Reading Notes: Althusser and Hall

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What Althusser (1971) refers to as “the ideology of the ruling class” (emphasis mine), become the ruling ideology “by the installation of the ISAs [Ideological State Apparatuses]” is analogous to Hall’s (1973/2007) “dominant-hegemonic position” (emphasis mine) set in place by the metacode “which the professional broadcasters assume when encoding a message which has already been signified in a hegemonic manner” (p. 485, emphasis original). What Althusser abstracts as ISAs, Hall particularizes in the form of television broadcasters.

Althusser (1971) identifies school as the dominant ISA: “the Church has been replaced today in its role as the dominant Ideological State Apparatus by the School. It is coupled with the Family just as the Church was once coupled with the Family.” As dominant ISA, School functions by ideology, “the system of the ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group.” This statement more clearly delineates the connection between Althusser’s ideology and Hall’s dominant-hegemonic position. Hall (1973/2007) notes that, in many cases, the television “viewer is operating inside the dominant code” (p. 485, emphasis original). In short, Hall’s viewer is dominated by the the ideas and representations (to pull directly from Althusser) of the metacode operating in acts of encoding by professional broadcasters.

Misunderstandings and Class Struggle

Hall (1973/2007) seeks to examine the origin of misunderstandings in mass, and especially television, communications. He theorizes that misunderstandings or distortions emerge from lack of equivalence between encoding and decoding processes. When certain frameworks of knowledge, relations of production, and technical infrastructure — Scott appears to refer to these as “ideological apparatus” — are used in encoding meaning in a television program, the frameworks of knowledge, relations of production, and technical infrastructure of the viewers decode the program’s meaningful discourse (see diagram, p. 480). If the “ideology” of the encoders is not equivalent to the “ideology” of the decoders, then misunderstandings occur. This seems to be Hall’s way of characterizing class struggle. In a similar way, Althusser describes class struggle within the framework of ideology. Ideology of the ruling class gets disseminated and enforced via ISAs.

Althusser (1971) concludes with an examination of the subject in/of ideology to mean both “a free subjectivity, a centre of initiatives, author of and responsible for its actions” and “a subjected being, who submits to a higher authority, and is therefore stripped of all freedom except that of freely accepting this submission.” The misunderstanding that necessarily occurs from this opposition is the unwillingness to recognize the “the reproduction of the relations of production and of the relations deriving from them.” Hall concludes similarly. Reproducing the relations of production — the ideological positions of television broadcasters — is necessary for Hall’s (1973/2007) “perfectly transparent communication” (p. 485), the equivalence of encoding and decoding. Because perfectly transparent communication does not exist — because the relations of production cannot be perfectly reproduced on both sides of Hall’s encoding/decoding diagram — misunderstanding occurs. We miss the vital importance of ideological positions in communication, just as Althusser suggests we miss the vital importance of ideological positions (beyond the State itself) in the struggle of the subject to be free of State ideology.


Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (Notes towards an investigation). In B. Brewster (transl.) & A. Blunden (trans.), Louis Althusser archive. Retrieved from (Original work published in Lenin philosophy and other essays)

Hall, S. (2007). Encoding, decoding. In S. During (ed.), The cultural studies reader (3rd ed.). London, UK: Routledge. (Original work published 1973)

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