GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Can the Subaltern Tweet?

In Guest Blogger on 2010/06/28 at 09:00

Guest blogger, Ernesto Priego, writing from London, England in the UK.

I am not sure I could be writing these lines in any other language than English. It is very possible you could not read these words were I writing them in my native language –Spanish–, because there might not be a platform where I could –or perhaps want to– publish it, at least not without me as an author facing the danger of a negative critical backlash. I say this to state my awareness of a relatively privileged position, of me as an author of this text in the present form in which you are reading it as enabled by specific technologies.

The effects of colonialism still disempower individuals, often reducing them to roles of consumption rather than production.

How can we live up to the promise of the Internet and the Web without erasing each other?

I believe a way in which the subaltern can make herself heard/read/seen at a planetary level is through a conscious, often painful process  where individuals learn to see the English language and specific technologies as tools to think with and to do things, not just to consume things passively. This shift is also political: it means to stop seeing oneself as the oppressed of a given hegemonic power.  This shift does not mean abandoning,or even less, repressing national languages or cultural traits. On the contrary, user-generated online content, with metadata in several languages and geo-tagging can be an essential part of this process.

One of the goals would be the inclusion of this content within the network of academic knowledge production. This would work as an act of online self-determination, understood as the freedom of misrepresented individuals and communities to determine their own online content.

In other words, online self-determination is necessary to affect the wider international community of communities by populating the Web with tagged, hyper-linked multilingual content. Online self-determination can also mean one’s technical, and very importantly, financial ability to represent and edit oneself and one’s culture(s) online, and to decide how they will achieve online relevance/visibility/ranking without being overshadowed by more dominant national languages and/or economies.

Perhaps a community of communities may seem idealistic.

Disciplinary, social, geographical, national, linguistic and financial borders are realities that   internet access has not and cannot erase. Deeply rooted cultural traits/practices and beliefs are also obstacles to a practical critique of power dynamics in the language of those who are often perceived as the oppressors.

Computers are not places we live in, but they affect the way we think about ourselves and the planet.

Computers do not make the subaltern or marginalised individual think she can control the “globe”; on the contrary, computers can be windows to an inhospitable world. As means of establishing relations with Others, national languages and online technologies can both create communities and alienate large numbers of individuals. Simultaneously, computers have in fact transformed and continuously transform our ideas of who we are, what we do and how many we are.

A specific politics of planetary online friendship is at stake. Online decolonization and daily exercises of online self-determination are ways of befriending Others by acknowledging them as our contemporaries regardless of the time zone they might be in.

We start by recognizing our current positions.

The hyperlinking will follow.

Ernesto Priego was born in Mexico City and now lives in London. He is a PhD candidate in Information Studies at University College London. He has a background in English, comparative literature and cultural studies. His research sits at the crossroads of comics scholarship, history of the book and digital humanities.


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  1. Question/Comment from Oluwatoyin Kole via Facebook – Can you Tweet and still remain a subaltern? Once you acquire a voice you lose your membership of the subaltern class. The silenced keep their thoughts and remain un-violated by the tools of Big Brother or what do you think?

    • Thanks Mary for transcribing Oluwatoyin Kole’s comment. I left Facebook for good a while ago and I cannot participate there (as a personal choice).

      I am aware that the term Subaltern is controversial. I am not using it necessarily in the same way Spivak does, though of course the intention is to evoke her influential essay. Therefore I do not think the subaltern condition is a “membership” that can be acquired (or lost) through the presence or absence of certain expressive practices. I do not think that computers (or online social networking or whatever) are necessarily “the tools of Big Brother” either.

      To answer your question briefly yes, the Subaltern tweets, and tweets a lot. Is s/he heard? Not necessarily; at least not in the context of anglo-centric academia. I don’t think so. Of course that there are thousands of scholars tweeting out there in different languages that are unheard, or that appear to be unheard, and yet that does not make them “Subaltern,” at least not in the sense Spivak would like it to have.

  2. I think the idea that Priego puts forth (of Caliban learning the language of Prospero to better curse him with) contains at least one dangerous, if not erroneous, assumption, namely that only imperial languages have the capacity to add “relevance/ visibility / ranking” to the though process encrypted in less technologically favored languages. The truth is that in Latin America, for example, the Spanish language provides a more than adequate tool “to think with and to do things.” In none of the conferences that I have ever attended in Latin America did a single person ever get up to complain that the ideas being discussed were incomplete or lacked relevance without the proper insertion of such ideas in the realm of a language with proper technological credentials. We do not write in Spanish, Hindi or Patois to protest our subaltern condition; we do it because it provides a complete framework to voice our ideas, and because it allows us to communicate with those individuals affected by the very ideas we are talking about. The lack of communication, proper venues to translate, forums to disseminate information, and places to consume knowledge are not the symptom of a disease inherit in any given language, nor is English the magical cure for any such global shortcomings. The average individual, whether in Colombia, Mexico, South Africa or the United States, does not have access to a “network of academic knowledge production” to define his/her condition and as such, the idea of online self-determination is at best arrogant, and at the very least, elitist and ignorant. It is true that we desperately need a technological solution to the challenge of a global production of knowledge, but the problem does not lie within the coordinates of competing or favored languages but within the ability of the global community to listen. The subaltern has been speaking and conversing loudly for centuries, and for several decades in binary form; it is the Empire who never got the tweet about learning a different language to understand what they are missing out on.

    Albert de Jesús Rivera, PhD

  3. Albert,

    Thank you for your comment. I was born and lived and studied in Mexico for 29 years. I would never ever claim that Spanish, or any language other than English communicates “incomplete ideas.” My article does not claim so and I wish to clarify here that I do not claim that at all.

    I never intend to claim either that only “imperial languages” (Spanish was one by the way) “have the capacity to add “relevance/ visibility / ranking” to the though process encrypted in less technologically favored languages.” I do believe, though, that in anglo-centric academia outside Latin American Studies publications in Spanish are considered “minor.” Is it really that Latin America only has García Canclini? No, it’s that he’s one of the few that has been translated into English.

    It is true that I do not write in Spanish (when I do) “to protest our subaltern condition.” Apparently you don’t either, or so you say (in English). Nevertheless, in my personal academic experience in Mexico (I studied and taught at UNAM) there are many who see in their resistance to learn English a means of resistance.

    Those who write in English (like you and I) also write in Spanish, precisely because we believe it is essential for “us to communicate with those individuals affected by the very ideas we are talking about.”

    I never infer that there is “a disease inherit in any given language”, and even less that English is “the magical cure for any […] global shortcomings.” I do not know where you read that into my post.

    I am not talking about what you call “the average individual” either; I am talking about scholars outside universities in the US or Western Europe. I am talking about scholars who do not publish in any English-language journals and that, precisely, do not tweet, nor blog. They could, but they don’t do it, in any language. (How many of my former professors from UNAM tweet? None. In any language).

    Finally, Albert, we do agree: “The subaltern has been speaking and conversing loudly for centuries, and for several decades in binary form; it is the Empire who never got the tweet about learning a different language to understand what they are missing out on.”

    Exactamente. I don’t see how that contradicts my idea. Perhaps the difference is that I don’t see it as an either/or situation. Spanish is no less imperial (for me as a Mexican of mestizo ethnicity) than English. There is a colonization of a second, if not third, degree. The idea that we are losing if we write in English as well.

  4. Ernesto – thanks again for writing for UVenus. For many of our writers, English is not their first language. However, all have preferred to write in English – partly due to our current readership/the common language they share with the other UVenus writers — the blog’s strong focus on community-building and collaboration. The other reason is often that English is their academic language – the language of instruction for their PhDs and the language in which they wrote their dissertations. Writing for UVenus feels like academic work of a sort and English is their preferred language for writing (and thinking) through the ideas and the language they imagine themselves using when “speaking” to their readers. This is problematic but it is also a reality that should not be discounted or dismissed.

    • Thank you, Mary. It’s a real honour. Precisely one of the aspects I love about UVenus is its focus on community-building and collaboration. Thank you for hosting this space. My intention was to call, from my own personal experience, for online ‘planetary’ exchange; I’d be profoundly saddened if my proposal were to be mistaken for a call for the imposition of a language/academic culture over another one.

  5. […] a wonderful title for an essay, but…it is now someone else’s..See Priego’s piece here. Very unfair. A defense of Open Access entitled ‘Stand By Your Scan’? Nope, no hope; […]

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