Louis Althusser & Pink Floyd

People everywhere who are barely familiar with Pink Floyd’s seminal album The Wall (1979) will most likely still be able to recognize the iconic refrain from the album’s most popular and enduring three-part song, “Another Brick in the Wall” which features a chorus of British schoolboys chanting, “We don’t need no education…” This song serves perfectly as an example and cultural representation of Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation or “hailing” in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.

To provide a bit of historical context, the song was written by Roger Waters, who grew up during World War II in Surrey, England. His father was a devout Christian, a Communist, and a schoolteacher. “Another Brick in the Wall” is broken out into three parts, and the opening words of the first part are, “Daddy’s flown across the ocean, leaving just a memory.” The absence of a father figure and a strong reliance on a distant yet comforting mother are strong themes in The Wall, and this is worth mentioning at the beginning of this essay because it serves as a precursor for what I’ll argue as the key element of the educational apparatus, which Althusser does not state directly, namely that its strength lies in its ability to fill the void within an elementary student’s developing psyche, a void which is inevitable and only varies in degree from student to student.

Althusser writes that “ideology interpellates individuals as subjects” and that the dominant ideological state apparatus (or ISA) is the education system. In the song “Another Brick in the Wall” there is a dual or intra-interpellation happening between teacher and student, where each one hails the other: “You! Yes, you! Stand still, laddy!” (the vitriolic teacher to student) and “Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone.” (the courageous student to teacher). What happens as a result is that both teacher and student recognize and define each other by their status within the educational ISA. Althusser states two functions of ideology: the recognition and nonrecognition (inverse) function, so powerful in its subtle way of singling out an individual while simultaneously placing him or her within the sphere of the ideology’s grip: we see this overtly in the military, with the title of sergeant, private, etc. highlighting the individual’s last name and therefore his or her personal significance, and we see it (to use Althusser’s example) become as commonplace as shouting “Hey, you there!” to someone in the street. The person hailed turns to his addressor and thus becomes a subject. In “Another Brick” both students and teacher are subjects within the confines of their invented yet illusory relationship. It is important to note that the teacher is as much a subject here as the student (neither of which have names), for without the student the teacher’s role as authority figure does not exist.


Therefore I would like to take Althusser’s ideas one step further and argue that the “strange phenomenon” of the one hailed recognizing that it is he being hailed occurs because the one hailing and the one so hailed have a deep need for each other. It is not simply “guilt feelings” that explains this phenomenon, as Althusser suggests. “Another Brick” serves as a powerful artistic and cultural example, in post-war England, of interpellation happening on a deep level within the psyches of young children and adults alike, all of whom have a void that needs to be filled with a new relationship: a parental one.

The reason the educational ISA is the most dominant (and the same reason that the Church, prior to this, used to be) is that within the educational sphere is the sub-sphere of a surrogate family ISA. Whether an orphan or the only child of loving parents, every child experiences a growing awareness of himself as an “other,” which begins, as Lacan suggested, when he first sees himself in the mirror. As the child ages he necessarily grows more aware of the increasing boundaries between himself and the world. What began as a warm, boundary-less existence in the womb becomes the colder reality of isolation. This is a major theme in the entire album of The Wall, and its central focal point appears in “Another Brick.”

Children experience a second family at school, with teachers as new mothers and fathers, and classmates as new siblings. The drama of the “family romance” Freud wrote about in his famous essay is played out within the confines of the schoolyard, the classroom, the gymnasium. Althusser refers to the School as taking children at a vulnerable age, which is key to its effectiveness. A child is so impressionable that the order and unity lacking at home are heralded in the School. Suddenly he is a part of something larger than the family, something with a wider reach, something with a uniform, discipline, a social environment, the promise of friends and a successful future. The singer of “Another Brick” is totally alienated and is given a defined role by the School, a place where he is singled out and hailed.

The final result of the intra-interpellation within the School is that, in a terrible irony, students are individuated as subjects but then subjected to uniformity. By this I mean that they are made one and the same, with no unique qualities that separate them from the rest. In order to be a part of the solidarity and function of the wall, one must sacrifice one’s individuality and become just another brick like the others. This is dramatically (and almost comically) portrayed in Alan Parker’s film version of The Wall (1982) with the image of students walking mechanically as if on a conveyor belt into a machine which spits them out sitting at a desk and with deformed, mask-like faces. Individuality is certainly lost. There is an evolution of Marxist thought in this image: what began as factory workers operating on a conveyor belt system has advanced to the workers themselves on the conveyor belt, reduced to the same purpose as the jenny and the loom of Marx’s and Engels’ time. The perils of capitalism are exposed, not simply in its exploitation of human beings (subjects), but in its deformity of them. The masked students are then shown plunging face-first into a meat grinder.


There is also the use of violence, which Althusser carefully explains is the backbone of the RSA’s (Repressive State Apparatus) but always present as a threat within the ISA’s. This is clear in the lyrics of the brief song between parts one and two of “Another Brick” ironically titled, “The Happiest Days of Our Lives”: When we grew up and went to school, there were certain teachers who would hurt the children any way they could.

This interlude ends with the following lines, sung in a tone which shifts from a suppressed anger to an explosive victory of revenge: But in the town, it was well known that when they got home at night, their fat and psychopathic wives would thrash them within inches of their lives! This suggests a cyclical nature of violence, not just in the karmic sense but more importantly as a demonstration of the way the educational and family apparatuses are connected, i.e. that the former is a substitute for the latter.

In the film adaptation the song ends with students erupting into anarchy: tearing off their masks, overturning desks, and destroying the school. Alas, the final image is our narrator, rubbing his hand after being smacked with a ruler, and we realize he was merely daydreaming. This reinforces the idea that Marx’s revolution is unattainable, once we understand, through Althusser, that we are always-already subjects.