Help! Help! Help!
The Interpellation of Help and What It Means to Engaged Practice
Help is one of our strongest social bonds. Nevertheless, the code in which we do so—which is culturally determinant—often results in something quite the opposite of help. In this article, Veldkamp sketches a scene of hailing for help and thinks through the possible responses.
‘Help!… Help!… Help!’ is shouted.
‘Help!’ acts as a universal call that appeals to everyone. A call to help is meant to be as unspecific as possible while addressing every individual who can hear it personally. The call for help is an interpellation—a powerful break in the state of affairs; business as usual cannot persist— pointing towards attention for something underpinning the call. Something is immediate and urgent. On the other hand, when a police officer shouts, ‘Stop!’, or even when a teacher says, ‘Pay attention!’, they appeal only to a specific subject. Although this specific subject is the focal point of the call, it has the strongest effect on those who were not called for; and this has a didactic effect, because the other subjects also now know what to do and what not. More importantly, it signifies what happens if they pursue the path of their peer, who dared to not follow that order. Punishment, above all, always take place publicly, and that is not without reason. When someone roars ‘Help!’, everyone feels addressed by this interpellation, and no subject escapes being singled out in a moral appeal. Anyone who hears it—and the hearing is never turned off—will pause other activities and turn their heads to see what’s going on. We can decline any visual interpellation by the strength of our necks and our eyelids, but our hearing is omnidirectional and spikes for distress; it is sensitive to interruptions, to spikes. The only declination of interpellations like this could appear in the zones of conflict that is our moral consciousness, tied as they are to the shames and blames of our ethics.
Why do we do (and importantly, not do) what we do when we hear a call to help? In other words, how do we act in response? We do and not do what we do because we know the ‘code of conduct’ of help. We know what to do and how to respond. That is, this odd code that feels as helpless as is it is to help, as we will also find out later on. In a way, we are culturally programmed with help scripts that prescribe when to act and instruct how to do so in certain situations. They especially instruct how to and how not to help when help is called for, and ironically most often it valorises in the act of not acting. We all know those ‘heroes’ who suppressed the urge to help by not helping by actually helping, only to note afterwards that they ‘are not a hero’ and were just performing their moral plight as a human being. Not helping is the most human thing to do to not be qualified as a human.
These codes often work algorithmically, meaning that they function ‘within,’ often surpassing conscious engagement, and often manifest in the oddest kinds of behaviour. We are above all ‘shocked’ by the shear apathy of the ‘not-helpers.’ Essentially, this code is built around the moral plight that is the only response to a call to help, which is, as you guessed, unconditionally to help, and yet rarely does anyone ever do so. This is problematic in its own right, but not surprising or odd. The code of help implies that, ethically speaking, we are obliged to help to the limits of our ability, while being blinded from actual knowledge about the situation. Nevertheless, obviously, condemnation must await those who do not help. Firstly, this does not necessarily imply that we can actually help. Secondly, if we obey the code strictly, it follows that we cannot really help. This has to do with the fact that the ‘clearances’ or ‘permissions’ of help are too narrow for the help that is actually needed, let alone the knowledge of how to help. Nevertheless, we ought to help, and actually also really need to, because help is needed.
But we cannot help ourselves. Psychologically, the call plays at a necessary gap in knowledge, in which not knowing the state of affairs falls into a ‘what if’ argument that draws us to respond. ‘What if someone is in danger?’; ‘what if life is threatened?’; ‘what if evil needs confrontation?’ ‘Help!…’ pulls like a siren’s call. The morality of unmediated, automatic response can be attributed to the social nature of human beings, as well as other species, but the type of response can only be made sense of in terms of culture. In other words, the manners in which we are accustomed to responding to a call to help fall under the system of morals called ethics. The urge to help does not. Ethics are the construct in which we qualify terms such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ according to actions we (do not) perform. Following these systems, we qualify ourselves as doing good and doing bad, which is easily sublimated into being so. Nevertheless, the engaged artist, who regularly performs help-aimed interventions focussed on the relational wellbeing of (bits and pieces) of our worlds, has never heard a call for help before. In a way, this is a good thing, in contrast to what art critic Hans den Hartog Jager believes. He notes that the world ‘doesn’t want to listen’1 to engaged artists. Well, then! That is good because the engaged artist does not need to listen to the world, either. Put in your earplugs! This hearing is not omnidirectional. Although counter-intuitively, it might be precisely outside the interpellation for help that ‘proper’ help can manifest. At the instance of the call, above all, we can and cannot help simultaneously.
After all, the engaged artist attempts to pursue a different code of conduct than the one which prescribes help, rendering this type of help obligated. The code of conduct the engaged artist attempts is not symptomatic but cause-oriented. It moves at the suprastructures that mobilise the need for a certain type of help in certain kind of conditions. Don’t be a ‘hero’! Hence, this practice follows another chronology, where the ‘helping’ part cannot be singled out and reduced to the bare moment of immediate need: it must be integrated, and cannot only be called into being. That I argue this to be a good thing does not in any way mean that it is morally accepted; the contrary might be true. Within the system of ethics where we find help, it is morally very culpable to not honour the direct interpellation for help. This has to do with the fact that most of us Westerners occupy an ethical code that centres around the idea of help.
Although it appears at first sight as a warm, socially bonding force, we should not forget how many peoples we have ‘helped’ into extinction. As Jean Baudrillard argues in reference to the cunning conservation of life—which is to be taken far broader than the biological condition—we are permitted to murder. The motive to help, as always, is that that the counterpart is worse: not helping; segregation; rejection. Not helping equals murder. These counterparts take shape culturally as enemies, more familiarly as terrorists. Baudrillard writes: ‘They [terrorists] succeeded in turning their own deaths into an absolute weapon against a system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death, a system whose ideal is an ideal of zero deaths. Every zero-death system is a zero-sum-game system.’2 In this regard, it is true that morally, ‘in terms of our system of values, they [terrorists] are cheating.’3 Baudrillard invites us to imagine that our life-culture is truly one of death. ‘Here, then, it is all about death, not only about the violent irruption of death in real time—“live,” so to speak—but the irruption of a death which is far more than real: a death which is symbolic and sacrificial.’4 A culture of death for the preservation of life. A paradoxical implosion—when the motive of help (which is thus a zero-sum game of life and death)—results in its counterpart: the conservation for the need of help. Life has to triumph, and life triumphs with help by killing. Look at the hopeful and often untiring searches that are launched when a ship disappears from the radar; when the heartrate sinks from the monitor; when a ‘completed life’ is expressed aiming at the right to self-determination. In this sense, aid is indeed a political game of interests, in which ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ are forced to make themselves known, to manifest themselves as stakeholders. Therefore, it is not surprising that the term ‘interpellation,’ which we also know from our halls of parliaments, fits the profile. It antagonises affiliated parties through negation, and draws those in who accidentally hear it: by simply not being part of the situation, you become part of the situation. This introduces a second element of interpellation: subjectification. The call makes subject with a role in the code of conduct. The Western ethics of help makes friend and enemy.
‘Am I helping, am I not helping, or am I pretending I haven’t heard?’ the engaged artist who happens to hear the cry wonders. ‘What does it mean to help?’ logically follows this impasse, and then: ‘What is help?’ A series of red push buttons appears on the screen of their smartphone when they look up the term. A hidden structure that, if activated, magically solves all problems? Who dares to press the red button? But, of course, the button is part of the machine in which the problem arises, so it does not solve the consequences of the system. In this unprecedented moment, there is great doubt about the accidents of their existence. ‘If I help and thus affirm this interpellation, I make myself the subject of the mechanism of “help,” and make the one who cries for help into “the victim”—a passive helpless thing. Who am I to help in a situation that I am not part of? Or am I? Who am I to help when I don’t know what I’m helping with or against?’ At the same time, they are deeply embarrassed. ‘I can’t afford to do nothing now? Too much is at stake.’ Help is not necessarily ‘with.’ Help also functions ‘against.’
While the artist resided in existential confusion, Louis Althusser’s subjectification was realised in this interbellum of raging despair, born from the simple cry for help. Subjectification is a process of ideological framing, in which a context is created, and within that context, reality and persons—now subjects—are created in accordance with the frame and are supplied with a code of conduct. In other words, a ‘call’ such as help sets the board, defines the parties, and the playing rules. Honouring the request for help, either by consent or by rejection, sums up a ‘code,’ a standard of behaviour prescribed for dealing with the request for help, ranging from ‘patting a back,’ to calling the emergency services to name two deeds that come with this interpellation of help. For that reason, Althusser said in relation to subjectification that when someone ‘executes’ the help code (to use computer language) and says, ‘…So be it!’ (I’ll help), they actually say, ‘It’s not really the way it is… but that’s the way it is ought to be.’5 In other words, the way the code expects the situation to take place in the manner it prescribes. The algorithm of ideology cannot deal with 2, only with 1s and 0s: only with a yes or a no. There is no escaping from it. The artist wonders, ‘If the person I help has succumbed to the pressures of the system—say the distribution of wealth and the ensuing poverty—am I not actually helping the system by helping the victim, as a kind of reintegration process in the mill of precariousness?’ The question towards the entanglement of embedded power structures, very much a slow, inefficient meta-question, is also a question that defines large parts of the engaged practice. But it is also a question that has no position in the urgent acceleration the call for help triggers. No time to think! Accelerated by the interpellation, which always built upon momentum, the infrastructure of power underpinning any situation must be disregarded; it dissimulates itself into the bare need for a response. Nothing more. The whole world is not this situation.
Help Needs Help
‘Help!… Help!… Help!’ shouts the one in distress once more, who has since become the subject ‘victim’ by effect of the code, which this so familiar call summons. At the same time, aware of the ‘code of conduct’ interfered with by their own cries, this ‘victim’ is somewhat nervously wondering whether the ‘bystander effect’ will be actualised, and regress the situation into pure and only the potentiality of the ‘would-be-rescuer,’ which will remain nothing but ‘would-be.’ Endlessly unresolved.
Despite a response to the call for help subjectifing the ‘victim’ and the ‘helper,’ this call in no way renders necessary a response. However, saying ‘no,’ thus rejecting the call for help, confirms the interpellation in the same manner as responding in agreement, although through denial. The superlative of this is, of course, ‘ignorance’; the act of not reacting. Now the potential helper is not the ‘non-helper’—which only comes about through denial—but the one who silently refuses; who withdraws; the person who is placed themselves outside the interpellation; the ‘bystander.’ Although a call for help draws strongly on our moral consciousness, it is not without reason that a bystander effect so often manifests because within this structure, one cannot truly help. Within the code of conduct of aid, this is nevertheless regarded as the moral evil, for the simple reason that when emergency is made explicit, the call should not be ‘not honoured’ because the cry for help is universally and morally binding. As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney point out, ‘If one hides from this interpellation, neither agrees nor disagrees […] this will be regarded as theft, as a criminal act.’6 And yet, they argue: ‘It is, at the same time, the only possible act.’7 The artist wonders, almost rhetorically: ‘The only possible action?’ The authors further that within this code ‘negligence turns out to be the major crime.’8
‘I cannot help and I cannot not help,’ thinks the artist who has now become they-who-hide from the interpellation. Self-aware of their moral dilemma, they first realise that the key concept of the interpellated code of conduct must be examined. Everything in the word ‘help’ points to support, with a strong hierarchical power structure. It is not without reason that the word ‘help’ (in Dutch, ‘hulp’) has traditionally been used as a synonym for the word ‘servant,’ one who, among other things, serves the food to the master. Hence the saying ‘help yourself’ when there is no servant to serve (yet another help-type word) the food. ‘Do I support a system that makes master and help? Or is there a better, different form of “help” I can offer?’ The concept of help needs ‘help.’ If the committed artist is only there to help in the traditional sense of the word, they support the codes of conduct of masters who demanded food from their servants in the evenings after coercing slaves to work and forcing people to kneel on their bloodied, arthritic knees. Translated into better known examples: the help of a company doctor who says his goal is to ‘help’ people, but whose co-existing yet silent and often unconscious goal is to make people productive in a system that initially made them sick. This is the by-product of help. The code of help always sneaks in unwanted side-effects.
Help always transcends what is while remaining restricted by it. It attempts to release a symptom: in that sense, it points back at the structures that produced the problem. Deductively, reading help backwards reveals the causation of the need for help. In this regard, help must be defeated. Help against (the need for) help is the best thing you can do. Help, therefore, is the momentum of engagement. We should help help from its helplessness.
‘I can’t do that.’ The artist gives in, and Foucault flashes through their head. As Foucault put it: ‘People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.’9 The artist wonders: ‘What does what I (do not) do? How do I escape this dialectical spiral?’
‘Help!… help… help …’ It rings again, but in a more subdued manner.
The person asking for help is beginning to realise that the type of help being asked for might not come. The ‘bystander’ manifests and silence now screams. In the moments between the screams, it flashes through their mind that they may be calling for the wrong person. ‘What actually happened?’ goes through their mind. ‘What brought me to this situation where I ask for help? And if that also rules over all other subjects to whom I ask for help, what am I actually asking? Do I want to be “saved”? Am I “helpless”?’ Almost apathetically, the victim considers blaming themselves—which if they did, they would do falsely. There is no reason to question the need for help; help is needed. The question concerns in which manner. It appears that the code of help as we know it draws on an interpellation that makes helper and victim and binds them in a loop of pseudo-help that might not help at all.
‘Wait a second! Sst… Sst…,’ the artist calls, postponing the interpellation—not in affirmation, not dismissive, but in postponement. ‘If help is helpful, then what is it useful for?’ They think of Herbert Marcuse, who says, ‘The integration of culture into the material life process is considered a sin against the mind and the soul.’10 Art should not interfere with life, the artist hears from an old self-proclaimed ‘autonomous’ voice in their head. The only domain that gets some permission for this integration, Marcuse argues, must be ‘useful.’ But what is this art useful for? Marcuse adds that in the prevailing doctrine of utility, too often ‘the interest of the individual remains linked to the basic interests of the established order.’11 To the system of help and masters. ‘Helping’ ‘victims’ is, therefore, helpful to those who created the problem. And, of course, because they don’t have to solve the problem thanks to that ‘help’ being offered. And what about the culprit? They’re far gone.
The artist realises correctly that the goal is not to be ‘useful.’ That the system that produces people who have to ask for help is the thing that actually needs help. That which help is useful for needs help itself, not only in the first order; not only where it manifests. Help should surpass the emergency in which it vocalises its need; and for it to do so, it needs to break the dialectics of interpellation. It should negate the position of helper and victim. Hence, the goal is to update the code of help. The artist helps the victim to their feet—the first power the arts has. ‘Art should mobilise,’ the artist reminds themselves, and calls back for mutual assistance, negating the initial interpellation. Collaborative dialectics. ‘We are both the call and response.’ We are both thesis and antithesis. In alliance with the system of spiralling codes of conduct, we should walk the spiral backwards. Speak the words in reverse.
This article is based on
a lecture given at the symposium Common Ground: Spin-Off at ArtEZ University of
the Arts, Arnhem, on Wednesday May 8, 2019. An earlier version appeared as an
opinion piece in Kunstzone in May 2019,
edited by Marjo van
- Althusser, Louis, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2014.
- Baudrillard, Jean, The Spirit of Terrorism. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2013.
- Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
- Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions, 2013.
- Hartog-Jager, Hans den, ‘Geëngageerde Kunstenaars. De Wereld Luistert Niet.’ NRC, September 18, 2014. https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2014/09/18/geengageerde-kunstenaars-de-wereld-luistert-niet-1419986-a29079.
- Marcuse, Herbert, ‘The Affirmative Character of Culture.’ In Negations: Essays in Critical Theory. London: MayFly Books, 2009.
Hans den Hartog-Jager, ‘Geëngageerde Kunstenaars. De Wereld Luistert Niet,’ NRC, September 18, 2014, https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2014/09/18/geengageerde-kunstenaars-de-wereld-luistert-niet-1419986-a29079.
Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2013), p. 13.
Baudrillard 2013, p. 18.
Baudrillard 2013, p. 13.
Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (London: Verso, 2014), pp. 197-198.
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), p. 28.
Harney and Moten 2013, p. 28.
Harney and Moten 2013, p. 39.
Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 186.
Herbert Marcuse, ‘The Affirmative Character of Culture,’ in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (London: MayFly Books, 2009), p. 96.
Marcuse 2009, p. 96.