Louis Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

 

“Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses.”

 

Using Pascal’s defensive dialectic “to kneel and pray and belief will come,” Althusser seeks to invert the order of the notional schema of ideology (168). This inversion insists on the inconsistency of the subject to separate their[AP1] action from their beliefs[AP2] , that whether or not they believe in the imaginary relationships of individuals present—their ideology—their actions engender ideological ideas that dominates their beliefs. The domination of ideology is thus “inscribed in the actions and practices governed by rituals” (170). These rituals are always material rituals, and such external objects[AP3] are the means which ideology interpolates[AP4] individuals as subjects.

In interpellation, the action of the voice in the “hailing” and the turning around to face that voice, precedes the notion of subjectivity in the individual, which eventually manifests into ideology. Althusser describes this phenomenon as the “recognition function”, where an individual transforms into a subject because he or she is immediately recognized as one. Judith Butler describes the interpellation in the “recognition function” as “the authority of the ‘voice’ of ideology, the ‘voice’ of interpellation…figured as a voice impossible to refuse”[i]. To Butler, the “Hey you!” of the policeman is an accusatory voice. If the individual were to attempt an escape from the voice, the guilt would be exacerbated by the refusal to yield to another human being, or in the least, the refusal to confront the voice. Immediately one perceives of this guilt and seeks to exemplify themselves from it. This idea can be better explained in Althusser’s description of the voice of God, which is also based upon a recognition: “You are Peter! This is your origin, you were created by God for all eternity”[ii]. The voice at once offers identity to the pre-ideological individual, and at once, interpolates the individual into a subject[AP5] .

Through both of these texts, the notion of interpellation is at once divorced from individual agency and tenacity of mind. By agency I mean the idea that the subject may be totally aware of their own subjectivity, but yet takes part in the rituals for material gain and substantial reward that makes the entirety of ideological subjectivity nothing but a symbolic order that must be mastered in order to obtain a divine object, some amount of reward, which Althusser alludes to as the subjects who need the “Other Subject,” the Big Other. To Butler this reward is always freedom of guilt, yet this freedom from guilt may be expanded to a freedom from fear—and what is that fear if not the fear of freedom itself?

This may be the point where one would write “think about it!” and move on, or, as Althusser, write: “I simply ask that the reader be favorably disposed towards it, say, in the name of materialism” (166). Where Althusser might invoke idealistic materialism, this writer would invoke the pleasures of interpellation—the incorporation within a community, the security of the family, the promise or “fair” reward, and lastly, recognition in a political and social order through which one can obtain a practically benevolent lifestyle. These promises suggest not a retreat from guilt, but a retreat from everything that the symbolic order does not represent, its excessive opposite, as Zizek would call it, its real, traumatic kernel—the fear of total freedom.[AP6]

Let us take a more concrete example, that of the ethnic mimic, the person of color that ceaselessly mimics the identity of their ethnicity by the interpellative forces of multiculturalism, the mimicking “the mask of the plural”, an interpellation by their own ethnic community—the interpellation of “community interdependence”. Can it not be argued that this self-mimicry, this community-based interpellation, is not done out of the interest of political recognition, cultural capital as well as capital proper?[AP7] How is the ethnic subject, who may indeed switch these guises based on the opportunity of the moment, an ideological subject?

In interpellation, Althusser denies agency to the individual, and Butler associates the individual with cowardice and guilt. Zizek, as we will see on Thursday, sees the “traumatic kernel/leftover” of the interpellative process as the very condition of ideological command, and thus the self-conditioning of the subject as a response to interpellation is so that one may “avoid and postpone the terror of a radically open field of significatory possibilities[AP8][iii]. In other words, to don the “mask” of the imaginary is a reaction to the terror of complete freedom rather than the ideological process of being interpellated. The internalization of interpellation therefore patches over the chasm of “mind” and it is this acceptance of recognition that is rather a voluntary surrender of one’s own agency—the will to freedom. Freedom here may be compared to the void that “stares back,” the absolute unadulterated desires of the self that appears only in frightening excess[AP9] . The acceptance of interpellation is thus an act of the will as an escape from total freedom, from facing the real, traumatic kernel, as Zizek would put it.

What does this mean for interpellation? Well, if it’s anything like Lukacs’ reified consciousness, it means that the unreified consciousness remains unreified despite the body’s ritualistic practices and ideological materialism. This suggests a chasm that has yet to be sutured, a practicality of mind that seeks material gain through an imaginary order. What must be changed then is the form of that material gain, the rationalist response of Marx that the material gain is really no gain at all, and it is not the mind’s perception itself that can be altered, perhaps it already acknowledges its own contradiction, but it is the external objects that are the cause and desires of the subject that must change. [AP10]

Althusser uses the term interpellation to explain the inculcation of the subject an ideology, one that causes a consistent behavior and defines the individual as a subject of the ruling class. Interpellation can be seen as an invocation of guilt into a subject through material action, on the condition that the subject is a “pre-ideological” individual. Althusser describes this material action as the voice of a police officer, saying “Hey you!”. The individual who is called then turns around to face the policeman, which suggests an immediate obedience to the voice calling him, and thus the subject is created by an action. In other words, the action of the voice and the turning around to face that voice precedes the notion of subjectivity in the individual, which eventually manifests into ideology. Althusser describes this phenomenon as the “recognition function”, where an individual transforms into a subject because he or she is immediately recognized as one.

Althusser further explains interpellation through Pascal’s religious mantra that if one feels too much doubt in religion, to ‘kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe’[iv]. In this case the interpellation occurs through ritualistic behavior, the action again preceding the ideology or belief.  In Mladen Dolar’s “Beyond Interpellation”, Dolar rethinks the notion of interpellation in Althusser’s example of Pascal. When the man kneels to pray, Dolar asks “What made him follow the ritual? Why did he/she consent to repeat a serious of senseless gestures?” Dolar reverses the notion of interpellation with these questions, suggesting that ideology, in this instance, precedes action. One might then wonder if Althusser’s “recognition function” of the voice and the turning around to see the voice, can be reversed as well. The questions, in this case, would then be: “What causes the individual to turn around? Why did he/she consent to turn, if not for an unconscious ideology?”

Judith Butler describes the interpellation in the “recognition function” as “the authority of the ‘voice’ of ideology, the ‘voice’ of interpellation…figured as a voice impossible to refuse”[v]. The policeman’s voice creates an ineluctable pull when it is heard from behind because it is disembodied, and one must turn around in order to visualize the speaker, thus falling victim to recognition. But the desire of the individual to visualize the abstract isn’t the only “pull” of the voice; the turn can also be seen as a way to explicate the guilt felt by the individual for not turning around. The “Hey you!” of the policeman is an accusatory voice. If the individual were to attempt an escape from the voice, the guilt would be exacerbated by the refusal to yield to another human being, or in the least, the refusal to confront the voice. Immediately one perceives of this guilt and seeks to exemplify themselves from it. This idea can be better explained in Althusser’s description of the voice of God, which is also based upon a recognition: “You are Peter! This is your origin, you were created by God for all eternity”[vi]. The voice at once offers identity to the pre-ideological individual, and at once, interpellates the individual into a subject. The voice, in this case, is totally disembodied, and thus the “turn around” of the individual on the sidewalk, who seeks to identify the “Hey you!” figure, can never be satisfied when it comes to the deific voice. The effort to turn around and see the voice becomes inexhaustible, and the infinite action of the turn becomes a consistent reinforcement of the ideology within the subject.

 


[i] Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1997. 110

[ii] Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses.” 120

[iii] Rey Chow, 110.

[iv] Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses.” Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.  114

[v] Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1997. 110

[vi] Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses.” 120

 

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