Trespassing the Borders:

Redefining Postcolonialism from Peripheral Experiences

University of Warwick, 11 March 2017


Trespassing the Borders

A very special teacher of mine once told me that it is always a good idea to begin a piece of written work with a concise and yet captivating etymological digression. The words’ own histories – she taught me – may enlighten our understanding of how we think and operate as human beings hic et nunc more than any astronomical compendium of universal philosophy.

Quite conveniently, the very first word that stands out in the title of the latest Warwick HRC-funded conference – ‘trespassing’ – perfectly lends itself to this practice. As a matter of fact,

the use of trespass, like a great deal of the Romance-based vocabulary in Modern English, crossed the Channel in its Old French form ‘trespasser’ in the XIV century, originally from the Latin ‘transpassāre’ (to step beyond, to go beyond). Whilst the metropolitan French lexical entry later developed to mean ‘to die’ (thus keeping the original Latin meaning of ‘going beyond’), English speakers preserved the legal connotation of ‘trespass’ as ‘the unlawful incursion into the property, territory or land of another’, the interpretation that still holds today. In biblical language, ‘trespass’ may also index a sin, or a violation of religious norms (cf. ‘And forgive us our trespasses’). In everyday use, however, an alternative form of ‘stepping beyond’ is preferred to convey the concept of ‘violation’: trans-gredīre (gradus also means ‘step’), ‘to transgress’.

Trespass and transgress etymologically converge in the human, basic action of taking a step (passus, gradus) and, most importantly, in the constructed illegality of this very action. ‘To trespass’, in particular, implies a reference point that compartmentalises space between what is socially accessible and socially inaccessible – namely, a border – that same border that the TTB Conference has sought to challenge and re-conceptualize. And, indeed, it does so by re-appropriating the widely theorised postcolonial discourse in an attempt to internally de-colonialise traditional postcolonial approaches that favour hegemonic actors – or in simpler words, in an attempt to shift the academic gaze from the ‘usual’ colonies and colonisers towards postcolonial voices traditionally overlooked by academia. Within the context of this forum, ‘trespassing the borders’ is indeed an act of transgression against established approaches that  provide only a partial understanding of how the colonial past feeds into contemporary society.

As a response, the discussion launched at the TTB conference enters, “unlawfully” (in opposition to the norm), unexplored territories by taking roads that have been less traveled by. This approach does not only enhance our understanding of postcolonial discourse, but also provides a more diversified perspective on the malleability of borders. Today, this particular issue is central, as borders (or frontiers) are re-gaining great popularity in political discussions. However, borders take over national debates in a way that does not reflect how differently the concept of ‘borders’ may be perceived – mainly because of their intrinsic unsuitability to be crystallized in universal categories. The TTB Conference seeks to highlight this, and shifts to different viewpoints in order to understand what the border means to all the actors involved. Hence, its agenda to explore peripheral histories beyond the Anglo-French arena, its agenda to trespass peripheral territories and speak peripheral languages.

At the opening of the conferenceGianmarco Mancosu, PhD student in Italian Studies at Warwick and main organizer, points at the TTB poster behind him: on the right side, a cornucopia of crystals in different shades of blue grow larger as their edges fade out and merge into each other: ‘what does it mean to be inside, within, and beyond (several kinds of) borders?’ . The more closely we look at each shape, the more indefinite become their lines. At the top, the conference title stands out in a plurality of scripts and colours – a visual ode to diversity and co-existence of different modalities of ‘being’. Diversity and co-existence imply mobility and mobility implies trespassing – to different and intrinsically unequal levels of coercion, of course.

And by keeping this visual manifesto in mind, the TTB conference has tried

  • to disassemble and re-assemble the architecture of social and political agency;
  • to achieve inclusiveness in the understanding of the dynamics of postcolonial discourse;
  • to shift cognitive frameworks generated in Western Europe towards the periphery;
  • to understand power dynamics within the core itself.

What happens, for instance, when postcolonial dynamics emerge between core groups and subgroups of the traditional hegemonic forces? – And here I am thinking of the extremely controversial, very provocative term of ‘White Trash‘, or the ‘neglected white working classes‘ that are dominating current political narratives. What can we learn from ‘distant‘ postcolonial contexts? And ultimately, who decides what is ‘distant’ and what is not? The main praise I have for this inspiring and thought-provoking discussion concerns primarily the collaborative opportunity to turn traditional academia upside down  – or at least, to acknowledge the pressing necessity to do so. To a certain extent, this conference is an example of what I want academic research to be like: a sphere of influence bridging academic research and contemporary debates in the negotiation and dissemination of plural perspectives that inevitably shape and influence our individual roles and responsibilities in society. This is perhaps the strongest weapon scholars in the humanities may have.

What about language?

After sitting through the first keynote address, I found myself reflecting on the possible interchangeability of the terms ‘nation-state‘ and ‘national language‘ in the context of the postcolonial discourses that were being addressed there. I found myself pondering on the narratives of linguistic codes with high symbolic capital in relation to the periphery and considered how linguistic peripheries can help us identify and understand power dynamics that are at play in language use.

Language is a very productive means of coercion, and generally a very effective gatekeeper of established relations of power. Your language may determine your education and your employability; it may enhance your social network and the perception of your persona or, contrastively, it may have you kicked off a plane. This structure is not, however, a prerogative of the mobile social groups: language power hierarchies are deeply rooted in national, regional, even urban and suburban contexts: certain dialects, certain ‘accents’ and specific word uses are often highly stigmatised, thus causing a variation in the dynamics of social interactions. Humans have this extraordinary – and highly problematic – ability to perceive and interpret how people speak and thereby identify groups in relation to one’s own memberships. Although this linguistic Authority in Languagepractice may be considered somewhat universal, the same cannot be said about the politicization of how language is used in society. The process of normalisation of linguistic practices is highly dependent on single, historical dynamics and vary massively across cultures. And this is precisely the framework in which a postcolonial understanding of language use may operate more overtly.

To give some examples, the idea of a linguistically homogeneous, monolingual society is the offspring of XIX-century European nationalism – an ideology that still stands strong in contemporary Western society and that jars with alternative language practices that, for instance, favour a plurality of codes. Even though this dichotomy is largely acknowledged in linguistics, it often remains difficult to disentangle language research from the monolingual paradigm. Therefore, while the spheres of academia that deal with the science of language themselves hesitates between coral and peripheral norms, what are the effects of linguistic colonialism in the periphery? How has colonialism shaped linguistic practices and how have the actors at the other end of the colonial experience responded? How can we learn their viewpoint? The four salient points listed above bind together postcolonial and sociolinguistic work on peripheral responses to language policy. The next question I would like to answer is: where has and does sociolinguistics trespass(ed) the border? You’ll find a preliminary reading suggestion on the right side of the page. Take it from there – the discussion is not over.


Many thanks to Gianmarco, Francesca, Mary Jane and Gioia for the excellent work. And thank you for reading this!

To have access to the conference’s Twitter live coverage, follow this link. Or alternatively, have a look on Storify.