Corrupted Fiction: A Study of Rumour as the Language

Corrupted Fiction: A Study of Rumour as the Language
of the Subaltern
Subaltern communities are the most difficult groups to historically study because they leave
behind very few written sources. Communication within subaltern society is primarily oral. The
information that circulates is usually based on rumours whose narratives change rapidly over
time and distance. Thus, historians often disregard rumour as the process by which truth
becomes corrupted. Although historians frequently study rumour as a tool that incites popular
reaction, they rarely observe it as a language that reflects subaltern perspectives. Thus, this paper
provides a methodology by which historians can study rumours as a language within subaltern
communities. Through compiling a historiographical study of rumours in different subaltern
societies, this paper outlines how historians can use rumours to determine the psychology of
subaltern communities, the parameters of those communities, and the ways in which those
communities interacted with the state. Moreover, this paper also invents a vocabulary to discuss
the specific ways in which rumours affect their audience. Rumours are an extremely valuable
source of historical information because they are one of the only forms of communication that
the subaltern can access. Much can be inferred about the characteristics of subaltern
communities from the ways in which they narrate rumours.
Five Key Words:
Rumour, Subaltern, Language, Historiography, Fiction
The Malay word for rumour is khabar angin, which means “news on the wind.” Lacking
a known author or origin, rumours are both rousing and unverifiable. Rumours spread quickly
and change constantly. It is precisely the elasticity of rumours that complicates their study for
historians. If rumours constantly evolve, how can they be used to investigate that which actually
occurred? Is their metamorphosis random, or is it partly determined by societal conditions?
There is surprisingly little historical analysis that answers these questions. Most historians regard
rumour as a process by which truth is corrupted; rumours are the fictional content of speech
rather than a way of transmitting information. However, this paper will analyze rumours as a
language of the subaltern. Specifically, this paper will identify the particular attributes of
rumours that make it a form of speech. By examining rumour as a language, historians can
access unique information about the psychology of subaltern actors. For illiterate populations
who have no access to the state’s authoritative knowledge, rumours are the way in which the
subaltern informs each other of extra-local change, making communication beyond the village
possible. Moreover, rumour narratives change according to the psychological conditions of
society. Rumours act as a repository for the subaltern’s anxieties, aspirations and fears. They also
form a basis for subaltern communities, uniting the subaltern around collective concerns. In these
ways, rumours exist as a language that shapes both individual and communal identities. This
paper will provide a framework through which historians can analyze rumours as representing
different qualities of subaltern lives.
I. Rumours Have Authority in the Subaltern
Although rumours are often considered a trivial form of discourse, they have authority in
subaltern societies. Colonized communities, oppressed groups and illiterate persons rely upon
rumours to explain their surroundings. As Georges Lefebvre wrote of 1789 rural France, “The
vast majority of the French people depended entirely on oral tradition for the dissemination of
news … In the empty silence of the provinces, every word had the most extraordinary resonance
and was taken as gospel.”1 Subaltern communities are structured around the oral transmission of
information. In part, the authority of oral speech derives from a lack of alternative sources.
However, the subaltern also considers rumours authoritative because they are created and
transmitted by the subaltern. For example, African-American slaves formed dense kinship
networks in which rumours of cruel masters and escaped slaves circulated.2 These rumours were
trusted because they were spread by the slaves themselves as opposed to their masters. As
Gayatri Spivak notes, “It is more appropriate to think of the power of rumour in the subaltern
context as deriving from its participation in the structure of illegitimate writing than the
authoritative writing of the law – it is itself sanctioned by the phonocentric model of the spirit of
the law.”3 The subaltern use rumours to circulate information in a sphere that is separate from,
and often in opposition to, their rulers. Thus, rumours become authoritative because they are a
discourse controlled by the subaltern.
Georges Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789; Rural Panic in Revolutionary France. (New York:
Pantheon, 1973), 73-74.
2 Steven Hahn, "Could Slaves Enfranchise Themselves? Rumour, Narratives, and Arenas of Politics in
the American South," in Subaltern Citizens and Their Histories: Investigations from India and the USA, ed.
Gyanendra Pandey. (London: Routledge, 2010), 183.
3 Gayatri Spivak, "Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography," in Selected Subaltern Studies,
ed. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty. Spivak. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 23.
The dearth of formal information channels is partly responsible for the subaltern’s act of
generating rumours. Rumours become an authoritative voice when there is a palpable desire to
access unavailable information. In Allport and Postman’s seminal text The Psychology of Rumor,
they posit that during World War II “the almost total absence of fear-inspired rumors in Britain
… was due to the people’s conviction that the government was giving full and accurate news of
the destruction and that they, therefore, knew the worst.”4 In contrast, the American government
did not release details of the losses at Pearl Harbor. Consequently, “the public had no secure
standard of evidence by which to check and control its frightened imagination. So widespread
and upsetting were the tales that President Roosevelt … [devoted] part of his fireside chat … to a
repudiation of these bogy rumors.”5 Rumours develop when the desire for knowledge is met with
an absence of credible information. Historians can identify time periods of widespread
apprehension by the quantity of rumours generated thereafter. For example, Ranajit Guha
describes this anxiety as an “inflammable haziness.”6 J. Kaye also contends that preceding
rumours of mutiny in India’s Sepoy War was “an uneasy feeling – an impression that something
had happened, though they could not discern the shape thereof – [that] persuaded men’s minds.”7
Subaltern societies generate rumours to answer the questions that they feel need to be answered.
Thus, historians can use rumours as evidence of a subaltern community’s concerns, queries, or
conceptions of abnormal behaviour.
Gordon Allport and Leo Postman, The Psychology of Rumor (New York: Russell & Russell, 1965), 1.
Allport and Postman, 3.
6 Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University
Press, 1998), 260.
7 John Kaye and G.B. Malleson, History of the Indian Mutiny (London: Longmans Green, 1898), 355.
II. All Rumours Have an Inciting Element
Rumours evoke an emotional response in the listener that compels them to repeat the
rumour. I have called this response the rumour’s “inciting element.” For a rumour to be
considered worth repeating, it must have an inciting element that is powerful enough to compel
an individual to become the rumour’s transmitter. Although no historian has specifically labeled
this element, almost all those who have analyzed rumours recognize its existence. James Scott
claims that “life-threatening events such as war, epidemic, famine and riot are … among the
most fertile social sites for the generation of rumors.”8 Certainly, impending fatality is the most
inciting of all inciting elements. J. Prasad in his study of Bihar earthquake rumours claims that
anyone who came in contact with a rumour had “an almost uncontrollable impulse to pass it on
to another person.”9 In December 1998, one widespread rumour in Lima’s impoverished
neighbourhoods was that “gringo doctors … were entering the shantytowns, kidnapping children,
and extracting their eyes in order to sell them abroad.”10 Although this rumour seems too
fantastic to be believable, the rumour was ignited following an influx of white doctors to Peru’s
spiritual urban areas. Fear of foreigners is a powerful inciting element, largely because the
subaltern has no standard of behavior of which to expect. This rumour was so widely believed
that on 9 December 1998 three French tourists were almost lynched for allegedly kidnapping
twenty children.11 Similarly, the spread of gossip, which is just one kind of rumour, is almost
entirely driven by the intrigue of illicit behaviour. For a rumour to spread, it must evoke an
emotion that compels people to repeat the narrative.
James Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale UP, 1990),
J. Prasad, The Psychology of Rumour: A Study Relation to the Great Indian Earthquake of 1934
(Emitsburg, MD: National Emergency Training Center, 1935), 11.
10 Gareth Williams, “Death in the Andes: Ungovernability and the Birth of Tragedy in Peru,” The Latin
American Subaltern Studies Reader, ed. Ileana Rodriguez (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 273.
11 Williams, 274.
The inciting element is a useful window into the mentality of the subaltern. A rumour is
spread because its audience finds the inciting element compelling, indicating to historians the
types of concerns relevant to certain subaltern communities. For example, in Speaking with
Vampires, Luise White traces the evolution of vampire rumours in East Africa to the fear of
invading white settlers. Additionally, perhaps the most shocking rumour in American history is
that of witchcraft in late 17th century Massachusetts. It is impossible to tell if the Salem Witch
Trials would have occurred had Cotton Mather not stood upon a pulpit before the insular village
and swore that “stupendous witchcraft” had poisoned John Goodwin’s children.12 Yet,
presuming that witchcraft did not in fact spread through Salem Village in 1692 (and there is
compelling reason to believe that it did not), Mather’s declaration likely corresponded with the
deep spiritual anxiety that plagued many Puritan communities in the late 17th century.13
Similarly, Guha argues that “rumour proved to be a powerful vehicle of the hopes and fears, of
visions of doomsdays and golden ages, of secular objectives and religious longings, all of which
made up the stuff that fired the minds of men.”14 The inciting element provides the historian
valuable insight into the subaltern’s psychology because it illuminates the types of concerns and
conflicts that occupied their minds.
III. The Speed and Span of a Rumour’s Transmission is Determined by the
Magnitude of the Inciting Element
Rumours are said to spred quickly. They travel even more rapidly when their message is
considered urgent. Historians can evaluate how deeply a rumour’s inciting element resonates
Cotton Mather, Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (Boston: Printed by
R.P., 1689), 12
13 Hannah Heaton and Barbara E. Lacey. The World of Hannah Heaton: The Diary of an Eighteenthcentury New England Farm Woman (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2003).
14 Guha, 256
with its audience by the speed at which the rumour travels. The inciting element provokes a
primal emotional response in the audience that induces them to spread the rumour. Fear requires
placation, and shock spurs explanation. It is not surprising that James Scott commented that the
fastest-moving rumours are those concerning “life-threatening events such as war, epidemic,
famine and riot.”15 Indeed, Prassad attributes “a part of the explanation of the rapid transmission
of the stories and prophecies of disaster” to the “uncontrollable” fear that the rumours spurred.16
Rumours about man-made cataclysms apparently travelled equally fast.17 J. Kaye, a historian of
the Sepoy War, commented that “a certain description of news, which travels in India, from one
station to another, with a rapidity almost electric … had travelled another hundred miles whilst
the white gentlemen, with bland skepticism, were shaking their heads over the lies of the
Bazaar.”18 This example is particularly illustrative of the difference between the spread of
rumours in the subaltern and the state. The subaltern has little access to the authoritative
knowledge required to either verify or disprove a rumour; they do not have the privilege of
dismissing rumours. Thus the speed at which a rumour spreads in the subaltern is determined by
the degree to which its inciting element is found compelling.
Similarly, a rumour is transmitted across populations only insofar as the audience finds
the inciting element of the rumour relevant. An individual who does not care about a rumour is
unlikely to repeat it. Thus, historians can use the spread of rumours to trace the scope of
subaltern societies. In this regard, there are a variety of interesting studies that have tracked the
movement of rumours. In 1893, a rumour moved across Bihar and neighbouring Indian
provinces which prompted local populations to mark their trees – a practice known as “tree
Scott, 144.
Prassad ,11.
17 John Kaye, A History of the Sepoy War in India, 1857-1858, (London: W.H. Allen, 1880), 491.
18 Guha, 258.
daubing.”19 First noticed by the Sitamarhi Subdivisional Officer in January 1894, the practice of
tree marking “extended across … an area of over 23,000 square miles, and also moved to points
several hundred miles of the east and west of the epicenter of the outbreak” within the short time
span of four months.20 The official records of this tree-daubing “panic” suggest that the rumour
spread by word of mouth along the area’s main roads.21 It is now suggested that sadhus, Hindu
nomadic monks, were likely the transmitters of the rumour. Yet, as Anand Yang contends, “[the
sadhus’] message could never have gained the measure of dissemination it did without the help
of a receptive audience who, in turn, became rumormongers themselves.”22 Similarly, Luise
White, in her analysis of vampire rumours in East Africa, uses language to trace the spread of the
rumour.23 The Swahili term banyama, which was originally used to describe game rangers in
Northern Rhodesia, was translated to mean “vampire” as early as 1931. Within ten years, the
word banyama spread throughout Bemba and Nyanja speaking areas, and it came to represent
white doctors that were rumoured to forcibly extract the blood of Africans for medical purposes.
White suggests that although the rumours of the banyama differ across pockets of East Africa,
the consistent language proves the rumours to be essentially the same. Tracing the spread of the
banyama rumour is akin to tracing African anxiety of white settlers. Thus, historians can study
the movement of rumours to determine the parameters of subaltern communities.
Anand Yang, “A Conversation of Rumors: The Language of Popular Mentalités in Late NineteenthCentury Colonial India,” Journal of Social History 20.3 (1987), 487
20 Egerton, “Notes on Tree Marking,” Facts From Bihar, 279-280. Reprinted in Yang, “A Conversation
of Rumors,” 500.
21 Yang, 500
22 Ibid
23 White, 50-60
IV. A Rumour’s Narrative May Change But the Inciting Element Does Not
If rumours are known for one quality, it is that their narratives constantly change. As a
rumour travels between its transmitters, the narrative’s events and actors are usually drastically
altered. These changes are not random. Rather, a rumour develops according to the subaltern’s
interpretation of the inciting element. The subaltern changes the rumour’s narrative to make the
inciting element make sense. For example, in a study cited by Allport and Postman, American
sociologists showed an audience a picture of a white man threatening an unarmed black man
with a razor. When the audience was asked to recount this narrative, more than half of the white
audience members claimed that the black man had held the razor against the unarmed white
man.24 While the inciting element of the rumour was the same, the actors had been altered
according to the fears of the audience. As Scott claims, when “a rumor travels it is altered in a
fashion that brings it more closely into line with the hopes, fears and worldview of those who
hear it and retell it … On this basis one must expect rumors to take quite divergent forms
depending on what class, strata, region, or occupation they are circulating in.”25 Indeed, history
is littered with examples of rumours whose plot or actors change in their retelling.26
Communities reinterpret the rumour within their specific societal context, changing its narrative
in order to make the inciting element feel compelling. Thus, the same rumour might travel great
distances, but always concern ‘the village next door.’27 Changes to a rumour’s narrative indicate
different interpretations that subaltern populations cast upon the same inciting element.
Allport and Postman, 75.
Scott, 145.
26 For a truly excellent index of rumours whose narratives have changed over time, observe Shahid Amin,
“Gandhi as Mahatma,” Selected Subaltern Studies, 314-331.
27 See the example of the alleged pollution of the Mishrain’s household in both Gorakhpur and Deoria in
Shahid Amin, “Gandhi as Mahatma,” Selected Subaltern Studies, 320-321.
V. Rumour is a Discourse of Power
Fabricating a narrative to induce specific human behaviour is manipulation. Thus far, this
paper has analyzed the transmission of rumours with a ‘natural origin.’ By ‘natural origin,’ I
mean that the rumour’s initial claim was not made with the intention of creating a rumour.
Instead, the claim was molded into rumour through its perpetual retelling. However, some
rumours are created intentionally. Sometimes an instigator crafts a rumour to incite a specific
popular reaction. For example, contemporary historians largely agree that the Nazis blamed the
1933 Reichstag fire on the Communist Party so that they could consolidate their political
support. Similarly, to stop bandits from rampantly looting the under-policed areas of Buenos
Aires, it is now thought that the Argentinean police force crafted the widespread rumour that a
massive looting attack would occur in December 2001.28 The rumour had “a demobilizing effect,
keeping people at home, defending their barrios, thus preventing further looting.”29 Historians
must attempt to investigate the origin of specific rumours so as to contextualize it within the
mentality of the subaltern. If the subaltern neither created nor shaped the rumour’s narrative, it
would be incorrect to assume that the narrative represented the subaltern social consciousness.
Of course, the ways in which state authorities choose to craft rumours to manipulate the
subaltern is also worth analyzing. Such studies require historians to carefully trace the origins of
rumours in order to interpret its meaning for the subaltern.
The circulation of rumours within society is a discourse of power between the subaltern
and the state. Given the tremendous influence that rumours wield over subaltern populations,
both the state and subaltern actors have strong incentives to control the spread of rumours. Slave
Lindsay DuBois, “The Looters are Coming! The Looters are Coming!: Moral Panic and the
Argentina Crisis.” Paper presented as part of American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting (New
Orleans, November 20, 2002).
29 Javier Auyero, Routine Politics and Violence in Argentina: The Gray Zone of State Power (Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 2007), 129.
masters wanted to quash all rumours of slave escapes while slaves had every ambition to spread
this information. Thus, the language of rumours within the subaltern is tailored to the challenges
that those rumours face. The Raj, among other colonial administrations, planted spies within the
bazaars in order to intercept rumours.30 Accordingly, Indian citizens who were aware of the
domestic espionage transmitted their rumours in private or in code. On a local level, the Raj
tailored its form of governance according to local levels of disaffection.31 Thus, subaltern
rumours were a legitimate tool of power because their content could dictate colonial policy. The
transmission of subaltern rumours in colonial India walked a fine artistic line; they had to
deceive potentially eavesdropping colonial administrators while simultaneously conveying the
essence of their message to fellow subaltern actors. Historians should observe the sites of rumour
proliferation, like the markets or the bazaars, as theatres of performance. Rumours were
performed so that the authorities or the subaltern could gain power over the other.
Sometimes the subaltern overtly uses rumours to manipulate the behaviour of the
authorities. In his analysis on social aggression in Andalusian villages, David Gilmore contends
that the landless poor used rumours to coerce rich landowners into treating them better.32
Similarly, Scott describes that “one might give people hard looks or perhaps cup one’s hand to a
friend’s ear as the victim passes on the street. The purpose is to punish, chastise, or perhaps even
drive out the offender.”33 The subaltern can use rumours to shame the authority into submission.
However, this form of coercion is only possible when the power imbalance between the authority
and the subaltern is slight. If one actor has the ability to completely annihilate the other and
suffer no social or legal recourse, then such public displays of rumour mongering merely
Guha, 258.
Kaye, 361.
32 David Gilmore, Aggression and Community: Paradoxes of Andalusion Culture (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1987), 13.
33 Scott, 143
jeopardize the subaltern’s security. Rumours provide the subaltern a language through which
they can increase their power, either by communicating indirectly with the authorities or by
making the subaltern community holistically more informed.
Ultimately, rumours represent the subaltern’s interpretations of the state’s behavior. Given
that the subaltern is generally prohibited from verbally engaging with administrators on an
individual level, rumours of the state’s behavior are spread from a purely observational
standpoint. As Luise White notes, “rumor may simply be poised between an explanation and an
assertion: it is not events misinterpreted and deformed, but rather events analyzed and
commented upon.”34 Indeed, historians should observe the spread of rumours as a discourse of
interpretation. This interpretation is critical to the role of rumour as a power dialogue. Returning
once more to the example of looting in 2001 Argentina, rumours comprised a complex
informational network between policemen, looters and property owners.35 Rumours of police
behavior were relayed to the looters, and rumours on looters’ behavior were transmitted to the
police and property owners. The rumours themselves were guesswork – snippets of conversation
and stolen images. Sometimes the rumours were deliberately deceitful. Part of the historical
study of rumours entails identifying the rumour’s intended audience, which may very well be
comprised of multiple groups. Rumours comprise a large network of information sharing that is
structured around the discourse of power between the subaltern and the authorities.
White, 58.
Auyero, 130.
Rumour is an important form of speech to study because it is the language of the subaltern.
It forms the narrative of a story and the language deployed. It also constitutes the many ways in
which the narrative is altered upon repetition, and the reaction that it evokes within its audience.
Rumour is the vehicle by which the subaltern transmits information to each other, and the
method way by which the subaltern negotiates power within the state. Historians have often
discounted rumour as the process by which truth becomes distorted. Certainly, rumour does
morph the initial claim into seemingly unrecognizable forms. Yet, the very ways in which a story
is distorted is indicative of society’s psychological conditions. Narratives change to align with a
population’s values. The subaltern makes rumours make sense within their social context. The
element of the rumour that never changes is the inciting element. The essence of the rumour –
the emotion that it triggers – remains consistent in the rumour’s retelling. By tracing the
movement of these qualitatively different but essentially identical stories, historians can locate
subaltern communities. They can draw the parameters of like-feeling people; the spread of
rumours identifies the groups of people whom share the same anxieties, fears and hopes that the
narrative evokes within its audience. Rumour is not a distorted story, but a language that informs
the historian of the subaltern’s thoughts.
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