AML 3271 -- African American Literature
Survey 2 (1940 - present)
Additional/helpful Terms & Concepts

In our thoretical readings and discussions for this course, a few words will appear that need further explanation -- in particular "discourse," "ideology," "interpellation,"and "hegemony." Below are some brief discussions of each of these terms/concepts, to prepare you for their use in class (where we'll elaborate a little . . . but not much, since the definitions given here are rather full). Take these terms one at a time, and read through slowly and carefully.

CAVEAT: while these definitions/elaborations are meant to help out, DO NOT QUOTE THEM IN YOUR PAPERS!

  • discourse
    Although "discourse" has several general meanings (see your dictionary), we'll use French theorist Michel Foucault's sense of the word. For Foucault, discourse means two things simultaneously: For Foucault, human knowledge is collected in and structured by discourses; discourses give knowledge its "shape" within a society. For example, the discourse of "morality" in the U.S. takes the shape of approving some practices and condemning others, so giving a child candy for "being good" but spanking that child for "being bad" constitute part of the discourse of morality. By the same example, discussing things one considers "good" in terms of approval ("nice," "wholesome," "the right thing to do") but discussing things one considers "bad" in terms of disapproval ("disgusting," "ungodly," "immoral") constitute a discourse. Societies usually consist of numerous interrelated discourses that overlap, intersect, or reinforce each other. (Want to hear discourse at work in both its senses? Listen in on people on the street or in bars discussing/arguing charged topics like rape or abortion -- the "discourse" comes rolling out in not only the language they use, but also the arguments they give to back themslves up and the moral posture they take. Hoo hoo!)

  • ideology
    the set of beliefs (not individual, singular beliefs) underlying the customs, habits, and/or practices common to a social group. To members of that group, such beliefs seem obviously true, universally applicable -- in short, "natural" (in math you'd call them "givens" -- what you take for granted from the get-go). They're concepts and beliefs that seem so "common sense" that you'd never think about them -- you'd just assume them and live your life from there . . . and of course expect everyone else to do the same. Ideologies govern our perceptions, judgments, and prejudices -- our sense of what is acceptable, normal, "right," as well as what's unacceptable, deviant, and "wrong." For example, a sex act (or any other act) will only be considered "wrong" or "immoral" based on that society's ideology of what's sexually "right" and "normal." Ideologies are kind of like discourses, but the two terms aren't really synonymous: think of ideologies as the actual foundation for what later gets organized as discourse.
    Two important things to remember about ideologies: That last one is important: most ideologies "work" when they're considered so "natural" that they become "invisible" (like someone saying "Of course stealing is wrong -- everybody knows that!"). Ideologies "become visible" only when either they "break down" (something happens where their logic ceases to work) or when someone doesn't subscribe to that ideology (which means, of course, that s/he simply subscribes to some other ideology).
    The ideologies that pervade a society and reflect/create the ruling/dominant social groups are called dominant ideologies. So, for example, a patriarchy will operate according to a patriarchal ideology: all its beliefs and practices, its laws and its codes of conduct, its very "common sense," will operate from the basic assumption that males are and should be first. Similarly, a racist society operates as such because of its racist ideologies. The prejudices that result as a matter of course from such ideologies reinforce those same ideologies by making them appear "natural."
    "But " (I hear you ask) "doesn't this kind of thing only happen, in part, with the complicity of even those who're oppressed by these same ideologies?" To discuss that kind of effect, we need the next two terms on the list: interpellation and hegemony.

  • interpellation
    for our purposes, "interpellation" is an individual's taking an ideology "into" oneself. (There's much more involved with it than just that, but in its most basic sense that's how we'll use it -- ask me to either elaborate, or give you the reference so you can look it up.) So, we speak of people who are "interpellated by" an ideology, or whom ideology "interpellates." (Not to be confused with interpollate, which is completely different, and which your Spellcheck will probably want to trade for -- don't let it.)
    But, not all interpellation is the same -- there's a difference between being on the giving end or the receiving end of an ideology. White folk can be interpellated by white-supremacist-racist ideologies and therefore think black people inferior -- we've seen already in U.S. history what that leads to. But could black folks have been interpellated into/by the same ideology, even though they were horribly victimized by that very same ideology? If that were so, then we'd have what's called hegemony.

  • hegemony
    This term/concept explains that very kind of phenomenon -- when those who are victimized, oppressed, discarded by a dominant discourse/ideology either accept that treatment, and/or operate within it as if it were natural -- as if there were no alternative to the dominant model. The social situation created by not only the existence of dominant ideologies, or the ruling group's interpellation by/into them, but also by the resulting oppressed group(s) interpellation by/into those ideologies, is called hegemony. We call a situation a hegemony when all that situation's members subscribe to the same dominant ideologies -- regardless whether those individuals benefit or suffer within it -- and think it's natural. That's the increadible thing (usually for the worse) about hegemonies: everyone involved in them helps to reproduce them. Hegemonies arise as the result of numerous intersecting and mutually reinforcing ideologies or discourses within a society -- like an invisible web of interconnected ideologies, or rather the results of such a web. So, we can "see" that there was a racist (pro-white, anti-black) hegemony in place in the early U.S. not only by the actions/thoughts of ruling whites, but also by the actions/thoughts of numerous blacks at the very same time (even though many opposed it on both sides -- what's important here is sheer force of numbers).

    So, in a very oversimplified sense, discourses formulate the knowledge created under the influence of ideologies; those same ideologies operate and are reproduced by people's interpellation by/into them; and dominant ideologies, arranged into and communicated through dominant discourses, create hegemonies which, if left unquestioned by enough people, only get reinforced and the whole thing continually recirculates . . . until people make efforts to break the cycle. (And if you can't "see" ideologies to know they're there so you can resist them . . . you get an idea of the kinds of forces we're talking about here.)

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