Althusser, Ideology and Interpellation
The French philosopher, Louis Althusser, first popularized the word in his seminal essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)” (Althusser, 1972). In the essay, Althusser explores the relationship between the state, modes of (re)producing power and ideology from a Marxist perspective, defining ideology as “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Althusser 1972: 162). In his definition, Althusser sees ideology functioning as a mediator between systems of power and individuals. It allows for hegemonic power to reproduce itself by obscuring traditional forms of repression and incorporating individuals into the power structure.
Althusser complicates the relationship between domination and subjugation by introducing the interpellation process, where individuals recognize themselves as subjects through ideology, thus illustrating how subjects can be complicit in their own domination. He gives the example of a police officer shouting out “Hey, you there!” in public. Upon hearing this exclamation, an individual turns around, and “by this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject” (Althusser, 1972: 174). In the act of acknowledging that it is indeed he who is addressed, the individual thus recognizes his subjecthood. It is important to note that this subjecthood is double: although he is recognized as a social subject by the law, he is also subjugated to the law. Althusser emphasizes the ubiquity of ideology and interpellation by noting how subjects are consistently constituted by Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) such as the family, educational institutions, and media such as literature, radio and television. The idea that an individual can be interpellated through various mediums would later be appropriated by theorists from diverse backgrounds such as cinema and media studies and cultural studies.