Mar 16, 2012

Hey You!
On interpellation of suspended disbelief

Every Jack Chick tract ends with a choice: accept Jesus or don't; take this goofy cartoon proselytization seriously or as a joke; believe or disbelieve.

This is obvious.

This is the whole point of evangelism, to get one to the moment of decision. Where one must make a decision. Where one has to choose, and there are just these two choices, all the world bifurcated into two exclusive options, and all of one's actions, possible and potential, are at this moment now choices, one way or another. Accept. Or reject.

Say a prayer.

Or throw the little cartoon tract away.

What's interesting to me, though, is how one becomes the "one" caught in this dichotomous choice.

The text at some point turns on the reader, and changes the rules.

The text, at some point, reaches out to the reader to include the reader, turning directly to face the reader and say, "You." And announces the reader's reading, and on the basis of the reader's reading announces there is a game being played, with a limited number of possible moves and no way not to play, as not playing is a certain sort of move in this game that has already begun, by virtue of you the reader's reading.

What interests me here is how suspended disbelief -- with which the reader believes conditionally in order to read, the condition being always the opportunity to step out of that pretending to believe, the freedom to look up from the book -- is turned into an ultimatum to believe or disbelieve.

What I'm talking about here is Louis Althusser's idea of "interpellation." That is, ideology's hailing.

Althusser's name and this idea of interpellation makes some people's skin break out in hives, but I've found his work, especially this work, really useful. Specifically in thinking about reading religious fiction, and the way the reader relates to the text.

Althusser says "all ideology has the function (which defines it) of 'constituting' concrete individuals as subjects."

I.e., constructing individuals as individuals, since individuals are individuals only in their relationships.*

The example he uses is of a police officer in the street calling out, "hey!"

He writes:
"[I]deology '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 the 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 just imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn around. By this mere one-hundred-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was 'really' addressed to him, that 'it was really him who was hailed' (and not someone else."
It's not even really the act of turning around, as Althusser later works out. It's the mere recognition of a call, and even the potential, the possibility, that you could be the "you" being shouted to. Because look at what happens at that moment: One becomes the "one" with two choices, all possible actions bifurcated by that hailing and recognition into the either/or of responding or refusing to respond. Doing whatever one was doing before the call has now, post-hail, post-interpellation, been re-inscribed as meaning something. Not responding is also a response.

Not doing something comes to mean doing something.

E.g., in a not very theoretical case** from last Summer:



At about 10:50, a walking man, who is one of many people walking, is hailed. As a subject. A citizen. A suspect. And his walking is no longer content free: the rules are changed, in one sense, announced in another, and his walking is constructed/construed/constituted as meaningful. He protests, "I didn't do nothing." But the point is exactly that, having been interpellated, to do nothing was to do something, to not act was an act, to not respond was itself a response.

(A not-funny joke for this era of Occupy: How do you know if you're resisting arrest? You're not pepper-spraying yourself in the face.)

In the interpellation, one becomes the "one" with only two choices. Rules are announced to an already-in-process game, where there are only two available moves, and one is to not play. In chess, there's a German word for this: zugzwang. Meaning, "a situation in which a player is limited to moves that cost pieces or have a damaging positional effect."

Consider how this can work in a text. Look at the classic facebook/twitter meme: Repost/RT this if you love Jesus, if you don't, keep scrolling. This has been satirized by the webcomic Coffee With Jesus and, as ironic twitter performance art, by @BiteTheseTweets.

I, at least, have the reaction this is unfair. Not incidentally, I have the same reaction when forced into checkmate.

Interpellation can be more subtle than this, though. It can happen so the either/or choice is not so immediately apparent, not so obviously in the foreground. Imagine the everyday situation where someone says, "Can I call you by your first name?" There is an either/or choice there, a restricted and forced choice, though the negatives of this are not so in-your-face. Notice, though, how one has already been called. Before the choice and Althusser's "mere one-hundred-eighty-degree physical conversion" one has already been constituted in a very particular way.

The point is not that one cannot say no. The point, rather, is that one has been written into a narrative at this moment as this "one," and there's no choice the one can make to un-write one's self from the story that wouldn't, by the fact of being an act of you as "one," one reenforces and re-establishes oneself as "one." There's no out. No way to self-efface.

This is what happens -- the first move -- in proselytization. The subject of the evangelization effort is interpelled into a subject, the subject of a story, with this a critical moment and a crux in that story.

It can quite subtle: in an evangelizing scene in Left Behind, the post-rapture preacher turns to two of the as-yet-unconverted main characters and says, "May I call you by your first names?"

This is not a line that leaps out at the reader. Not one noted by critics, pin-pointed as "the moment." And yet, what I'm interested has already happened, right there with that question. All the novel's claims of insisting on a choice, that there must be a decision made and their are only too options, no middle ground, no neutrality, a verdict is demanded, are only really possible because of this constitution of a subject that happens here.

This is what happens with the Jack Chick tracts.

To think about how these stupid, kitchy cartoons, which seem somehow horrible and brilliant, too (and open to re-appropriation), actually work, opens up all sorts of complications. They always end with this moment, the ultimate panel, which is the only one that doesn't have any artwork.

Here the game that's going on with reading is announced. Or, perhaps just recognized, as it's announced as already having started. Here's where the text nudges reader, and says, "your move." And you see that you're you, and that the moves you could make have been limited to two.

Yes, or no.

Pray, or throw it away.

Accept or reject: the decision is yours, and has to be made, and not making it is making it too. 

And how did this happen? How did one get here? One got here by reading. In the act of being hailed by the tract, and then of reading, and so being constituted as the one with this choice.

One suspended disbelief in order to engage the story, to entertain the tale, and then the tale was turned so it was about you, and suspending disbelief became a kind of interpellation trap, to force you -- the "you" that is this you that's being addressed -- into a moment of decision.

The stakes, re-raised, as it were, to belief and disbelief.

It's no accident, I think, that the most successful Chick tract is actually the one that brings this act of interpellation to the very front, declaring, with the title: This Was Your Life.


*cf. Ferdinand de Saussure. Althusser doesn't work out the idea that identity is a function of difference in the same way Saussure and later post-structuralists do, but this idea of the construction of subjects attaches to that idea, and requires it or something like it, to get us past the idea that individuals just so of "are." Reversing this and reading Saussure et al in Althusserian terms also serves to counter the accusation of anti-realism. Saying the individual is constituted or constructed as such is not to say that there's no "real" person, or that people are merely ideas and abstractions and there's no fact of the matter, no "out there" about which we're speaking and could be wrong about. Althusser is, after all, a materialist.

** For more on the ethical and political issues raised by this video, which are are not particularly relevant to the topic here but are serious enough I'd be remiss not at least acknowledge them, see Ta-Nehisi Coates, With great power comes no responsibility."