Bakhtin, Althusser, & Hall: Ideologies

As noted by Bakhtin, locating an ideology within consciousness is inadvertently fallacious. Idealism and psychologism “overlook” an imperative; bound by semiotic material, approach to ideology seems to be applied through a unifying concept. This methodology can be understood as a “world of signs” in which “A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality – it reflects and refracts another reality” (Bakhtin 1211). Further noting language as a prominent medium through which semiotics are expressed, words are noted as both “pure” and “neutral” signs (1213). But as I read the critical discussions of ideology, led by Louis Althusser, Stuart Hall, and Bakhtin, I was confronted by a major question. A critique of an ideology may very well contribute to an ideology. This process, whether deliberately or not, exemplifies the complexities of discourse, and as a reader, enables one to view ideologies permeating throughout all discourse. To what extent may an understanding of ideologies, their intricacy, structure, and issues of power, contribute to education which seeks to empower? How may an understanding of ideological systems enable a teacher to improve their pedagogical approach to highlight and combat these structures? Althusser, in an affectionate homage to teachers who challenge ideology, recognizes the rarity of such educators. “[. . .] many (the majority) do not even begin to suspect the ‘work’ the system [. . .] forces them to do, or worse, put all their heart and ingenuity into performing it with the most advanced awareness (the famous new methods!)” (Althusser 83). This view, while not only devastating to many practicing teachers, isolates a substantial problem in education which contributes to “the ideological representation of the school” (Althusser 83). The school, however, may be viewed as a territory within which those within it are actively engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. This vision, though romantic, may help unveil academic activity as learning for the sake of learning, but in a world of industry and commerce, materiality, and commodity, this perspective of educational institutions often seems far from the truth. And as an unfortunate actuality, to again reference Althusser, teachers inescapably contribute to the image of the academy they represent, signifying the ideology of the school. This point, it seems to me, illustrates an ideology of the academy complete with a corresponding system of symbols and materiality.

Althusser and Hall bear a major similarity in that language is central to ideology, yet their approaches to ideology certainly take differing paths. Building upon Bakhtin, Hall recognizes that “Language is the medium par excellence through which things are ‘represented’ in thought and thus the medium in which ideology is generated and transformed” (36). One must note, however, that Hall identifies the ‘multi-referential’ nature of language and meaning, namely, to interrogate a passage by Marx which suggests “[. . .] a fixed, determinate and unalterable relationship between market exchange and how it is represented in thought” (36). Hall recognizes, however, that the problem of ideological class struggles cannot simply be resolved through revision of broadly conceived abstract theory. An applied approach to ideology is thus necessary, one which recognizes struggle as central to the workings of ideology.

Selecting an approach to ideology which empowers seems to be no easy task, yet through an understanding of language, signs, and symbol systems, ideology can be understood and even challenged. “Everything ideological possesses semiotic value” (Bakhtin 1211). Further, language and ideology are fundamentally bound. Although Bakhtin opposed Saussere on the topic of speech genres, Saussere has been noted as an immensely influential figure in the developments of 20th linguistics, including semiotics. Saussere’s sign/signifier/signified/referent model has been redrawn and critiqued, however, particularly on the topic of arbitrariness of signs (Chandler 30). The relationship between signifier and signified has been noted by Saussere as “relatively arbitrary” in nature; conversely, Althusserian Marxist terminology describes this relationship as “relatively autonomous” (Chandler 30). Such conversations, to me, lend to discussions of perception and judgment in relation to language systems. An entire language system cannot be completely arbitrary, yet this system cannot exist outside the realm of the sociocultural sphere. The relationship between signifier and signified, then, can best be explained as one which is “conventional” (Chandler 31). The Sausserian process of making meaning in a world of “rule-governed” language, one which still enables room for arbitrary thought, is liberating in that one is provided with the necessary terminology to investigate language as phenomenon. Although a more thorough explanation of semiotics is certainly required, I will conclude with a brief discussion of how a Peircean triadic has been noted as a useful model in an English classroom.

Ann Berthoff has recognized the role of semiotic models in empowering students through language. Through the Peircean model (representamen, interpretant, object) and a triadic of dialogue, Berthoff argues that “[. . .] we will, in our pedagogy of knowing, be giving our students back their language so that they can reclaim it as an instrument for controlling their becoming” (322). Classrooms are dynamic spaces indeed, and online learning environments – as well as the general realm of the Internet – present unlimited opportunities to apply a semiotic approach to writing instruction. The interpretation of visual rhetoric, for instance, is particularly pertinent when investigating multimodal media sources online. Encouraging a classroom dialogue centered on visual rhetoric is language-based pedagogy (to steal a term from Bakhtin and Hall, respectively) par excellence. Semiotic models may guide this process to ultimately combat issues of power structures and ideology in a classroom which fosters student autonomy.



Berthoff, Ann E. “Is Teaching Still Possible? Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning.” Cross-     Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Villanueva, Victor and Kristin L. Arola. NCTE: Urbana, Il.           2011. 309-323. Print.

Chandler, Daniel. “Models of the Sign.” Semiotics: the Basics. London: Routledge, 2002. 17-54. Print.


Discussion Questions

Visual Rhetoric

  1. With the widespread use of the Internet in our society, is our world becoming more visually oriented? If so, how do we navigate a world contingent on the constant interpretation of visual rhetoric?


  1. Bakhtin notes “The word is not only the purest, most introductory sign but is, in addition, a neutral sign” (1213). To what extent may signs be neutral? Are all signs neutral, or can they be arbitrary?


  1. Noting the plurality of ISAs (religious, educational, family, legal, political, trade-union, communications, cultural; pg. 73), Althusser mentions there is but one repressive State Apparatus. Can a plurality of repressive State Apparatuses exist?


  1. Hall employs a language-based approach to analyze a passage by Marx dealing with the relationship between the market “and how it is construed within an ideological or explanatory framework” (36). In short, Hall states that this relation cannot be fixed due to the ‘multi-referential’ (as opposed to a one-to-one model) essence of language. Can one employ the ‘muli-referential’ approach to Hall’s interpretation of ideology as well?