Bound to Hear
—Exergue and Interpellation
Someone, you or me, comes forward and says: I would like to learn to live finally.
(Derrida, ‘Exordium’, Specters of Marx)
An exordium, a point where things begin: someone comes forward and says something, to start everything going. What is said is far from indifferent, of course, but before it means anything, and as a condition of its meaning anything at all, it breaks silence. The very act of speaking inaugurates something, even if—as in so many of the best introductions—what’s actually said all but effaces itself before what it makes happen. The exordium is a speculation on what happens after that act falls back into the silence it began by breaking. What it sets in train may go well beyond anything that it is able to calculate or foresee or program—and not just in practice but in principle. It reaches out to a future that has no guarantees, and takes its own cue from this not-yet, this ghost-in-reverse, a spectre from the future: inauguration as augury.
The exordium is very much a Derridean genre, beginning with that exordium to his own work, his first major publication, the Introduction to Husserl’s The Origin of Geometry, some five times the length of the text it introduces. Given Time I: Counterfeit Money has a five-page ‘Epigraph’. ‘Le Facteur de la vérité’ begins with a set of ‘Divested Pretexts’. Dissemination has a foreword on forewords, with its own title page:
Of Grammatology has an ‘Exergue’, literally an hors d’oeuvre, an outside to the main work, and here also its appetiser. Archive Fever even precedes its ‘Preamble’ with an ‘Exergue’, one that declares that, ‘according to a proven convention, the exergue plays with citation. To cite before beginning is to give the tone through the resonance of a few words, the meaning or form of which ought to set the stage. In other words, the exergue consists in capitalizing on an ellipsis’ (7). Politics of Friendship begins with a Foreword that declares that ‘this essay’—the entire book, that is—‘resembles a lengthy preface. It would rather be the foreword to a book I would one day wish to write’ (vii). The Truth in Painting begins with a ‘Passe-partout’, which means latchkey but also border or frame, making it a close relative of the parergon (itself an etymological relative of exergue) that will give its name to the book’s first essay. And this ‘Passe-partout’ begins by saying, ‘someone, not me, comes and says the words: “I am interested in the idiom in painting”’ (Truth, 1).
The Derridean exordium or exergue is often a short piece sounding some of the main themes or concerns of the book or essay to follow, but in another context, one that may not even explicitly return. Given Time is about the gift, via Mauss and Baudelaire, but its five-page ‘Epigraph’ is on a phrase from a letter of Mme de Maintenon, the morganatic wife of Louis XIV. Rogues is on the so-called ‘rogue state’, but its ‘Preface: Veni’ is on La Fontaine’s fable of the wolf and the lamb. ‘Le facteur de la vérité’ is on Lacan’s seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’, but its ‘Divested Pretexts’ are some seven pages on the figure of truth as veiled, and on Freud’s use of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ in The Interpretation of Dreams (Post Card, 413-19). Often the form of the exergue is cryptic except in retrospect: revealing its full content only when one comes back to it again after having read what it introduces, it also reveals itself to have been all along a ghost from the future.
Someone comes forward, and says something: I would like to learn to live finally, or I am interested in the idiom in painting, perhaps. Someone: you, or me, potentially anyone. Anyone can lay claim to these words, speak them as their own, me or you, or perhaps not me at all (whoever that shifter may refer to): who can tell? In the exergue, the words of the revenant become mine; or, equally, I speak in the voice of the revenant. Who is it who says, at the beginning of Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question: ‘I shall speak of ghost [revenant], of flame, and of ashes’ (1)? Speaking of the revenant is to speak as revenant: being is infused by revenance. This revenant from the future opens a way: it is the very structure of exergue. The exergue cites, and begins by citing, and in this citing—its form as much as its meaning, the act of citing as much as anything that may be cited—sets a stage, gives a tone: someone says.
The utterance that opens is already a citation. We already have a drama, a play of voices. Something is said, and without even yet knowing just what that might be, we have all the structures of address. Someone is speaking, certainly, but someone is also addressed. Who? We should be wary of leaping in and filling that with the obvious truism that it’s you or I, the reader—just as wary as we should be of attributing that speaking to any one person, you, me, or perhaps not me at all. The addressee may be just as much a revenant as the addresser. Who, after all, could teach us not only to live, but, outrageously, finally? Who could properly, in justice, even receive those words, I would like to learn to live finally? So, an impossible demand, with addressee as uncertain as addresser.
But is this not precisely a description of the Derridean exergue in general—more, of exergue in general, of the outside-the-work that necessarily prefaces the work? A hesitation: can we even really say ‘in general’ here? The exergue might be the singular point that’s necessary in order that there can be the work of the general. It lays the ground for the general, without being generalisable itself, just as it’s never quite part of the work. For the work to begin, there has to be some sort of condition for it: not even quite a beginning (ordiri) but there before, or outside, removed from, deprived of (ex-): without beginning, but without which beginning couldn’t itself begin. Exergue is not the name for method or planning or structure, as necessary as they might be to the work: exergue is even strictly unthinkable in those terms. It is rather the singular and in each case even strictly impossible act that kick-starts the work: not structure or cause, but the impossible address that opens the exchange. Somewhere, somehow, something is said. We do not need to know by whom it is said, or to whom it is addressed, or even quite what it means: these might well be important or vital questions in the work that gets inaugurated in this way, but they have nothing to do with exergue itself. All we know is that it is said, and that it cannot be ignored, because whatever it might mean, it is pressing: I would like to learn to live finally. What could be more pressing, whatever it means?
Exergue, then, is a demand. It demands something of us, whether or not we are its addressees, and certainly quite regardless of whether or not we might see ourselves as its addressees. What it demands of us is not at all clear. What would it be, to learn to live? How would we know if we had done it? How could we possibly help someone else to learn to do it, without falling into the most sentimental of pieties? How could we teach it, whether or not knowing it is necessary to teaching it? But all of this is what the exergue demands of us, and the demand doesn’t go away until that final term, that ‘finally’, is met. Which is never. The exergue opens up something that will not be closed off.
Someone, then—you or me?—comes forward and says, ‘Someone, you or me, comes forward and says: I would like to learn to live finally’. What does this have to do with what it opens, with Specters of Marx? Let us go to the other end of the book, the very last paragraphs:
Can one, in order to question it, address oneself to a ghost? To whom? To him? To it, as Marcellus says once again and so prudently? ‘Thou art a Scoller, speake to it Horatio.… Question it’.
The question deserves perhaps to be put the other way: Could one address oneself in general if already some ghost did not come back? If he loves justice at least, the ‘scholar’ of the future, the ‘intellectual’ of tomorrow should learn it and from the ghost. He should learn to live by learning not how to make conversation with the ghost but how to talk with him, with her, how to let them speak or how to give them back speech, even if it is in oneself, in the other, in the other in oneself: they are always there, specters, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet. They give us to rethink the ‘there’ as soon as we open our mouths, even at a colloquium and especially when one speaks there in a foreign language:
Thou art a scholar: speak to it, Horatio. (Specters, 175-76)
These paragraphs do not symmetrically close down what the exordium opened; they speak to it, and thus repeat it. What does it mean to address oneself to this voice, this demand? What does it mean to question what it is asking, what is meant by it, and above all what we as its receivers (even if only as its overhearers, for those addressees are as ghostly as the addresser) should do with this demand? The question itself is open, and remains open; it is there as soon as we open our mouths, as a condition of saying anything at all. And it is a question above all of spectrality: could we address ourselves at all if some ghost had not already come back from the future?
To whom do we address ourselves, then, this someone, you or me, who comes forward and says: I would like to learn to live finally? Marcellus, Barnardo and Horatio alike (and so prudently, says Derrida) do not say he or him of this apparition of the dead king, but the impersonal it, in full agreement and in a veritable barrage:
marcellus Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again.
barnardo In the same figure as the king that’s dead.
marcellus Thou art a scholar—speak to it Horatio.
barnardo Looks it not like the king?—Mark it, Horatio.
horatio Most like. It harrows me with fear and wonder.
barnardo It would be spoke to.
marcellus Question it, Horatio.
horatio What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? By heaven, I charge thee speak.
marcellus It is offended.
barnardo See, it stalks away.
horatio Stay, speak, speak, I charge thee speak.
marcellus ’Tis gone, and will not answer. (I.i.38-50, emphases added)
The ghost may look like the dead man who was king, even most like him and in the same figure as him, but it is not him. All three speakers agree on that, and when Horatio addresses it, he uses the familiar form by which one would never address a king: What are thou? I charge thee speak. What is this apparition that can look so much like the dead king to whom honour is still due, yet is not him, and is not taken for him even at the outset? The figure that has come forward is not the one in whom all power is invested, but even seems to be oddly needy. If the king commands, this spectre demands, in the sense that the child demands, with no power other than to demand. On the first occasions, the ghost vanishes without speaking, but gives the impression of being on the verge of speech. What the first act of Hamlet stages thus is exergue itself, that silent and impossible spectrality before all speech. Exergue is impersonal, not a he speaks but an it that speaks, a speaking that is about to happen. What the ghost will eventually say when it does speak is not what the king could know, even though the ghost tells this in the first person: it is the story of the king’s death while asleep:
Sleeping within mine orchard,
My custom always in the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursèd hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of mine ears did pour
The leprous distilment … (I.v. 59-64)
Exergue and the spectral come somewhere before the personal. They are not anyone’s utterance, but they inhabit any utterance, as the condition of its possibility. Whoever it might be who comes forward, you or me, is irrelevant: exergue and spectrality immediately blur those boundaries. When Hamlet urges the ghost, it is with ‘Speak, I am bound to hear’, and the ghost replies, ‘So art thou to revenge when thou shalt hear’ (I.v.7-8). To hear the spectre, the spectrality in the utterance, is in some way to take on the utterance, in that dimension of its impersonality.
This is not quite a matter that is exhausted by choice, as if Hamlet could simply decline. The spectral is somewhere before choice, as we can hear in the two meanings of that word bound: ‘Speak, I am bound to hear’. On the one hand, it is a bond. Hamlet is binding himself to hear: promising not just to receive, but to give ear to. This motion is already double and in both directions at once, as hearing is already a gift one gives back to the one who speaks; one gives a hearing to, in the name of a sort of justice. It is also to give this bond, to bind oneself, as if by law, and to treat oneself as already bound, in and by the utterance. Utterance itself carries within it a bond, and a promise. Utterance is binding, even when it lies. On the other hand, that I am bound to… also says It is certain to happen, not because of law but because the simple pressure of events will make it happen: I am bound to run across a supermarket somewhere in my travels is not saying I have made a promise or that I have been commanded to do anything, but just that the concentration of supermarkets makes it highly unlikely that I could not come across one in the course of the day. On the one hand, the law; on the other, happenstance. In either case (and they are not distinguished in the spectral, and in this logic of exergue) I am bound to hear: how could I do otherwise? What I do with what I have heard may be another matter, but I cannot help but hear. The porches of the ears are always open, even when the eyes are closed, and even to poison, and even when through sleep or death there is no one to hear. What enters through them is always in some sense death, too: my death, your death, no matter who speaks, for this is always a hearing and a bound-to-hear that is before any such subject, the very possibility of such a subject.
Let us turn to another very famous exordium, another of Marx’s spectres. Someone comes forward and says something, hails us:
I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’
Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was ‘really’ addressed to him, and that ‘it was really him who was hailed’ (and not someone else). Experience shows that the practical telecommunication of hailings is such that they hardly ever miss their man: verbal call or whistle, the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed. And yet it is a strange phenomenon, and one that cannot be explained solely by ‘guilt feelings’, despite the large numbers who ‘have something on their consciences’.
Naturally for the convenience and clarity of my little theoretical theatre I have had to present things in the form of a sequence, with a before and an after, and thus in the form of a temporal succession. There are individuals walking along. Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: ‘Hey, you there!’ One individual (nine times out of ten it is the right one) turns round, believing/suspecting/ knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing. But in reality these things happen without any succession. The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing. (Althusser, ‘Ideology’, 130-31)
‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’ is not so much a theory of ideology as an exordium. There is more to say, and it says that even before we start reading the text proper, with the disclaimers of that bracketed subtitle, and a first authorial endnote which hangs from the very first heading to preempt us:
This text is made up of two extracts from an ongoing study. The subtitle ‘Notes towards an Investigation’ is the author’s own. The ideas expounded should not be regarded as more than the introduction to a discussion. (138)
What we read is an invitation to that discussion, the introduction to what is yet to be said, like the introduction offered the one who is about to speak at a conference. It charges us to speak (speak to it, it would be spoken to) in the name of a discussion that has not yet happened. And here—at least in this part of it that I have cited, which is surely the most discussed and cited part of Althusser’s entire work (who now reads or anthologises Reading Capital?)—a fold envelops everything. For Althusser, exordium is also, precisely, the mechanism of ideology. Ideology interpellates. Someone comes forward and says something: ‘Hey, you!’ Everything follows from this.
There is a certain unease to be read here. First of all, this interpellation is ‘a very precise operation’ in which the individual called ‘will turn round’. But the certainty of this statement is immediately qualified by the scare quotes that dot the passage, and here around the very word that should most apodictically show this certainty. Why does he turn round? Because ‘he has recognized that the hail was “really” addressed to him.’ Something that is ‘really’ addressed to you is not really addressed to you at all, it’s something you misrecognise as addressed to you, take as if it were addressed to you. This unease is immediately repeated too, with the misrecognition and the scare quotes, in a way that adds nothing to the argument except the sense that somewhere a table is being thumped for emphasis in the hope that a point will be taken as having been made because it was repeated loudly: this hypothetical person has recognised, or misrecognised ‘that “it was really him who was hailed”’, ‘that “it really is he”’. This carries over immediately into an odd fantasised empiricism, as though what we are reading had all along been a report on an actual experiment: but now, it seems, that ‘very precise operation’ doesn’t actually work all the time, just most of the time, nine times out of ten. And finally, the scare quotes return, this time in a more orthodox and apparently more confident way, to accompany an argument that is being openly dismissed: this ‘strange phenomenon … cannot be explained solely by “guilt feelings”, despite the large numbers who “have something on their consciences”’. The problem is that now the argument that is being dismissed is presented in precisely the same way as the one that has been endorsed, hedged by the silent but legible disavowals of its punctuation.
No sooner is it stated than this ‘very precise operation’ starts to look a bit hazy: it doesn’t really work this way, says Althusser, even though nine times out of ten it works as if it did, and besides, here’s an argument that doesn’t work at all…. It is easy to feel that ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ is not all of a piece, and that it knows this, beginning with that subtitle.
Part of the awkwardness of the entire passage is that this misrecognition seems to be folded over onto itself. It is not quite clear just whose misrecognition we might be talking about. Althusser tries to phrase it all in terms of an intentional communication between two individuals, one who calls and the other who responds. In a street of onlookers, the call goes, mysteriously, straight to its target. But is this not itself a misrecognition of the problem? We can eavesdrop on Althusser’s imagined streetscape: it’s not just one person who reacts to the call, it’s many. Everyone in earshot has some reaction, whether it’s to stop dead, to studiously ignore the call, or to look round to see what potential drama might be going on elsewhere in the crowd. It’s a momentary reaction, of course, as for most people in the street everything resumes again in the next instant after this slight stutter in the film. First of all—and before we know anything at all of who might be calling or to whom, and without the slightest need to know that—everyone reacts as if they had indeed been called. Only then do we, can we, decide that the call was directed elsewhere. This initial reaction, though, the one we made before any decision, was perfectly involuntary. It startles me. That start is something I do without decision, before I realise I’m doing it. At the point at which I decide, I’ve already reacted. I’m driving along in a car when I hear a police siren, and before I’ve even thought of it, my eyes have gone to the speedometer and my heartrate has even increased ever so slightly. A split second later I feel foolish for having reacted that way, certainly, but the point is that for an instant I did, and will probably do just the same thing again next time I hear a siren. In cars all round me, other drivers have been doing just the same thing.
Althusser’s framing of the problem as one of an interpersonal communication that somehow magically reaches its intended target is itself a misrecognition of this dimension. It actually misses the moment of interpellation, which is not the instant of decision but the moment of involuntary reaction. As I am sitting in my car, the moment at which I know unmistakeably that I am interpellated as a subject of the Law is the moment when my eyes flash to the speedometer, not the later and entirely secondary moment when I realise that I am being waved over, or that the police car was heading somewhere else altogether, or that the noise of the siren was just part of a program on the car radio. I still react.
Now on one level, Althusser knows this perfectly well. We can see that in all sorts of ways. For a start, the subtitle of this section is ‘Ideology Interpellates Individuals as Subjects’ (128). We should take that word ‘subject’ in its multiple senses here: subject to the Law and to the hailing of ideology, certainly, but also as subject in the broader psychoanalytic sense. The very term ‘interpellation’ is a borrowing from Lacan, who almost a decade and a half earlier had used it in his third seminar of 1955-56, to describe how psychosis comes about. The subject is conferred its identity in and through ‘the interpellation of an essential signifier’, which in this seminar will receive the name of the Name-of-the-Father. Psychosis is what happens when this signifier is foreclosed, ‘unable to be received’ (Lacan, Seminar III, 306). For Althusser, as for Lacan, this is not an optional process to be refused, but an essential structural condition of being a subject in the first place. Ideology interpellates us as subjects. We are not subjects first, with ideology and its interpellations coming along after the event; we are subjects in and through ideology. And this function of interpellation is the most basic function of ideology: whatever else it might do, ‘all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects’ (Althusser, ‘Ideology’, 130). That moment of conscious decision comes too late and changes nothing at all: when it happens, I have already responded. I am no less subject to the Law just because this particular police car wasn’t after me. Individuals are, as Althusser says, ‘always-already subjects’ (132). There is never a moment when I am not already interpellated, and more to the point, when I have not already responded. What that response-without-decision brings into being is not the captivity of a subject who before was free and owed no allegiance to anything outside itself, but the subject itself, in all of those constitutive social and cultural complexities that Althusser repeatedly sums up in the words ‘concrete’ and ‘material’.1
Althusser realises this belatedness of any conscious decision when he says that ‘for the convenience and clarity’ of his ‘little theoretical theatre’ he has had to present things in a sequence, even though ‘in reality these things happen without any succession’ (131). I do not hear the call and then decide whether or not it might be intended for me. I hear it first of all—straight away and in the very moment of registering it—as directed at me, as if it’s for me. Only after that, in the next instant, is it possible for me to make any sort of conscious decision about whether or not this is really the case. First of all, I start. Things happen without succession. There is no moment in which I am a pure, empty subject who receives information from outside and then decides on the relevance of that information to me, any more than I decide on a course of action when my hand brushes against something hot. My being party to it from the very moment of hearing the call is a condition of my hearing it as a call in the first place. From the outset I am already profoundly embedded in the call, as response. I can of course choose to respond to it in all sorts of ways, but what I cannot choose to do is not respond. Non-response is itself a response, as even an inadvertent refusal to greet an acquaintance shows.
As Althusser goes on to say, he is fully aware that that this interpellation is not after all a matter of interpersonal communication between subjects. My startlement at the siren is not because I am being communicated a lawful directive by an officer of the law, because it happens whether or not the siren is being used by a police officer (as against by someone who has just stolen a police car), or even whether anything’s meant by it (as against the accidental flicking of a switch), or whether there’s even a police car anywhere around (hearing one on the radio is enough). The initial effect, that moment of interpellation, is exactly the same. What interpellates me is not any conceivable individual (who, like me, could only be always-already interpellated as a subject), but the Law itself. That capital letter is to mark that it’s not even any particular law, but Law in its most general aspect as that to which, simply, one cannot help but respond.
Althusser makes this distinction with a similar capital. The name he will give to what interpellates us is the Subject: ‘there can be’, he says, ‘such a multitude of possible … subjects only on the absolute condition that there is a Unique, Absolute Other Subject’ (133). We need to read carefully here. By now, Althusser’s subheading is ‘An Example: The Christian Religious Ideology’ (132) and that Unique Absolute Other Subject he is referring to as the interpellator of this multitude of possible religious subjects is of course God. But the one thing we must do here is refuse to let this slip back into some sort of interpersonal communication. The capital-S Subject is not just the small-s subject writ large, even a very grandiose and ineffably imposing one, but is much more like the big Other that, in the year before his discussion of interpellation, Lacan was beginning to distinguish from the small-o other (Lacan, Seminar II, 236). Where the small other is another person like me, the big Other, on the other hand, belongs to—is—the Symbolic, that impersonal symbolic order of meaning within which I move throughout my existence, and against which I always measure my actions—more, against which I feel they are always and already measured. I may, for example, have just made a complex and difficult ethical decision, a hard call for which there’s no answer that’s clearly right to the exclusion of all the rest. To get some reassurance about the probity of this, I can ask my friends for their opinions on what I’ve done—but their answers are likely to leave me unsatisfied, perhaps profoundly. Even if all of them were to say that they believed I had done the best possible thing in the circumstances, I could still feel that in some sense—in the eyes of a quite abstract idea of Justice, say—that I hadn’t quite measured up, that I’ve been found wanting. What opens up before me is a gap between the way I appear in the eyes of (small-o) others, and to the big Other. This big Other is not just some summation of all possible small-o others and their opinions. It thinks nothing, says nothing, but is itself an empty form of address, the non-existent place to which we direct those anxious questions and wishes: ‘What should I do?’, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’, ‘How should I live?’ Someone, anyone, you or I, comes forward and says, I would like to learn how to live finally.
Nothing, of course, will actually answer those anxious questions for us. This is what Derrida refers to as the visor effect: ‘we do not see who looks at us. Even though in his ghost the King looks like himself …, that does not prevent him from looking without being seen: his apparition makes him appear invisible beneath his armor’ (Specters, 7). For Lacan, the big Other doesn’t exist. This silent exordium, in the name of which and as a response to which we would like to learn how to live, demands our attention and our response before it even speaks—is the ghost rather than the King. Even when the King is alive, what speaks in his words is not the person, but the authority invested in the King, and which abandons him for another on his death (‘The King is dead. Long live the King’.). If, as Hamlet baffles Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by saying, ‘The King is a thing’ (IV.ii), it is because as King his material body is doubled by ‘a sublime, evasive body which is a ‘thing of nothing’, a pure semblance without substance’ (Žižek, For They Know Not, 255). This, says Lacan, is why Hamlet cannot strike out at Claudius at the very moment he finds him helpless: not because Hamlet is incapable of action, but because that very action would be misguided, acting against the person rather than the King (Lacan, ‘Death’, 50-51; Žižek, For They Know Not, 256). The person of Claudius is no more the King than the ghost of Hamlet’s father is.
Two things follow from this, bound in tight paradox.
The first is that no interpellation is refused. In ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, Althusser makes a single but often-quoted mention of what he calls ‘bad subjects’:
subjects ‘work’, they ‘work by themselves’ in the vast majority of cases, with the exception of the ‘bad subjects’ who on occasion provoke the intervention of one of the detachments of the (Repressive) State Apparatus. But the vast majority of (good) subjects work all right ‘all by themselves’, i.e. by ideology… (135)
It is tempting to read this as though it meant that there are some subjects who refuse interpellation. But a ‘bad subject’ is just a subject: a different way of playing subjecthood or subjectivity, for sure, but one is no less a subject for that—and one is a subject only through interpellation. ‘Individuals [as Althusser italicises it] are always-already subjects’ (132); ideology interpellates the individual ‘in order to make him a subject, free to obey or disobey the appeal’ (133). It is only as a subject that one is free to obey or disobey. Any subsequent disobedience is after the event of interpellation, the act of one who is already a subject. What we are interpellated as is not as ‘good subjects’, but simply as subjects. A subject is not someone who behaves, but someone who is ‘free to obey or disobey’. The ‘bad subject’ who disobeys simply takes the latter option (and, as Althusser points out, that’s what the RSAs—repressive state apparatuses: law courts, prisons, psychiatric institutions and the like—are for). Whether or not I obey the law, I have no choice about being subject to it.
Interpellation is not something you can refuse, because the very possibility of refusal is itself something that interpellation opens up. Refusal belongs to the moment after interpellation, which is itself not so much a decision as a start, a startlement. What I am interpellated as is not someone who does or should decide to do a particular thing, but simply as someone who decides. This is because the hail is itself always necessarily empty, and because of that it is also always opaque: I never know just what it is that the hail might want of me. That is, I am never interpellated as, for example, middle-class, or a unionist, patriotic, straight or gay, a consumer, Christian or Jewish. The only thing I am interpellated as is as a subject—and not even as a ‘good subject’, just as a subject. As important as the question of whether or not I actually am any of those things might be, and of the politics involved in all of them, they are not matters of interpellation. The ways in which all these things are embedded socially requires a different set of terms and investigations: Bourdieu’s habitus and disposition would be one set of possibilities there.2 This is not for a moment to downplay the sheer importance of those possibilities, only to locate where they lie: somewhere after interpellation, opened up as fields of possibility by interpellation.
This impossibility of refusal is a point that a number of voluntarist interpretations of interpellation miss. The quasi-Foucauldian idea of ‘subject-positions’, for example, sees texts as offering certain positions for the reader to fill or not, as she might see fit. In one variation of this that has been very influential for cultural studies, Stuart Hall suggests three sorts of ‘readings’ that may be performed on a text, according to how one inhabits such ‘subject positions’. The ‘dominant-hegemonic reading’ is one in which the good subject ‘decodes the message in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded’, while the oppositional reading ‘retotalizes the message within some alternative framework of reference’. In between these two points, a ‘negotiated reading’ is one that ‘acknowledges the legitimacy of the hegemonic definitions … while, at a more restricted situational (situated) level, it makes its own ground rules’ (‘Encoding’, 136-38). As Hall’s insistence on ‘coding’ suggests, this is not essentially a theory of interpellation, but of communication. What he is talking about is a negotiation between two parties, where one is being made an attractive offer, but is free to refuse to do what the other wants. It is not about how subjects come to be interpellated as free subjects in the first place, but about how subjects who are (already) free can in principle make up their own minds. It gives interpellation a definite content, and turns it from an opaque and empty demand, Hey you!, into a transparent command, Do this. Beyond that, it overlooks the retrospective nature of any such possible acceptance, and the way in which even the most supine acceptance of a ‘dominant reading’ might nevertheless be experienced as a free and critical choice: I don’t make this choice because I’m gullible, but because, weighing up everything, I think it’s right. All readings collapse onto the negotiated reading. As with any attempt to describe a field as a tension between two mutually exclusive poles, any actual case will inevitably and unsurprisingly be found to occupy the middle ground, made up of a bit of each. That conclusion is entirely the product of the terms of the investigation, and says nothing at all about the situation itself. In reducing the question of the social to the dimensions of the interpersonal, what Hall’s model misses is precisely the moment of ideology. The negotiating subject, who knows her own self-interest and barters in its name, who refuses all choices that seem counter to that, and who puts everything that is on offer to the same close and critical scrutiny—what is this, after all, but the sort of subject that late-capitalist liberal democracies thrive on, the very subject that may be the great historic invention of these societies?
No interpellation is refused, then: refusal is something a subject does, and subjects are the result of interpellation. Do interpellations nevertheless fail? What would a failed interpellation look like? Well, necessarily not a subject, even a bad subject. The answer is in the seminar in which Lacan first used the term: the psychotic. If interpellation is what makes it possible for us to inhabit language, the psychotic for whom it fails is not one who has broken free but one who is perpetually inhabited by language, possessed by it (Seminar III, 250). And what, in turn, would a ‘good subject’ look like, the one who claims first of all to be able to know just what it is that the Subject wants from him, and then to fill that role precisely? There, we have the figure of the pervert, the sadist—the one who claims to be the mere implement of a higher Good, and who, of course, takes an unstated and obscene enjoyment in that willing instrumentality. The one for whom interpellation fails is not a subject at all; the ‘good subject’ who takes it on himself to fill a ‘subject position’ faultlessly is a sociopath.
The other side of the paradox, then, is that no interpellation succeeds.
The demand the Subject makes is essentially empty: not Be this or Be that, but just Respond. In turn, the response is the equally empty ‘What?’, that start of the interpellated subject: not, Yes, I shall be what you want me to, or No, I’m not that, but just What do you want from me? I would like to learn to live finally. The interpellated subject lives out that counter-question in the tentative modalities of what is desired, desirable, yet to come, still to be found.
Even to recognise oneself in the interpellation with the retrospective logic of Yes, that’s me has this modality. Take the obvious case of one’s sex and sexuality. One is never simply a woman or a man in the way a table is just a table. Sexual identity is always lived out as a series of questions that do not cease: What is it to be a woman (or a man)? What is it to be the other sex? What is it not to be that sex? How can I be a woman, or a man? How can I be what I am? What is my relation to what I am not? What is my relation to others like me? The affirmation, Yes, that’s me, is not so much an answer as the opening through which those endless questions arrive. Yes, that’s me: now, how can I come to be what I now recognise myself as already being? These questions are all to do with the desire of the Subject, the big Other: I understand the call, and that I am being called, they say, but what is it you want from me in calling me? What am I to do that can satisfy this call? When the big Other, the Subject, does not actually exist, that desire is unfathomable.
This What do you want from me? is familiar. Again, the reference point is Lacan: it is the Che vuoi, from Lacan’s well-known ‘graph of desire’ (Lacan, ‘Subversion’, 681-93). As Žižek points out, it is no accident that Lacan developed this through a detailed investigation of Hamlet. His analysis suggests a further complication, for the ghost’s injunction almost immediately divides: the ghost ‘enigmatically supplements his command with the request that Hamlet should not in any way harm his mother’. From that moment on, what paralyses Hamlet is specifically the question of the mother’s desire: what does she want, what does she perhaps even secretly enjoy in this obscene relationship with the uncle? Hamlet’s famous indecision, says Žižek, is not ‘indecision as to his own desire; it is not that “he doesn’t know what he really wants”—he knows that very clearly: he wants to revenge his father—what hinders him is doubt concerning the desire of the other, the confrontation of a certain “Che vuoi?” which announces the abyss of some terrifying, filthy enjoyment. If the Name-of-the-Father functions as the agency of interpellation, of symbolic identification, the mother’s desire, with its fathomless “Che vuoi?”, marks a certain limit at which every interpellation necessarily fails’ (Žižek, Sublime Object, 120-21).
Interpellation fails, then. It demands that I respond, but the catch is that not only does it give no clue as to what the correct response might be, it also makes abyssal the very possibility of a correct response. There are only answers that are in principle never quite enough. But then, we can at least in part turn this around. Interpellation’s failure is precisely its success. If we could simply know the Subject’s desire, and if there were simply a correct response, no matter how elaborate and obscure, all we would have to do to be discharged of any obligations once and for all is to give it: Yes, I am already exactly that, nothing more and nothing less, with the certainty that a table is just a table. That this is an a priori impossibility means that there is no getting rid of that obligation: it is always there, whatever one does. If this were not the case, and if the social bond of interpellation could simply be refused in an act of choice, it would not be a social bond. The conclusion is clear: the social bond of interpellation lies in its failure, not its success.
This is why interpellation is neither an offer we must learn how to refuse, nor a deadly trap from which there is no exit. Interpellation is what I am bound to hear. It guarantees nothing, but that very absence of guarantee is what opens up the dimensions of the ethical and the political as co-terminous with the subject itself—and no less for any radical, dissenting politics. What Hamlet’s father’s ghost calls on him for is not first of all obedience, but something far more difficult and unending: no less than justice. The spectre that stalks Derrida’s pages as well as Marx’s calls for nothing less.
Conversations about Hamlet with my colleague Victoria Bladen were of great help to me in writing this essay. Her own piece on the ghost is now published as ‘The Ghost and the Skull: Rupturing Borders Between the Living and the Dead in Filmed Hamlets’, in Shakespeare on Screen: Hamlet, eds Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin. Rouen: PURH (Publications des universités de Rouen et du Havre), 2011, pp. 143-74.
1. So, for example, a subject’s ideas ‘are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals which are themselves defined by the material ideological apparatus from which derive the ideas of that subject’ (Althusser, ‘Ideology’, 127). #back
2. ‘The word disposition seems particularly suited to express what is covered by the concept of habitus (defined as a system of dispositions). It expresses first the result of an organizing action, with a meaning close to that of words such as structure; it also designates a way of being, a habitual state (especially of the body) and, in particular, a predisposition, tendency, propensity, or inclination’ (Bourdieu, Outline, 214, n1). #back
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