Michaela Brangan – Hey, Not You!: The Failure Politics of Misinterpellation: Review of James Martel’s “The Misinterpellated Subject”


by Michaela Brangan

The list of things which ought to register as politically dire on a mass scale but do not is long. It includes the “kettling”[1] and mass arrest of over two hundred people by DC Metro police at Donald Trump’s inauguration. The remaining defendants’ plight portends dimly for the right to assemble and protest without being targeted by police and arrested.[2] To defray the high costs of litigation and lives upended, two groups, Dead City Legal Posse and DefendJ20 Resistance, formed and work in tandem to organize support for the J20 defendants, prosecuted as “the Rioting Defendants.” The vast majority of support and media coverage for this activism has been provided by members of the left-anarchist community. Emphasized on the front page of Defend J20/DCLP’s fundraising site is the dangerous precedent convictions would set, and the “astonishing display of legal solidarity” of the defendants, almost all of whom are unified in fighting their charges in court. None of the few who have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors have cooperated with the prosecution in exchange for lesser charges.

Maybe this gives pause to those who might assume anarchists don’t do legal strategy, which the phrase “legal solidarity” would imply. Procedural engagement with the state apparatus? Arguing the right to dissent under the First Amendment? Is DCLP/DefendJ20 using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house? Is it uncovering state hypocrisy through the performance of legal theater, one piece of a multifarious project of resistance? Or, is the collective defense strategy rooted in a simple necessity: obtaining liberation for those threatened by the state, “Until everyone is free,” as DefendJ20 Resistance vows?

Does it matter? Knowing how solidarity happens, how it is sustained, and why it is necessary, is more than a sidebar to resistance politics. In The Misinterpellated Subject (Duke University Press), James Martel points to one method of analyzing antiauthoritarian reactions to oppression. Martel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, promises a “political agenda…[which is] to think about a phenomenon that is ongoing and to try to understand why it happens, how it could be multiplied and extended, and finally, what the results of such subversion are in terms of the kinds of subjects that emerge from the process.” This subversive process he names “misinterpellation”: what happens when you respond to a “call…not meant for you.”

The need for a rehabilitated understanding of Louis Althusser’s famous concept goes unquestioned. But Martel is going further, with a “political agenda” of “discipline—a form of training,” to uncover “a conspiracy, a form of resistance based on a common rejection of the practices of law, politics, and economics—with an accompanying form of subjectivity…a deeper ‘we’…the anarchism of the soul.” If what is meant by the phrase “political agenda” is the outlay of steps available for enactment, Martel’s is hard to follow, especially his reluctance to theorize solidarity in regard to anarchist political action. Instead, he sources politics out of Nietzschean individualism, and stretches his theory over community struggles, such as the Movement for Black Lives. It seems human solidarity is a “liberal universal” trap, to be avoided.

Martel intersperses clusters of historical events with philosophical and literary examples that point to different ways of calling (“Come, Come!” (Lauren Berlant); “Look! A Negro!” (Frantz Fanon)) over a wide swath of rebellions. I will cover some, beginning with the original interpellative call: “Hey, you there!” The respondent to this call is likely the intended hearer. Althusser explains, “they hardly ever miss…(nine times out of ten it is the right one);” the Man (almost) always gets its man. But “[w]hat,” Martel asks, “do we make of this [one out of ten] mistakenly hailed subject?” to whom the cop says, impatiently, looking past him: no, not you. Martel deftly exploits the interpellative misfire. Even a minor misfire undoes interpellation’s whole purpose; rather than error or “an occasional phenomenon,” the misinterpellative moment reveals the state’s inherent weakness. Misinterpellation gives the clearest view of the always failed subject, and then, the possibility for something else becomes visible: that we might have said “‘no’ to great systems that otherwise overwhelm us,” such as law, such as politics, such as economics.

Is this resistance for which failure is always necessary? Revolution springing out of the failed subject resonates with the materialist’s mounting contradictions that prompt the shedding of false consciousness, but Martel categorically rejects what he calls the “dupes” theory and favors James Scott’s “hidden transcripts” of resistance. What appears “‘spontaneous’” or revelatory on the surface are offshoots of “deep roots in practices of resistance that effectively never cease.” (The book contains many scare-words. For example, “spontaneous” is in scare-quotes on first and second mentions with no referent, which indicates critique of the concept; when “spontaneous” is cited a third time, it is with approval. “Authentic,” truth,” “real,” “obvious” and “happy ending” may send some readers hunting before realizing that they are nudges, however inconsistent. “Happy ending” did make me laugh, though.)

The Haitian Revolution is a perfect example of misinterpellative empowerment, as Martel sees it. When slaves heard of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, a few leaders cynically latched onto the plain language meaning to mobilize slaves to fight behind them. But rank-and-file ex-slaves interpreted the Declaration as a document of unmediated self-determination, exposing their self-styled leaders’ hypocrisy, as well as the incoherence of the rights-declaring documents that excluded them. Martel rightly draws from this that “the concept of the universal serves as a site upon which we can clearly observe the failure of the universal to appear.” Another example falls a little more flatly. Mohammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit-seller who self-immolated in front of the governor’s office, “attempt[ed] to assert his subject position,” his suicide “the only path he felt that he could” take “in order to assert his own form of counteragency, or at the very least, to allow his failure as a subject to be complete and undeniable.” According to Martel, the masses’ reaction to Bouazizi’s suffering was not as political solidarity, but a mimetic function. His suffering “became true for nearly everyone else in Tunisia as well,” as “[s]omehow the story…dramatized a form of injustice that was already present and already known but held back from…what had been borne…was no longer possible.” At the risk of sounding like a betrayer of the literary, my field: something is lost when reading revolutionary upheaval solely as dramatic catharsis.

Martel wants us to reclaim failure as the impetus to conspire and create “radically contingent, agonal, and undetermined state[s]” of being. While he invokes Scott’s theory of hidden community resistance, he forgets to explain how he sees organizing working. He suggests the concept of unity is a phantasm of liberal desire. His anarchic soul opposes unity and forms “far messier and unstructured” politics, “temporary and shifting sets of relationships.” But it is hard to know what the moral or political problem is with structure. Sustainable structures can be for the mutual benefits of those who make, participate in, and rely on them. Decentralized structures are not necessarily messy. Mutual aid collectives work to undo perceptions that anti-statist and anti-capitalist organizing means a lack of structure or rootedness in existing community formations. A common rallying cry for political anarchists is “Solidarity, not charity,” which suggests a critique of one-off relations. In her account of the Tunisian uprising, which Martel cites, Alcinda Honwana describes an outpouring of solidarity across widely disparate groups, and catalogues the careful coordination of marches, strikes, and sit-ins. Though she does call the movement leaderless, there is little room to interpret Honwana’s as anything than an ethnography of organized mass struggle. What appears messy or unstructured may only be so in the eye of the statist, and all the better for the anti-statist.  Structures the state cannot understand are good assets.

Virtuous messiness leads to interesting alignments. Frantz Fanon’s refusals of universalism and negritude is precisely a refusal of imposed ideologies, “of the false choices…he opts for neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’ but both,” and this is well explained and named as political resistance. Yet Martel reads Nietzsche’s amor fati alongside Fanon, folding it into a kind of mantra that reads a little like a tricked-out version of dialectical behavioral therapy.

If we love our fate, doesn’t that mean that we have to accept the world as it is? … Clearly, this is a ‘rhetorical’ question: I have already begun to suggest how this not necessarily the right way to read Nietzsche. [A]mor fati just means loving the present, accepting it, and, from that position rearticulating and reconceptualizing the subject position itself.


Amor fati means loving and accepting the mess that we are.


[F]or Nietzsche, we must love all of this messy self that we are, warts and all, including the part of us that hates and denies our self.

And again:

What the misinterpellated subject finds, via the process of amor fati, is herself, her crazy quilted, weird, multiple subjectivity.

While I am intrigued by this notion, as it indulges my feelings of self-worth, I am hard-pressed to find a substantial difference between these maxims and Oprah’s (Oprah-man?), or those of the charismatic Cal Roberts, Hugh Dancy’s character on Hulu’s The Path. What I do know is that these do not form a political agenda but a method of personal growth that can just as easily lead away from politics than towards it. Messiness is mystifying.

So it goes with Martel’s analyses of various fictional characters as practitioners of amor fati. He claims that his readings go “against the grain”: rather than being “read as losers, as boring or quiescent, or as angry or crazy” as readers “often…scorn” them, Martel privileges marginal characters as worthwhile subjects. This generalization about what readers “often” do struck me, and it was here that the theory began to reveal that its subversive power depends solely on detachment. Isolated subjects, supposedly rescued from the margins, are fried by the glare of Martel’s theoretical lens to become useful, if unrecognizable, objects. Martel argues against Agamben, asserting that Bartleby is not passive. “Prefer[ring] not to” indicates doing only what he wants, his object-like-ness becoming an anarchic choice. The novel’s fascinating and paradoxical descriptor for Bartleby’s irritating behavior, “passive resistance,” is left mysteriously unanalyzed. The “seemingly minor and irrelevant character” of To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe, is trashed as an unattractive loser—we take Mrs Ramsey’s opinion of Lily as truth—so she can then be sided with as the “ultimate protagonist.” Dozens of scholars have shown Lily Briscoe to be a major and relevant, and dignified, subject for study. None of these arguments are cited. Few would be interested in discovering an “ultimate protagonist” within this novel, but one would least of all expect Martel to think that is a worthy goal, since he rejects hero-centered analyses. “Woolf is not the kind of author or thinker who affords us…an easy conclusion,” he says, but also: “In looking at these two characters, Bartleby and Lily, we see that often it is the most despised and the lowliest of creatures who have the most to teach us.” Reading these novels as lessons in pathos is surely the easiest route, isn’t it? I cannot think of what “kind of…thinker” Martel would compare Woolf to, but I speculate that she would least like to be put in the moralist camp. (On the other hand, Melville seems to have lived for it.)

Misinterpellated subjects learn to welcome the prospect of being mowed under, like Lilies growing out of place in the monocultural, universal field of existence. This is good because “these characters [Bartleby and Lily] succeed by failing [normatively]. Unnoticed, they are able to subvert from deep within the system that oppresses them.” Martel recommends the amor fati to brutalized, over-policed persons and communities of color. This is “not a passive acceptance of what must be but rather an active engagement with the world” by refusing “the liberal universal,” and embracing self-love. This subversion points the way out of immiseration. Franz Kafka, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ralph Ellison, Michael Brown, and Fred Moten are mashed together to demonstrate this. While this literary assemblage is subversive, recommending how black people should think about themselves so they can get ahead in the world is not.

Perhaps there is an alternative to “TINA,” Martel thinks, in amor fati and anarchism. But this will always be a hard row to hoe because, he warns, “archism will always promote itself as being better, flashier, funner, and easier” promising “wholeness and fulfillment…Anarchists will often be seduced by these shiny, empty promises, adopting archist practices in the midst of their anarchist politics and dooming them to failure.” No concrete example is provided for what “archist practices” and anarchists he’s referring to, but I deduce that this failure isn’t the kind he talks about with approval, like Bartleby dying in a prison yard, which compels his former boss to remember him. One might fill in the failed “archic practices of anarchists” blank with, say, Defend J20 Resistance. The failure would be buying into the con of “wholeness,” or structure, or unity, or solidarity, or humanity. Organizing for collective liberation. Hoping to beat the state.

Margaret Thatcher’s famous “TINA”—“There Is No Alternative”—which Martel equates to liberalism ought to be squared with her not quite as famous, but much more seductive, vision of “No Society.”

There are individual men and women and there are families…There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help…

No great fan of the state herself, Thatcher never lost an opportunity to re-kick the British left as it was flailing. She dismisses the idea of society because it raises the possibility that society could be organized in the alternative. For his part, Martel dismisses “the liberal universal” to embrace a politics that consists of “the seeking out of failure rather than success and resolution.” I aver that, whatever the problems are with universalism, the opposite approach is not inherently political. A nihilist can embrace individualist anarchism, but political anarchism cannot easily become nihilist, since it relies on the assumption that solidarity will not fail.

The activism around the J20 prosecutions is one example of the structures that arise when misinterpellated (accused) subjects conspire to resist oppression. To jointly agree to a statement of unity; to offer a statement of solidarity to the public; to engage with law’s formal practices to get free and prove a point; to make public-facing arguments about rights and legal precedent; to not sell out your comrades; to raise funds online. The state does not expect these actions from “the Rioting Defendants.” It would surely prefer they conceived of themselves and their politics as messy failures instead of a unified front. Solidarity, as they say, gets the goods and annoys the state. Not, David Palumbo-Liu has recently pointed out, a merely “imaginative” solidarity, “a sentimental kind of transitory alliance,”  but concrete, “risk-taking” solidarity. “[I]t is a call for generosity,” he argues, “what Paul Gilroy has termed ‘conviviality,’ rather than solitude and isolation.” Martel is right that the opportunity for political reinvention come in moments of misinterpellation, the chance to deny power by refusing imposed subjectivities. But if liberation from oppression relies on training up anti-joinerist, even morbid, habits of mind, then how will new subjects recognize and inhabit conspiracies and convivialities—the breaths, and lives, of others?


[1] A crowd control tactic that forces demonstrators into a confined area and traps them there between barricades and lines of armored police, and has been argued to be a human rights violation before the ECHR. The J20 protesters were confined for several hours without access to medical care, food, water, or facilities; some protesters claim to have been victims of excessive force while in custody. The ACLU is representing several J20 defendants as plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit against the District of Columbia.

[2] As of March 25th, the number of defendants who originally faced prosecution has been reduced, through various dismissals and acquittals, from 194 to 59. The remaining defendants will go on trial in small groups every few weeks, starting April 17. Source: Jude Ortiz, National Lawyers Guild (phone interview) and defendJ20resistance.org

Michaela Brangan holds a JD from Cardozo School of Law, and is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Cornell University.


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