Interpellation: the ongoing process by which subjects are constituted in ideology.
Ideology: the ideas and manner of thinking characteristic of a social class, individual or group.
In his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser positioned interpellation as the process by which ideology addresses the individual and gives it an identity. Althusser held that one’s desires, choices, and behaviours are products of ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ (ISAs), such as the family, education system and religion, and that through interpellation, the ideologies of these structures are unconsciously accepted by the individual (Barry, 158).
An examination of interpellation in literature:
- Indicates the social forces at work within the setting of the novel,
- Draws attention to the social, cultural and political commentary which the author is making,
- Allows the reader to understand the actions of the characters, who have often been interpellated to act in accordance with a particular ideology.
Althusser states that interpellation is fundamentally an act of hailing, by which the hailer’s ideology is subconsciously accepted. The acts of hailing and interpellation are simultaneous, as individuals are always-already interpellated, due to the pervasive presence of ISAs in society, and unconscious acceptance of ideology. As people are always-already interpellated as ideological subjects, they constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition which, as Althusser puts it, “guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual…and…irreplaceable subjects.” ISAs impose ideology in order to maintain the status quo, and this stable status is reinforced by processes of recognition.
According to Althusser, ideology has a duplicate mirror-structure – meaning it is constituted by acts of mirrored recognition – which ensures simultaneously:
- The interpellation of individuals as subjects
- Their subjection to the Subject (the wielder of the ideology)
- The subjects’ recognition of each other,
- The subject’s recognition of himself
- The guarantee that on the condition “that the subjects recognize what they are and behave accordingly, everything will be all right” (Althusser).
These four points of Althusser’s theory of interpellation are evident in Frankenstein.
ALTHUSSER’S POINTS ONE AND TWO: Victor’s interpellation as a subject, and his subjection to his family’s ideology: Victor, talking of his parents, recounts: “I was their…innocent and helpless creature bestowed on them by heaven” (Frankenstein, ch.1, p.23). Interpellated from childhood by the ISA of the family unit as an ‘innocent and helpless creature’, he creates his monster but doesn’t take responsibility for the consequences of his creation. Although William is murdered, and Justine is wrongly convicted, Frankenstein states “I was firmly convinced in my own mind that Justine, and indeed every human being, was guiltless of this murder” (Frankenstein, ch.7, p.74). He has the power to save Justine’s life but does not do so, as admitting his guilt would contradict his own ‘innocent’ subjecthood.
POINT THREE, PART A: the subjects recognise each other in an act which reaffirms their own interpellated subjecthood: William Frankenstein and the monster engage in a double interpellation, which consists of a protracted ‘hailing’ of each other (McLane, 122), in which the monster addresses William as ‘child’ and ‘boy’, and William addresses him as ‘monster’, ‘ugly wretch’ and ‘ogre’ (Frankenstein, ch.16, p.143). The monster aims to interpellate himself as William’s master, in the belief that William “was unprejudiced and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity” (Frankenstein, ch.16, p.143). He mistakenly believes that William had not yet been interpellated by the ideology which abhors the uncanny, not realising that subjects are always-already interpellated.
POINTS THREE B and FOUR: the subject’s recognition of his already-interpellated self as being monstrous, and his accordant behaviour: Although the creation is continually treated as a monster, it is only when he sees his reflection that he performs an act of self-recognition, stating “I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am” (Frankenstein, ch.12, p.112). The monster thereby accepts the societal (mis)recognition of himself as a monster, and when he is again labelled a monster by William, he consciously converts himself into the immoral monster which he had continuously been recognised as, and murders him.
Hence, interpellation is a literary device which is vital to Frankenstein’s plot development and characterisation.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Trans. Ben Brewster. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Press Review, 1971. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm. Accessed 8 September 2014.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
McLane, Maureen Noelle. “Literate Species: Populations, “Humanities,” and Frankenstein.” In Harold Bloom, ed. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007. 95-124.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus. London: Vintage, 2007. 1831 edition.
N.B. All Althusser quotes are taken from the electronic version of “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”