Notes on Interpellation


The term interpellation was an idea introduced by Louis Althusser (1918-1990) to explain the way in which ideas get into our heads and have an effect on our lives, so much so that cultural ideas have such a hold on us that we believe they are our own.  Interpellation is a process, a process in which we encounter our culture’s values and internalize them. 


Interpellation expresses the idea that an idea is not simply yours alone (such as “I like blue, I always have”) but rather an idea that has been presented to you for you to accept.  Ideologies – our attitudes towards gender, class, and race – should be thought of more as social processes.  Accepting or not accepting a culture’s given attitudes places one in a particular relationship with power. 


For Althusser, interpellation works in a manner much like giving a person a name, or calling out to them in the street.  That is, ideologies “address” people and offer them a particular identity which they are encouraged to accept.  However, one is not forced to accept that role through violence.  Because those roles are offered to us everywhere we look, or even assigned to us by culture, they are presented in such a way that we are encouraged to accept them.  This works best when it is an invisible, but consensual process.  It works best when we believe these values are our own, and reflect the most obvious, logical way to live.


Ideologies, therefore, play a crucial role first in constructing our identities and then giving us a particular place in society.  To say that someone is fully interpellated is to say that he or she has been successfully brought into accepting a certain role, or that he or she has accepted values willingly. 


Here is how one of my students from a past semester put it in her notes:


~Interpellation is the idea that we are “bred” to think, act and react in certain ways.

~We are interpellated from the day that we are born into specific roles that society has created for us.

~Girls being portrayed in magazines playing with dolls and loving the color pink is an example of gender role interpellation

~Interpellation is subtle—the point of interpellation is for a person to feed into something without even realizing that they are doing so.

~ Interpellation is used in almost every aspect of our society, especially in the marketing of merchandise

~Interpellation can be found in many situations, but the most prominent example of interpellation that I always think of is the typical male and female roles that we are “assigned” from a very early age. There are certain things that are “normal”, if not expected of a boy, simply because he is a boy. By the same token, there are certain things that are expected of a girl to maintain her societal femininity. From a young age, we are lead to believe that boys are the dominant, more powerful sex. Females are portrayed as care takers and are often seen as being more compassionate and caring then males are. Men are expected to rougher and less sensitive. The men are expected to work hard to bring home money to support their families. Females are often portrayed as being more in touch with their emotions. None of these ideas applies to any one person any more so then do personality traits, but our society interpellates these ideas into our minds every minute of every day.

~We seem to idealize wealthy families in our society because we are under the warped impression that they are happier then ourselves because they have everything that they want. Children who are born into wealth and privilege are showcased in reality television and documentaries, further rubbing our noses in the fact that there are parents who can provide for their children in ways that you or I could never imagine (from a material standpoint). Our culture seems to go out of its way to display this quality, to make those who have more feel better about themselves and those who have less feel worse. We are interpellated be jealous of other peoples luck and fortune.

 ~We are interpellated to believe that the main centers of power and authority in our society, i.e. the government, our parents, the president, are inherently good and always right—they (the powers that be) do this to try and keep us in our place. They want to keep power in the hands of those who have always had it, and usually on of the only ways to do that is to interpellate society to believe that that is where the power and authority belong in the first place.

~ We are interpellated through religion, politics and the school systems.


Apparatuses of Power

            Althusser argued that the process of interpellation works best when it is invisible, when individuals accept cultural notions as though they are obvious, or natural, when it seems natural, for instance, that men act one way and women act another.  At best, interpellation works when individuals give no thought to being interpellated in the first place.


            To place people in their proper place in society, Althusser argued that assimilation happens in two ways, through repressive means, and through ideological means.  One happens through force, the other through ideas.  Althusser argued that there are different apparatuses (to use his word) of the State (or governing power) that ensure interpellation:


Repressive State Apparatuses – Those mechanisms of power that force us into our place.  These mechanisms operate through threats of punishment or through the explicit demonstration of power.  Repressive State Apparatuses (or RSA’s) include armies, police, prisons, or any outright threat of violence. 


Ideological State ApparatusesRSA’s are rare and infrequent; force is not the most effective means of maintaining power.  Instead, Ideological State Apparatuses (or ISA’s) work by manufacturing consent among individuals.  ISA’s operate through ideas and representations that we encounter throughout our lives, training us and conditioning in us certain attitudes and behaviors that we are led to believe are natural.  ISA’s include large social institutions that train us in the thinking in a certain way and bring us into ideology: schools, families, churches, toys, art, movies, books, advertising, music, television, fashion, games, technology, etc.  All of these sources of power provide us with certain attitudes, behaviors, ideas, perceptions, feelings, values, etc.


Here’s an example:  I would like everyone in class to talk and contribute to our discussions.  I can force everyone to talk by threatening to hit them if they don’t.  But I would have to constantly run around with a stick.  I could threaten everyone with a grade, forcing people to talk even if it is against their will.  Or, I could create an environment where people would like to talk willingly because they want to. 


Imagine you would like to be supreme ruler of a country where no one questions your will.  You could throw everyone in prison who disagrees with you, kill dissenters, create an army to carry out your whim.  Along with that, however, you could start with children.  From the moment they are born you give them books that teach them how wonderful you are.  You create television shows that make you out to be a wonderful leader.  You train everyone to accept your views willingly in a way that they never notice.  You create a situation in which any other way of thinking would be unimaginable.


Both of these examples are misleading because they show one person wanting to do something.  Interpellation is more about how larger cultural values are shared.  Here’s an example.  During World War II many American women went into factories in order to help with the war movement.  After the war, America faced a particularly difficult cultural crisis since women needed to go back to their roles as homemakers, but they started to enjoy working and the freedom it allowed.  During the period, therefore, any number of texts appeared to convince women that their happiness would come through returning to their role as homemaker.  Television shows, advertisements, movies, magazines, books, soap operas, clothing stores, department stores – an emphasis on femininity and purchasing power to make your family happy through technology flourished. 


Texts, in other words, are not simply about the intentions of an author.  Every text bears the stamp of its time, either in expressing its cultures values of the time, or resisting them.  The Tom Cruise Top Gun and the Sylvester Stallone film Rambo II are films that spoke to the themes of the 80’s.  They fed into and grew from what people were feeling.  After September 11th our culture had a revival of police dramas on television that week after week pleased the audience, week after week criminals were punished and justice was given out. 


In order to be thoughtful about this process, to have some agency over our lives, it is important to be a critical reader.  It is important not only to look for the explicit values that an author brings to the text, but also the deeper unexamined ideas. 


Peter Hollindale makes the distinction between “surface” and “passive” ideology.  Surface ideology is about those explicit values that an author wants the reader to believe.  Passive ideology is about those broader, unexamined cultural values.


To be a Close Reader is to be the sort of reader who considers all of the deeper meanings that exist in a book.  Most high school and college Literature courses are good at training you to look for deeper meanings, whether they are the intention of the author or connected to the time period you are studying.  And so far we’ve looked at the deeper meanings that are children’s literature (for instance, The Giving Tree can be about our relationship to the environment).  But many tend to feel that because children are innocent and undeveloped that they can’t see many of these deeper meanings.


That may be true, but they are affected by passive ideology, since we don’t have to see or understand those values in order to accept them because they are presented so often.


In order to be a more critical reader you also have to be a Resisting Reader – that is, the sort of reader who is attentive to the unintended representations that a text puts forth as normal.  If we are interpellated by the texts we encounter, if every text presents to us certain attitudes, behaviors, ideas, perceptions, feelings, or values, then we have to resist accepting them as normal – we have to think about them critically first.  We must resist that process of interpellation by attending to those things that are supposed to be invisible.  That is not to say that most authors are trying to trick us or brainwash us.  In fact, most authors simply reproduce the assumptions and attitudes they haven’t examined either.  Therefore, we must look not only for those ideas that the author intended, but also the ideas he or she didn’t intend if we are to resist being interpellated.