Subaltern Ethico-politics

Ethico-politics and the Subaltern

The subaltern might be summarized as spaces cut off from the lines of social mobility, or as women and men outside the lines of socio-economic class mobility, particularly rural illiterate women and men of the global south. Those active in such spaces are illegible to those who occupy the space produced by complicity with the patriarchal state and the secular liberal European imaginary, so communication from and with the subaltern is troubled by foundational problems of the politics of knowledge and action.

The term as classically defined in the writings of Antonio Gramsci (on southern peasants) has meant a worker outside of systems of industrial production, something like a subproletariat, generally small-scale agrarian workers characterized by weak socio-political consciousness.  The term was adapted from Gramsci by the Subaltern Studies group in India of historians and critics to emphasize rural resistance to British colonial rule in India, associating the term subaltern with armed anticolonial insurgencies. Gayatri Spivak intervened in this approach by recognizing that the subaltern was gendered and not easy to understand or even name. And the term has spread to use in understanding rural and urban areas in Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, Africa, and other regions.

Demographically subalterns might be understood in Spivak’s writings to mean something like peasants and fisherfolk of the global south (Responsibility 88, 93). Readings or locations to start to understand the historical conditions of the subaltern might include Samir Amin’s Unequal Development or, for works more centered on women’s labor, Noeleen Heyzer’s Daughters in IndustryDignity and Daily Bread by Swasti Mitter and Shiela Rowbotham, or Allen and Wolkowitz’s Homeworking. (Subaltern Talk 294)

Examples of the subaltern include the illiterate rural women of the global south that Spivak emphasizes in her work, including children in two aboriginal pockets of western West Bengal, India, and in southern Yunnan, China, where she has constructed schools to work with subalterns. Other examples from fiction of subalterns include several figures found in the stories of Mahasweta Devi, such as the pterodactyl in her story of that name and a number of women characters (e.g., Jashoda, in the story “Stanyadini” translated by Spivak as “Breast-Giver”). Insurgents who might be considered subaltern include Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, about whom Spivak wrote her initial article on the subaltern, and several figures prominent in the fictional works of Mahasweta Devi (Draupadi; “The Hunt”). Spivak has also written about Assia Djebar, who includes Lla Zohra and other figures among the Algerian mujahidat or women freedom-fighters that she mentions in her autobiographical work, Fantasia.

Spivak notes that gender is important in considering the subaltern (“Subaltern Studies” 226-32), so she has at times emphasized rural, illiterate women of the global south, as in the Sahel, West Bengal, Bangladesh, southern Yunnan China, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Yet subalterns are also found in urban settings, as in the low-income housing tracts of Wahrān, Algeria, where Spivak worked in the early 1990s, or urban homeless and school dropout populations. Urban subalterns might be compared usefully to what Fanon and some Marxists call the lumpenproletariat, a population of often illiterate unemployed and underemployed urban underclass. Spivak has also worked with examples of middle class women in developing her notion of the subaltern, as in her references to the suicide of Bhubaneswari Bhaduri in her foundational article on whether the Subaltern can speak and in her deployment of the fiction of Mahasweta Devi, a journalist and teacher.

However Spivak and others warn against considering the subaltern in demographic terms, however, given the association of demography with the pervasive surveillance and the biopower of the state.  She suggests instead thinking of the subaltern as a space obstructed from class mobility or from structures and institutions that would allow the grievances and other speech of the subaltern to be recognizable and gain traction. (“In Response” 228, 233-34) This space is cut off from what is sometimes called the public sphere (“Resistance” 72-3) or what Spivak variously calls the “the space produced by patriarchal complicity, namely the state” or the space of those trained in “the liberal European secular imaginary” (Not Virgin 175), making the speech and writing of the subaltern illegible to those who occupy these other spaces.  In other words, the silence of the subaltern is not literal silence, but more of a blockage or aporia caused by the assumptions of Eurocentric, liberal Enlightenment humanism. ("Can the Subaltern Speak” 306).

Once the blockage between subaltern spaces and the space of the modern liberal state becomes legible, Spivak urges a politics of decolonization of the mind and behavior through negotiation with the often unrecognized founding violences of modern language and agency (“The Politics of Translation” 181-3; “Ethics and Politics” n. 3, p. 18). Such an approach to the subaltern makes possible a refusal of the appropriations through modern logic and reason of disruptions in “normal” modern language, history, and liberal presumptions to agency that otherwise would be carried out on the assumption of the knowability, solidarity, and similitude with the subaltern Other. (“French Feminism Revisited” 170, 183; “Ethics and Politics” 22) Rather than minimalizing these disruptions, considering the subaltern may refuse to be articulated and appropriated under the “normal” of modern history, reason, and language.

This refusal allows for knowledge and action that gesture towards that which is outside the historical limits language imposes on reason and for contesting neocolonial knowledge practices and the modern liberal family and nation-state. (“Ethics and Politics” 17-21, 23-26) Concrete examples of that which is outside the historical limits modern language imposes on reason are scattered through Spivak’s writings, but might include the ways that an activist’s speech to the World Bank is staged (“Responsibility” 91-2), the erasure of possible women’s solidarity through the translation of descriptions of gendered violence (Death 61-4), or how English translations of Marx obliterate the specific task of collective, class consciousness (“Subaltern Studies” 214-6).

Spivak’s early article on the difficulties of hearing the subaltern speak concluded with a brief discussion of the suicide of a young woman who had not been able to be heard even when she made the effort to the death to speak. (Subaltern Talk 292) This notion of speaking is based on the linguistic theory of J.L. Austin, who argued that for the speech act to be complete requires someone who can hear the speech effectively, together with a careful reading of Marx on how workers can establish ways to make class resistance gain traction and a foothold in society. (“In Response” 233) In the case of Bhaduri’s suicide, the difficulties in hearing the speech of the subaltern were not because of any lack of effort of subalterns to represent the self or their collective resistance. The difficulty that those educated in modern societies have in hearing and understanding the subaltern is due to a combination of the lack of appropriate infrastructure as well as a failure of responsibility in those addressed by the subaltern (“Responsibility” 93).  Subalterns work to represent themselves outside of the lines of representation laid down by official institutions of representation, so their speech does not have a structure or institution where it can count, so it ultimately does not catch or hold. (“Subaltern Talk” 306 ; “In Response” 233) 

One goal of work to hear and understand the subaltern is to find ethical ways to enter into relations of responsibility for those of us who are not subalterns (Death 69; 101-2), to build structures that facilitate accountability to those who generally go unrecognized and unheard. This may take the form of a kind of haunting by the subaltern, understood as a persistent effort to recognize the limits of generalizations and identifications as they persistently erase their inevitable exclusions, their subalterns (Death 52-3). This notion of the subaltern challenges activists and critics to rethink the limits of recognizability for activism and revolutionary struggle. More precisely, this challenge invites us to work to build institutions and organizations that would be able to respond to the subaltern when they carry out resistance that erases the axioms and assumptions that undergird modern and/or colonizing notions of justice, democracy, gender, or class. (“In Response” 228; “Resistance”) 

Other goals for subaltern work are seen where Spivak has worked in sites where the impossibility of social mobility is accepted as normality, what might be referred to as the underside of poverty in West Bengal, India, southern Yunnan, China, and elsewhere. (“In Response” 229)  Her work consistently intervenes in this normality to carry out what she terms “the uncoercive rearrangement of desires, the nurturing of the intuition of the public sphere.” This work is to be contrasted with the modernist projects of bettering the world through poverty or disease eradication, exporting democracy forcefully, or exporting information and communications technology. (“In Response” 230) The ultimate goal of this work is “in the possibility of creating an infrastructure here as well as there which would make the subaltern not accept subalternity as normality.” (“In Response 235) Such an infrastructure is grounded in the refusal of the situational imperatives and codings of their historical conditions, as Bhaduri did, to animate alternative subjects to challenge the broader scenario of Realpolitik. (Foucault and Najibullah 149)

By refusing class apartheid and supplementing internal class relations and hegemonic institutions, this work can reject the emergence into class mobility in terms only of reproducing what Paulo Freiere called “sub-oppressors” (Foucault and Najibullah 149). Instead, subaltern work may learn how to instead practice justice that responds to the subaltern and animates alternatives as part of the wars of maneuver signaled by Gramsci. (“In Response” 232) In this conception, emerging out of the subaltern spaces blocked from access to mobility by hegemonic institutions does not mean emerging into the working class or the middle class under capitalist exploitation, as seen in sweatshops or urban prostitution. Rather this emergence is the constructive crisis of the subaltern, where former subalterns instead come into full citizenship in democratic nations that have heretofore denied them institutional rights and secular freedoms. (“More on Power/Knoweldge 45)

In this line of thinking the possibility of the subaltern operates more as a reminder or a warning when we may think we have solved a socio-political or intellectual problem, rather than as a placeholder for a particular class or group.  This warning unravels the possibility of any universalizable generalization, operating as a sort of space of difference which challenges us to enter into a relation or structure of ethics and responsibility. (“Subaltern Talk” 293) Such an ethical structure allows responses to flow both ways in the relationship, where learning may take place without presumptions about doing good from a space of cultural or material supremacy.  (“Subaltern Talk” 293)

In concrete political and ethical terms this means that activists, public critics, and researchers may pursue many different projects.  Among the many examples of such projects that Spivak has highlighted include the “persistent short-term initiatives of local self-management…against the financialization of the globe” that brings subalternity to [constructive] crisis. (“1996: Foucault and Najibullah” 156 & n. 65). Other such projects might include “developing subsistence and small- and large-market farming… for the constitution of the subject for…democratic freedom.” (“1996: Foucault and Najibullah” 157) They may also include reading and teaching in the ways Spivak has elaborated in her writing on comparative literature (Death) and pedagogy. (“Outside in the Teaching Machine”; “How to Teach”; “Explanation”)

The fruitful and constructive aspect of Spivak’s notion of the subaltern is that it directs us to give attention to the distant but necessary horizon of the end of exploitation (“Subaltern Studies” 214-5).  This moment might be variously conceived as the time when all subalterns have been brought into the circuit of parliamentary democracy (“Subaltern Talk” 307), the moment when subaltern space is undone and is no longer be inhabited demographically. This moment might also be understood as a time when customary practices have become vehicles for change (rather than markers of backwardness under capitalism), and the boundaries of class, gender, and other difference are no longer meaningful materially or intellectually. (“Subaltern Talk” 308, 295-96) Or it might be a time in the future beyond the reversals of capital logic advocated by left labor organizing or of the colonized-decolonized divide where decolonization is recognized as a misleading term. (“More on Power/Knowledge” 164) Working towards these ends make not only ethics and responsibility possible, but also a justice outside the pale of modern legal notions of the law and justice. It is this move beyond the limits of modern language and notions of the “real,” outside the travesties of modern institutions such as the state and juridical apparatuses, and dislodging Enlightenment assumptions and practices that considerations of the subaltern invites.

General Readings:

Chaturvedi, Vinayak, Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial, Verso, 2000.
Cherniavsky, Eve, “Subaltern Studies in a United States Frame,” boundary 2, 23.2 (1996): 85-110.
Cooper, Frederick, “Conflict and Connection: Rethinking African History,” American Historical Review, 99.5 (1994): 1516-45.
Guha, Ranajit, A Subaltern Studies Reader: 1986-1995, Univ. Minnesota Press, 1997.
Guha, Ranajit and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ed., Selected Subaltern Studies, Oxford Univ. Pr., 1988.
Kapoor, Ilan, “Hyper-self-reflexive Development? Spivak on Representing the Third World ‘Other’,” Third World Quarterly, 25.4 (2004): 627-47.
Latin American Subaltern Studies Group, “Founding Statement,” boundary 2, 20.3 (1993): 110-21.
Pandey, Gyanendra, ed., Subaltern Citizens and their Histories: Investigations from India and the U.S., Routledge, 2010. JQ220 M5 S83 2010
Poitevin, Guy, The Voice and the Will: Subaltern Agency, 2002.
Rodriguez, Ileana, ed., The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader, Duke Univ. Pr., 2001.
Verdisio, Gustavo, “Latin American Subaltern Studies Revisited,” Dispositio/n, 25 (2005): 5-42.
Winant, Howard, “Gayatri Spivak on the Politics of the Subaltern,” Socialist Review 20.3 (1990): 81-97.

Gayatri Spivak on the Subaltern:

A.      Spivak Articles for general audiences:
“In Response,” Can the Subaltern Speak: Reflections on the History of an Idea, New York: Columbia Univ. Pr., 2010, 227-36.
"Looking Back, Looking Forward," in R. Morris, ed. Can the Subaltern Speak: Reflections on the History of an Idea (2010)
“Not Really a Properly Intellectual Response,”  in Conversations with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 87-135.
“Not Virgin Enough to Say that (S)he Occupies the Place of the Other,” Outside in the Teaching Machine, 173-78.
“Resistance that Cannot be Recognized as Such,” in Conversations with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 57-86.
“Subaltern Talk” interview 1996 (in The Spivak Reader), 287-308.
B.      Spivak Technical articles:
“Can Subaltern Speak?” (first given as 1983 talk without reference to Bhaduri; pub. in Wedge; then revised version pub. In Carey & Nelson, ed., Marxsm and the Interpretation of Culture—Carey & Nelson vol. version became standard; revised again in Critique of Postcolonial Reason) (repr. in Can the Subaltern Speak: The History of an Idea)
“Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching,” diacritics, 32.2-4 (fall-winter 2002): 17-31.
“Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography” (in The Spivak Reader).
Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 1999: Revised “Can Subaltern Speak” found in “History” chapter, esp. 269-311 (repr. in Can the Subaltern Speak: The History of an Idea)
"Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular," _Postcolonial Studies_ (2005 (1987))
“Response to Schmitt and Poststructuralism,” Cardozo Law Review, 2001.
Death of a Discipline, Columbia Univ. Pr., 2003.
“The Politics of Translation”, Outside in theTeaching Machine, 179-200 (orig. 1992).
“Righting Wrongs” (repr. In Other Asias, 2008), esp. 43-57.
“Responsibility – 1992: Testing Theory in the Plains” (repr. In Other Asias, 2008), esp. 88-96.
"Discussion: An Afterword on the New Subaltern," in Partha Chatterjee and Pradeep Jeganathan, eds., Community, Gender, and Violence: Subaltern Studies XI (2000)

Other authors useful for understanding Spivak on the subaltern:

Devi, Mahasweta, Chotti Munda and His Arrow, Trans. and Intro., Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, Blackwell, 2003 (1980).
---.“Draupadi by Mahasveta Devi,” Trans. and Foreword, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Critical Inquiry, 8.2 (1981): 381-402.
 ---.“The Hunt,” and “Pterodactyl,”  in Imaginary Maps; s.a. Spivak preface and interviews.
---. “Stanyadini.”  (trans. Spivak, “A Literary Representation of the Subaltern: A Woman’s Text from the Third World,” in Spivak, In Other Worlds, p. 241-6)
Djebar, Assia, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, Heinemann, 1993 (1985).
---. Far from Medina, Quartet, 1994.
Rosalind Morris, ed., Can the Subaltern Speak: The History of an Idea (essay collection).
Stephen Morton, “Subaltern Studies,” Gayatri Spivak, 95-123.
Mark Sanders, “Translating Devi,” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Live Theory, 38-48.

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