Thursday, March 8, 2018

Can We Design for the Subaltern? | Jonathan Calzada

As I write this academic blog post, I contemplate the appropriate tone and prose subsequently forcing myself into a bifurcation of which I can only take one path. I can write in short and clear sentences in the hope that my ideas are interpreted as I intend. Alternatively, I can attempt to construct rich and referential text that leave the non-academic readership without means of comprehension nearly as effectively as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak left me when I first read her work. This is a critical point where a design decision takes place. It is one of many such decision points in a constant process of production. As a software designer, I have worked under similar (if not the same) standards of production. Standards that are calibrated by notions of the imagined consumer. The path I take when I encounter a split in the road between simplicity/accessibility and complexity/inaccessibility says more about me and the institutions for whom I produce, than the very meaning of my work. The effectiveness of my work is lost or found in its design.

Producing for dominant institutions often excludes more consumers than it includes thereby rendering a vast range of them invisible. The human production of ideas begins with the craft we employ to represent them, as we strive to give them form such that they are conveyed intact to the imagined consumer. This does not only beg the question of who the imagined consumer is but also leads to a realization that it is “I” (the designer) who is performing the imagining and forming representations of the consumer. In this light then, for whom do we ultimately design and produce? Is it satisfactory to design/produce for our imagined representations of the consumer? Given these parallels within academia (theory) and software design (praxis), I want to use the term representational-production to include the process of information design in both spaces, and ask if we are capable of designing for the subaltern? [1]

Software as it is designed today is imbued with the worldview and representations of the imagined user and their identity coming from a non-subaltern worker/producer. For example, Western software companies tend to classify users by creating User Experience personas based on their conceptualization of the user. Academia can be seen to do the same representational-production work through classification of their readership or academic consumers. To some degree both claim that they are producing for the best interest of their consumers. Olson connects this process to hegemonic power by stating that “classification and thesauruses are hierarchical structures that award position based on conceptualization by a central power whose worldview purports to reflect the values of the population” (Olson 2010, 299). I have designed software with such specificity in the past. When I did in fact think about some of the classification of users/personas including who the unimagined user could be, I did so with a limited representation of them. Even after conducting usability studies, interviews, and ethnographic research with the ‘ideal’ consumer, I found representation to be problematic. To illustrate this problem, I will reference Spivak’s vertreten and darstellen distinctions of representation, and by using my own history, I will expand on how even representing oneself is fraught with imperfections given a temporal dimension.

The Problem with Representation of the Self & the Other: Temporal-Representation
I can (only) truly represent myself in my current state of self. In the years prior to my academic training, professional standing, US citizenship status, and the ability to speak English, I did not have a voice in this country. As a young boy, I found myself in the principal’s office too many times blamed for actions I did not take or incidents I did not begin; but because I grew frustrated with accusations, and the ensuing arguments would place me there. I was one of five Latinos in a predominantly white elementary school. I did not have a voice then. When I spoke, no one believed me, even during the moments when they physically listened. Faces unlike my own looked at me in distrustful and unfriendly ways. I wish I could stand up for myself then as I do now. However, rather than this being a temporal impossibility, it is a representational one.

Today, I cannot represent myself as the person I was then. I am a different person. There was an imperceptible point of departure from the condition of a voiceless subject to the person that I am today. Now, I have ‘lines of social mobility’ that allow me to speak more than I ever could then (Spivak 1995). To attempt to represent that young boy today is to try to ‘unlearn my privilege’ and revert to that young state (Spivak 1995). If such a mental transformation were possible, I would simply just be him (then) and not me (today) once again not able to speak. I have memories, but every time I recall them, I recreate them in my mind attempting to experience the past. I remember most of the details, but I feel very different today. How can I represent that boy now? Spivak makes a distinction between representation (Vertretung) and re-presentation (Darstellung) (Spivak 1995).  Representation (Vertretung) as in politics and speaking on behalf of others does not assume the representative to be in the embodied experience and condition of those who are being represented.  Re-presentation (Darstellung) as in art and philosophy only attempts to reproduce the ‘presentation’ of the subject.  It ends up being a simulacrum with varying degrees of imperfection. How then can the subaltern speak for themselves if once they have acquired social lines of mobility, they stop being subaltern and in turn leave their younger and voiceless selves in the irretrievable past?

I can only politically represent my younger self today. I cannot be that boy any longer, for the attempt alone would be disingenuous. It is not squarely an Einsteinian categorical problem of time travel—which he argued was an impossibility—but more precisely a representational (Vertretung) one. It is a temporal-representational problem of the self. If your life originated as an ‘other’ (perhaps even a subaltern), a split may occur through the course of your life where you begin to make the connections, gain the social and cultural capital within a system that allows you to mobilize and be heard. Your voice begins to take form, substance, and gain decibel levels. You can hear yourself through others that have heard your voice. You can even hear yourself through the type of ‘other’ that you were once before. In this new world, the self does not exist without the reflection of the other. In this new world, you can speak. In this world your former self has become the ‘other.’

How then do you design for the ‘other’ especially if s/he is you or rather your former self? After all, who knows you better than you know yourself? I begin with designing for your former ‘other’ to foreground the most obvious of problems with representation. Spivak uses semiotics to articulate this point. She critiques Deleuze and Foucault as post-structuralists having done away with the signifier/signified rendering a transparency in which there is not a need for representation. Within this framing the ‘other’ and the subaltern can speak, and therefore help themselves out of their struggle. However, as I have argued above “experience itself is constituted through representation,” as it is even problematic to represent oneself let alone the ‘other’ and even much less the subaltern (Kohn and Reddy 2006). In Spivak’s words “representation has not withered away” and is in fact problematic particularly because the medium such as language can be coerced by power dynamics favoring a hegemony (Spivak 1995). Representation then cannot be taken for granted as a transparent and authentic process. Reflexive interpretation may be necessary to design for the ‘other’ and the subaltern. Reflecting on the fact that as a producer/designer working for a prominent institution, you are not a subaltern or even an ‘other.’ You are neither because you have voice. You are not a subaltern because you have social connections that make any degree of upward social mobility possible. Is deep reflexive interpretation of representations of the ‘other’ a key step toward designing for the subaltern? If not, what representational-production work needs to take place in order to design for the subaltern? More importantly, what compels you (or me) to try to design for the subaltern in the first place?

The Object of Seduction that Compels Designing for the Subaltern
How can the non-subaltern produce/design for the subaltern and like it? What compels those that can speak to produce/design for those that cannot? In the current state formation where power is embedded in all modes of production through capitalism, the most obvious ‘object of seduction’ is capital. It is ultimately a self-defeating and tautological argument. What interests the ‘representing intellectual’ or capitalist is the continuation of the status quo or oppressive system that leaves the heterogeneous subaltern serving them on the periphery within a fragmented and unrecognized/invisible labor force. Within a capitalist framework, how is it then possible to provide such an object of seduction if that (capitalist) object ends up sustaining the immensely profitable system that placed the subaltern in a state of struggle in the first place? Who, if anyone, will be the subaltern representative (Vertreter) “that sends them rain and sunshine from above?” (Spivak 1995). What compels, coerces, or convinces the colonial/capitalist masters to dismantle their system that defines their purpose for being? More personally, how do I learn, grow, or force myself to like designing for the subaltern if there is not an object of seduction, remuneration, or any sort of recognition for me?

The cognitive bifurcation to which I referred at the beginning of this blogpost was created when I started to write, which now seems far behind. I made a conscious decision to check my privilege and then take a path. I chose to overcomplicate things. As it turns out, I write for myself, the academy, and for my institution. None include the subaltern or even the ‘other.’ There seemed to be no object of seduction for me to keep things simple. It simply does not pay and so I continue to sustain the ivory tower of academia in its ‘rightful’ place high above the ‘uneducated,’ unrecognized, and un-designed-for consumer. I keep the representational-production within a self-serving circle. I did not co-create with those I am ‘trying’ to help or even try to interpret their needs or wants. In fact, I have not answered anything and wrote too much. I end up with the same question and so I keep asking if we are capable of designing for the subaltern? [1] In asking the question it implicates political, historical, and ethical concerns that mainstream techno-society does not currently recognize or acknowledge. Instead the subaltern is displaced, sanitized, and their context removed from the record/systems. However, the thesis question itself places the producers/designers in a reflexive mode recognizing their privilege and limitations, especially with representation. In fact, the question itself may be impossible to answer fully because of the problems inherent within representation, but the fact that we are employing it as a method to reflexively interrogate design practices is, I argue, an ethical imperative to designing/producing technology/software that aims to liberate the subaltern.

[1] Discussing Spivak with Peter Pollack we re-contextualized vertreten and darstellen within software design to come up with the question: can we design for the subaltern and like it?.


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” As reprinted in The Post- Colonial
Studies Reader, Bill Ashcroft et al, eds. New York: Routledge, 1995, 28-37.

Kohn, Margaret, and Kavita Reddy. 2006. “Colonialism.”

Hope Olson and Melodie J. Fox, “Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Deconstructionist, Marxist,
Feminist, Postcolonialist,” in Critical Theory for Library and Information Science (Santa
Barbara: Libraries Unlimited, 2010), 295-309.

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