30 January 2009

Hail Hail, the gangs all here

Note: all page references refer to MAPH reader Fall 2005.

In “Ideology and the State” Louis Althusser uses the terms “interpellation” and “hailing” to refer to the everyday reproduction of subjects as individuals. Althusser uses the example of a police officer calling out, “Hey, you there!” to illustrate hailing as one aspect of interpellation. Franz Fanon, in “The Fact of Blackness,” uses a child’s hailing to begin an attempt to create a Hegelian scene of mutual recognition with white culture through various mediums (such as an exploration of Negro culture) which ultimately fails, but in his examination of Negro cultural texts he comes to a moment of interpellation and does find a moment of subjectivity within the boundaries of his own Negro culture.

Interpellation and hailing both refer to the act of becoming a subject, not temporally or as a causal relationship, but as “always-already” subjects. While Althusser frequently uses both terms together, without any distinction between them, hailing refers to a specific aspect of interpellation involving two unmediated subjects, one calling to the other, thereby making obvious the other’s subjectivity. There is no movement toward becoming a subject because “you and I are always already subjects, and as such constantly practice the rituals of ideological recognition” (Althusser 172). Both the hailer and the individual being hailed are already on equal footing as subjects and the interpellation serves simply to reaffirm that obviousness.

When Franz Fanon attempts to stage a similar scene of mutual recognition in “The Fact of Blackness” he uses a Hegelian-style dialectic to try to become an equal subject in the eyes of whiteness. Hegel’s “self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is it exists only in being acknowledged” (Hegel 111). Fanon goes through the steps of mutual recognition, using several different tools to try and achieve it, but at the beginning of the chapter he says “every ontology is made unattainable in a colonized and civilized society…the black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man” (Fanon 109-110). Fanon is ultimately unable to find subjectivity through the Hegelian dialectic because he cannot attain acknowledgement, as a black man. There can be no mutual recognition when his person constantly has to be qualified as a “black friend” or “the Negro doctor.” In order for either Hegel’s or Althusser’s version of attaining mutual recognition to work both of the individuals involved must be able to see themselves as alternate versions of the other, each as an equal subject, and Fanon’s encounter cannot come to that conclusion.

The very first line of Fanon’s chapter can be looked at as an instance of hailing. When the child says “Look, a Negro!” (109) there is no doubt who is being addressed, so according to Althusser he now “becomes a subject…because it was really him who was hailed (and not someone else)” (Althusser 174). And of course Fanon is a subject and always already was, but the instance of Fanon’s “hailing” is also vastly different from the way Althusser describes it. The content of the hailing is very different from Althusser’s “Hey, you” or “It’s me” and while there is no mention of hailing needing to take a specific form, the disparaging nature of the child’s hail makes the two subjects dissimilar. Furthermore, the hail comes from a child rather than a policeman or friend and the child is white, which further complicates the encounter. Because the two subjects involved are so different, each unable to view the other as an independent subject, no mutual recognition is possible.

When Fanon turns to Negro culture as a possible medium of mutual recognition he has already tried and discarded, among other things, reason as a mode of recognition. Fanon says he chooses this “method of regression” out of necessity and challenges “the white man to be more irrational than I” (Fanon 123). He previously had tried to gain recognition by working within the confines of white culture, appealing to science for justification for his equal status, but now admits to regressing and desires to meet as equals on this new plane. Fanon explores poetry, music and tribal practices as rich emotive rather than rational experiences in Negro culture and this attempt momentarily looks like it may work: “At last I had been recognized, I was no longer a zero” (129). But in the end this medium, too, failed. The inherent inequality shows itself when Negro culture is dismissed as “a stage of development” for white culture. The dominant culture then adapts Negro culture for its own claiming origins of “earth mystics” that are far superior to what they have and taking “a little human sustenance” from Negro culture when they “become too mechanized” (129). In the end mutual recognition is again impossible because Fanon has seen white culture co-opt the aspects of Negro culture that he had tried to use.

Both Althusser’s interpellation or hailing and Hegel’s mutual recognition have at the core the necessity for a subject to gain recognition from another subject. While Fanon was explicitly working, in “The Fact of Blackness” at producing a Hegelian scene of mutual recognition, his chapter also works to illustrate Althusser’s ideas. His reading through Negro cultural texts serves as a perfect example of interpellation. Each response to the various texts—“Yes, all those are my brothers…Eyah! The tom-tom chatters…Blood! Blood!” (123-125)—can be seen as a moment of Althusserian obviousness. In this way Fanon, while ultimately failing in his goal to find mutual recognition among white culture and coming to the conclusion of “Nothingness and Infinity,” does achieve mutual subjectivity with the texts of his own Negro culture.

09 January 2009


*Note: The following is taken (and only slightly adapted) from a seminar paper of mine for Fall 2008. It examines the idea of 'super-modernity' and fragmentary history...

...as Marc Augé points out in his book, Non-Places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, this collecting of fragmentary histories into ‘history proper’ is what anthropological history (which he seems to equate with history generally) consists of. A modern historian, working within the confines of the social sciences, takes a collection (a sample) of personal histories and constructs a narrative from them. This narrative, then, becomes ‘recorded history’. Augé’s concept of ‘supermodernity’ (which operates as something like a ‘happier’ alternative to postmodernity), however, problematizes this ‘final narrative’ due to the fact that the time between history and the present becomes ever smaller. That is, ‘historical events’ need no longer be from 50, 25, or even 5 years ago, instead, the personal event can, in some sense, be aware of itself as historical event. Supermodernity, then, is the coming together of unfathomable numbers of historical events, so that, like in postmodernity, there can exist no over-arching historical narratives. Unlike this postmodern history, however, supermodern history does not dismiss the possibility of the existence of these narratives, these ‘truths’, but only acknowledges the impossibility (or perhaps merely extreme unlikeliness) of knowing them.