In lieu of more substantive matter which I'm busy working on, and because I have so much else to do, I'm just posting up these possibly interesting reflections on ideology which I threw together this morning in a fit of ennui.
Hail to the addressee.
Where do you get those ideas from? There is an extremely high chance that most of them were produced by others for you, that you came by them in schools, your family, from the mass media, maybe a religious institution, from a political party, a trade union, the academia, think-tanks, PR firms or any one of a network of institutions or apparatuses which make it their business to produce ideas for you. (Yes, you - this is interpellation we are talking about here.) This is how Goran Therborn in one of his early works, The Power of Ideology and the Ideology of Power, visualises the process:
I know this isn't a shock. You didn't really think you came up with those thoughts all by yourself. You are Marxists, and you know very well that ideologies (and sciences for that matter) are produced collectively, even if not in a collectivist mode. Or, if you prefer, they are historically, socially produced.
But what do those who aren't Marxists think? Aren't they often inclined to believe that somehow their ideas are spontaneous, natural, or arise from a process of open-ended personal reflection? I was going to say it was a particularly petty bourgeois illusion, but it seems to be implicit in ideology as such, the belief that ideas are the result of some inner spark or inspiration: in theoretical language, that agents, rather than being constituted as subjects by ideology, are the constituting subjects of ideology. "I decide what I think," the subject of ideology says, "I mean, yes, there are all sorts of ideas being presented to me every day, but as soon as I obtain adulthood I am in a position to critically evaluate those ideas. I choose my ideology; it doesn't choose me." In this sense, the concept of interpellation is an affront to common sense, for it says that ideology 'chooses' its subject, that it addresses the subject with who she really is, enabling her to become the 'bearer' (Trager) of the role assigned to her by the structure.
We won't spend too long inspecting the structure of this interpellation. Althusser sets up a primordial 'scene' of interpellation, a fable in which the agent is 'hailed' by the law ("hey you!"), stops, turns, and in the act of turning is subjectivated, accepts that she really is the "you" addressed by law. Crucially, this submission to ideology involves misrecognition: as with Lacan's 'mirror stage', the resulting identity is a false totalization of the fragments of experience.
The guilty subject
Following Judith Butler, we could problematize this concept along the following lines. Althusser relies on a complex set of theological figures to set up his notion of 'hailing'. The very act of 'turning' and thus accepting subjectivation implies an act of conscience, an appropriation of guilt. For Althusser, ideology is centred around an imaginary 'Absolute Subject' - redolent of Lacan's 'Big Other', the guarantor of the symbolic order - which is experienced by the subject as the source of 'law', guaranteeing that (so long as you are a good subject and 'behave') everything is just as it seems and will continue to be for eternity, and will be okay. Religious ideology is thus treated as exemplary of ideology as such, the 'naming' in religious ritual typical of subjectivation. There is no mystery about this - Althusser practised Catholicism long after he became a marxist, and seems never to have got out of the habit of performing some of its rituals. But this process requires an addressee already predisposed to receiving such a message, already implicated in its terms; that is, it requires a subjection that already presupposes a subject.
At first it seems as if we're saying that the narrative of the 'scene' of interpellation cannot be 'true'. But, of course, as Butler also notes, this concept of interpellation is allegorical. It stages a 'hailing' that never actually literally happens in this way; it narrativises a process or set of processes that is said to be resistant to narrativization. As Butler has it, "the 'call' arrives severally and in implicit and unspoken ways", which a too literal reading of 'interpellation' might overlook. There is a long process in which each agent in the division of labour is equipped with, for example, the sorts of linguistic skills appropriate to her location, which will enable her to carry out the tasks assigned to her by the structure: a boss learns to 'speak properly' (ie authoritatively, persuasively, dominatively) to her employees; a worker learns to 'speak properly' (ie deferentially, respectfully, warily) back. Over time, the agent becomes a subject by internalising the rules and attitudes, materialised in actions, inserted into practices, governed by rituals, which constitute the subject. The agent, just as she is mastering these skills, submits to the dominant ideology: is 'hailed', 'turns' to face the law, and is subjectivated. The fabular character of 'interpellation' is one reason why the many pointed criticisms of the 'scene' depicted by Althusser - for example, that it is is too dyadic, or is phallocentric - are thoroughly well-founded, yet far from adequate to finish off the concept of interpellation. The scene could be re-staged in multiple thoughtful and creative ways without losing what is essential.
However, Butler's case is more complex. It is not simply that the 'scene' belies the reality of ideology in many ways. The problem lies in the prehistory of the subject alluded to above; the preconditions necessary for the reproduction of the dominant ideology. 'Interpellation' appears to require an anxious, knowing, 'guilty' agent anxious to acquit herself by conscientiously mastering the skills that will make her a subject. Doesn't this, as Lacanian critics approvingly suggest, require another dimension to the subject, a materia prima, or rather an immateria prima, a psychic dimension that is radically distinct from any possible incarnation in material practices? Doesn't it require the resuscitation of the Cartesian subject? Doesn't Althusser's repudiation of the ontological dualism of the material and the ideal simply collapse into another dualism? Butler's rejoinder to the Lacanians (in the person of Mladen Dolar) is that: i) it mistakes a grammatical requirement for a pre-existing subject, or psychic remainder, in the context of exposition for a logical requirement; and ii) its rejection of materialist monism relies on a reduction of the material to the phenomenal, or empirically given, so that the absences that punctuate a ritual can be seen as governed by a non-material symbolic order - in counterpoint, Butler deploys the althusserian materialism of articulation, in which these absences are not 'ideal' but are bound to the phenomenon as "its constitutive and absent necessity".
Nonetheless, the terms of Althusser's formulation, the theological figures deployed and particularly the restrictive role of conscience in subject-formation, leave unresolved the question of the failure of interpellation. In Althusser's terms it is difficult to think how a 'bad subject' could exist, since the very condition of being a subject involves mastering the skills that subject one to the dominant ideology and make one therefore a 'good' subject.
Now, Butler doesn't do any more than signpost possible ways out of this dilemma: hinting at forms of de-subjectivation which might allow one to oppose the 'law' without denying one's complicity in it. But it's clear that without resolving this, the danger is either that one collapses into a mechanistic, functionalist account of ideology, or a voluntarism or decisionism predicated implicitly or explicitly on this theological remainder. Althusser didn't solve this problem. As Jameson points out, the ISA essay was "programmatic", a manifesto of sorts, an "agenda, still incompletely fulfilled". And I will have occasion to talk about the politics of this in a future post. However, I would say that this psychic remainder, this kernel of interiority irreducible to the social and material world, constantly recurs in marxist accounts of ideology, either explicitly or in the form of ambiguities or silences.
Materiality or material determination
The ambiguity, or unresolved tension, in historical materialist approaches to ideology is basically this: is ideology materially determined, or is it a material substance in itself? This is an ambiguity which persists in one of the greatest marxist writers on ideology, Volosinov who, asserting that his approach is monistic, nonetheless makes this statement: "Every ideological sign is not only a reflection, a shadow of reality, but is also a material segment of that very reality." Not only, but also. Not just shadow, but material too. Does this seem like a detail? Well, I can't be the only one to have encountered this sort of ambivalence repeatedly. Goran Therborn, arguing from a post-althusserian perspective, tended to speak of the material determination of ideas, leaving the question of ideology's ideal or material status unresolved.
Or one encounters more directly formulations which tell us
that "mind is developed upon the basis of matter", but that "the human mind cannot simply be reduced to matter". And is this not simply a straightforward exposition of Marx's approach in The German Ideology
? For on the one hand, Marx says that "neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life", while on the other these manifestations are "phantoms formed in the human brain ... sublimates of their material life-process ... bound to material premises". And so, the ambiguity seems to be resolved on the side of the material determination
of ideas, which are but "phantoms".
If in fact the ambiguity is to be resolved in this way, that is if we accept that there is an order of reality that is separate from matter (a subjective reality, a 'consciousness' that is linked to the material world but not directly or wholly of it), then it is surely at the expense of monism. To say that this is a consequence of such a stance is not necessarily to disprove it. And it is clear why it is attractive: precisely because of the need to found emancipatory politics on the self-activity of the masses, and therefore the need to explain the bases of resistance. Somehow, the working class is capable of being an agent of revolutionary change, despite the effects of the dominant ideology.
So when Althusser argued that ideology has no "ideal or spiritual existence" but only a material existence, that it exists only "in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices" - gamesomely suggesting that readers entertain the notion sympathetically on the grounds of materialism - surely he was expressing a conception that was deeply controversial to the majority of marxists. At least, particularly for those of a Lukacsian persuasion, such a conception must appear to be complicit in the objectification that is characteristic of ideology as such. For if ideas themselves are material, then its bearers might well be nothing but objects; nothing but effects of a structure, bearers (Trager) of a role assigned to them by the structure. There would seem to be no space for will or intention ('consciousness') in such a process. So, it is this potentially mechanistic consequence of theoretical anti-humanism that is objectionable.
But, returning to Marx's formulation in The German Ideology, if ideas are "only manifestations of actual life", in what sense are they manifest? To whom and in what they do they manifest themselves, if not in fact in the material practices and apparatuses? In what sense are ideas other than "actual life"? Is it not at least arguable that in such moments, Marx was using an old conception (the ideal-material dichotomy) to express an emerging one (the different levels of determination in a complex social whole, the relative autonomy and specific effectivity of ideology)? Elsewhere in The German Ideology Marx says, in what I think is a satirical moment, that "thoughts and ideas acquire an independent existence" only when a certain division of labour creates agents who produce thoughts and ideas independently. In other words, the ideological conception of thoughts and ideas having an ideal existence is an illusion that arises from the social practices of petty bourgeois producers of ideology.
Approaching this from another point of view, part of the argument hinges on the base-superstructure metaphor and how it is deployed. It is difficult to miss the way in which, when some theorists talk about the 'material', they refer to the realm of production, productive relations, commodity circulation - indeed, all that which appears as 'the economy'. The issue that is being addressed in the language of the 'material determination of ideology' is nothing other than the determination of ideology by productive relations, class struggle and all of the various attributes of the social formation apart from its ideologies. And a very important reason why people don't want to 'reduce' ideology to matter is precisely because of the need to recognise the specific effectivity of ideology, its peculiar forms and instantiations.
After all, the question of 'reduction' shouldn't really arise otherwise: it is not a question of saying that ideology is 'reducible' to matter; merely that it is itself a material process. 'Reduction' only comes into it because the ontological problem of the status of ideology (as matter, or ideal substance) has been interjected into the epistemological problem posed by the base-superstructure metaphor (of the relationship between economy, politics and ideology in marxist theory). And if I'm right in suggesting this, then surely the ISAs essay opened up a potentially fruitful terrain of investigation in solving this latter problem, drawing attention to the various mediating levels particular to ideology (actions, practices, rituals, apparatuses), but also opening up the field of the specific institutional preconditions of ideology. Not only that, but this demarche is conducted within a sophisticated and potentially dynamic account of the determination and overdetermination of ideologies by the whole complex structure which it is articulated to; that is, it allows us to shift the terms of the problem from the 'material determination of ideology' to that of the complex and mediated determination of ideology by the sub-structures with which it is articulated. I just suggest we consider it - in the name of materialism, say.
But that still leaves us with the other dilemma. So, we hypothesise that ideology has only a material and no spiritual or ideal existence; that the relationship between ideology and 'politics' or 'the economy' is not that between matter and the ideal. Doesn't it still seem that, for the masses to be capable of conducting a revolutionary self-emancipation, we need some notion of resistant interiority, some equivalent to Chomsky's (obviously deliberately simplified) notion of an 'instinct for freedom'? That is, a conception of 'human nature' as an active constituent in the process of subject-formation? It will not be sufficient to clarify, as Marta Harnecker exhaustively does, what theoretical anti-humanism does and does not entail for the self-emancipation of the working class. The point is that the problem is raised about how to understand the basis for resistance, including resistance to the dominant ideology. And, as we have said, that problem wasn't satisfactorily dealt with in the terms of Althusser's original formulations.
I don't propose, in this post, to articulate the solution that evaded both Althusser and Butler. I merely want to reiterate that we can't fall back on any conception of 'interiority', which risks reifying socially, ideologically produced divisions (the interior-exterior division is nothing other than the mind-body problem in another idiom anyway). Still less can we find salvation in 'human nature'. Insofar as it goes beyond a simple description of biological needs (for food, warmth, sociality, orgasm) or needs derivative of those (eg, the need to appropriate knowledge which meets those primary needs), which by itself would be neither 'interior' nor an adequate explanation for social resistance, and proceeds into a theology of some 'natural' state of unity with our 'species-being', alienated since the Fall, it restores idealism. What theories of 'human nature' must invariably do is eternize contingent and historically produced relations and situations. Such solutions are worse than the problem they address. If a theory of subjects capable of explaining resistance is available, it must be on the terms of the materialist approach to ideology; that is, of ideology's purely material and not spiritual or ideal existence.
Labels: althusser, base and superstructure, capitalist ideology, class consciousness, determination, dominant ideology, ideology, poulantzas