The “Zero Degree of Social Conceptualization”: Flesh Outside Ideology in Hortense Spillers and Louis Althusser

Hortense Spillers and Louis Althusser have a lot in common. They have both published monumental works that cast a long shadow. They both engage with notions of psychoanalysis and redeploy those ideas along innovative trajectories. However, Spillers is often left out of crucial conversations about gender (where she is supplanted by Foucault, Rubin, and Butler) and ideological interpellation (where she is supplanted by Althusser). Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” (1987) must be put into the broader conversation with these theorists. In this case, specifically, Spillers exposes fundamental blind spots in Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970).

When Spillers writes:

I would make a distinction in this case between “body” and “flesh” and impose that distinction as the central one between captive and liberated subject-positions. In that sense, before the “body” there is “flesh,” that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography. (67)

she refers to a functionary similar to Althusser’s “Ideology.” However, there are crucial distinctions in their two constructions. This could be attributed to Althusser’s obtuseness. For the enslaved person in the context of North American chattel slavery, there is no “family state apparatus” and “educational state apparatus” (251) — kinship relations and educational structures for the enslaved person must exist entirely outside of the state apparatus and on the (provisional) “periphery” of ideology. Althusser speaks of the sixteen year old child being “ejected ‘into production,’” but the enslaved person always-already exists “in production” when present within the context of North American chattel slavery, because they are rendered as capital rather than as participants in capitalism.

The numerous ways in which Althusser’s enduring example (not metaphor), the “police hail,” fails to account for certain lived experiences is made clear by Spillers and contemporary examples. When Althusser writes “that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’,” (264) it rings false to the readers who are aware that there are many “flesh” forms (as distinct from “body”) that the police do NOT hail. Rather, to these forms (human subjects in contestation, being divested of subjecthood and inherently resisting that divestiture) have a will imposed upon them (violence), have an identity imposed upon them (violence), and have physical force imposed upon them (violence). This is a far cry from the “recruitment” to which Althusser refers. Althusser might be encountering the same problem seen in much of Marxist thinking, the inability to conceptualize the moral subject who is constantly divested of that marker (moral subjecthood) and attempted to be rendered as capital. The inability to conceptualize the talking commodity, “the commodity’s scream.”1

Althusser, in his attempt to elucidate the functioning of “ideology” contributes to the “brush of discourse” and “the reflexes of iconography” that erases the “flesh/body” distinction that Spillers exposes. In fact, the “zero degree of social conceptualization” that Spillers describes exists outside of ideology. “Flesh” is the human form divested of gender and moral subjecthood, but struggling against those divestitures. “Flesh” is the human form that ideology cannot acknowledge or that ideology actively refuses.

Althusser and Spillers are on the same page to a certain extent. When Althusser writes “Ideology has a material existence” (258), he anticipates Spillers construction of ethnicity as an function of appraisal (or ideological interpellation, if you will) that has “dangerous and fatal effects” (66). For Althusser, though, ideology is a far more collaborative and far less violent process. Althusser seems to have no inkling of the violence ideology could enact on a subject he could never recognize — a resistant subject that is rejected by ideology. Spillers is intimately familiar with this type of subjecthood and her enumeration, as has been demonstrated, has enormous consequences for Althusser’s thinking.

For Spillers, ideology attaches “narrative” to “flesh” and creates the “body”. This is a different sketch of ideological interpellation from Althusser. Althusser takes for granted that “the practical rituals of the most elementary everyday life” (263) apply to every human form. Though a human form might be present in a space over which ideology has cast its web, the human form can be “flesh” and be divested of “the fact of knowing … that [the contested subject has] a name of [their] own, which means that [they] are recognized as a unique subject” (263). After all, what is the name of the enslaved person? The one inflicted and branded upon them by the enslaver? To this point, Spillers deploys the example of the “slave ship.” She writes:

Those African persons in “Middle Passage” were literally suspended in the “oceanic,” if we think of the latter in its Freudian orientation as an analogy for undifferentiated identity: removed from the indigenous land and culture, not-yet “American” either, these captive persons, without names that their captors would recognize, were in movement across the Atlantic, but they were also nowhere at all. Inasmuch as, on any given day, we might imagine, the captive personality did not know where s/he was, we could say that they were culturally “unmade,” thrown in the midst of a figurative darkness that “exposed” their destinies to an unknown course. (72)

Spillers example is not metaphorical, but literal. For both Spillers and Althusser, the question of ideology plays out across interactions and human forms and occurs within real space.

Another issue at hand is the fact that although the “flesh” of the enslaved person or resistant subject has a set of unique practices which might be constitutive of ideology in certain contexts, because those practices are disavowed by the ideology at large and misunderstood when apprehended by functionaries, branches, agents of the ideological stat apparatus (you were waiting for that one, weren’t you?) they can only produce a pseudo-ideology because no narrative is produced by the practices that can transform the “flesh” into “body” within the ideology at large. When Althusser writes:

I say: the category of the subject is constitutive of all ideology, but at the same time immediately I add that the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects. In the interaction of this double constitution exists the functioning of all ideology, ideology being nothing but its functioning in the material forms of existence of that functioning. (262)

and more specifically relevant, “There is no practice except by and in an ideology” (261), he is incorrect. The failure here is the ability to conceive of the “flesh” as Spillers has described, and the inability to identify practices that transfer from one ideology (pre-kidnapping, pre-enslavement, pre-“Middle Passage”) into another in such an unclean fashion that these practices can never reproduce the ideology they were torn from. There is a narrative here, there is a genealogical tie to ideology that these practices have, but it is unrecognizable under the ideology at hand. What is the narrative? Spillers writes, “If we think of the ‘flesh’ as a primary narrative, then we mean its seared, divided, ripped-apartness, riveted to the ships hole, fallen, or ‘escaped’ overboard” (67). This narrative, fundamentally, cannot attach itself to “flesh” and produce a “body,” and thus a subject who is constantly being stripped of their subjecthood exists outside of ideology. It is the zero degree of social conceptualization, a self-awareness that exists in spite of ideology, rather than because of it.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. On The Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. London: Verso Books, 2014. Print.

Moten, Fred. In The Break: the Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Print.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 64. Web.

  1. See Fred Moten, In The Break (2003), pg 8-13  


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