An A-Z of theory Althusser (part I)

In his latest 'In Theory' column, political theorist Andy Robinson introduces a new entry in his "A to Z of theory". This week: the first of two parts on the French theorist Louis Althusser.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, February 18, 2011 0:00 - 13 Comments


By Andrew Robinson

We live in a world dominated by a particular way of seeing, in which neoliberal, socially authoritarian and pro-capitalist views are taken for granted by most of the population, at least in some parts of the world. This phenomenon, referred to as ‘ideology’ in Marxist theory, is the main field in which Louis Althusser is of relevance.

Though no longer widely studied in university courses, the structuralist Marxist Althusser has had a major influence both on critical theory, and in the development of Marxism since the 1970s. Badiou, Ranciere and Balibar are among his best-known followers, Laclau and Castells are among his former apprentices, and Spivak, Zizek, Foucault and Negri all show strong signs of his influence.

He has become unfashionable for a whole number of reasons, some biographical, some theoretical. Yet being unfashionable does not necessarily entail being any less relevant. Althusser’s theory of ideology continues to provide insights into the functioning of an increasingly closed dominant discourse, though as suggested below, it also has fundamental difficulties.

The Function of Ideology

To understand Althusser’s work, it is necessary to make sense of the way he uses ideas of social structure. Althusser is a synchronic, not a diachronic, theorist. This means that, rather than looking at the historical origins of aspects of the social structure, he looks at how they fit together into a system, the functions they perform, and how they can be reconstructed theoretically as outgrowths of the system’s underlying logic.

For instance, from a diachronic perspective, the state preceded capitalism, and in many ways created it (the view taken by Hannes Lacher and Ellen Wood). From a synchronic perspective, the state can be deduced from the structural needs of capitalism. This might be parallelled with a case where someone buys a disk drive, but it doesn’t work, so they use it as a doorstop. From a diachronic perspective, it starts out as a disk drive, gets removed from this use, and is reinscribed as a doorstop; what it is, is a disk drive used as a doorstop. From a synchronic perspective, it is defined by its function in the arrangement: it is a doorstop, it exists and persists because it performs the function of a doorstop where one is needed, and its history as a disk drive is almost incidental.

This kind of synchronic approach creates an interesting perspective which often provides insights. It blasts things out of their origins, and conventional assumptions of their meanings, showing in blunt terms what they are at present, in their actual functioning (hence avoiding the common fallacy of excusing how things “are” by how they are “meant to be”: real prisons by the myth of deterrence or real states by the social contract for example).

On the downside, it also tends to be crudely reductive, ignoring the complexity of how social assemblages operate. Social institutions such as the state and the media are assumed to be part of an integrated totality driven by capitalism, without apparent remainder or dysfunction. This perspective can thus be both helpful in some ways, and unhelpful in others, in thinking through the specificity of social structures.

Althusser presents his work as extremely orthodox in its Marxism, but in fact it involves important theoretical innovations. He has a peculiarly self-abasing style, in which he refused to attribute to himself the theoretical insights he formulated, instead preferring to pass them off as already present in Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Mao, and so on.

The reason for this is that partly he believes that a ‘scientific’, i.e. ‘subjectless’ discourse can escape the constraints of ideology (which are effects of the subject), and may also have to do with the people he was trying to influence and persuade, who might let such ideas under their radar under the cover of professed orthodoxy. One rather irritating effect of this is that it promotes misconceptions of the authors he uses. (In particular, the English-language reception of Gramsci includes at least as much Althusser as Gramsci). Another effect is that Althusser’s continuing influence is vastly underestimated. Along with Lacan, many of his ideas provide the foundations for what has become poststructuralism.

In his major work on ideology, Althusser theorises ideology in a synchronic way, as part of the structural functioning of capitalism taken as a snapshot. He draws on Marx’s view of ideology as a set of representations and ideas which dominate the mind, but moves beyond this view, arguing that Marx never fully theorised ideology except in his early works (which Althusser considers not truly Marxist; much of Althusser’s work, not discussed here, focuses on interpreting the later Marx as a structuralist and arguing that he underwent an ‘epistemological break’ between his earlier and later works).

Ideology is a synchronic concept, distinct from ideologies (which have histories). It is thus defined largely by its structural functioning. Althusser rejects the views of ideology as an effect of alienated life-conditions or as false ideas deliberately implanted by leaders. Rather, he theorises it in terms borrowed from Lacan’s theory of fantasy. Ideology is not a misrepresentation of people’s situations, but rather, the way in which they relate to (and reproduce) their situations. It is their imaginary or representational relationship to their real conditions of existence – their imaginary relation to their real relations (or one might say, “what they think they’re doing”). It does not correspond to reality, but nevertheless makes reference to it.

Ideology interprets social conditions so as that people can relate to their conditions. It is not a way people represent their real conditions, but rather, the way in which their relationship to their real conditions is represented to them. Ideology is analogous to dreams and the unconscious in Freudian theory, not simply a residue but central to people’s imagined relationship to their experiences. Althusser effectively applies the Lacanian theory of the imaginary in understanding ideology.

Ideology looks like, but isn’t, false consciousness. From outside its ‘truth’ (or perspective), an ideology appears to perform an imaginary distortion of perceptions, almost as if a black-hole in linguistic space is distorting the matter around it. (Althusser’s approach of ‘symptomatic analysis’ often relies on using the gaps or ‘lacunae’ in a text to reveal what it is suppressing). From inside, ideology simply seems obvious and self-evident. (The gesture of claiming not to be ideological is the most ideological gesture of all).

For Althusser, ideology actually comes from practices, which are embedded in the rituals of an ideological apparatus. Each person’s ideas actually derive from these practices. People participate in practices which cause beliefs, rather than beliefs causing them to participate in practices. The subject (each individual) acts only as a result of being acted on by apparatuses.

This renders ideology primarily performative and material. By “material”, Althusser means that an ideology always exists in an apparatus and its practice. It is by repeating the practices of the apparatus that people perform ideology. This “material” view of ideology is counterposed to views which focus on its content in terms of ideas or beliefs. For Althusser, beliefs actually stem from practices, rather than causing them.

Althusser claims that things can be material in different senses, and an apparatus or ideology is not “material” in the same sense as a stone or a rifle; his theory is, however, related to theories of material culture, in which practices and subjectivities are taken to be dependent on physical objects – the consumer, for instance, depends on tills and shopping trolleys – and ideology is taken to be embedded in physical objects through practices such as architecture, which literally materialise ideology in physical space.

The analysis of ideology as ‘material’ also affects Althusser’s view of the ‘subject’, or the self-as-agent. In everyday discourse, and in the existentialist and humanist philosophies prevalent when Althusser was writing, people are taken to act as agents, creating meanings on the basis of which they act. This idea of an individual who believes and resultantly acts is according to Althusser an ideological device in its own right. People do not choose ideologies based on a prior consciousness. Consciousness, and the subject (the individual who acts), do not exist prior to ideology.

This means that we are all subjects of ideology, created by ideology, and fundamentally inside it – how we experience ourselves is an effect of ideology. The repetition of everyday gestures such as greetings guarantee oneself that one is a subject. What is more, all of us are ‘always already’ subjects, even before we are born: one is expected to find one’s place as the subject one has already been declared to be in advance.

A baby, for instance, might be classified as culturally male or female even before their birth, and then forced into the corresponding gender-roles. At least to the extent that people remain ‘good’ subjects, Althusser is a determinist: he does not believe people actually have free will; what people think is an effect of the social apparatuses which operate upon them.

So how do people come to be subjects (or to feel themselves to be agents with free will)? The answer, for Althusser, is that people are ‘interpellated’ as subjects by apparatuses. This process of producing subjects is the main function of ideology. It is by recognising oneself (usually unconsciously, and in a way one cannot help) in the ritualised practices of ideology (anything from an individual greeting to a police command to halt) that one is subsumed within ideology. Ideology ‘recruits’ people as subjects or ‘transforms’ people into subjects.

This process is sometimes given the technical term “interpellation” in Althusserian theory, a term which refers to the way someone is “hailed” or called to by ideology, and thereby caused or encouraged to “recognise” her/himself as a subject. Interpellation occurs when an individual recognises a call or a representation and says, ‘yes, it really is me’. It thus constructs a range of subject-positions within ideology. People recognise themselves in these subject-positions, but this is always in fact a ‘misrecognition’.

Individuals wrongly believe that their identities, which are really effects of ideology, are freely generated. As a result, they accept and even celebrate their own subordination to the system. Even in the event that they resist, they remain within the interpellated frame. Interpellation applies not only to the experience of being an individual, but also to all the specific experiences of belonging to a particular category – being black, gay, French, a youth, a mother, insane, and so on.

In one of Fanon’s examples, a person is interpellated as black through being subject to racist gestures such as a child saying, “look mummy, a Negro, I’m scared”, or through being singled out for humiliations. This can also be compared to the phenomenon of ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’ in psychology: people often come to be what they believe themselves to be, or what they’re told they are, by acting in ways which respond to the way they’re labelled (if they’re seen as intelligent, they’re encouraged and rewarded in intellectual efforts, hence become intelligent; if they’re labelled as criminal, they’re harassed and judged in a way which makes them feel oppressed by social standards and therefore actually break laws; etc). Althusser is here making two crucial arguments: firstly, that what we think we are is socially constructed, and secondly, that it is largely socially determined, rather than chosen. Foucault’s theory of subjectification and Guattari’s model of subjection in capitalism are both derived from this account.

Althusser also has a psychoanalytic account of the subject in ideology. Interpellation relies on the ‘Other’ or ‘Subject’ (with a capital; in Althusser’s work, capitalised and small-case versions of words often express different concepts). The Subject is another imagined subject assumed to be interpellating the self, and serving as a mirror-image of the subject. (This analysis is clearly strongly influenced by Lacan).

The subjection of individuals to the Subject (the gaze of authority) is a fundamental effect of ideology, implicit in their interpellation as subejcts. It also provides an illusory guarantee that things really are the way they seem. Subjects only exist because of their subjection to authority, and this is why they accept such subjection. It is based on an implied guarantee: that reality will remain predictable and everything will be alright as long as they accept subjection. This process is necessary to reproduce the relations of production.

On one level, Althusser is right about ideology. There is more to the social construction of subject-positions than simple belief in empirically untrue claims. How people relate to their material conditions affects their perspectives. Scholars such as Francois Debrix continue to use Althusser productively to interpret phenomena such as humanitarian intervention. Althusser has also been influential in postcolonial theory. For instance, Spivak’s idea of sanctioned ignorance is constructed from Althusser’s theory of ‘lacuna’. Spivak’s famous critique of Deleuze and Foucault also follows a broadly Althusserian line, criticising the politics of desire for relying on what she takes to be ideological subject-positions and for failing to theorise social interest. The issue of the subject is the issue of contention between Deleuze and Spivak: Spivak takes a politics of desire to wrongly believe in a subject, which is necessarily a subject of ideology in Althusser’s sense.

While Spivak’s critique would take more detailed engagement to respond to (among other things, Deleuze does not base his theory on a subject), it points to certain tensions between Althusserian theory and the philosophy of desire. Althusser takes the position that ideology is prior to subjects, that “who we are” is determined by how we are ideologically interpellated.
He is right that conventional notions of subjectivity (the molar self, consciousness, etc) are constructed in this way, but he is wrong to impute that there is no force within each person to which ideology must appeal.

The account articulated by theorists such as Althusser, Lacan and Spivak for the fact that some people become ‘bad subjects’ is thus inherently limited, missing the need for pre-existing ‘hooks’ in desire in order for ideology to function. I would argue that people don’t automatically recognise themselves in the ways they’re represented by particular institutions. This is shown by the failure of interpellation in some cases. There are people who, for reasons of psychological difference, do not conform in school, do not engage in everyday greetings, who would not recognise a police command, and in some cases, do not even develop language. This shows that the functioning of ideology requires underpinnings in people’s sensory and conceptual capabilities in order to gain a hold. For this reason, many people are, to one degree or another, outside ideology.

In a politics of desire approach, interpellation cannot be seen as primary. Rather, people always begin with autonomous desires, which have to be attracted in order for people to be interpellated or otherwise articulated into a social assemblage. We can be thought of as starting out like a ball rolling down a hill, trailing tendrils or vines; some of these tendrils will become snared on the trees and bushes on the hill, some will unravel themselves, and perhaps some can snap. Only a certain kind of tendril will hook on a certain kind of tree, and ideology depends on this process of hooking, which is neither an automatic effect of the obstacle being placed in the way of the ball, nor a force in constructing the ball or the tendrils.

Sometimes, the ball will not hook onto the particular obstacles the system puts in its way, either because the system has the wrong kind of obstacles to catch it, because the ball has vines which do not hook onto these trees, because it is rolling too fast, simply misses the obstacles, or becomes ensnared but is put under too much force and snaps. For instance, according to Lacan, ‘psychotics’ never develop a master-signifier, which is crucial to ‘normal’, neurotic language-use (equivalent to Lacan’s Subject or Other). Arguably, such people are never interpellated; desires overflow their dominant entrapment, people cease to experience themselves as ideological subjects, etc.

This suggests that desires exist as forces which are more basic than interests or subject-positions. Since these desires are prior to interpellation, the ‘subject’ is never entirely reducible to ideology, nor entirely an effect of its lacunae; rather, it contains autonomous forces which can in principle be unbound from their current moorings, and others which may never have become moored. Further, each person may well be different in the exact configuration of forces which can be articulated, and the points at which they are inserted into social ideologies.

Of course, in practice, we rarely encounter the ball rolling down the hill, we encounter subjectivities which are equivalent to a ball tied in place by certain tendrils caught on certain trees (and not always the same ones for every person). What’s more, the tendrils are transformed by each tree they become entwined with, even if they later become detached. But still, the tendrils are not merely effects of the trees they become entwined with. It is, indeed, the case that the entwinement can be unsettled in cases of mass struggle, but also in many other circumstances, as a result of individual crises and traumas, a lack of fit with new configurations of the system, slow transformations through everyday life practices, gestures of refusal and exodus, therapeutic or spiritual transitions, and so on.

And those which have escaped can often be reattached to the dominant assemblage by new means. Much of the work of radical politics is about detaching and reattaching tendrils – in particular, detaching them from trunks and attaching them to rhizomes. This approach provides a path beyond the difficulties of Althusser’s theory of the subject, while also recognising that many people are ideological subjects constructed in the way Althusser suggests.

There is also a certain danger that the emphasis on structure and function leads to a neglect of the subjective meanings involved in social construction. Althusser is sometimes accused by other Marxists, such as Carter and Virdee, of neglecting subjectivity and agency, particularly the role of class struggle in transforming subjects. This issue often draws Althusser into the feud between Marxists and poststructuralists in academia, as a trajectory of what is taken to be a disempowering approach to capitalism.

This controversey, which is as much about boundary-policing and competition for institutional influence as about theoretical or empirical stakes, has been decidedly unproductive of useful insights, tending to turn both sides into parodies of themselves. This said, there seems to be insufficient space for agency in Althusser. It was Marx’s view that people are able to change (through struggle or collectivity) that created in his theory a horizon of emancipation in spite of his structural determinism. Without this assumption, it is hard to see how a Marxist theory can maintain a possibility of revolution.

It is easier to see how a non-Marxist theory can do so, since it does not have to rely on a totalising theory of capitalism. The alternative is to take a more dynamic view of social integration, recognising that there are more than two social logics at play, and that social assemblages often involve the recuperation and hybridisation of antagonistic social logics as a dynamic process, as opposed to a functionally integrated system. In Deleuzian theory for instance, the state is said to ‘capture’ a war-machine which is initially outside itself, so as to tame its force, turning it reactive in the process. This kind of dynamic interplay restores a diachronic dimension to an otherwise structural approach.

Similarly, the welfare state needs to be seen as multi-sided – certainly a means whereby capitalism and the state integrate people, but also a field of the “social wage” fought for by workers, and a terrain in which professionals assert autonomous discourses of their own. The defence of the welfare state often functions as a defence of the social wage, and not simply a campaign for the reproduction of ISAs.

This said, Althusser’s theory does give a certain necessary counterbalance to the overly simplistic emphasis of most of the left on simply resisting cuts and school closures. Without insisting on the replacement of authoritarian with critical or libertarian schooling, preventing a school closure simply helps the system to function more smoothly, or increases certain people’s chances within it at the expense of others. Such campaigns should be supported, but from a position of seeking to deepen them, to take questions beyond the quantity and funding of education to its basic content.

Often, Althusser seems to move from observing how social assemblages normally function to a view that certain phenomena are functionally necessary, perhaps even unavoidable in any society. This tends to reduce his awareness of contingency. Is it not possible to partake in the practices of an institution without believing in them? One might think of ironic participation, or a kind of time-serving which covers up a deeper resistance (such as a prisoner who stands in line while hiding bolt-cutters behind his back), or even of the activities of an undercover agent.

Does every situation of rituals, assemblages and mutual recognition involve an assumption of authority or a “Subject”? I would suggest that it is also possible for speech-contexts to exist based on translation, or the difference of the other, and that, where some network of power constructs menaings, it may operate diffusely instead of hierarchically. Althusser’s mistake in such cases is typical of many critical theorists, and suggests a need for a more open, less “system-building” approach to theory, which distinguishes between the social forces at work in a situation and the complex assemblages through which they operate.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.



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Nils Eng
Feb 21, 2011 18:54

A very interesting and informative article! I look forward to part II.

As a fan of Althusser I only want to question what I see as implementation of a standard procedure: name his positive contributions to the theory of ideology, point at the limitations and “fundamental difficulties” and suggest some way to move beyond them – in a new theoretical terrain. While in some respects this is an obvious thing to do, I think that something is missed regarding the differentia specifica of the theory.

“This ‘material’ view of ideology is counterposed to views which focus on its content in terms of ideas or beliefs.” Rather than “counterposing” a “view” to another “view”, is not Althussers contribution a break with the second “view” as such? To “focus on ideas” is to my understanding not a “view of ideology” but submission to the way an actual ideological practice masks itself. As in an election campaign with its competition between “ideologies”, the different political “isms”. That is, when the campaign as a whole is the ideological apparatus of Democracy, interpellating Voters, free to choose, and hiding both the reproduction of capitalist relations and the way this reproduction is done.

This, of course, may be included in “the ‘material’ view”. Still I think there is a possibility to shift focus within Althusser, from a formal examination of his theses with all their shortcomings to the event in theory they represent: the break with the meta ideology as a (material) part of our reality to which most debates and also theory conform. (Wikipedia: “An ideology is a set of ideas.”) In recognizing this we don’t have to “change terrain”, we already are situated in the terrain opened up with the existence of new concepts, where it is possible to move on, turn to Zizek etc. I see your “rolling ball” metaphor as a good way to portray the contingent and aleatory nature of intepellations, well located within this terrain, only some rigid formulations in Althusser are reformulated and the scope is broadened, as you suggest.

Nils Eng, Sweden

Feb 22, 2011 3:09

“To “focus on ideas” is to my understanding not a “view of ideology” but submission to the way an actual ideological practice masks itself” – you’re right that from within an Althusserian perspective, this is how it looks, but in the field of theories of ideology, there are plenty of approaches which focus on false ideas as the basis of ideology, and they aren’t all as superficial as reducing ideology to differences between parties. Gramsci for instance argues in terms of ‘conceptions of the world’. Also, I think there’s more to Althusser’s criticism of the focus on ideas than the point that superficial oppositions often cover deeper identities on a more fundamental level; even if the opposition was more substantial, say between two entire societies with incommensurable structures, he’d still insist that the determinant level was practices rather than ideas.

I’m not sure about formulating differences among theories in terms of irreversible breaks. I think there is still a lot of dispute within critical theory about which of many approaches is most useful, and most of them contain grains of truth or are useful in particular contexts. They’re all partial perspectives on a complex situation which give insights in particular places, each producing a slightly different terrain. I find it more useful to try to translate among the perspectives, to think of them in a kind of horizontal dialogue or struggle, than to think of some as definitive and as defining the status of the others. Also, it’s more complicated than a break initiated by Althusser, it’s a break (with the previously prevalent phenomenological orientation) occurring through structuralism (Lacan being a nodal figure, but also Althusser, Barthes, Levi-Strauss) which creates the terrain for poststructuralism (which is arguably a second break with structuralism). The approach I’m coming from is broadly Deleuzian, and thus broadly within this poststructuralist terrain, but with fundamental disagreements with aspects of both Lacan’s and Althusser’s theories, notably on the conception of the totality, the necessity of the master-signifier and the structure of desire – these are not small disagreements but absolutely crucial to what the ‘break’ entailed to begin with. Deleuze does not return to an “ideas” model, but he’s working with something quite different from the Althusserian model of ideology (in some ways he is closer to Reich), and he does restore a certain agency to what would colloquially be called “individuals” through the idea of sub-individual desires as socially operative forces. The same kind of thing could be said of Derrida, Baudrillard, Foucault, etc., all in rather different ways. In Derrida there is almost a turn back to phenomenology in his engagement with Levinas. Then there’s entire fields of radical theory which never passed through the break and which have moved along different trajectories – eco-anarchism for instance. I can see why you’d think what I’m saying is broadly within an Althusserian perspective though. With the provisos that I don’t accept the totalising, “no-outside” model, that I see desire as a pre-interpellatory force which may or may not be assembled, and that I think full and partial escapes are far more common than this theory allows, I’m broadly sympathetic with how Althusser’s theory works.

Nils Eng
Feb 22, 2011 17:25

Thank you for your answer. “… not a ‘view of ideology’ but submission …” – that, of course, was an extremely crude statement. Talking about breaks, I didn’t mean dismissal of theories or whole theoretical fields, but of discerning moments when a theory of ideology (more or less) acts as an ideology. That is, when on a meta level ideologies speak through the theory, claiming that all is about ideas, thereby masking the apparatuses and interpellations to which the ideas are internal (to be crude again).

My parliamentary example referred only to the way parties present themselves within the democratic ideological apparatus. No theory is pleased with that. But in the different approaches taken, to what extent do they reach the complex processes producing simple effects: that people (more or less) identify themselves as political beings within the election practices – with their unspoken rules of what political issues may be raised?

In my opinion, Althusser (and others) started constructing tools for a kind of critique we don’t see in public debates. Most debates undisturbed go on forever within ideological circles. The critique is not a matter of possessing the only truth or to exhaust anything but the ability to say what ideologies so effectively exclude in their operations. The subtitle “Notes towards an Investigation” could be applied also to the individual critique. There is another Althusser, “the philosopher catching a moving train”.

It’s the potentials of such an ideology critique that I miss in most accounts of Althusser. Not that these possibilities are denied, but in the structuring of the accounts where they (more or less) vanish in the “horizontal dialogue”, valuable as this dialogue may be in other respects. There are lots of theories but are there better tools for interventions in ideology presented? Ok for cultural theory etc, but I’m thinking of something more offensive and in a political context.

I want to repeat my appreciation of your article and your answer. I just discovered Ceasefire Magazine (through a link on Althusser’s facebook page!) and printed out some others now waiting for to be read.

Feb 25, 2011 23:40

Thanks :-)

I agree that Althusser is horribly underappreciated today, and having re-read some of his work, I now see the processes he describes operating very widely – it’s one of these things that, once one has the concepts there, one starts seeing things one didn’t see before. And, yes, one of the things theory has lost since the 70s is its direct relationship to politics. You’re also right that Althusser interrupts a certain complacent narrative of how theoretical debate happens, and a certain locking-out of radical antagonisms which aren’t visible from inside an ideological frame. The Third Way types think they’re in a situation of debate, when actually they’re not, they’re working completely within the dominant frame, and reducing antagonism to ‘consensus’ – a field where all views are equal but some are more equal than others (the capitalist frame, and the capitalist subject, remains unquestioned). And the idea that individuals are responsible for their own success/failure, that the system has no role in it, even that we have a mental illness if we think the system is causing things instead of individuals, seems to be more pervasive than ever. I can see how Althusser would irritate Third Way types no end, in a way (for example) Foucault wouldn’t, because they can “misread” Foucault just enough to get him inside their frame, whereas Althusser they just can’t do this to.

Quite often, though, the criticism made of Althusser is that he *can’t* be used in a political context, his theory is too structurally determinist, and for politics we need diachrony. I think this is a misunderstanding, as it’s easy enough to see Althusser at work in autonomist Marxism. Still, I’d be interested to hear how you’d respond to this view – what would an Althusserian intervention in ideology look like?

PS part 2 is out now, enjoy :-)

Nils Eng
Feb 27, 2011 14:07

I did enjoy! Sorry for a long answer but you asked :)

The first intervention, of course, is the concept itself. Is there anything in the universe other than ideology that resists knowledge about it in its very principle? That is able to “efface its traces” (Zizek), to make the producing apparatus disappear (as such) at the same moment the product (subjectivity) is there. To produce insides without outsides etc. When people discuss religion in the terms of “the existence of God” or a society in terms of competing “isms” they are not simply misguided, they comply with the ideology at work and its meta level protection layer. On the other hand, to pronounce words like “interpellation” or “performativity” is in itself an act of resistance. Perhaps the feminist problematic of gender was more successful here.

Skip S in ISA, the deterministic tendency, the “dominant ideology” in the sense of something monolithic. Go for dialectics, an individual is an agent but always already a subject in a cross section of a multitude of interpellations, meeting and often exploiting her existential needs. She is an “ideological animal” who can’t live without ideology, but ideologies may be very different. Once a specific interpellation succeeds (there is no guarantee it will, but the apparatuses connected to power also possess most power of their own), it may block other interpellations though not necessarily forever. Stepping out of a specific ideology is possible when, as in revolutions, a number of circumstances fuse together. The point is then the critique, which is not about knowing exactly what is going on in ideological practices, but to intervene in them based on knowledge about their existence and in determination not to let them dictate the terms. The critique may be combined with interpellations of a new kind of Critic.

As follows form your articles, ideology is an often harsh and decisive reality not only of concern to academic theses. As in the appalling McDonald’s commercial in this YouTube-video (a rare example of an Althusserian critique brought outside the academic world): It’s an interpellation in the form of a shown interpellation. Ronald McDonald calls, kids everywhere turn their heads in his direction, they come running, responding “Yes, this is our place!”. Add an interpretation and the scene of joy and responsivity is turned into horror. Ronald wants their souls in order to get their money, and he knows how to do it, although he may not know what he is doing.

When a political party presents its “ideology”, the fraud is multiplied. What the concept of ideology should point at, the very inscription of the captured version in an ideological inside, is effaced as the inside is established as such. The concept is totally blocked, deprived of all substance. This denied pointing should be carried out as an act of resistance.

Nowadays “Dear customer” may be the address made from some former public institution, performatively reconstituting the citizen into a customer, now at the mercy of capital. Forget that there was a society, forget the possibility of a society where the commons are extended instead of conquered by capital. You may sometimes dream of something else, but a Customer is what you are, an atom in the marketplace. If, through the new concepts, such interpellating acts are perceived as something palpable (their effects are based on their massive presence but also reside within the individual act), would it not be possible to develop a corresponding critique? To interrupt the very act, as an act of intervention remind the citizen of who she were, what is behind the phrases, not only the “interests” they “serve” but the violence they represent in themselves, sneaking into the unconscious of the individual and exploiting her vulnerability. Personally and hopefully as a bad subject, I experience such violence to my bone. My thought experiment is that the Althusserian concepts were widespread (like basic concepts of natural science) and provoking such feelings. Some sort of political psychoanalysis.

Last but not least, I think of self-criticism but not of the Leninist kind. Radicals should use ideology critique to examine their own ideologies, how they interpellate each other. Are their ideologies confirming a radical movement or the way they stay alive (as subjects and opposition) within a non-moving reality, as a subculture only exchanging signs of recognition among themselves?

Mar 1, 2011 5:56

Hmm… If we get rid of the dominant ideology, are we still in Althusser’s frame? Aren’t we then in Lacan’s (if we accept the primacy of ‘che voie’) or Foucault’s (if we don’t)?

I’d also question if all subjectivities are affected equally by interpellation… it seems to depend on the “che voie” question, on subjects being obsessively fixated on ‘what they are for the other’ (with the other as ‘other person who interpellates’ or as ‘the system’), to the exclusion of other aspects of their relationship to the world – what they are in/for themselves (inner or temporal life), their sensory-motor connections to objects and stimuli, their participation in becomings and zones of affect, and so on. In Lacan’s theory, this “che voie” fixation is typical of neurotics, but not of psychotics and arguably certain other types of people. What if Reich is right, and neurosis only occurs as a result of a certain kind of authoritarian family? What if Deleuze is right, and we’re all schizoid underneath? What if Berardi is right, and neurosis has now been overridden as the main locus of energies by attention problems, overstimulation, ‘personality’ problems and so on? How would this affect the discursive primacy of interpellation?

Another innovation in post-60s capitalism would seem to be the ‘choose your own interpellation’ phenomenon: self-branding (Facebook etc), niche markets (pink pound, ethical consumer, subcultures… the consumer can be whatever s/he likes, as long as it’s saleable), and so on. It isn’t so much the call of the other which interpellates as the subject which selects which ‘other’ is taken to be ‘calling’. There is, of course, a deeper unity that only those subject-positions compatible with capitalism are permitted; one might say it is a question of which of the faces of the same other is recognised as ‘calling’. Still, the seductions are rather different in each case: what matters to the system today is that each person be integrated somewhere, somehow, not that everyone have a particular kind of subjectivity.

If trying to analyse an ideological phenomenon, often it is possible to say it’s interpellation or it’s something else… the McDonald’s advert plays on interpellation, but it’s playing to child psychology of other kinds, the use of sensory-motor stimulation – bright colours, simple images, dancing and so on (no doubt based on US-style psychological research) to establish positive emotional associations and to grab and hold children’s attention… action films are interpellations of male film-goers into a hegemonic masculinity, but also intense sensory-motor experiences through explosions, loud noises, flashing lights, dramatic music… fundamentalist churches in American small-towns interpellate churchgoers as a certain kind of moral subject, but also nodal points for the provision of mutual services, through which reciprocity networks function… I wonder if interpellation isn’t so much the starting-point as the end-point of ideology, the effect it achieves if and only if it is able to ‘seduce’ desire in other ways which draw it in, which make its particular interpellation seem more ‘real’ than competing interpellations. I wonder if the other forms of desiring-production and social-production are actually the hook on which the system hangs interpellations, or based on which people are induced to prefer one interpellation over another.

“My thought experiment is that the Althusserian concepts were widespread (like basic concepts of natural science) and provoking such feelings” – this is possibly the same kind of project as is involved in critical literacy initiatives (e.g. ), although the terminology used is from Spivak and poststructuralism rather than Althusser. Awareness of how mechanisms of social construction operate seems to interfere with their naturalised operation – at the very least, they come to seem contingent. It requires a certain kind of reflexivity. It would certainly be a revolution of everyday life for this kind of reflexivity to develop and be generalised. The trick would be to overcome the defence-mechanisms people bring into play when faced with revelations of contingency.

Regarding how radicals interpellate each other – are you familiar with Abby Peterson’s work on radical protest groups as ‘neo-sects’? If he’s right, then something other than standard interpellation is at work in the central locus of group-formation in the ‘neo-sect’ type of group, because belonging is constructed through the intensity of ritual experience in a temporality of immediacy, rather than being organisationally or temporally deferred (Sartre calls this the ‘fused group’, and Guattari the ‘subject-group’). Though, it does seem to slip towards the formation of what the Invisible Committee call the ‘milieu’, in which this kind of immediate (non-ideological?) construction is replaced by mutual recognition based on signs.

Is there anything in the universe which is not ideology? – I would question if indigenous/local knowledge is ideological in the same way as ‘modern’ ideologies, because it does not efface its conditions of production; it is, rather, consciously situated and relational. I think this is a rough approximation of the kind of perspectives which would re-emerge if people became generally reflexive and critically literate, and hence, not so easy to interpellate.

Nils Eng
Mar 1, 2011 17:14

Thank you, I’ll look at the links and names you provided.

“Dominant ideology” – my stress was on monolithic, in themes and in functioning. On the one hand, Zizek’s updated categorical imperative “act so that your activity in no way impedes the free circulation and reproduction of capital!” is something we are expected to obey. On the other “what matters to the system today is that each person be integrated somewhere, somehow”.

“I’d also question if all subjectivities are affected equally by interpellation.” On the level where my thinking dwells the matter to deal with is the fact that in every day life there is no critical language at all for what ideologies are doing. In catching the subject in beeing, an IA may use everything from the puzzle associated with the precense of the Other (“who are you and what do you want from me?” – where the subject for her own existence as a subject is forced to construct answers or to engage in answers given) to “bright colours” and “loud noises”. Perhaps submission to “economic necessity” is “che voie”-based, Economy as an incomprehensible Force. Desires are exploited. Sometimes, as in churches, you’ll find all of this. It’s never a matter of simple acceptance of a call or a cause, and I like how Zizek supplements Althusser here. Constant is the non-reflexivity over what is going on, both with respect to the processes themselves and to the power conditions being reproduced. In an intervening critique I think of the concepts of interpellation and IA as nodal points, pointers at the basic facts that ideology itself in so many ways denies. To keep some kind of focus while adopting different critical approaches. They must also be defended against dissolving into triviality by keeping the backdrop of power reproduction.

“Is there anything in the universe which is not ideology?” – was that your interpretation of my question? I referred to the unique features of ideology which may be theorized. But as to your example, it’s interesting to contrast rites as focus on something coming to ideological rituals displacing focus.

“It would certainly be a revolution of everyday life”, we seem to agree here. It would be great if revolutionaries agreed as well and found it worthwhile to dig into the matter.

Mar 2, 2011 23:07

I think we agree in most of our analyses actually. We just place the emphasis somewhat differently.

You’re reading Althusser much more widely than I have been, to cover a much broader scope of (shall we say) ideological techniques. The widespread lack of reflexivity about both how these techniques work and the power-structures/relations they contribute towards is indeed very noticeable and powerful in its effects. The need to challenge this – in a political way, not only in academic theory – is beyond doubt. When trying to do this, I’d team Althusser up with people like Foucault, Deleuze, Barthes, Reich, Gramsci, Spivak, even Stirner, all of whom have their eyes on these techniques but from different angles. I wonder what the stakes are in calling these processes ‘ideology’, rather than ‘discourse’, ‘assemblages of desire’, ‘reactive force’, ‘mythologies’, ‘hegemony’, ‘common sense’ and so on? Is it a different way of saying the same thing, or is there a substantive difference?

Also, you did say, ‘Is there anything in the universe other than ideology?’ in your previous post, apparently answering in the negative, which is why I responded on the question that maybe a certain kind of immanent band-formation was non-ideological (though still very much an articulation of desire).

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