Media Effects: Althusser and Interpellation

Interpellation: Media ideas are woven into the fabric of our thoughts and lives…

In a previous post I suggested how it might be possible to breathe new relevance into the classic 2-Step Flow model of Media Effects (A New Digital 2-Step) and this post takes a similar Back to the Future approach to media effects by digging-up and dusting-down an idea – Interpellation – that’s been around since the 1970’s but which, for one reason or another, doesn’t seem to have attracted much attention at High School and A-level.

This is a little-surprising because it derives from the work of Louis Althusser, the French Structuralist Marxist whose work generally features in these curricula in relation to concepts of Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses (ISAs and RSAs respectively).

Interpellation is directly related to Ideological State Apparatuses because for Althusser (1972), ideology –  “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” – was a key component of (mass) media texts that, in turn, are an integral part of Ideological State Apparatuses in contemporary capitalist societies.

Prisoners and Jailers

The conventional way to think about ideology in contemporary societies is that it works on individuals.

It is, in other words, a force (of ideas about the world) that flows down from institutions like the media onto individuals who are largely powerless to prevent its effects. In contemporary capitalist societies people, in other words, are constantly bombarded with ideas and interpretations supportive of the status quo,  the weight of which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore or escape. We are all, in this respect unwitting and largely unwilling prisoners of our media jailors.

Individuals, from this perspective, are broadly receptive objects of whatever ideas and interpretations about the world the media propagates. The media, in this respect, tells us what to think and how to think about the social world by presenting it as “normal” and largely unquestionable.  We may or may not like what we see, read and hear but, to coin a phrase, “It is what it is”.

Somewhat ironically, Althusser’s ISAs are frequently presented as the epitome of this worldview, with a largely-unfavourable contrast drawn between his structural Marxism and the more-humanistic Hegemonic Marxism of writers such as Gramsci and, to a slightly lesser extent, Poulantzas. The concept of interpellation, however, forces us to both soften and reinterpret Althusser’s ideas because it suggests we should constitute individuals in capitalist societies as ideological subjects rather than objects.

In other words, we should seek to understand media effects in the context of individuals as prisoners who are, in turn, their own jailors. We are all integrated into and intimately involved with the reproduction of the ideas that imprison us…

Interpellation

The basic idea here is that rather than seeing people as individuals who “stand outside” the various competing media-promoted ideologies that structure any society, interpellation involves the idea that we are woven into the various ideological fabrics of society, such that the two are effectively inseparable: we are what we are led to believe and we believe it because that’s who we are.

In very simple terms we can think of this as the difference between reading a story (or narrative if you really insist) and being an integral character in that story – one whereby you both relate and, by so doing, create, the story of your life.

Trekkies…

If you prefer your examples a little more 21st century, Cremin and Boulton’s “The Sociology of Videogames” (2011) uses the hugely-successful first-person shooter (fps) Call of Duty franchise to illustrate the concept. In this context, Althusser argued that media power is located in the way the media actively encourages us to identify with the images, words and ideas we see and hear.

On a simple level this might involve identifying with a particular Star Wars or Star Trek character – or the film franchise as a whole – in a way that encourages us to leave our critical faculties and assessments at the cinema (home or otherwise) door. If you constitute yourself as a Trekkie, for example, you become the subject of the object with which you identify; being “a Trekkie”, for example, becomes woven (interpellated) into the very fabric of your identity.

While this may not matter over-much to non-Trekkies, the same process starts to have slightly-darker connotations when applied to war-based videogames like Call of Duty. As Cremin and Boulton argue:

By identifying with the protagonist in Call of Duty we ‘recognise’ ourselves in the world of Call of Duty as the character we play and the values he embodies. In this way we identify with the game world’s delineations of good and evil. We identify with the ideology and are thereby interpellated by the American military through the conduit of the videogame form”.

In other words, where this type of media involves our identification with the character we’re playing we are drawn deeper into a world with a particular ideological outlook and political viewpoint. As Cremin and Boulton put it, “An ideology ‘speaks to us’ every time we recognise ourselves in certain characters or identify with certain values represented in popular media or by the state, the family and other ‘institutions’ that Althusser calls the generic ideological state apparatus (ISA)”.

On a more-complex level, identifying with a particular political ideology, such as Republican Trumpism, takes interpellation to a whole new level, whereby people not only identify with “Trumpism” but are emboldened to act-out whatever mediated fantasies (“Stop the Steal!”) they are encouraged to pursue.

Hailing

A further dimension to interpellation, therefore, – and one that highlights its structural origins – involves the concept of “hailing”: the idea that where individuals are woven into the general fabric of a particular media ideology it becomes relatively easy for powerful media concerns to push such individuals into a particular kind of behaviour simply by “hailing” – calling or naming them – to act.

Hailing does not necessarily involve direct calls to action by the media, precisely because interpellation involves the idea people are primed to act “independently” under certain conditions and in particular circumstances.

In this way the ability of media organisations to move people in particular desired directions appears to be both indirect and unconnected to media concerns and interests. It appears that people make individual considered choices about what to think and how to behave while, in effect, they are being subtly pushed and pulled in whatever direction media power wants them to move.

A clear and obvious example here might be the January 6th storming of the American Capitol building by Trump supporters. Arguments about whether or not Trump was involved in a conspiracy to encourage his supporters to launch such an attack miss the point in the context of interpellation and hailing. For those whose identify was intimately bound-up in Trumpism there was no need for a direct command to attack; they had simply been primed to respond to the media hail: in this instance, the seemingly innocuous instruction to “fight like hell” which could, of course, have plausible denial…

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