Outlaw Language: Creating Alternative Public Spheres in Basque Free Radio.

Pragmatics (special issue: Constructing Languages and Publics, Susan Gal and Kathryn Woolard, eds.). 5(2):245-261.Reprinted in, Other Circuits: Intersections and Exchanges in World Theory and Practice. Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, eds. Routledge.

By Jacqueline Urla


Recent rethinking of Habermas' Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere by Negt and Kluge (1993), and feminist and social historians Nancy Fraser (1993), Joan Landes (1988), and Geoff Eley (1992), among others, has argued persuasively that the bourgeois public sphere has, from its inception, been built upon powerful mechanisms of exclusion. The idealized image of a democratic theatre of free and equal participation in debate, they claim, has always been a fiction predicated on the mandatory silencing of entire social groups, vital social issues, and indeed, "of any difference that cannot be assimilated, rationalized, and subsumed" (Hansen 1993b:198). This is especially clear in the case of those citizens who do not or will not speak the language of civil society. The linguistic terrorism performed with a vengeance during the French Revolution and reenacted in Official English initiatives in the United States more recently, reveal to us how deeply monolingualism has been ingrained in liberal conceptions of Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité. But perhaps silencing may not be the best way to describe the fate of linguistic minorities or other marginalized groups. For, as Miriam Hansen (1993b) notes, what the more recent work on public spheres suggests is that "the" public sphere has never been as uniform or as totalizing as it represents itself to be. Proliferating in the interstices of the bourgeois public -- in salons, coffeehouses, book clubs, working class and subaltern forms of popular culture -- are numerous counterpublics that give lie to the presumed homogeneity of the imaginary public. Spurred in part by ethnic nationalist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, speakers and writers of "barbarous" tongues and "illegitimate patois" can be seen as one among the counterpublics who avail themselves of any number of "media" -- from novels to oral poetry, from song and regional presses to, more recently, various forms of electronic media -- to give expression to other kinds of social experience and perspectives on who the public is, what its interests might be, and what its voice sounds like.

This article examines the contemporary formation of one such counterpublic in the small towns and cities of the southern Basque country. Here, in the years since Franco's death, one finds among Basque radical nationalist youth a self conscious attempt to make use of intentionally marginal or "outlaw" publicity -- street graffiti, zines, low-power free radio -- as well as a lively rock music scene, to give voice to their minoritized language and their not-so-polite critiques of the state, consumer capitalism, police repression, and a host of other social concerns. The alternative media and expressive culture of radical youth can be seen as creating a public sphere in the sense of a discursive matrix within which social experience is articulated, negotiated, and contested (Hansen 1993a). However, as I hope to show, the sphere they have created differs significantly from the kind of public typically imagined within minority language revitalization and/or ethnic nationalist movements. The latter typically are bourgeois and universalistic in nature; the nation or linguistic community is imagined in the singular and envisioned primarily as a reading and writing public. Furthermore, in the Basque nationalist movement, as in many other linguistic minority movements, language politics tend to be oriented towards normalization, expanding literacy, and gaining legitimacy within the terms of state hegemonic language hierarchies. The past century has seen ethnic minority intellectuals form their own language academies, literary and scientific societies, and mobilize the tools of linguistic analysis, orthographic reform, mapping, and even the census in order to document the "truth" of their language and to reform the language according to notions of what constitutes a "modern" or "rational" language (Urla 1993). The kind of practical exigencies and urgency minority linguists and planners feel to transform their language into what Bourdieu (1991) calls a "langue autorisé", to demonstrate its equivalence to other "world" languages, leads them to a concern with boundary drawing, purifying, and standardizing more commonly associated with the language ideology of the dominant public sphere.

Scholars have tended to focus upon these normalizing processes, yet if we look to other arenas like the marginalized publicity of radical youth, we find a very different picture. What follows is an exploration of the public sphere of radical free radio, its distinctive ideology of radical democratic communication, and how these are reflected in a variety of linguistic strategies. Existing on the margins of legality, ephemeral, and often nomadic in both a geographic and temporal sense, free radios provide a soundtrack for minority languages, values, and cultural expression by pirating the airwaves, appearing and disappearing on the f.m. dial. The public constructed by radical youth is perhaps better described as a partial public, a segment of a plural, rather than singular, counterpublic sphere (cf. Hansen 1993b:209). Secondly, it is decidedly oppositional, challenging both the Spanish state and the Basque regional government's control over the terms of public discourse and the exclusions that control entails. Thirdly, while one of the aims of free radio stations is to open new avenues for the circulation of Basque, programmers embrace a more hybrid, playful, and anti-normative set of language practices than do language activists in other areas of language revitalization. Looking beyond formal language politics, beyond the academies and literacy programs, to the particular modes of address and other linguistic forms used in these kinds of experiments in local media, I suggest, reveals a more heterogeneous conception of publics and language than our studies of minority language movements might otherwise convey.