Interpellation is associated in particular with the work of French philosopher Louis Althusser. In Marxist theory, interpellation is an important concept regarding the notion of ideology. According to Althusser, every society is made up of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) and Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs) which are instrumental to spread the dominant ideology of that given society. While ISAs belong to the private domain and refer to private institutions (family, church but also the media and politics), the RSA is one public institution (police/military) controlled by the government. Consequently, 'interpellation' describes the process by which ideology, embodied in major social and political institutions (ISAs and RSAs), constitutes the very nature of individual subjects' identities through the process of "hailing" them in social interactions.
In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation),” Althusser introduces the concepts of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA), Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs), ideology, and interpellation. In his writing, Althusser argues that “there is no ideology except by the subject and for the subject”. This notion of subjectivity becomes central to his writings.
To illustrate this concept, Althusser gives the example of a friend who knocks on a door. The person inside asks “Who is there?” and only opens the door once the “It’s me” from the outside sounds familiar. By doing so, the person inside partakes in “a material ritual practice of ideological recognition in everyday life”. In other words, Althusser’s central thesis is that “you and I are always already subjects” and are constantly engaging in everyday rituals, like greeting someone or shaking hands, which makes us subjected to ideology.
Althusser goes further to argue that “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” and emphasizes that “ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ... ‘transforms’ the individual into subjects”. This is made possible through Althusser’s notion of interpellation or hailing which is a non-specific and unconscious process. For example, when a police officer shouts (or hails) “Hey, you there!” and an individual turns around and so-to-speak ‘answers’ the call, he becomes a subject. Althusser argues that this is because the individual has realized that the hailing was addressed at him which makes him subjective to the ideology of democracy and law.
Consequently, individual subjects are presented principally as produced by social forces, rather than acting as powerful independent agents with self-produced identities.
Althusser's argument here strongly draws from Jacques Lacan's concept of the mirror stage. However, unlike Lacan who distinguishes between the “I” and the “subject”, Althusser collapses both concepts into one, reducing the individuals to a mere subject.
German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer employ a method of analysis similar to Althusser's notion of interpellation in their text Dialectic of Enlightenment, although they do so 26 years before "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" was released. Rather than situating their analysis on the State, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that the mass media is responsible for the construction of passive subjects. So unlike the police officer in Althusser’s example who reinforces the ideology of democracy and law, the mass media has now taken over this role and interpellates, or hails at, the passive consumer.
The concept of interpellation also provides a useful framework which has been used by feminist scholar and queer theorist, Judith Butler, who has critically applied this framework to highlight the social construction of gender identities. She argues that by hailing “It’s a boy/girl,” the newborn baby is ultimately positioned as subject.
- Louis Althusser (1971). "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)". Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays.(Verso: 1970, p.11)
- Payne, Michael (1997). Reading Knowledge: An Introduction to Barthes, Foucault and Althusser. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. p. 31. ISBN 0-631-19566-1.
- Callari, Antonio; Ruccio, David F. (1996). Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press. p. 79. ISBN 0-8195-6292-0.
- "Interpellation". The Chicago School of Media Theory.
- Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.