‘Relative autonomy’ is a recent attempt by Marxists to get round the problem posed by Marx’s view that Greek art was eternally beautiful. This ‘idealist embarrassment’ can be overcome if we recognize that art is relatively autonomous.
Althusser argues that at any point one ‘level’ may be dominant and that level is determined (in the last instance) by the economic level; or’ it may be free of it as well – hence it is relative. Althusser’s views on literature differ from those of any traditional Marxist. In his opinion great works of literature do not express an ideology nor do they provide a ‘conceptual understanding of reality’. He sees literature as an ideological form/state apparatus. In “Letter on Art to Andre Daspre” and “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (in his book “Lenin and Philosophy, 1971), he attempts to who (with the help of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory) how ideology works in society. Althusser, Pierre Macherey (see below) and Etienne Balibar all emphasize that literature is part of an ideological imposition (cf. P.Macherey and E. Balibar in “On Literature as an Ideological Form” in “Untying the Text, 1981”).
Macherey, a follower of Althusser, in “A Theory of Literary Production” (1966) advances the idea that a literary text, by virtue of its form and its fiction, distances itself from its ideology and also, by the ‘silences’ or ‘gaps’ in the text, by what is not said. These silences/gaps, he contends, not only conceal but also expose ideological contradictions. Such absences are suppressions, so to speak, within the text of its own ‘unconscious’. As he puts it: ‘There is a conflict within the text between the text and its ideological content.’ In Macherey’s view, the task of the Marxist critic is to make vocal those silences and expose the text’s unconscious content. Thus, he is concerned with a kind of ‘sub-text’ (q.v.).