1 Faegul

Etienne Balibar Bibliography Maker

Jacques Rancière (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible

Trans. and introd. Gabriel Rockhill. London and New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-7067-X.

Sean Sayers

Jacques Rancière is one of the most important and original contemporary French philosophers. This book provides perhaps the best available introduction to his thought in English. It is a slim but densely packed little volume. Its main contents are two interviews with Rancière: one originally published in French in 2000, the other new for this edition. These are not the usual easily assimilated interview fare, it is difficult to imagine anyone actually speaking these words. They provide an extraordinarily concise and systematic summary by Rancière of the main themes of his recent work across its whole range. The interviews are sandwiched between an 'Introduction' by the translator and a typically lively and intelligent 'Afterword' by Slavoj Zizek, 'The Lesson of Rancière'. There are also some useful editorial additions, including a Glossary of Technical Terms and a Bibliography of works by and about Rancière. My only complaint is that all this has been packed into a penny pot: the book is meanly produced with niggardly margins.

Rancière started as a structuralist Marxist in the 1960s. He is still probably best known in the English speaking world as one of the co-authors with Louis Althusser (and Étienne Balibar, Pierre Macherey, Roger Establet) of Lire le capital (1967). A part only of this work, not including the section by Rancière, was translated into English as Reading Capital (1970). Rancière broke with Althusser and structuralist Marxism after 'the events' of 1968. He criticised Althusser's philosophy for its elitism and rejected the rigid and hierarchical distinction between science and ideology which it presupposed. He accused it of distrusting the spontaneous popular movements which had emerged in 1968 and of supporting a `politics of order'. He began to develop an oppositional and radical political philosophy which aims to give voice to an egalitarian politics of democratic emancipation.

Though he shares some common ground with others on the left who sought an alternative to Marxism in the aftermath of 1968, Rancière is a strikingly original and distinctive thinker. He rejects the Habermasian and liberal idea that politics consists of a rational debate between diverse interests. He also rejects the view that politics involves struggles between pre-established interest groups or classes. Political struggle occurs when the excluded seek to establish their identity, by speaking for themselves and striving to get their voices recognised as legitimate and heard. Politics is thus a struggle between the established social order and its excluded 'part which has no part'. As Zizek says, Rancière's philosophy spells out and articulates the aspirations expressed in the slogan of the unemployed in France in the 1970s: 'we are not a surplus, we are a plus' (75).

Since the early 1990s, Rancière's work has increasingly focused on aesthetics. He has written a series of works on film and literature in which he stresses the political dimension of aesthetics, and a number of works of political theory in which he argues that an aesthetic dimension is inherent in politics.

The social order is what Rancière calls a 'police order'. It is a set of implicit rules and conventions which determine the distribution of roles in a community and the forms of exclusion which operate within it. This order is founded on what Rancière calls the 'distribution of the sensible'. This is one of his most suggestive and fruitful concepts. By it he is referring to the way in which roles and modes of participation in a common social world are determined by establishing possible modes of perception (in this context, 'sensible' refers to what is apprehended by the senses). Thus the distribution of the sensible sets the divisions between what is visible and invisible, sayable and unsayable, audible and inaudible. It functions like a Kantian categorial framework that determines what can be thought, made or done. Distribution implies both inclusion and exclusion. The social order is conceived as an anti-democratic, anti-political order, which attempts to maintain the existing pattern of inclusions and exclusions. Politics essentially involves opposition to the police order, a challenge to established order by the excluded, 'the part which has no part', in the name of equality and the attempt to bring about a reconfigeration of the distribution of the sensible. The social order is thus defined as an anti-political 'police' order, and politics is conceived as essentially oppositional.

On this account, aesthetics is central to politics. As the social and political system is founded on the distribution of the sensible, it is an aesthetic order in a broad sense of the term. Much of Rancière's recent work has been devoted to delineating different historical forms that this has taken. He understands these as different aesthetic 'regimes': different forms of organisation encompassing forms of visibility, ways of doing and making, and ways of conceptualising these. He distinguishes three basic regimes of this kind: the ethical regime, the representative regime and the aesthetic regime. These form a historical sequence. However, there is no simple linear progression, and each continues to exist alongside the others. Earliest in the sequence is the 'ethical regime of images'. The principles governing this are formulated by Plato in his criticism of artistic imitation in the Republic. As Rancière insists, Plato does not attack all forms of art, he values 'true' arts which lend support to the ethical principles of the community. The 'representative regime of the arts' is articulated in Aristotle's critique of Plato. This frees the arts from the moral and political requirements of the ethical regime. Art becomes representational. A hierarchy of forms and subject matters develops. This regime is dominant until the nineteenth century, when it begins to be displaced by the 'aesthetic regime of art'. The hierarchical order of the arts and their subject matters is done away with, the boundaries between different genres are broken down, 'art in the singular' comes into being and with it the subject of aesthetics.

Rancière develops a novel and thought provoking analysis of modernism on this basis. He challenges the traditional and familiar idea that artistic modernism arises from a rejection of representational techniques as superficial and confused. Modernism, correctly understood, Rancière asserts, is an egalitarian movement which radically alters the distribution of the sensible. This new regime is heralded by Schiller in On the Aesthetic Education of Man (23-4). It is first developed not in painting, as is usually thought, but in literature. Flaubert's Madame Bovary is Rancière's main example. Its language is direct and simple. Its subject is not the court or the aristocracy but an ordinary provincial bourgeois doctor's wife. This is an egalitarian form of writing which 'honours the commonplace' (33). Its words are available to all, they are not confined to a privileged group, they circulate 'randomly' (14). To illustrate the way in which the aesthetic regime challenged artistic divisions and hierarchies, Rancière cites the breaking down of the distinction between fine and decorative art by figures such as William Morris in the Arts and Crafts Movement at the end of nineteenth century and then by Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

This is just a brief overview of Rancière's ideas. They are strikingly original and novel, which has both its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, his thought is constantly challenging and thought-provoking. On the other hand, it is hard to assimilate and incorporate. The attempt to rethink the relation of aesthetics and politics is fundamental to Rancière's project. He conceives of modernism as a new 'regime of art, but insists that this is not just an artistic development: it is a much broader social and political change, a radical reconfigeration of the distribution of the sensible. However, his analysis of modernism focuses almost entirely on specific artistic developments and particular works of art, such as Madame Bovary. Wider social and political changes are only gestured towards in vague and general terms.

Moreover, there is a puzzling discrepancy between these two levels of analysis (the artistic and the political). For example, it seems strange that Rancière should choose Flaubert as his paradigm of modernism. Although it is illuminating to see the nineteenth century realist novel as part of an egalitarian transformation, Flaubert, with his fastidious style and aristocratic attitudes, is not at the forefront of these developments. When Flaubert was writing a mass reading public was growing, but other authors were considerably more central to its development (Dickens, Zola, etc.). Since that time, other voices have made themselves heard and taken the process further. Black, beat, gay, and post-colonial literatures have emerged. Yet, even so, the extent to which modernist literature is a truly egalitarian phenomenon must be questioned. In none of these cases do the words of these writers 'circulate randomly'. They are written for a cultured elite, they reach only an educated few. Should Flaubert's work be criticised for that reason? It is not clear where Rancière stands on this question. The whole tendency of Rancière's radical egalitarianism seems to point in that direction. Despite the fact it is Flaubert who is constantly invoked as a paradigm of modernist egalitarian writing, the main thrust of Rancière's thought – his anarchistic condemnation of hierarchy, his critique expertise and mastery – seems to imply a rejection of writers like Flaubert for their elitism.

However, there is another attitude that can be taken to these issues. Two factors contribute to the unequal distribution of the sensible which is evident in modernist literature. On the one hand, there is the way in which these writers write. Rancière focuses on this aspect almost exclusively. But the existence and capacities of readers are also a factor. A new distribution of the sensible is not only a matter of excluded voices making themselves heard and starting to speak. It is not just a matter of the overcoming of social barriers which are preventing the excluded from speaking and creating new genres, etc. Before that, and as a condition for its possibility, people must have the capacity to speak. And for their voices to be heard, an audience must exist with the capacity to read and hear them. These are matters of capability and expertise; they imply skills which come into being only with education and culture. To transform the distribution of the sensible, these things too must be transformed. The liberation of the senses does not occur simply with the lifting of social barriers and exclusions, the senses must be educated if they are to be extended. This liberated vision has been the privilege of an educated elite, but it should not necessarily be criticised or rejected because of that. The alternative view is that it should be made universal. Everyone should be able to appreciate a Flaubert, to be a Flaubert. On this view what is needed is not only a change in literary form, but also an extension of education and expertise. This implies not just cultural but also material changes in society. Rancière does not take this view. As Zizek points out in the 'Afterword', in common with much recent work in cultural theory Rancière focuses almost exclusively on the cultural sphere, on questions of literary and artistic form.

Rancière's project is promising. It is illuminating to see aesthetics as political and politics in aesthetic terms, as a form of the 'distribution of the sensible'. This approach need not necessarily be anti-materialist (it is not clear whether or not Zizek is criticising it in those terms). However, to avoid idealism, it is essential to see that aesthetic transformation involves not only a change of consciousness but also material social changes. This is the implication of the aesthetic philosophy of Schiller, whom Rancière is fond of invoking. Schiller's 'aesthetic education', at least on one interpretation, is a process of radical transformation designed to restore individual self-realisation in a harmonious community of the kind which Schiller imagined had existed in ancient Greece. This form of thinking is inherited and developed by Marx in his idea of the 'liberation of the senses' of the unalienated individual in an unalienated community (Marx, 1975). Rancière's notion of the distribution of the sensible needs to be read in concrete and materialist terms such as these if it is to avoid the charge of idealism and bear comparison with these illustrious antecedents.


Althusser, L. (1967) Lire Le Capital. Paris: Maspero.

Althusser, L. & Balibar, E. (1970) Reading Capital. Trans. B. Brewster. London: NLB.

Marx, K. (1975) 'Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844', in Early Writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 279-400.

Schiller, F. (1967) On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Trans. E.M. Wilkinson and L.A. Willoughby. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sean Sayers is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kent, UK. He has written extensively on topics of Hegelian and Marxist philosophy. His books include Plato's Republic: An Introduction (1999), Marxism and Human Nature (1998), Reality and Reason (1985), and Hegel, Marx and Dialectic (1980, reprinted 1994). He was one of the founding editors of Radical Philosophy, and of `The Marx and Philosophy Society'. He is currently working on a book on theories of alienation and self-realisation in Marx and Hegel. Sean Sayers' website:

An important part of the new interest for the work of Louis Althusser (1918–1990) has focused on his interpretation of “materialist theater,” as proposed in a famous essay from 1962. This is, in fact, hardly separable from discussing again the “pragmatic” reading of his theory of subjection and subjectivation in terms of interpellation and counterinterpellation offered by Judith Butler as early as 1997. In this essay, “performative” dimensions of Althusser’s critique of ideology are presented as a singular moment of crystallization within an open trajectory, leading from the discussion of theater as politics to the conceptualization of politics as theater. In the middle lies an enigmatic possibility of actively dislodging the voice of power from its concealed place of enunciation.

distanciation, ideology, interpellation, subjection, subjectivation, theater

Editors’ note: The following text was originally given as the Roger B. Henkle Memorial Lecture at Brown University on October 7, 2013. It has been revised for publication in differences.

How should we explain that, in certain languages at least (notably English, Italian, and Spanish), a renewed interest is taking place in the works and ideas of Louis Althusser, a philosopher widely known as the “inventor” of the “structuralist” brand of Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s who died in 1990 but had already retreated from the public and intellectual scene by 1980, when, in a scandalous episode of criminal madness, he murdered his wife and was confined, at least for some time, in a mental hospital? A very simple reason, and I want to begin with this because it is also a way to acknowledge my debts, lies in the fact that in recent years, several scholars of various generations—some who knew Althusser personally or had met him, like Emilio de Ípola, others who knew him indirectly through common friends and professors, like Warren Montag and Vittorio Morfino, or still others who “simply” encountered him in the course of their investigations, like Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek, and Mikko Lahtinen—have published an impressive number of commentaries and interpretations. These works deliver a new, and in some respects more exciting, picture of the author of Reading Capital than simply a contributor to the historical debates on dialectical materialism that are indeed very far from us today.1 These new readings were to a large extent made possible by the fact that posthumous publication of Althusser’s writings has considerably added to the existing corpus, expanding his work in many different directions, making his relationship to theory and to politics appear a more complex one, and highlighting at the same time the continuities and the discontinuities between different “periods” of his activity. All this takes place at a conjuncture that I believe makes it possible to better understand what formed the convergent interests but also the deep fractures within the “philosophical season” of the 1960s in Europe. The time for learned academic commentary has come, no doubt, but unexpected turns of intellectual history, and political history in the broad sense, have also taken place, which have largely neutralized the effects of a philosophical reaction that—perhaps prematurely—proclaimed that we had better forget the old issues of structure and praxis, discourse and power, dialectics and genealogy, if we wanted to think in the present.

It is in this spirit that I want to offer a partially new description of Althusser’s quest for a critical concept of ideology, clearly one of the central aspects of his contribution to “theory” and the linchpin of his project of destabilizing Marxism from the inside. While a critique of ideology no doubt formed the core of the idea of “historical materialism,” Althusser always insisted that the concept Marxist theorists (and others) needed to achieve such a goal should be anything but the concept of “ideology” that Marx had used; it should be a different one if not an antithetic one. This is, of course, the old topos: for Marx, against Marx. It would account for only half of my title, and it is not in this general epistemological manner that I want to return to the issue in the current context.

What strikes me in particular in recent commentaries on Althusser is the place, apparently disproportionate with the dimensions of the texts, that is now granted to some of Althusser’s writings about art, particularly theater and painting. These commentaries propose not that we read Althusser’s texts as applications of theory within a particular field (say aesthetics or culture), but rather that we view them as “analyzers,” theoretical dispositifs or machines constructed by Althusser to resolve theoretical problems and identify the objects of theory. This is probably not unique to him—remember in particular Lyotard’s use of Duchamp, or Deleuze’s use of Proust and Kafka, or Derrida’s of Artaud. But in his case, the reversal of the “normal” philosophical attitude is particularly striking because although his essays do not avoid a few considerations on art in general, its social and cognitive functions or its specific mode of being, they are in fact essentially descriptions of singular experiences resulting from an “encounter” with a work or a group of works, an “event” in other words, but from which general consequences are drawn for a much larger field. This proves particularly adapted (but also uneasy, from an epistemological standpoint) in the case of a reflection on the issue of ideology, ideological domination, and the “dominant ideology” because, in a symptomatic circularity, such a reflection requires both a description of the processes or procedures of subjection and subjectivation that form the essence of ideology and a “performative” gesture allowing for a “subject” to become located, as interpellating interpellator, within the ideological mechanism itself in order to reveal its coherence and insecurity. This is, Althusser seems to suggest, something made possible not by art in general, as an institution or a cultural phenomenon, but only by specific works of art in specific circumstances.

I can readily mention two major examples, both drawn from essays written in the same crucial years between 1961 and 1965, where what would become known as “Althusserianism” was taking shape. The first is an essay from 1965–66 on the canvases of Althusser’s friend, the Italian painter Leonardo Cremonini, called “Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract,” to which I will, regretfully, make only a quick reference here.2 The second (chronologically first) is an essay (first published in 1962 and included as a chapter in For Marx in 1965) on a performance by the Piccolo Teatro di Milano in Paris in July 1962 with the title “The ‘Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht. Notes on a Materialist Theater.” I had once somewhat blindly remarked, when asked to write a preface for the new edition of Althusser’s Pour Marx in 1996, that this essay formed the “geometrical and theoretical center” of the book, although it was never acknowledged and treated as such (“Avant-propos” viii). But this is no longer the case, since fascinating commentaries have been produced by, in particular, Banu Bargu, Marc-Vincent Howlett, Warren Montag, and Guillaume Sibertin-Blanc.3 It is from the Piccolo Teatro essay that I want to start again in order to sketch a more general problematic, or rather an aporetic trajectory following an example provided by Althusser himself in his essay on Rousseau’s Social Contract, a trajectory in which, through successive décalages, he moves away from a particular articulation of theater, politics, and ideology toward a different one. From the Piccolo essay, I will draw the idea that theater—not theater in general, but, as he was keen to insist in a subsequent commentary called “On Brecht and Marx,” a specific practice of theater illustrated by Giorgio Strehler and his productions at the Piccolo Teatro—represented for Althusser not only an effective critique of ideology, particularly the dominant “humanist” ideology of bourgeois society, but also an alternative way of understanding the structure of ideological relations, compared to the scientific one otherwise advocated in his works as an “epistemological break” with theoretical humanism. From there, I will begin exploring the hypothesis that, in fact, the intrinsic relationship between the structure of ideological processes and the dispositifs of theatrical representation was displaced to a new field when, immediately after 1968, Althusser embarked on the project of sketching a “general theory” of ideologies, the best-known result of which is the essay from 1970, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” where the central notion (which is also a metaphor) is “interpellation.”4 I will also suggest, through recourse to the posthumous book Machiavelli and Us, the manuscript of which was essentially completed in the years immediately following, that Althusser was not unaware of the aporias of his model of ideological interpellation, particularly when considered from the point of view of a revolutionary politics. Surprisingly, the way he sought to overcome the aporias was through a new philosophical detour: this time not through Spinoza but through Machiavelli in the form of a definition of the “political practice of the Prince” as “ideological policy” whose principal instrument is a staging or mise-en-scène of his own passions. Taken together, I suggest that these two constructions form a dramaturgic model of the political function and political transformation of ideology.

Je me retourne. . .”: The Interpellation from Milan

I cannot summarize in full detail Althusser’s essay on the Piccolo Teatro. That could be useful, but it would also be complicated because it would add a third layer of narration to what is already, at least in part, a description of the experience of a production that was touring Europe after being inaugurated in the city of Milan. It should be recalled that, in the postwar period in Italy, France, Britain, and Germany, theater was a popular art mixing high cultural and, most of the time, political ambitions with a genuine appeal not only to the bourgeois elites but to the educated middle classes and the politically motivated aristocracy of the working class. This was also a moment of heightened ideological passions, marked not only by the vicissitudes of the Cold War and the interrupted “de-Stalinization” of the Communist bloc but also by the dramatic developments of the colonial wars of liberation. Giorgio Strehler, an Italian director of Italian-Austrian origin who had founded Il Piccolo Teatro di Milano just after the war, was already considered one of the greatest figures of European theater. Although not officially a “Brechtian,” he had offered remarkable performances of some of Brecht’s plays, in particular a famous Life of Galileo. In Paris in 1962, he presented an adaptation of a relatively obscure “realist” Italian playwright from the late nineteenth century, Carlo Bertolazzi’s El nost Milan, which described rather than properly narrated the story of a poor young girl from the slums who, after being raped by some scoundrel subsequently murdered by her loving father, abandons the father when he is about to be jailed, apparently to look for money in the “real” world, that is, to become a prostitute. The spectacle had been scorned as bad melodrama by the critics, but Althusser’s lengthy and elaborate interpretation rehabilitated it and, by the same token, played an important role in aesthetic discussions of the time about realism, critique, and irony in art (this being also the period when the avant-garde theater of the “absurd” with Beckett and Ionesco was blossoming in France). Althusser and Strehler became friends and encountered one another in Italy in the following years, together with Strehler’s close associate, Paolo Grassi.

Althusser’s article consists of two parts of roughly equal length. The first is devoted to a description of the play, highlighting the paradoxes of a succession of three acts, each of which reproduces essentially the same dramaturgy, by juxtaposing rather than articulating two kinds of pictures with different visual content and rhythm: on the one side, a static and neutral presentation of the immobile, desperate, and silent world of the subproletarians, who expect nothing because nothing can happen in their lives, neither work nor struggles nor history; on the other side, taking place in the margins of this world of misery and resignation, or as Althusser writes (retrieving an old category of classical theater), “in the wings” (à la cantonade) (“‘Piccolo’” 138), the dramatic moments of conflict between the idealist generosity of the father and the cynicism of the rapist, with whom the daughter will side (albeit after his death), in the form of a spectacular transgression of human feelings, which is also shown onstage as an escape from the night of impotent dreams into the risky violence of the day: “Erect, Nina goes out into the daylight” (qtd. in Althusser, “‘Piccolo’” 133). With this description goes a double argument: First, that the critics have been unable to perceive the real effect of the production, which is not to endorse a melodramatic perception of the life of the poor, but to radically criticize the melodramatic form of consciousness by juxtaposing it optically, but without explicit interaction, with the description of the existence (or conditions of existence) of which, in Marx’s words, it is but the ideological aroma. Second, that the critical effect of the play as restructured and interpreted by Strehler and its emotional capacity to affect the spectators both arise from what Althusser calls an immanent or latent structure of the dissociation of times, experiences, and imaginaries, which is not pedagogically explained to the spectators but is inherent in the antithetic visions of the silent crowds and the agitated protagonists and is communicated to the audience almost physically by virtue of the discrepancy of their respective rhythms and the heterogeneity of their actions.

In the second part of his article, Althusser uses the same idea of the latent heterogeneous structure—where the conflict endowed with a critical and political meaning is represented by the paradoxical display of a “non-relationship that is the relationship”—to propose a rectified interpretation of the critical function of Brecht’s “epic theater.”5 He argues that in Brecht’s major plays, particularly Mother Courage and The Life of Galileo, the critical effect does not proceed from a psychological phenomenon, which would be the “distanciation” of the spectator from the spectacle (“distanciation” being the word into which Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, literally, “effect of estrangement,” was rendered in French), allowing us to break our “identification” with the characters in the play in order to be able to criticize politically the society of which they are the products and the victims. Rather, the critical effect would come from the fact that the same kind of latent structure, a structure of disjunction or even disruption of consciousness, is incorporated in the scenario, the distribution of characters, situations, and actions, and therefore in the performance itself. It is this shift from psychology to structure, from intentionality to a latent dissociation of consciousness, that should be not only described but actively performed by the theater, giving rise to a critique of ideology that consists not in arguing discursively against its subjection to power or domination, but in making paradoxically “visible” or “perceptible” what is in principle invisible, namely, ideology’s grip on the consciousnesses of its subjects (as well as the limits of this grip in certain situations of exception). This is what Althusser called the emergence of a materialist theater, where “materialist” has the sense of destitute of ideology. Note that the idea is very similar to what, in “Cremonini, Painter of the Abstract,” Althusser also attributes to certain encounters with painting, except that—in the case of Cremonini—painting makes it (relatively) easier to understand what it means to display the invisible (or the relationship of subjects to their imaginary conditions of existence) because the alienated character of this invisible relationship is allegorically displayed in the uncanny redoubling of mirrors, or the mirror-effect of inhuman pictures of the human. In the case of Strehler’s theater, however, it is the active dimension of the critique that is (relatively) easier to understand, or the transition from passivity to activity, from powerlessness to empowerment, because a certain practice of the theater appears as a “machinery” or “dispositive” that has the power to attract the spectator’s consciousness into its fictitious “world” only to eject her into the real world after it has been dislocated by the machine itself. The power of fiction is to dismantle or invert the imaginary in order to allow for the acknowledgment of the real and to produce a “real effect.”

At this point, it would, of course, be interesting to discuss several questions of interpretation and criticism that are linked to the “dialectical” models between which Althusser is moving. An important point regards the exact nature of his relationship to the Brechtian doctrine of epic theater. This point is all the more intriguing because in a later text, “On Brecht and Marx,” which remained unfinished but was published posthumously, Althusser drew an explicit parallel between Brecht’s practice of theater and Marx’s practice of philosophy, arguing that they both wanted not to overcome theater or philosophy but to introduce a dislocation or a “play,” a disjointedness or out-of-jointedness, in the relationship between their constitutive elements that was the condition for their being turned around against the effects of the dominant ideology to which, in a sense, they still belonged.6 Put briefly, it seems to me that Althusser’s intention was to use the lessons he would draw from Strehler’s spectacle not only as a critical instrument against the dominant interpretation of Brecht’s theater as “critical theater” but against Brecht’s own consciousness of the critical mainspring of his theater, insisting in particular on techniques of distanciation in the play of the actors. Much more important, of course, are the references to a system of Freudian concepts, even if freely used, which take their departure from the allusion to a “scenic” structure of the unconscious, where, according to Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, “contradiction is ignored,” which Althusser translates as “the opposites are simultaneously given” or “displayed” as if theater, or something of the theatrical machine, would bring into the open the—normally imperceptible—logic of the psychic conflict. This holds as well for the rather insistent—but never fully admitted—analogy between the process of the dissociation of ideological consciousness produced by the theater and a psychoanalytic cure, either a Freudian re-enactment of the libidinal fixations that allows their disentanglement or, even better, a Lacanian “crossing of the fantasy” (traversée du fantasme) that, during the same period, as indicated by Safouan, Lacan was giving as the formula explaining what it means to achieve the goals of a cure. But probably the most interesting reference is to Hegel, whose dialectics of consciousness and self-consciousness in the Phenomenology is omnipresent in Althusser’s text, where it nevertheless appears at the same time as both instrument and object of the critique. It is as if Althusser had wanted to explain that theater, by virtue of its spatial conversion of the structures of time and the shifting positions it assigns to its heterogeneous subjects, the actors and the spectators, paradoxically makes it possible to materialize the impossible, namely, the presentation of what Hegel called “the back of consciousness,” or the scene on which its limitations and distortions are defined but also subject to refutation. From this point of view, Althusser’s essay is an astonishing counter-Hegelian reformulation of Hegel himself.

Finally, although this account of Althusser’s argument is truncated, it allows us, I believe, to understand a central point of Althusser’s critique of ideology, which remains true throughout his successive attempts with different models and from which important consequences derive. This is the fact that what a “materialist” experience of theater (which is the experience of a “materialist” theatrical practice) provides is not so much a “representation” of the ideological phenomenon of misrecognition of the social reality (particularly class antagonisms), to which a materialist or scientific or communist “critical” consciousness, awakened among the audience in Brechtian fashion, could be opposed. But it is, rather, a presentation on the stage (in short, a staging) of the singular event or moment in which a “distanciation” (or “estrangement”) with respect to recognition—therefore with the basic mechanism of ideological conviction or belief or subjection—is taking place as an action or a performance. In turn, the presentation of this action calls for a very special sort of participation, provided it is internally supported by the latent structure that attracts all the subjects and divides each of them.

Here we may remember that linguistic factors play a role: in French, représentation names both what the English call a “representation” and what they call a “performance” or a production (for a spectacle). But Althusser, following the Hegelian-Marxian terminology, is also thinking of the difference between a Vorstellung, which is cognitive and psychological, and a Darstellung, which is dialectical and theatrical. He suggests that the machine that makes the ideological fabric visible is also the one that forces a subject called a spectator to break with its conformism, if only momentarily or instantaneously. What derives from this is a strategic shift in the understanding of critique. It is not, in fact, recognition, whether as acceptation of a belief or authority or as mimetic association with others, that is built on the basis of some “misrecognition” of reality, but just the reverse: misrecognition is made possible by the deep structure of recognition, the “specular” process taking place in the back of consciousness that is consciousness itself. Therefore, to break with the contents of the dominant ideology, or to liberate oneself from its power, from the “stories” that it tells us and has us tell ourselves permanently, always presupposes a capacity to disrupt recognition, in other words, one’s identity. To put it more clearly, it presupposes situations in which such a capacity is prompted, if not forced. But, according to Althusser’s description of his experience in the audience of Strehler’s production, “theater” is a social and aesthetic machine that not only shows how such a disruption or dislocation can happen but may make it happen. And this is because it duplicates (or iterates) the representation of the imaginary in a manner that may make it impossible to recompose. Such a theater, of course, is not the classical theater where, according to Althusser (who is, nevertheless, forced immediately to allow for “exceptions,” mentioning Shakespeare and Molière), the relationship between stage and audience is precisely a specular one, or one of ideological recognition, with the stage displaying for the audience its own idealized identity; and it is also not exactly the Brechtian “epic theater,” where it is supposed that the spectacle and the critical consciousness are divorced, repelling instead of attracting each other. Rather, it seems to be a disposition of several “scenes” on the stage (in French, it would be a single word: des scènes sur la scène) or, we might say, a “double installation,” whereby the spectator is brought on the scene in order for the scene to intrude into the consciousness of the spectator and produce aftereffects in her life. This is again the idea, or the metaphor, of a “distanciation” that is also a “dislocation,” which becomes a “displacement,” displacing “agency” as such or displacing the agents in order to displace their actions. We may call this the “play” in the mechanism or the farewell to identity and stability.

No doubt, there is something in Althusser’s text at the same time fascinating and enigmatic that various readers have tried to express (as I did myself). It is as if he were not just describing a mechanism or a process but recalling an experience, an interpellation: not the interpellation of (by) ideology, as he would later theorize, but the interpellation out of ideology, by “the real,” as it were, which is presented or embodied on the stage by the character called Nina and her opposition to the crowd. This is expressed in a quick but lyrical phrase at the end: “Je me retourne” (152). I turn back or I look back. There is no rupture with ideology that is not accomplished in the first person, that is, as a subject, denoting a conversion in both the physical and the spiritual sense. But this takes place because theater forces a subject to identify in a contradictory manner, simultaneously, with antithetic “others” who nevertheless appear the same as oneself: in this case, “we,” who eat “the same bread” and share “the same history” as the poor on the stage, and “she,” the rebel whose instant rage against the myths of reconciliation we come to adopt. This is why Althusser is so insistent on the “unresolved alterity” that lies at the heart of such a dramaturgy, but also why he remains attached, more than ever, to the dramatic image provided by Hegel—that of a consciousness fatefully turned against itself: “Hegel was right: [the hero’s] destiny was consciousness of himself as of an enemy” (147).

Moses or Caesar: Politics of Ideology

What I want to offer now is not exactly another general presentation of the topic of subject-formation in Althusser’s well-known essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” which remains, perhaps, of all his contributions to critical theory, the most frequently discussed and referred to in our academic programs. This essay has an interesting characteristic: although its internal aporias, or perhaps its weaknesses, are repeatedly indicated, the general theme of the essay, and particularly the specific “performative” effect to which Althusser attributed the name “interpellation,” keeps returning in reflections that combine the two issues covered, in French as well as English and other “Latin” languages (English being, in this case, also a Latin language) by such terms as “subjection” and “subjectivation.” This is what I have called elsewhere the great historical wordplay, or portmanteau word of European transcendental philosophy, namely, the conjunction of self-reference, or identification of the subject, and subjection to power or authority, therefore a phenomenon of constitutive domination (Balibar, “Citizen”).

Among the many commentaries, of course, I single out Judith Butler’s detailed discussion in The Psychic Life of Power, where Althusser’s notion of interpellation occupies the whole of chapter 4 and returns in other chapters, counterposing Freud and Foucault.7 I do this for two reasons: the first is that Butler particularly emphasizes the circular character of the mechanism, or the ideal model of subject-formation, which is subsumed by Althusser under the formula “Ideology interpellates individuals as (or perhaps better: into) subjects.” The circle comes from the fact that within the field that Althusser is describing there is no way to identify what “individuals” are, if not as already existing subjects, so that the effect presupposes its own result. This is immediately illustrated in the allegorical scene through which Althusser introduces his notion, that of an individual hailed in a street, from behind, by a police officer who simply calls “Hey, you there!,” immediately prompting a reaction from the individual who turns back or looks back (il se retourne) as if he were already certain that he is exactly the person interpellated; this would show that the elementary mechanism of recognition, associated with an originary guilt, is presupposed by the constitution of ideology. But interestingly, Butler does not see this as a weakness of the model per se; on the contrary, she interprets it—rightly in my opinion—as an indication of the fact that Althusser is assuming the circularity, describing a retroactive effect and more generally analyzing what she calls a tropological space, playing on two meanings of the word trope: First, as a rhetorical figure or an effect of discourse but also etymologically a conversion or an action of turning oneself—in this case toward the figure that one was already but that was located, so to speak, behind one’s back. The second is that, having assumed a circularity beyond what Althusser himself recognizes, Butler feels able to suggest a way out of what most readers have perceived as the utterly deterministic and for that reason also fatalistic character of Althusser’s account of subject formation, or recognition of the subject that one was already, which seems to allow for no margin of interpretation, no line of escape—except for a tragic notation in passing, where Althusser refers to the fact that there are “bad subjects” who refuse to turn around, to answer the call of the subjecting authority, at the risk, in fact, of their lives or their mental integrity. Butler’s solution, as we know, is based on the idea that if a trope or a discursive gesture needs to be actually enacted and reiterated again and again to assert its power (as Althusser indicates a little later by provocatively borrowing from Pascal a “materialist” model of the creation of belief through the infinite reiteration of ritual gestures of subjection in the practice of prayer, whether physical or mental), this reiteration by its very nature also involves a possibility of disturbance or trouble (subject trouble, as it were), even the possibility of a reversal that she calls “counter-interpellation.”8

This poses important problems, both from the point of view of an internal interpretation of Althusser’s argument and from the point of view of the political meaning of the whole idea of “interpellation”—I am tempted to say simply the politics that is engaged by the fact that one refers the power of ideology to this kind of performative effect. It seems to me that Butler’s rewriting of Althusser’s model, arising from a deep understanding of the structure of the “scene,” is made possible by the fact that, like most commentators outside of Marxist theory, she focuses on the second half of Althusser’s essay, which describes the “ideological mechanism,” leaving aside the first half, where Althusser defines the function of ideology as a “reproduction of the relations of production” (“Ideology” 148), that is, a reproduction of the type of subjectivity and identity that is necessary for individuals to work as “voluntary” bearers of an exploited or subjected labor force. More precisely, it is as if Butler had kept a formal notion of “reproduction,” understood as repetition or reiteration, to import it into the field of discourses and affects, leaving aside its relationship to production in the Marxist sense. It is important to recall here that Althusser’s essay—in fact, a collage or product of cutting and pasting portions of an unfinished manuscript—really consists of two separate parts, widely different in style and object, whose enigmatic unity was indicated in the original text through a series of dotted lines and which precisely generated the fruitful character of the essay because they made it impossible for interpreters to use or discuss it without transforming it. Once again, important translation effects are at play here, since in French répétition also means “rehearsal” of a performance and thus, in a sense, always already takes place on a stage, whereas the standard equivalent in German, Wiederholung, is also for us indissolubly associated with the Freudian problematic of the death drive and its symbolic effects. No wonder, of course, that in a highly overdetermined gesture, Butler titled her chapter on Althusser with a parody of a famous phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Conscience doth make subjects of us all” (3.1). She would thus indicate that Althusser’s seemingly marginal remark in the essay, à la cantonade, referring to his description of the policeman’s interpellation as “my little theoretical theater,” should be taken entirely seriously and pursued as an investigation of its structure and prerequisites.

This is what I want to do myself, in a manner that is partly complementary, partly divergent from hers, by returning to Althusser’s text and trying to extricate more of its intrinsic dramaturgy to suggest a possible displacement of the reading that is made possible by the insertion of the essay in its context. Let me first recall that the circularity of the procedure of interpellation “as subjects” and the theatrical “element” in which the model is located, namely, the fact that such “actions” as interpellation (and nomination, “calling” in the double sense, to begin with) and answer, response, responding, and assuming responsibility are clearly always taking place on a stage. This is the whole problem with the issue of the institutional “conditions” of possibility of performative statements, namely, the fact that the speakers must play their roles. But here, with the question of the effectivity of interpellations, we are immediately forced to take into account a much wider spectrum of experiences, social forms, and institutions, where the theatrical stage at the same time occurs as a general model for the staging of discourse and as one case among many others, where the “scenes” are not only located in theaters but also in civic spaces, agoras, tribunals, temples, private meetings, and ceremonies, or also metaphorically on the “world’s stage,” which is the encompassing space for the staging of life and the assumption of roles, personae in Latin, which also means “masks.” So we can see that Althusser (and Butler) are in fact taking part in a very long tradition, offering variations, as it were, of a theme, the theatrum mundi, that has a long existence in philosophy and art from the Stoics to Shakespeare and Descartes, and indeed in Hegel, Marx, Freud. On the other hand, returning to the aporia that is widely identified by readers in Althusser’s “scene of ideology,” or model of the ideological mechanism as a scene of interpellation, what I want to emphasize is the fact that this aporia is not separable from the assumption that Althusser’s explanations have a political intention, that they are supposed to indicate why processes of reproduction of the social order and the social structure, based on certain forms of domination, are cemented by ideology, whose intrinsic coherence would act as a guarantee for the class relationship. At the same time, this “ideological reproduction” would form a place of revolutionary intervention, marking not a deterministic necessity but rather an intrinsic fragility or contingency. Now the fact is that as it is presented in the text, the mechanism of the ideological constitution of subjects, or the transformation of individuals into subjects, which has always already taken place since there is no originary place outside of ideology, is a mechanism that offers no way out (“Ideology” 175). Even the “bad subjects” are trapped—perhaps more than the others.

It is quite clear to me that Althusser’s description is deeply influenced by Freud’s analysis of the “identification processes” that shape, at the same time, the ideal construction of the ego-ideal and the formation of social groups or “masses” (Massenbildungen).9 But Freud’s analysis leaves no room, except madness, for a subjectivity that would become liberated from every identification, and this is also formally the case in Althusser. There is “freedom,” of course, but only in the sense of shifting from one identification, one interpellation, to another, for instance letting oneself become interpellated and subjectively constituted by the “Revolution” instead of the “State” or the “Nation” or the “Market” or the “Republic” or, indeed, “God.” There is no “anarchic” freedom in the sense of living, thinking, and acting in the void, the absence of every interpellation, every ideal, that Freud calls an ideal object of love, and Althusser a “Subject” with a capital S. It could be argued that this other circularity, the infinite circularity of the imaginary “Others” from which, qua subjects, we expect interpellation, forming like a prison with many cells and no release, reflects the deep pessimism that invaded Althusser (and others) after ′68. But it should be noticed as well that he doesn’t say (and in fact nothing in his text says) that different interpellations, which have the same ideological structure, the structure of “ideology in general,” produce the same historical and political effects. The theory doesn’t say that the political effects are the same if your model of interpellation is patriotism or internationalism or the Subject is God as inflexible Legislator or God as suffering Servant. Perhaps it says just the opposite: that the effect remains essentially indeterminate until it becomes determined in a given conjuncture, both by the internal “logic” of the specific discourse of interpellation and by the external conditions of its insertion into the processes of reproduction of the existing order—a combination in which there must probably always remain something aleatory or contingent. It remains now to be seen if this could be investigated by means of a fuller use of the “dramaturgic” model that, in agreement with Butler, I have identified in the text.

The first element that I find striking in Althusser’s examples of interpellation concerns his insistence on the staging of the voice that “interpellates” the subject as a voice whose origin—or, if you like, whose speaking “mouth”—is concealed or hiding, not only behind a mask as in the ancient model of the persona, which keeps governing so much classical reflection on the theater (including Diderot’s and Brecht’s theories on the paradoxe du comédien and the “distanciating techniques” borrowed from non-Western theater),10 but behind a veil or a curtain (or a cloud), which is the veil of transcendence. To put it better so as to keep within the limits of a “materialist” description of the theatrical machinery: it is the veiling effect that produces an effect of transcendence, the effect of withdrawing the origin of the interpellation, removing the possibility of identifying an author, except through the tautologies asserting his authority. I am who I am, says the voice that interpellates Moses from behind the Burning Bush. Here, of course, we need to move from one “theater” to another, from the everyday scenes of authority, identification, and interpellation to the grand historical and cosmic scene where the source of the dominant ideologies—perhaps only the dominant ideologies of the West, which are based on a certain representation of the Law—are traditionally staged. And this produces two consequences. The first consequence is that the concealment of the origin of the voice becomes part of a generic machine, the Machine, as it were, that will have to be indefinitely reproduced within the ideological world, at the same time setting the pattern that everyday interpellations reiterate. (All judges and police officers stage their interpellation in order to reenact the arch-interpellation of the Law; each priest or pastor stages his admonitions as repetitions of the Revelation; each of us stages the “voice of conscience” in the internal theater as one that speaks unconditionally but from nowhere.) And second, it means that the little subjects cannot receive the voice, respond to it, or transmit it to others without filling the void with some sort of imaginary, if only the projection of their own desire for subjection. This is why Althusser explains that a new circle must take place: that of the imagination of the Other Subject by whose mediation or intermediary a given ideology would interpellate individuals as its subjected subjects. This circle—which is a circularity between the stage and the backstage or a re-creation of a backstage each time a subject imagines herself called by (and toward) a transcendent Subject (that is, a power whose authority is beyond contestation or even comprehension)—is theatrical in its very nature, but it is also fragile in the sense that, circumstances permitting, it arouses skepticism and rebellion or heresy as easily as obedience and devotion.

Here we think of Lacan (whom Althusser had partly read), of course, and his thesis (since the Seminar on psychoses from 1955–56) that “there is no Other of the Other” which would warrant it—except that, as we know, Althusser’s thesis, right or wrong, was always that the symbolic orders of authority and law are no more than formations crystallizing the social imaginary. The stronger inspiration of this model, in fact, which the reference to Moses clearly indicates, is the description and interpretation of the revelation on Mount Sinai proposed by Spinoza in the Theological-Political Treatise. It is from there that Althusser may have borrowed not only the idea that the Prophet or Legislator can enunciate the Law as an Absolute only on the condition of adapting his own imaginary to the dominant imaginary of the people or the mass (an idea that we will retrieve in Althusser’s interpretation of Machiavelli’s Prince) but also the idea that the interpellated Legislator or Mediator can transmit the interpellation that he has received to those for whom it is ultimately destined (that is, ordinary men, the people or the “herd”) only at the risk that this challenge may backfire onto the imagination of the originary voice, or the Hidden Mouth itself—as in the episode of the Golden Calf (another staging, or form of “per-formative reversal”). Perhaps Althusser does not entirely say this, but his example, with the religious and philosophical connotations that it carries, says it for him. And this, of course, is where we could locate his own virtual introduction of a counterinterpellation, or the idea of a “play” that diverges in an unpredictable manner from the written script.

But to this we must now add another element. If we reassemble the separated developments of the two “parts” in the ideological state apparatuses (isas) essay—the one on “social reproduction” of the structures of domination and the one on “interpellation of individuals as subjects” through the mediation of an imaginary Subject (or Other)—we reach the supposition that there is indeed someone or something

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *