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Interpellation, Antagonism,
Repetition
Henry Krips
Published online: 05 Jan 2009.
To cite this article: Henry Krips (1994) Interpellation, Antagonism, Repetition,
Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society, 7:4, 59-71, DOI:
10.1080/08935699408658123
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Rethinking MARXISM Volume 7, Number 4 (Winter 1994)
Interpellation, Antagonism, Repetition
Henry Krips
In his “Ideological State Apparatuses” essay (1971) Althusser attempts to combine a
Marxist theory of social structure with a more Freudian, and specifically Lacanian,
approach to the formation of human subjects. By adapting various specular
metaphors from Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, Althusser tries to theorize the
way in which individual human beings are engaged by the social and transformed
into or remade as subjects. But Althusser succeeds only in pointing to certain
homologies between his ideas and key Lacanian concepts such as the Law and the
Other.’ In addition, he fails to make a connection central to Lacan’s work: that the
constitution of the subject involves the creation of desire. I shall use the Freudian
notion of repetition [Wiederholung] to bridge the gap Althusser leaves between the
domain of social meanings and the psychic economies of individual subjects. More
specifically, I shall argue that social antagonisms may function as crucibles for the
constitution of desires by acting as sites at which subjects repeat their primal lack.
Althusser
Subjects, Althusser said, are created or, better, create themselves in response to a
process of interpellation. This takes the form of a “call” that addresses them, singles
them out in a certain way. For example, the policeman walking the beat shouts
“Hey, you there!” I hear his call while I am taking my nightly, predinner stroll
around the block, and in an instant, even though I apparently have nothing on my
conscience, I come to a startled halt, seized by a guilt that I display for all to see
(Althusser 1971, 163). It is not the call of a single individual, a policeman, that
succeeds in (re)constituting me in this way; rather, it is a whole ideological state
apparatus (1SA)-the institution of the Law, the courts, the prison system, and so
on-for which the policeman, acting as a conduit, is only the most visible local
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60 Krips
representative. The interpellation works, says Althusser, by leading me to construe
my relation with the ISA as a relation with a “unique, absolute Other Subject” who
provides me with a mirror image of who I “really” am and am already (Althusser
1971, 178).’
It is tempting (the source of this temptation will be discussed below) to see the
process of interpellation in the following way. Discourse (the policeman’s shout)
encodes a distorted image of its addressee as a villain, guilty of some unspecified
past crime and, in virtue of the policeman’s authority as representative of the Law,
.the call persuasively communicates that image to the addressee, who then acts upon
it, say, by turning and running away. However, Althusser specifically rejects such
an account of the constitutive effects of interpellation: “it [interpellation] is a strange
phenomenon, and one which cannot be explained solely by ‘guilt feelings,’ despite
the large numbers who ‘have something on their consciences’ ” (Althusser 1971,
174). He argues that interpellated ideas and feelings coincide with, and thus cannot
explain, subjects’ practical responses to the call: “in reality these things [the call,
the recognition, the beliefs, the actions] happen without any succession” (Althusser
1971, 175). Althusser embeds this argument within a more general critique of the
idea of rational agency and the corresponding “humanist” construct of a subject who
acts in response to prior ideas. He concedes that living as if such a construct were
valid is an essential element in the life of subjects, but the construct itself, he says, is
ideological-that is, has no gened “scientific ~alidity.”~ (His name for this particular
ideology, which, he claims, underlies all our self-conceits, is “ideology in general”).
He also criticizes the view of the early Marx that the leading ideas in terms of
which subjects identify themselves are distortions. (Here we could raise the difficult
issue of what Althusser takes to be the relation among truth, science, and ideology.)
On the contrary, he claims, subjects who behave guiltily in response to the
policeman’s call carry a real, “authentic” guilt. Their error, such as it is, lies only in
their historical misrepresentation of themselves as possessors of an already con-
stituted “nature” which the call leads them to acknowledge. In other words, my
error in the face of the policeman’s call lies not in accepting the image of my guilt (I
really dbecome guilty), but rather in taking the guilt as mine already, something
1. See Barrett (1993, 176). For other discussion and criticism of Althusser’s work, especially in relation
to Lacan, see Laclau and Mouffe (1985, 97ff.), Zizek (1989, 43), Resnick and Wolff (1991), Montag
(1991), and Mocnik (1993).
2. Note that Althusser’s account sustains an ambiguity between two senses of “interpellation”: first, as
the mode in which an ISA addresses its subjects; second, as a process by which subjects are (re)consti-
tuted. Althusser hypothesizes a contingent identity between the two senses of interpellation; that is, he
proposes that subjects are constituted in the process of being addressed by the ISAs with which they are
engaged. As a result, he can afford to equivocate between the two senses of “interpellation.” Because I
reject Althusser’s hypothesis of identity, I must disambiguate the notion of interpellation, which I do
later by redefining it as the process of constituting subjects.
3. Althusser claims that the ideological representation of subjects as agents works at the level of their
practices, but not their ideas. Subjects may see through the illusions of agency but, according to
Althusser, must always act as if they were agents, that is, act as if they were acting upon their ideas. For
Althusser, of course, all ideology operates in this way, at the level of practice.
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Althusser and Lacan 61
prior but hidden, a secret, perhaps even from myself, to which the call merely
alerted me. Even if my response to the call is the negative one of protesting my
innocence, I set it within a fictional history, a false pedigree of a past free from all
stain of guilt, and conceal the role of both call and response in constituting my
“inner nature.” In short, a misrecognition of origins accompanies the recognition of
who I am. As Althusser says, “the ideological recognition function is one of the two
functions of ideology as such (its inverse being the function of misrecognition-
mkconnaissance)” (1971, 172), and, he goes on to tell us, “the reality which is
necessarily ignored (mkconnue)” lies in “the very forms of recognition” (1971,
182). Or, as he makes the point more generally, “Ideology never says ‘I am
ideology’ ” (1971, 175) but instead erases its own ideological nature so that subjects
misrecognize their natures as natural rather than ideological.
If the humanist account is inappropriate (“unscientific”), as Althusser claims
here, how are we to understand interpellation? I shall offer a Lacanian answer to this
question which fleshes out some of the hints Althusser offers.
Powering the Call
According to Althusser, the call does not encode a subject position but rather
leads its audience into constructing a position for and by themselves. In a radical
sense “subjects work by themselves” (Althusser 1971, 182). But what is the engine
that powers the constitutive workings of the call? How does the call lead its subjects
to create positions for themselves?
As we have seen, Althusser offers an answer to this question in terms of the call’s
“speculary ~tructure.”~ But the attempt to explain the driving force behind the call in
this way is by and large unsatisfactory. Such support as it commands derives from
the Lacanian notion of the mirror stage; however, even a quick inspection of Lacan
reveals that the constitution of the subject involves not only the mirror stage but also
entry into the symbolic and accession to desire, processes that are totally omitted
from Althusser’s acco~nt.~ In what follows, I shall attempt to rectify these om-
issions by retheorizing the notion of interpellation so that it connects with the
psychodynamic processes through which the subject accedes to desire.
First, I shall point to a feature of the interpellative situation that turns out to be
4. However, Althusser also tells us that individuals are always and already subjects born into certain
social positions: “Before its birth, the child is always-already subject, appointed as a subject in and by the
specific familial ideological configuration in which it is expected once it has been conceived.” (Althusser
1971, 165) This view is in apparent tension with other remarks where Althusser takes interpellation as a
process in which individuals actively participate. At a later point in this essay, I shall briefly address the
issue of how to resolve these apparently contradictory temporalizations of the subject’s constitution.
5. Talk of stages is misleading here, since the mirror stage and the subject’s relation to the imaginary
remains with himfher throughout life. It is better to see such “stages” as constitutive layers of the subject
rather than chronologically ordered events.
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62 Krips
the hidden source of its power: namely, that interpellations are sites at which
“antagonisms” (here I appropriate Laclau and Mouffe’s useful term) are generated. I
shall introduce this feature via a reworking of Althusser’s example of the police-
man’s My account is not intended to be an empirically accurate, let alone
generalizable, description of the way in which real people respond to a policeman’s
hail; rather, it is illustrative of a connection, for which I shall argue later, between
the Ideological State Apparatus and the existence of antagonisms.
I claim that what strikes me as I hear the refrain “Hey, you there!,” what
subsequently moves me to reconstitute myself, is not so much the policeman’s
personal authority, or even the power he embodies as representative of the Law, but
rather a contrast between my own innocent demeanour (“1 was just walking down
the street, minding my own business”) and the outrageous accusation of criminality
implicit in the policeman’s words.’ I react not merely from a sense that I’m innocent
of anything of which I might be accused-an the contrary, as Althusser remarks,
“large numbers . . . have something on their consciences” (Althusser 1971,
174bbut rather because the accusation should be made here and now while I’m
behaving in such an innocent fashion. In other words, what grips my attention to the
point of making me shift my-self is a tension between a certain meaning of
innocence, which attaches itself to my action in walking the streets at that particular
time and place, and an apparently opposed meaning, which attaches itself to the
policeman’s call and turns it into an accusation of guilt.
What are the sources of these different meanings, and what is the nature of the
tension between them? My stroll’s innocence is not merely a matter of my state of
mind but is determined by a particular meaning framework, a widely accepted,
publicly sanctioned set of associations among home, hearth, mealtime, relaxation,
and so on, in terms of which a nightly, predinner, neighborhood stroll more or less
unavoidably takes on a certain quality of innocence-although not in a strictly legal
sense.
Such meaning is not indefeasible or even unequivocal. On the contrary, it will be
an active site of contestation. For instance, an indigent street person might see my
“innocent stroll” as the pastime of a petit bourgeois who has both the time and the
energy to take his leisure. Under the gaze of this troubling figure (and don’t I always
find/place myself under its gaze?), my little walk assumes various additional
meanings-a self-indulgent exercise of privilege, or even an arrogant assertion of
6. This choice of example has a certain rhetorical advantage because of Lacan’s emphasis on the
constitutive effects of the Law of the Father. Of course, for Lacan the Law in this sense is more general
than an ISA, since it includes any prohibition that intervenes as a third term between the subject and its
imaginary source of satisfaction, the (M)Other. The nominal connection between the Althusserian legal
ISA and Lacanian Law of the Father is one aspect of a wide-reaching homology between their respective
conceptual economies, a point to which I shall return.
7. In the case of the Christian ideology, which Althusser also discusses, there is a similar paradoxical
combination of “contradictory” meanings centered on paradoxes of belief, faith, and commitment: I must
believe, but the whole notion of faith depends upon a wilful commitment that presupposes disbelief; 1
must wilfully commit myself to serve God, but a servant has no will in the matter; etc.
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Althusser and Lacan 63
the rights of property. (“Don’t I have the right to walk my awn neighborhood in
peace and quiet, unmolested?’)
Despite such destabilizing crosscurrents, the meaning of innocence maintains a
certain prominence and fixity; or, to put matters more accurately, a certain currency
and stability has been achieved for this meaning, an achievement that reflects the
work undertaken by certain interests who stand to benefit from the meaning’s
general acceptance. In Lacanian terms, this meaning acts as a point of suture at
which my identity, along with a corresponding account of my activities as “honest
citizen minding his own business,” are sewn up for all practical purposes. (Here I
am suggesting a certain convergence of social and psychic economies. More
specifically, marxist arguments for the existence of hegemonic structures converge
here with Lacan’s claim that relatively stable meanings exist, acting as temporary
resting places for the endless displacements along the chains of signifiers.)
Similarly, the accusation of guilt implicit in the policeman’s shout is determined
not by some intention on his part (he may have merely wanted to draw my attention
to an approaching car) or even by my startled response, but instead by a meaning
framework in which the institution of the Law, as embodied in the figure of the
policeman on the beat, is assigned the role of arbitrator of guilt and innocence.8 This
meaning will also be destabilized by various crosscurrents. The image of the police
as defenders of the State and, by association, the interests of the ruling class tends to
work against their positioning as fair and reasonable judges of guilt and innocence.
Nevertheless, here, too, the meaning is relatively stable, a rhetorical as well as
practical achievement that buttresses the hegemonic order.
The tension that emerges at the site of the policeman’s call is a consequence of
these apparently opposing evaluations by intersecting meaning frameworks. For-
mally, of course, there is no contradiction between them since my stroll’s innocence
is established by its association with home and hearth while the policeman’s
accusation of guilt gains its authority from a legal context.’ Nevertheless, my
action’s meaning of innocence renders the policeman’s accusation of guilt in-
appropriate in some strong sense: careless to the point of absurdity, “a grotesque
abuse of power,” as we might say.
This locally produced tension between social meanings is an “antagonism” in
Laclau and Mouffe’s sense of the term. It is a site at which certain aspects of the
meanings or “identities” that I am offered-as middle-class burger, citizen under
the law, and so on-are brought into conflict and thus prevented from achieving
objective closure around my person, and in so far that the conflicting meanings
8. Matters may be more complicated than this. Consider the association between the policeman’s shout
and guilt. It depends upon a socially instituted connection between the policeman and the Law. But the
metaphor of the “long arm of the law” indicates that more may be at work here. In particular, the
meaning of guilt may be overdetermined by Freudian symbolism-imaginary associations that function
at a repressed level and thus impose a certain misleading appearance of experiential rootedness or
“naturalness” upon their effects.
9. In any case, even if the senses of guilt and innocence were totally commensurable, the policeman’s
accusation does not entail my actual guilt (at most it entails that I am accused of being guilty).
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64 Krips
of guilt and innocence are themselves destabilized, the failure to achieve closure is
exacerbated, each meaning becoming the cite of other such conflicts: “antagonisms
constitute the limits of every objectivity, which is revealed as partial and precarious
objectiJication.”10 In other words, if we see the meanings of guilt and innocence as
pieces of “social text,” then the antagonism becomes a point at which this text
unravels.” (“There is no social” as there is no text.)
The subject, then, emerges as a site at which individuals manage and conceal that
unravelling by incorporating it as part of a false unity with themselves as its center.
In Zizek’s terms (we shall return to his views), the subject emerges as a symptom at
the center of a social phantasy:
the Social is always an inconsistent field structured around a constitutive impossibility,
traversed by a central “antagonism” . . . The function of ideological fantasy is to mask
this inconsistency (Zizek 1989, 127). ’*
Or, in Hegelian terms (rejected by Laclau and Mouffe), the subject may be seen as a
sublation of a dialectical opposition within the subject’s identities. l 3
Althusser, of course, would make this point in somewhat different terms. His
radical “break” with traditional, humanist marxism lies in relocating interpellation
and the corresponding processes of ideological misrecognition at the level of
practice rather than in ideas or discourse in a narrow linguistic sense.I4 Thus, it is
not the persuasive propositional content of the policeman’s call that interpellates me
but rather a tension within the “lived” representations structuring my practices, a
tension between the guilt embodied in my reaction to the call and the innocence that
structures the ritual of my nightly predinner stroll. How does this process of
interpellation work, how does the subject emerge in response to the antagonism?
My expression of outrage that the policeman has made such a ridiculous accusa-
tion carries with it an interrogative inflection which voices an uncertainty about the
10. Laclau and Mouffe (1985, 125; for their general discussion of the notion of antagonism, see
123-27). By “identities” here, I mean subject positions that are defined by the meaning frameworks I
inhabit or, in Althusserian terms, those “lived representations” (of human beings) that structure the field
of daily practices in which I am situated. It is essential to distinguish between such “identities” and what I
amcalling here “the subject.” Indeed, the process of interpellation only makes sense relative to a
conceptual economy that holds fast to such a distinction, since interpellation, or creation of the subject,
emerges as the means by which antagonisms between conflicting identities are managed.
1 1. Implicit here is a textualized conception of the social as embodying certain normative and “lived”
collective representations.
12. Zizek makes the point elsewhere (45):
Ideology [and here he means it in the Althusserian sense, of a constitutive social practice] . . . is a
fantasy construction which serves as a support for our reality . . . [It] structures our effective, real
social relations and thereby masks some insupportable, real, impossible kemel (conceptualized by
Emesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe as “antagonism”: a traumatic social division which cannot be
symbolized).
13. Laclau and Mouffe reject the Hegelian reading on the grounds that the conflict among identities is
not a contradiction between a positive and negative instance, since the identities themselves are
essentially incomplete (it being the antagonism that guarantees this incompleteness).
14. The discursive is, of course, also a form of practice; but Althusser argues that it is the discursive as
practice rather than as such that interpellates.
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Althusser and Lacan 65
investment others may have in my situation and covertly poses the question: “What
do you want-you the law-abiding citizenry who underwrite the Law and gaze upon
mein its name, you who deepen my humiliation by the mere possibility that you
could be watching-what are you looking for me to do in this absurd situation to
which you have contributed by your serious and inscrutable expectations?’ More
specifically, my response to this antagonistic situation is the implicit posing of a
question “What do you want (of/with) me?’ (homologous with Lacan’s “ C h vuoi?”
Lacan 1977,3 12-1 3), directed in the fmt instance at the policeman but also covertly at
the invisible public (the street may be empty but the effect is the same) whom I
experience as mute witnesses to my humiliation at the hands of its representative.
Within an Althusserian economy of concepts, the functionary to whom this implicit
question is addressed is designated “the Subject,” the one who knows what is wanted of
mebecause he is the one who wants it, who stands in the place of the “you” in the
question “Che vuoi?”, coextensive with the mysterious Law which acts as guarantor of
my rights (the right to walk peacefully in my own neighbourhood) at the same time as it
violates them (via the policeman’s acc~sation).’~
Even though I direct my questions to the Subject and/or his local representative, I
do not expect to receive an answer from them; on the contrary, the question is mine
to answer from the beginning and is in that respect purely rhetorical-the addressee
is a fictionalized projection of my-self. More specifically, from the beginning I
want to be the Subject (in Althusserian terms, the Subject provides me with a
specular image of myself) and so try to answer the questions directed at him; or, in
Lacanian terms, desire is always ddsir de I’Autre (here meaning desire for the
Other).16 In short, it is I who must identify what the Subject wants of me in the
process of identifying with the Subject (although not necessarily with his desire, as
we shall see now).I7
15. Strictly speaking, the Subject only makes his appearance on the Althusserian scene as the specular
image of the subject; hut I am here extending his role by taking seriously Althusser’s statement that the
Subject is the one to and by whom the subject is subjected (Althusser 1971, 181). Lacan’s name for the
Subject is the Other. He discusses the questions we direct to the Other under the general rubric “Che
vuoi?”-“What do you (the Other) want (of us)?” Note, however, that taking for granted an identity
between the Althusserian problematic of relations with the Subject and the Lacanian problematic of
relations with the Other begs the question at issue here.
16. The want here is best seen as a way of talking about the subject’s lack rather than a desire, since it is
the creation of desire that is my concern. This point will become clearer when I discuss Lacan in more
detail.
17. Here I have radically extended Althusser’s account by adding my own speculative analysis of
subjects’ responses to the call in terms of their various and idiosyncratic relations to the Subject. The
rhetorical force of my speculation rests in part upon the intuitive appeal it may have for readers who
recognize it as an account of how they experience their own responses to such situations (“Yes, that’s
how it was for me!”). Such an appeal cannot, however, be my final source of justification, because it
risks reproducing what Althusser would call an “unscientific” account, one that is still steeped in the
ideological forms of everyday experience (Althusser 1971, 173).
A further justification for my speculation consists in an invocation of Lacanian notions: an equation of
the Althusserian Other Subject with the Lacanian Other and the idea that the subject addresses an implicit
question, ”Che vuoi?” (“What do you want?’), to the Other in response to the Other’s unfathomable
demand. Such a transfer of Lacanian ideas to the Althusserian scene must be justified, however, if it is to
have more than a rhetorical effect. I address the question of such justification later.
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66 Krips
Althusser indicates that I do not have to go along with what the Subject wants of
me. In brief, I may be a “bad subject” (Althusser 1971, 181) and reject the images
in terms of which I construe the Subject as addressing me. I may, for example,
earnestly protest my innocence in the face of the policeman’s public declaration of
my guilt and even seek reparation for the injury which he has done me. What I
cannot be, however, is indifferent to the Subject. I must form a desire of my own in
response to the desire of the Subject, a desire that, in its form, in the specific nature
of its relation for or against the Subject’s desire, carries traces of its causal origins.
In other words, my ultimate response to the policeman’s call will be a desire of my
own, determined within parameters set by my construal of what the Subject wants
frodfor me. (This thesis is captured by one of the senses of Lacan’s polyvalent
formula that desire is always dksir de I‘Autre, namely, not that I must desire what
the Other desires, but rather that my desire is always determined as a response to the
desire of the Other.
While these suggestions can be anchored more or less explicitly to Althusser’s
text, they owe as much to a Lacanian conception of desire as to their Althusserian
roots, as my parenthetical comments make clear. Nevertheless, and despite the
liberties I have taken in drawing upon the Lacanian supplement that frames the
Althusserian text as well as my reading, I have not yet answered the question from
which I started these investigations: How and why does an interpellation enable the
accession to desire? More specifically, why and how does the antagonism (for
example, the combination of meanings of guilt and innocence) generated by the
interpellation (the policeman’s call) find an answering response in the creation of
desire? One apparent answer might be that the created desire is a way of rationaliz-
ing and thus giving meaning to an individual’s response to interpellation. But this
answer won’t do, since it bypasses the “How” question (“How is desire con-
stituted?’) in favor of the “Why” question (“Why desire?’) which it answers by
describing a function for desire.
Before moving to a discussion of Lacan’s theory, a qualification needs to be
made in order to forestall a possible criticism. As I indicated, my Althusserian rkcit
is not meant as a general or even local account of the real life responses of people to
policemen. On the contrary, I agree that in all probability no single encounter with a
policeman, however embarrassing, will be sufficient to remake subjects, and that
such remakings are accomplished only by more sustained and/or forceful in-
teractions with an Ideological State Apparatus-for instance, by repeated engage-
ment with the panoptic devices by which all of us who inhabit the scene of
modernity are placed and place ourselves continually under the gaze of the Law.
But such concessions do not affect the point for which my little piece of Althusse-
rian theater is meant to provide a possibly purely hypothetical illustration: that when
interpellation by an ISA takes place, its constitutive effects are always mediated by
18. It also means that desire always involves desire to be the Other, to occupy the site from which we
appear desirable. But I cannot discuss that complication here.
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Althusser and Lacan 67
an antagonism.” My argument for this general claim does not depend upon
historically contingent details of how antagonisms emerge in specific cases, let
alone the verisimilitude of my Althusserian fable. Instead, it depends upon a
Foucaultian conception of the inextricable connection between power and resist-
ance, which implies that since an ISA exercises “power in the mode of subjection”
(to use Foucault’s term) by promoting a particular meaninghdentity, there will be
resistance in the same mode, thus creating an antagonism (Foucault 1986).*’
Lacan
According to Lacan, individuals begin life lacking unity with their world and
themselves, a lack manifested in the erratic presence of their caregivers. It goes
almost without saying that the caregiver need not be the mother. What needs
emphasizing, however, is that it is not specifically the absence of the caregiver that
constitutes the lack. Instead, that lack is a function of the state of dependence upon
an other, a dependence that continues to move the newly born individual even when
it is safely in the arms of one who cares (see Lacan 1981, 63).*’
Individuals never recover from their bad start in life but respond by engaging in
games of pursuit, the repetitive absencing and bringing back to presence of objects
over which they have some degree of control:
For the game of the cotton-reel (Freud’s original version of the game of absence and
presencefort-da) is the subject’s answer to what the mother’s absence has created on
the frontier of his domain-the edge of his cradle-namely, a ditch, around which one
can only play at jumping (Lacan 1981, 62).
These pursuits are appropriate responses not because they fill an individual’s
19. In situations of multiple ISAs, of course, these antagonisms will be multiplied, produced not only
within each ISA but also by their mutual interactions.
20. Note, as Foucault emphasizes, it may not simply be a case of power producing resistance; indeed, on
occasions matters may be exactly the reverse-resistance a condition of possibility for the exercise of
power. The case of the policeman’s call illustrates the complexities that may arise here: the accusation
that embodies my guilt (guilt in a legal sense) may not cause me to protest my innocence; on the contrary,
as I recounted the incident, the primary site of my innocence was located somewhere quite other,
namely, in the (nonlegal) meaning of innocence associated with my evening constitutional. Of course,
one possible response to the interpellative situation might indeed by a protest of innocence, but this is a
different sense of innocence (a strictly legal one) which then overlaps the originary sense in terms of
which the antagonism was initially articulated.
21. I am here using Althusser’s term “individual” for the generalized subject who is the target of
subjection. As we have seen, this notion is a site of difficulty in Althusser’s work, in virtue of his claim
that there are certain aspects of subjectivity associated with certain ideologies-in-particular, in which the
subject is always-already implicated even before birth. Thus, for Althusser, the term “individual” refers
to a subject awaiting further subjection rather than a presubjective subject.
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68 Krips
original l ack-on the contrary, that lack always and already continues-but rather
because they act as a distraction.22
This distraction works by the deflection of individuals’ attention towards the
pursuits and away from their continuing failure to achieve satisfaction, especially at
those moments when they obtain the objects they have been pursuing and so yet
again face their failure to achieve satisfaction. At such moments, instead of
acknowledging failure, individuals undergo a displacement of attention onto yet
other objects to pursue. But how do such distractions, deflections, and dis-
placements work; how is it that individuals are distracted in this way? According to
Lacan, the business of repetition and variation compels subjects’ attention because
it yields a certain return of pleasure, to the point where they ignore their continuing
failures to get the satisfaction they are always and already seeking:
This variation makes one forget the aim of the significance by transforming its act into
a game, and giving it certain outlets that go some way towards satisfying the pleasure
principle (Lacan 1981, 62).
As a result of this game, the outline of the mother as an embodiment of the child’s
lack is washed “by the brush-strokes and gouaches of desire” (Lacan 1981, 63).
From this perspective, it follows that desire is created whenever subjects are in
the situation of recapitulating their original lack by coming face to face with the
failure of their strategies for achieving satisfaction. This act of creation involves a
strategy of distraction and a corresponding emergence of desire. Social an-
tagonisms, I claim, exemplify such situations, that is, they are sites at which there is
a recapitulation or repetition (in the Freudian sense of Wiederholung) of the primal
scene of lack.
What grounds this relation of repetition? I claim that it is enabled by the
following structural similarity between antagonisms and the primal scene. Both
sorts of situations involve a threat to the integrity of the individual as well as an
anxiety that flows from the failure to control. More specifically, the primal scene
involves the child’s lack of control over what it experiences as a part of itself,
namely, the mother; and an antagonism, such as my interrupted stroll, involves a
not dissimilar unravelling of my world-I face a mysterious, hostile, and over-
powering environment in which my own meanings and those of my actions are
placed under threat. In other words, the repetition is grounded in a homology
between the primal threat to the child’s integrity and antagonism-in both cases
there is a certain splitting [Spaltung] of the individual’s being and a manifest lack of
22. “Lack” here is not meant in an affective sense, as a felt desire for something that is absent. On the
contrary, such lack is that which subsequently gives rise to desire. But neither is the lack in question
purely functional. On the contrary, it is intentional in the sense that what is lacking is imagined-mediated
by an image. At issue here is the nature of human life in what Lacan calls the domain of the imaginary
which includes images, drives, needs, and demands, but not desires.
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Althusser and Lacan 69
sel f-~ontrol .~~ Such similarity may seem a tenuous basis for regarding one situation
as a repetition of the other, but, as Freud has shown, repetition is a compulsion that
needs little in the way of “objective” similarity upon which to ground itself. Even
the slightest resemblance may result in a transfer of the affect or libidinal charge
associated with the primal scene onto a new situation which thereby becomes a
“repetition” of that scene.24
The claim that antagonisms constitute repetitions in the full Freudian sense
implies that they will be sites at which desire is created. In the context of the
policeman’s call, this act of creation may take the form of the emergence of a sense
of outrage at the rude violation of my right to walk my neighborhood streets
unmolested, together with a burning ambition (desire) to defend my innocence; on
the other hand, I may turn and run, driven by an overwhelming urge (desire) to
leave the suddenly unfriendly and dangerous streets. In either event, the specific
form of the emergent desire is explained by, and in turn provides evidence for, a
relation of repetition between the social antagonism and the primal scene of lack.25
More direct knowledge of such repetition will, of course, be repressed, since the
whole point of the exercise, indeed any exercise, is to distract attention from the
primal scene of lack and the attendant failures that continue to haunt the subject.
This is the fundamental Freudian thesis of repression.26
23. Contrast this with the way in which a cotton-reel becomes a substitute for the mother in the context
of theforr-du game which provides a rerun of the child’s brush with the primal scene of lack, despite the
apparent (apparent even to the child) failure of similarity between the child’s toy and its mother: “This
reel is not the mother reduced to a little ball by some magical game wohy of the Jivaros” (Lacan 1981.62).
24. Of course, there is no ironclad guarantee that any resemblance will succeed in grounding a
repetitiom-whether it does so always depends upon unpredictable local contingencies. Nevertheless, my
hypothesis is that antagonisms always constitute repetitions-that at t hi s point the social and psychic
converge. In the present context, a somewhat weaker assumption would do the same explanatory work.
25. As Scriven among others has pointed out, such circularity (the explanandurn acting as evidence or,
more accurately, an inferential base for the expl ums) is not an objection to the explanation, although it
does prevent it from assuming any sort of predictive function (see the discussion in Scriven 1962). Note
that such abductive inference-from explanandurn to explanam-requires that the explanation offered is
the best available. In the two cases considered here-the burning ambition to defend my innocence and
the overwhelming urge to run away-the alternative explanation for the desires in terms of rational
argument (I wanted to defend my innocence or turn and run because I had good reason to) seems
inappropriate precisely because, ex hypothesi, the desires are so strong.
26. I have considerably simplified the Lacanian account of the constitution of the subject and the
corresponding initiation into desire. In particular, I have omitted the intermediate “stage” (or constitutive
layer) which involves the formation of the Other in relation to whose desire the desire of the subject is
determined. I have also omitted the final “stage” in which the Law of the father is created as a blockage
that reifies the subject’s fundamental failure to achieve satisfaction. These complications suggest further
homologies between the Lacanian and Althusserian conceptual schemes, homologies that by their
fascinating effects display the workings of desire even at the humble site of texts and their writers and
readers. These homologies, in t urn, provide useful further support for my arguments-for instance, by
placing the policeman, as the Law’s “long arm,” in the place of the Father who represents the Law and
thus stands in the way of desire. Of course, the policeman is not in any straightforward way a father
substitute but rather a screen which conceals the absence of the father from his place. This distinction
parallels Lacan’s distinction between the penis and the phallus.
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70 Krips
Conclusion
I have urged that ideological state apparatuses discharge their constitutive role by
engendering antagonisms. These antagonisms, in turn, play a constitutive role by
acting as sites where subjects repeat their originary or primal lack (what Lacan calls
“the Real”) and thus come to desire. Such a Lacanian supplement to Althusser’s
theory resituates the engine driving the interpellative mechanism. Constitutive
effects are not a matter of rhetoric (as the humanist account would have it) nor
indeed the products of political or institutional processes. Instead, they depend upon
a psychic mechanism of repetition, connecting antagonisms that surface at the site
of the ISA’s call with the primal lack experienced by the call’s addressees, a
connection that leads the addressees to reconstitute their desires.
My account has relocated the element of causality as it appears in traditional
socialization accounts of the relation between subject and society. Subjects, I have
argued, are not pressured to accept already constituted images of themselves;
instead, the element of causation is located at those points where subjects are led to
construct the images of themselves in terms of which they are subjected (thereby, as
Althusser says, proving their “freedom”):
the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to
the commandments of the Subject . . . [and] . . . (freely) accept his ~ubjection.~’
This account of the constitution of the subject has drifted some way from
Althusser’s. In particular, I have broken the tight connection, evident in both the
structure and content of Althusser’s “Ideological State Apparatuses” essay, between
the constitution of the subject (the topic of the essay’s second half) and ISAs (the
topic of the first half). By breaking this connection it becomes necessary to
reconceptualize interpellation, either as the means by which ISAs engage their
subjects or as a mode of constitution of the subject. As I indicated (in footnote two
above), Althusser equivocates between, indeed runs together, these two different
senses of interpellation, a strategy he sustains by assuming a close connection or
identity between the means by which ISAs address their subjects and the processes
by which those subjects are constituted. I propose to arrest this equivocation and
reconceive interpellation as the process by which antagonisms constitute subjects
and desires. The role of the ISA is then moved back one step in the causal chain that
leads to the constitution of subjects: ISAs create antagonisms, and the latter then
become sites of interpellation, where subjects are finally constituted.28
27. Althusser (1971, 182; also see 175): “What really takes place in ideology seems therefore to take
place outside it.” Note that the choice here is not illusory, even though the act of choosing is not itself
chosen freely. On the other hand, the choice is also not totally open: what subjects choose and what they
want are at least in part determined by locally contingent circumstances. But typically this extra
dimension of causation, along with the compulsory nature of the act of choice itself, is invisible or
concealed, thereby forwarding the ideology of the free subject by a process of misrepresentation. Note,
too, that in this context traditional and Althusserian modes of ideology coincide.
28. Thus it becomes a contingent claim that ISAs lead to the interpellation of subjects (via the formation
of antagonisms), whereas for Althusser this claim is analytic.
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Althusser and Lacan 71
Despite such reconceptualization, the term “interpellation” remains appropriate
here. I have changed its meaning only to the extent of centering it upon one of the
two senses that Althusser himself employs: interpellation is the process of constitut-
ing the subject rather than the formal interrogation of subjects by ideological
apparatuses of the State.
Finally, let me point out that my views do not support a postpolitical conception
of power which attempts to explain away forms of subjection as “really” psychic in
nature. Indeed, my arguments have indicated the complex way in which the social,
in the form of antagonisms, is imbricated with the psychic at the site of the
constitution of the subject. In this way, my analysis indicates the need both for a
politics that understands the existence of social antagonisms and for a psy-
choanalytics that explains how those antagonisms come to have the constitutive
effects of making us who we are.
I would like to thank John Beverley, Robert Resch, Patrizia Lombardo, Larry
Grossberg, Slavoy Zizek, and two anonymous referees for helpful criticism.
References
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Barrett, M. 1993. “Althusser’s Marx, Althusser’s Lacan.” In The Althusserian Legacy, ed.
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Foucault, M. 1986. “The Subject and Power.” In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and
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Scriven, M. 1962. “Explanation and Prediction.” In Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of
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