Interpellation, Hegemony, and the Media Industry

Throughout the history of the media industry, there has been much progression in terms of technological evolution, audience perception, and in the modernisation of the regulations that govern such institutions.  But there are some aspects of the media industry that have remained consistent throughout its history, one of them being the overwhelming majority of privately owned corporations when measured against the almost none-existent government subsidised organisations.  Media institutions have always required a high level of investment as regards an initial capital, then following on with production and distribution costs, so it would not be unrealistic to conclude that these private investors and owners would want to protect their monetary interests.  Marxists thinkers would argue that it goes beyond just protecting this investment, and that what is actually being preserved is the ruling ideology, further cementing the class superiority of the modern day bourgeoisie.  Others might be of the opinion that political favouritism is what crucially motivates the ownership, particularly so for news in print since they are by far less regulated and therefore less impartial than broadcasting for example.  But whatever it is that motivates the ownership to maintain the status quo and hence the capitalist agenda, they do so through mechanisms that also have remained constant throughout the history of the media, these are Interpellation and Hegemony.  By looking at these concepts and understanding their function within contemporary media, one can better understand the message.   

Louis Althusser was a French professor and Marxist philosopher, who used the term ‘interpellation’ to explain how audiences of mass communication engage with media texts.  In his view, interpellation is a fundamental belief and acceptance on the part of a subject, that he or she is in fact the subject, and is therefore being addressed directly.  In his essay entitled “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, Althusser explains Interpellation by using the well-known example of a police officer hailing an individual in a crowded street where “the hailed individual will turn around”.  He adds, “By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject”.  The explanation he gives for this recognition that “the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him (and not someone else)” on the part of the subject is as follows…

“Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognises that it is really him who is being hailed” (Althusser 1970).

This interpellation has historically been a function of ideological state apparatuses (or ISAs), which channel the ruling ideology to the subject.

“I shall call Ideological State Apparatuses a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialised institutions” (Althusser 1970).

Althusser goes on to differentiate between ISAs and the traditional repressive state apparatuses such as the army and the police, and compiled a list of institutions that carry ideology in their message as follows…

  • The religious ISA (the system of the different churches),
  • The educational ISA (the system of different public and private ‘schools’),
  • The family ISA,
  • The legal ISA,
  • The political ISA (the political system, including the different parties),
  • The trade-union ISA,
  • The communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.),
  • The cultural ISA (literature, the arts, sports, etc.).

The ISA that most concerns us in this study is of course the communications ISA, which encompasses the media industry.  In his book entitled “Media and Modernity – A Social Theory of the Media”, John B Thompson classifies the media industry (as well as other ISAs) as holding ‘symbolic power’, a notion that he describes as follows…

“I shall use the term ‘symbolic power’ to refer to this capacity to intervene in the course of events, to influence the actions of others and indeed to create events, by means of the production and transmission of symbolic forms” (1995: P17).

We can begin to understand how the media interpellates us through the power of persuasion, and by tapping into our emotions, states of being that we are all familiar with.  When addressed, we are placed in a social context that we can recognise and associate with according to demographics and cultural studies.  The way in which we engage with what is familiar to us, brings a certain credibility and acceptance to a media text, because we can relate to it.  Althusser further explains that…

“It is indeed a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognise and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the ‘still, small voice of conscience’): That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!” (Althusser 1970).

There are many techniques employed by the media industry to achieve interpellation of its audiences, both psychological and physical.  In broadcasting for example, it is conventional to have a presenter addressing his or her audience in a direct manner.  Whilst radio listeners only have their aural perception by which to receive such transmissions, television audiences can decode the message both aurally and visually.  It makes sense that technology has evolved specifically to this aim; the teleprompter has been in existence for almost as long as television itself, and allows presenters to maintain eye contact with their subjects at home without having to defer whilst looking at a script.  The presenter maintaining uninterrupted eye contact helps to keep audiences interpellated and thus engaged with the medium.  Once we have accepted that one is being addressed directly through the medium of television for example, the experience becomes normalised, and therefore viewers tend to extend this relation in a generalised manner, across all media and genres.  This could be interpreted as the process of interpellation in its totality.  Interpellation has therefore become a perfect avenue through which the media industry can channel hegemony to the masses.  Gary Tedman expands further on this in his book entitled “Aesthetics and Alienation” and goes on to say that…

“Media techniques of interpellation fill much of the interregnum, which we have defined as the aesthetic level, between the superstructure (state) and the infrastructure (civil society), and essentially these can be described as a form of intersubjective imperialism” (2012: P82-83).

He then refers directly to our second mechanism of the media industry as an ISA…

“As such, they are techniques that quite naturally belong to the long and wearisome history of patriarchy, slavery, exploitation, colonisation and imperialism” (2012: P82-83).

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian writer, political theorist, philosopher, sociologist, linguist, and communist but more importantly, he was an important Marxist thinker who developed the notion of “Cultural Hegemony” to its present day form.  The term Hegemony is one that derives from the ancient Greek hgemonika summacia [hegemonika symmachia] and was used to describe an alliance of states under the direction of a dominant one called the hegemon [hegemon].  Gramsci himself defines hegemony as follows…

“The ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterised by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent.” (1971: P215 in Storey 1994)

From this we can derive that cultural hegemony is how the ruling ideology will use cultural institutions (the aforementioned ISAs) to exert consensual influence in their own favour, and through which they will subliminally propose that the working class accept their views as an inevitable reality.  In this modern consumerist world in which we exist, to say that the media industry is at present, the most important or influential ISA for the purposes of exerting hegemonic influence over a consensual audience, would not be an unfathomable assumption.  The most obvious way to deploy this power over the lower working class is through omission or censorship.  The imposed Lingua Franca (or the official line), is limited to information that suits the ruling ideology’s agenda, which in a consumerist society, can influence the way people work or earn a living, how they pursue leisure activities and entertainment, how they spend and consume on a daily basis, and how they think and behave within their society.  This type of censorship is most apparent in news organisations, where the emphasis usually lies on local news.  Individualisation of the workforce is key to this agenda as when an individual is most immediately concerned with their personal issues, they are less aware of the greater part they play within a hegemonic society.  It is clear to see that the media industry has significantly modernised how audiences view and interact with their products to this aim, through the introduction of personal smart-devices, and its growing contemporary uses.

But aside from individualism, the key concepts that are imposed on the working class in this power struggle are western democracy, capitalism, patriarchy, religion, and consumerism.  On the other hand, matters relating to communism, socialism and atheism are often neglected and generally portrayed in a negative light.  This is most evident in the movie industry where producers can freely convey their desired message without the constraints inherent to the transmission of more factual content, such as news broadcasts for example.  In any case, with the advent of post-modernist theories of implosion, or the ‘collapse of meaning’ as theorised by Frederick Jameson and Jean Baudrillard, it makes sense that entertainment media has become a better avenue through which to exert cultural hegemony in a postmodern society.  Media expert David Tetzlaff suggests in his essay that…

“Mass-produced culture does contribute mightily to the maintenance of the social order in late capitalism, but that it does so more through social and semiotic fragmentation than by forging any sort of ideological unity among the subordinate” (1992: P49).

With audiences now saturated by the mass media, they are seemingly less likely to “engage mass produced culture on the level of ideology, myth, or even pragmatic information” (Tetzlaff, 1992: P49). Gone are the days when strongly motivated newspaper articles such as Gramsci’s very own, published on the 22nd of December 1916 in “Avanti!” are used to deliver an ideological message to an unsuspecting audience.  Tabloids have now become more popular and mainstream than the more academic and intellectualised broadsheets for example, the whole ethos of what is newsworthy has shifted to incorporate the entertainment industry.  So as progressive as is modern popular culture, it would seem that this ideological force that drives our society in maintaining its current regime is equally so, if not more.  The media industry has turned the tables on society by focusing on promoting this post-modern consumerist culture, which suits the ownership just fine as they keep on raking in millions in terms of advertising revenue, product sales, through subscription fees for acquiring their intellectual property, and for the reception of commoditised social events.  Cultural hegemony (although not at an ideological level) still applies, since the media ownership has found new ways for it to stretch out.  James Curran describes this progression in his book entitled ‘Media and Power’…

“Indeed the media as a whole became an agency of social integration in ways that had striking parallels with the church in the central Middle Ages…The commonality of the Christian faith was replaced by the commonality of consumerism, feted in consumer advertising, and of nationalism affirmed by ritualised national media events” (2002: P77).

But whatever the changes in society and popular culture, it necessary follows that, for as long as there is a capitalist system in place, there will be those that would exert hegemonic influence to an already interpellated audience (usually the lower classes), in order to maintain their fruitful economic endeavors in favourable form.  As Curran explains…

“The new priesthood of the modern media supplanted the old in building consent for an inegalitarian social order” (2002: P78).

Christian Gadd (1952 Words).

Semester 2 (January – May 2014) : Media, Culture and Society.


Althusser, Louis (1970), ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ Marxists Internet Archive [Accessed 23rd April 2014]

Felluga, Dino (2011), ‘Modules on Althusser: On Ideological State Apparatuses: Introductory Guide to Critical Theory’ Purdue University [Accessed 23rd April 2014]

Thompson, John B. (1995), ‘Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media’ Cambridge: Polity Press

Tedman, Gary (2012), ‘Aesthetics & Alienation’ United Kingdom: John Hunt Publishing

Gramsci, Antonio (1916), ‘Newspapers and the Workers’ Marxists Internet Archive [Accessed 23rd April 2014]

Rosengarten, Frank (1978), ‘An introduction to Gramsci’s Life and Thought’ Marxists Internet Archive [Accessed 23rd April 2014]

Gramsci, Antonio (1971), ‘Selections from the Prison Notebooks’ Lawrence and Wishart, London. Cited in Storey (1995), p. 215.


Baudrillard, J. (1980), ‘The Implosion of Meaning in the Media and the Implosion of the Social in the Masses’, pp. 137-148 in Woodward, K. (ed.), (19080) The Myths of Information: Technology and Post-industrial Culture. Madison, WI: Coda Press.

Jameson, F. (1984), ‘Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ New Left Review 146: P53-92.

Tetzlaff et al. (1992), ‘Popular Culture and Social Control in Late Capitalism’ in Scannell et al. (ed.) (1992), ‘Culture and Power: A Media Culture and Society Reader’, London: Sage

Curran, J. (2002), Media and Power, London: Routledge


About Christian Gadd

Christian Gadd
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