Sunday, September 27, 2015


Hi all! I feel a trend I go again finding connections between popular movies and less popular critical theory. I feel like I simply cannot live a normal life anymore because I analyze everything way too freakin' much. Life of an English major, am I right?

In case you didn't guess already, this time around we are looking at the 2013 horror movie (this categorization is questionable, i would suggest cautionary tale) The Purge.

For anyone who hasn't seen it (Robin, this one's for you), here is the trailer:

I think that watching the trailer is important in this instance, as the film's premise is somewhat complicated to explain. Here is the announcement that commences the holiday:

 "This is not a test. This is your emergency broadcast system announcing the commencement of the Annual Purge sanctioned by the U.S. Government. Weapons of class 4 and lower have been authorized for use during the Purge. All other weapons are restricted. Government officials of ranking 10 have been granted immunity from the Purge and shall not be harmed. Commencing at the siren, any and all crime, including murder, will be legal for 12 continuous hours. Police, fire, and emergency medical services will be unavailable until tomorrow morning until 7 a.m., when The Purge concludes. Blessed be our New Founding Fathers and America, a nation reborn. May God be with you all."

(In Critical Theory, we have been talking about Marxism and therefore how class structure influences and interacts with ideologies. For this blog post, I will be referring specifically to and quoting from Louis Althusser's Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.) Before we even get to the film itself, let's take a moment to look closely at this specific piece of text.

I think one of the most striking things about this announcement is the strong religious language. Yes, the documents and oral tradition that make America the great country it is today are steeped in religion (i'm looking at you puritans, ooh crossover between american lit and crit theory, so meta) so it is not particularly surprising that this speech echoes that tradition. What is jarring about the pious content is that it acts as a buffer or excuse, if you will.

Oh, you murdered your neighbor? Well, it must have been God's will I guess. Good thing he's there to back you up. And since you're a model citizen the other 364 days out of the year, he's going to forget it even happened.

Here is where the ideology comes in: Religion (or the church itself), in Althusser's writings, functions as one of the main ideological state apparatuses (or ISA's as they will be referred to from here on out, because that phrase is too damn long). An ISA, as he explains is a, "distinct and specialized institution(s)...of the private domain". Even in the slightly futuristic setting of The Purge, religion remains one, if not the most, dominant ISA in American culture.

The concept of the Purge itself is arguably religious as well. The definition of the word "purge" is

a) rid (someone) of an unwanted feeling, memory, or condition, typically giving a sense of cathartic release

b) an abrupt or violent removal of a group of people from an organization or place

Okay, the first definition to me is fraught with religious overtones. Confession anyone?!

The second one is a tad more out there, at least in the context we're using it, but it sure is interesting. The Purge is not just the masses wreaking bloody havoc on the upper class, the Purge is an "equal opportunity employer" of sorts in the way that it encourages everyone to participate.

Another startling aspect of the Purge is the absence of what Althusser calls repressive state apparatuses (or RSA's). Unlike ISA's, RSA's belong to the public domain as they are in place to control society (for example, the police are an RSA). As Althusser points out, if ISA’s do their job there is no real need for RSA’s with a few rare exceptions simply because we do not live in a utopian society.

But is the comfort of ideology enough to survive the Purge? Does the complete withdrawal of RSA’s from society for a brief period of time lead to the destruction of ideology, and therefore all sense of morality? This leads to the ultimate question: How many people would actually participate in such an atrocious “holiday” if the opportunity arose?

In the film, there are two distinct kinds of people; those who are gung ho about the Purge and seem excited, even giddy to murder and maim whomever they can get their hands on. The other kinds of people are entirely against the Purge, their only wish to survive the night and they do so in varying ways. The family in the movie is well off financially; therefore they can afford to hide out in their giant mansion which is armed with an expensive and elaborate alarm system. However, as it is addressed in the sequel The Purge: Anarchy, the majority of people (shall we call them the 99 percent?) spend the night hiding wherever they can whether that’s their modest unarmed home which is vulnerable to those who run amuck or perhaps people who have no home at all who are trapped outside. This discrepancy in protection and support for the Purge itself is yet another example of Marxist theory coinciding with the concept, as the discrepancy amplifies the theme of class struggle that pervades the film as a whole.

As far as ideology is concerned, this film could be interpreted a multitude of different ways. Take for instance, this article that suggests that The Purge serves an allegory for the possible domination of the U.S. by the Republican party. What I do know for certain is that this film would intrigue the likes of Marx and Althusser, and for that reason I wish they were still around so we could ask them: To purge? Or not to purge?

That is the question.

until next time,

1 comment:

  1. What would Wimsatt and Beardsley say about your final line?? Ha ha...

    You pack so much in here, and it's all provocative and fun to read. The RSA/ISA stuff is especially cogent. This actually ALMOST makes me want to see the in a room with all the lights on...


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