Thursday, November 11, 2010

Can the Subaltern Speak

This is what I have understood of her extremely complex essay. It's also what I have submitted as my assignment.

Can the Subaltern Speak?

- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (b.1942) was born in India and educated at both Indian and American universities. She is well-known for her translation of and preface to Derrida's/ Of Grammatology and her influential essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In the essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" she is primarily concerned with the issue of whether people who have been historically dispossessed or exploited by European colonialism are able to achieve a voice.

The term subaltern conventionally refers to a junior ranking officer in the British army. The Italian Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci, used the term interchangeably to mean subordinate or non-hegemonic groups or classes, specifically the unorganized groups of rural peasants based in Southern Italy. The Subaltern Studies Collective developed the term further to include the subordinates in South Asian society. Their use of the tern 'subaltern' encompassed the continued oppression of rural peasantry, working class and the untouchables in post-independence India. Spivak, however, felt that the Subaltern Studies Group privileged the male as the primary agent of change and she believed that the word should have a more flexible definition so as to include the lives of women and their histories.

Spivak, using nuanced arguments, moves the essay from a critique of current Western efforts to problematize the subject to the question of the representation of the third world subject within the Western discourse. She begins by stating that some of the most radical criticism coming from the West is a result of the West conserving itself as the Subject by talking about, narrativising or othering the East. She refers to critics like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze who emphasize that a. it is counterproductive to reduce the networks of power/desire/interest because they are so heterogeneous and b. intellectuals must attempt to disclose and know the discourse of the Other. Both these critics, Spivak points out, 'ignore the question of ideology and their own implication in intellectual and economic history.' She then proceeds to question their use of two master terms, namely, ‘A Maoist' and ' the worker's struggle'. The use of essentialist terms such as the ones mentioned above assumes a cultural solidarity for a group that is heterogeneous in nature and the use of these terms by intellectuals such as Foucault and Deleuze casts the intellectual in the role of a medium who represents the voice of the oppressed. However, it is only possible to represent another through one's own value system.

Constituting the colonial subject as the other is an example of what Foucault terms ‘epistemic violence’, which is the imposition of a given set of beliefs over another. Foucault locates an epistemic overhaul in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century and Spivak proposes that the epistemic violence carried out in the nations that were colonized by Europe was a consequence of this epistemic overhaul. Spivak explains the notion of epistemic violence with the example of the British reformulation of the Hindu legal system and reveals that such epistemic violence is kept alive by the establishment of one explanation and narrative of reality as the normative one. Spivak goes on to indicate that on ‘the margins of the circuit marked out by epistemic violence are men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals’. According the Foucault and Deleuze, the oppressed if given a chance can speak out or revolt, in other words, Spivak, while pointing out that in the discourse of the First World or Europe the subaltern can ‘speak and know their conditions’ asks ‘can the subaltern on the other side, the third world, speak?’

Gayatri Spivak also considers the works of The Subaltern Studies Collective which studies the colonized subject. While she understands and supports the aims of the group, she expresses concern over the fact that the voice of the subaltern is being heard through them – a group of intellectuals. She likens this to what Foucault and Deleuze do when they speak about oppressed groups like the workers or Maoists. Additionally, she points out that The Subaltern Studies Collective, like Foucault and Deleuze, suppressed the heterogeneity of the subaltern itself when they attempted to describe ‘subaltern consciousness’ by talking about it as one single homogenous entity.

She begins the final part of her essay by asking what the elite must do in order to avoid continuing to construct the subaltern. As mentioned earlier, Spivak broadens the definition of the subaltern to include women and their histories. Spivak uses the example of sati in colonial India and the story of Bhubaneshwari Bhaduri to affirm that the woman is assigned no position of articulation. Everyone else speaks for her. Spivak formulates the sentence ‘White men are saving brown women from brown men’ and states that the sentence discloses her politics. Applying this sentence to the example of the practice and subsequent abolishment of the practice of sati, Spivak shows us that it is either the white man explaining why Sati is a barbaric custom and must be abolished or the brown man insisting that it is a ritual that renders the woman sacred. At no point is the voice of the ‘brown woman’ heard. It is the woman who becomes sati, yet no one comes across the ‘testimony of the women’s voice consciousness’. She is continuously written as the object of either patriarchy or of imperialism.

Spivak also narrates the story of Bhubaneshwari Bhaduri, a young girl who committed suicide in 1926 because she was unable to go through with a political assassination that was assigned to her. Spivak observes that the girl committed suicide at the time of her menstruation to discourage people from assuming that she killed herself because of an illicit pregnancy. She sees the girl’s suicide as an ‘unemphatic, ad hoc subaltern rewriting of the social test of sati-suicide. However, when Spivak herself spoke to the girl’s nieces they seemed to believe it to be a case of “illicit love” thus continuing the process of silencing her voice. She also reveals that another Bengali woman, a philosopher and Sanskritist also responded to her question about Bhubaneshwari’s suicide by asking her why she wished to dwell on the “hapless Bhubaneshwari” when her two sisters led such full and wonderful lives. Thus even intellectuals are complicit in silencing the voice of the subaltern. She concludes her essay by emphatically stating that the subaltern cannot speak as long as the subaltern continues to be represented.

In conclusion we can say that Spivak in her essay does not ask whether the subaltern does speak, what she asks is if it is possible for her to speak, in other words, she asks if the subaltern has the agency to speak.


chandichan2010 said...

I was just struggling to get a gist of her argument pretty much to compare my own reading against someone's. your summary is excellent for my purpose. thanks for the post.

Tashmed said...

Thank you so much!! I find Spivak incredibly difficult to follow and this helped so much to help me understand her.

vignesh kumar said...

Thank u.. so!!! much. day after tomorrow I have exam and I was keep on searching for an explanation for this particular piece. I was not satisfied with any of those I found but urs seem to be good when I had a glance. Thank you once again

vignesh kumar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
littlemuch said...

I'm glad you found this useful :)