Louis Althusser

By: Mark Kingwell
October 16, 2009


Like Camus and Derrida, LOUIS ALTHUSSER (1918-90) came from Algeria. Unlike them, he murdered his wife — taking his philosophy of anti-humanism a little too far, as the clunky grad-seminar joke has it. (In court he was judged not guilty by reason of insanity.) Althusser’s intellectual fame is based on one powerful idea: interpellation, or the “call” that the state sounds out of its pervasive power. This is the policeman’s “Hey, you there!” that makes us all turn, in our unconscious guilt, to face the music. Althusser derived the notion from a close reading of Marx’s critique of ideology: ideology is most successful when it is internalized by each subject, robbing us of agency even as we imagine we are free to do as we wish. Such purely theoretical Marxism, argued E.P. Thompson, revealed an author “who has only a casual acquaintance with historical practice.” Certainly Althusser had only a casual acquaintance with the theoretical materials he cited; in a posthumous 1992 memoir, he confessed to fabricating quotations and discussing works he had not read. Still, his close attention to “ideological state apparatuses” or ISAs has no peer, and he reminds us even now, when more doctrinaire Marxists have proven fatally irrelevant, how difficult it is act responsibly, or even to be a subject, under conditions of self-surveillance and over-determination.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: | Oscar Wilde | Ray Johnson |

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).