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What’s going on in representation?

In the run up to openDemocracy's next Discourses event, Subaltern voices, Michael Saward looks at the ramifications of claims of political representation.
Michael Saward
30 September 2010

To ask ‘who speaks for the subaltern?’, as the new openDemocracy Discourses series does, is provocative when it comes to the issue of representation in art and in politics.  Often art and politics are simply seen as two different realms of representation: the aesthetic and the electoral.  But there is a lot more going on in political representation than we normally think, and much of what we often miss is aesthetic, not least the portrayals of the represented that are involved.  Forging portrayals or images of the represented – and getting them to stick in people’s minds – is at the heart of all power politics, not least the positioning of the subaltern. 

Think of when a political figure – it could be Ed Miliband or the head of Oxfam or Bono or for that matter Rupert Murdoch – claims that ‘I represent those people over there’.  In representative claims like this various things are happening, and various actions are set in motion.  First, a claim is made – ‘I am someone with the authority to speak or to stand for you, I know you, I am of you, I’m like you’ (or ‘them’).  It doesn’t mean the claim is accepted – this is just the start of the process.  Secondly, a constituency of people is summoned up by the claim – Ed Miliband might claim to speak for disaffected ex-Labour voters for example, or Murdoch for the interests of wealth-creating international corporations.  Sometimes, such invoked constituencies are not aware of themselves as constituencies, or a group with shared interests, before claims like these are made.  French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once claimed that it is in fact the existence of the representative that creates the group represented.  Thirdly, this ‘constituency’ does not just have a pre-formed identity – the claimant (so to speak) paints a picture of the constituency that he or she wants its members  to accept – ‘You are X, okay?  And I am Y.  And Ys speak for Xs, right?  I speak for you’. The X and the Y here are specific, manufactured, selected images.

Think of the politician who claims first and foremost to speak for ‘hard-pressed hard-working families’, for example; s/he is picking out the things that s/he thinks matter most, or that will work best in political argument – our family rather than individual status, our work rather than our leisure or health, our pressures rather than our resilience.  In picking and highlighting some attributes, s/he sets aside all the other ways we might be described, or might see in ourselves.  

This is one place where aesthetic and political representation meet.  Those who claim to represent us also portray us a certain way.  To claim to speak for someone is also to speak about them.  But notice something else that happens in representative claims.  Think of the famous claim by Bono in 2004: ‘I represent a lot of people [in Africa] who have no voice at all…They haven’t asked me to represent them.  It’s cheeky but I hope they’re glad I do’.  Here we have a portrayal of ‘voiceless people in Africa’.  A crucial question is: does a claim like this silence those it portrays by saying ‘I’m the one who speaks for them’?  Or does it bring to media or political attention interests, needs or demands that would otherwise remain overlooked in key circles?  Perhaps it does both, in a difficult mix, from one claim to the next. 

In political science and political journalism, representation has been understood as a formal relationship between one who represents (usually an elected politician) and another who is represented (usually in a geographical constituency).  Thinking of representation as a claim unsettles that picture, pressing us to ask who is claiming to speak for whom on what basis, with what motives, and with what degree of success?  What representations in the aesthetic sense do they make to support their claims?  What alternative claims might they drown out or displace in the cacophony? Election may be one powerful resource for representative claims, but unelected actors can also make resonant claims.  Elective representation does not exhaust democratic representation. 

The politics – and the art – of representation of the subaltern is also a politics and art of listening, of attentiveness to new voices not often present in our narrowcasting mainstream media (replete with its own standardised representations of peoples and places).  Who listens out for disputing of claims, for the less powerful voices?  I am often struck by the relative lack of self-representation of indigenous voices in so-called ‘global’ debates, for example.  The problems don’t stop there, of course.  Arundhati Roy for instance with her trenchant criticisms of ‘democracy’ in India and elsewhere may well speak for less powerful interests (see the book Listening to Grasshoppers: field notes on democracy).  But no single representative claim can be fully authentic or beyond dispute.  What we are pressed to do is to approach all claims to represent some group with a healthy scepticism – not to dismiss them, but to ask questions, above all what do the people who are subject to (and of ) the claim make of it?  Do they have a chance to make counter-claims about themselves and their interests?  And as observers of politics in the UK and elsewhere, are we listening out for the voices that will not reach us if we just passively accept the representative claims that reach us unbidden?

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