by Henry on June 29, 2011

A sort of postscript to my “post”:https://crookedtimber.org/2011/06/13/embassytown/ on _Embassytown_ a couple of weeks ago. Sam Thompson’s “LRB review”:http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n12/sam-thompson/monsters-you-pay-to-see had a brief discussion in passing of Miéville’s earlier children’s novel, “Un Lun Dun”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345458443/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=henryfarrell-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217145&creative=399369&creativeASIN=0345458443.

bq. 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”:http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/theory_tuesday_iv/

bq. 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!’

bq. 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”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_egg_%28media%29, 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).