The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

Green subalterns

Mary Muscat Sunday, 19 June 2022, 10:56 Last update: about 8 days ago

It’s that time of the academic year that is fraught with exam script correction, dissertation reading and moderation, orals, vivas, assignment reviews and frustrating electronic marking protocols. There are administrative nightmares such as checking high similarity indexes of submitted works, deciding whether a borderline thesis deserves to pass or not, and trying to get hold of examiners, local and foreign, to get the ship to sail on time.

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So forget everything else, definitely up to the end of the month, until the system gets finalised and concluded with dignity and efficiency. Forget the locality’s festa – sorry Santa Katerina, and a thousand apologies to my district kostitwenti – as much as I’d love to join in the revelry especially after two years of social distancing, it seems that the prohibition years for me are not over yet.  

There’s one thing that sprang to mind in the midst of fireworks, band marches and trying to keep up with the news: voicelessness. Like the index number on examination scripts that do not bear a name, there’s an element of the Gramscian subaltern. It’s that figure of the known and identifiable person but who is rendered voiceless by the system. It also stands for the person who can speak but the system is tone deaf to the plight. It’s a term that’s mostly prevalent in postcolonial literary criticism of the likes of Spivak, Fanon and of course Edward Said, but there’s also Derek Gregory’s concept of the “colonial present”.

Gregory is a Cambridge geographer who looked at characteristics of the colonial past that are still attached to the land even after independence and the stereotypes keep getting reaffirmed. Although he was writing about Afghanistan in the 2004 geopolitical context, I cannot help seeing it around me. Or maybe it’s just me and my advocacy inclinations. He wrote about the objectification of opponents as “shadowy” and “third things” and how the colonial machinery has rituals of justification and accusation of its opponents simply because the “Orientals” cannot speak for themselves.

Government’s response to Graffiti’s stance on Comino is a case in point. The enforcement officers were scheduled to travel there that same day was the Ministerial explanation, delivered in an amused tone. Of course one has to take a boat to get there, so it takes time but then again, it’s Comino, it’s not as if the enforcement officers were going to Dubai to look for money laundering clues. The story of who the owners or commercial stakeholders behind the greedy colonizing frenzy of “it’s just a deckchair” then came to light on one of the news portals the following day. I’m sure Graffiti can teach a lesson or two on who the subaltern is whether it’s a person, a tree or a grain of sand, and that they do their homework well. Their response to the extremism label was an undiluted mini lecture on the subaltern, if you listen carefully.

Incidentally, “subaltern” is a term that is still being heard within regimented hierarchies such as the Police, Armed Forces and Corrections and it means just one thing: subordinate. No measure of independence, sovereignty and patriotism can erase that term from that jargon. And if language cannot change, so do concepts because the two live on a system of mutualism and symbiosis.

The environment has suffered from this colonial stereotype, where the Maltese landscape was deemed inferior to anything British. Growing up in the 70s, the garrigue and karst topography was spoken at school of as barren and lacking value, of a burden to the economy as precious space that is useless unless turned into something that contributes to the State coffers. Who cares about Maltese thyme when there’s British heather? That’s the message I got growing up which did not really make a dent in my case as I grew up in the whereabouts of Wied il-Għasel and so I knew a different reality, one which my urban classmates could not challenge.  

It took years to begin the process of undoing the damage of misrepresentation. Starting from the 90s, in spite of moving forward in many respects, the colonial mentality still prevails among a cohort of the population that is over 45 years of age even if they experienced colonialism vicariously through their older family members.

No wonder then that it’s the default mentality of the nation, including its enforcers. Eco-offences have been subalterns to the more “important” crimes even within the ambit of environmental crime, as the focus was long captured by hunting laws rather than by the protection of natural resources.

There’s a whole geopolitics of land-use in Malta that is still colonial. Substitute military armaments, regiments and parade grounds for cranes, deckchairs and umbrellas and you have your colonial present, Maltese style.

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