An Aside on Interpellation

Of late, I keep coming back to Althusser’s conception of interpellation. The basic idea is simple enough—namely, that your subjectivity becomes constituted on the receiving end of an ideological system that expresses itself through and in the apparatus of political power. When you are called a criminal, you are made a criminal, subjected to practices that compel you to accept that assignment, not just performatively, but in your own self-conception.

It gets a fair amount of play in cultural studies, in no small part because it provides us with a sense of how we can internalize ideological convictions that harm us into our own self-conception. I am not always the biggest fan of it, though. Like so much of Pierre Bourdieu’s work, it seems to explain how things stay the same more than how they change, how we are doomed to submit to alien conceptions of ourselves. It is one of those concepts that ought to help illuminate the prisons of depression, but more often than not secures them more tightly by giving us no recourse beyond the ideological, beyond the political field it sets out.

This is one of those places where the model I am unpacking alongside Whitehead’s work comes in handy, While it can acknowledge the creation of secondary social demands, of demands bound up in the fabric of our practices and the way in which they are realized in external transformations of the environment (providing us with a vector toward revisiting Foucault’s technologies of self against a wider background), it posits a still more fundamental dimension of demand. This demand operates within the nexus of feeling, the immediate movement of awareness as it becomes aware of a capacity for things to manifest otherwise.

Resistance to the status quo doesn’t start with the intellectual, it starts with the individual in the heart of their life, coming to terms with their feelings, making determinations within, according to, and against them. It has a political scope, but it’s immediate trajectory is communal rather than governmental. It is too easy to substitute an intellectual category for a felt consciousness, too easy to talk about an ethnic identification than to follow the trajectory of a community coming to be.

Some of this, of course, has something to do with my experience of being a trans woman. It is one of the most visceral places in which I have confronted a political demand to be one thing (“a man”) and felt a refusal to that demand arise from beyond that sphere, from the realm of God and World, a realm that encompasses the social rather than is reducible to it. But while the specific nature of that refusal is key to me, it isn’t the only place where it happens, and it isn’t the only place where it can occur.

It is also why I think that a politics that remains only political is not enough right now. We need a movement that rises from beyond that, from within the movement of God in the World (kalunga and makula for those tracking the dikenga). And we absolutely cannot risk mistaking that movement for religion, which is so often politics under another name.

4 thoughts on “An Aside on Interpellation

  1. I had to look up the word “Interpellation” — which appears to have begun as a kind of motion in parliamentary systems, where a member of the assembly can interrupt the orders of the day to insist on an explanation from the relevant minister for recent actions. In a political realm, this makes complete sense: “By interpellation, I move that the city captain of police explain the actions of the police commanders and the officers under their command yesterday at the political demonstration in Independence Park before we proceed to today’s business.” [It’s interesting that, as I learn about parliamentary procedure for my work with Toastmasters, that you’re also working with a parallel concept in philosophy — and that I see these dovetails lock together so clearly.]

    But I also recognize in it a hint of the kind of thing that you speak of here, too. When people find out that an acquaintance of theirs has been arrested, they must almost-immediately make a genuine decision about the guilt or innocence of their acquaintance: to support them in the coming preparation for a trial and become a more reliable friend; or to drop the acquaintance completely. It is very difficult, nigh-impossible to remain neutral.

    I imagine that it is very similar for transpeople, for gays, for lesbians — the decision ‘to come out’ (whether the person makes the decision on their own, or has it made for them by the reactions of people around them) results in an immediate questioning, an interpellation of their identity — “have you really made the right choice? Isn’t this just a phase? Do you really have the authority/responsibility/portfolio [in a political/parliamentary sense] to make this decision right now?” And the reaction of others is never neutral — either there is genuine acceptance, (thinly-disguised) tolerance, or intolerance. The ‘relevant minister’ — in this case, a person, with their own thoughts and feelings and identity — makes a declaration about what is true for them (“I’m trans/bi/gay/lesbian/asexual”), and their whole world is instantly turned into a parliamentary realm where everyone votes on that ‘decision’ (even though it’s not a decision at all, merely an announcement of a truth).

    I appreciate that you’re saying that our politics cannot be only political. There’s a need to bring the sacred dimension into our political leanings. But I wonder if that can be helped, in part, by teaching those who lead their lives by the sacred impulse, to become more aware of the methodologies and procedures of the political landscapes.

    1. Io

      Probably sensible for me to bulk out what Althusser means here; he’s kind of obscure.

      To make sense of interpellation in his sense of the term, you have to focus on how it is an expression of power, dial up the sorts of things you are talking about and you about get there. What people do when they interpellate is that they position themselves in allegiance with the powerful and demand someone else be held accountable to that, through them.

      That power is key for Althusser. At the moment of interpellation, the person on the receiving end is forced to acknowledge and answer for themselves, forced to address themselves on the terms set out by the interpellating individual. Where the power doesn’t support that play, interpellation really doesn’t happen.

      If my sister asks me, “are you sure?” it is a bit different than when a doctor asks it. The doctor, after all, has the power over medicine and procedures that might matter an awful lot to me. Similarly, think about the high Cold War in the U.S. when someone asks aloud, “Isn’t that a little communist?” At that point, the person on the receiving end is forced into a corner, that might land them in prison, in an asylum, in exile, or blackballed from all kinds of opportunities. Interpellation is a thought-stopper par excellance because it is backed by threat of consequences.

      Althusser’s focus (and the focus of others who emphasize the points where power wins) can get a little blindered about interpellation, focus on it rather than on the person who is being interrupted, and I’m just pushing on that a little. There is something to be interrupted, so what happens when we retrench there instead of struggling with the place where power operates most fully? That is where we start getting something more akin to the old time prophetic utterances, utterances that are not intended to answer interpellation, but to call out to the interpellating power to answer on a different plane.

      1. I think that’s brilliant — answering the interpellating power with a set of questions on a higher plane. That said, there’s a risk when someone takes that higher road. It’s easier for me to take that road with my younger cousin than with opposing counsel in a trial; easier for me to take that road with my doctor than for you. But there’s a degree to which you benefit, too, when I take that higher road… and our successors and philosophical descendants benefit when both of us take that higher road.

        And so let me say that I will do my best to take that higher road when I am subjected to interpellation… in the hope that it will make it easier for all of us in the long run. Prophesy to power — speaking what will be true in the long run — seems like a more deliberate action than simply speaking truth to power. Hmmm. You’ve given me a lot to think about tonight.

      2. Io

        “there’s a risk when someone takes that higher road.”

        Exactly–it’s where Althusser’s concept does the most work, but it is also where I fear it gets bogged down.

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