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Althusser, Ideology and Interpellation Essay

The French philosopher, Louis Althusser, first popularized the word in his seminal essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)” (Althusser, 1972). In the essay, Althusser explores the relationship between the state, modes of (re)producing power and ideology from a Marxist perspective, defining ideology as “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Althusser 1972: 162). In his definition, Althusser sees ideology functioning as a mediator between systems of power and individuals. It allows for hegemonic power to reproduce itself by obscuring traditional forms of repression and incorporating individuals into the power structure.

Althusser complicates the relationship between domination and subjugation by introducing the interpellation process, where individuals recognize themselves as subjects through ideology, thus illustrating how subjects can be complicit in their own domination. He gives the example of a police officer shouting out “Hey, you there!” in public. Upon hearing this exclamation, an individual turns around, and “by this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject” (Althusser, 1972: 174). In the act of acknowledging that it is indeed he who is addressed, the individual thus recognizes his subjecthood.

It is important to note that this subjecthood is double: although he is recognized as a social subject by the law, he is also subjugated to the law. Althusser emphasizes the ubiquity of ideology and interpellation by noting how subjects are consistently constituted by Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) such as the family, educational institutions, and media such as literature, radio and television. The idea that an individual can be interpellated through various mediums would later be appropriated by theorists from diverse backgrounds such as cinema and media studies and cultural studies.

Although he initially presents a temporal example of interpellation, Althusser insists that the process is not governed by cause and effect, but happens simultaneously. He emphasizes that “the existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing” (Althusser 1972: 175). In other words ideology, interpellation, and subjecthood, mutually reinforce each other so that “ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects, which amounts to making it clear that individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology as subjects, which necessarily leads us to one last proposition: individuals are always-already subjects” (Althusser 1972: 176).

Althusser’s framework of interpellation and his emphasis on the circulatory relationship between subjectivity and exterior structures have been utilized and extended by numerous critical theorists.1 Markedly, Michel Foucault holds similar notions of how subjectivity is constructed by focusing on discourses around sexuality (Foucault, 1990). 2 He describes how at the end of the 19th Century, experts in various scientific fields created discourses that allowed them to label and identify individuals and their sexuality. Like Althusser, this subjecthood has a duality: it both subjugates individuals as passive beings involuntarily defined under the scope of scientific discourse but it also simultaneously, and counter-intuitively, creates the potential for autonomy and resistance by mobilizing around these new identities.3 These arguments around how subjects can resist or defy dominant power are not thoroughly fleshed out by Althusser, but are a major focus of later theorists, such as Ranciere. 4

Media and Interpellation

Many theorists have taken Althusser’s notion of ideology and interpellation, shifted the focus away from the state, and applied it to various kinds of media texts. In this vein, cultural theorists such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have argued that the homogeneity of mass media interpellate passive subjects who desire reoccurring tropes and predictable story lines which only serve to further stultify them (1979). 5 They are particularly sympathetic to those exploited in capitalist society, lamenting how “capitalist production so confines them, body and soul, that they fall helpless victim to what is offered them.” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979:8). Yet the common people’s acquiesce to the culture industry only perpetuates their conditions, and Adorno and Horkheimer proceed to argue, “immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them.

The misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done them is a greater force than the cunning of the authorities” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979:8). Like Althusser, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that the proletariat submit to ideologies that interpellate them as passive, and thus comply with their own domination. Similarly, David Gauntlett describes how “interpellation occurs when a person connects with a media text: when we enjoy a magazine or TV show, for example, this uncritical consumption means that the text has interpellated us into a certain set of assumptions, and caused us to tacitly accept a particular approach to the world.” (Gauntlett, 2002: 27). Here, Gauntlett seems to echo Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument that media consumers unquestioningly accept a medium’s subject positioning of them as passive viewers. This structuralist framing will be countered by later theorists who will argue for more agency for interpellated subjects.

Furthering the discussion about the relationship between a medium and its audience, many film scholars have employed Althusser’s framework to investigate how spectators view a film. Lapsley and Westlake describe how in structuralist film criticism a film “as a pre-existing structure… interpellates the spectator, so constituting him/her as a subject” (Lapsley and Westlake, 1988: 12). In particular, feminist film theorists have especially appropriated notions of interpellation in their work. Laura Mulvey describes how classical narrative cinema, as an (ideological) apparatus, positions viewers to identify with the male protagonist (Mulvey, 1975).


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