Can the subaltern speak?
PDF EBook by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Some of the most radical criticism coming out of the West today is the result of an interested desire to conserve the subject of the West, or the West as Subject. Can the subaltern speak? PDF EBook
Spivak is (in)famous, notorious for her dense prose, and rightly so. This little essay took me an entire day, though I’d read it some years back. Not only does she draw upon innumerable relevant theorists to eventually tease out her own amazing, brilliant, inter- PDFdisciplinary argument, she uses technical research terminology that requires me to keep Google handy. To write a review that gives a simple gist of one essay by her that also explains her multiple positionings in the theoretical world – those of a Marxist postmodern postcolonial feminist – is a mammoth task. Her prose is heavily condensed, a dynamite that blows up into fast-moving, searing fragments/arguments flying into all conceivable theoretical positions you could challenge her from.
She espouses feminism, but not Euro-centric. Yet she draws from Euro-feminism instead of attacking it. She talks about Third-World feminism, particularly Asian, but also moves beyond the stereotypical racial feminist discourses of the Afro-American position to talk about Afro-French positioning and the dissolution of ‘color’ from the tag ‘women of color’ in the case of African women in Africa, where color is no longer an issue. She brings in Freud, she brings in Marx and Eagleton. She tackles Cultural Studies theorists while acknowledging both their usefulness and their drawbacks. She makes inferences from postmodernist and post-structural theories, to come upon a unique perspective of her own, a practical one derived of various standpoint perspectives. All in a single essay.
She is more famously known as the person who first translated Jacques Derrida's De La Grammatologie into English, which included a translator's introduction that has since been described as "setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces". Her dissertation was on W.B. Yeats, directed by Paul De Man, titled Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W. B. Yeats. In March 2007 Spivak became the University Professor at Columbia University, making her the only woman of color to be bestowed the University's highest honor in its 264-year history. Interestingly, even Eagleton and Judith Butler, whose own texts are sufficiently difficult to read, rank her among the most difficult theorists ever to read.
Note: Her argument about the practice of Sati/Suttee is dealt with in greater detailer in the spoiler tag for those interested. It is not really a spoiler.
By using the text The Intellectuals and Power: A Discussion Between Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, as an example, Spivak examines how seemingly benign Western Discourses unwittingly suffer from the same standpoints they apparently criticize. Drawing upon the discussion between Foucault and Deleuze where they theorize about the working class and Maoism, Spivak points out that their conception of Chinese Maoism is an act of Orientalizing, to quote Edward Said – it is a West-specific idea of what Chinese Maoism must be like, which ends up to be completely different from what Chinese Maoism was.
Going against Enlightenment’s assumptions that people behaved in a ‘rational’ way and possessed complete power over the ways their minds thought, Foucault and Gramsci held that consciousness is constructed discursively, which, in Althusserian terms, means that we are ”always, already interpellated”. Shifting discourses of power influence a person’s inclinations and beliefs. The subject no longer has sovereignty over the construction of the self. Foucault and Deleuze also ended up misconstruing the subject as a sovereign in their book.
In other words, these sites for resistance from within the Western discourse themselves unwittingly became agents of oppression – by conceiving the West as the Subject and producing neocolonialist assumptions that answered the queries of the Western Subject by depicting the Third World as the Other, and not responding to the Other as a Subject. (Refer to Edward Said's Orientalism)
Her charge against Western post-colonialism is that through the heterogenization of diverse cultures into a singular, essentialist nomenclature of ‘oppressed women’ or ‘Dalits’ or ‘Africans’ or ‘labor/working class’, “postcolonial studies ironically reinscribe, co-opt, and rehearse neo-colonial imperatives of political domination, economic exploitation, and cultural erasure”.
She also cites Said’s critique of Foucault as putting forth such a mystifying discourse of power that allows him “to obliterate the role of classes, the role of economics, the role of insurgency and rebellion”, which, I think is quite apt – and furthermore, I personally feel that Althusser too only slightly escapes this trap by being a Marxist theorist, lending him access to economics and class with reference to the role of knowledge and power as Foucault in his Euro-centric discourse alludes to. (Of course, he cannot talk about other subalterns, though his ideas have been the basis for others to build upon their own distinct fields.)
Spivak, as far as I know, has been the only postmodernist deconstructionist theorist of consequence so far who has articulated the most crucial pitfall of her methods – she acknowledges on her own that ‘deconstruction’, one of her tools through which she examines ‘how truths are constructed’ not only opens up potential gaps in other ‘essentialist’ discourses, but is an essentialist discourse in itself. She herself, then it follows, accepts that she is in fact complicit in the production of social formations that she ostensibly opposes.
Furthermore, even while critiquing essentialist positions, she acknowledges the necessity of ‘essentializing’ one’s position as a strategy, to combat the ‘epistemic violence’ that the former discourse inflicts on the latter. She contends it is important to strategically make essentialist claims while simultaneously being aware of its crude generalizations, coining the term Strategic essentialism.
The Leftist tendency to homogenize and romanticize subalterns (her attack is directed at Ranajit Guha, founder member of Subaltern Studies Group, who appropriated the Gramscian term to highlight the silence of the subalterns in discourse), especially Indian subalterns, who, by their diversity are more complex subjects than Europeans on a number of counts, Spivak says, has created two major issues:
(a): A logocentric assumption of cultural solidarity among a heterogenous people
(b): A dependence on western intellectuals to “speak for” the subaltern condition rather than allowing subalterns to speak for themselves
While at one point it was novel, radical and of utmost urgency to ‘make visible the unseen’ as Foucault says, now, contends Spivak, it is time ‘to render vocal the individual, both avoiding any kind of analysis [of the subject] whether psychological, psychoanalytical or linguistic’, and which is, in her own words, “that is consistently troublesome”.
Spivak, in the next section, then turns to Freud who recognized colonialization as a cultural/political discourse whereby the very identity of Whiteness is established by self-proclaimed benevolence on their part, their colonial policies garbed in missionary work.
Then, to counter Freud’s use of women as a scapegoat as an ideological formation that informs the monolithic image of ‘Third-World Woman’, Spivak argues, the process of ‘unlearning’ has to be initiated, by “measuring silences into the object of investigation”.
Siting the removal of ‘sati’ or ‘suttee’, as the British transcribe it (the immolation of women till the 19th century on her husband’s funeral pyre when he died) as not a British practice of protecting women against patriarchy and misogyny, Spivak argues that it was an act of political/colonial consolidation by etching in women’s and official history’s memories a genial picture of the British as “white men who are saving brown women from brown men.”
While this statement seems almost blasphemous to many women among us who cannot imagine being burnt when our husbands died, Spivak’s concern is not with defending ‘brown men’ and scapegoating ‘white men’, but with the exposing of how complex reality is, how fluid it renders discourse owing to diverse ideologies that are deeply incompatible yet generalized by discourse, and how essentialist it would be even on the part of postcolonialism to indulge into simplistic notions of ‘savior’ and ‘scapegoat’.
(view spoiler)[It is complex because it has been unanimously established that women wanted to be saved, Indian men were bent upon forcing them to immolate themselves, rendering women subaltern and silent by force, and that the British intervened to put an end to it out of horror, humanity and pity. This is the accepted opinion – but the nuanced truth is less pleasant. There were some brown men who were nauseated by it, even if in a minority. By what can be interpreted as an act of Althusserian interpellation by which the victims accept a self-defeating ideology and accept the unjust standards of their perpetrators’ ideology, a huge number of women themselves supported the practice and revolted against the British when Sati was banned. And there were both kinds of British – those who genuinely wished to liberate women from their forced deaths, and those who wielded it as an opportunity to consolidate British rule in India by marking a departure from their former policy of non-interference in internal details of Indians with respect to religion and culture.
Also, that class of Indians, whom Thomas Babington Macaulay in his (in)famous Speeches: With His Minute On Indian Education, called “Indians in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”, were compelled to adopt the British attitude towards other Indians and were yet eager to turn back to their Indian selves – as Spivak says,
Groups rendered psychologically marginal by their exposure to Western impact… had come under pressure to demonstrate, to others as well as to themselves, their ritual purity and allegiance to traditional high culture. To many of them sati became an important proof of their conformity to older norms at a time when these norms had become shaky within.
While this is just a short mention of the multiple perspectives from which she views Sati as it was viewed in the 1800s by Hindus, i.e., the social POV, the economic POV, the religious/shastra/Vedic POV, the political POV and the patriarchal ideology POV, it follows that the British neither really understood what really plagued women under the guise of immolation, nor did they care.
A gross simplification of it is misrepresentation alright, but when opposed in the literal sense in the light of Spivak’s argument, the fallacy of generalization becomes all the more clear, because then the roles would be inversed, with white men becoming the scapegoat and the brown men becoming the savior – when all the while, women, the original subject-subaltern, have no say in it, and are effectively silenced in the rhetoric. If the former argument was espoused by Colonial theories to model history on their ideology, postcolonialist theory slips as well by not being able to let the real ‘subaltern’ speak for themselves by initiating an alternative take on history on their behalf. (hide spoiler)] Like this book? Read online this: Let The Weak Say I Am Strong (Negative Self Talk Series Book 2), How To Speak Dog.
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