Tuesday, February 01, 2011


[Some notes on Althusser, taken from Posthegemony.]

The everyday, routine, and almost invisible politics of habit contrasts with the often spectacular display that characterizes politics as it is more usually understood. The politics of habit is not the clash of ideologies within a theater of representation. It is a politics that is immanent and corporeal, that works directly through the body. Yet habit is primary; it is not an effect or a consequence of political processes that take place elsewhere. Rather, other forms of politics depend upon the dispositions and attitudes that habit inculcates. If we were to think of habit as ideology (and I agree with Bourdieu that we would be better off calling it something else), it would be closer to Louis Althusser’s “ideology in general” than to ideology as the “system of ideas and representations which dominate the mind of a man or a social group.” Ideology in general precedes and underwrites specific ideologies, in that it constitutes the subjects who then conform to or recognize a system of representations. For Althusser, ideology in general consists in the mechanism of interpellation whereby Ideological State Apparatuses such as the school or the family call subjects into being, subjects whose condition of existence is that they recognize the power of some other, transcendent Subject (capitalized by Althusser) that is reciprocally produced in the same operation. Hence, although interpellation is material, in that it takes place in institutions and through practice (in his illustration, the subject comes into being by turning to face a police officer who hails him or her, and who comes to incarnate the Subject), what it produces is ideal. Physical gestures and attitudes such as kneeling at mass or standing at school assembly construct a doubled subjectivity, in which many subjects turn to face the one, transcendent Subject that appears to be mediated though ideas and representations. But the display, the theatrical (or cinematic) separation of Subject from subjects, is a product of the process that it subsequently appears to have produced. It is an effect that is taken to be cause; a quasi cause that arises through habit.

The habits that structure ideology in general constitute the state and its institutions, and also establish a relation to those institutions that appears to be ideological. The subjects that emerge through interpellation act as though they were following their consciences, as though ideas governed actions. Hegemony theory discloses that these ideas are not free, that they are orchestrated elsewhere. But it still stresses belief and consent. This does not go far enough: it does not recognize that belief arises from habit. Althusser cites the dictum of seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal: “Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.” A Catholic will go to mass, a school pupil sing in assembly, a citizen enter the voting booth, and it can appear as though these practices were an effect of free will or, alternatively, of willing if deluded consent to a hege- monic project. Althusser insists, by contrast, that interpellation is a practice, and therefore already corporeal: always already acted out or performed, a subject’s ideas are “material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject.” The ideal is at best contingent: its con- tent irrelevant, it is effect rather than cause. Belief in the power of ideology is itself ideological; ideology is at best a quasi cause in that everything happens (only) as though ideology were in fact determinant. Hence “the ideology of ideology” is the conviction that ideology matters, that our actions follow on from the ideas that we hold or even from the ideas that hold us and so from the ruses of some hegemonic project. And when this ideology of ideology wanes, when it becomes apparent that subjects “know very well what they are doing” but are still doing it, we have entered posthegemonic times. (pp. 181-82)

[. . .]

Social reproduction is never truly flawless. It is always somewhat hit and miss. Philosopher Judith Butler’s theorization of performativity as the embodied enactment of identity roles stresses the ways in which such roles can be “queered”: bent out of shape if not fully avoided. She takes issue with Althusser’s notion of inter- pellation, insisting on the possibilities of failed interpellation (only glimpsed in Althusser’s brief reference to “bad subjects”) to show that the voice of power, the state’s “hailing,” and the order of bod- ies are not fully synchronized. The body always falls short of or exceeds the voice. Hence she argues that “useful as it is, Althusser’s scheme . . . attribut[es] a creative power to the voice that recalls and reconsolidates the figure of the divine voice in its ability to bring about what it names.” Although Althusser’s essay is a critique of the fetishism that imagines that the state alone authorizes subjectivity, Butler suggests that he remains within precisely this paradigm. For Althusser, not only is “ideology in general” necessary and eternal; so therefore is the state that acts as the essential lynchpin of the double circuit of ideology, command, and habit. Butler points, on the one hand, to interpellation’s citational quality: the fact that the state endlessly has to return to previous instances of interpellation so as to legitimate its attempts to constitute subjects reveals that it can never fully establish its claim to originality; the fact that it continually has to repeat itself shows that it is forever incomplete. On the other hand, Butler is also concerned with what remains unvoiced and unspoken. Censorship, for instance, “produces discursive regimes through the production of the unspeakable,” and more generally the gap between what may and may not be spoken determines “the conditions of intelligibility” of any regime of power. “This normative exercise of power,” she argues, “is rarely acknowledged as an operation of power at all. Indeed, we may classify it among the most implicit forms of power. . . . That power continues to act in illegible ways is one source of its relative invulnerability.” Here, then, Butler turns to Bourdieu, theorist of “a bodily understanding, or habitus” that does not depend upon the voice or upon speech. For habit describes what exceeds interpellation, whether that be the state’s biopower or an insurgent biopolitics. (pp. 214-15)

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