August 15, 2020

Media and Citizenship

Mellon Project Focus Area

Can the subaltern get your attention? (in a crowded, mediated world)

The fascination with the idea of whether the “subaltern can speak” belies the view, says postcolonial theorist Robert Young, that subalterns “don’t have any problem speaking”.

Young was the keynote speaker at the recent AUETSA conference at Rhodes University and took at his topic “When the subaltern speaks” (as a riposte to the Gayatria Spivak essay “Can the subaltern speak?” first published in 1988).

He said as a postcolonial theorist he has always been very interested in “representing the unrepresentable or how people are represented when they’re not in a position to represent themselves”.

Of course, representation is a step removed from speaking, and perhaps that’s the subtle difference between asserting that of course the subaltern can say what she wants to say and her being able to reach into the public domain and put her hand on the recognised levers that enable her to represent herself. Young’s interest as a professor based in an English department (at New York University) is not so much in the speaking (which is everywhere and to be heard if you pay attention) but in the records and works which can be considered as generated by the marginal and peripheral, and those are the artifacts at issue here when he animates the question yet again.


He then outlined how the ‘dialogue’ usually plays out:

  • Subalterns don’t say the things the dominant classes want to hear.
  • Dominant classes repress the speech of the subalterns – they are often “simply not allowed to speak”.
  • Subalterns don’t speak the “right language”: they could be speaking a minor language, or a non-standard language, they might not be using the legal/bureaucratic jargon required. (And as Deborah Seddon commented, “the hegemonic use of English inculcates deep ignorance in the ruling classes” because they speak nothing else.)
  • Someone else is speaking in their place: intellectuals are prone to speaking for subalterns – think Marxism with its idea that the vanguard with its “informed consciousness” will do the representing.
  • Subalterns don’t say what they are expected to say.
  • They speak with “ideological opacity”.
  • There is no reason why they should speak to us instead of speaking to themselves.
  • Subalterns don’t adopt the generic forms of the dominant classes like literature (which, in an aside, used to mean all forms of writing before it came to mean a particularly refined form of writing in the 19th century when drama and poetry qualified, but novels didn’t because of their risible readership – women; “novels were a kind of subaltern speech for women”, Young commented.)
  • Subalterns don’t used the aestheticised forms the dominant classes are used to so the form “in which we search for their voices is not there”.
  • The forms they use are not inside the literary/artistic market place and may even be considered illegal and illegitimate (like outsider art and graffiti).
  • Subalterns use silence because not speaking is more powerful. “Silence is a power and a refusal to bow to power.”
  • Violence is also a form of speech.

Young then made a very interesting point by saying that 20th century commodification has enabled subalterns to speak in public, recorded forms. Artistic forms that Theodore Adorno, for one, would call “superficial”, like film and jazz, have been a “great facilitator of subaltern speech”. Because, said Young, “commodification preserves the speech of ordinary people”.

As proof of this Young referred to the lyrics and music of Mississippi Delta guitarist Robert Johnson, silent movie clown Charlie Chaplin and Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison, the daughter of share croppers. In all three there is “obvious articulation” of subaltern speech in forms that are interpretable by a wide audience.

“Subaltern speech is a form of agency,” Young concluded, “because they are not supposed to have it.”

For journalists and media people keen to find and listen, the question now becomes, where in this overly-mediated, crowded, digitised world do we find subaltern speech that urges us to listen and tells us what we should know and hear?