Can the subaltern speak? : Postkolonialität und subalterne Artikulation by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Here is a summary of the highlights of what I understood from the title essay, the only one I have read (taking 6 days). I have written this for aide memoire purposes and because I think through writing. In sharing it, obviously, I mean to entice you to read the essay, not to offer my inept interpretations as a substitute for it, but I have tried to make my ‘review’ as accessible as possible.
Spivak examines a conversation between Foucault and Deleuze (MF&GD), in which she says they ‘ignore the international division of labour, render ‘Asia’ transparent and reestablish the legal subject of socialised capital’ and treat ‘the workers struggle’ as a monolithic subject, linked to desire (to destroy power or which destroys power). They fail to explain relations between desire, power and subjectivity, and they are totally down on ideological critique, so they cannot articulate a theory of interests (as in holding a stake).
Spivak quotes Althusser on the ideological reproduction of social relations (submission to the ruling class, and the ability to manipulate ruling ideology are made for/in each generation) and notes that while Foucault had a go at shaking this up, he didn’t admit that a theory of ideology admits its own institutional production (as postcolonial academics, for example, do). In MF & GD’s talk desire, which always follows from interest, is opposed to ideology (seen as ‘being deceived’ or ‘false consciousness’) and desire implies an undivided subject, which becomes… Europe!
Intellectuals’ valorizations of oppressed subjects and their location of them ‘reality is what actually happens in a factory, in a school, in barracks, in a prison, in a police station’ serves to reinforce rather than undermine their own epistermic authority: they judge and mark ‘reality’ and the people who can reveal it. Spivak notes that ‘positivist empiricism [is the] foundation of capitalistic neocolonialism and so this use by the intellectual of ‘concrete experience’ can help to consolidate the international division of labour (the current mess). Intellectuals give us lists of subalterns who can speak, making themselves, representing those folks, transparent.
Spivak highlights the two distinct meanings of the word represent, working through a passage of Marx on class interest, to show that keeping them separate undermines the idea of an undivided subject, whether individual or collective, for whom interest and desire are one as Deleuze suggested. For Marx, class agency is not natural, not rooted in desire (its source is not the erotic in Audre Lorde’s sense), because the conditions it responds to (the economic conditions that form a class) are artificial (though they reflect interests – of the ruling class/ideology).
Here is an observation that I really like
‘the relationship between global capitalism (economic exploitation) and nation-state alliances (geopolitical domination) is so macrological that it cannot account for the micrological texture of power’
To do that, we need theories that examine the subjects micrologically working the interests that work the macrologic relation (reveal the details of how people/groups on the level of daily interactions structure the global situation). Such theories grasp both kinds of representation: they note how the world is staged in representation to make ‘heroes, paternal proxies, agents of power’ appear necessary
So, rather than do as Foucalt and Deleuze here and ‘reintroduce the individual subject through totalising concepts of power and desire’ by loudly refusing to speak for the subaltern, the intellectual should show that the subject can’t be undivided, and that their refusal to occupy the subject position is disingenuous because impossible (representation and re-presentation are not the same). Intellectuals should formulate theories of ideology that make their role in ideological reproduction visible. Spivak adds the irresponsible sleight of hand that reinstates the subject to Edward Said’s critique of Foucault – by mystifying power Foucault can ignore class, economics, the role of rebellion (just like (neo)colonial ideology). Said and Spivak emphasise the intellectual’s accountability.
Spivak reminds us that Foucault described the redefinition of sanity at the end of the European C18th and marked it as epistemic violence (Madness and Civilization right?) but she suggests that this is part of the same history of Europe that includes the epistemic violence in contructing the colonial subject as Other, noting the British codification of Hindu law and colonial education in India.
So, from the ‘First World’ and ‘under the standardization and regimentation of socialized capital’ (the academy/institutionality/’Western’ intellectual status I think), Foucault and Deleuze declare that the oppressed, the illiterate peasant, tribal etc etc, given the chance (issues of representation & re-presentation) and on the way to solidarity, can know and speak their conditions. Spivak replies, on the other side of the international division of labour from the European intellectual (socialised capital) and from ‘inside and outside of the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak?‘
This is a question that a particular group of intellectuals – the ‘Subaltern Studies’ group, who acknowledge Foucault’s influence – must ask. Spivak looks at Ranajit Guha, attempting to rewrite the history of the development of Indian national consciousness (because it had previously been written under (or by?) the colonised episteme, and is all about the leadership and importance and heroism of British elites and neocolonial all-India elites (I paraphrase flamboyantly)) and what looks like his strategic essentialism on behalf of ‘the people’ (subaltern) to locate them and their consciousness, and compares this to Marx (she finds ‘moments of productive bafflement’ in Marx about subjectivity and consciousness). At least the struggle to make the impossible possible remains in sight and the subject remains divided and heterogenous? I am at sea for a bit…
Woah then she says that the international division of labour depends on the urban proletariat of the comprador countries (Third World ruled by members of the international elite who have no responsibility to the population) not being trained in the ideology of consumerism, because that ideology leads to… political resistance. People who work in Third World sweatshops must not be able to buy the goods they make, or they would form coalitions and demand their rights.
To recap – one one side of the international division of labour is the intellectual, and then Guha’s buffer zone, the indigenous bourgeoisie and/or other dominant social groups (who may believe in coalition, who may be consumers, who may speak?) and on the other ‘those most separated from any possibility of an alliance among “women, prisoners, conscripted soldiers, hospital patients and homosexuals” [this is Foucault’s list]… the females of the urban subproletariat’ who ‘cannot know and speak the text of female exploitation even if the absurdity of the nonrepresenting intellectual making space for her to speak is achieved’. Spivak then points out that there are people on or beyond the margins of the international division of labour (eg subsistence farmers) who are part of the ‘heterogenous Other’ that, in confronting, we would have to learn to see ourselves…
Foucault then, ignores the production of the West by the imperialist project. He reinstated the unacknowledged Subject of the West, presiding by disavowal, by pretending to vanish, and his admirers are fooled by the trick. It is absurd, and dangerous, for the First World intellectual to ‘masquerad[e] as the absent nonrepresenter who lets the oppressed speak for themselves’.
In contrast to everyone thinking good old Foucault is so politically right on, everyone hates Derrida, but, have a look at this bit of writing by Derrida on grammatology, which actually helps ‘the task of the First World subject of knowledge in our historical moment to resist and critique the ‘recognition’ of the Third World through ‘assimilation’, by marking and critiquing European ethnocentrism in the constitution of the Other (Spivak says this isn’t an apology for Derrida, helpfully, as I am always tempted to see lit crit as a horse race). Keep doing this: mark the positionality of the investigating subject
A little further on *glosses over more stuff I don’t really understand* Spivak mentions widow sacrifice in India:
The abolition of this rite by the British has been generally understood as a case of ‘White men saving brown women from brown men’. White women – from the nineteenth British Missionary Registers to Mary Daly – have not produced an alternative understanding. Against this is the Indian nativist argument, a parody of the nostalgia for lost origins: ‘The woman actually wanted to die.’ The two sentences go a long way to legitimise each other. One never encounters the women’s voice-consciousness. Such a testimony would not be ideology-transcendent or ‘fully’ subjective of course, but it would have constituted the ingredients for producing a countersentence
Imperialism paints itself as establishing a good society, and this picture includes woman as the object of protection from her own kind.
Spivak asks if, allowing that the abolition of sati is ‘a good thing’, an intervention in the poisonous dialectic of white saviours and nativist nostalgia both speaking for the subaltern woman is possible. There follows a look at Hindu scripture (Spivak marks her positionality as postcolonial woman, non-expert etc etc) and what can be salvaged of the history (overwritten by colonial episteme) of sati. She finds that ‘what the British see as poor victimised women going to the slaughter is in fact an ideological battleground’ (I think of Said here: Orientalist thought erases ideology) since its prevalance in Bengal (it was generally unusual, following the scriptural investigation Spivaks calls it an ‘exceptional signifier of her own desire) is linked to the fact that widows could inherit property (ie pressure from family members) to population control, to communal misogyny. Moreover, while some praise the courage and devotion of the self-immolating window, two incompatible ‘diagnoses’ of female free will are made.
The British had homogenized Hindu law under the imperialist episteme, and using this construct they consulted with learned Brahmans on the legality of suttee (as the British called it), often appearing to condone the practice, but when the law was written this history of collaboration was erased and the writing gives an impression of the noble Hindu triumphing over the bad Hindu and sati, which might be better read as a form of martyrdom, was positioned along with murder, infanticide, the lethal exposure of the very old, erasing ‘the dubious place of the free will of the sexed subject as female’, so, I conclude, we can no longer see and critique the agenda that paints self-immolation as free will, and as the path to release from the misfortune of having a female body in the cycle of rebirth, or the interests (patriarchy!) that lie behind such an agenda. We are left with (Said’s) ritual-obsessed, transfixed, unchangable, homogenous Orientals and White saviours.
This loss of the subaltern subject also happens even more forcefully in the case of widow celibacy (the word used for this is the word for the pre-sexual stage of life, so the implication is that the widow regresses to a pre-sexual state – there is another word for the virtuous post-sexual elective celibacy accessible to men), because it was ignored while sati was energetically debated.
In fact (I love this point), the word sati means good wife, and the word for widow immolation is ‘the burning of the sati‘ so the British made a grammatical error in their naming (like Columbus, she notes, with ‘American Indian’). And this error identifies self-immolation with good-wifeness, narrowing the ideological space to emphasise the heroism of the White man. Spivak looks at Edward Thompson’s list of literally translated names of burned widows – pure Orientalism. She then notes that Sati is a popular given name among Hindus, after the goddess Sati, the wifely manifestation of Durga, whose story is one of sacrifice for her husband. Between the two sentences ‘White men saving brown women from brown men’ and ‘The women really wanted to die’ then, there is no space from which the sexed subaltern can speak.
Spivak gives (with lots of cautions obviously) as example of the possibility of interventionist practice the case of a young woman, Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, who killed herself (in 1926) because she had been entrusted with a task of political assassionation that she could not face, but waited until she was menstruating so that it would be clear that it was not a case of illicit pregnancy. Spivak’s reading makes this a subaltern re-writing of sati because Bhuvaneswari inscribes in her body its non-imprisonment within legitimate passion by a single male. Menstruating widows had to wait for the 4th day ritual cleansing before self-immolation. This unread text recovered by Spivak parallels the nativist rewriting of the social text of sati with the hegemonic Durga story that is ‘well documented and popularly remembered through the discourse of the male leaders of the independence movement [and thus, I venture, speak in the place of Foucault & Deleuze’s ‘people’, the ‘worker’s struggle’]. The subaltern as female cannot be heard or read’
And given that the subaltern cannot speak, ‘the female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish’
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