Fly on the Wall—Interpolation, Part II

Wherein We Become One With the System

That we all desire life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is core to the ideology of our neighbours to the south.   It’s hard to quibble with such a phrase; this simple sentence seems the bedrock of any true democracy founded on the rule of law and an equitable application of equal opportunity for all.

And yet, (if you haven’t noticed already, in the social sciences there is almost always an “and yet”), the suffix to the American founding principle is key: “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Whenever a fact is presented as certain and obvious we’ll find, lurking in back, for better or for worse or both, an ideology upholding the belief presenting itself absolute.

As we all know, neither Canada nor the USA is quite as rife with liberty and happiness as we would prefer.  It wasn’t the case after World War 2 when hundreds of millions of adults went to bed at night in fear that they and their children would be bombed into oblivion by nuclear warheads, and it’s not the case today – for reasons that we each know in our minds, if not in our mental health diagnoses.  Studying how we come to accept reality, as those with power present it to us, is core to sociological theory.  To justify contradictions within the too-pat assertions about reality that uphold this or that social order, Louis Althusser reminds us of the reality of ideology whereby a cookie cutter approach applies itself to us all in theory, if not in practice.  “Ideology is a ‘representation’ of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their Real conditions of existence.”

Althusser, during the 1970s, also presented reality in a succinct nutshell by utilizing a key term: interpolation.  By the process of interpolation we each are folded into the dough of reality, the substance of society.  Folded in like raisins into a cake or cinnamon into a bun, we feel ourselves meld and become one with our substrate as the process is kneaded.  Through interpolation we come to feel like we belong, that our ideas are shared by others and, crucially, that our beliefs are natural and just.  Unlike fresh baked goods exiting the oven, interpolation is not always so sweet, or at the very least not pleasurable to the psychological palate for everyone everywhere all of the time.  The residential schools, for example, were said to be bringers of a better life to Indigenous children,  however were an evil injustice to their unfortunate pupils.  And we all know how patriarchy until less than a half century ago gave countless legal rights to husbands but not to wives.  Change happens but inertia prevails, and it takes a lot of resistance for the status quo in a given scene to not appear normal and reasonable and, well, self-evident.

This begs a question, itself ironically one of those logical fallacies that those who take the rules of truth too seriously sometimes refer to – like a Ten Commandments of discursive foreplay.  Can we ever overcome beliefs that we’ve been marinated in since birth or are we forever indentured to the process of acculturation that gives our world meaning?  To begin with, it’s necessary to recall that these powerful ideologies that uniquely prevail in every human culture begin with not only the self-evidence of their truth claims but also with a series of heuristic devices whereby so-called truths are unlocked or discovered.  Justifying inequality and the status quo is the goal and the way to get there is to have recipe answers that paint with the broadest brush possible; ideally, these simple solutions really do seem self-evident to those living them.  It’s like asking a tadpole how it feels to be a frog; much that is possible is unthinkable in nature as in society.

Whose Reason and How

We’re supposed to, in culture, come to our own conclusions that simultaneously find agreement or a niche of rebellion within the prevalent norms of our time in history: it’s no conspiracy or cult, anthropologists for hundreds of years (with names like Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Levi Strauss, and Emile Durkheim) have noted these patterns of human societies—each requiring explanations and beliefs to hold their tribe or civilization together.  Like actors on a stage, to grow up to the stature od adulthood, we must (consciously and/or unconsciously) have an answer to the Oscars-worthy query: “what’s my motivation?”  It’s tough, after all, to feel like doing our duty when we don’t believe in the process; armies, be they armed or heading to work in traffic, run best not only on full bellies but also, crucially, on minds full of surety in the nobility of their task.  Our reasoning, too, must be motivated by an optimism in the outcomes of our belief system.

Contrast unmotivated reasoning; can we ever be objective and scientific about our human realm?  If ideology is real, then we may be fooling ourselves if we believe that we are fully capable of parsing out ideological brainwash from value-neutral assertions.  There’s an awful lot of assumptions left unquestioned when everything we think and feel feels, well, natural and inevitable.  Self-evident, if you will.  What we put in our minds parallels what we put in our bodies, in terms of content and consequences.  And even if we visit a pleasant panoply of news and culture websites that provide a wide snapshot of social reality there will still be some nuggets of wisdom that prevail upon us as truth, rather than carefully crafted spin.

There’s a reason why babies are so refreshingly simple in their expression; they don’t have language yet.  Language frames the world in a certain way; it’s baked into our minds along with our culture’s ideology.  These beliefs we hold are not easily fallible, either.  We abide amidst an epistemic realm of mutually-exclusive belief systems, each of whom may answer the other’s critiques but often in ways that the Other finds unacceptable.  Just as Newtonian physics works fine for an engineer throughout her career whereas Einstein’s theory of relativity only applies within the confines of coffee shop conjecture and a few physics classrooms, much of reality is about as testable as a saucer clattering off a table and onto a sidewalk.  In the end reality is up to our interpretations, should we choose to accept the mission.  It’s the meanings behind realty, the motivations, the “did you makes this mess on purpose to upset me?” that are so uncannily tied to social context.

No wonder people find it easier to be polite in public than, sometimes, around those whom we love the most!  Politeness, like other shared values, functions for cohesion and sometimes at the expense of honesty.  When we’re most at ease we’re often least mappable onto ideological terrain; that is, least interpolated into the social whole and thereby feeling less anonymous and alienated from meaning.  Reflection is part of authenticity but authenticity itself is in some ways a product of circumstance and even whimsy.

So let’s keep life simple, not by always putting our cherished beliefs on trial, but instead by remembering that nothing is ever quite as certain as the easy answers we intuitively seek to provide.  And most of all, remember that there’s a kernel of truth in every belief and every opinion!  In the end we have more control over our reality than we might realize.  As the artists of our own truth we can recall, with H.G.  Hegel, that “Public opinion contains all kinds of falsity and truth, but it takes a great person to find the truth in it.” We truly can, within reason, make our reality into our truth.

Althusser, L.  In ‘University of Colorado: English 2012’.  (2010).  Retrieved from
Hegel, H.G.  LibQuotes.  Retrieved from