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Chapter 4 Ideology and Social Subjectivity
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Althusser: The Interpellation of Social Subjects

In "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," Althusser abandons the rather amorphous idea of cohesion in favor of a more concrete concept of the function of ideology, namely, the reproduction of existing relations of production: "[The] reproduction of labor power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order, i.e., a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression" (Althusser 1971, 132). Althusser argues that the function of ideology is to reproduce this submission and this ability, but to comprehend this process requires a good deal more than the traditional metaphor of base/superstructure. However, it is only by locating the role of the superstructure in securing the reproduction of the mode of production that we begin to develop an adequate theory of the superstructure. Althusser proposes two theses regarding this process: "Thesis 1: Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their conditions of existence. . . . Thesis 2: Ideology has a material existence" (Althusser 1971, 153, 155). The first thesis, with which we are already familiar, is developed in conjunction with the second by means of the category of the subject: "Every human, that is to say social individual, cannot be the agent of a practice unless he takes the form of a subject. The 'subject form' is in fact the form that the historical existence of every individual, every agent of social practices, takes: for the relations of production and reproduction necessarily involve, as the integrating element, what Lenin called [juri-


dico-] ideological social relations which, in order to function, impose on every individual-agent the form of a subject" (Althusser 1976, 95).

To reproduce the existing relations of production, there must be individuals equipped to respond to the needs of society, and this end is achieved by constituting the social subject, a process Althusser calls "interpellation." For Althusser, the category of the subject is constitutive of all ideology, "in so far as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of 'constituting' concrete individuals as subjects" (Althusser 1971, 171). All ideology and all ideological discourse are therefore based on the subject-form, the category of the subject, which, Althusser insists, pre-exists the concrete individual (who is to become a social subject) by means of an operation of the category of the subject on the concrete individual.

This is a proposition which entails that we distinguish . . . between concrete individuals on the one hand and concrete subjects on the other, although . . . concrete subjects only exist insofar as they are supported by a concrete individual. . . . [I]deology "acts" or "functions" in such a way that it "recruits" subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or "transforms" the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation . . . called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: "Hey, you there!" . . . [T]he hailed individual will turn around [and] by this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject . Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was "really" addressed to him, and that "it was really him who was hailed" (and not someone else). (Althusser 1971, 174)

Ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects by means of the pre-existing category of the subject. It invariably creates subjects and controls them by recognizing them as subject-objects, subjects in relation to objects (or more precisely, in relation to possible object-directed practices). From the perspective of any meaningful concept of social practice, therefore, there is an underlying complicity beneath the superficial "opposition" of subject and object within traditional philosophy. As Alex Callinicos observes, "The notion of a subject cannot be separated from that of its object, and from the relation held to subsist between them. In a sense, subject and object are made for each other. To conceive of a subject is to conceive of whatever it is the subject of. To conceive of an object is to conceive of whatever it is an object for" (Callinicos 1976, 65).[2] What we call the individual is in fact a structured combination of relations of subjectivity or subject-object relationships.


The process of interpellation is accomplished by means of a general framework of centering, which Althusser describes in terms of an absolute Subject around whom an infinity of individuals/subjects is interpellated. Taking religion as a classic manifestation of this process, Althusser notes that religious ideology is indeed addressed to individuals in order to transform them into subjects. However, this process is dominated by the central position of God: "there can only be such a multitude of possible religious subjects on the absolute condition that there is a Unique, Absolute, Other Subject , i.e., God" (Althusser 1971, 178). A reciprocal relation of mutual recognition exists between this absolute Subject and individual subjects. "Were not men made in the image of God? As all theological reflection proves, whereas He 'could' perfectly well have done without men, God needs them, the Subject needs the subjects, just as men need God, the subjects need the Subject" (Althusser 1971, 179). The relation between the Subject and the subjects may be understood as a "mirror-connection" or, more precisely, "[a] double mirror-connection such that it subjects the subjects to the Subject, while giving them in the Subject in which each subject can contemplate his own image (present and future), the guarantee that this really concerns them and Him, . . . i.e., those who have recognized God and have recognized themselves in Him, will be saved" (Althusser 1971, 180).

Mirror-connections pervade the ideological instance; the Subject is there before we are born, and we are marked by the interpellation process even as we emerge from the womb. For Althusser, the individual is "always already subject" and, as such, always already enmeshed in the practices and rituals of ideological recognition. These rituals, inscribed in material institutions, assure that the majority of individuals will reproduce the existing relations of production. They are subjects in both senses of the word: (1) free subjects, with a free will, and (2) subjected beings stripped of all freedom. "The duplicate mirror-structure of ideology ensures simultaneously (1) the interpellation of 'individuals' as subjects; (2) their subjection to the Subject; (3) the mutual recognition of subjects and Subject, the subjects' recognition of each other, and finally the subject's recognition of himself; (4) the absolute guarantee that everything really is so, and that on the condition that the subjects recognize what they are and behave accordingly, everything will be all right" (Althusser 1971, 180-81).

There is an obvious and important parallel between the concept of interpellation and the concepts of "imaginary" and "symbolic" put for-


ward by Althusser's contemporary Jacques Lacan (whose rereading of Freud has caused at least as much controversy as Althusser's rereading of Marx).[3] According to Lacan, the unconscious is structured like a language—a private, thus unique language that emerges during the Oedipus complex (it does not exist before this moment) when the child makes the transition from what Lacan calls the "imaginary stage" of psychological development to the "symbolic stage." The imaginary stage is characterized by relations of identification; the child does not clearly distinguish his or her separateness from the world of adults and builds up a complex network of associations between sounds and reality based on mechanisms of identification. Obviously, the child must be forced out of such relationships if he or she is to acquire a sense of individuality and a sense of place with respect to other individuals. In Lacan's view, this break is achieved with the acquisition of language (the symbolic), which, above all, gives the child the personal pronoun "I" and transposes the imaginary process of identification onto a structured field of symbols organized around the phallus, which Lacan calls the "Law of the Father," that is, the social significations, relationships, and values embedded in language. The acquisition of language creates the subject (the ego) and is accompanied by the repression of the private discourse of the imaginary stage, the latter becoming, according to Lacan, the unconscious.

The acquisition of the symbolic is a matter of both syntax and semantics. The syntactical element differentiates the child from others (the acquisition of the "I") and provides him or her a certain power to control the world of others by means of symbolic manipulation (sentences). However, the semantic element also assigns the child a place in the social space—what Althusser calls "the Law of Culture"—with which the child is supposed to identify (the transposition of the imaginary into a network of secondary identifications) and accept without question. However, the "I" of society's discourse, imposed on the child from without, does not coincide with the private language that the infant developed during the imaginary stage and whose significations (correlated signs and desires) were repressed with the acquisition of the symbolic yet persist as the unconscious. Thus there is a perpetual conflict between the unconscious and the ego, an ongoing process of contradictions between the real (desire), the symbolic, and the imaginary.

Being and consciousness are always at odds with each other, according to Lacan. The subject is never a unifying whole, since being is radically ex-centric to itself—characterized by a fundamental gap at its


center which is predicated on the difference between the language of the unconscious and the symbolic order of society and which is intensified by the ambiguity between signifier and signified characteristic of all languages. The ego is constituted in relation to an ambiguous chain of signifiers that in their unity constitute the Other that is their transcendental locus; it is through the Other that the individual ego constitutes itself in an existence where desire is possible. Desire motivates the subject, but it is always controlled (and frustrated) by the Other—the discourse of the symbolic. Desire is doomed to perpetual unfulfillment since it is always caught in the network of secondary identifications (the imaginary) that surround, or more precisely articulate, the Other. The conditions of the subject, the ego and the unconscious, are limited to what is possible in the Other. In this sense, Lacan concludes, they are all discourses of the Other.

Despite the important distinction between the social world and the world of the psyche, similar relationships apply within the Althusserian conceptualization of the ideological instance. Actual social relationships between the individual and his or her conditions of existence (the Lacanian real) are experienced through interpellated "mirror-connections" or subject-object relations (the Lacanian imaginary). The Absolute Subject, which for Althusser represents the structured system of places and roles defining social subjects in terms of a center (the second order, or double mirror-connection), corresponds to Lacan's concept of the symbolic, the Other, the Law of the Father. Ideological interpellation is contradictory because, as is the case with the Lacanian psyche, the multiplicity of subject-object interpellations does not necessarily correspond to actual lived relations, nor are these relations even necessarily compatible with each other. Althusser defines ideology as both a recognition and a misrecognition (connaissance and méconnaissance ). What we recognize (and accept as given) is our interpellation as subjects and our place in society, "the 'obviousness' that you and I are subjects—and that this does not cause any problems" (Althusser 1971, 172). What we fail to recognize (or rather what we see through a necessary distortion that is the form of recognition in ideological practice) is, "in the last resort, the reproduction of the relations of production and the relations deriving from them" (Althusser 1971, 183).

Because ideology is a different order or mode of discourse from science, Althusser's concepts of recognition and misrecognition cannot be compared to the knowledge and ideology/error of scientific practice. Ideological recognition is anchored in the real because ideology always


refers to its material conditions of existence, but its relation to the real takes the form of an imaginary identification and is thus at the same time a misrecognition; ideology only "knows" the real in order to "represent" it in an order appropriate to its practical goals. As Althusser explains, "it is not their real conditions of existence, their real world, that 'men' 'represent to themselves' in ideology, but above all it is their relation to these conditions of existence which is represented to them there. . . . What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live" (Althusser 1971, 164-65). In the field of ideology the subject exists in relations that correspond to commodity relations in the field of the capitalist economy: as the Subject (God, but also Reason) constitutes all human beings in social relations of equivalence and naturalizes or fetishizes the subject form, so the Commodity (Money, the embodiment of exchange value) constitutes all production in social relations of equivalence and naturalizes or fetishizes the commodity form.

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Chapter 4 Ideology and Social Subjectivity
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