The Omnipresence of the “Unasked Question”

“In Louis Althusser’s notion of interpellation, it is the police who initiate the call or address by which a subject becomes socially constituted.  There is a policeman, the one not only who represents the law but whose address “Hey you!” has the effect of binding the law to the one who is hailedThe call is formative… precisely because it initiates the individual into the subjected status of the subject.” (Judith Butler, “Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion, 381, emphasis added)

Judith Butler is making the argument that the police, and potentially other empowered groups, have the power to place or put the law on those whom they choose to address.  The police are inherently empowered by the virtue of their position and by the law itself. The person whom they have made a “subject” however is at the disposal of the power of the law and thus at the disposal of the power of the policeman.  

The portion of the piece of The Souls of Black Folk that is included in Call and Response opens with Du Bois alluding to an “unasked question” which stands “between [himself] and the other world” (737).   Du Bois is referring to himself as a Black man in America, and the other world is characterized by those of white descent.  In leading up to his delivery of the unasked question, Du Bois effectively dances around it, thus depicting and giving examples of the ways in which those of “the other world” “flutter round it” (737).  He offers that rather than ask the “unasked question:” “how does it feel to be a problem?,” those addressing him offer back-handed compliments (738). Du Bois indicates that his reaction is one of passive “veiled” anger, in which he has to deal with the rage, “boiling [it] to a simmer” (738).

The interpellation in these types of interactions is different from what Butler lays out in “Gender is Burning.”  The figure of authority still “initiates the individual into the subjected status of the subject” through the interaction.  And this subjection still occurs by virtue of a power which is instilled in the authority figure. What is different is the type of address.  In Althusser’s version, the address is direct, a “call”: “Hey you!,” where “you” becomes the subject upon which the law is placed.  In Du Bois’ experiences, with what would now likely be termed microaggressions, the address is indirect in that the real address, the “unasked question” is skirted around.  I would argue that in Du Bois’ experiences the power structures have a greater hold over the subjects, in that those subjected are able to understand their subjection without it being directly pointed to. This “unasked question” stays on the minds of black people in America, without having to be spoken.

What is significant is the sheer power of “the white world” over the black person in America which makes the “unasked question” effectively asked and alluded to in real time, despite the fact that it is unspoken.  In fact, I wonder if it’s more realistic and accurate to call this “unasked question” the unspoken question? No matter what the authority figure says to get around asking what they are asking, the question still floats in the mind of the person who has become the subject.  Essentially the question is omnipresent and thus always being asked regardless of speech.

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