The term “interpellation” was proposed by the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. This is central to his account of ideology as the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence. It names the non-coercive process whereby a subject is called upon by a particular social formation to misrecognize themselves as a subject and thereby forget that they are constituted by society rather than constitutive of society as they henceforth imagine themselves to be. Ideology recruits individuals and transforms them into subjects (which for Althusser implies that they are simultaneously the subjects of society, meaning the products of society, and subjected to society, meaning subordinate to society) by persuading them to occupy a subject position it has prepared for them and see themselves in that otherwise vacant position.
The most straightforward example of this process is probably that of nationality, which the government is constantly exhorting its citizens to adopt as the basis of both individual and collective identity. But this process should not be thought of as a kind of becoming; for Althusser ideology is eternal, so one is always already interpellated, or to put it another way, ideology has no outside—one is always already inside ideology. The pivotal notion of misrecognition is drawn from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s account of the mirror stage in the developmental psychology of very young children. Althusser hypothesizes that just as babies look in the mirror and misrecognize their virtual image as their actual self, so under conditions of ideology individuals misrecognize socially produced virtual representations as their actual self. This concept (directly and indirectly) has been used to great effect by a variety of radical minority groups to argue the social and cultural importance of affirmative representations of politically marginalized groups.
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