Radical media, politics and culture.

Hito Steyerl, "Can the Subaltern Speak German?"

"Can the Subaltern Speak German?
On Postcolonial Critique"

Hito Steyerl (May, 2002)

The debate on cultural globalization also often involves so-called postcolonial
theory. What does this encompass? According to Ruth Frankenbert and Lata Mani
(1993, 292), postcolonialism refers to a specific "conjuncture" of social force
fields and a type of political positioning in relation to local conditions.
Geopolitical power gradients strongly influence these social relations. They
influence the emergence of certain subjectivities -- and thus also the
production of art and the formation of the aesthetic and cognitive categories
of its perception. Since global power relations structure living conditions all
over the world today, according to Frankenberg and Mani's definition the place
where postcolonial power relations are in effect, is therefore equally
ubiquitous. This place is neither outside social practices nor beyond the
borders of western societies, but is rather reproduced within them as a social
relationship of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion.In the reception of these kinds of approaches in German-speaking countries,
however, theoretical and artistic approaches that come from the local history
of migration and minoritization are almost never taken into consideration. The
reception applies instead almost exclusively to Anglo-American approaches.
Conversely, migrants and members of minorities appear in this text corpus
primarily as speechless and powerless figures, for instance in Homi Bhabha's
influential text "Dissemi-Nation" (Bhaba 1997, 186f.). There, following John
Berger, a Turkish guest worker in Germany is described as a mute automaton of
labor and "speechless presence". An image of helpless subalternity is thus
generated, which characterizes not only the perception of migrants and the
minoritized as a whole, but also all of their utterances. Another prejudice
about postcolonial theory development maintains that it has only limited
relevance in the German context, since Germany's colonies are hardly worth
mentioning and the National-Socialist politics of subjugation are not
comparable with the issue of actual colonial rule (Bronfen/Marius 1997, 8). The
only possibility for adaptation is consequently an examination of the "effects
of the mass migration of people and the global circulation of signs,
commodities and information" (ibid.). What this means is not the paradoxical
situation, for instance, that signs, commodities and persons can circulate
relatively freely from north to south -- but not necessarily the other way
around. Nor does the "effects of global mass migration" mean the ongoing neo-
colonial inequality that is reproduced within western societies in the form of
the continuing inequality of migrants and minorities. What is actually meant by
these effects, on the other hand, are banalities, such as the
circumstance "that I can go into a club in Zurich as a Southern German and hear
a dark-skinned person speaking Swiss German with his friends" (ibid., 6f.).
These and other experiences induce the authors to describe postcolonial power
relations as a kind of disco, in which "fusion cooking" is carried out next
to "DJ culture". This is in proof of the "productivity of internal differences"
(ibid., 3).

Yet even one of the early testimonies to the presence of Africans in Germany,
does not at all indicate harmonious cultural contacts. Albrecht Dürer's
painting of an African in Augsburg (1508) obviously shows the slave of a
merchant company based there. Even in the initial phase of the colonization of
Africa and Asia, German merchant companies such as the Tuchers supplied the
greatest financial contribution to the subjection, exploitation, and partial
extermination of the population in those places. The African did not come to
Augsburg by chance, then, but rather in connection with a globalizing
international slave trade at the time, which spanned several continents. German
merchant houses were also significantly involved in this. The first asiento, a
kind of license for the acquisition of slaves, was issued in 1528 to the
Germans Eynger and Sayler (Kloes 1985, 84). To negate a significant German
contribution to the history of colonization, one would have to completely
ignore these kinds of economic and political connections.

Even today, migration movements are hardly inspired by voluntary motivations,
but move instead in the context of an increasingly globalized world market.

Authors such as Ha (2002) accordingly stress the economic and political power
gradients that structure the post-colonial situation as well as continuities in
the economic function of immigrants and minorities as "buffers in the economic
cycle", industrial reserves and menial laborers.

"Although there are important differences between migrant, forced and guest
workers, and these cannot be treated equally or uniformly at all, it is worth
looking for lines of connection. This makes it possible to reveal differences
as well as what they have in common, which enable statements about structures
that have a lasting effect, as well as discourses and practices across
different eras. (...) When we look at the initial foundation of postcolonial
migration in the Federal Republic of Germany, then we immediately recognize a
number of historical, discursive and functional parallels between so-called
migrant, alien and guest workers, which indicate continued racist colonialist
practices in Germany." (ibid.) Those who are "silent about colonial presences,"
according to Ha, should not even begin to speak of phenomena such
as "hybridity" or postcolonialism.

Postcoloniality, according to Ha, is namely "not primarily a chronological
epochal term marking the period after formal political independence from
western colonial powers, but rather a politically motivated category of
analysis of the historical, political, cultural and discursive aspects of the
colonial discourse that is not yet closed" (Ha 1999). According to this
reading, postcoloniality comprises "a site of political positioning. This site
is woven into the memory and the legacy of a colonial past and its present
formation and effectivity." (Gutiérrez Rodriguez 2000). The differences between
the various local conjunctures of postcoloniality must therefore be
investigated in a locally specific analysis. This investigation also enables
the development of analytical instruments, which take into consideration the
local historical and political background of phenomena of ethnicizing,
gendering and class-specific positioning that are specific to globalization.
Here, the analysis of postcolonial, feminist, and anti-racist critique means
paying attention to the geographical and political context, in which this
critique is produced and through which it is formed.

This also applies most of all to a critical consideration of the artistic and
theoretical language of forms, which has repeatedly been named in conjunction
with postcolonial critique as its privileged medium, specifically so-called
hybrid mixed forms (Erel, 1999). As Umut Erel stresses, the possibilities of
the hybridity discourse are not only subject to analytical and strategic
limitations. Hierarchies of different cultural hybrids and genres also emerge
within the framework of a global, western-dominated capitalism that is
nourished by local differences. The effect of these hierarchies is that
primarily Anglo-American forms of hybridity are privileged over others and
interpreted as universal and solely valid examples of cultural mixtures. In
conjunction with the conditions of utilization in the global cultural industry,
they are objectified, exoticized, sexualized, and thus de-politicized. In this
hierarchization of cultural hybrid forms, a ranking prevails, which privileges
the products of economically and militarily dominant countries such as England
or the USA - but which rejects cultural productions from the global south as
being archaic, backwards and thus inferior. The hierarchies of the
international distribution of labor translate directly into culturally racist
hierarchies in the aesthetic field. Different languages of form must first be
recontextualized, in order for these reductionist readings to be interpreted as
the effects of discursive power relations in the context of global capitalist
forms of utilization.

In comparison, an analysis of various artistic and theoretical languages of
form in postcolonial conjunctures that are just as diverse demonstrates the
global interdependence (Shohat, Stam 2000, 28) of different forms of
articulation all over the world. In contrast to cultural studies one-sidedly
oriented to the cultural production of the north, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam
argue for an analysis of the effects of global inequality on cultural and
theoretical articulations worldwide, oriented to the world-system theory
(Wallerstein 1974, 1980). In contrast to Eurocentric constraints, they favor an
investigation of "multi-temporal heterogeneities", in other words the analysis
of simultaneous, mutually superimposed space-temporalities, which influence the
production of social texts. This approach is based on the assumption that
structural overdevelopment and underdevelopment not only influence one another
in the area of economics, but also affect artistic articulations.

This becomes particularly evident if not only postcolonial contexts in the
global northwest are investigated, but if these are also placed in relation to
worldwide feminist articulations. Postcolonial contexts in Eastern Europe thus
differ not only in their formal articulations, but also in the multiple logics
of domination manifested in them in relation to colonialism, patriarchally
organized nationalism, militarization and neo-colonialism (Grzinic 2000, Papic

What must be taken into consideration in categorizing different cultural and
theoretical productions in different postcolonial contexts, are therefore the
locally specific conditions of their production. The postcolonial cultural
hybrid forms of the north are also entangled in global capitalism's ways of
production and thus reproduce existing power gradients in the context of the
international distribution of labor. Social inequality is coded as cultural
difference or even deficiency and thus made invisible. This constant
reproduction of culturalized inequality forms the law of the "unequal
development" of global capitalism. The Eurocentric hierarchizations of various
postcolonial contexts thus reproduce culture-racist mechanisms of exclusion,
which for their part represent a fundamental structural element of global
capitalist forms of utilization and/or exploitation.

In reference to the contextualization of various postcolonial articulations in
conjunction with their global interdependence, the question -- rephrased from a
saying by Gayatri Spivak -- must be raised, "what sort of coding has produced
this text?" (Spivak 1990, 19). Spivak's interest focuses on the specific power
relations that enable an individual to describe and explain herself or himself
within a certain logic. (Gutiérrez Rodrigues 2001)

In reference to the transfer of postcolonial approaches to the German context,
in this sense we must not only ask with Spivak's words: Can the subaltern
speak?, or even: Can the subaltern speak German? Instead the question must be:
But even if he or she has been talking on for centuries -- why didn't anybody

Translated by Aileen Derieg


Homi K. Bhabha (1997): "Dissemi-Nation: Zeit, Narrative und die Ränder der
modernen Nation". In: Elisabeth Bronfen/Benjamin Marius : Hybride Kulturen.
Tübingen, 49-194.

Elisabeth Bronfen/Benjamin Marius (Ed.) (1997): Hybride Kulturen. Tübingen.

Umut Erel (1999): "Grenzüberschreitungen und kulturelle Mischformen als
antirassistischer Widerstand? ". In: Cathy Gelbin/ Kader Konuk/ Peggy Piesche
(Ed.): Aufbrüche. Kulturelle Produktionen von Migrantinnen, Schwarzen und
jüdischen Frauen in Deutschland.

Ruth Frankenberg / Lata Mani (1993): "Crosscurrents, Crosstalk:
Race, 'Postcoloniality' and the Politics of Location". In: Cultural Studies
7.2, 292-310.

Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez (1999): Intellektuelle Migrantinnen --
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und Vergeschlechtlichung.

Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez (2001): "Fallstricke des Feminismus. Das
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Marina Grzinic (2000): "Spectralisation of Europe". In: Timothy Druckrey (Ed.):
The Net_Condition: Art and Global Media. Boston, Karlsruhe.

Kien Nghi Ha (1999): Ethnizität und Migration. Opladen.

Kien Nghi Ha (2002):Postkoloniale Migration, Rassismus und die Frage der

Erhard Kloes (1985): Die Herren der Welt, Cologne.

Zarana Papic (1999): "Women in Serbia: Post-Communism, War and Nationalist
Mutations". In: Sabrina P. Ramet (Ed.): Gender politics in the Western Balkans.

Ella Shohat, Robert Stam (2000): "Narrativizing Visual Culture - towards a
polycentric aesthetics". In: Nicholas Mizoeff (Ed.): The Visual Culture Reader.
London, New York.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988): "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In: C. Nelson /
L. Grossberg (Ed.): Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Chicago.

Immanuel Wallerstein (1974): The Modern World-System, I: Capitalist Agriculture
and the Origins of European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century.
New York &