Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Sartre, Irony and Interpellation

War Diaries again. Sartre is with another reservist, Paul, who declares ‘“Me, a soldier? I consider myself a civilian in disguise.”’ Sartre comments:

That would all be very fine if he weren’t making himself a soldier – whatever he may say to the contrary – through his volitions, his perceptions, his emotions. A soldier: that is to say, adopting his superiors’ orders as his own in order to execute them himself; hence complicit down to his arms that carry the rifle and his legs that march; a soldier in his perceptions, his emotions and his volitions. He thus stubbornly continues to flee what he’s making of himself – which plunges him into a state of wretched, diffuse anguish.

“Being a soldier” is not to do with what one thinks about oneself, it’s not about how the 'inner self' pictures itself (a ‘citizen in disguise’), it’s clearly to do with behaviour and with your actual involvement in the situation at hand. But Sartre’s point is also of course that what Paul sees as resistance to being a soldier is in fact the condition of being a soldier. Declaring himself the clandestine citizen is a way of making the soldier-life palatable, of convincing himself that he is doing it on his own terms. Nobody, perhaps, lives completely and snugly inside the role of soldier. Each persuades himself that the Others are soldiers, i.e., people who have embraced the title fully. They, on the other hand, are detached, not entirely folded inside the role. Sartre’s philosophical language is that of authenticity/ inauthenticity. Paul is inauthentic because he is in denial about what - through his actions and perceptions - he is. Sartre would seem to imply that he himself is not inauthentic – that he accepts the title or mandate of soldier. This is perhaps less than convincing. 

 Although it is a very different philosophical language, Sartre is addressing here what will later be called the issue of ‘interpellation’. Being ‘called up’ in the military sense is perhaps the most literal example of this. More generally, it’s about being asked to assume a mandate, a ‘job description’, whether it be waiter, salesman, HR director or whatever. Now one might think that successful interpellation is when the subject folds himself completely inside his role, his ‘job description’. The soldier accepts being a soldier and doesn’t talk about being a ‘civilian in disguise’. But this isn’t the case, and Sartre’s Paul is perhaps not so unusual. As Jodi Dean puts it:

...that interpellation is never complete. There is always a remainder, a part of me that says "I'm not fully that." And, successful interpellation, interpellation that produces the proper subjects for an ideological formation, relies on that little bit of extra. It relies on it in various ways--as an element of freedom in the subject, as a source of non-compliance that lets the system work, as an opening to the obscene supplement that encourages people to do things that violate the official rules.”

 The military machine wouldn’t function if all soldiers were ‘pure soldiers’. Cynicism, piss-taking, pre-understood bending of the rules are necessary parts of the game and not its undoing. And so, in the earlier philosophical language, we are all 'inauthentic'.

And this is also why irony towards a regime, whether a work regime or some other, is not only not subversive but, as with Sartre’s Paul, a necessary condition of compliance. This is true for various reasons. 'Ironic distance' functions to unify the group around the object of their irony. Anyone who has worked for a large corporation or company will recognize this: all, equally, make jokes - of cynical commentary, stoic acquiescence - about the company, it's rules and personnel. Needless to say, the bosses frequently 'buy into' this collective irony to get what they want.  The second point is that the Orders will be implemented more effectively if the subjects or employees do not fully identify with them: 'being ironic' about the orders grants you your small lease of subjective freedom. At the same time, you delegate all responsibility to the impersonal Orders and Directives. Better to be an instrument imbued with irony, than a fanatical adherent. Better not to 'assume responsibility' -but to delegate it to the impersonal machine, the regime. And the name for this trick of delegation is irony.

This ‘ironic’ attitude is common with people who dislike their work, of course, but also with those who dislike the ethics of the regime for which they work. A socialist working for a large exploitative corporation for example. They pretend that they are a secret agent in the enemy camp, that the job is something separate, something wholly detachable which, at the end of the day you can sling to the floor like an integument. But this very attitude is of course a function of the job, and the very cynicism and irony they have cultivated is a sign not of resistance but a condition of attachment. So that no matter how much, using whatever ruses of irony or cynicism, one detaches oneself from one’s job, treats it as a game, it matters not. Along with all the others one’s soul will bear the watermark of an ignominy traced and retraced everyday through one’s actions.

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