Can the Subaltern Speak?


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Can the Subaltern Speak?

  1. 1. This essay was originally published in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed.Cary Nelson and Larry GrossbergIn her much cited essay ‘Can the Subaltern speak?’ Spivak, following Marx’s TheEighteenth Brumaire, constructs the subaltern as a space of difference. The subaltern isstructurally excluded and can only enter existing structures by an identification on herpart with those already positioned with the means to represent themselves. In this essaySpivak emphasises two senses of representation; representation as ‘speaking for’ as inpolitics—Vertretung; and the theatrical sense of representation as re-staging or ‘placingthere’ — Darstellung. Representation is also never adequate or complete. Spivak’s mainconcern, then, in relation to the question of, can the subaltern speak?, is with the meaningtransaction between speaker and listener. Even when the subaltern makes an effort indeath to speak she is not able to be heard. It is speaking and hearing that completes thespeech actSpivak is centrally concerned with the unstable and catechrestical nature of languageitself. The idea of catechresis (as a metaphor without an adequate literal referent) isapplied to western notions of nation, nationalism, citizenship and multiculturalism forwhich, she suggests, there is no adequate referent in postcolonial contexts. She distancesherself from these terms while demonstrating the crimes that are attendant upon them.Her concern is less with producing a legitimating counternarrative than with thedeconstructive project of bringing provisional certainties into crisis and examining theshifting limits of knowledge and judgement. Spivak also reflects on the ethics ofrelationship as she attempts to imaginatively inhabit other people’s narratives in such asway as to tell someone else’s story as her story of feminism, to tell another’s storywithout appropriating it.Though often accused of being too theoretical and obscure, Spivak suggests that theoryprovides the necessary reflexivity to fulfil the responsibility of the academic
  2. 2. In her influential essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, Gayatri Spivak identifiespostcolonial Indian women with a racial and economic underclass and showshow the inscription of women in a male-fabricated tradition has dislocated theirrealm of influence from the political by actively denying them access to law andauthority, which remain a male prerogative. Spivak evokes the Hindu woman’ssubaltern position of sexualised otherness in which her inaccessibility to languageleaves her in a silenced, aporetic space of abjection.If the subaltern has a voice, as some feminists would argue, whose languagewould she use, given the fact that she is silenced within and by the patriarchaleconomy? Postcolonial feminist interrogations of language seek to address thefollowing questions: Does the elaboration of a specific womanspeak, a speciallanguage articulated for and by women, provide the necessary space in whichwomen can posit their specificity as sexual, social and political beings? Or iswomanspeak in itself based on a pattern of exclusion that undermines the creation of acommon, plurivocal language, accessible to both men and women?The call for the recognition of a plurality of woman-centred experiences is located withinwomen’s interrogations of their respective cultures and traditions and their criticalreevaluations of age-old cultural and religious mandates that have lost their present-dayapplicability. Postcolonial feminisms seek to determine whether women, as thepurveyors of culture, can lay claim to their own right of ownership of that culture. Forexample, feminists from Africa and the African diaspora have embraced the idea of socialor othermothering, whereby the use of the term mother is not restricted solely to thebiological mother and her functions, but extends itself to include a community activist offeminine orientation who works toward the overall benefit of the group.As a result, motherhood has been converted into a mystical abstraction that hasobfuscated the harsh realities of motherhood in several societies. The communal mother,who occupies a privileged place in West African societies, exemplifies Alice Walker’sdefinition of a womanist who is committed to the integrity, survival and wholeness ofentire peoples due to her sense of self and her love for her culture.
  3. 3. The split between womanism and feminism has resulted from the complicity betweenwhite western feminism and white patriarchy to further marginalise the experiences ofwomen of colour by representing them as the negative instance of the white, middle classfemale model. In her groundbreaking essay ‘Under Western Eyes’ (see Mohanty Russo,Torres (eds) 1991), Chandra Mohanty has shown how these representations have, for themost part, centred on a sensational or exaggerated sense of the daily reality of indigenousand Third World women who have almost always been defined in terms of theirilliteracy, poverty, social and religious victimisation. Mohanty warns against the dangersof such limited representations that tend to freeze women in time, space and history.Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-century Chinese Literature andSocietyby Lu TonglinHowever, beyond the defiance of a dead male intellectual, our deliberate pose as "inferiormen" is also meant as a reminder of the artificial nature of naming and the abuses thatmay follow from such naming. Such abuses are especially problematic when we speak inthe name of a subordinate group, while hiding our own motives and intentions. Spivaksarticle, "Can the Subaltern Speak?," is useful, then, in a different way. Spivakconvincingly shows us how the Indian ritual practice of widow burning, sati, was usedeither by certain Indian nationalists as the representation of male desire for a golden past,or more significantly, by British colonists as the justification for their colonization. Whilethe former was eager to preserve the patriarchal order by proving the insubstantiality of afemale life without a husband, through whom a womans desire is articulated, the lattertried to justify their colonialism by abolishing this "inhuman" ritual "ethically."Caught between them, the subaltern, Spivak concludes, "cannot speak.31 The fate of thevoiceless subaltern is also the fate of tens of millions of Chinese women throughout thecenturiesPerhaps the absolutely negative answer Spivak gives to her own question—"the subalterncannot speak"—should give way to a more flexible question: Can the subaltern be heard?And how? Spivaks own essay provides an answer when she describes the death ofBhuvaneswari Bhaduri, a young woman who committed suicide at the age of sixteen orseventeen in North Calcutta in 1924. The subaltern can indeed be heard—asBhuvaneswari Bhaduri is through Spivaks writing. Subalterns do speak, but they do notnecessarily speak as an American academician. It depends on how and to what extentintellectuals working in the First World are willing and able to understand them in theirlanguage, despite or thanks to their theoretical positions. By narrowing the definition ofthe term "speak" in her essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?," Spivak risks privileging the
  4. 4. language, and thus the position, of First World intellectuals vis-à-vis Third World womendespite her insightful criticism of British colonialismSpivak herself writes earlier about French feminism: The point that I am trying to make is that, in order to learn enough about the Third World women and to develop a different readership, the immense heterogeneity of the field must be appreciated, and the First World feminist must learn to stop feeling privileged as a woman
  5. 5. As scholars teaching or studying at North American universities, we indeed enjoy someinstitutionalized privileges, such as a relatively greater freedom of speech and an easieraccess to certain kinds of information. But does this mean that we have nothing tolearn from those who are less privileged in this respect, and who are the objects of ourstudies in one way or the other? In other words, are our institutionalized privilegessufficient to justify an overall privileged feeling with regard to Third World women?Why does the subaltern not have any other choice other than an objectified voice andtotal silence? How can we appreciate "the immense heterogeneity" of Third Worldwomen without a thorough understanding of their languages? Instead of hastening toteach them how to behave as "true women" or "true feminists" with a package ofknowledge acquired in North American institutions, why can we not start to learn how tounderstand their positions in relation to social and historical changes? As Chow pointsout, we cannot avoid a certain degree of objectification when we speak for/of others. Thequestion is how to minimize this degree.Since China has undergone numerous upheavals and revolutions during the twentiethcentury, women, as the oppressed group of society, have been encouraged to participatein social changes, which are supposed to bring about their own emancipation. To adifferent degree, each of us, as a feminist studying Chinese literature and culture in theWest, is facing the same problems as Chinese women during the revolution. Our voices,as representatives of Third World women, are easily commodified in the Americanacademy, where Third World cultures have recently taken on a high exchange valueThe question remains as to whether we should accommodate ourselves to ourcommodification, or whether we should use it to resist commodification itself. The firstoption implies repeating whatever is fashionable in the American Academy regardless ofthe specificity of the gender situation in China. The second option requires a much morepainstaking effort to make the voiceless subalterns, women in China, heard amongWestern intellectuals. This task raises the question: As feminist scholars working in theFirst World, are we able and willing to hear the voice(s) of women in China? Themajority of our audience for the time being consists mainly of Western intellectuals,whose language is in fact different from that of the objects of our studies. In view of thissituation, the first option, were we to choose it, would be far more convenient than thesecond, because all we need do is shape the object of our studies in the image andlanguage of our audience according to the law of a market economy. But the price to paywould be heavy: we would contribute to our own silence by silencing the objects of ourstudies as in the case of the three May Fourth male
  6. 6. Central to such issues is the question: "Can the subaltern speak?," as we find it in GayatriSpivaks essay of the same title.7 In this regard, the history of modern Chinese literaturecan be seen as a paradigm for contemporary cultural studies, simply because the mostwritten figure in this history is none other than the subaltern, whose speech has beencoming to us through fiction, poetry, political debates, historical writings, journalisticrepresentations, as well as radio plays, films, operas, and regional cultural practices.speaking of the subaltern, Gayatri Spivak says: The subaltern is all that is not elite, but the trouble with those kinds of names is that, if you have any kind of political interest you name it in the hopc that the name will disappear. Thats what class consciousness is in the interest of: the class disappearing. What politically we want to see is that the name would not be possible.9Precisely because the truly minor is the voiceless, it can be seized upon and spoken for.As Spivak says, "If the subaltern can speak . . . the subaltern is not a subaltern any moreEthics after IdealismBy Rey ChowBecause for Spivak "speech" and self-representation signify, by definition, access to thesymbolic and to political power, her conclusion is a pessimistic one: the subaltern cannotspeak. If the subaltern can speak, Spivak adds later in an interview, then she is not asubaltern anymore.Between Spivaks radically unsentimental pronouncement, which devolves from thedeconstruction of language as Law (whose function is to prohibit rather than to enable),and the more humanistic idealism of those cultural critics who continue to assert that thesubalterns have spoken, an enormous discursive dimension unfolds. This discursivedimension, which constitutes the third prominent type of analysis in cultural studies, isthat of "minority discourse."
  7. 7. A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian Americaby Shankar, Lavina DhingraIn numerous interviews, as well as in critical essays, Spivak often describes herself as an"outsider" and as a "resident alien," and specifically, as a citizen of postcolonial India, notof the United States ("Postmarked" 76, 78). In In Other Worlds, she acknowledges thateven after living in the United States for nineteen years, she feels like an "outsider" (102);the title of her book Outside "in the" Teaching Machine clearly implies the inside-outsidedichotomy. In her 1993 interview with Sara Danius and Stefan Jonsson, she refers toherself as "a Europeanized postcolonial" (48). Elsewhere, rather eagerly, Spivakacknowledges her designation as an "expatriate English Professor," in the December1990 issue of the leading Indian news magazine India Today (quoted in Spivak,"Burden," 153). The self-identifying label she uses thus is expatriate, not immigrant; anoutsider, not an insider.Subaltern study, introduce the idea of representation to the groupThe word subaltern & idea of popular do not inhabit continuous space at allSublatern:Position without an identity: somewhat like a strict identification of classClass & poverty or race and color or geneder and sexSati…was seen as a resisitance against the British by Spivak.Outside in the Teaching Machine: Literary representation of the female subaltern asholding up the rural economy.Her resistance is not being recognized. To have what they are saying being recognized.Resources,%2Bsati%26start%3D20%26ndsp%3D20%26svnum%3D10%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DN