From the Hall(s) of Althusser, to the Shores of Rickert!

In many ways, this week’s readings have me shouting, “Preach!” from the amen choir seat, and punching the air with exclamations of agreement and “where have you been all semester?” I find echoes of my previous reading notes in Hall and Rickert. Places where I pushed back at previous theorists regarding translation of the message and the importance of the situational factors in communication. Marginalia where I called Bitzer and Vatz out on over-simplification and where I wrote about actors not playing prescribed roles in a network or agents taking up their given niche in an ecosystem. I wrote about the GAPS that had to be crossed, and how this was imperfect. And I wrote about how rhetors become complicit in the motives of the entity on whose behalf they are speaking. NO message is without motivation for action; communication is not merely to express, but to urge people to do. What you want them to do is always bound up in what is beneficial for the speaker or entity s/he speaks for. I have struggled with not being complicit with the Althusserian model of educational institutions as Ideological State Apparatuses, and instead embrace Deweyian and Freirean liberatory pedagogies to push back at this tendency to limit, enforce, and comply. So this week’s combination of Althusser, Hall and Rickert has me feeling validated in some of my seemingly cynical and jaded musings, derived in part from my own radical sensibilities and experience as one who designed/s communications (while I am no longer a corporate communicator producing professional/technical writing per se, as an academic and as a teacher I still produce and design communications — lectures, graphic organizers, syllabi, articles, presentations, prompts, etc.).

Stop repressing me! I never gave consent! Oh, but by participating in society, you did. You certainly did. Monty Python gets Althusser and Marx quite well:

Althusser’s MAIN IDEA: Ideology, not economic forces (Marx) is the ultimate power in a capitalistic society. Ideology creates subjects who submit to the state and the status quo. The state is a “machine” that represses through violence and ideology, maintaining the dominance of the ruling class. Ideology creates subjects through interpellation. Recognizing you as an individual identifies you as part of the repressive system; co-opts your identity and subjectivity. Ideology exists as a materiality.

Althusser says that “you and I are always already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects.” ← in other words, we seek reminders of our own existence and ways to be recognized (like in The Odyssey); ← how does this relate to larp? when we roleplay; participate for this as a player? Althusser says this act of recognition as a self, as having subjectivity, then is co-opted and constructs you as a ‘subject’ as in subjected to the ideology, to the state to the system; CLAIMING to be outside ideology only demonstrates that one is within it (“you’re drinking what they’re selling” — Cake)  → claiming to objective demonstrates one’s subjectivity (and thus  complicity with ideology whereby a privileged fiction of ‘scientific method’ or objectivity is dominant)

  • “an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material.” ← ideology is not intangible; it has form; this form is not merely a representation, but enacts power ← consider artifacts, consider traces

How does this relate to networks? I’m thinking about being part of the network, and how Castells says that you become elided with it; your identity is bound up in it. And how once you are recognized on it, then you are now serving it. Thinking of Facebook and Twitter and Google and all the other “service for profile” companies that exploit your activity and use it to market. Or the crowdsourcing that co-opts your labor. Or the “prosumer” idea, where you both produce and consume (yourself). Or the Selfie movement, whereby you are given a way to be interpellated, and this binds you to the system.

Indeed, it certainly relates to Hall’s “Encoding, Decoding” (1980). During says in the editor’s introduction to the chapter that Hall notes that “messages have a ‘complex structure of dominance’ because at each stage they are ‘imprinted’ by institutional power-relations”  and the communication circuit is also a circuit which reproduces a pattern of domination” (477). Thus ideologies are created via discourse, with a preferred or dominant or privileged method of interpreting that seems naturalized to those receiving the information, thus reinforcing the dominant ways of knowing, being, doing.  Hall posits that discourse is  message exchange that is a process of linked articulations in five distinct moments: production, circulation, distribution, consumption, reproduction (478). At any one of these moments, as the message crosses the border from one articulation to the next, there is the opportunity for miscommunication or misinterpretation. At these gaps, the message is decoded, transformed, mediated or interpellated, and what was encoded is not guaranteed to be decoded. As meaning crosses these gaps (synaptic spaces, I say), there is opportunity for intervention from an outside (or internalized) force that causes the encoded meaning to be changed or transmuted. Receivers of the information need the receptors to accept a particular message (to continue lightly with the neuronal network metaphor), and if they cannot accept the code or the meaning, then the message goes into the void or the receptors are filled with something else, which mimics the original message but changes the meaning.

Hall hearkens back to Johnson-Eilola and his maps, noting that the representation of the product is not the product itself, what is consumed is the idea or the language about the product; this is already mitigated through the rules of the symbolic in language. Hall also debunks the notion that what is produced is free from rhetorical choices (have to say that was a “duh” moment for me, having made such rhetorical choices as a media relations/corporate communications professional). To be fair, he acknowledges that is shared fiction of objectivity that is a result of the institutions having been naturalized in our thought or an unexamined portion of the communication circuit. Hall was channeling Althusser when he says that “natural recognitions” have the “ideological effect of concealing the practices of coding which are present” (481) noting that this sense of seamlessness or transparency is simply the “fundamental alignment and reciprocity — an achieved equivalence — between the encoding and decoding sides of an exchange of meanings” (481). Indeed when this alignment happens, the message simply “feels right” or “seems true” or “fits”. It activates something other than logic; a sense of intuitiveness that itself is constructed. It allows for Truthiness:

Slight aside: Hall speaks of the linguistic sign for cow, and the iconic sign for cow and how they are referents for the thing they represent. My mind went to the time when I was in Japan and came to a restaurant and was trying to decipher the kanji to determine what sort of restaurant. (I thought of kanji because the Chinese radical system is more pictorial than phonetic). The first symbol, according to my dictionary, was “flaming” or “on fire”.  The second symbol was “cow.” It took me an interpretive moment to realize that “flaming cow” meant it was a barbecue restaurant, of the Japanese or Korean style, with strips of beef cooked on a central grill on your table (not teppanyaki). There were multiple moments where meaning could get lost in this transaction, but I successfully decoded the intended meaning that had been coded, and I took action by eating at the restaurant.

Rickert’s concept of rhetoric as taking place within an environment that affects the what/when/who/how/why of what is said is a breath of fresh air. AND has huge implications for my theoretical work with larps.


Althusser, L. (1969). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Retrieved April 22, 2014, from
Castells, M. (2010). The Rise of the Network Society (Second Edition., Vols. 1-3, Vol. 1). Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell.
Hall, S. (1993). Encoding, Decoding. In S. During (Ed.), The Cultural Studies Reader (3rd ed., pp. 477–487). London; New York: Routledge.
Rickert, T. (2013). Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being (1 edition.). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

One Response to From the Hall(s) of Althusser, to the Shores of Rickert!

  1. I appreciate how you have personally engaged with the majority of the course material during the semester. Your life experience prior to grad school, and how wonderfully it helps you engage with what you are learning, reminds me of returning adult students in FYC courses. They were better prepared to understand basic concepts of rhetoric (different purposes, different audiences) because they had played “life,” especially compared to the 18 year olds who had primarily “written” for their previous instructors. THANKS for your continued enthusiasm.

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