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The Function of Ideology in Literature


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First Published: 31 December 2022 | Last Updated: 3 January 2023


Giambattista Vico in his comments against the Enlightenment idea of history as a scheme of thought that can never produce “truth” as the natural sciences can, speaks in favour of the possibility of acquiring historical knowledge. In his New Science, Vico points out the difference between naturwissenschaft (natural science) and geisteswissenschaft (human science). He argues that since natural sciences deal with the external world and arrive at the relevant conclusions on the mere basis of measuring the regularity and construction of matter, they can, at most, “understand” the external world to a certain extent but cannot acquire the “knowledge” that human sciences, especially history, can generate. History is the history of human actions and motivations behind these actions, and of human thought. It is easy for us, as human beings, to reconstruct the past in our imagination. In other words, as historical actions and processes are man-made, we can acquire the knowledge of the same. Since we are not the “makers” of the external world, we cannot, by implication, acquire the knowledge of the external nature in the truest sense. In this sense, historical knowledge may be considered superior to the so-called “scientific knowledge.”

This leads to the question, what are the sources of such historical knowledge? For Vico, “language” is one of the incorruptible sources of historical knowledge. By analysing language, we can acquire the knowledge of history. The development of language refers to the evolution of human history. A specific state of language corresponds to a particular phase in history. For instance, according to Vico, the early man’s language was basically composed of natural symbols, thunder etc. which the “priests” could “read.” This developed into “poetic” language which achieved its sublimest form in what Vico calls the “heroic” age. The third age, in Vico’s terminology, refers to the “human” period of history when “man is the absolute lord of language.” In Vico’s broader classification, one can trace the development of language through the ages in the following manner: onomatopoetic monosyllables, polysyllables, interjections, prepositions and ultimately, verbs. In the third age, a prosaic language emerged but it had evolved through the mythic and poetic stages of the language.

The fundamental point, to reiterate, is that a particular period in history produces a particular kind of language. Following Johann Gottfried Herder, a follower of Vico, one could add that a particular culture or “climate” is responsible for the evolution of a particular form of language. Language “expresses” the way human beings view their world, and different stages in the development of language refer to the different “cultures” that produce that specific form of language. Any human creation—be it art or literature or any other form of human expression—is the embodiment of a specific human culture. Thus, the Greek myths and the epics of Homer can well be defined as the expression of the “collective imagination” of their age. Homer is not one “author” but the “collective individuality” of his age. In fact, following Michel Foucault’s theorisation in What is an Author?, one could establish that the author is a very recent invention coming into existence only in the age of capitalism (17th and 18th centuries). Before the advent of capitalism, no author was required for the circulation of cultural products like myths. Myths and other poetic forms of expression could circulate anonymously during the early period of world history because, one could argue, of the very notion of collective individuality.

This could be an initial point about the function of ideology in literature. If particular forms of expression – language, literature, and art – are products of particular ways of viewing and understanding the world, then such viewing/ understanding could be described as “ideology” and one could thereby argue that ideology constitutes the very core of the literary. However, one must be careful here because literature is not mere ideology. The interface between literature and ideology is much more complex. To make sense of this complexity, one needs to turn to the Marxist tradition of thought that has most rigorously analysed this interface. This tradition emphasises the role of history in the making of literature and one could argue, from their point of view, that the act of historicising literature is almost impossible if one does not, simultaneously, historicise ideology.

Obviously, Louis Althusser would be a major point of reference in this context. In “A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre,” Althusser, while explaining the relationship between art and ideology, says, “I do not rank real art among ideologies, although art does have a particular and specific relationship with ideology.” In other words, art and ideology must be distinguished from each other, which is why one can speak of a relationship between the two. The important task is to define this relationship.

In the capitalist context, the “making” of a work of literature presupposes the existence of an author and a reading public. The author “produces” the work with the help of certain “means” including writing instruments, language, social experience, and the “ability to write.” The reader accesses the work only after it has gone through certain social “mediations” like composition, publication, and circulation. These means and mediations vary depending on the specificity of the social system, technological progress and the larger modes of production. Such variations determine the differences between literary works produced in two different historical periods. The means and mediations are the reasons why literary works are inevitably “embedded” in different networks of material practices and cannot be detached from their historicity.

There is a tendency in classical Marxist theories to focus solely on the content of literature to explore the historico-ideological connections. But that is a narrow understanding of the interface between ideology and literature. Althusser, who was influenced by Jacques Lacan’s theorisation of the linguistic “structure” of the unconscious, was aware of this limitation. This is why in his essay on “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Althusser described ideology as having a “formal structure” which is somewhat ahistorical and eternal. The basic mechanism of ideology is that of moulding the individual into a particular shape and form – a process defined by Althusser as “interpellation.” To give an example, the dominant ideology or the ideology of the ruling class hails and provides (“interpellates”) the individuals with an identity which is external to them but which seems so normal that the individual internalizes it. Thus the individual becomes a subject or, to play on words, through the process of interpellation, the dominant ideology “subjects” the individual to itself. Once the individual becomes aware of this subjection, (s)he would revolt; it is at this moment that revolutions take place. Following Raymond Williams – famous for a tripartite classification of ideology into the dominant, the residual, and the emergent – one could highlight such moulding and revolting of the interpellated subjects through the differences between these three “forms” of ideology. The formal structure of ideology remains ahistorical, it is true, but its emergence, dominance and decline can and needs to be historicised. Such historicisation can contribute to the formal analysis of ideology as well as of literature.

Where does literature figure in all this? In every society, there is a dominant class that owns the means of production and it is they who create the “subjects” like the author and reader. Nevertheless, the means of production and the means of literary production are not the same. Whereas the former would include raw materials from nature, fixed installations (buildings) and instruments of production (machines), the author’s means of production is primarily language. Language is not necessarily owned by the ruling class to which he is unwittingly subjected. The way he experiences the world and the way he has learned to express those in language determines the nature of the literary work. But the crucial point is, the world he experiences is always already ideologically constructed. The people he sees around him and the way they behave with each other are “ideological,” because all of them have internalised, for the most part, the dominant ideologies, and for the least, “reactionary” ideologies. Thus the characters he portrays and their plight are conditioned by the social systems they inhabit and the ideology that allows them to behave in certain ways. They conform to the existing social and ideological definitions of “heroes,” “villains,” “aliens,” “male,” “female,” etc.

One of the evident deficiencies of a dominant ideology is that it uses a variety of apparatuses to indoctrinate people into following a singular way of life as if that is the sole way. Thus what people consider to be their reality is actually an illusory one. It may be difficult, even for the author, to offer a literary reality outside such ideological constructions. One can transcend the dominant ideology but one will inevitably fall into another form of ideology, be it a residual or an emergent one. There is no existence outside ideology, or to use a formulation of Slavoj Žižek, there is nothing called a post-ideological world. This relationship between literature and ideology has been succinctly defined by Althusser. According to him, literature “makes us see the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, and to which it alludes.”

Does this mean literature is mere ideology? One can borrow Lucien Goldmann’s idea of “genetic structuralism” and argue that the structure of a literary text is the embodiment of the structure of thought or the “world vision” of the social class or group to which the author belongs. For him, literary works are the “transindividual mental structures” of a social group. But such theorisation is quite reductive. Perhaps the best theorist, in this context, is Pierre Macherey, a disciple of Althusser, who calls for distinguishing literature from ideology. In his essay “Lenin, Critic of Tolstoy,” Macherey argues that ideology does not have a specific form the way a literary text has one. Ideology is almost formless because of its structural and abstract complexity since it works unconsciously through social beings. For Althusser, ideology may have specific structures which can be deciphered through scientific criticism. The literary work, however, is under no obligation to portray the ideological structure. The ideological traces encountered in the literary work are trans-formed into literariness. This is why Althusser talks about an “internal distantiation” between literature and ideology. Despite being born from ideology, literature retains its distinctiveness. Literature, in fact, is born through such internal distance and it helps one perceive the very ideology from within. Literature contains the potential to detach from and challenge ideology itself.

It would be safe to conclude that a literary work has an inevitable ideological content but the distinctness of literature rests in its ability to provide a form to this almost formless content. This is why one needs to talk about both the “form” and the “formation” of a literary work from within the ideological contexts. Such a perspective has rightly been adopted and elaborated on by a host of thinkers. Georg Lukács, for instance, argues that different ideological traditions account for the different “forms” of literary works. Macherey observes that a literary work is tied to its ideology not so much by what it says but by what it “does not say.” Because the author cannot have complete knowledge of the historico-ideological process, he is forced to reveal the ideological versions of the reality he inhabits. Perhaps, a crucial point here is about the liberating potential of literature vis-à-vis ideology. Once a literary work endows the “scatteredness” of ideology with form, it reveals, unwittingly, the limits of that ideology. The act of historicisation can play an instrumental role in this context. An attempt to historicise a literary work—its form, internal contradictions, and complex process of production—would reveal the ideology (or ideologies) which simultaneously functions as its source as well as the target of revolt.


Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Translated by Ben Brewster. Monthly Review Press, 2001.

Berlin, Isaiah. Three Critics of Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder. Princeton University Press, 2000.

Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. University of California Press, 1976.

Goldmann, Lucien. Essays on the Method in Sociology of Literature. Edited by W. Q. Boelhower. Telos Press, 1980.

Herder, Johann Gottfried. Selected Writings on Aesthetics. Translated by Gregory Moore. Princeton University Press, 2006.

Lukács, Georg. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. MIT Press, 1972.

Macherey, Pierre. A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall. Routledge, 1978.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Translated by T. G. Bergin and M. H. Fish. Cornell University Press, 1948.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 1989.

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