Notes on Althusser: Ideology and Interpellation

One of the central topics of study in the humanities is the question of ideology. There are many theories about what it is and how it works. One of the more significant of these theories comes from a French Marxist, Louis Althusser, in his 1970 essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” In it he argues that ideology interpellates individuals as subjects. Interpellation is the experience of being “hailed,” like a taxi driver is hailed by a person on the sidewalk sticking her arm out to get a lift. Each person identifies herself with a category, a role, and when hailed (like when someone shouts “hey you!”) we feel the need to respond. Ideology, in Althusser’s view, is more than a set of beliefs about the world; it includes material practices within specific institutions that lead to subject formation and to the reproduction of social relationships. Institutions sort people into groups and then into particular roles; they shape and police our behaviors and our boundaries. Althusser wanted to understand why we tend to feel free, though we are constrained by our identities within a system of ideological categories. Ideology “works” when we submit freely to this system. One explanation is that we believe we can reject the interpellating message, just as the taxi driver can reject the person who wants a ride. Yet in doing so, we don’t reject the category: just the particular instance of its use.

To demonstrate the power and invisibility of ideology to my students, I use a simple lesson. On the first day of class, students fill up the available desks and face the front of the room. When I start talking, they shift attention to me and many start taking notes. I point out to them that their behaviors had to be learned and result from efforts by the institution of school to sort people into groups and to shape their behaviors. The proof of ideology at work is that my students no longer need to be told what to do when they come in a new classroom for the first time. Ideology is all around us, hidden in plain sight.

Critique alone is largely ineffective against ideology. One reason for its ineffectiveness is that ideology articulates us as part of a discursive social system when we are small children, before we are capable of employing the most powerful tools of critical thinking. Ideology works in the family, for instance, by gendering us as subjects before we are old enough to reason abstractly about our experiences—indeed, before we are even born—or before we are able to compare and contrast our experiences to those of other groups. Ideology is pre-reflective, or to put it another way, ideology is like software for a computer, and thus a necessary condition for our making sense of the world. To uncover ideology is to disclose to ourselves our sense-making apparatus, our social order, and our understanding of past experiences. Another is that ideology, as Foucault taught us, is a system of discipline, punishment, and rewards, and thus it operates beyond the level of cognition, individual belief, and free choice. A third is that ideology functions largely unconsciously as a screen or interface that we use to make sense of the world.

Althusser stated that every society must reproduce itself. Simple enough, right? But the reproduction of society entails reproducing the conditions of production (in other words—it has to reproduce the conditions that make possible the production of goods and services), which makes things a bit more complicated because in addition to reproducing the materials of production, we must also reproduce the labor. Just as machinery breaks down or becomes obsolete, so too do the people by getting old and dying. They need to be replaced by the younger generation. But just giving birth to more human beings isn’t enough. The newer human beings have to be trained and socialized to take their elders’ places in the production system. Thus, even though everyone within the society dies, the society perpetuates their roles and relationships and with them the practices of exploitation and domination.

Businesses such as factories are the beneficiaries of the socialization process. Though they may do some training themselves, they rely mostly on an interlocking group of institutions to do all the prior socialization and training for them. These other institutions include families and schools, but also entertainment and religions, because in addition to learning skills, the labor force needs to learn submission to the social order, in other words, to learn the ideology of the ruling class. For instance, families sustain themselves through wages and use a portion of those wages to raise their children to replace them. In other words, businesses outsource their labor reproduction costs to families and schools. Of course, each institution is also a site of struggle between the ruling class and oppressed classes, but these institutions operate mostly by and for the interests of the ruling class.

In addition to reproducing labor, institutions such as family, school, church, and entertainment need to reproduce themselves. Each one does so by sorting people into categories of leaders and followers. Church must reproduce the clergy and the laity. There are far fewer clergy than laity and there is a rigorous system of training and sorting to weed out those who are not as ideologically committed to church doctrine and practice. Similarly in entertainment: a few people will join the entertainment industry and others will be consumers of it. Those going into entertainment must submit themselves to its ideological regime. Families produce future parents who will raise future children. They sort out who among the children will receive more resources and privileges and thus will be more likely to reproduce the family structure in the next generation.

Althusser draws a distinction between Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs) and Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). The RSAs have a monopoly on violence (such as imprisonment, torture, execution, exile, etc.) and include army, police, courts, and prisons. Althusser noted that even in revolutions (such as in France), the RSAs are usually left intact. The new government perpetuates the same roles as the old one and prepares people to assume those roles in much the same way that the old government did. The ISAs usually function without direct force (though as a backup, they can and do resort to violent repression), but instead use other forms of persuasion. ISAs include: family, law, church, politics, education, trade-­‐unions, mass media, and cultural institutions (sports, literature, etc.). Not all of these institutions are state controlled, but in general they function on behalf of the state. The state supports the ISAs that support it, and it represses ISAs that do not. No state can last long without them, however.

In the pre-­‐capitalist period in Europe, there was one dominant ISA: the church. Now there are several competing ISAs, but Althusser claims that the ideological apparatus of education dominates. School sorts people into classes. The first group is unsuited to school and gets expelled or drops out and becomes unemployed or part of a criminalized underclass; then there are those who finish high school and become unskilled laborers. The next group stays in school longer and becomes mid-level managers, etc. School teaches useful knowledge—math, science, culture—but also moral things, such as rules of “good behavior” appropriate for one’s station in life that allow us to relate “appropriately” to those in authority as well as to those in various other roles. School enacts the discipline and the habits and the relationships that correspond to various institutional roles and it rewards and punishes through various means (grades, emotional satisfaction, social bonds, etc.). Teachers, even well-­‐meaning ones, don’t realize the role they play in perpetuating ruling class ideology, since the ideology they inhabit appears “natural” to them.

My two cents: these days, 45 years after Althusser’s essay was published, I argue that the entertainment-family partnership might be more powerful than the school-family partnership. It habituates us to screens, to surveillance, and to alienation: the dominant conditions of modern economic life. “Edutainment” is proof that school sees itself in a losing battle with entertainment.

Biology does not determine our social and economic roles. Humans invent roles and institutions make people into “subjects” to fit those roles. Althusser offers us a theory of ideology in general:

  1. It is misunderstood as pure illusion, but it is actually the “instruction manual” for subject formation by representing social relations and conditions of existence in an imaginary way.
  2. It has a material existence
  3. It is always attached to an institutional
  4. It exists as a set of practices, not ideas
  5. It is policed inasmuch as these practices are ritualized

In Robert Scholes, Nancy Comley, and Greg Ulmer’s discussion of identity, they refer to subject positioning as a form of “education”:

Identification is at the heart of this education in that one becomes who and what one is by internalizing an image of the nurturing authority figures encountered in one’s world. According to the theory, this act of identification with parent figures in the family—extended to the authority figures encountered in other institutions that constitute the interpellation process as one matures—is a “mis-recognition,” a necessary “mistake” that implants alienation at the core of selfhood as an experience. To be a “self,” that is, is to carry internally an image acquired from “outside.” Identity is “extimacy,” as psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan put it, coining a term that combines in one word “external” and “intimacy.” An individual subject is not autonomous and self-identical, but is dependent upon an effect of language into which he or she has entered. (Scholes, Comley and Ulmer. Text Book: Writing through Literature, 243)

Any scene in which one internalizes the authority figure’s values and behaviors is a “scene of instruction.” Furthermore, we take pleasure in identity practices of inclusion and exclusion around such identifiers as

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Nationality
  • Sexual preference
  • Career
  • Subculture
  • Family role
  • Class
  • Age
  • Region
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Language

In the Humanities, we teach about ideology and subject positioning. We train our students to reflect critically on their own processes of subject formation. But do we examine our own discipline’s practices? Humanities scholars themselves should revisit our disciplines continually to ask the following questions; who is included and excluded? Do the disciplines perpetuate pernicious ideological abuses—such as racism, sexism, homophobia, domination, and exploitation—common in other institutions (such as family, church, entertainment, church, and state)? What methods do our disciplines use to reproduce subject positions and social relationships? How effective are our disciplines in teaching students about ideology and in empowering them to challenge it? If humanities scholars practice our own reflective disclosure, we may find better ways to navigate our institution through the age of electracy.


Barry Jason Mauer is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Central Florida, and teaches in the Texts and Technology Ph.D. Program. He has served at UCF since 1999. His published work focuses on developing new research practices in the arts and humanities. His latest research is about citizen curating, which aims at enlisting a corps of citizens to curate exhibits, both online and in public spaces, using archival materials available in museums, libraries, public history centers, and other institutions. He also publishes online comics about delusion and denial, particularly as they affect the realm of politics. In addition, Mauer is an accomplished songwriter and recording artist. Mauer completed his graduate studies at the University of Florida in the Department of English, where he worked under the direction of professors Gregory Ulmer and Robert Ray. He lives in Orlando with his wife and daughter, two dogs, and his cat.

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