Interpellation in The Splendid Vision

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by Adam Miller

* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

The French marxist Louis Althusser theorized interpellation as “the process by which ideology addresses the individual.” Or, put differently, interpellation is the way a dominant ideology constructs the human subject in its terms. This theory has been criticized for “minimiz[ing] the possibility of individual agency and control in the process,” and perhaps rightly so. But I am not sure this is what Althusser was trying to get at. On the basis of admittedly very limited reading of his work, it seems to me he was trying to think about how ideology works, not how people negotiate identities within an ideological system. In any event, I found a particularly wonderful example of interpellation in Richard S. Cohen’s translation of The Splendid Vision (I won’t provide the Sanskrit title…it’s way, way too long).

His translation reads:

If somebody has not planted any roots of virtue, or has not seen a tathagata, or has not received a prophecy of future buddhahood, then he will fail to hear this dharma discourse. Likewise, he will fail to respect, worship, learn, copy, have copied, or place his faith in it. He will also fail to honor, respect, or worship dharma preachers. Wherever this dharma discourse goes…it will play the role of the tathagata.

Later the text goes on to enjoin anyone who hears the sūtra to “[p]rovide the dharma preacher…with whatever he needs for complete happiness.”

This text calls out anyone listening as a buddhist subject. And though the idea of buddhist subjectivity is quite complicated in philosophical circles, it seems to me that part of what it means to be a buddhist in the world is to make sure the dharma-preachers are comfortable. Indeed, the text promises that a person who reveres the sūtra and the expounder of the sūtra will amass more merit than the Buddha did through his extreme acts of giving in his former lives. Further still, anyone who hears this sūtra is already on the way to becoming a buddha.

Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? Oh wait…you don’t have a choice.

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