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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Theory Tuesday IV

Welcome to the fourth installment of Theory Tuesday.  Today’s installment opens with an apology for some of the things I left unmentioned in my last Theory Tuesday, the one on structuralism.  I know it sounds strange that I should apologize for not making that 3500-word post even longer, but, well, I realized at some point this week that I’d discussed structuralism without saying anything about Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole (here’s a handy intro to such matters).  You kind of need to have that distinction on board in order to make sense of a good deal of Roman Jakobson’s work, including his otherwise nearly-opaque claim that “the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination”; more important for today’s purposes, you need that distinction in order to make sense of a couple of other crucial things: one, structuralism’s disdain for history (for which Ricoeur, among others, faulted it), and two, the very broad claim that language speaks us (a claim often conflated or confused with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that thought is coextensive with language—a hypothesis that drives cognitive neuroscientists up the wall.  Or so I am told).  Anyway, folks, langue refers to the entire operating system of a language; parole refers to a single person’s speech, an instance of the operating system in use.  Saussure and Saussureans are not interested in how lingustic operating systems change over time; for them, it’s all about the synchrony (the structure at a moment in time), not about the diachrony (which has to do with historical development and change).  It has not escaped anyone’s notice that the langue/parole distinction maps pretty neatly onto Chomsky’s distinction between linguistic competence and linguistic performance; that neat confluence, combined with the sudden availability of Saussurean/ structuralist theory in the 1960s (thanks to the vagaries of translation), accounts for some of the Theory Boom of the early days.

I offer this preface as a way of broaching the otherwise incomprehensible question of why anyone would think it necessary to devise a “structuralist Marxism.” Structuralism is so antipathetic to all questions of hermeneutics and historicity that one might imagine the desire for a structuralist Marxism to be something like a hankering for really spicy ice cream.  And yet, in the work of Louis Althusser, spicy ice cream is exactly what we have.  I don’t like it myself.  But because it’s an important byway in the history of ice cream—er, I mean the history of Marxist theory—I still find it necessary to tell students about it, partly in order to warn them that it will very likely leave a bad taste in their mouths.  In the meantime, a promissory note for a future Theory Tuesday: Mikhail Bakhtin’s account of “sociolects” and “heteroglossia” in “Discourse in the Novel” offers what I consider to be a much more satisfying way to think about the relation between langue and parole, in which the latter sometimes influences the development of the former.  In the structuralist world, that never happens.  But in a more complex Marxist/formalist world where people rigorously calibrate the relation between diachrony and synchrony and the relation between structural constraints and individual idiosyncrasies, “signs” are understood as a site of social struggle (though not the only site of struggle, by any means), and theorists are called to account for what Bakhtin calls the “internal stratification present in every language at any given moment of its historical existence.”

But let’s not jump ahead just yet; let’s work to get that bad taste in our mouths first.

In Althusser, the marriage of structuralism and Marxism gives us a reinterpretation of ideology as langue.  In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” he writes,

I say: the category of the subject is constitutive of all ideology, but at the same time and immediately I add that the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects.

This is basically a Marxist version of the structuralist dictum that the code speaks us; in other words, it’s an antihumanist Marxism that displaces individuals from the main stage of the historical action and installs ideology at the center of critical analysis.  Most Marxisms do likewise, following Marx’s claim (in the Eighteenth Brumaire) that men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing; but Althusser goes a good deal further, arguing that ideology “interpellates” or “hails” individuals as subjects from the get-go.

I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’

Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round.  By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why?  Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else).  Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. . . .

Thus ideology hails or interpellates individuals as subjects.  As ideology is eternal, I must now suppress the temporal form in which I have presented the functioning of ideology, and say: ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects, which amounts to making it clear that individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology as subjects, which necessarily leads us to one last proposition: individuals are always-already subjects. . . .  That an individual is always-already a subject, even before he is born, is nevertheless the plain reality, accessible to everyone and not a paradox at all.

Althusser then goes to on write that “Freud shows that individuals are always ‘abstract’ with respect to the subjects they always-already are,” and that if we look at childbirth without illusions, we will see this always-already in operation: “If we agree to drop the ‘sentiments,’ i.e., the forms of family ideology (paternal/ maternal/ conjugal/ fraternal) in which the unborn child is expected: it is certain in advance that it will bear its Father’s Name, and will therefore have an identity and be irreplaceable.  Before its birth, the child is therefore always-already a subject, appointed as a subject in and by the specific ideological configuration in which it is ‘expected’ once it has been conceived.”

Whew!  What a bunch of arrant nonsense Althusser sneaks in there at the end.  But let’s back up a bit, before Althusser goes off the rails so thoroughly as to argue that individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology insofar children are “expected” and will bear their father’s name.

First, there’s the tension between “always” and “hardly ever.” Experience, Althusser says, shows us that hailings hardly ever miss their man, and that the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed.  (This is a very strange claim in itself, not only because experience shows us no such thing but also because a structuralist Marxist ordinarily does not make empiricist claims at all, as Stuart Hall will point out in “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms.”) A bit further on, Althusser reprises the scene: “There are individuals walking along.  Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: ‘Hey, you there!’ One individual (nine times out of ten it is the right one) turns round, believing/ suspecting/ knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing.”

All right, so now we have three hailing frequencies to consider:

1.  The hailing hardly ever misses.
2.  The hailing is successful ninety percent of the time.
3.  The individual is always hailed—indeed, always-already hailed.  Ideology recruits us all.

We’re still in the initial scene of interpellation here, being yelled at by a cop on the street, and already you should be asking yourselves, uh, how exactly does this thing work?  Folks, you don’t have to wait for a card-carrying deconstructionist to come along and point out that the successful transmission of a message is a subset of all the message’s possible mistransmissions.  You can ask a more immediate question: what happens to that tenth person?  Can ideology fail to interpellate a subject, and if so, what happens then?  Is the subject cast into the outer darkness where there is no language, and no language police hailing people?

Well, now.  This, I tell my students, is an influential but deeply problematic, and deeply flawed, account of ideology.  It is compounded, not clarified, by Althusser’s famous formula, “Ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” And just in case I haven’t already pissed off the last few remaining Althusserians in the English-speaking world in the course of this post, let me suggest that both these conceptions of ideology—as interpellation, as imaginary relations to real conditions—are little more than dressed-up versions of “false consciousness.” To be more specific: their dress is Lacanian formal dress, in which the “imaginary” is coextensive with the linguistic unconscious (remember, for Lacanians, the unconscious is structured like a language); “imaginary” in this formula does not simply mean “unreal” or “made up,” so it’s not as if Althusser is saying that people are just delusional dupes or something (undoubtedly some are, but this is hardly a firm basis for a full-blown theory of human subjectivity).  He’s saying that we all live in the Imaginary, and that’s why we heard that “hey, you!” in the first place.  So think of it this way:  people misrecognize their relationship to their real conditions of existence, just as they misrecognize their relation to ideology itself (which is the source of that misrecognition), but then, what would you expect, since misrecognition is the order of the day: “Hey, you!” the officer yells, and when we turn around, he says, “misrecognize your relation to the structures that interpellate you, including this one,” and we say, “okey-doke,” and proceed on our Mister Magooian misrecognizing way.

One wonders just how an ideological interpellation-scheme so rigid and reliable as this ever allowed anyone, let alone Louis Althusser, to grasp its workings.

Nevertheless, as Tony Judt pointed out in a devastating review of Althusser’s career (in the March 7, 1994 issue of The New Republic), Althusserian Marxism was, for a brief period, a lingua franca spoken widely on the Continent:

When I arrived in Paris as a graduate student in the late ‘60s, I was skeptically curious to see and to hear Louis Althusser. In charge of the teaching of philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, the French elite academy for future teachers and leaders, Althusser was touted by everyone I met as a man of extraordinary gifts, who was transforming our understanding of Marx and reshaping revolutionary theory. His name, his ideas, his books were everywhere.

But Judt was not impressed with what he found.

Sitting in on his crowded and sycophantic seminar, I was utterly bemused. For Althusser’s account of Marxism, to the extent that I could make any sense of it, bore no relation to anything I had ever heard. It chopped Marx into little bits, selected those texts or parts of texts that suited the master’ s interpretation and then proceeded to construct the most astonishingly abstruse, self-regarding and ahistorical version of Marxist philosophy imaginable. The exercise bore no discernible relationship to Marxism, to philosophy or to pedagogy. After a couple of painful attempts to adapt myself to the experience and to derive some benefit from it, I abandoned the seminar and never went back.

In the past, I’ve directed my students to Judt’s review as well as to various accounts (including Althusser’s) of Althusser’s late “confessions”—that he was poorly read in Marx, that he suffered from lifelong mental illness, that his so-called “symptomatic” readings in Marxism were little more than an elaborate way of making shit up.  I’ve done this not merely to complicate the view of Althusser one gets in the Norton, where the headnote tells us that “Althusser’s major concepts—‘ideological state apparatuses,’ ‘interpellation,’ ‘imaginary relations,’ and ‘overdetermination’—permeate the discourse of contemporary literary and cultural theory, and his theory of ideology has influenced virtually all subsequent serious work on the topic”—but to pose a pedagogical conundrum for students.  Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Althusser was speaking the truth about his lack of familiarity with the Marxist canon, and that his mental illness played a large role in his life and work.  (Hardcore Althusserians have tried to set aside his “confessions” precisely by appealing to his history of mental illness, but this merely produces a Marxist-theory version of the Cretan liar’s paradox: of course you can’t believe a madman who tells you he’s mad.) Now, having assumed all this, is it possible nonetheless that Althusser might have left us with Marxist concepts worth using, regardless of whether they are well-grounded in actually existing Marxist theory, or should we (as Judt does) just jettison the whole Ideological Althusserian Apparatus, and shake our heads at the fact that such a theory could ever have appealed to so many intelligent people?

I hope my own reply is already implicit in this post: I think it’s vitally important for students to know where the Althusser phenomenon came from, and why anyone would attempt to craft a fully structuralist, antihumanist Marxism in the first place.  There is no doubt that Althusser’s work on ideology permeates the discourse of contemporary literary and cultural theory, and in order to figure out whether or not that may be a Good Thing, I believe we have to go to the root, like good radicals.  (I would say the same thing about the decade between 1975 and 1985 when feminist film theory became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lacan Enterprises Worldwide, and every film journal devoted itself to the subject, “Is the Gaze Male?  Find Out the Thrilling Answer in Our Special Issue on the Male Gaze.” It wasn’t just one essay by Laura Mulvey or one issue of m/f or Screen that did it; it was a whole congeries of enabling conditions and fateful decisions, and it’s important to sift through the wreckage if you want to try to determine what’s salvageable and what’s not.) As for whether his concepts are worth retaining, I say, eh.  I think we have better versions of them readily available to us.  I think the notion of Ideological State Apparatuses is actually far less subtle and useful than the Gramscian corpus from which Althusser derived it: in a curious footnote to “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Althusser writes, “To my knowledge, Gramsci is the only one who went any distance in the road I am taking. He had the ‘remarkable’ idea that the State could not be reduced to the (Repressive) State Apparatus, but included, as he put it, a certain number of institutions from ‘civil society’: the Church, the Schools, the trade unions, etc. Unfortunately, Gramsci did not systematize his institutions, which remained in the state of acute but fragmentary notes.” I would agree with all of this except the “unfortunately,” which I would change to “thankfully.” Althusser’s ISAs are huge, monolithic things: Church and School.  They operate to reproduce relations of production, and of course they churn out ideology (and therefore subjects) at an amazing clip.  They seem to do nothing else, in fact, and never very rarely only once in every ten tries do they fail in this enterprise.  But Gramsci’s looser and more supple conception of “civil society” (to which Stuart Hall turned in the 1970s and 1980s) is valuable precisely because it is not systematized: it recognizes that the institutions of civil society are many and various, and often work at cross purposes.  Compared to Gramsci’s account of political actors exclusive of the State, Althusser’s looks impoverished and reductive.

As for Althusser’s concept of ideology: as I remarked above, it seems to me a complex way of suggesting that people simply don’t know what the hell they’re about—and that they don’t know what they’re about for sound, scientific, structuralist/psychoanalytic reasons.  Moreover, such a theory of ideology and interpellation seems to leave no way of accounting for people who might come up with such a theory.  In the most general sense, this seems to me to be a subset of a more general recursivity problem with doctrinaire antihumanism—or, to put this in simpler terms, how is it that the code that allegedly speaks us includes the sentence “the code speaks us” and all the sentences with which to contest that one?  But its consequences for Marxism—or for any theory of social agency and historical change—seem to me to be quite awful.  By rejecting Marxism’s humanist legacy so completely, Althusser not only gives us a vastly simplified account of “structural causality”; he evacuates individuals and social movements from the scene of historical action altogether.  To say this is not to call for a return to the Great Man theory of history.  It is merely to ask for a more complex vision of social and historical conflict, one in which individuals are never fully interpellated, and perhaps may be hailed by competing, intersecting, and contradictory discourses; in which, furthermore, individuals are more or less conscious of the degree to which they participate in those discourses; and in which, finally, ideological formations, or hegemonies, are striated and cross-cut, fissured and unstable.  It is to ask for a somewhat humanist Marxism capable of accounting for uneven social developments and differing rates of social change, in which we can recognize that “no mode of production, and therefore no dominant society or order of society, and therefore no dominant culture, in reality exhausts the full range of human practice, human energy, human intention (this range is not the inventory of some original ‘human nature’ but, on the contrary, is that extraordinary range of variations, both practised and imagined, of which human beings are and have shown themselves to be capable).” That sentence comes from Raymond Williams’s 1973 essay “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” and that’s where I’ll begin two weeks from now, August 23, when Theory Tuesday V kicks off with a discussion of hegemony and incorporation; the residual, the dominant, and the emergent; and the opposition between the view of the work of art as object and the view of the work of art as practice.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a couple of more personal updates and a pre-vacation signoff.  Many thanks to John McGowan for assigning himself the formidable task of parsing the Butler-Nussbaum Impasse.  I can’t wait for Thursday!

Posted by Michael on 08/09 at 03:04 PM
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