Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Border Languages: Rumors and (Dis)placements of (Inter)national Politics

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Border Languages: Rumors and (Dis)placements of (Inter)national Politics

Article excerpt

What happens to politics when the subject cannot be located precisely, in time and space, and thus rationalized and individuated? How might collective and diffuse mechanisms of political voice and engagement contribute to a better understanding of life in the margins of modern geographies? This article advances the argument that rumors might provide us with an important exemplar of discursive imaginaries that at once interrupt and reconfigure politics. Borrowing from the work of Veena Das, it explores "the perlocutionary force of rumors" among displaced communities in urban and rural areas of South America. I argue that rumors are a medium of communication particularly suited for refugees and displaced communities and also a fundamental mechanism for coping with social trauma and of reconfiguring the terms of presence/absence under which these groups live. KEYWORDS: refugees, displaced communities, rumors, discursive imaginaries

In a 1988 essay, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak posed the question, now even more pressing, of whether the subaltern can speak. (1) The negative answer she gave to this question stems from a criticism of forms of representation and of how the colonial legacy, and the Western subject, has molded ways of speaking of and for people and peoples who are considered to be on the margins.

Spivak's criticism is well founded. It points to important deficiencies in conventional scholarship on marginalized and oppressed groups. However, her answer also seems to foreclose other possibilities for reconsidering the political status of subalternity. Even though we must deal with the ethical dimensions of representation and with the inherent violences associated with it, does it necessarily follow that any attempt to interpret narratives arising from subaltern experiences be deemed to be vicious or to reproduce the same inequalities that allow for processes of subalternization in the first place? Spivak's warning is supposed to keep the researcher constantly attentive to the possibilities of infusing subaltern discourses with meanings and searches for origins and authenticity that might counteract their intent. As she notes, "the substantive concern for the politics of the oppressed can hide a privileging of the intellectual and of the "concrete" subject that, in fact, compound the appeal." (2)

Here I want to argue that Spivak's question may be misplaced because it poses the problem of political subjectivity in a dichotomous way and still in terms of a centered subject. By arguing that the contemporary problem of political engagement lies in the capacity to speak or not speak, Spivak forecloses the possibility of alternative ways of being political (3) that cannot be subsumed under the rubric of binary representations. As Ashis Nandy aptly remarks, it is not just a matter of allowing the overawed to speak, but to recognize that "these new voices are, to our chagrin, a negation of our voice." (4)

I also want to argue that two moves are necessary for any investigation to avoid the pitfalls presented in Spivak's argument. One has to do with a redefinition of politics, and also of "inter"national politics--with questions about who, where, and how one can intervene in the political dialogue. The other implies a change of grammar, of the locus of voice or a "politics of awareness [whose purpose is] the rediscovery of everyday life and ordinariness as sources of and clues to human potentialities." (5) I resort to the idea of border languages as a metaphor for this double movement: a movement, first, of questioning the traditional time-space zone that political subjectivity is supposed to inhabit; namely, that of a linear connection with the territorial imaginary of the nation-state; and, second, of rethinking the process of subjectification under which a particular strand of voice is deemed as the legitimate conveyor of political ideas and ideals. Speaking from the limits, from the edges of modern political geographies, one is faced with the dilemma of having to look for alternative forms of expression and of making sense of the dire experiences of subalternity. …

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