I was thinking about Louis Althusser…as one does. I have a long-time, complicated relationship with the neo-Marxists. More specifically, I’m fascinated by the Frankfurt School (and would like to write a romance set in a fictional version of it), but I’ve read many of the later, post-WWII generation of Marxian theorists too.
Althusser is not, to be clear, my philosophical boyfriend: he had a troubled personal life, with the whole killing his wife thing, so that honor belongs to Jurgen Habermas.
(Hey, Jurgen. It’s been a while. You’re looking good. Remember that time I saw you speak about democracy and communication and it was like we were the only people in the room?)
Anyway, I was thinking about the essay Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus. In the most famous section, Althusser discusses how ideologically-driven societies (like our own capitalist one) require subjects to function. For him, subjectivity is a self-conscious identity–indicated by things like interiority and agency–that’s produced by an ideological society; the entire thing is pretty circular. We’re products of our education, interpretive communities, social practices, etc. and the ideological state produces people in its image who think they have their own desires, choices, thoughts, and so on but who are merely doing exactly what the state wants them to do–like we think we have a choice about what we drink, but it all comes down to Coke vs. Pepsi. And this goes on replicating itself forever. (Except when it doesn’t.)
That’s the big picture; here’s the part I was thinking about (this is from Ben Brewster’s translation in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism):
…we all have friends who, when they knock on our door and we ask, through the door, the question ‘Who’s there?’, answer (since ‘it’s obvious’) ‘It’s me’. And we recognize that ‘it is him’ or ‘it is her’. We open the door, and ‘it’s true, it really was she who was there’ … I only wish to point out that you and I are always already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects. … this recognition gives us the ‘consciousness’ of our incessant (eternal) practice of ideological recognition … all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject. … the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed.
There are about fifty critiques one could launch of this. But I want to focus on the bit that’s interesting me today: how we get hailed by–and what it means for our identity when we answer the call of–a subculture.
I had coffee with Brandy from Random Musings of a Bibliophile yesterday and we both talked about how we started reading romance. How did we go from people who didn’t feel hailed by “those” books to someone interpellated by the “hey, you!” from a Fabio cover?
We all do it, right? We look at a book and make snap judgements about whether it’s “for” us or not and those judgements speak deeply to our identities, our education, our guilty pleasures, and our values.
What Althusser gets most wrong is in seeing ideology and culture as monolithic when they are really (delightfully) overlapping, fractured, contradictory, and palimpsestic (is that a word?). We half-accept some ideologies, live others guiltily, profess to believe still others all the while blithely adhering to others. He’s taking aim mostly at capitalism, but if anything, capitalism’s adaptability and malleability made it endure. Unvarying it ain’t.
Sorry; that was a digression.
In the case of romance, I was reading as a romance reader long before I answered the hail. I re-read Pride and Prejudice at Christmas. I started doing this in college and I learn things every year. Sometimes what I learn is about myself (like how Mrs. Bennet is more sympathetic as I age); sometimes it’s about Austen as a writer (it’s a much talkier book than I remember). But lately, I’ve realized how much of my earlier readings were focused on the romance to the exclusion of everything else the text does.
Now I was abetted by the adaptations in this. The film and TV versions–all of them–hone in on Elizabeth and Darcy. Austen is engaged in social documentation and critique; the romance plot is a way for her to do this. I’d argue that it’s not even the most important part. You never see, for example, a woman accept a marriage proposal in dialogue in Austen. (Go ahead and check; I’ll wait.) Indeed, the speed with which she wraps things up tells me the love’s not the most important aspect to her at all.
But in my early readings of Austen, that’s what I was focused on.
The same is true of how I read E.M.Forster (another of my favorite authors). And Lucy Maud Montgomery. And Shakespeare. I was reading for romance long before I was reading genre romance. For some reason, I didn’t feel hailed by the genre.
Until I did.
And now that I have, I’m trying to figure out how answering the hail–“Hey, you!” “Who, me?”–I’m trying to understand how my sense of self may have changed.
So I guess I end this post not with an answer but with a question: what hails (or interpellations) do you answer to? And how do they inform your sense of self?