- Individuals Interpellable and Uninterpellable: Reflections on James R. Martel’s The Misinterpellated Subject
James R. Martel’s The Misinterpellated Subject is a work of great interest, and not simply for those seeking to apply Althusser’s theory of interpellation beyond its sphere of origin. For those of us who, more cautiously (perhaps too cautiously), have limited ourselves to an attempt to excavate and examine Althusser’s strange formulation, convinced that it remains in certain important ways unintelligible, Martel’s notion of misinterpellation poses new and very welcome questions. First among these is the question or problem of the untranslatability of the word most associated with Althusser’s project, the word “interpellation,” and the effects of this untranslatability on our understanding of Althusser’s entire theory of ideology and ideological subjection. In fact, I would argue, not as a criticism, but by way of a recognition of the necessary materiality of discourses, that the text’s most effective formulations appear in those places where it demonstrably mistranslates (or simply adopts pre-existing mistranslations of) Althusser’s notion of interpellation. This is not to say that Martel’s basic assumptions are simply wrong, or, in contrast, that he has replaced, perhaps without knowing that he has done so, the Althusserian account of interpellation with something more powerful or true. Althusser’s notion of interpellation is irreducibly contradictory and complex, and its complexity is indistinguishable from the theoretical specificity and singularity that give it its power.
If Martel’s study constantly poses questions to Althusser, it does so without necessarily formulating them as such and exhibits a way of thinking that, in my view, can be fully realized and put to work only when it is examined in the light of Althusser’s discussion of ideology in the essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses.” There is nothing more Althusserian than this apparent paradox: as he wrote with reference to Canguilhem, the history of science, and we might add, the history of concepts and knowledges, has a bit more imagination than any logic of scientific discovery.
Not very long ago, Pierre Macherey wrote that
the text that Althusser published in 1970 under the title, ‘Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses,’ where the thesis of the interpellation of the individual as a subject is advanced for the first time, while undoubtedly one of his most innovative, is also particularly disconcerting. Its exposition, by exploiting a rhetoric that combines ellipses with a kind of rhetorical violence, results in the construction of an enigmatic space that the reader must decipher for himself.(51)1
The fact that Macherey, who was a participant in the discussions that led to the formation of the concept of interpellation, can describe the ISAs essay as an “enigmatic space” will undoubtedly surprise Anglophone readers, few if any of whom have found it particularly enigmatic. Martel’s citations and arguments may well help us recover an appreciation of the difficulties of Althusser’s text by “making speak” its ellipses and its forcing of concepts and images. We might start by acknowledging the fact that we do not exactly know what the term “interpellation,” as used in English, much more than in French (or Spanish), means: what are its synonyms or antonyms, for what words can it be substituted? I do not recapitulate here the effects of translating the French word “interpellation” as “interpellation,” a word that had all but disappeared from the English language, where in any case it never possessed the semantic range that it did and does in French (Montag, “Signifier”). Few English speakers could have made any sense at all of the term without the addition of “hail” (no equivalent of which exists in the French text), which translator Ben Brewster decided, without any indication that he had done so, to add as a synonym of interpellation. The result: for decades no one thought to ask what interpellation means in French: everyone knew it meant “hail.”
Ben Brewster’s translation gave us a text very different from the French text, and not only because of the repeated coupling of “interpellation” and “hail” in the places where the...