Can using the codes of power dismantle the master’s house?

A question I often have is whether it is possible to use academic jargon to challenge its exclusivity. One side of me agrees with the idea that it is important to learn these “codes of power” so that people will listen to me. The other side of me says that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

So can codes of power be used to dismantle the master’s house? In my most recent article “Silencing the Subaltern: Nation-State/Colonial Governmentality and Bilingual Education in the United States”  I try to do this. The problem is that most people have no interest in reading such a long and difficult article. So is it possible to write the ideas in a more concise and accessible way? Let me try.

Lets begin with the term governmentality. Governmentality basically refers to the ways that individuals and populations are made to fit their roles in society. It can be understood as the design of the master’s house. The design has changed over time. In its original design the master sat on his master’s chair and watched everybody work. Eventually, the master’s chair disappeared and people forgot that there was a master. But they didn’t forget the rules and continued to follow them.

In 18th century European society, the master’s house underwent some remodeling and was reorganized into nation-states. One major characteristics of a nation-states is that all of the people are expected to speak the same standardized national language. This standardized national language was based on the ways that the upper class spoke and was thought to represent the voice of the people. This meant that any change to the standardized national language was a threat to the integrity of this voice. Language variation in both European and colonial societies became a threat to nation-states that needed to be eliminated.

The problem is that most people in the world don’t fit into these neat little languages boxes. Most people speak multiple languages and language varieties. When these languages and language varieties interact they naturally change one another. This has occured since the beginning of human languages. But with nation-states, this change is now seen a problem that threatens the unity of the nation. This means that the language practices of the vast majority of the worlds population is seen as a problem that must be fixed.

We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that liberals challenge this idea. Let’s take bilingual education as an example. Bilingual education supporters argue that bilingual students need to master academic language in their L1 and English. This is really no different than saying that all members of a nation should speak the same standardized language. The only different is that it is advocating knowledge of two standardized languages. Once again, any contact between the two languages that would lead to language change is made into a problem that must be fixed.

We need  to think about language outside of the current master’s house. Instead of teaching students that standardized national languages are the best we should encourage them to use their languages in new and innovative ways. We should teach them that there are multiple language forms that one can when speaking and writing about a topic. None of these forms is better than the other. Each of them opens some possibilities and closes others. Making students aware of this will help them to develop tools that they can then use to destroy the master’s house and make their voices heard.

So the basic point of my article is that requiring people to use standardized national languages provides the foundation of the current master’s house. The problem is that I did it using a standardized national language and specialized academic jargon. Let’s add to this the fact that using this specialized academic jargon helped me get my current job. Am I a hyprocite who doesn’t practice what he preaches?

Perhaps. But I actually think it is more complicated than that. It’s true that the article is written in standardized academic jargon. But as I re-read what I have written I can also clearly see my life and the ways that my language practices have been marginalized by the master’s house. I also see the lives of my family, friends, students, and colleagues who have suffered similarly. Perhaps what I have written has an illusion of following the master’s rules while secretly plotting to tear down the house.

So can using the codes of power dismantle the master’s house? No. Not if we accept these codes at face-value. But if we find ways to cheat–ways of appearing to use the codes while secretly working to undermine them then–maybe we can start slowly chipping away the master’s house brick by brick.

  1. I think about these issues a lot. One of the reasons I love the Alim/Smitherman book is that they code-switch right up in dat piece. l tried to do the same in an article I wrote on race and language policies… I snuck in a few lyrical-narrative sentences that broke academic prose. But just a few. And I had Nancy Hornberger as an editor, so of course, simpatico. I love that you are writing this blog. We are meant to be public intellectuals, and to pretend otherwise is pure self-centeredness. But… I’m self-centered right now unfortunately. I blogged a lot in grad school, and am turning to mastering the academic article/ book right now. I wanted to publish my book as popular press, but got (easily) talked out of it by colleagues. My hope is to return to public writing post tenure, but what if by tenure I am so immersed in the system that I lose my way? That can happen, easy. ❤ you, Nelson. Keep up the great stuff, we are reading!


    • Thanks for your reply Christine! I am glad that you find the blog interesting. I have actually found that writing the blog has helped me with my academic writing by (1) keeping me grounded and reminding me why I do what I do, (2) getting my research out to people who might be interested in it but don’t have time to read more than 800 words a week about it, and (3) giving me new ideas about what I might want to write about in the future.

      I also think a blog doesn’t necessarily have to be more work. You could share things that you would have done anyway like lecture notes or activities that you did in class.

      Hopefully one day you can get back to blogging!


  2. I am on the same page. Recently, I am reading Jame C. Scott’s “hidden transcripts” which actually echoes my, yours and everyone’s feelings who are part of hegemony. You article is an example of resistance in the disguise, hidden transcripts.


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