Hailing

by Henry on June 29, 2011

A sort of postscript to my post on Embassytown a couple of weeks ago. Sam Thompson’s LRB review had a brief discussion in passing of Miéville’s earlier children’s novel, Un Lun Dun.

In a novel he wrote for children in 2007, Un Lun Dun, a despotic entity called Mr Speaker turns language into flesh in a literal sense: when he talks each word takes animate form as a weird creature dropping from his mouth. The word ‘jealous’ manifests as a ‘beautiful iridescent bat’, ‘soliloquy’ is a ‘long-necked sinuous quadruped’, ‘cartography’ a ‘thing like a bowler hat with several spidery legs and a fox’s tail’. These ‘utterlings’ are obedient slaves, existing to do their creator’s will. Like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, Mr Speaker thinks that when it comes to words, the only important question is ‘which is to be master’: he has none of Alice’s doubts about ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’. Miéville’s modern Alice is a pre-teen Londoner called Deeba, who, when she encounters Mr Speaker on her journey through the looking-glass city of UnLondon, delights him with fresh vocabulary like ‘bling’, ‘lairy’ and ‘diss’, spawning new kinds of word-critter. But when Mr Speaker orders his words to take her prisoner, she turns the tables by pointing out the flaw in his theory of language. ‘Words don’t always mean what we want them to,’ she says. ‘Like … if someone shouts, “Hey, you!” at someone in the street, but someone else turns around. The words misbehaved.’ Deeba’s subversive logic shows the utterlings that they don’t have to obey Mr Speaker after all, and she escapes as the tyrant is overwhelmed by his own mutinous verbiage.

It was only when I saw this quote singled out that I realized that Deeba’s response is in part a joke very specifically aimed at structural Marxism. I give you Louis Althusser, as quoted by our own Michael Bérubé

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.

This is a class of an Easter Egg, but also a serious point, I think. For Miéville, the delight of language is that it isn’t determinative in the fashion that Althusser says it is. Not all who are hailed recognize it – and if they do recognize it, they can choose to ignore or subvert the fashion in which they are being hailed. It’s also a nice example of how a metaphor can be framed in two registers at once – most readers of Un Lun Dun will have no very great familiarity with defunct Marxist theorists, but they don’t have to be to get the point (it’s more fun for readers who recognize the target of the joke, but it’s not really necessary to the underlying point).

{ 25 comments }

1

Greg B 06.29.11 at 2:56 pm

Reminds me of those heady days of the early 1990’s, when I first encountered W. Campbell’s ‘sphincter says what?’ theory of subject-formation.

2

Stella 06.29.11 at 3:16 pm

Aha! In an interview I read a month or so ago, Mieville said “I sometimes put Easter eggs for my comrades… There is an Althusser joke in Un Lun Dun that two people have caught.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but now it all makes sense.

3

Stella 06.29.11 at 3:18 pm

Hmm, the link appears to be broken. The interview is here: http://socialistworker.org/2011/05/23/politics-and-the-fantastic

4

Henry 06.29.11 at 3:34 pm

Thanks Stella – interesting interview. I feel quite stupid that I hadn’t actually seen this until Thompson’s review – but then it’s hardly the first one I’ve missed – e.g. the Morning Walker/Dawn Treader ref. in _Iron Council_ (and there is a Luxemburg quote in there too that I only spotted years after). To my credit though, I was apparently the first person to spot the Sredni Vashtar cultists in _Kraken._

5

The Modesto Kid 06.29.11 at 3:50 pm

when he talks each word takes animate form as a weird creature dropping from his mouth.

Whoa cool, I have got to take a look at this book! (There is a similar bit, one which I find entrancing, in _Finn Family Moomintroll_.)

6

Anderson 06.29.11 at 4:56 pm

it isn’t determinative in the fashion that Althusser says it is

Ideology doesn’t have to be “determinative” to work in the vast majority of cases. I haven’t read any Althusser in a long while indeed, but I worry the post sets him up as a straw man. Deeba is demystifying language in a manner that, presumably, Althusser thinks he himself is doing. Unless of course I am totally wrong.

7

garymar 06.29.11 at 6:33 pm

Hey you!

8

Chris Bertram 06.29.11 at 6:42 pm

It could also have functioned as a Christine Korsgaard joke (not that there are many of those). See her _The Sources of Normativity_ 4.2.7 and Jerry Cohen’s response at p. 176.

9

bianca steele 06.29.11 at 7:14 pm

I rather liked the London Cult Police in Kraken, and also the idea of the cult collectors. But neither is very English is it? More likely he’s riffing off Lev Grossman or someone like that, like with the clearly American Millenialist cults. I didn’t really like the hipster main characters.

Mieville is a little like Zadie Smith in having got out of university with an evidently strong belief in his ability to write exactly the kind of novel he’d like to write, and presumably use what he learned there. That isn’t a bad thing at all, but it sets them off from even other English novelists their own age.

10

Tim Wilkinson 06.29.11 at 7:30 pm

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!’

Faugh!

11

Phil 06.29.11 at 7:52 pm

Mieville is a little like Zadie Smith in having got out of university

The really envy-inducing thing about China is that he hasn’t got out of university, unless he’s knocked it on the head quite recently – he publishes on international law.

12

Phil 06.29.11 at 7:53 pm

(And here’s me thinking it was a Wittgenstein thing. Bah.)

13

LFC 06.29.11 at 8:36 pm

…the delight of language is that it isn’t determinative in the fashion that Althusser says it is.

Althusser’s probably wrong idea that ideology ‘hails’ people seems not to be about language, at least judging from this quoted passage. “Verbal call or whistle” suggests (to me, at any rate) that ideology can ‘hail’ its targets in a non-verbal way or at a non-verbal level.

14

bigcitylib 06.29.11 at 11:46 pm

Halfway through Iron Council and so far Miéville seems a gay-left Tolkien. Am I missing something? Writing is well wrought to overwrought, a bit like Cormac Mc but not so inclined to pure gibberish.

By the way, has anyone noticed how Gibson’s last couple and Banks last one sucked hideously? Is age claiming our best SciFi people?

PS. Am reading IC on your recommendation. Payed real money in a Chapters, with all the used bookstore people telling me who the fuck is this guy? Am not entirely pleased with you, but there’s another 600 or so pages to go…

15

hartal 06.29.11 at 11:50 pm

While Mieville was joking about Althusser, it’s guess that this understanding of interpellation is indebted more to Pashukanis (whom he defends in his academic work) than Althusser. Another way of putting it: interpellation is a legal not simply ideological process.

First there is the question of *as what* do subjects mutually recognize each other in civil society. It is not the act of respect that has the active power as in Kant’s formulation but the system of generalized commodity exchange. Here is the practical basis for respect, that is “awareness of a value which demolishes my self-love”: Commodity exchange requires of each recognition of the other as a proprietor like him or herself, hence having the right of ownership of his or her product and the right to dispose of it freely; such mutual recognition then implies that each exchanger is bound not to take the other’s property by force and second to exchange for this property on the basis of a free agreement on its equivalent value.

In civil society individuals are thus interpellated as legal subjects, posited as free and equal with each other; and thus forced to assume a persona which in Roman jurisprudence originally derived from the function of an actor’s stage mask; the mask enabling the actor to conceal his real identity and to conform to the role written for him.

Transposed into modern civil society, man must assume a legal mask in order to engage in the activities regulated by legal rules. Pashukanis presented the mutual recognition of zoological individuals as free and equal bearers of abstract right in the act of commodity exchange as a phantasmorgia and a mode of subjection, a reification and self-reification of persons.

16

john c. halasz 06.30.11 at 12:43 am

@10 TW:

What, you’ve never read Kafka? (Though I’ve never bothered myself much with Althusser).

17

Satan Mayo 06.30.11 at 3:41 am

Halfway through Iron Council and so far Miéville seems a gay-left Tolkien. Am I missing something? Writing is well wrought to overwrought, a bit like Cormac Mc but not so inclined to pure gibberish.

By the way, has anyone noticed how Gibson’s last couple and Banks last one sucked hideously? Is age claiming our best SciFi people?

Is there anything you like?

18

bjk 06.30.11 at 8:17 am

“when he talks each word takes animate form as a weird creature dropping from his mouth. “

Isn’t there a passage in Augustine’s de magistro that imagines this scenario? The internet says it’s de magistro 8.24, which I don’t have handy.

19

hellblazer 06.30.11 at 8:24 am

“when he talks each word takes animate form as a weird creature dropping from his mouth. “

Cf. Ridcully’s curse words in Reaper Man, suggesting this literalized metaphor could be independently reinvented…

20

ejh 06.30.11 at 11:09 am

De Magistro (Handy to have Latin for this, which I don’t, or not to this level anyway)

21

Felix 07.01.11 at 9:05 am

This is more like a footnote to the original Embassytown post but I came too late for that as it was already closed when I tried to add my comment. Spoilers for ET ahead.

I liked the Embassytown a lot, it’s definitely one of the best sci-fi books I’ve read in a while. But one thing keeps bugging me. Mieville has always been a politically conscious writer and has – as you all know – a socialist background. So, what struck me was that you could read/interpret the book completely contrary to his leftist ideas and I keep wondering if that’s on purpose or not.

Embassytown is basically a story about cultural encounters between two completely distinct civilizations (humans and Hosts). A scenario like that implies that it is read as a metaphor on colonialism/imperialism. I mean, we have Bremen that brings the God-drug (capitalism/”superior culture”) to a culture that has functioned perfectly well without it up to that point and makes the whole Host-society addicted to that drug. Now, the only way to escape from that addiction is to actually become like the intruder, i.e. to adopt the intruders’ language and their way of thinking. Metaphorically speaking, this could be read as an argument that the imperial power (humans) has always been superior to the “colonized people” (the Hosts), since human language is “better” than Ariekei-Language: only if you adopt the superior way of living (human language = Western culture/capitalism) you can survive and overcome your addiction (= dependency). If you adhere to your former way of living, you’re doomed.

The wonderful thing about the Embassytown is that this interpretation is only one among many. There so many ideas hidden in the book you’d easily find a lot more interpretations. But given the China’s political background and this (at least from my view) possible interpretation which totally opposes Mieville’s leftist political ideas, it is quite startling to see that he put the story in a way that allows for an interpretation that’s pretty much opposed to socialist anti-imperialist ideas. So, did he do it on purpose? I’d say he did it on purpose, trying to make the reader think about what he/she is actually reading… Well, ok, maybe I’m completely off with this interpretation. I don’t know. What do you think?

22

Jennifer J. Thomas 07.01.11 at 3:13 pm

Also the first chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology, but inverted so that it is not the hailed object (subject), but the speaking subject himself who does not know what he means. “Now” is night. “Now” is day. “There” is the blackboard. I turn around and “there” is the door.

Has Mieville yet done a book where “I” turn around and . . . ? In otherwords where there is slippage in my effort to hail myself?

23

Daniel Wolf 07.01.11 at 10:28 pm

May I ask an OT question about Embassytown? As the function of the population of Embassytown was largely the production and care of ambassadors, is it possible that Avice was herself a singleton twin, i.e. failed from birth to become an ambassador? This would go some distance to explaining her curiously detached relationships to people and the odd, cold emotional tone of her narration. Perhaps such a detachment manifest itself in her ability to navigate the Immer, a wanderlust that nevertheless draws her back home. And if it was the case that she was a singleton, what might have been the name of her twin?

24

Phil 07.02.11 at 12:13 pm

a book where “I” turn around and . . .

“No more coats and no more home”?

Hartal – that’s really seriously interesting. (I became aware of Mieville’s legal work through my interest in Pashukanis.) Where would I find the bits about subjects mutually constituting one another through recognition, etc? (I have read the General Theory, but it’s a while ago.)

25

hartal 07.03.11 at 4:14 am

Yes I was relying on the General Theory http://www.marxists.org/archive/pashukanis/1924/law/ch04.htm and the secondary literature on it.
Yes, I think one way approach the recognition literature is to see its relation to the constitution of people as juridical subjects in commodity exchange. I shared that point with Honneth but he was really dismissive of any skepticism about the autonomous subject as a juridical myth; it is a deep conviction for him, as I remember him saying. That discussion was several years ago, so I don’t remember the details, and I have’t followed up on the recognition literature which I think is very fascinating and important and enjoyable to read.

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