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Subjected Subjects? On Judith Butler's Paradox of Interpellation


  • Noela Davis


Judith Butler's theory of the constitution of subjectivity conceptualizes the subject as a performative materialization of its social environment. In her theory Butler utilizes Louis Althusser's notion of interpellation, and she critiques the constitutive paradoxes to which its tautological framing leads. Although there is no pre-existing subject, as it is constituted in the turn to the interpellative hail, Butler nonetheless theorizes a guilt and compulsion acting on an “individual” that compels his or her turn to answer the hail. There is a price to pay for subjectivity in Butler's schema: the reprimand of the interpellative law that punishes at the same time as it constitutes. But a return to Althusser's text finds that he does not rely so much on coercion and guilt in his explanation of the subject's answer to the hail. Althusser can instead be read as suggesting that we are already an instantiation and enactment of power-ideology and, to paraphrase Michel Foucault, are already the principle of our own “subjection.” This contests the notion that we are in any way compelled to submit to an external, punitive force to become subjects. As subjects, we are always-already the embodiment of the field of society-power-ideology.