Stuart Hall and Louis Althusser Reading Notes, April 21

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, Decoding.” Social Theory: Power and Identity in the Global Era (2010): 569.


In the article, Stuart Hall describes how messages are produced, circulated, distributed, and reproduced in four stages that are “relatively autonomous” but also scaffolded. Encoding and decoding are determinant moments in the communicative exchange. The event must become a story before it can become a communicative event. The communicative process of television is described as follows: production (which is a complex negotiation of elements internal to the system constructing the message and elements external to the system) constructs the message (479) and discursive rules of language are used to circulate the message through the employment of a code (479). The symmetry of the encoded and decoded message depends upon the structural relations and differences between the encoder and the decoder. Distortions are caused by a lack of equivalence between the two sides of the communication exchange (480). Discursive knowledge depends upon the representation of the “articulation of language on real relations and conditions” (481). Widely distributed codes become naturalized within a particular society (480). The distinction between denotation and connotation is analytical rather than a binary of fixed meaning vs. fluid or conventionalized meaning (482). It is at the connotative level that “situational ideologies alter and transform signification” (482). Denotation and connotation allow us to look at “the different levels at which ideologies and discourses intersect” (482). Connotation contains “fragments of ideology,” while denotation fixes a sign by certain complex codes (483). When messages are decoded, or reproduced, there are three possible ways of perceiving the message (selective perception): the dominant hegemonic position, the negotiated code (which looks at both the dominant view and an alternative level), and the oppositional code, which decodes the opposite message from what the encoder intended.


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation).” The Anthropology of the State: A Reader (2006): 86-111.

Key Concepts

I decided to do list key concepts here because Althusser’s dense writing made it easier for me to pull nuggets from. Overall, Althusser is describing the way in which the state exerts control over people through both ideological and repressive apparatuses, which are interdependent upon one another.

  • Social formations arise from the dominant means of production.
  • the production process sets the existing relations within production to work
  • social formations must reproduce the conditions of production as they produce, so must reproduce the productive forces and the existing relations of production
  • it is necessary to reproduce the material conditions of production
  • the reproduction of labor power is the reproduction of the productive forces
  • the reproduction of labor power requires the reproduction of submission to the established order (submission to the ruling ideology or practice of the ideology)
  • Marxist typography advantage: base (economic base) and superstructure (politico-legal and ideology)edifice reveals questions of determination; obliges us to pose the theoretical problem of “derivatory” effective peculiar to the superstructure
  • disadvantage: it remains descriptive
  • State Apparatus defines the state as a force of repressive execution and intervention; it includes government, administration, military, security, courts, prisons
  • repressive state apparatus functions by violence
  • state power and state apparatus must be distinguished
  • class struggle concerns state power and consequently the use of state apparatus by the classes holding state power as a function of their class
  • the proletariat must seize state power in order to destroy the bourgeois state apparatus and replace it with a different proletarian state apparatus and then set in motion a radical process to destroy the state
  • proposes the ideological state apparatus separate from repressive state apparatus
  • ISA realities presenting themselves in the form of specialized institutions including religious ISA, educational, family, legal, political, trade-union, communications, and cultural
  • the difference between RSA and ISA is: there is 1 RSA, but many ISAs in a society; RSA is public, while ISA is public and private; RSA functions by violence; ISA functions by ideology
  • RSA is primarily repressive and secondarily ideological; ISA is primarily ideological and secondarily repressive
  • so, perhaps RSA and ISA can be woven together
  • ISAs function together under the ruling class that uses RSA
  • ISA may be a stake and a site of class struggle
  • so, all state apparatuses function by repression and ideology, but in different combinations
  • RSA is a centralized whole
  • multiple, distinct, relatively autonomous
  • RSA is secured by representatives of the classes in power, while ISAs secured by ruling ideology
  • ISAs reproduce the relations of production
  • each ISA contributes to a single result in the way proper to it
  • concert is dominated by a single score occasionally disturbed by contradictions
  • The school is the ISA with the most dominant role
  • ideology is a pure dream
  • ideology has no history
  • ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence
  • ideology has a material existence

Question: What is the role of ideology in LLLI?

As I was reading Althusser, I considered how I could apply the concept of ISA to LLLI. ISAs apparently are primarily ideological and secondarily they are repressive, as opposed to RSA, that operate primarily by repression. LLLI originally formed in response to the ideology of the medical establishment, which had begun to view formula as potentially superior to breast milk. The pediatric medical establishment is an ISA, but I believe that the field of medicine is much more repressive than the ideology of LLLI, yet LLLI does contain some repressive elements. Medicine is governed by regulatory bodies like the American Academy of Pediatricians. The field is regulated within, and it is given much respect as an authority. As a top-down network, with physicians at the top of the authoritative chain and nursing mothers at the bottom; therefore, as an ISA, medicine has a significant amount of repressive element in it as well. Attachment parenting, an important concept in LLLI, and the peer-to-peer organization, give mothers much more autonomy and equality; however, there is still a repressive element, because LLLI asks women to behave in another way. The oppositional viewpoint applies an oppositional reading of the message that is encoded in the discourse of LLLI. The oppositional reading of LLLI is that it is anti-feminist, and it excludes the concerns of single mothers and those from lower on the socioeconomic scale. So the organization is racialized, classist, and anti-feminist in this view.


Hall's three positions of decoding:  dominant, negotiated, oppositional.

Hall’s three positions of decoding: dominant, negotiated, oppositional.

Question: How can we apply encoding and decoding, particularly the the three hypothetical positions from which decodings occur, to the history of the organization of LLLI?

Part of the framework of LLLI is the 10 core philosophies that focus primarily on the needs of the baby and the ideal mother-child relationship that will ensure that the baby’s physical and emotional needs are meet. The practices and relational dynamics that LLLI has emphasized in the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (the LLLI manual) has been coded from the dominant-hegemonic position of the original founders in 1950s, that the women who would be involved in the organization and that would benefit from its advice would be white, middle-class, married stay-at home moms. The manual even included a chapter about the child’s relationship to the father and included a note in the introduction that the manual assumed that the mother would be married because that is the familial model that is most conducive to the support of breastfeeding. Until the 1980s, LLLI took a hard line on trying to attempt to convince mothers not to work. In the 1980s the LLLI newsletter for leaders began discussing working with employed mothers and suggesting techniques, but stated that making accommodations for working mothers was optional in meetings. Working mothers, single mothers, or others who did not meet the characteristics of the ideal mother according to LLLI had to negotiate the message they received from LLLI in order to understand how they could employ the practices that LLLI recommends from the positions in which the exist. These mothers had to “make a more negotiated application to ‘local positions'” (486).

Quote: “What are called ‘distortions’ or ‘misunderstandings’ arise precisely from the “lack of equivalence” between the two sides in the communication exchange” (Hall 480).

The discussion of symmetry here shows why the encoded message sent from LLLI and the decoded message received from LLLI may differ drastically so that while LLLI constructs itself as a feminist and inclusive organization, it can be perceived as exclusionary and anti-feminist. When women decoding the message are symmetrical with the ideal position of a mother, as LLLI frames her, then the message is easy for that woman to receive and to decode the dominant-hegemonic position that I discuss in the above answer to the question, but the negotiated and exclusionary decodings result from the lack of symmetry of the ideal mother and the real situation of the woman on the decoding end.

Quote Response: “If the ISAs ‘function’ massively and predominantly by ideology, what unifies their diversity is precisely this functioning, insofar as the ideology by which they function is always in fact, unified, despite its diversity and its contradictions, beneath the ruling ideology, which is the ideology of ‘the ruling class’. Given that the ruling class in principle holds State power (openly or more often by means of alliances between classes or class fractions, and therefore has at its disposal the (Repressive) State Apparatus, we can accept that this same ruling class is active in the Ideological State Apparatuses insofar as it is ultimately the ruling ideology which is realized in the Ideological State Apparatuses, precisely in its contradictions.”

I was reflecting on the interdependence of the ISA and the RSA, and the above video really helped me understand how blurry the lines are between the ISA and the RSA. It seems that they are very dependent upon one another. In the video of Ron Strickland discussing Althusser’s concept of ideology, he says that, “The effectiveness of ideological state apparatuses in maintaining control over society depends in part on the foundation of repressive state apparatuses which will be called in in cases of necessity. On the other hand, the repressive state apparatuses cannot function without the ideological state apparatuses. The policeman or the soldier or the prison guard has to be convinced that he is acting in the best interest of society as he carries out his duties.”   I was searching for an analogy to use, and the one that came to mind was the World of Warcraft, particularly the Pandaren race with their ISA constructed around ideas of harmony and balance. Pandarens value peace, creativity, harmony, spirituality, nature, and s strong relationship between the natural and the spiritual. So, a Pandaren needs to be convinced that whatever cause he is fighting against is a threat to his society, perhaps to the harmony of society, and then he/she is convinced to stop meditating and drinking Pandaren ale and use Pandaren military tactics, which are very much related to the ideas of harmony and balance, to fight the forces threatening their society. Certainly there are much more complex real world examples of this, but the simplicity of the game (which is rather complex but not nearly so much as the real world) made the relationship between ISA and RSA easier to examine.

Pandaren warrior meditating.

Pandaren Monk Zen Meditation, representing the ISAs of spirituality and associated harmony.




Pandaren warrior RSA.

Pandaren martial arts and military organization is the RSA that supports the Pandaren ISA of harmony, peace, balance, nature, etc… when it is threatened.



One thought on “Stuart Hall and Louis Althusser Reading Notes, April 21

  1. Love the use of WOW in order to think through ISAs v RSAs. But far more importantly, I believe you did a great job applying the two theories to LLLI.

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