Althusser's discussion of ideology is notoriously complicated. He sees ideology as an on-going practice in which we all participate. By 'practice', I think he means our lifestyles, our behaviors, our perceptions of things.
The complicated part comes with his argument of 'interpellation'. Fiske (1991) describes this argument through a parallel: you're on the street, and someone says "Hey, you!". You may turn around - cause you understand what was said. Or you may refuse to turn around, cause you understand but nobody talks to you like that. In either case, you understand the interpellation and you react to it (There's the third scenario, when the words and the speech act mean absoultey nothing to you). In the first case (you turn around), you become complicit. In the second case, you resist. Fiske says this is how ideological interpellation works.
The other day, I've heard the story of an aquaintance from Europe who went to visit her daughter in a Nordic country. Upon her return, she said she was deeply disappointed with the Nordic country: she saw so many drunk women on the streets. She was also unhappy with all the drug-addicts roaming freely on the streets. And, last, but not least, she was upset with the presence of all 'those Somalis' on the streets of the Nordic city, as it looked like the entire Somalia has been moved there.
Yes, I know that racist interpellation too... (Shame one me!) I admit to being interpellated by racism in that way - and responding to it. I went to buy a phone card, and the guy in the booth asked me "Where are you from?" (Well, I was speaking English in a Nordic country). I responded unwillingly (always these questions annoy me), and, without thinking twice, I asked "Well, were are you from?" Now, might look innocent to you, but the guy in the booth was of the different skin color, and at that time, I noticed those things. I noticed them as part of the 'order' or 'muddle' (to use Bateson's famous metalogue "Why do things get in a muddle?") - in other words, my vision was racist, so I assumed a priori a black guy cannot be a nordic.
As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized the stupidity of my question, but by then it was too late. The guy was kind enough to smile and respond naturally: "Well, I'm from here". And that was the end of it. But the incident stayed with me. I realized the racism behind my vision: I saw black. And black and Nordic do not match. It is often said that white racism is inconspicuous, because you never think of places or people as being white, and in that case, I think it was true. It never occured to me that I'd question someone's 'belonging' (now, I have problems with belonging as a concept...) based on skin color - but I did it, and I did it through a routine and unconscious vision framing what I saw in the world.
So, I cannot be too tough on the lady who was bothered by the Somalis on the streets of the Nordic city. What bothered her, I asked myself? The same interpellation of racism "Hey, you, there's black in the white place. Black is different. Is not 'from here'. It 'muddles' things". It muddled her expectation of a Nordic city as a white city.
Now, here comes the irony - or the paradox. The lady in question has been married to a black guy. Her daughter, whom she was visiting, is herself black. So, I wonder, how can racism still interpellate the mother in this way, when her own daughter has mostly likely been objectified by racism in the same way?
References: Fiske, J. (1991) Introduction to Communication Studies. 2nd edition, London & NY: Routledge
Photo Credits: Brad Florescu