It is often said that words hurt but what does that mean at the societal level? What are the locutions that, once enunciated, envelop the bodies and trap them as subjects? In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970), Louis Althusser presents the essence of ideology through the notion of interpellation (hailing). That is trough the locution “Hey, you there!” that a policeman transforms an individual into a subject when the latter turns around to face him:
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. And yet it is a strange phenomenon, and one which cannot be explained solely by ‘guilt feelings’, despite the large numbers who ‘have something on their consciences’. (Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” 1970.)
I think that the violence of the process of subjectivization described by Althusser lies less in the self-recognition of one as a subject and the following turn around that succeeds it, but rather in the fact that one has no choice but to react to this interpellation. Even the absence of reaction would constitute a form of reaction; here lies the violence of a forced choice that was not solicited. In other words, when one is hailed “Hey, you there!” one can either decide to turn around, continue walking, running away etc. each of these propositions resulting from the locution that preceded them.
The same thing is applicable to the racist insult or, for that matter, any form of categorization of a body within a category defined by nothing else than language. Besides the collective offense that this kind of locutions develops, there is a violence applied onto the individual body as this locution forces it to enter a virtual category and reduces it to this category. It therefore provokes an unavoidable reaction to it, whatever this reaction might be (again, there is no escape from it). Being categorized in a given social group — whether it is based on an assumed race, gender, sexual preference, origins etc. — forces us to not only react to the locution itself, but also to the other bodies that would be assimilated to this social group. For example, a dark skin body, when hailed derogatively or simply reduced to its epidermic pigmentation regardless of any other characteristics of this body, is forced to define itself as belonging or not to the social group of “blacks,” that is a group of bodies that accepted to recognize themselves according to the same reductive characteristics and to resist collectively against the various forms of racism. It would be just as much reductive as the insult itself to assume that any dark skin body wants to be part of the social group of “blacks.” The locution, however, forces this body to choose its relationship to the group that is is forcefully associated to.
This text started with the policeman’s locution “Hey, you there!” that does not seem to be inherently related to the partition of society into virtual social categories. However, one of the forms of exercise of power functions by this partition. The locution “Hey, you there!” is practiced in the context of prevention (“Hey, you there! Show me your I.D.” “Hey, you there! What are you doing here?” etc.) rather than in the one of suppression. The function of the police in this context of prevention therefore consists in the profiling of bodies and the set of expectations related to these bodies (see past article about expectations as the main form of current racism). It is therefore not surprising to often see an overlapping of racism with the police function and the relations of power it implies. The locutions that envelop our bodies are to be understood as the expression of the degree of difference between our body and the norm body. They apply a layer of identity on our body ‘from the outside’ forcing the layers of identity built ‘from the inside’ to react in relation to them.