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To answer this question I believe it will be pertinent to refer briefly to Althussers theoretical predecessor- Karl Marx. Marx believed that ideology was the ruling set of ideas held by the dominant class. For Marx, the dominant class were those who held the means of production. This class were the ruling intellectual force due to their monopoly of power. Marx posited that economic forces were the principle catalyst in society, supported by the base and the superstructure. With regards to literature, Marx believed that literary canons were socially generated. It is reality that is the dominant force in shaping literature, rather than specific authorial intent.
For Althusser, literature is a component of the cultural ISA, that is to say, an Ideological State Apparatus. In his interpretation of Marxism it is one of the apparatus that society's elite use to control the individual. (RSAs or Repressive State Apparatuses perform a similar function by means of open coercion, and include the Army, the Government and the police). ISAs achieve their effect by instilling in the individual an acceptance of the existing order, transmitting the ideology of the ruling class and hiding its effects. Literature is not only reflective of ideology formation, but also productive. Education is a vital ISA. Althusser argues that for an ideology to continue to exist over time, it must solve the problem of 'reproduction'. The ideas that underpin Capitalism must continually be 'internalised' by employees and employers if it is to continue to function. Education plays a vital part in this process. Althusser claims that education does not only teach us vital skills necessary for the workplace, but also 'ways of seeing [the world]'.
To apply William James' pragmatic method, how does this theory apply to real life? In Althusser's theory, he would argue that the School is anything but a 'neutral', ideology-free environment. First of all, it is nonsense to talk of almost anything, particularly an institution, as being ideologically-free or 'neutral' in the first place. For example, even under a conventional (non-Marxist) interpretation, a law court (to take one of many possible examples) subscribes to the ideology of the state, from a jury who believes more or less in capitalism, individual rights and responsibilities, to the laws that it upholds which are essentially rooted in absolute sentencing from a roughly absolutist right/wrong Christian/Natural Law tradition to that same sense of individual responsibility and rights. Most people would argue that the School is based largely on Victorian ideas of hard work, discipline and regimen. There are bells, strictly allocated times for everything, and punishments for those who step out of line. Althusser stated that the purpose of the School is for the teaching of basic literacy and numeracy skills (these are openly taught); the structuring of knowledge to mirror the separation of knowledge in the production process- this includes the separation of science and literature; and finally the teaching of the rules of good behaviour, such as maintaining a level of order that is required for the process of economic production, the cultivation of respect and deference towards legitimate authority and learning how to take and give orders. The School promotes 'Hailing' (the moment when an ideology obliges an individual to act in a certain way) and 'Interpellation' (the moment when an individual accepts the role prescribed for them). This is exemplified by the way a pupil will approach a teacher dictating the way that said teacher will react towards the pupil.
Althusser therefore claims that literature is a product of men and women who are themselves products of a system which they have been ideologically inscribed by. Althusser claimed that 'ideology is active in principle'. Ideology is the series of practices that shape reality, not the ideas that reflect it. Much of the 'classic' literature that is exalted in society is fed to the individual by the schools and universities, both ISAs, and therefore tools of the ruling class. The ruling elite form a 'canon' of the 'best' literature that is to be taught. Therefore the literature that we feel that we can most benefit from and learn the most from ('the best that has been thought and said in the world') is 'nevertheless deeply ideologically inscribed'. On the other hand, the literary critic Harold Bloom maintains that 'aesthetic choice has always guided every secular aspect of canon formation'. However the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton criticises this viewpoint, rebuking what he sees as Bloom's 'special, mysterious faculty [of] the aesthetic'. For Eagleton, the aesthetic is something that cannot be accurately defined or pinned down, despite Bloom's best efforts to establish criteria: 'I accept only three criteria for greatness in imaginative literature: aesthetic splendour, cognitive power, wisdom'. Eagleton does however have a point, Bloom's attempts to define 'greatness' in literature are sketchy and rather than illuminate, actually make the issue more complex ('splendour' and 'power' are as subjective and ephemeral as the 'aesthetic').
Whilst Marx would argue that literature is a tool of the ruling class for oppression of the individual, Althusser argues that art itself cannot be reduced to ideology, but rather has a relationship to it. Ideology signifies the imaginary ways in which the individual experiences the real world, which is also the sort of experience that literature offers us. As literature presents a constructed version of reality it does not necessarily reflect the actual conditions of life. Art is held within ideology but also manages to achieve a certain distance from it. This distance enables the reader to gain awareness of the ideology which the literature reflects. As literature merely reflects ideology, it cannot be reduced to it. Therefore Althusser argues that literature is what it is because it is a product of the ruling ideology. Art can make us 'feel', 'perceive' and 'see' something which alludes to reality, but crucially, it cannot allow us to know reality.
As I have earlier argued in this essay that it is almost impossible for anything to be ideologically free, so this is the case for literature. Aestheticism is in itself an ideological stance. Eagleton claims that under Aestheticism literature is being 'substituted as the realm of the spiritual in modern scientific society'. Literary study indisputably has its roots in ideology. English was largely developed as a subject in order to foster a sense of national belonging and 'fellow-feeling' among the classes of Victorian British society, one which, as the first industrialised nation, was fraught with various bases for destructive class conflicts arising from the conditions of large-scale immigration to the cities, labour agitation and industrial capitalism. Similarly, the teaching of English literature in American schools was conceived of as a 'binding principle' for an increasingly dislocated urbanised post-Civil War society which found itself suddenly lacking the bonds of small town life. Under Althussian theory, literature can therefore be seen as a replacement for the ideology (and contained within that the covert Hailing and Interpellation) that small town life reinforced.
Literature is, then, established in the industrialised world as a means for political and social control, as well as for its democratising, civilising and humanising potential. Further highlighting this ideological viewpoint of literature, Widdowson evidences its use for nationalistic means in pre-First World War imperialist Britain. Imperialism and nationalism 'engender[ed] the need to celebrate the national heritage of English literature in order to forge a sense of national identity'. This political impetus was increased in the aftermath of the First World War, and with the war-torn nation's values undermined, gender and class roles thrown into disarray and with a post-war Britain unrecognisable to many, helped result in English literature (with renewed importance and value) getting a place on the Oxbridge syllabi for the first time (an important step in increasing the subject's influence and credibility).
Even literature that seems to be outside of the system, such as literature that has an anarchistic, counter-cultural tendency like Fight Club or Trainspotting still goes through the traditional forms of distribution, goes largely through the same (commonly) multinational publishing houses and is sold in the same mainstream high street branches. It is therefore still by-and-by a product of the ruling ideology. As an example, Fight Club was originally published through W W Norton & Co, publishers of The Norton Anthology series. It is difficult to think of a publisher as much a part of the literary elite. Also, Fight Club and Trainspotting cannot truly escape ideology- Fight Club has Anarchism and Marxism as its ideologies; Trainspotting remains consumerist, it is just that goods which the average individual would value in society have been replaced by heroin. Both the ideologies presented are also untenable; both are ultimately (self-) destructive. This leaves us still with the ideology of the ruling class.
Hence to conclude, literature is a product of ideology, from the way it is written by the author under the subconscious influence of the ruling class ideology, despite any authorial intent, to the way it is published and distributed. Even literature ostensibly 'outside' the system unwittingly conforms to the status quo. Literature serves to promote the dominant ideology by obscuring the reality of the world from the individual. The authors of the state promoted (via exam-boards, schools, universities, television etc) literary canon are especially chosen due to their promotion of the ideology of the ruling elite. Whilst Harold Bloom's argument for aesthetic choice guiding canon formation is a beguiling one, he does place too much emphasis on these mysterious notions of what makes literature 'great', and one cannot help but suspect that his true feeling is that 'what he says is great is great', full stop. I find his argument that there is no politicisation of the canon a tough pill to swallow- if this were true then the canon would never change over time, perception of authors would not change over time, but the fact is it does. To take a recent example, Kingsley Amis goes little-read today (with the exception of Lucky Jim), whereas Penelope Fitzgerald is undergoing a reassessment and has never been more popular, '[she was] the best living English novelist. As Eagleton antagonistically puts it, Shakespeare could well be at some point in the future 'no more valuable than much present-day grafitti'. That there has been political reasoning behind canon formation is evident. However increasingly the canon seems to be opening up to authors who have been previously overlooked such as Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn. It would be interesting to consider whether this current revision still represents the ruling elite.