Ideology and (de)radicalisation (part 1)

In the wake of the recent Paris attacks there has been a lot of soul searching regarding the state of readiness of Western capitals to both prevent and respond to such events.  And part of this soul searching has focused on the question of radicalisation and de-radicalisation.  In other words, what makes (predominately but not exclusively) young Muslim men want to travel to Syria and other combat zones, and to join ISIS and affiliated groups;  and then, in some cases, to bring the war back home?   Leading on from this, what can be done to dissuade such young Muslim men from doing this, beyond the obvious physical sanctions?

There are numerous theories that try to explain what draws people to radical, and in some cases, terrorist, organisations.  And perhaps not surprisingly, some of these have drawn upon psychoanalytic ideas.  From a Lacanian position, I think the most promising avenue is to look at psychoanalytic theories of ideology.   The focus here is not so much on the content of the ideology, but rather on how such ideas are ‘internalised’ by the subject.  Another way to pose this question, following Althusser, is to ask: how does an ideology interpellate its subjects?  In other words, how do ideologies constitute, construct, their subjects?

The first thing to point out is that interpellation is never successful.  As Mladen Dolar argues, there is no ‘clean cut’ between ‘pre-interpellation’ and ‘post-interpellation’; between the ‘pre-ideological’ subject and the ‘post-ideological’ one.1 Interpellation always fails.   In fact, argues Dolar, it’s precisely where the ideological subject fails that the psychoanalytic subject appears:

Interpellation was based on a happy transition from a pre-ideological state into ideology: success fully achieved, it wipes out the traces of its origin and results in a belief in the autonomy and self-transparency of the subject. The subject is experienced as a causa sui– in itself an inescapable illusion once the operation is completed. The psychoanalytic point of departure is the remainder produced by the operation; psychoanalysis does not deny the cut, it only adds a remainder.2

If interpellation was totally successful then the subject would have no sense of who they were prior to the ‘ideological conversion’.   The problem lies with the ‘remainder’, that vestige of the ‘pre-interpellation’, often appearing in the form of symptoms.  The degree to which interpellation is only ever partially successful can be illustrated by what happens when a whole political/ideological system fails, for example Nazism in 1945, or East European communism in the early 1990s.  Suddenly large masses of supposedly indoctrinated citizens were denouncing the fallen regime and adjusting rapidly to their new masters and the new ideology.  And even prior to such a collapse, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that many in the population were only giving lip service to the dominant ideology, for example in East Germany during the Soviet era.

However, even if interpellation is never totally successfully, i.e. if it never completely manages to create an ideological subject, neither does it totally fail either.   Perhaps it might be better to talk about degrees of interpellation, degrees of ideological conversion.   And this brings us back to the question of radicalisation and de-radicalisation.  I think it would be reasonable to argue that radicalisation equates with interpellation, and that the degree to which a subject is radicalised is the degree to which ideological interpellation has been successful.  In other words, the extent to which the ideology has constructed a new subject, who has no sense of a life or an identity prior to the process of interpellation/indoctrination.

But what produces ideological interpellation in the first place?  Althusser was quite clear: the ideological state apparatuses.3 And these apparatuses comprise not only the usual suspects, i.e. the media, schools, the political and legal systems, but also the family, arts and entertainment, trade unions, and even sports.  For Althusser, the purposes of such ideological apparatuses was to create subjects who would be compliant with the needs of the capitalist economy.   A more post-structuralist version of the ideological state apparatuses, drawing especially on the ideas of Michel Foucault,  argues that instead of power and ideology emanating from ‘the state’ (which even in Althusser’s theory is hardly a monolithic entity), we should think of networks of discursive practices, for example psychiatry, medicine, education, the penal system, and so on, which each construct or interpellate their own form of subject.

But what about social media, which is often seen as the prime culprit in the radicalisation of young (and not so young) Muslims?  In many ways I think it could be argued that social media is the realisation of the ideologue’s and the propagandist’s dream.  It provides all the necessary ingredients for ideological interpellation, including videos, images, texts, and sound, which can be beamed straight into a person’s smartphone.

But what of the content?  Is it simply a matter of propagating the idea of a corrupt, secular West and the need for a revival of a true, fundamentalist Islam?    No doubt this is part of the story, but I would argue there is something even more fundamental going on here, which has little to do with specific ideas relating to a particular religion.  And this links to the very idea of ‘the social’ in social media itself.

in his article What is the Social in Social Media?: Geert Lovink argues:

Social media fulfil the promise of communication as an exchange; instead of forbidding responses, they demand replies. Similar to an early writing of Baudrillard’s, social media can be understood as “reciprocal spaces of speech and response” that lure users to say something, anything.4

Lovink goes on to argue that social media is the new (digital) version of the Other, which we are all desperately wanting to exist, to recognise us, to save us.  In this sense, social media is ‘the social’, is ‘society’.  And although it is tempting to be cynical and say that social media is somehow a ‘fake’ form of social interaction,  compared to how it used to be, perhaps we should ask ourselves what exactly ‘the social’ was prior to the age of the internet and social media.   Actually, for virtually all of the twentieth century it was other forms of media: film, radio, television, newspapers, magazines, books, and so on.   There is nothing new about social media, in the sense that for most people for most of the time, ‘the social’ is a set of mediated relationships.  And, of course, ultimately, all human relations are mediated by the semiotic universe, the network of signifiers and signifieds (the Lacanian Symbolic and Imaginary).

What has this got to do with interpellation?  The critical point here is that, were interpellation to totally succeed, the ideological subject would be the embodiment of ‘the social’; a perfect communion of the subject and the Other (or, as Dolar puts it, the Other as Subject), where there is no lack, no inconsistency, just harmony and oneness.  If such a subject were to actually exist it would be a truly radical(ised) subject indeed…

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  1. Dolar, M. (1993) ‘Beyond Interpellation’. Qui Parle, 6 (2), pp.75-96 []
  2. ibid p.77 []
  3. Althusser, L. (2001) ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus (Notes towards an Investigation)’. In: Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York, Monthly Review Press, pp.85-126. []
  4. Geert Lovink What Is the Social in Social Media? | e-flux. Available from: <> [Accessed 14 December 2015]. []