Louis Althusser: Hailing, Interpellation, and the Subject of Mass Media

When we stand and force, through contrivances of our own, the view of another toward our message, our communication, we are said to be hailing. It is to announce that we seek the attention of the Other, that we are asking, if not demanding, that they pay immediate efforts to comprehend what it is we are saying. For the critical philosopher, Louis Althusser, the action of the hail works well as a tool of analysis in the context of communication research. That is to say, Althusser’s conceptual framework provides a language through which we can identify and define the influence the mass media exerts over the public.

In Althusser’s thinking, hegemonic ideology plays through, and is in fact mechanized by, the messages of the mass media. That is to say, if ideologies exist in the very apparatuses and practices of the cultural institutions of the dominant forces (the State), then in a laissez faire capitalist society these institutions must include the progenitors and disseminators of the messages of mass media. For example, we increasingly see the power of the media to shape messages of popularity, of the arts, and of war. Through the use of the mass media, individuals do not realize their subjection; rather, they believe they are participating in ritual practices (such as voting in national elections for presidents, or on American Idol for singers) in order to be a person who acts according to their ideas. Rather than some sort of static idea set that the dominant proscribes for the subjected to think and believe, ideology is a very dynamic process that is constantly reproducing and reconstituting in actual practice. Althusser refers to this change mechanism as interpellation.

As it is informed by the practice of the mass media, advertising is a perfect vehicle for the interpretation of the process. For Althusser, interpolation begins with hailing–a heralding to join in on the proposition at hand. For advertising, this could be the promise of the product as it implies to imbue the purchaser with special and socially acceptable qualities–beautiful skin, envy of others, safety for family, etc. Upon these propositions, the hail of the advertisement works to recruit subjects into its dominant system. The mass media message calls out, hails, to the viewer and as attention is gathered and solidified, subjectifies the viewer through their total acceptance of the ideological proposition, and in doing so interpolates them into the ideological system. Ultimately, successfully interpolated subjects do not realize their subjection, only that they have freely chosen to become part and parcel of the dominant ideology.

That is not to say there is no resistance. Those so hailed may choose to follow the ideology, or they may choose to be oppositional to its messages; that is, to become radical or rebellious. However, in doing so, they must often face consequences for their resistance. Althusser points out that adherents to alternative or oppositional ideologies are “punished” through mainstream societal ridicule or ostracism. It is interesting, therefore, how popular mass media increasingly is producing narratives that impart the “beauty” of the radical voice. Indeed, in films such as V is for Vendetta, the hero saves the world through his rebellion against a dominant force supported by a popular media culture.

Ultimately, Althusser uses these definitions and interpretations to bring forth a philosophy that allows for mechanisms of cultural power, and the projection of force when such power is used in a mass mediated environment. These are the forces that exist so ubiquitously today, and the hailing forces of interpolation for which modern subjectification must be cautioned.

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