We’re trained, said Althusser, to think simultaneously on two levels—the first cultural, the second economic. This second level is actually the base of the first (as we know when we buy something our heart yearns to possess; it’s our money that does the talking in the end) and, as such, prevails in terms of an ideology that speaks with a language of inspiration and fulfilment while masking the essentially alienating components of daily life and labour. When writing an essay, the desire for a mark pleasing to our image of an ideal paper runs up against the fact that we are here not only to recount what our spongy minds have absorbed but also to demonstrate this new knowledge in action. Our economic minds, frugal and pragmatic, run up against the creative flow that true learning stimulates.
Althusser sees this metaphor of two levels as key to understanding how ideology is reproduced while its origins remain obscure. “This representation of the structure of every society as an edifice containing a base (infrastructure) on which are erected the two ‘floors’ of the superstructure, is a metaphor, to be quite precise, a spatial metaphor: the metaphor of a topography. Like every metaphor, this metaphor suggests something, makes some thing visible. Precisely this: that the upper floors could not ‘stay up’ (in the air), if they did not rest precisely on their base” (Althusser, online). That the economic base of our life supports the personal superstructure of our lifestyle is beyond question; we know we need to make money to live and buy things. However, this reality runs deeper into our subjectivity. When we seek inspiration, we are plumbing a well of experience and imagination that has been sunk, as it were, through a lifetime of immersion in our culture and its ideology. To think new new thoughts would be to realize the pastiche that has gone into our makeup to begin with, and, from there, to see our course material as a launching pad out of our typical responses to stimuli, including those that appear to gather steam out of nowhere. Ingenious approaches are made of seeing the stuff we’re made of and then imagining it all anew.
Realizing we’re in ideology—waist deep and wading in it—even in moments of whimsy, goes a long way to applying critical thinking skills when we write our assignments. Especially in the social sciences, the idea isn’t to regurgitate what we’re taught but to press the point further and elsewhere. After all, its the so-called real world that is built on illusions and pipe dreams, not our academic realms. Althusser illustrates that “Ideology, then, is for Marx an imaginary assemblage (bricolage), a pure dream, empty and vain, constituted by the ‘day’s residues’ from the only full and positive reality, that of the concrete history of concrete material individuals materially producing their existence (Althusser, online).
To evade or rethink ideology is therefore to interrogate and reconsider the thoughts that come to us naturally, including inspirational thoughts. We make of life what we get in life; to transcend those mental bounds and be truly creative we have to think away from our comfort zone and even our intuition. So, if you’re proverbially stuck for assignment themes, or thinking the same paragraph topic sentences over and over, maybe try something new to knock loose new and better ideas. Maybe just a facial hose off, it can work like a cranial reset button I swear!
A Key Background Lynchpin
Althusser noted that, rather than use a descriptive model to understand the beliefs that subtly dominate our lives in our historical epoch, we must look at understanding how these ideas reproduce themselves, how they make spores, and how these germinate to impregnate future generations and reproduce structural inequalities. Althusser’s approach was relatively new in the field of North American sociology; previously the staid structural functionalism of Talcott Parsons had held sway along with its belief that everything social happens for the reason of upholding stability for all. Instead, Althusser identified a number of what he termed Ideological State Apparatuses—including educational facilities.
Each ISA worked to uphold social stratification that benefited those who owned the means of production in society at the expense of the majority. As such, thinkers outside of this hegemonic framework were systematically excluded, and their potential pupils were streamed toward ideas preferred by those in power. Today this translates into young students aspiring to be on Dragon’s Den rather than starting an art collective, or wishing to sing elegant karaoke rather than be their own songwriter. For us at AU, no matter the practical goals of our education, we might consider which elective we really want to take.
For Althusser, the question of ideology was clearly one of how it could be changed. That led inexorably to the question of how to hear the bell of inspiration and ask who was doing the ringing. For inspiration to look right or read right, it has to match expectations, and at AU we want to set the bar high not only to meet our tutor’s expectations but also our own.
From Miracles to Materialism
For some philosophers, all action was caused by a twinkle in a cosmic eye giving birth to our creative fruition here on terra firma. By Althusser’s time, the all-too human social reality of ideas was calcified in terms of social stratification and business considerations. We can learn something from this as the bounds of our learning grow: nothing is just as it appears, not even our flashes of inspiration. We’re the outcome of social and physiological processes and that extra magical bit that sets our fingers alight upon the keyboard has, at least in part, been forged by the same social sphere that leads us to more mundane pursuits.
Of course in schooling, as in life, we at AU know we can’t just follow our willy-nilly pleasure if we want good grades. Much of a good assignment is still about painting inside the lines. Unlike certain brick and mortar settings, which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, there are no easy A’s at Athabasca. This in no small way is owing to the fact that we must actually read and study the course material on offer and demonstrate knowledge we’ve actually acquired, rather than simply bloviate discursively in class discussions. True inspiration involves an elegant mix of what we’ve learned with whatever new ideas spring forth, lavalike, from the subtlety of our mind’s eye.
To be really creative it helps to bear in mind that, even while we are drifting down thoughtful tributaries, there remain the tidal forces of prevalent unspoken ideology thinking along with us just beneath the surface. Our minds are like estuaries of our vast unconscious ocean. Inspiration may not be divine but it sure is special. To reach new ground from these flashes of insights means to think over and over again about what we think we know, or what comes naturally to our fervent thoughts, and to think new ideas even against the grain of what feels right. To think critically is to question what we think we think; to think critically is nothing other than to consider multiple perspectives upon the same, seemingly-self evident, object of thought.
Academic success isn’t about being forced to put lipstick on a pig, or on ourselves, but we do want to be academically aware that what seems clearly and distinctly true arose from elsewhere. We were inscribed with culture and language and ideology before we entered school and one of our greatest learnings at AU may be to realize and identify this fact.
Summer days may be a bit of a study struggle but if we give ourselves a break and think about why and wherefrom our moments of inspiration originate then good things can happen. At the very least, we’ll be cooled to the core.