Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, COMMUNICATION ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 21 January 2019

Althusser and Structuralism in Communication Studies

Summary and Keywords

Louis Pierre Althusser (1918–1990) is widely recognized as one of the most significant and influential Marxist philosophers associated with the structuralist turn in the middle of the 20th century. The ongoing publication of scholarly monographs that develop his conceptual legacy, the depth of his impact in disciplinary debates in fields across the humanities and social sciences, and the continued translation of his work from French into multiple languages, to offer only a few examples, testify to the consensus regarding the enduring importance of his theoretical innovations and often controversial interventions. He devoted tremendous intellectual energy toward a critique of humanism and phenomenological-based Marxism even as he eschewed traditional positivist economic explanations of history and exploitation—engaging in what amounts to nothing less than an effort to fundamentally shift the way the West reads and interprets Marx. Despite the controversial aspects of his interventions, there is little disagreement that the concepts produced by Althusser irreversibly affected and continue to affect the trajectory of Marxist and post-Marxist thought throughout the world, albeit often through the back door, smuggled in and unrecognized—in his lexicon: as an embedded but nevertheless absent cause.

Keywords: capitalism, class struggle, ideology, materialism, Marx, overdetermination, communication and critical studies

Introduction: Althusser’s Life, Theory, and Politics

Althusser received much notoriety throughout his life. He retained membership within the French Communist Party (PCF) despite his strong criticism of the dominant state-centered party line and the waning influence of the party in the everyday anti-capitalist struggles of his students and confidants. He also did not follow fellow intellectuals and comrades in their turn outside of the party to the ultra-left in the years leading up to the May 1968 revolt in France.

He wrote with an abundance of characteristic rhetorical style, intellectual probity, and bold, often contested, claims. Going against the intellectual grain of his time, he debated and outperformed Jean-Paul Sartre in 1961. As his mental health deteriorated toward the end of his life, the untimely death of Althusser’s wife Hélène Rytmann (a respected militant that participated in the Resistance to Nazi occupation), whom he strangled while in a delusional state, scandalized advocates and critics alike. His work was written, just as “each seminar was conducted,” suggests one biographer, “with the thought that everything had to be done before the next onslaught of darkness” (Johnson, 1993, p. 6).

In the early part of his work, Althusser drew on Lenin and the Soviet revolution to theorize the conditions of possibility for social movements and rebellions to transform into full-blown revolutions. He famously articulated the notion of a split within Marx (an early Marx and a later Marx) that, despite any hermeneutical shortcomings (and self-imposed criticisms), continues to determine the way in which many Marxist and post-Marxist communication scholars conceptualize difference(s) within Marx’s oeuvre. In what is widely regarded as a germinal text of his intellectual prime, Reading Capital, he and several students uniquely interpreted Marx’s Capital through the lens of Baruch Spinoza to theorize capitalism as a mode of production that operates according to an overdetermined logic of causality (also referred to in sundry texts as immanent, metonymic, or structural causality). Drawing on psychoanalytic notions of the unconscious, and in anticipation of a central insight of deconstruction, Reading Capital also posited the centrality of absence as a general epistemological principle. This “absence,” for Althusser, was not a vacuum in space but rather the logic demonstrated but left unexplained at the very surface of the text. For example, Althusser culled out the absent but omnipresent causal logics of the later Marx through a “symptomatic” reading of them in Capital. Although Marx “performed” rather than explained this method, he nevertheless earned praise from Althusser for partaking in an “immense theoretical revolution” (Althusser & Balibar, 2009, pp. 201–214). The conceptualization of ideology as constituted by material institutions and cultural-discursive processes of social reproduction occupied his intellectual energies in the late 1960s and into the 1970s—providing readers worldwide with the deeply influential and rigorously debated “notes” on the way language interpellates subjects into ideology through “hailing.” Later in life, a few important exceptions notwithstanding, he produced a number of texts in the tradition of “self-criticism” that failed to reconcile the conflicting theoretical positions and even the reading protocols that he developed throughout the earlier part of his career. As Althusser refused to publish or could not finish many of these texts, many were not unearthed, translated, and assessed in relation to his larger career until the early 21st century. During intermittent periods of lucidity in the late 1970s and 1980s, however, he drew on Lucretius and other “underground currents” of materialist thought to bring to fruition his theorizations of materialism in itself, that is, without reference to its dialectical opposite (idealism). He did so through conceptualizing materialism as constituted by the necessity of aleatory encounters in a swerve of chance of events with the potential to create worlds—much like the swerve of molecules in the sea encounter the atmosphere in the potential cyclogenesis of rain.

Althusser also remains a focal point of debates in rhetorical and critical/cultural communication studies but also in other academic and non-academic Marxist contexts regarding the impact of the so-called structuralist turn in materialist philosophy and Marxist praxis. It was as part of the elaboration and critique of certain tendencies of the structuralist turn in 1960s France that his work—and that of prodigious students such as Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Michel Foucault, Pierre Macherey, Jacques-Alain Miller, and Jacques Rancière—has received the most attention, and for good reason. The principal concepts and hermeneutic protocols produced within this fecund intellectual milieu provide novel resources for challenging foundational assumptions and accepted theoretical frameworks for understanding the canon of Marx and practicing Marxism. The remainder of this article will therefore offer some additional biographical summary of Althusser’s life before extending the discussion to Althusser’s concepts, with a focus on overdetermination, in the context of structuralism. Next is a review of the selective uptake of his work in communication studies followed by an overview of useful future directions for further study.


On the morning of November 16, 1980, Althusser ran from his room into the courtyard of the École normale shouting “I killed my wife, I strangled her!” The resident doctor, who knew of Althusser’s long history of mental instability (dating back to his first institutionalization in 1950), called the police, and Althusser was taken to the hospital. Two months later the examining magistrate, after receiving reports from three psychiatrists, declared a non-lieu, or refusal to order prosecution. Althusser stayed in the hospital until 1983 and was in and out of geriatric institutions around Paris until his death in 1990.

While Althusser’s erratic history of mental instability does not necessarily lend itself to a linear biographical narrative, his early theoretical development is rather straightforward. He was born in 1918 (the centennial of Marx’s birth) in Algeria, where he lived until 1930. He attended the Lycée Saint Charles and the Lycée du Parc before admission to the Ecole Normale Supérior in 1939. During his earliest years of theoretical production, Althusser offered an exploration of the relationship between Catholicism and social revolution. As he stated in 1980 to Italian Radio Television, in one of the very few extant interviews, “I became communist because I was Catholic.” During the middle 1940s, he argued that the Catholic Church should undergo reform in order to better realize its own basic values. By the late 1940s, however, Althusser was adamant that the only means through which to implement Catholic values was communist action. Althusser officially joined the PCF in 1948. His new position that left movements, rather than religion, were the mechanism for radical social transformation was likely not unrelated to his wartime experiences. Althusser served in the military for one year before he was captured in Vannes, a coastal city west of Paris. He spent the next five years as a prisoner of war in Germany. Althusser credits his time self-organizing and rendering mutual aid to other POW camp prisoners as exposing him to a robust peasant culture, group solidarity, collective agency, and other tenets that became central to his post-Christian (and not coincidentally, non-Hegelian) understanding of historical materialism and the dynamic interaction of philosophy and communism in action.

Twenty years after returning to France, Althusser finished his studies and became an active Communist Party member. He collectively organized a seminar with several prominent students attending his seminars at the École Normale Supérieure. Throughout the seminar, which hosted visitors such as Lacan, the group undertook a philosophical reading of Marx’s Capital. The group collected and published their collaborative efforts as Reading Capital in 1965. As a result of disagreements about theoretical positions taken in the original text, a much-abridged revision containing only Althusser’s and Balibar’s contributions was published in English in 1970. The unabridged version finally appeared for English readers in 2016. For Marx, also published in 1965, consisted of a collection of individually authored, previously published essays. While taken up internationally, the respective pieces of these texts spoke to tensions at play within the PCF as well as the budding intellectual movement that would come to be known as structuralism. In particular, Althusser’s well-known insistence on Marx’s epistemological break with humanism generated criticisms from party leadership. This culminated in a 1966 meeting of the Central Committee. While they supposedly gathered to address ideology and culture, the meeting was a political maneuver to mobilize humanism against the growing support of Althusser’s argument for a scientific non-teleological Marxism. As a result, no good-faith attempt was made to smooth over the conceptual differences between Althusser and the Party, and Marxist humanism was declared the official line.

The precision of these theoretical arguments along with their popular circulation dissolved temporarily in May 1968 when leftist students and workers banded together for a 10-million-strong general strike. Criticisms of the PCF as bourgeois and bureaucratic were borne out as the Party worked to break the revolutionary momentum. Althusser describes this moment in unequivocal terms in his memoir: “The Party . . . did everything it could in the very violent battles taking place to prevent a coming together of the student battalions and the fervent masses of workers” (Althusser, 1993, p. 230). In May 1968, Althusser followed the PCF line, a curious and surprising choice after years of antagonism with Party leadership that played out through censuring, disciplinary meetings, and self-criticisms. While peculiar on the surface, this choice captures Althusser’s strategic positioning of himself as a figure of internal opposition within the Party, a position he continued to hold as he fell into and out of delusional states. He died of heart failure at age 72 and was eulogized worldwide. Between 150 and 200 people attended his funeral, where his life was celebrated and eulogized by Party comrades, friends, fellow intellectuals, and students (Balibar, 1991, pp. 9–12). At the occasion, Jacques Derrida spoke with notable pathos about his colleague, interlocutor, and old friend:

Our belonging to this time—and I think I can speak for everyone here—was indelibly marked by him, by what he sought, experimented with, and risked at the highest of costs; it was marked by all the movements of his passion, whether determined or suspended, at once authoritarian and hesitant, contradictory, consequential, or convulsive, all the movements of that extraordinary passion that left him no respite, since it spared him nothing, with its theatrical rhythms, its great voids, its long stretches of silence, its vertiginous retreats, all those impressive interruptions themselves interrupted by demonstrations, forceful offensives, and powerful eruptions of which each of his books preserves the burning trace, having first transformed the landscape around the volcano.

(Derrida, 2001, pp. 115–116)


We offer a short and admittedly oversimplified explanation of structuralism qua structuralism in order to return momentarily with a richer and more focused approximation of the sense in which we may recognize certain structuralist tendencies in the thought of Althusser. Structuralism is first and foremost a broadly applied body of thought derived from the non-referential theories of Ferdinand de Saussure proffered in his 1916 Course in General Linguistics. It is associated with the seemingly basic idea that surface level appearances reflect deep and unchanging structures. While a liberal humanist might insist on the intrinsic cultural value of a great speech, for example, a structuralist would, on the contrary, argue that all the value or meaning of a speech is derived from the formal position it occupies in relation to overarching determinations. One metaphorical step further, a structuralist Marxist would posit that so-called great speeches are but the epiphenomenal appearance in the cultural “superstructure” of underlying contradictions in the economic “base,” the latter of which is the burden of the critic to reveal and explain as the true “object-domain.” Humans are consequently replaced from within the structuralist matrix by subject positions. Instead of the evaluative adjudication of canonical orators, we have complex analytics designed to map the totality of language speaking through networked sites of “enunciative modalities” (Foucault, 1972, pp. 50–55). As it turns out, without further qualification this sort of structuralism gets a bad rap for always discovering what it sets out to find—furniture being forever rearranged.

To reframe the matter in geometric terms, a common axiom associated with structuralism is that general laws govern the determination of elements in a given system. At least three relevant corollaries follow from this axiom: first, the degree of possible variation of elements within a structure is given from within a closed, complete, and all-encompassing logic of the structure itself. Second, the value or meaning of each element in a structure determines and is determined by its relation to other elements in the structure. In the apt words of Terry Eagleton, “you become a card-carrying structuralist only when you claim that [individual elements in any given system] . . . do not have a ‘substantial’ meaning, only a ‘relational’ one” (2008, p. 82). Third, the object of the structuralist analytic is therefore the primordial rules of causation, irrespective of any value or meaning intrinsic to the object or extrinsic to the structure.

Determining exactly how Althusser’s work relates to structuralism is fraught with difficulty. At first glance, surface similarities present themselves as rather obvious: Althusser was concerned with the relational, and especially causal, logic of intersecting structures; he used the Lacanian imaginary as a basis from which to theorize the relationship between ideology and the individual; he insisted that the mode of causality that pertained to the capitalist mode of production functioned as a totality that was “overdetermined” from within by certain limits immanent to its own reproduction (a modified formulation of Marx’s insistence in Capital and elsewhere that capital is limited only by itself); he, without doubt, decentered human agency and refused any anthropomorphic interpretations of “alienation,” considering historical transformations as a “process without a subject”; and he insisted on the importance of reading overdetermination, as exemplified in Reading Capital, to the letter in order to suss out the underlying or unthought analytical method of Capital left implicit but nevertheless present in Marx symptomatically. Yet as we have suggested, to argue that there is one Althusser or an Althusserian method is highly problematic: his work was produced in fits and starts, in often disruptive collaborations, and, to put it mildly, always in emergent, recursive, and ultimately enigmatic (often outright discontinuous) fashion.

It is, nevertheless, with overdetermination that we can most closely gauge his proximity to structuralism. For with overdetermination, we see Althusser grappling with the tensions of considering how structures change in fundamental ways through events of collective intervention or other elements external or “relatively autonomous” to capitalism, which, as we have already suggested, remained axiomatic to him throughout the second half of his career. As such, Althusser deviated from strictly walking the structuralist plank into the mutable currents of intellectual fads precisely through a concept of the event produced in the various and sundry discussions of overdetermination throughout the years. These discussions, in one way or another, posit that rearrangements or the merging of certain combinations from across the overall structure of the mode of production always already produce a necessary surplus. From that surplus emerge the possibilities of class war, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the eventual withering away of the state.

Althusser, Overdetermination, and Structuralism

The centrality of overdetermination to Althusser should not be underestimated for several reasons. First and foremost, overdetermination serves as an important measure of Althusser’s work in relation to structuralism. As such, it remains a topic of debate among Marxists and philosophers concerned with non-dialectic causality and human agency (how humans interface with the various interconnected systems that make up the complexity of social life in the absence of origin or end). Moreover, overdetermination does not jibe with the humanism that dominated the Marxist scene in post-war France. Althusser discovered early on, largely from the experiences chronicled by Lenin and the soviets of the October revolution, that major disruptions in the capitalist mode of production are non-teleological (that is, they are not the predetermined outcome of developmental historical processes in which all antagonistic desires are fulfilled and class divisions are abolished as outlined in “The Communist Manifesto” and the early Marx). Thus, as a concept, it functions to extract the formal structure of the Hegelian dialectic from Marx—more specifically to displace the materialist inversion of the Hegelian dialectic and to differentiate the Hegelian totalizations of the early Marx from the novel but largely unexplained logics of materialism that underwrite the later Marx.

In order to arrive at Althusser and overdetermination, a detour through his critique of Hegel and the well-known inversion of Hegel in Marx is warranted. The Hegelian dialectic is grounded in his negation of the determinative power of all material events of world history so as to conceptualize them as the expressions or animations of a single unified Spirit or Idea—this is the expressive causality appertaining to the idealism of Hegelian philosophy (Hegel, 1899). Althusser explains that “the Hegelian totality is the alienated development of a simple unity, of a simple principle, itself a moment of the development of the Idea . . . a spiritual type of unity in which all the differences are only posed to be negated” (2005, pp. 203–304). Althusser claims that the inversion of Hegel in the mature materialism of Marx has been misinterpreted. Marx did not simply invert Hegel’s philosophical position such that central contradictions in the material reality of the world (often framed as the economic base) transitively determine superstructural phenomena such as civil society, religion, familial relationships, sexuality, and so on, as some of Marx’s statements would seem to suggest. By analyzing the actual materialist method of Marx’s work, made possible only through an extremely close, symptomatic, reading of the text, it becomes apparent that it differs quite dramatically from the sort of flawed causal logic of transitive determination that ultimately is itself determined by that from which it seeks liberation. If it did not, that is, if Marx simply inverted rather than displaced the Hegelian dialectic (through the concept of overdetermination), Marx would remain fundamentally Hegelian: the outcome of a negation of a negation. Hence an unreconstructed materialism, which could be understood as obvious by positivist scientific empiricism, would be incapable of adequately explaining anything like how the proliferation of multiple antagonisms—be they within, across, and against the base and the superstructure—could usher in the conditions for a world beyond capitalism. Put differently, transitive causality simply cannot account for what overdetermination seeks to grasp: the actually existing conditions under which minor revolts, strikes, or rebellions, fuse into revolutionary events. This is the problem that Marx struggled with even as he, as Althusser claims, ultimately displaced the Hegelian dialectic with the implicit concept of overdetermined causality in his mature work.

So what exactly is overdetermination? Put schematically, overdetermination designates a mode of causality designed to grasp how “relatively autonomous” determinations (or cause-effect sequences) are determined by a combination of other determinations in any given system. For Althusser, overdetermination is an index of the complexity of grasping causal relations that constitute world-historical processes and hence provides a powerful analytic concept for understanding what communication scholars understand as “context” or the conditions of possibility for social change. Like structuralism, therefore, overdetermination is a concept designed to explain social totalities and the extent to which intentionality and difference interact. Its distance from structuralism, however, is registered by its insistence that difference produced from within the system does more than rearrange the furniture; rather it opens to an outside that was always already internal to but radically different from the system. Gilles Deleuze (1988) would later refer to this absent-presence as the virtual. We could also register a conceptual homology between overdetermination and the differential processes of non-referential linguistics: the signifier “cat” indicates a conceptual (not referential) cat because it is not a “car” or a “dog.” Such processes are differential because difference is constitutive as productive absences in the system.

While humanism insists that an originary instance of human essence, alienated by capital, will be ultimately restored “in the last instance” by communism, and economism insists that instances within a social superstructure of political, religious, and other cultural formations are simply determined by a central contradiction in the economic base, for Althusser, “in History, these instances, the superstructures, etc.—are never seen to step respectfully aside when their work is done or, when the Time comes, as his pure phenomena, to scatter before His Majesty the Economy as he strides along the royal road of the Dialectic” (Althusser, 2005, p. 113). Indeed, as Althusser further argues, in what is perhaps the most important and yet least read sentence in his work tout court, “from the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes” (2005, p. 133). Again, drawing on Lenin, Althusser argues that the revolution of soviets worked, despite the “backwardness” of industrial development in Russia, a peculiar combination of emergent determinations—multiple contradictions within overlapping instances of the social structure—resulted in an opening, a “revolutionary rupture” that was “inseparable from the total structure of the social body in which it . . . [was] found, inseparable from its formal conditions of existence, and even from the instances it governs; it . . . [was] radically affected by them, determining, but also determined in one and the same movement, and determined by the various levels and instances of the social formation it animates . . . enabel[ing] us to see clearly . . . why we are dealing with something quite different from the Hegelian contradiction” (Althusser, 2005, p. 101).

While Marx hints at overdetermination in his theoretical analyses in Capital, Althusser gives density to the concept through a series of essays published in the early 1960s regarding the “scientific,” that is, non-anthropomorphic and truly materialist, method of Marxist analysis. Jason Read (2005) further explains the sense in which overdetermination is a differential process by identifying that the “relative autonomy” of the “different levels” of society, i.e., the superstructure and the base, is reflected in their history as “a differential history.” Read proceeds to explain:

Such a history is differential because it is not enough to simply state, as many historians have, that law, art, or philosophy each has its own history with its own rate, events, and temporality, but rather that since the independence of these different instances of the social totality is only relative, each instance is only relatively autonomous and its history must be situated against its interrelations with each of the other instances of the social totality. (2005, p. 12)

In contrast to transitive determination, a billiard ball model of one element of a system acting on another element of a system, and against expressive determination, in which all elements of a system reflect a spiritual whole, overdetermination allows for chance events that result from the unexpected encounter of relatively autonomous determinations.

If every determination is overdetermined it is so precisely because overdetermination permits for noise in the system to irreversibly distort the system itself. Matthew S. May and Daniel Synk (2016) have argued that the concept of overdetermination supports Althusser’s controversial contention that Marx broke with Hegel through historical documentation and analysis of actually existing events in worker movements, a “bottom-up” method that can be reproduced in different, specific, historical circumstances, known as conjunctures, to combat the influence of idealism and unreconstructed structuralism on Marxist praxis. It is worth pausing here to note, as Althusser does throughout his career, that the nuanced processes of historical materialism, while oblique and not self-evident, are produced in theory even as they are enacted a priori in the streets, so to speak, by seemingly disconnected struggles against cultural norms, work (waged and otherwise), bosses, landlords, cops, etc. An interesting effect of the omission of the preceding points, and Althusser’s earlier work on the antagonistic potentiality of overdetermination in general, has led, as Stuart Hall (1985) predicted, to a reduction of Althusser’s importance to the cultural analysis of representation—a move seemingly necessary for the appropriation of Althusser by rhetorical and critical cultural studies (see also Greene, 2009, p. 62 n12). As such, overdetermination persists as an absent cause immanent in the production of a particular type of Althusserian academic discourse (dominant in anglophonic cultural studies). Ushered away from the class struggle orientation that so vividly animated its original construction, ideological criticism rooted in the demystification of discourse took the proverbial center stage. In other words, the uptake of Althusser in communication studies primarily for the purposes of the analysis (in one way or another) of discourse and the well-deserved critique of this “linguistic” or “discursive turn” in theory allegedly oriented toward class war (before such watchwords as class war were negated and foreclosed by liberal bourgeois academics) are themselves overdetermined by the effects of the productive absence of “overdetermination” as a concept. Althusser was convinced in no uncertain terms that overdetermination was vital to understanding and continuing Marx’s work on difference, that is to say, social change: “I say vital, for I am convinced that the philosophical development of Marxism currently depends on this task” (Althusser, 2005, p. 94).

Ideology and Structure in Rhetorical and Critical/Cultural Communication Studies

Maurice Charland’s (1987) use of Althusser to theorize a constitutive rhetoric provides one of few entry points to Althusser’s work within rhetorical studies. Charland employs “interpellation,” a concept developed largely from the publication of notes Althusser took in the middle to late 1960s to thicken what was perceived by him as a thin account of ideology in Marx, to illustrate a constitutive model of rhetorical effectivity. In these notes, published in Lenin and Philosophy as “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation),” likely his most popular and misread essay, Althusser argues that interpellation operates according to a process akin to a cop “hailing” a pedestrian: the “hey you” uttered by the cop violently and directly positions or interpellates the random pedestrian as the unified, rational, and morally culpable subject of a police state, a state in which an authoritative voice speaks people into subject positions through recognizing them in a felicitous performative speech act (Althusser, 1971). Charland argues that the subject exists as an effect of a “rhetoric of interpellation” rather than persuasion, which “results in an act of recognition of the ‘rightness’ of a discourse and of one’s identity within its reconfigured subject position” (1987, p. 142). For Charland, the materiality of ideology is located in the result, or “act of recognition,” and the effect this act has in the world. As Ronald W. Greene (1998) points out, while this particular model of ideology as material does offer a rhetorical situation outside the logic of influence, it still reinforces linear causality as the dominant mode through which to make sense of subjectivity by focusing on how “speech acts” represent a subject. Greene cultivates this critique of constitutive rhetoric by turning to Althusser’s theorization of how ideology is materialized in and through the mechanisms by which an ideological state apparatus activates to “represent, mobilize, and regulate a population in order to judge their way of life” (Greene, 1998, p. 27).

Even so, Charland’s attempts to move away from the logic of linear causality opened important pathways for the elaboration of alternatives to the “logic of influence,” or transitive causality, and dramatically expanded how scholars imagine the “compositional power” of human speech (Hamilton & Holdren, 2007; see also Biesecker, 1989; May, 2009, 2013). Yet the alleged contrast Charland builds between the processes of constitutive versus instrumental rhetoric unravel in the absence of the theorization of transitive causality and overdetermination. Charland argues that “[i]deology is material because subjects enact their ideology and reconstitute their material world in its image” (1987, p. 143). Following Althusser, however, ideology is not material because subjects prove their status as interpellated subjects through a demonstrative enactment of ideological effectivity. Rather, ideology is already material. Althusser’s commentary on the relationship between theory and practice is instructive here, wherein he argues for the indispensability of understanding ideology itself as a material practice rather than practice as a material enactment of ideology (Althusser, 2005, p. 167). To implicitly gesture back to the representative speech act or enactment as the constitutive force for interpellation, like Charland and even Judith Butler do, undermines central components of Althusser’s theoretical project as a whole by falling back into the logic of linear or transitive causality (Butler, 1997).

Yet critics within communication and critical/cultural studies have raised important tensions between strategic political practice and Althusserian thought. Dana L. Cloud and Joshua Gunn (2011) highlight the cost of abandoning any appeal to that which is “outside” an utterance, instance, or event which is the convergence of multiple discourses, or that which might be overdetermined. Cloud and Gunn question, “absent some sort of rhetoric of liberation, emancipation, or a universal, how does one make an appeal to change?” (2011, p. 415). That is, if all utterances and enactments are already captured, deterministically coalescing into a singular cohesive articulation, how might we cultivate the new logics necessary for universal liberation? As Matthew S. May highlights, “For Althusser . . . transitive causality cannot grasp a differential process of overdetermination, and therefore it is incapable of grasping the fundamental logics of any social formation” (2015, p. 400). Taking this charge seriously demands refusing the reduction of rhetorical effectivity to the politics of representation, rethinking context and speech as one overlapping and uneven alignment of larger, totalizing social forces, and reconceptualizing the sovereign force of rhetors in the making of social change.

Despite Charland’s use of interpellation, his reliance on The White Paper as the constitutive mechanism for Québécoise—the unavoidable rhetorical outcome of a sovereign voice—limits the materiality of the analysis to the discursive politics of representation. For Althusser, interpellation is always overdetermined. This requires understanding interpellation as well as the rhetorical effects as “determining, but also determined in one and the same movement” rather than something that can be read as an expression of the whole structure (Althusser, 2005, p. 101). To take Althusser’s conceptualization of ideology as material seriously necessitates mapping the existence of a structure in its effects, that is to say, according to an immanent logic of causality.

Future Directions

In this the final section, we offer several directions that we see as crucial for future reading and research related to Althusser and structuralism. Althusser and Balibar note that “it is one thing to develop . . . [a] concept and quite another to set it to work in order to solve . . . unprecedented theoretical problem[s]” (2009, p. 213). Hence, as we have suggested, beyond noting the “machinery in its effects” one real difficulty of applying Althusser-oriented ideological analysis is developing non-hermeneutic protocols of ideological analysis based on the principle of overdetermination while resisting the disciplinary knee-jerk impulse to “read” (critically or otherwise) cultural practices as texts. But other problems, other controversies, exist for the entrepreneurial theorist interested in reading Althusser fresh—closely and, to the extent possible, without prejudice. Despite a recent renaissance in Althusser studies, his work is often taken for granted, mispresented, subject to straw-man fallacies rather than good faith engagements, or simply and without further qualification posited as the example par excellence of the overly technical and tediously theoretical accounts of capitalism, culture, and social change, developed during the heady days of French theory. In large part, much of the impetus for continuing work within the Marxist paradigm roughly established by Althusser involves assessing how and to what extent his concepts provide explanatory power in different scales, conjunctures, and on-the-ground struggles today.

In the background of “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses,” and foregrounded in Reading Capital, lies the concept of social reproduction. Althusser offers the ideological state apparatus as a primary mechanism for the reproduction of the relations of capitalist production, thereby reinforcing his theorization of ideology as material practice. Translated to English in 2014, On the Reproduction of Capitalism provides a more robust conceptualization of ideology than is available in the notes of “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses.” In the full text, Althusser stresses the necessity of attending to social reproduction by moving beyond the base-superstructure model. Thus, in addition to locating alternatives to “reading ideology” and the topological mapping of production, more in-depth analysis of overdetermination vis-à-vis social resistance at the level of social reproduction is crucial for the continuation of Althusserian studies. In his words “observation of the mechanisms of the economic base . . . enables us to account for the reproduction of the conditions of the productive forces, labour-power included, it by no means enables us to account for the reproduction of the relations of production” (Althusser, 2014, p. 149). This emphasis on superstructural relations rather than mechanism of production offers an entry point not only for understanding institutional relations as perhaps most easily legible within the ideological and repressive state apparatus framework but also for understanding how the formation of subjectivities is itself a mechanism of social reproduction that contributes to what we experience as identity-bound effects such as raced and gendered divisions of labor.

No other Marxist traditions have unpacked social reproduction as a concept more than operaismo and the autonomist Marxists in Italy, as well as those working at the intersection of Marxist theory and feminist theory. Michele Barrett (1980) published the most significant Althusserian feminist text, Women’s Oppression Today, in which she critically engages the impact of the Althusserian shift in ideology on feminist thought. Antonio Negri and other feminists influenced by the Italian autonomist Marxists and operaismo turn have moved the furthest in the critique of the structuralist tendencies of Althusser and in the reconciliation of Althusser with their focus on the changing dynamics of class struggle as the driving force of historical materialism. Whereas Althusser discusses the constitutive power of the event in the context of overdetermination in the mode of production, Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri, Silvia Federici, and others focus on how the differential power of struggles at all levels of social production and reproduction (primarily against work in all of its manifold manifestations) combat capitalism. Hence, even though the main thrust of operaismo and its variations tend to reject what they view as Althusser’s overly schematic analysis of the mode of production, they share in his understanding of it as a differential process that originates in the labor power exerted by real workers in the everyday fight against the imposition of factory norms throughout society. Even while Althusser did not engage questions of gender, women, or sex directly, other feminist theorists such as Kathi Weeks, Lise Vogel, and Rosemary Hennessy have demonstrated the use of Althusser’s body of thought for understanding the (re)production of social interactions and relations through a materialist lens. Yet, as Nina Powers demonstrates by turning Althusser’s symptomatic method back on Reading Capital to draw out the “absent” question of feminism, there remains unexplored potential in “rethinking countertraditions that have themselves become traditions,” for considering “the role of women and gender in the formation and perpetuation of capital” (2017, p. 223). As such, there remains much unspent potential for deepening and extending the swerve of encounters between operaistas, feminist theory more broadly, and Althusser as potentially highly productive for furthering anticapitalist practice and theory from complementary angles.

Another continent of Althusserian thought that with few exceptions remains to be explored is his relationship with Spinoza. References to the much maligned philosopher are peppered throughout Althusser’s texts, from the concise formulations of overdetermination in his early work through his latest work on “aleatory materialism.” In “On the Materialist Dialectic” he refers to Spinoza’s philosophy as exemplary of the “prodigious ‘labor’ of a theoretician . . . and of a revolutionary” (Althusser, 2005, p. 210). In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Althusser somewhat sarcastically remarks that “the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself” before going on to explain that this rule applies “(unless one is really a Spinozist or a Marxist, which, in this matter, is to be exactly the same thing) . . . Spinoza explained this completely two centuries before Marx, who practiced it but without explaining it in detail . . . this point . . . is heavy with consequences . . . the whole theory of criticism and self-criticism, the golden rule of the Marxist-Leninist practice of the class struggle depends on it” (Althusser, 1971, p. 175). As a final example, in Reading Capital, Althusser and Balibar argue that, after Hegel and Descartes, “the proposal to think the determination of the elements of a whole by the structure of the whole posed an absolutely new problem in the most theoretically embarrassing circumstances, for there were no philosophical concepts available for its resolution” (2009, p. 187). Further, “The only theoretician who had the unprecedented daring to pose this problem and outline a first solution to it was Spinoza. But, as we know, history buried him in impenetrable darkness. Only through Marx, who, however, had little knowledge of him, do we even begin to guess at the features of that trampled face” (Althusser & Balibar, 2009, p. 207). Many of Althusser’s students and allies, such as Balibar, Warren Montag, and Cesare Casarino, to name a few, have made extraordinary efforts to fill in the theoretical gaps between Spinoza, Marx, and Althusser. Much work remains, both in terms of the study of ideology (namely its relation to biblical hermeneutics in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise) and the ontology of modernity (as related to the ontological formulations in Spinoza’s magnum opus Ethics).

The texts collected in Philosophy of the Encounter and Later Works, along with the ongoing translation of texts from late in his career, continue to provide readers with an ample and expanding supply of inventional resources. In this work, as we stated earlier, Althusser sought to trace an “undercurrent” of materialist thought running from Lucretius to Machiavelli to Spinoza to Marx and beyond. This undercurrent had to be repressed, Althusser argues, in order for capitalist modernity to emerge and justify itself in philosophical terms. Much more work needs to be done to unpack this later phase of Althusser’s work, to further theorize the implications of his turn to theorizing materialism in-itself, and to assess its utility in the context of the ongoing struggle for a communist world.

Further Reading

Althusser, L. (1971). Lenin and philosophy. New York: Monthly Review Press.Find this resource:

    Althusser, L. (2005). For Marx (B. Brewster, Trans.). New York: Verso.Find this resource:

      Althusser, L. (2006). Philosophy of the encounter: Later writings, 1978–87. New York: Verso.Find this resource:

        Althusser, L. (2014). On the reproduction of capitalism: Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (G. M. Goshgarian, Trans.). New York: Verso.Find this resource:

          Althusser, L., & Balibar, É. (2009). Reading Capital (B. Brewster, Trans.). New York: Verso.Find this resource:

            Balibar, É. (1996). Structural causality, overdetermination, and antagonism. In A. Callari & D. F. Ruccio (Eds.), Postmodern materialism and the future of Marxist theory: Essays in the Althusserian tradition (pp. 109–119). Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.Find this resource:

              Barrett, M. (1980). Women’s oppression today. New York: Verso.Find this resource:

                Negri, A. (1996). Notes on the evolution of the thought of the Louise Althusser. In A. Callari & D. F. Ruccio (Eds.), Postmodern materialism and the future of Marxist theory: Essays in the Althusserian tradition (pp. 51–68). Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.Find this resource:

                  Nesbitt, N. (Ed.). (2017). The concept in crisis: Reading Capital today. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

                    Montag, W. (2003). Louis Althusser. London: Palgrave.Find this resource:

                      Montag, W. (2013). Althusser and his contemporaries: Philosophy’s perpetual war. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:


                        Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (notes towards an investigation). In L. Althusser (Ed.), Lenin and Philosophy (pp. 127–186). New York: Monthly Review Press.Find this resource:

                          Althusser, L. (1980). The crisis of Marxism. Interview with Italian Radio Television, aired April 30, 1980.Find this resource:

                            Althusser, L. (1993). The future lasts forever: A memoir. New York: New York Press.Find this resource:

                              Althusser, L. (2005). For Marx (B. Brewster, Trans.). New York: Verso.Find this resource:

                                Althusser, L. (2014). On the reproduction of capitalism: Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (G. M. Goshgarian, Trans.). New York: Verso.Find this resource:

                                  Althusser, L., & Balibar, É. (2009). Reading Capital (B. Brewster, Trans.). New York: Verso.Find this resource:

                                    Balibar, É. (1991). For Louis Althusser. Rethinking Marxism, 4, 9–12.Find this resource:

                                      Balibar, É. (1996). Structural causality, overdetermination, and antagonism. In A. Callari & D. F. Ruccio (Eds.), Postmodern materialism and the future of Marxist theory: Essays in the Althusserian tradition (pp. 109–119). Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.Find this resource:

                                        Barrett, M. (1980). Women’s oppression today. New York: Verso.Find this resource:

                                          Biesecker, B. A. (1989). Rethinking the rhetorical situation from within the thematic of différance. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 22, 110–130.Find this resource:

                                            Butler, J. (1997). Excitable speech: A politics of the performative. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                              Charland, M. (1987). Constitutive rhetoric: The case of the Peuple Québéquois. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, 133–150.Find this resource:

                                                Cloud, D. L., & Gunn, J. (2011). Introduction: W(h)ither ideology. Western Journal of Communication, 75, 407–420.Find this resource:

                                                  Deleuze, G. (1988). Bergsonism (H. Tomlinson & B. Habberjam, Trans.). New York: Zone Books.Find this resource:

                                                    Derrida, J. (2001). Text read at Louis Althusser’s funeral. In P. A. Brault & M. Naas (Eds.), The work of mourning: Jacques Derrida (pp. 115–116). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                                                      Eagleton, T. (2008). Literary theory: An introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

                                                        Foucault, M. (1972). Archaeology of knowledge (A. M. Sheridan, Trans.). New York: Pantheon Books.Find this resource:

                                                          Greene, R. W. (1998). Another materialist rhetoric. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 15, 21–41.Find this resource:

                                                            Greene, R. W. (2009). Rhetorical materialism: The rhetorical subject and the general intellect. In Barbara A. Biesecker & John L. Luicates (Eds.), Rhetoric, materiality, and politics (p. 62). New York: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

                                                              Hall, S. (1985). Signification, representation, ideology: Althusser and the post-structuralist debates. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 2(2), 91–114.Find this resource:

                                                                Hamilton, T., & Holdren, N. (2007). Compositional power. Turbulence: Ideas for Movement, 1.Find this resource:

                                                                  Hegel, G. W. F. (1899). The philosophy of history (J. Sibree, Trans.). New York: Colonial Press.Find this resource:

                                                                    Johnson, D. (1993). “Introduction.” In L. Althusser (Ed.), The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir (pp. vi–xviii). New York: New Press.Find this resource:

                                                                      May, M. (2009). Spinoza and class struggle. Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies, 6, 204–208.Find this resource:

                                                                        May, M. (2013). Soapbox rebellion: The Hobo Orator Union and the free speech fights of the industrial workers of the world 1908–1916. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.Find this resource:

                                                                          May, M., & Synk, D. (2016). Contradiction and overdetermination in Occupy Wall Street. Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies, 11, 74–84.Find this resource:

                                                                            Montag, W. (2013). Althusser and his contemporaries: Philosophy’s perpetual war. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                              Montag, W. (2003). Louis Althusser. London: Palgrave.Find this resource:

                                                                                Negri, A. (1996). Notes on the evolution of the thought of Louis Althusser. In A. Callari & D. F. Ruccio (Eds.), Postmodern materialism and the future of Marxist theory: Essays in the Althusserian tradition (pp. 51–68). Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Nesbitt, N. (2017). The concept in crisis: Reading capital today. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Powers, N. (2017). Reading social reproduction into reading Capital. In N. Nesbitt (Ed.), The concept in crisis: Reading Capital today (pp. 219–228). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Read, J. (2005). The Althusser effect: Philosophy, history, and temporality. Borderlands, 4(2).Find this resource:

                                                                                        Spinoza, B. (2000). Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource: