Plunging Christine So’s Economic Citizens

So, Christine. Economic Citizens: A Narrative of Asian American Visibility. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.

So’s book is informed by an emergent paradigm in Asian American Studies not to read for resistance, but for “how Asian Americans enter and appropriate U.S. mainstream culture and ideologies” (6). As her title would suggest, this study concerns the appropriation of Asian Americans as economic subjects, rather than subjects formed by discourses of sexuality, gender or politics. Her book is appropriate in a time of global capitalism and mass commodification of culture, as a way of seeing how Asian Americans co-opt powers of global capital and neo-liberal orientalism, and “to explore more fully Asian American culture’s production of not only difference but sameness, nativization, assimilation, and belonging” (8). So then seeks ways for how Asian Americans have entered the U.S. imaginary within economic discourse, as “agents of capitalism gone awry,” as always symbolizing an excess of capitalist markets within a hyperembodied racialized subject(8).  For So, it is the logic of global capital that has largely determined how Asian Americans are imagined, as a constant threat that “has enabled the consolidation of the white, middle-class family identity” (10).

So’s method for dissecting the economic identities from Asian American literature relies upon a vast subject knowledge of economics, and not just classical economics. Using the economic theories of Georg Simmel, Maurice Bloch, Jonathan Parry, Antonio Callari, Marc Shell and Jean-Joseph Goux, So shows how Asian Americans were able to see use the economic realm to influence their position in the social realm, and vice versa: “Simmel…sees economic  exchange as a means of widening existing social circles and transferring an adherence to one’s community to a larger dependence on an abstract system of exchange” (15). For So, the appropriation of commodified identities by Asian Americans is to gain power by entering themselves within the circulation of commodities. By becoming commodified bodies, Asian Americans were thus able to obtain some limited form of recognition during times of immigration exclusion, internment and segregation, to “articulate abstract citizenship and to construct an idealized relationship to the nation state” (23). However, for Asian Americans, being recognized as units of exchange was always seen through a racist lens of capitalist excess, where “surplus becomes a common means of establishing Asian American subjectivity,” therefore undermining the logics of universal equivalence (29). For So, the “economic undercurrent” in Asian American texts “undermines the texts’ presumed messages of racial healing as well as much larger assumptions regarding the predictability of economic exchange and the ability to move easily between the economic, social and symbolic realms” (24).

By reading these texts against traditional interpretations, So aligns with Viet Nguyen and Tomo Hattori, who seek to make critics more aware of their own cooptation in reading texts, where the use of a racial identity as a mode of resistance, according to Viet Nguyen, “accrues symbolic rather than economic capital.” Rather than focus on critics, however, So wants to show how the appropriation of economic subjectivity disrupts logics of economic exchange. So performs this admirably through Chinese American narratives of hoarding, fetishization and other excesses of money. Though the characters in novels like Virginia Lee’s The House That Tai-Ming Built enter themselves in the logic of economic exchange as a necessary means of establishing Chinese American culture, the “slippery nature of exchange” serves as “a tool for disorientation, displacement and alienation” (70). For Japanese American return narratives, the demands to adhere to logics of exchange produces a globalized Asian American subject, one who can appropriate cultural forms of the homeland, and where home is seen as “a means of rescuing Asian Americans from the margins of United States politics and culture” (76). “Asian American” here becomes a universal signifier, one able to transcend borders of race, gender, nation, etc. by transcending borders. However, the freedom and healing offered by the homeland are still possible only “through the dominant and universal languages and logic of economic exchange,” thus still rendering the universal Asian American as still determined by forces of global capital.

So’s third chapter, “The Embodiment of Exchange,” was printed first as an article in Feminist Studies, and maps the body of the Asian mail-order bride as a figure dominated completely by rhetoric of capital and profit. For So, the Asian mail-order bride is an especially disruptive figure because it signals a direct involvement with the American home, a “collision between the needs of capital and U.S. ideologies surrounding the home, family, and nation,” where rhetoric of the family is very often used to exploit third-world women labor into a type of domestic slavery. The mail-order bride then becomes a “repository for national fears about global competition, loss of U.S. jobs and cultural identity, and the ‘invasion’ of immigrants of color” (103). So’s analysis of Wanwadee Larsen’s Confessions of a Mail Order Bride finds Larsen’s voice to be one of economic subjectivity, where the investment of the American male in the Thai woman yields rich results, as Larsen ends up saving her American husband first from a traffic accident, then from a marijuana addiction. Rather than simply reiterating the discourse of saving brown women from brown men through capitalist participation, Larsen inverts this discourse but refuses to see past it, and presents the Thai woman as “the rescuer of those who profit from…economic exchanges” (119). Though Larsen is able to redefine herself, she is unable to redefine her relationship to economic exchange, and is still subjected to its totalization, where Thailand must always be seen as “a primordial, pre-capitalist state” that can likewise be invested in (125)

Patricia Clough’s The Affective Turn

Clough, Patricia Ticineto, and Jean O’Malley Halley. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.


Paraphrasing Spinoza, Michael Hardt states that  “the mind’s power to think corresponds to its receptivity to external ideas; and the body’s power to act corresponds to its sensitivity to other bodies”

the term affective labor is meant to…grasp simultaneously the corporeal and intellectual aspects of the new forms of production, recognizing that such labor engages at once with rational intelligence and with the passions or feeling (xi).

Affective labor allows us to “consider [affective labor] together with the various other forms of labor whose products are in large part immaterial, that is, to think together the production of affects with the production of code, information, ideas, images and the like” (xii).


Clough is clear that the affect turn is linked to “the production of multiple subjectivities and multiple modernities expressed in new forms of history, often presented at first in autobiographical experimental writings by diasporic subjects. As she says:

The affective turn throws thought back to the disavowals constitutive of Western industrial capitalist societies, bringing forth ghosted bodies and the traumatized remains of erased histories. It also sends thought to the future—to the bodily matter and biotechnoscientific experimentation (3).

These experimental forms of writing render the traumatic effect of the long exclusion from writing, which haunts the writing as a motive force. These writings are traumatizing as they call into question the truth of representation, the certainty of memory, if not the very possibility of knowledge of the past” (6).  Clough expands upon what Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, in their edited volume The Shell and the Kernal: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, call “trangenerational haunting,” where the “forgetting of trauma is passed down from one generation to another, mesmerizing multiple egos, putting all in a transgenerational bodily trance” (7). The haunting of a lost or forgotten trauma, one deracinated from a history across groups of inter-related generations, Jacqueline Rose sees as potentially “creating a monstrous family of reluctant belonging” (qtd. in Clough 7).

A family of reluctant belonging is still thus a family, monstrous as it might be named, but a community of similarly affected subjects who find shared subjective states found in a collapsed notion of time, where the future becomes only a constant reliving of an inescapable and unknowable past, a pathological state of entanglement with the lost object. Clough takes Deleuze’s concept of “the crack” from his book The Logic of Sense to rethink memory, image, time and trauma beyond the collapsing of time, where the crack in time is “a potential for swerving in terms of inheritance, the potential for swerving to the future” (13). There is no “overcoming” of the present because the past, as an unknowable and lost “lack” entangled with the ego, is ontologically among the present, and “is not even past,” as Faulkner has said. Clough compares this feeling with Lacan’s imaginary state, where “it is unclear whether one is in the past or the present, resulting in a haunting in time” (14).

Finally, Clough takes up Negri’s “Value and Affect” essay, where Negri emphasizes the new forms of migration and labor due to a phenomenon of affective labor, where “labor finds its value in affect, if affect is defined as ‘the power to act’” (79). Affective labor—the immaterial labor of the service industry, of housemaids, nannies, sex workers—emphasizes the value placed on dispositions of the worker, on the moods and affective capacities of the worker, such that the “use value of labor cannot be measured” (24). This immeasurability of affective capacity leaves room for what Clough calls a

worldwide meshing of biopolitics with an affective economy. There is a marking of populations—some as valuable life and others as without value. Increasingly it is in these terms that differences such as those of ethnicity, race, gender, class, sexuality, and nation become materialized. Some bodies or bodily capacities are derogated, making their affectivity superexploitable or exhaustable unto death (25).

The trend of migrant affective labor coming out of the third world, specifically in Southeast Asia, in the form of domestic and service labor in global cities of the first world, makes the union of an affective economy and biopolitics an especially prescient global phenomenon. Furthermore, regimes of the affect are also exported from the first world to the third, sometimes in the form of social management and human rights work that emphasizes “empowerment” rather than material access to public goods.

Plunging Anne Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race

Cheng, Anne Anlin. The Melancholy of Race. Race and American culture. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press, 2001.

It is hard to ignore racial politics today, the grievance of minorities without histories, the guilt and anxiety of social histories that prove, time and again, the hypocritical ideals of the nation. The effort to attend to the contradictions of the nation have exposed wounds in national ideology, and there is a social and legal articulation of grief emerging throughout the nation.

Anne Cheng means to attend to these wounds, to theorize the melancholia of race (not just minorities) in an attempt to articulate an inarticulable loss. As Cheng says:

if grievance is understood to be the social and legal articulation of grief, then it has also been incapable of addressing those aspects of grief that speak in a different language—a language that may seem inchoate because it is not fully reconcilable to the vocabulary of social formation or ideology but that nonetheless cuts a formative pattern (x)

The psychical experience of grievance is articulated through the languages to law and society, rather than hidden within them. Yet, racial melancholia, which Cheng calls “a theoretical model of identity that provides a critical framework for analyzing the constitutive role that grief place in racial/ethnic subject formation,” puts emphases on the “lack” of the racialized subject, through “the interjection of a lost, never-possible perfection,” leaving the subject in a suspended position through a culture’s rejection and yet attachment to the racial other (xi). Racial melancholia and a vocabulary for grievance directs our attention to take seriously “the more immaterial, unquantifiable repository of public and private grief that has gone into the making of the so-called minority subject and that sustains the notion of ‘one nation’” (6).

The psychoanalysis depiction of melancholia as a consumptive condition of “endless self-impoverishment,” lends new methods of analyzing social acts as “entangled with loss” and a “legislation with grief.” Here complaints, bickering and insults are given more agency in situations of highly asymmetrical power, where such speech acts are really plaints, utterances of grief or sorrow, where loss becomes exclusion, and a denial of the very object that has been lost and incorporated within the subject provides no outlet for grief in the day-to-day of the subject.

The project of racial melancholia is close to a project that essentializes the subject into a “diagnostic” literary theory, where the negotiation with pain becomes the very reason to segregate, and all such diagnoses become sociological descriptions of a race/ethnicity. Cheng is all to aware of this pitfall, and insists that one must treadcarefully in this psychoanalytic vocabulary, using literature to “tease out the complex social etiology behind the phenomenon of racial grief,” rather than as symptomatic of a descriptive melancholia (15). Melancholia is thus more than a sadness or affect, but “a structural, identificatory formation predicated on—while being an active negotiation of—the loss of self as legitimacy,” as both a “sign of rejection and a psychic strategy in response to that rejection” (20).  The project of racial melancholia then is to find new forms of agency within an affective formation, and to pinpoint the ideological fissures that reinforce or engender the affective form. Therefore, at the risk of meeting essentialization headlong, one “must begin to acknowledge the deep nexus of psychical negotiations being engaged and develop a political vocabulary accordingly” (21). As Cheng states at the end of her Introduction, “the stringent fear of essentialism…prevents certain categories from being discussed, categories that, for all their inherent instability, nevertheless operate in powerful, fantasmatic ways” (27). Essentialism then is taken as a guise of subjectivity, and the psychoanalytic subject as a historical being produced by a haunted history. In this sense, we must always be altered to context.

For Asian Americans, the grief seems to originate from their specific history of racism “directed against immigrants and Asian labor,” economic competition, and between “immigrant and slave relations to American nationality” (22). Asian Americans have straddled the binary between black and white, facing a European inheritance of Orientalism that places the Asian American subject within a “truly ghostly position in the story of American racialization” (23). The Asian immigrant, as the direct targeted racial group of immigration acts, is rethought within a melancholic paradigm as not simply a sadness, but conditioning their very livelihoods and shaping subjectivity.

Plunging Marcuse’s Affirmative Character of Culture

Marcuse, Herbert. Negations; Essays in Critical Theory. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

“The Affirmative Character of Culture”

If the appearance of the Egyptian civilization, which occurs over two thousand years prior to the Greeks, seems like one of history’s greatest mysteries, then one must be lacking in the perspective of the historical materialist, who might explain the entire span of pyramids, obelisks and pharaohs as having two geographical explanations. The life force of the Nile, combined with the easy access to neighboring peoples for slavery, were perhaps the two main factors that spoiled the Egyptians and thus spurred the appearance of cultural beauties that lay beyond necessity. Herbert Marcuse states that the world was once split into “the materialism of bourgeois practice on the one hand and…the appeasement of happiness and the mind within the preserve of ‘culture’ on the other”, yet it seems needless to say that before there was civilization enough to provide a written history, life was defined by agriculture and necessity (89). The Egyptians thus show the emergence of a culture that “signifies the totality of social life in a given situation” wherein the ideational culture and the culture of material reproduction “form a historically distinguishable and comprehensible unity” (94). Yet this unity is broken apart by the very geographical factors of the Nile and slave labor, which acted as the conditions of possibility for Egyptian civilization, emphasizing that “man’s first concern is the struggle for the preservation of mere existence” (96).

If culture to the ancient Egyptians grew out of the satisfaction of necessities, and therefore the appearance of a non-working class of elites, then one must ask why such a culture of ideal pyramids, obelisks, and gods permeate the minds of the elite, rather than, say, the exhaustion of sports or work for work’s sake? Marcuse says that “in antiquity, the world of the beautiful beyond necessity was essentially a world of happiness and enjoyment” (96). This longing for happiness can also be seen as the desire to fulfill a common ‘lack’, which Marcuse describes as a type of ‘anxiety’:

Anxiety stands at the source of all idealistic doctrines that look for the highest felicity in ideational practice: anxiety about the uncertainty of all the conditions of life, about the contingency of loss, of dependence, and of poverty, but also anxiety about satiation, ennui, and envy of men and the gods. (96)

Anxiety here functions as the semblance of a ‘lack’, of certainty, of fulfillment, of satiation, interest and most of all, meaning. As is seen in Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic, the new non-working class, deprived of the daily struggle of the working subject, experiences anxiety in the loss of meaning, since meaning cannot be derived from another, and therefore must create an “other” through meaning can be derived.

As culture emerges from the non-working elite, so does the fulfillment of the lack of anxiety, which produces meaning towards a being of the transcendental imaginary—in this case, the Egyptian Gods that were exalted in every aspect of Egyptian civilization. Thus the ‘objective’ aspect of culture, which Marcuse calls ‘affirmative culture’, can be seen inherently as a response to the lack of meaning experienced through the anxiety of the non-working class. Such an anxiety itself comes to engulf all classes, utilizing the transcendental ‘other’ inherent in culture as the objective, higher power that gives meaning to all people, and by giving meaning, exalts “the individual without freeing him from his factual debasement” (103).

“Separating the useful and necessary from the beautiful and from enjoyment initiated a development that abandons the field to the materialism of bourgeois production on the one hand and to the appeasement of happiness and the mind within the preserve of ‘culture’ on the other” (89).

Affirmative culture

“By affirmative culture is meant that culture of the bourgeois epoch which led in the course of its own development to the segregation from civilization of the mental and spiritual world as an independent realm of value that is also considered superior to civilization. Its decisive characteristic is the assertion of a universally obligatory, eternally better and more valuable worth that must be unconditionally affirmed: a world essentially different from the factual world of the daily struggle for existence, yet realizable by every individual for himself ‘from within,’ without any transformation of the state of fact…their reception becomes an act of celebration and exaltation” (95).

Affirmative culture to Marcuse means “a world to be brought about not through the overthrow of the material order of life but through events in the individual’s soul. Humanity becomes an inner state….[that] exalts the individual without freeing him from his factual debasement” (103).

Anxiety –

The common desire for belonging cannot be sufficiently theorized here, except to say that the origins of this desire may spring from a type of anxiety of existence (Heidegger), or as Marcuse says, “anxiety stands at the source of all idealistic doctrines that look for the highest felicity in ideational practice: anxiety about the uncertainty of all the conditions of life, about the contingency of loss, of dependence, and of poverty, but also anxiety about satiation, ennui, and envy of men and the gods” (96).

New culture

When all links to the affirmative ideal have been dissolved, when in the context of an existence marked by knowledge it becomes possible to have real enjoyment without any rationalization and without the least puritanical guilt feeling, when sensuality, in other words, is entirely released by the soul, then the first glimmer of a new culture emerges” (117).

Walter Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs on Baudelaire”

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. “On Some Motifs on Baudelaire”


Who is the man of the crowd? In Baudelaire’s poetry, it is the flaneur, the man who surrenders to the intoxication of the city and the commodity, surging among the crowd from one street to the next. The flaneur is an intoxicated subject, one whose eyes scroll through commodities like a piece of metal in an assembly line as it is propped and “perfected” with new ornaments in an effort to become complete. Likewise, in Walter Benjamin’s essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” he positions the flaneur as a passionate spectator:


the crowd [as] his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes.  His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.  For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense job to set up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.


The “immense job” of completing themselves, to set house—to live in the multitude—is thus no more achievable than the ideal “completeness” in a drug addiction, in the intoxication of the flaneur as a scroller among commodities. Though his passion is merged with the crowd, he at once “becomes their accomplice even as he disassociates himself with them” (172). Benjamin then makes some attempt to distinguish the flaneur, who walks the city in order to experience it, from the conforming, one-dimensional man of Marcuse’, the “man of the mob”. Where the flaneur functions as a deliberately aimless pedestrian, the one-dimensional man of the mob is akin to Benjamin’s “boy of the street corner,” an expert in the social eco-system of the streets and who is yet subject to the ever-present uniformity of the crowd and its potential to mob violence. To Marcuse as well as Benjamin, in the mob mentality commodities turn from being an external object to an extension of the self, other “parts” that built on a “one-dimensional man’s” completeness: “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile…social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.”[1] The synthesis of the man with the commodity creates a one-dimensional man, a man of the mob, while it is the hollowness and the egotism of commodities as external objects that is reflected in the flaneur and the figure’s countless attempts to fill in the empty void through the arcades.

Is it possible then that the “loss of self” in the urban crowd has thus transferred, in Marcuse’, to the “Crowd of commodities”, and it is no longer the crowd that becomes an extension of the self, but rather technological objects and commodities as the very whole of which the self becomes only a part. In other words, rather than a piece of metal strolling on a conveyor belt, has the man of the mob finally experienced that “Completeness?” Has he filled in the void so completely with the commodity that what is left becomes a disintegrating self, a self inebriated by television, which comes to act, as David Foster Wallace put it, as an “anesthetic against loneliness?” The loneliness of the crowd continues even when that crowd is a more perfect commodity form.

The use of this mass production of commodities that sets the attitude of the flaneur has yielded new ways for the Bourgeois artist to become a producer through the mediated influence towards the crowd. Benjamin saw this method reflected in Brecht’s “Epic Theater.” Brecht defines his dramaturgy as “the careful choice of theme and formal structural means, to inculcate in the audience the detached, distancing attitude of the historian towards the events portrayed.”[2] Brecht sought to utilize the very means of creating the “one-dimensional man” into a more reflective individual, a cigar smoker, and as Brecht would say, a judge and arbiter of values.


[1] Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man; Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964. 11.

[2] Brecht, Bertolt, and John Willett. Brecht on Theatre; The Development of an Aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.

Plunging Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton studies in culture/power/history. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. “Two Histories of Capital”


Marx’s critique of Aristotle’s economic deliberations in Nicomachean Ethics are a biting cultural/historical analysis of what Aristotle was not able to see, because of his lack of Enlightenment reasoning – that human lives were of equal value, and therefore the human labor of slaves was able to produce the exchange value between his house and five beds. Likewise, Chakrabarty’s reading of Marx as an Enlightenment and Hegelian thinker allows Chakrabarty to both analyze the assumptions of Hegel and the Enlightenment. As Aristotle could not see slaves, so Chakrabarty points out that there are historical differences and forces working against the Capitalist “life-process” that Marx himself could not see, as he was an Enlightenment thinker. This leads Chakrabarty to criticize current proliferations of Neo-liberalism and the “Protestant Ethnic”—the residue of Enlightenment philosophy.

The title of Chakrabarty’s essay, “Two Histories of Capital”, emphases the blind spots in Marx’s theories of the historical logic of capitalism. According to Marx, the resistance of laborers and factory workers are part of the very logic of capitalism, and these forces of resistance function in a limitless dialectical that assist in the emergence and growth of capital, but as Chakrabarty says, “[Marx] locates [resistance] in the structural ‘being’ of capital rather than in its historical ‘becoming’” (59). The “being” of capital is sustained by reducing “human labor expenditure of energy to a minimum” and that “it is capital’s tendency to replace living labor by science and technology…that will give rise to the development of the ‘social individual’ whose greatest need will be that of ‘the free development of identities’” (61-2). In other words, the constant improvement of labor work hours and the small pockets of resistance from collectivities like labor unions, are actually all partial to Capitalism’s logical progression. Since the dialectical pendulum never oscillates strong enough in one direction to swing itself entirely off its pedestal, so too the amount of hard labor and exploitation is never so intense as to necessitate a full-fledged revolution, be it cultural or national.

From Marx, Chakrabarty pulls two types of histories, the “being” stated above as “the state where capital has fully come into its own”, and “becoming”, the historical process in and through which the logical presuppositions of capital’s being are realized…the past that the category retrospectively posits” (62). Chakrabarty then derives two types of histories from Marx, the “being” that generates the enlightenment philosophies of human equality, liberalism and protestant ethics which support capitalism, and the “becoming”, which encounters antecedent histories that retrospectively were not of a dialectical nature—which were either indifferent to, or effectually resistant to capitalism’s logic and “life-process” (63). Money and the Commodity Form, according to Marx, are examples of the neutrality of historical events that Capitalism has merely “found” and then “destroyed as independent forms and subordinated to industrial capital. [Then] Violence (the State) is used against interest-bearing capital by means of compulsory reduction of interest rates” (64). By categorizing Money and Commodity into neutral phenomena, indifferent to capitalism, Chakrabarty shows that such “difference…is not something external to capital. Nor is it subsumed into capital. It lives in intimate and plural relationships to capital, ranging from opposition to neutrality” (66). Money and the Commodity Form are not necessarily inherent to Capitalism’s logic, nor do they function as dialectical resistance, but are neutral phenomena that are merely the conditions for wage-labor and debt.

The “becoming” of Capitalism in Chakrabarty’s argument shows that resistance, even in small pockets spread out over time, do not have to be seen necessarily as “the reproduction of the logic of capital” (67). In India, where the money form and the commodity form have become prevalent, capitalism is marking its territory through an ideological battle between Indian pluralism and acceptance of difference and the universal, protestant ethics. To Chakrabarty, India can accept certain neutral categories, like money and the commodity, without reproducing the logic of capital and the ideologies that it implies. As he says, “the idea of History 2 [‘Becoming’] beckons us to more affective narratives of human belonging where life forms, although porous to one another, do not seem exchangeable through a third term of equivalence such as abstract labor” (71). The Enlightenment ethos of universal dialectical history is then separated from the history of human belonging, difference and the specificities that are unseen by abstract labor power.

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