The word ideology originates from the French word “ideologie” which itself originated from the combining of the Greek prefix “idea-” which refers to something that produces ideas or images and the suffix “-logy,” which refers to logos, the Greek word denoting logic [link] and reason. The term was originally coined during the aftermath of the French Revolution to describe a science consisting of the study of the origin and nature of ideas. Today the term ideology is conventionally used derogatively in the political sphere, as politicians aim to portray their opponents as out-of-touch “ideologues” who govern based on abstract, impracticable principals rather than the will of their constituencies. The term ideology also brings to mind the competing “-isms,” capitalism, communism, and fascism, which fought for supremacy throughout the twentieth century. Since being an ideologue connotes being out-of-touch, the term is traditionally applied to politicians or academics. The average person is not considered beholden to an ideology.

Yet the most common usage of “ideology” within the critical establishment is the Marxist conception of the word. First used by Marx in his essay “The German Ideology,” ideology is the “false-consciousness” which prevents the proletariat from realizing the material reality of their exploitation by the bourgeoisie. He further suggests that ideologies are representations of the interests of the ruling class. This notion of ideology as set of false beliefs which inhibit the discovery of a concrete “truth” (the material reality that the proletariat are exploited by the bourgeoisie) mirrors Plato’s myth of the cave, in which the people trapped in the cave believe the shadows on the wall opposite them represent reality. While the colloquial usage of the term “ideology” would no doubt label Marxism an ideology, the Marxist conception of the term does not. To a Marxist, Marxism is the true analysis of the conditions of production, an analysis which ideologies obscure.

This Marxist conception of the term is applied to media theory by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in their essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Adorno and Horkheimer argue that the uniformity of works of mass culture (the televisionand the radio) transmits a cultural ideology which the masses have no choice but to accept. They write:

…Freedom to choose an ideology—since ideology always reflects economic coercion— everywhere proves to be freedom to choose what is always the same.1

Horkheimer and Adorno present this ideology of mass-culture not as the product of consumer demand, but something created by the industry in order to create demand for more of the same products. The effect of this uniform ideology is to induce a docile uniformity in the masses by establishing patterns of speech and behavior which individuals feel they must conform to in order to avoid feeling like outsiders. It is important to note that unlike the conventional definition of ideology as referring to the various “-ism’s”, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that the culture industry only allows for the existence of a single ideology for the masses to adopt, any originality in mass culture is quickly adopted by the industry and homogenized. Adorno and Horkeimer’s conception of ideology is Marxist in the sense that the ideology produced by the culture industry does not depict economic reality, it is instead an illusion which creates demand for the products of capitalism while inhibiting the pluralism and the independent thought which could spur political upheaval.

Yet in addition to presenting the uniform content of mass media as the source of ideology, Horkheimer and Adorno also note how the medium specificities of the radio and television aid in ideological transmission. They note that the radio’s ability to transmit a voice everywhere without providing a means of responding to the voice allows for no dissent, making the speaker’s words “absolute.” Likewise, film’s [link] ability to depict the images of objects of desire without actually supplying them to the masses increases consumer demand. In short, it is not only responsibility of the media theorist to study the content of mass media to determine how ideology is transmitted; he must also consider the characteristics of the mediums themselves to determine how ideologies are transmitted to the public.

In his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” French philosopher Louis Althusser Apparatuses” further articulates this Marxist conception of ideology. Althusser begins by differentiating the two mechanisms by which the state ensures production: the repressive state apparatus which consists of the police, the army, and the legal system, and ideological state apparatuses, private institutions (including the schools, the church, and the mass media) which disseminate beliefs which “represent the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” Yet Althusser expands on Marx’s definition by suggesting that “ideology itself has a material existence.” Unlike Adorno and Horkheimer, who accuse the culture industry of disseminating a single, uniform ideology, Althusser acknowledges the existence of multiple ideologies which individuals subscribe to and must constantly navigate. By this he means that in accepting an ideology, an individual’s thoughts and actions become governed by it. He illustrates this by examining the dual meanings of the word “subject.” A subject can signify either someone with agency, but it can also mean one governed by a higher power. Individual agency is ultimately dictated by the ideologies to which they subscribe.

This conception of the term is important to media studies because Althusser specifically names the mass media as ideological state apparatuses. To an Althusserian, the media functions to disseminate ideology to the masses. Yet all the ISA’s are themselves mediums through which ideologies are transmitted to the individual. For example, Althusser views the educational system as a sort medium through which the bourgeois conception of the individual—a free man destined to succeed if he works hard enough—is transmitted to future generations of workers.

In “Communicative Capitalism: The Ideological Matrix,” the introduction to her book, Jodi Dean employs a conception of ideology formulated by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek in her critique of the new media. To Dean (and Zizek), ideologies are not Marxist false-consciousnesses which must be revealed as lies. Ideology instead consists of the beliefs implied by the conforming actions one takes that upholds traditional cultural institutions regardless of whether he or she actually believes in their principals. This Zizekian notion of the term is Althusserian in the sense that ideology is again presented as not merely an illusion, ideologies possess a material reality in the form of the actions people take to uphold cultural institutions. Dean employs this conception to argue against what she sees as a naive depiction of the internet as a site resembling Habermas’s public sphere. To her, publicity and the notion of the existence of a unified public are the ideologies of the new media. The public fascination with discovering personal “secrets” only fuels an information industry instead of furthering democracy. By the Zizekian definition she adopts, the public realizes how publicity functions in society while remaining in its thrall. In this critique, like those of Althusser, Adorno and Horkheimer, ideology is transmitted by the media and enables both hegemony and the production of capital while inhibiting pluralistic thought.

Just as it does in conventional usage, this critical notion of the term in Marxist ideology has a negative connotation. Both usages suggest that an ideologue subscribes to a belief which distances him or her from some actual truth. Yet to the Marxist theorists, the “common sense” which the conventional user believes in is itself ideology. In media studies, ideology is often transmitted through the media, not in the overt messages of programs themselves, ideological norms are instead established in the practices repeatedly depicted as “normal” and “ordinary”. For Adorno and Horkeimer, this is the speech and plot of Hollywood Cinema. To Dean, it is the new media’s fixation with revealing secrets to a fascinated public. It is the media theorists’ responsibility not only to determine the content of this ideology, but also to determine, as Adorno and Horkeimer do in their discussion of the respective specificities of the television and radio, what characteristics media have that enable them to transmute ideologies to the public. Zizek’s notion of the term raises the issue of ideology as not merely a set of beliefs, but instead a set of institutionalized practices founded on beliefs which the subject may or may not actually hold. Consquently, the media theorist should consider not only how the media transmit obvious ideologies like religion or liberalism, but also more subtle ones such as Dean’s conception of publicity. One issue of critical debate arises between the number of ideologies which mediums transmit: to Adorno and Horkimer, the culture industry transmits a single ideology, while to Althusser and Zizek individuals subscribe to numerous ideologies and must constantly navigate between the contradictions between them.

Michael Czolacz


Adorno, Theodor W., Horkheimer, Max. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso, 1979.

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and ideological State Apparatuses”. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. Monthly Review Press 1971.

Belsey, Catherine. Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2002.

Dean, Jodi. Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

“Ideology”. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, England: The Oxford University Press: 2008. 30 Jan 2008

Marx, Karl. The German Ideology. 1932. 30 January 2008.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1994.