Althusser on the engagement ring

Louis Pierre Althusser is a good cultural theorist to use for my research topic on the social practice of giving an engagement ring. He theorizes that a person’s desires, choices, intentions, preferences, and judgements are all products of social practices which shape individuals. This can be seen in a person’s desire for an expensive diamond, the intention on proposing to their wife/spouse, and the preference of diamond-type with gold or silver around the band.

A person would have such desire for purchasing an engagement ring as it has much social significance and value in American society. Althusser would argue that this social value is established through social practices which determine the behavior of individuals. The individual is bombarded with these images thus affecting their perception of themselves. This is how interpellation works, it is the process which people internalize the dominant ideology and come to see themselves through it.

The single women sees herself as a bride-to-be and carries herself differently once she is wearing a diamond ring on her left hand. She may feel more confident that she is “off-the-market” or the contrary, overwhelmed that she is “off-the-market”, worried about her husband-to-be and their future lives together. The ideas surrounding what an engaged woman should be, act, dress, and carry herself can all be defining factors for her behavior. The idea surrounding the importance of a real, expensive diamond ring with a pure gold or silver band shapes the man’s perspective of himself and if he can afford such a ring (Keep in mind that the type of engagement process to which I am referring for purposes of my case-study is the traditional heterosexual marriage where a man likely proposes to a woman).

Althusser’s ISA or the Ideological State Apparatuses are the sets of ideas that the individual is constantly exposed to from family, media, religious organizations and the education system. These all create the discourse surrounding the importance of a large, shiny, expensive engagement ring. We see advertisements on TV and in the paper and magazines, we see women flaunting their sparkling rings in front of friends and family, comparing it’s size and shape to others. We are told of traditional marriage in the church and at home from family who have gone to or had a wedding of their own. We learn from the media the typical behavior or a married man and woman (although dramatized) and seek to eventually emulate those images, or not.

The media plays a significant role in advertising marriage through diamond advertisements. These typically present the engagement ring/wedding as a cherished event for the women and as a dreaded life-event “ending” a man’s bachelor years. The wedding day is commonly portrayed as the woman’s dream-come-true countered with the man’s loss of freedom.

I do not expect to use Althusser’s RSA, the Repressive State Apparatus, as having much influence the culture of the engagement ring. The RSA does ensure marriage laws and certificates, sometimes limited who is allowed to wed in different states due to sexuality and gender.

In summary, the material rituals surrounding the engagement are defined by the ideological apparatus who produces them. The individuals interpellate the dominant ideology unknowingly and subject themselves to understand themselves through these values. Althusser provides good perspective for understanding how gender roles and ideas about social class and status play and important role in the cultural practice of the engagement ring.

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