate exploration of the

inaccuracies of the gender binary, specifically towards those of a queer identity. She

exposes the detrimental effects that stem from such strict classifications, and instead

argues for increased exposure of the massive amount of liminal space present in the

gender spectrum. And while again these critical theories dont directly correlate in every

fashion, they do approach their issues in a number of the same ways, as seen here with


Ideology is present in most every facet of society, especially in those that draw the

speculation of the various fields critical thinking. The focus of ideology is not limited to

any specific critical theory like Marxism; Althusser may have made ideology the focus of

his criticism earlier than Morrison or Butler, but that doesnt make him any more of a

sound guide for ideology than others. If anything, Althusser would potentially take from
Butler or Morrisons theories to help reinforce his own, or to possibly expand on his own

theories had he been around to engage in any type of healthy discourse. Unfortunately,

that isnt the case, and were left to piece together the numerous theories ourselves.

Work Cited

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses(Notes towards an

Investigation)." Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses by Louis Althusser 1969-

70. La Pense, 1970, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

Butler, Judith. Imitation and Gender Insubordination. N.p.: n.p., 1991. 307-18. Print.

K., Le Guin Ursula. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Hove, South Aust.: Townsend

School, 1996. Print.

"Modules on Althusser." Introduction to Louis Althusser; Module on Ideology. Purdue, n.d.

Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York:

Vintage , a Division of Random House, 2015. N. pag. Print.

Patrick, Warren. "Playing With Gender: Judith Butler and Gender Performativity."

Blogcritics. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2017.

Shmoop Editorial Team. "Judith Butler." Shmoop. Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008. Web.

26 Apr. 2017.
Stevens, Anne H. "French Marxism." Literary Theory and Criticism: An Introduction.

Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview, 2015. 190-92. Print.

Stevens, Anne H. "Gates and the African American Tradition." Literary Theory and

Criticism: An Introduction. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview, 2015. 199-201.


Stevens, Anne H. "Gates and the African American Tradition." Literary Theory and

Criticism: An Introduction. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview, 2015. 199-201.