In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” — an essay excerpted from a longer work only recently available in English, On the Reproduction of Capitalism — Althusser offers a definition of ideology: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” On this definition — and contrary to classic Marxist approaches — ideology is not an imaginary (i.e., false) depiction of our real conditions of existence. Rather, ideology is the set of processes by which we imagine ourselves into our real conditions of existence.
Consider, for instance, the depiction of farms in children’s toys in the images below.
A classic Marxist critique might argue that these are examples of false consciousness: they are imaginary depictions of farming that mask, obscure, or mystify real farming, which may in fact look a lot more like the images below (or, for those who are not faint of heart, see any of the video exposes available online).
While I still find it useful to speak of ideology as a false image or mystification of reality, Althusser’s primary focus was on something else.
When he claims that ideology “represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence,” he means that — for example — the practice of playing with farming toys and is one of the conditions of imagining farmers into existence in the first place. For the mode of production to be reproduced over time, we must create subjects willing to submit to the existing relations of production. Encouraging children to push toy tractors around in the dirt is part of the process by which we interpellate subjects willing to staff factory farms. For a subject of ideology in this sense, “his ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject.”
Arguably, these two processes — mystification and interpellation — work in concert with one another: the former may assist in obscuring the costs associated with the latter, making the interpellation of subjectivity easier to swallow.