Can the subaltern listen?

Self-determination and the provisioning of expertise in Papua New Guinea

by James Slotta

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Voice is a major concern in contemporary liberal-democratic politics, one that stresses the political importance of speaking (“giving voice,” “speaking up”). But in the Yopno valley of Papua New Guinea, where NGO and government projects are expanding, people's sense that they are losing control of their future has led them to worry about their capacity to listen, not their capacity to speak. In largely acephalous villages, people's self-determination seems particularly threatened by their ignorance of the true nature of their own actions. From a perspective in which the antecedents and the consequences of action are deeply unclear—a perspective stressed in the provisioning of expertise prevalent in political discourse—self-determination hinges on listening and gaining the understanding needed to shape one's future.

Long tingting bilong planti saveman bilong demokratik politiks na arapela manmeri tu, toktok em i as bilong paua bilong ol manmeri. Tasol, ol manmeri i stap long Yopno veli, wanpela hap bilong Papua Niugini, ol i no save wari tumas long tokaut. Maski gavman na NGO i laik wokim planti samting long hap, ol i no tingting planti long toktok tumas. Tasol, ol i wari planti long harim: ol inap long harim toktok na i stap fri o nogat? Long hap, ol lida bilong ples na gavman, ol i nogat paua long bosim ol manmeri bilong ples. Ol manmeri i ken bihainim laik bilong ol. Tasol, ol i wari olsem, nogut tingting bilong mipela i paul na mipela i no save gut long wei bilong kamapim ol samting mipela laik kamapim. Ol i lukim olsem paul tingting na nogat save em i wanpela kain kalabus. Olsem na, ol save tok olsem, ol mas harim gut toktok bilong ol saveman na kisim save. Dispela em i rot bilong bihainim tru laik bilong ol na kamapim samting ol i laik kamapim bihain. [toktok, saveman, bihainim laik, tokaut, harim toktok, kisim save, Papua Niugini]

Supplementary Materials

Sound recordings and original-language transcripts with interlinear glosses of the speech events discussed in "Can the Subaltern Speak?" are available through the links below.

Conditional constructions in Yopno and Tok Pisin View PDF

Click below to listen. Page numbers correspond to Transcriptions PDF:

Page 2. Topa complains no one is listening to him about the work on the school
Page 3. The evangelist instructs people on the need to work on the school
Page 5. Kauso speaks to Peter of her problems
Page 7. Peter explains to Kauso the cause of her problems
Page 9. Franklin provides an explanation of how netsa responds to conservation efforts
Page 11. Maŋnu discusses the benefits of helping with a conservation celebration
Page 12. Monji and Nanda evaluate the speeches of the conservation celebration organizers