“Inception:” A Successful Althussarian Ideological Story About Ideology

Our set of beliefs: where do they come from? Because they certainly did not materialize from thin air. Louis Althusser argues in his essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” that “there is no practice except by and in an ideology”[1]. Ideology, a group’s certain set of beliefs, is thus the virus that has infected all aspects of society, from the church, to the state, to the education system. This is the basis of Althusser’s essay, in which he claims: “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence,”[2] and “ideology has a material existence”[3]. His latter claim alludes to the fact that because it is everywhere, our individual practices materialize ideology, through our attitudes towards cultural commodities, and through the commodities themselves. Commodities manifest themselves in a variety of ways; take a film for example. These commodities, in light of his former claim, first present the audience with a real social problem, then give an imaginary solution. This imaginary solution is, in fact, the ideology of the commodity. He believes that ideology is most lethal when it is presented to the masses in an indirect form, be it books, music or movies. But do all films have the agenda of imposing an ideology onto its audience?

The film, Inception, would stand its ground on this claim because it does not enforce a certain ideology, but rather examines said ideology. Instead of portraying ideology in its most “lethal” form, ideology in Inception is at the forefront of the plot, and demands the viewer’s attention through symbology. Althusser argues that ideology is presented to the masses as the imaginary solution of a real social problem. While still following Althusser’s successful story model, Inception also serves as a warning through its storyline of implanting an idea, examination of ideology’s consequences, and presentation of a solution with the character’s totems.

Inception follows the story of Dom Cobb, a dream thief, and his team on their mission to implant an idea into the mind of Robert Fischer, the heir to Fischer Morrow Energy Conglomerate. A central symbol in the film is each character’s totem—Cobb’s totem was his wife, Mal’s, spinning top (a device to help them determine whether they are in reality or dreaming). The totem symbol arises in multiple occasions and provides a potential solution for the presented social crises (we are unaware of the origins of ideology and thus suffer its destructive consequences) that will be discussed later in this essay. The film begins and concludes with similar scenes, with Cobb washed up on the shore and brought in front of an aging Japanese man named Saito. The first scene cuts to a present day job in which Cobb is trying to extract the Saito’s company plans in a dream two dream levels down. Upon failure, Saito offers Cobb, who has been on the run for some time, a chance to go home to America. The job Cobb must complete is inception (implanting an idea), a task which is seemingly impossible but nonetheless accomplished successfully over the course of the film. But the film is not just about the inception of this one idea, or in broader terms, ideology; the film also follows Cobb on his struggle to distinguish between his dream world, limbo, and reality.

Limbo is the web of ideology every individual is at risk of falling into. It is when “what thus seems to take place outside ideology, in reality takes place in ideology…That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology”[4]. Those in limbo, as a result, lose sight of reality and begin to believe that limbo is their reality because they believe that they are “by definition outside ideology.” Cobb’s difficulty determining what is limbo and what is reality is painstakingly realized whenever he envisions his deceased wife Mal or his children, images of the system of memories he has built in limbo (his ideology). The film concludes with Cobb’s reunion with his children, but the film cuts to credits before the spinning top falls, which begs the question of whether Cobb, or the viewers for that matter, are dreaming or in reality. We, as the viewers, therefore call into question not only our fixation with reality but how we cling desperately onto the notion of ideology because that is all we know.

Althusser’s essay reinforces the point that stories only work if they possess two features: a relatable social problem and an imaginary solution. Inception brings forth an unclear problem in that we are run by ideology without realizing it. The film presents this as the social problem they are trying to resolve because ideology is the most lethal when it is presented in the least obvious of methods. What better way to combat ideology than by exposing its secrets? Consequently, ideology “has no history, or, what comes to the same thing, is eternal”[5]. It is rather merely an existence. Ideology does not have a beginning or an end, but the origin of an ideology had to have come from someone or something before it reached the mind. And once in the mind, it remains “eternal[ly].”

The goal of the film is to implant an idea into the mind of another individual; this goal is the very method of how ideology spreads itself to penetrate every aspect of daily life. According to the film, to implant an idea, it “need[s] [to be] the simplest version of the idea—the one that will grow naturally in the subject’s mind”[6] and this idea, “the smallest seed [that] can grow to define or destroy [our] world,”[7] translates to ideology in the viewer’s real world. But, ideology is not explicitly handed out and forced onto consumers; it is, rather, subtly suggested to the consumer by cultural commodities. To accomplish such a feat, ideology has to appear to be self-given so that the origin cannot be traced any further than the individual who bears it. The receiver of ideology, or the subject “is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects”[8]. These “concrete individuals” are brought to believe they are in control of their ideology, that they are the Subject of the sentence. What these “Subjects” fail to realize is that their “self-given” idea was given to them, turning them into subjects of a higher force—a higher force like Cobb in Inception. We are made to think that we are Subjects but, in reality, we are merely subjects.

This is most clearly illustrated in the film when Cobb’s team is two levels into Fischer’s subconscious. Fischer is made to believe that Browning, his godfather, is working against him and that the only way to stop him is to help Cobb’s team break into Browning’s subconscious. What he does not know is that the Browning he is breaking into is a projection of his own subconscious; Fischer assists in the break-in of his own subconscious. Fischer is manipulated to believe that he is the Subject of the sentence but he is really the subject under Cobb. That is exactly where ideology becomes the problem, when it appears to be self-given but in fact is a product of someone else’s manipulative agenda. This very decision that Fischer makes to break into himself allows the team to successfully implant the idea into his mind, to successfully transmit the ideology in the subtlest of ways, in a situation where Fischer whole-heartedly believes he was in control. This is the social crises Inception aims to solve.

With the social crises established, the second part of every story, according to Althusser, is an imaginary solution or a “falsified representation”[9] to the problem previously presented. In order to achieve this “falsified representation of the world which they have imagined, [they] enslave other minds by dominating their imaginations”[10]. Since the “falsified representation” or the “imaginary solution” is the story’s ideology, imagination becomes the vehicle of subordination because “if you’re going to perform inception, you need imagination”[11]. Brute force seems to be the obvious solution when Fischer’s trained subconscious nearly sabotages the entire job when men start gunning down the team in the first level of dreams. Fischer’s militarized projections become increasingly deadly as the dream levels persist, symbolizing the ongoing pushback of the individual resisting ideology. When the idea is successfully planted into Fischer’s mind, it demonstrates that pure force is not the solution to the ideological problem.

The “imaginary solution” Inception provides for the viewer is given when Cobb attempts to bring Mal and Saito out of limbo and back to reality. Cobb first tries to plant the idea that Mal’s world is not real, that she has to kill herself to wake back up in reality. But the idea that her world was not real grows to consume her and ultimately destroy her, showing the destruction of ideology at the individual level. The method which Cobb used to bring Saito back from limbo is the solution the film presents to the viewer, to bring him or herself back up from the entanglement of society’s imposed ideology. Cobb, instead of planting the idea as he did with Mal, chooses to reason with Saito and force him to come to the realization on his own that his world is not real, successfully bringing him back to reality from limbo without the consequences of Mal’s submission to ideology. In this very moment Saito is able “to recognize that [he is the] subject…[but] this recognition only gives [him] the ‘consciousness’ of [his] incessant practice of ideological recognition…but in no sense does it give [him] the knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition”[12]. The spinning top Saito sees on the table, however, is the “knowledge of the mechanism of this recognition;” it is the film’s quintessential totem that consistently serves as a reminder of the difference between reality and the entanglement of ideology. Cobb is the only team member without a totem of his own so it was no wonder that he struggles the greatest in keeping a grasp on reality. And thus, the solution is brought to light: the solution to stopping the infectious ideology is to be self-aware of not only whether we are trapped in ideology, but also the mechanism by which that ideology came to be.

Inception does more than just impose an ideology onto the masses and instead tells the story of the destruction of ideology and offers the imaginary resolution of self awareness. According to Althusser, every successful story emphasizes a social problem and forces ideology in the form of a solution. Inception, being a movie about the horrors of ideology, does not insist one onto the masses but instead reveals a solution in which to combat the presented problem. But while the presented problem is clearly the fight against ideology, there is another problem present. Cobb is the inceptor, but he is, in real life, the large corporations who create cultural artifacts that churn infectious ideology into society. But Cobb is just as entangled in ideology as the other characters. He is able to successfully resurface from limbo but throughout the film, it is apparent that his ties to limbo are still very much present. Scattered in the film are flashbacks of Mal or his children, people he could not be with at the time of the scene, people “living” in his limbo. Cobb’s struggle between limbo and reality is so great that a fluttering curtain and the sound of broken glass from the evening of Mal’s death is enough to send him spiraling back to the web of ideology waiting for him down in limbo. When his struggle seems to have resolved by his letting Mal go and his reunion with his children at the conclusion of the film, the audience is left wondering whether the film ended in limbo or in reality when the final scene cuts before the spinning top has a chance to fall. This uncertainty of the fate of Cobb, the large corporation, the vanguard of the production of ideology, presents itself as the ongoing problem the film sees in society, a problem with no solution but the little sliver of hope that is self-awareness.

[1] Althusser, Louis. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an investigation) (La Pensée: Monthly Review Press, 1971). Page 46 (Will refer to as “Althusser”)

[2] Althusser, 37

[3] Althusser, 41

[4] Althusser, 51

[5] Althusser, 37

[6] Inception. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., 2010, Script. Page 42 (Will refer to as “Nolan”)

[7] Nolan, 131

[8] Althusser 47

[9] Althusser, 39

[10] Ibid

[11] Nolan, 42

[12] Althusser, 49