Luke Niebler

Can the Subaltern RSVP?

Luke Niebler
Can the Subaltern RSVP?
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 I design wedding invitations. At least 60 percent of my customers include an etiquette blunder of some sort in the text of their invitations. Sometimes they ask for cash, or specify “adults only.” Worst of all, one customer asked guests to pay for their meals and included information on how to send their payment in advance if they didn’t want to pay the night of. I’ve never said anything about these items even though I have cringed while formatting them, but should I do so? Would I be out of place in letting a customer know that they’re committing a major faux pas?

 Before answering your question as to whether you should say anything, we must address a parenthetical that threatens to totally engulf your problem: CAN you speak? In her seminal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Gayatri Spivak looks at the possibility of subjectivity and voice within systematically Othered groups (specifically poor women of color in a postcolonial environment). She answers her titular query with a resounding “no,” explaining that the ability to find voice is predicated on a position of power and the construction of a power system in which one can act as an independent subject. The multitude of conflicting subjectivities that define radically Othered people deny them the ability to speak and be heard within a society dominated by racism, classism, heterosexism, transphobia, and misogyny. As a result, the subaltern is already incomprehensible before she even opens her mouth.


Although I lack enough information to formulate your specific power position, I believe that you occupy a subaltern position, since you are a medium of transfer, a laborer transcribing your clients’ words to paper. They determine your interactions with them, establishing and constructing your discourse.


That said, I do see an opportunity for radical action. Since you control the means of communication, find ways to radically undermine patriarchic ideologies surrounding marriage in the invitations. Perhaps you could slip bell hooks quotes into the text of the invitations, or make it clear that marriage is an inherently anti-woman process of commodity exchange.

Question Source: Dear Prudence