The Power of Misinterpellation

Today’s guest post is by James Martel, author of new book The Misinterpellated Subject.

James MartelIn all the sense of crisis and doom that we are currently experiencing with the advent of the Trump administration—despair over an administration that seems equal parts determined fascists and incompetent lunatics, horror and grim determination as thousands, perhaps millions, of people are to be deported, bathrooms becomes zones of exclusion and the war on people of color and the poor goes on unabated—there is one element that is critical to keep in mind. For all of his seeming power, self-confidence and authority, Donald Trump and his “alt-right” (i.e. neo-Nazi) minions do not command the absolute form of control that they think they have and we often imagine them to have (hence contributing to the efficacy of such a power).

On one level this is very obvious—witness the disastrous roll out of the ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim nations as an example of this impotence within apparent potency. But beneath the empirical reality of Trump’s failures (and successes) lies a deeper, more critical point; executive pronouncements can be declared with all the markings of sovereign authority, but they are never received in exactly the way they are intended; they never have the full effect that their speaker desires. Some of this can be explained by language theory, by the idea, championed by thinkers like J.A. Austin, that speech acts don’t always do what we think they do. The Misinterpellated SubjectBut there is also a more political version of this discussion, and this is where my new book, The Misinterpellated Subject, attempts to make an intervention. In the book, I argue that Althusser’s theory of interpellation—the process by which people are formed as subjects of the state in response to calls from authority figures (his famous example is of a police officer hailing a pedestrian by calling out “hey, you there!”)—contains within it the seeds of its own unmaking. The call goes out and Althusser tells us that “nine times out of ten” the person hailed is “really” the person intended by the law. But what about the one person in ten that is wrongly hailed? In The Misinterpellated Subject, I argue that in fact, the hail is never accurate. The law, or the state, never knows (or cares) who it is hailing; it is a pretense of authority that is reinforced by our willingness to receive that call, to see it as being “really for us.” But in some cases, this charade becomes untenable (one time in ten) and the authority of the call fails to produce its intended results.

This is the phenomenon that I am calling misinterpellation. Whereas the failure of the call is only visible some of the time, the key insight of misinteprellation is that the failure of the call is present in each and every moment (that is, even among the nine out of ten times where the callee is “really” who the law thinks it intended to call).

If we take this insight back to the question of Trump, we can see that his call to ban Muslims from the United States was met in many ways that he did not want or expect. This call was heard by the protestors who blocked the airports. It was heard by judges who resisted him. It was heard by those refugees themselves who continued to resist, to insist on their right to remain. It was even heard in myriad ways by the officials at Homeland Security and other federal agencies that often contradicted one another as well as the “official position” (itself a moving target).

All of this is critical for thinking about the power (and also the failure) of interpellation, of executive calls and the triumph of illicit power; it works when we respond as the state wishes, when we think that we have no choice but to respond. But all that changes when the subject of that call realizes that the call is not really about or for her, that the call is only made for the sake of the power of the state itself; the state needs us to recognize it or it fails to exist at all.

And therein lies the critical power of resistance. This power of misinterpellation can manifest itself as demonstrations and protests but it can also manifest itself as something far more subversive. If we simply say “no” to the call, we remain, in a way, inside the workings of interpellation. We are protestors, miscreants and rebels, and the law and the state know how to deal with that (witness Trump’s tweets about “professional anarchists” and the like). But if we render the call “incredible” (to cite Judith Butler), we move from simply rejecting the call to denying it as being a call at all. The more we understand that the call is never for us, never could be for us—that is to say, the more we are misinterpellated—the more we see the hollowness or emptiness of the state and its authority structures. By seeing the call as nothing, we can, in effect, return the state to its own nothing, the void from which it comes and which it ceaselessly seeks to deny.

In all the despair of our current moment, one bit of good news is that this power (perhaps counter-power is a better word) can never be taken away from us, regardless of how dark the time or how terrifying the tyrant that we face (recognizing that not all communities face the same traumas and that the “we” itself is a deep point of contention). My book argues that there is always recourse to the subversive force of misinterpellation; in doing so, we gain not just the destruction of our false, colonized and interpellated forms of subjectivity, but also the anarchist ferment—the multiple, overlapping and ungoverned beings that we’ve always been—which shows up in response to a call that never has been, and never will be, for anyone at all.

To learn more about or purchase The Misinterpellated Subject, visit its webpage. You can also read the introduction free online.


  1. This is excellent. Still, I can’t help but think about the ways in which a construct like “race” is both not real (no biological basis; not a genuine ontological category) and also real (very real effects; used as a basis for policy pronouncements that damage people). The article does acknowledge toward the end that “the ‘we; itself” is “a deep point of contention,” and I’m really taken with this general idea… but how much good does it do someone in the moment of their being deported to think about “recourse to the subversive force of misinterpellation”?

    (I admittedly haven’t read the book, but would like to–I ask in the spirit of genuine curiosity, not to be a gadfly. I wrestle with similar questions.)


    1. It’s true that subversion can’t stop deportations or police shootings per se but I’d say our response to such things can be informed by a general refusal of recognition that the state requires. I think the key point is that the state is much more vulnerable than it seems. It needs interpellated subjects far more than they need it (actually they don’t need it at all). When the state is given the recognition that it requires, it is in a position to pick off certain people, deport them, shoot them or what have you. But the more that authority is challenged and denied the more difficult it becomes to maintain the structure that allows such a lopsided power dynamic to function.


  2. When I first read Althusser I started using anti-interpellation as a way of undermining the dominant ideology, actively ignoring or refusing to act for the sake of the state or capitalism in any way I could. This is so interesting to me and to think that I never took a class with you!


  3. This channels the what Orwell said about the effects of laws on people. If free speech is banned, but the people want free speech the public will have free speech. If laws exist to protect minorities, but the public does not wish to protect minorities they will receive no protection. I am paraphrasing, but that is the point.


    1. I also apologize for the very long delay in seeing and responding to your comment. And you are exactly right. Rights such as free speech are political, not “natural” and have no power at all without the political decision (whether by the state or the citizenry) to support them. That shows how important it is to think not only about the subject matter of calls (to free speech, to protect minorities or the opposite) but also the way they function as forms of authority in their own right. When we give them the authority they seem to demand, we are also giving the state and other systems of power its own authority. We remain inscribed within the universe that interpellation produces. But when we step out of or refuse that universe, we move past a reliance on rights and enforcement mechanisms and politics becomes something radically different.


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