Louis Althusser: ISA’s & the notion of ‘Interpellation’

all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, through the functioning of the category of the subject

Althusser (1971:190)

Ideological state apparatus (ISA), is a theoretical concept developed by (Algerian born) French philosopher Louis Althusser which is used to describe the way in which structures of civic society – education, culture, the arts, the family, religion, bureaucracy, administration etc serve to structure the ideological perspectives of society, which in turn form our individual subject identity. According to Althusser, ‘the category of the subject . . . is the category constitutive of all ideology’ (214:188). In other words, we are socially constructed and what socially constructs us is ‘despite its diversity and contradictions . . . the ruling ideology, which is the ideology of ‘the ruling class’,’ (2014:245)

Althusser noted that individuals often believe that they are ‘outside ideology’ and suggested the notion of ‘interpellation‘ as a way to recognise the formation of ideology. In that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way as to recruit subjects among individuals. In other words, the way in which society calls / addresses / hails you is interpellation, which is the way in which your subject identity is formed and which, more often than not, corresponds to the dominant ideology.

‘Ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way to ‘recruit’ subjects among individuals . . . through the very precise operation that we call interpellation or hailing.

Althusser 2014:190

Frantz Fanon

In terms of postcolonialism, we can look at The Wretched of the Earth (1961), by Frantz Fanon, which for many (Barry, 2017, McLeod 2000 etc) is a key text in the development and ancestry of postcolonial criticism. Fanon was born in the French colony of Martinique and appears to recognise the ‘mechanics of colonialism and its effects of those it ensnared‘ (McLeod 2000:20) when he remembers how he felt when, in France, white strangers pointed out his blackness, his difference, with derogatory phrases such as ‘dirty Nigger!’ or ‘look, a Negro!’ (ibid).

In other words, what we have in this section of The Wretched of the Earth is a black man living in France, articulating the way he was constructed as ‘other’ specifically through the way he was hailed, called, perceived and understood i.e. interpellated by other ‘subjects’ of France, who clearly saw him through the lens of Empire – racial stereotyping, derogatory abuse – as acceptable social interaction. And if you think that is something of the past, look at the tweet received by ex-England international footballer Ian Wright (just posted when I was writing this blog post) or any number of racist incidents that occur everyday in your country, town, city, community and neighborhood. To recognise these incidents is to recognise the concept of ‘interpellation’ and which in terms of POSTCOLONIALISM is through the lens of Empire.

Do The Right Thing (1989) Dir Spike Lee

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