Friday, September 28, 2007

Why do we do that?

The work of Louis Althusser ["Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 1971] on ideology offers another important way of examining how consent is created among subjects—indeed, how subjects are created in such a way that it is difficult for them to question self-evident notions and practices and hence makes it hard to resist them. One of Althusser’s most important insights is that ideology is not to be understood as a set of ideas alone but rather as practices. In other words, ideology has a material and an embodied existence in the practices through which people enact it, and thereby live it, on a daily basis. Ideology is inculcated into every state subject, according to Althusser, through what he calls Ideological State Apparatuses, or ISAs. These ISAs consist of multiple institutions or locations through which a dominant ideology is instilled into people from birth onward; examples include the family, religious institutions, and schools. ISAs are especially effective at creating unquestioning subjects, says Althusser, because the various institutions that make them up are both multiple and hence mutually reinforcing and because these institutions appear to be dedicated to very different ends, so that people are unaware that they are being molded according to a particular ideology. ISAs instill a dominant ideology not just by promulgating particular ideas about the world (ideological content) but also through particular formalized embodied actions: for example, the proper way to behave when in a public library; or, to cite Althusser’s famous example, when one performs a ritual action such as kneeling in a church, one becomes in some sense a believer. Althusser argues that as a result of internalizing a dominant ideology in these ways, subjects become effectively interpellated by ideology. In other words, each and every person feels directly interpellated, or “hailed,” by the dominant ideology and thus conforms to it virtually automatically. Althusser’s concern with embodied practices has been echoed in a wide range of literatures, including those concerned with performance, tradition, and ritual.

Althusser’s conception of ideology has its problems: most importantly, the implication that people are unthinkingly duped into acting in accordance with a single dominant ideology, leaving little theoretical space to understand how resistance, change, and withdrawal of consent are possible. Nonetheless, his work does help to point the way toward understanding how people’s daily actions—the most mundane aspects of how they live their lives as well as the unusual and theatrical (the state ritual on which Kertzer focuses)—come together to produce state subjects who often consent, willingly or not, to a dominant ideology. Incorporating Scott’s insights allows us to think of this consent not as absolutely unquestioning but as an acquiescence that does not openly question, or at least not to the point of refusal to participate. Subordinates go along, at least publicly, because they know they will bear the consequences if they do not. Unlike Scott, who sees this grudging consent principally as a product of actual or threatened repression, Althusser shows how mundane daily practices produce subjects who have imbibed ideological understandings so deeply that, often, little repression is required in order to make them conform. In this way, his insights offer an extension to Kertzer’s focus on public ritual."—Representations of Political Power, pages 92-93

<idle musing>
OK; that's a mouthful, but a very important mouthful. I think it explains only too well why we do what we do—depravity aside. We are being programed by society, via what we read, watch, listen to, etc., to act in a certain way. As Christians, it is our responsibility to examine all of these in light of scripture and in prayer. To quote a friend of mine, "Does a fish know it is wet?" We don't usually stop to examine our lives; after all, we are running at 200 MPH already, who has time to stop and think!

To blindly assume that what is tradition, even in the church, is correct is wrong. To assume it is incorrect is just as wrong, but that doesn't seem to be a common problem :) To assume that because something is labeled "Christian" makes it so, is a mistake; we are to be "as wise as serpents, but innocent as doves." We are to be transformed by the internal working of the Spirit, not by the external working of culture.
</idle musing>

By the way, thanks to Michael for extracting this quote from the PDF; it would have taken me forever to type it. The advantages of working for a publisher!


Ted M. Gossard said...

James, Good food for thought here. It does seem like what we end up doing does end up having a big say in our being, not only vice-versa. Interesting how culture shapes us into its mold.

Jonathan Erdman said...

James said:As Christians, it is our responsibility to examine all of these in light of scripture and in prayer.

But what if actions/Ideas such as "prayer" and "examine in the light of scripture" are themselves the products of the very corporate/church institution that we are supposedly testing???

Essentially many Xians wind up "testing" the institution, but only testing it by the tests that are permissible by the institution (prayer/scripture) and only using these tests in the way that is recommended by the institution. As a result, you've got a lot of people that "test" the institution of church, but they really don't end up questioning anything significant. But yet in their own minds they have "tested" and can be comfortable knowing, for sure, that their institution of church has got it right!

jps said...


Interesting insight, and probably true in some cases. But, my experience has been that most people don't bother examining anything, but just blindly follow the leader—after all, the majority can't be wrong, can it?

But, what would you suggest as an alternative (honest question)?


Jonathan Erdman said...


I'm a postmodern child, so I naturally believe that we are all encased in our socio-cultural milieu, at least to some degree. I do like Hans-Georg Gadamer, however, when he makes the point that our historical/traditional biases are the basis upon which we can know or learn anything at all. Essentially we are in something of a catch-22: Can't live with our biases, and can't live without 'em.

I suppose that one of the most important thing is to be involved in learning about other paradigms outside of our own, and to really give them a shot. Ultimately there is no completely objective standpoint, and (pace Gadamer) we wouldn't really want that anyway. (I don't even think God is completely objective ;) But we can do the best we can with what we have and continually sharpen ourselves and measure up our traditions and biases against other paradigms.

So, to answer your question: I have no alternative!