Reacting against existential and Hegelian Marxism and the ultra-left political groups influenced by it, Louis Althusser (1918–1990) and a school of structural Marxists developed more "scientific forms" of Marxism and ideology while maintaining their commitment to revolutionary politics. A member of the French Communist Party, Althusser argued in For Marx (1970) that Marxism provided scientific perspectives on capitalism that made possible a revolutionary transition to socialism. In Reading Capital (1997), he maintained that Marx's scientific critique of capitalist political economy provided the foundations for a theory of society. Althusser's "structuralist Marxism" analyzed relations between the structures of the economy, state, ideology, and social institutions and their grounding in capitalist relations of production—"in the last instance" the determining force of all social life.

Althusser helped shift the discussion of "ideology" to focus on the everyday practices and rituals organized by social institutions that he termed "ideological state apparatuses" (schools, religion, the family, the media, and others). Their material practices, he argued, are parts of a closed system in which individuals are constantly "interpellated" into a social order, becoming unconsciously constituted as subjects by dominant social institutions and discourses. His most widely read essay, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," outlines his basic assumption that experience, consciousness, and subjectivity are themselves effects of an imaginary relationship between an individual and his/her real conditions of existence—a relationship that is constructed by the ideological state apparatuses, which reify social hierarchies and induces people to consent to systems of oppression.

Structuralists, like members of the Frankfurt School, were soon criticized for being too deterministic, for having an impoverished concept of subjectivity, and for missing the complexities and vicissitudes of history. A post-structuralist turn therefore found theorists like Roland Barthes (1915–1980) and the Tel Quel group in France turning toward history, politics, and active and creative human subjects, as well as developing a more complex model of textuality. The post-structuralist turn moved away from the more ahistorical, scientific, and objectivist modes of thought in structuralism. The post-structuralist moment was a particularly fertile one, with important theorists like Barthes, François Lyotard, and Michel Foucault writing groundbreaking works on culture and ideology, and younger theorists like Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, and Paul Virilio entering into their productive periods.

In Mythologies (1972, 1957), Roland Barthes critically dissected a wide range of contemporary forms of culture, demonstrating his unique method of ideological interpretation and critique. According to Barthes, the mythology dissected in his essay "Operation Margarine," for example, embodies the fundamental rhetorical and ideological operations of French bourgeois culture. Margarine, in Barthes's account, is a highly artificial substance transfigured by advertising into a natural, beneficial, and acceptable substitution for butter. Analyzing ads that admit margarine's deficiencies and then trumpet its benefits, Barthes claims that such advertising techniques provide an "inoculation" against criticism of its imperfections. A similar operation, he claims, is typical in discourses on topics like the military, church, and capitalism, in which their limitations are mentioned in order to highlight their necessity and importance for the social order.

Likewise, mythologies obscure history, transforming contingent factors into natural essences, as if it were natural that an African soldier salute the French flag, in Barthes's famous example of a photograph that erases all of the evils of French colonization in an idealized image. Constructing an argument that anticipates postmodern emphasis on difference and otherness, Barthes points out how myths erase what is different and dissimilar, assimilating otherness to nature, as when the image of the French soldier folds the African into the French empire, or margarine ads assimilate an artificial substance into the order of culinary appropriateness. Barthes's method of analyzing rhetorical strategies of media culture and taking apart the mythologies that colonize social life help to produce a critical consciousness in his reader.

Sophisticated new theoretical approaches to the production of the works of film and its production of ideology began emerging in the 1960s, including those analyses published in Cahiers du cinema and the extremely influential British journal Screen , which translated many key Cahiers texts and other works of French film theory, including those of Roland Barthes and Christian Metz. These generated much more sophisticated formal approaches to film (Metz, 1974; Heath, 1981). The Cahiers group moved from seeing film as the product of creative auteurs , or authors (their politique du auteurs of the 1950s), to focusing on the ideological and political content of film and how film transcoded dominant ideologies. At the same time, French film theory and Screen focused on the specific cinematic mechanisms that helped produce meaning. These theorists and others analyzed how ideology permeated cinematic form and content, images and narrative, symbols and spectacle (Nichols, 1981; Kellner and Ryan, 1988).

Post-structuralism stressed the text's openness and heterogeneity, its embedded in history and desire, its political and ideological dimensions, and its excess of meaning. The conjunction of post-structuralism in the academic world and new social movements stressing the importance of race, gender, sexuality, and other markers of group identity led to expansion of the concept of ideology to many new dimensions and thematics. British cultural studies, for instance, adopted a feminist perspective, paid greater attention to race, ethnicity, and nationality, and sexuality in response to social struggles and movements (Kellner, 1995).

Earlier Marxist concepts of ideology presupposed a homogenous ruling class that unambiguously and without contradiction articulates its class interests through a monolithic ideology. Since its class interests were thought to be predominantly economic, ideology in this model referred primarily to ideas that legitimated the class rule of capitalists. Ideology was thus viewed as that set of ideas that promoted the capitalist class's economic interests. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, this model has been contested by theorists who have argued that an orthodox Marxist concept of ideology is reductionist because it equates ideology solely with those ideas that serve class or economic interests, leaving out such variable and significant factors as sex and race. Reducing ideology to class interests makes it appear that the only significant domination in society is one of class or economic domination, whereas many theorists argue that sex and race oppression are fundamentally important and indeed intertwined in fundamental ways with class and economic domination.

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