I probably would defer to this man, as it turns out.
Over the weekend I saw a man in uniform standing outside a hall as people were making their way inside. I tried to make out whether he was some kind of policeman or a fireman – he had unrecognisanbe rank insignia on his shoulders. Then he caught my eye; I automatically said politely, “Morning” and he nodded seriously in acknowledgement.
I remember thinking that his moustache looked strange – almost fake, and then dismissing that thought.
An hour later I saw this man in a piece of street theatre where he was playing a very obviously mock-cop! How had I not seen this?
In Louis Althusser’s terms, I had been interpellated.
The visual signs – uniform, stance – coupled with the act – meeting my gaze, nodding – together these placed me in particular subject position.
The example Althusser gives is rather similar. Say you’re walking down the street under the impression that you’re a free individual. A policeman says, “Hey, you there!” and immediately you recognise yourself as the one being addressed. Perhaps you adopt a demeanour which suggests – have I done something wrong, officer?.
Even the way a policeman knocks on a door is designed to activate our deference, obedience, compliance.
Rather than being free, one is subject to the discourse of the other.
A contrary example makes the case plain. Jerry Seinfeld was once on a flight with a flight attendant who for some reason wasn’t in uniform. So, as far as he know, a passenger was coming by asking him to put his seat in the upright position, etc. Immediately his hackles raised – who does she think she is!
Those signs, then, are vital for making social cogs turn.
How do you describe someone who doesn’t defer automatically to official authority?
1. Do think of that person as being unsocialised? Society depends on acceptance of rules – they can’t be constantly renegotiated.
2. Or do you think of that person being their own person – others being unthinking dupes?