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Rosalind C. Morris
Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea began as a conference, hosted by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, at Columbia University. The title was a seductive simplification, marking the spot where, it was hoped, several debates and discourses might converge in the consciousness of their debt to an extraordinary essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” penned by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak some twenty years previously. We might have subtitled the conference, or this volume, something as infelicitously expansive as Reflections on the history of some ideas about the s/Subject of history, the international division of labor, the contemporary relevance of Marxism, deconstruction, Asia, Europe, gender, and capitalism’s worlding of the world. Though the fulsome description would perhaps have provided a better index of the scope and ambition of the original essay, it too would have been a mere placeholder for the many difficult questions that unfold out of Spivak’s essay.
The conference was not occasioned by a retirement; it marked no (anticipated) diminution in the pace or output of Spivak’s continued writing. Neither of these possibilities occurred to me when organizing the event. It was, rather, prompted by the felt need to respond to the more intellectually ambiguous demand of an institutional anniversary which simultaneously remarked 250 years of Columbia’s University’s operation and 20 years since women were admitted to Columbia College. It seemed appropriate to turn to Spivak’s essay in this context—not out of any misplaced overidentification with third world women on the part of Western academic feminists, but, rather, in an effort to grasp, once again, the full implications of her insistent and uncompromising introduction of the questions of gender and sexual difference into the critique of radical discourse in the universities of the West and in subaltern studies in India and South Asia.
Our project was, I hope and believe, innocent of nostalgia. Few interventions have retained with such tenacity the radicality or the relevance that Spivak’s essay continues to possess today. It has been cited, invoked, imitated, summarized, analyzed, and critiqued. It has been revered, reviled, misread, and misappropriated—in its original and its abridged forms, in English and in translation. And it has, of course, been revisited by Spivak herself, in the expansive “History” chapter of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present .
One often encounters inadvertent testimonies to the revolutionary quality of the thought contained in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Occasionally, these run to the comic, though the pathos of the diffe rend (the mutual untranslatability of discourse), which appears as a merely lexical matter, also reveals something about the particular difficulty of writing and reading gender into historical analysis. Consider, for example, a recent translation of the title into Russian (within a translation of a more recent essay on terror). In the initial draft the translator rendered in Russian what, when translated back into English, might have read “Can Junior Officers Speak?” The “woman,” as Spivak tells us, inevitably “is doubly in shadow.”
Problems of translation are less analogues than metonyms for the problems of reading that “Can the Subaltern Speak?” simultaneously performs, thematizes, and theorizes. But if we are stretched to the limits of our intellectual capacity in the act of reading Spivak’s writing on reading the silences of history—there are some categorically untenable misreadings that need to be dispatched before anything further can be said. Among them: those that understand the silence of the subaltern as a simple absence in the record—to be supplemented and transcended by the work of information retrieval (Spivak endorses such retrieval, but she understands it to be a matter distinct from the question of theorizing the impossibility of subaltern speech as audible and legible predication); those that discern in the essay a constitutive opposition between practice and theory, variously attributing to Spivak’s own intervention an advocacy for one or the other (she emphatically rejects that binarity); those that claim she has rendered the Indian case representative of the third world (she insists on the choice of India as an accident of personal history and as a nonexemplary instance in which, nonetheless, global processes can be seen to generate their effects); and those, in the most egregious misreadings, that discern in the text a nativist apologia for widow burning on the grounds of its authentic ritual status! (it is a position that she herself terms a “parody of the nostalgia for lost origins” [297/000]).
Perhaps the most quoted and misquoted passage from the text, a sentence conceived as such, as a grammatical form , is that in which Spivak writes, “White men are saving brown women from brown men.” The sentence appears, in the “spirit” of Freud, but, significantly, in answer to two questions. This doubleness of the question follows on the doubly shadowed status of the woman previously mentioned. Spivak writes—and we note the plural: “When confronted with the questions, Can the subaltern speak? And can the subaltern (as woman) speak? we will be doubly open to the dangers run by Freud’s discourse.” What were those dangers? They were the dangers of a “reaction-formation to an initial and continuing desire to give the hysteric a voice” (296/000).
For Spivak, the same ideological formation informs the desire to give a voice to the hysteric as that which would speak for the subaltern. The one produces the narrative of the “daughter’s seduction” to explain a certain silence or muteness of the pathological woman, the other offers the “monolithic ‘third world woman’” as the tautological name of a need to be spoken for. In both cases the “masculine-imperialist” ideology can be said to produce the need for a masculine-imperialist rescue mission. This circuitry obstructs the alternative histories that might have been written—not as the disclosures of a final truth, but as the assemblages of utterances and interpretations that might have emerged from a different location, namely, the place of the subaltern woman. These utterances would not, as she herself remarks, have escaped ideology; they would not have been the truth of the women who uttered them. But they would have made visible the unstable claims on truth that the ideology of masculine imperialism offered in its place. The importance of reading the statement as such and of thereby reflecting upon the act of reading lies in its displacement of the question of what a subaltern woman really said or wanted to say (and hence what could be said on her behalf) and its consequent emphasis on the question of audibility and legibility. It enables an investigation of what conditions obtrude to mute the speech of the subaltern woman, to render her speech and her speech acts illegible to those who occupy the space produced by patriarchal complicity (whether of imperialism or globalization).
Had Spivak conceived of the ideological question only in terms of an earlier Marxism, as one of capitalist imperialism and bourgeois nationalism or international socialism, the question might not have been double. The woman, or more specifically, the subaltern as woman, is a figure in whom the question of ideology—as the production of subjects in whom desire and interest are never entirely symmetrical or mutually reinforcing—splits wide open. This, then, is the incitement to Spivak’s explosive historical excavation of two impossible “suicides”—that which resides in the mutilated accounts of something called sati , in the process of Britain’s abolition of widow sacrifice in India, and that which lurks in the half-remembered tale of a woman, Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, who took her life in 1926, apparently after losing heart in the task of political assassination to which she had promised herself. I say apparently because, in the first version of the essay, Spivak does not finally decide the question of motivations. She reads them, but the text of what happened that day, when a young woman, menstruating, took her own life, remains somewhat oblique for the reader who has not systematically unlearned the suspicions that ideology attaches to almost any young woman’s suicide. Perhaps most readers have wondered “Are there other readings?” But if this intractable doubt refuses to leave us, at the end, it is at least partly because the possibility of another reading has been forcefully opened to us by Spivak’s text. And we remain transfixed by the enigma of Bhubaneswari.
One concedes that the pyromaniac metaphor may be in bad taste, in this context. Nonetheless, the story of Bhubaneswari flares up at the end of the essay, and nearly overwhelms all that has gone before. It is not that the story stands as an example—to be emulated or repudiated. It is, rather, that the difficulty of comprehending what might have occurred in the act of suicide confronts us, forcing us to go back, to “unlearn” with Spivak the normative ideals of piety and excess with which the third world woman has come to be associated in the interlaced ideological formations of both West and East.
By now, the reading is widely familiar. It commences with a rigorous interrogation of those Western writers who, at the time of Spivak’s first writing on subalternity, were endeavoring to produce a radical critique of the (presumptively) Western s/Subject: Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. It is at the point where, in Deleuze’s and Foucault’s otherwise brilliant claims to have decentered the subject of theory (and of history, in its Hegelian conception), Spivak discerns its secret reconsolidation, precisely through Deleuze’s and Foucault’s double incapacity to recognize, on the one hand, the nonuniversality of the Western position and, on the other, the constitutive place of gender in the formation of the subject—as the subject of language not only in the grammatical sense but in the sense of having a voice that can be heard. The argument on subalternity takes place here, Spivak’s text breaking away from its earlier discourse on Western theory (a discourse shaped by the deconstructionist imperative to perform critique from within, reading as unraveling the weave of the dominant text), first through an interrogation of the historical record and then through the insertion of a fragmentary and speculative account of the suicide of Bhubaneswari Bhaduri. A schematic diagram of the argument’s concluding movements might run as follows: An imperial tradition that rendered widow sacrifice as the sign of a cultural failure subsequently outlawed it and misidentified it as sati (while misspelling it as suttee ). This imperial tradition legitimated itself as a rule of law and resignified a ritual—a performatively compulsive discourse—as a crime (and not merely as superstition), while discerning in it the evidence of a retrograde patriarchy. Even contemporary commentators realized, however, that the prevalence of sati was historically recent and theologically illegitimate.
As Spivak’s tentative excavation of the scriptural treatises and philosophical commentaries on sati (good wife) and widow sacrifice in Bengal point out, widow sacrifice, when practiced, tended to be most prevalent in those areas where women could inherit their husband’s property (in the absence of male heirs). Hence the rite that represented for colonial powers the most transparent evidence of an absolute negation of female agency was awkwardly situated at a place where a woman might, by law, have at least had some economic power (though her assets would have been managed for her). It would be easy to conclude, as Marx had done, in his reading of Henry Sumner Maine, that the ideological justification for widow sacrifice rested in an economic jealousy of her rights to the deceased husband’s property. Marx had chastised Maine for an unforgivable naïveté when he had attributed to the Brahmin priests a “purely professional dislike to her enjoyment of property.” He was even more derisive when Maine attempted to argue, in a manner that reproduces precisely the logic of white men saving brown women from brown men (a logic Spivak writes into a sentence that she produces as a homology of Freud’s statement), that only the Church had saved women from the deterioration of their status after the fall of the Roman Empire. The prohibition on divorce, Marx noted, could hardly be construed as a protection of the woman’s freedom. But, in the schematic notations that filled his Ethnological Notebooks , he generally approved of Maine’s conclusion that “the ancient . . . rule of the civil law, which made her tenant for life , could not be got rid of, but it was combated by the modern institution which made it her duty to devote herself to a frightful death.”
Spivak confirms the economic analysis, as have many commentators, but she repudiates the simple ideological reading, which would have made the woman a mere victim of false consciousness. Her reading of the Dharma ? astra teaches her and us that suicide —a term that she shows does not mean self-knowing self-killing so much as it means the enactment of a recognition of nonidentity—is rarely sanctioned and only for men. Scripture provides no basis for its normativization, especially for women, whose proper duty is seen in that context as a static grieving commemoration of the husband. “Widow sacrifice” is therefore, Spivak insists, a mark of excess. Moreover, this excess is the only form in which something like woman’s agency can be apprehended—as a self-negating possibility. The entire ideological formation seems designed to foreclose the possibility of a woman acceding to the position from which she could actually speak—as a subject.
It would seem that one cannot retrieve anything but the image of excess and the impossibility of full subjectivity from the discourse on sati. There is no place for the woman outside her relation to the marriage contract, no agency that is not excess. The story of Bhubaneswari is heartbreakingly fascinating because it expresses, to such an extraordinary degree, an agency (“unemphatic and ad hoc” in Spivak’s idiom) that consists in resisting misreading . By Spivak’s account, the young woman, who decides against committing an act of political violence, kills herself to safeguard the group. At the time, her membership in the struggle for independence was unknown. Bhubaneswari did nothing to reveal this membership, perhaps out of solidarity with her colleagues, but she at least foreclosed the interpretation that would have imagined her death to be an act of shame for an illegitimate pregnancy. Menstruation was proof of that. Her (young) woman’s body offered the signs by which she could resist being reduced to the mere effect of the patriarchal discourse—but only from within the same system. This is why Spivak refers to the suicide in terms of a “trace-structure,” what she describes in such powerful shorthand in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason as “effacement in disclosure” (310). Within that system the “suicide” remains enigmatic, indecipherable, though not completely invisible. So it is with a certain bitterness that Spivak recounts the various interpretations to which Bhubaneswari’s death has been subjected—interpretations that tend to presume a romantic crisis, interpretations that even the most astute feminist reader must have allowed herself to ponder, at least momentarily, if only in shame. Unlearning ideology is never an easy task.
One may wonder, without ceding any admiration for Spivak’s text, whether the absolute termination of Bhubaneswari’s life doesn’t provide too literal a form for the problematic of the general muting that occurs at the place where two mutually untranslatable discourses collide. It is perhaps important to recognize that the story was not offered as a model or even as an example; it was offered as a text—a very moving one—to be read. In reading this text, Spivak showed us how and to what extent historical circumstances and ideological structures conspire to efface the possibility of being heard (something related to but not identical to silence) for those who are variously located as the others of imperial masculinity. And she has admitted, as she must, that the middle-class woman seeking political independence is not in the same position as the unemployed subproletariat of the urban slums, the sweatshop worker, or the child prostitute forced into sexual labor by a depleted environment and diminishing agricultural returns. But this may only prove the point that true subalternity remains in shadow.
Why does this matter now? Much has changed since the initial formulation of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” To name only the most obvious of the epochal transformations to which we have all been subject: the demise of state socialism in the Soviet Union; the globalization of capital; the resurgence of masculinist religious ideologies as reaction formations to the desire for liberation from the false (because not realized) secularity of European capital; and the intensification of global ecological crisis, felt most intensely in the rural peripheries of the global South. Sometime between the planning of the conference from which this volume issued and its publication, the United States commenced a war in Afghanistan and Iraq, ostensibly to pursue the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks in New York City—the scene of the conference. Among the most potent ideological weapons in the war on terror has been the claim that radical Islam, the putative incubator of terror and the ideological center of opposition to the U.S., is relatively oppressive to women. The emancipation of women once again becomes the legitimating discourse for imperial agendas. And Spivak’s sentence returns to condense and expose the many acts and statements by which an ideology is operating. Even in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s ignominious departure from power and the rise of a new liberal agenda in the United States under President Obama in 2009, the war in and against Afghanistan has been construed as a morally necessary war, one of whose critical motivating factors is the defense of Afghan women against local patriarchy.
In a world where the international division of labor is so often organized to permit the effective exploitation of women and girl children in the urban and rural peripheries (in sweatshops, factories, and brothels), the imperial project is, we must admit, mainly interested in liberating women for labor, which is to say, surplus value extraction. Human rights have often provided the alibi for that process. So we can be as cautious now of the promise for women’s salvation being proffered in the name of war and imperial domination as when Britain made the abolition of suttee the mask and means of its own imperialism. This does not mean that we cannot want women, and others, everywhere, to be free of the constraints that inhibit their access to and capacity to speak from a position of subjectivity, representation, economic liberty, and political agency. Nor does it imply a relativist defense of the masculinist ideologies that operate everywhere under the cover of “culture.” And it certainly does not mean that the task of progressive politics can be imagined as “giving a voice” to subalterns.
Subalternity is not that which could, if given a ventriloquist, speak the truth of its oppression or disclose the plenitude of its being. The hundreds of shelves of well-intentioned books claiming to speak for or give voice to the subaltern cannot ultimately escape the problem of translation in its full sense. Subalternity is less an identity than what we might call a predicament, but this is true in very odd sense. For, in Spivak’s definition, it is the structured place from which the capacity to predicate is radically obstructed. To the extent that anyone escapes the muting of subalternity, she ceases being a subaltern. Spivak says this is to be desired. And who could disagree? There is neither authenticity nor virtue in the position of the oppressed. There is simply (or not so simply) oppression. Even so, we are moved to wonder, in this context, what burden this places on memory work in the aftermath of education. What kind of representation becomes available to the one who, having partially escaped the silence of subalternity, is nonetheless possessed by the consciousness of having been obstructed, contained, or simply misread for so much of her life? Is there any alternative to either the positivist euphoria that would claim to have recovered the truth of her past or the conflation of historiography with therapeutic adaptation by which ideology finally makes the silence of subalternity seem normal?
Today in the halls of the academy it is possible to discern a certain displacement of the critique of power and class, and hence of history, by the cultural analysis of memory. If the latter offers itself as an alternative to the positivism of empiricist historiography, and as a critique of the teleologies implicit in so much Marxist theory, it nonetheless tends to surrender utopianism only to embrace nostalgia. Nostalgia, in this sense, is but the inverse of utopianism, a utopianism without futurity. Ironically, this nostalgia often bears a secret valorization and hypostatization of subalternity as an identity—to be recalled, renarrated, reclaimed, and revalidated. We need to resist the narcissism implicit in this gesture—which ultimately demands a whole image as the mirror of ourselves, not merely as the basis for misrecognition (and hence our own subject formation) but also as the alibi for a politics that imagines the project of emancipation to be over. A quick survey of the contemporary social landscape demands the recognition that it is not.
This volume does not pretend to account for all of the social-theoretical itineraries enabled by “Can the Subaltern Speak?” nor all those that sought to defend institutional knowledges against its provocations. But it may be helpful to review, in a very schematic manner, the contours of its future history. There are, by now, a few book-length studies of Spivak’s work and thought. There are, in addition, numerous volumes in which her theorization of subalternity as gendered muting, and her argument for an ethical kind of reading attentive to the aporetic structure of “knowing” in the encounter with the other, are attended to in individual chapters.
In general, the two most receptive fields to her work have been South Asian history and feminist studies. We might begin, in this effort at a genealogy of future history, with prehistory. In 1986, David Hardiman reported on the second subaltern studies conference in Calcutta for the Economic and Political Weekly . There, he remarked, approvingly, Spivak’s argument that “the colonial state often viewed the Indian people as an undifferentiated native ‘other.’ [Spivak’s] paper showed this well, revealing how the body became a space of politics.” One can hear, in his account, the echo of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” which had already been delivered as a public lecture but not yet published in the Nelson and Grossberg volume. Hardiman continued by attributing to Spivak a rebuke to subaltern studies, in the form of a definition with the force of a not yet realized norm: “‘Subaltern Studies’ [Spivak asserted] does not deal only with subaltern consciousness and action; it is just as important to see how the subaltern are fixed in their subalternity by the elites.” And he remarked her call for the deployment of deconstructionist reading practices in the service of this more reflective project. The acuity of Hardiman’s observation can be seen, in retrospect, by assessing the changes in the ubaltern studies group and its theory, and in the disciplines adjacent to it, following the essay’s publication.
Leela Gandhi revealingly opens her capacious summary of postcolonial theory with Gayatri Spivak, invoking the date of her lecture (1985) rather than the publication of the essay. In this context she notes, despite the range and profundity of the questions emanating from “Can the Subaltern Speak?” that the essay and its provocations solicited more response from postcolonial studies than any other field. To a large degree the rest of her book is devoted to an unfolding of that response—thought it takes her through territory dominated by other postcolonial theorists, from Edward Said and Homi Bhabha to Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Gandhi’s book confirms Gyan Prakash’s 1994 tracking of the arrival of subaltern studies into the field of South Asian historiography, at least in the United States, as a kind of model for postcolonial criticism (albeit as an “ambivalent practice, perched between traditional historiography and its failures, within the folds of dominant discourse and seeking to articulate its pregnant silence”). This movement beyond the object-determined field of subaltern studies, he suggests, was made possible partly by virtue of the rapprochement between Marxism and poststructuralism that it performed—largely under Spivak’s influence.
A case in point would be the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose book, Provincializing Europe, provides a useful aperture onto the mechanism of that infiltration, that generalization of the analysis of subalternity beyond the field of subaltern studies. Indeed, Provincializing Europe owes much to Spivak’s formulation of the subaltern, though it is not heavily citationally dependent on her essay. This debt—which is exclusive of neither the debt owed to others in the collective nor that to the philosophical architect of deconstructionism, Jacques Derrida—saturates the book at a methodological level. That is to say, despite the contingent overlap in their objects of study, it is the epistemological and historiographic implications of Spivak’s essay that inform Chakrabarty’s disquisition. Consider, for example, his argument that the forms of knowledge production institutionalized in the university have been constitutively incapable of registering the antimodern except as the antecedent to a teleologically inevitable modernity: “the antihistorical, antimodern subject, therefore, cannot speak as ‘theory’ within the knowledge procedures of the university even when these knowledge procedures acknowledge and ‘document’ its existence.” He continues, “Much like Spivak’s subaltern . . . it can only be spoken for and spoken of in the transition narrative, which will always ultimately privilege the modern, (that is, ‘Europe’).”
The nonexclusivity of Chakrabarty’s debt is related to the fact that it is sometimes difficult to discern the relative force of Spivak’s interventions when read in relation to the influence of the group’s other luminaries: Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee foremost among them. One of the effects of that collective’s writings, and its meticulous recuperation of Antonio Gramsci’s thought, was the discernment and analysis of subalternity outside South Asia. Florence Mallon’s account of subaltern studies’ impact upon Latin American studies illuminates the history of this impact, which would be registered most visibly in the publication of the voluminous collection edited by Ileana Rodríguez, The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader . But one sees its elsewhere, with accounts of oppressed communities in places as remote from each other (and as far from the Indian experience of British imperialism) as Algeria and Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Uruguay, Turkey and Thailand, Mexico and Morocco, Zimbabwe and Zanzibar.
Of course, the crucial marker, and the orienting question, of Spivak’s particular intervention within the theorization of subalternity revolves around the question of gender. This is why, as I said earlier, one of the most receptive disciplines to “Can the Subaltern Speak?” beyond South Asian history, was gender studies. As with the uptake of the essay in history outside of South Asian history, the initial impetus was a methodological and philosophical one. To take but one example, Judith Butler opens her landmark text, Bodies T hat Matter, with an epigraph from an interview of Spivak by Ellen Rooney and continues to invoke Spivak’s program of reading (a deconstructionism that does not negate the utility of what it deconstructs) as the basis for her own effort to radically rethink the concept of sexual difference. Butler’s enormously influential writings—addressed initially to a queer problematic (as seen from within feminism) and increasingly expanding to encompass the subject of politics in general and, finally, the supplementation of politics by ethics—constitute a significant pathway for Spivak’s writings’ movement out of the regionalist container in which some of her more acerbic Eurocentric critics would like to have kept it. Nonetheless, there have been many others. Indeed, there are few readers in feminist studies that do not include and remark “Can the Subaltern Speak?” as an episteme-changing text, a landmark in the necessary displacement of second-wave feminism and a still-to-be actualized call for the transformation of disciplinary feminism.
The direction pursued by Butler nonetheless runs along a path that diverges considerably from that traveled by so many other feminist scholars under the influence of a revisionist historiography and a desire for the retrieval of women’s experience. One gets a sense of that other direction in Shetty’s and Bellamy’s response to “Can the Subaltern Speak?” one that takes the essay as an incitement to rethink not only historiographical method but the archive per se. Writing in Diacritics, they describe their purpose as “demonstrate[ing] just how crucial the concept of an ‘archive’—perhaps even a ‘postcolonial archive’—is for a more sympathetic understanding of Spivak’s now notorious ‘silencing’ of the subaltern woman.” They then continue with the following question, derived from a reading of Spivak’s essay: “Can we approach the gendered subaltern more productively if our project is to recover not ‘lost voices’ but rather lost texts?” If this very significant question tends to invite the reader to fantasize “the text” as the satisfying substitute—an accessible and bound object behind which the speaking subject’s disappearance loses its status as problem—it nonetheless offers an alternative to the kind of longing for authenticity that interpretive social science often sought in Spivak’s essay.
It is well, in this context, to recall that Spivak’s essay entered the American academy at approximately the same time as there occurred, in the interpretive social sciences, a new and powerful drive to discern and articulate something that was variously termed resistance, unconscious resistance, and, sometimes, the agency of the oppressed. This drive expressed, on the one hand, an intuition of the collapse of Soviet socialism (which, when it occurred, was nonetheless experienced as a crisis for left intellectuals), but, more generally, it expressed an exhaustion with or turning away from more overtly organized oppositional politics and the questions of class consciousness or class formation that had dominated the radical discourse of the previous two decades. It was, of course, the period of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and thus of the near defeat of organized labor within both the U.S. and Britain, the dispute with traffic controllers in the former and coal miners in the latter providing the ground for a statist attack against organized labor on behalf of capital. In this milieu, under the growing influence of a Gramsci revival and spurred by what appeared to many to be a confluence between Gramsci’s and Michel Foucault’s thought, when alternative forms of political possibility and intellectuals’ participation in it were being sought, interpretive social scientists identified forms of practice, habits of being, ethical dispositions, temporalities of laboring, and so forth, which Spivak would term “defective for capitalism,” but often read those forms as traces of an agency that, though unconscious (of its interests or bases in the contradictions of economic organization), could nonetheless be read as evidence of something like nonconformism. This is not the place to examine the complexities and contradictions of a theory of agency as unconscious. It must suffice here to note that such analysis sometimes foundered on the incapacity to differentiate between the ontic realm’s incommensurability with the conceptuality from within which it is represented, the abrasive but socially mediated presence that interrupts or obtrudes upon rationalism’s ambitions, and the intentionalized nonconformity to dominant and/or normative structures that, though more insurgent than oppositional, can be seen to comprise an intuition for critical politics. It was often coupled with statements of good intention and sympathetic if not identificatory sentiment and an avowed aim to “give voice” to the previously silenced “people without history,” as Eric Wolf so named them. Nonetheless, Spivak’s essay is somewhat incompatible with this latter ambition. It is a willful misreading that permits Donald Moore to claim, though he is not alone, that “Significantly, Scott, Guha, and Spivak share a tendency to locate culture in a textual metaphor that smuggles an originary autonomy into the field of subaltern cultural production” or that all three are guilty of “positing of an originary space of authentic insurgency and insurrectionary otherness.” Even Paul Rabinow, a typically acute reader of Michel Foucault, for whom the impossibility of analytic objectivity or critical exteriority to the operations of power was an axiom, asserts in a recent essay, “Spivak’s plaintive query about whether the subaltern could ever speak reflected a normative goal of transparency: if only power relations were different, then.” It may be that anthropologists, historians, and those interpretive social scientists less trained in the reading practices that guide literary criticism may be more susceptible to this kind of misreading, but misreading it is. At no point does Spivak ever express a normative goal of transparency; her essay and, indeed all her writing, testifies to the impossibility of such transparency, not because representation is always already inadequate to the real that it seeks to inscribe, as some psychoanalytically inflected readings might have it, but because the subaltern (as woman) describes a relation between subject and object status (under imperialism and then globalization) that is not one of silence—to be overcome by representational heroism—but aporia. The one cannot be “brought” into the other.
Thus far, I have indicated an expansion of the sphere of influence for “Can the Subaltern Speak?” over the past two decades, while suggesting that the result of its movement was a set of profound transformations in the disciplines adjacent to subaltern studies, including South Asian history, history of the global South, postcolonial studies, anthropology, and gender studies. Nonetheless, Gandhi’s diagnosis of the containment to which the essay has been subject retains a measure of truth; “Can the Subaltern Speak?” has moved less smoothly across those fields of literary critical study (including that dominated by the strands deconstructionism) that are not also specifically concerned with postcolonial literary production. By the early 1980s Spivak’s translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology had opened for English-speaking readers a broader aperture through which to receive deconstructionism than had previously existed. At the same time, the status of postcolonial criticism (and critical race theory) within the field of literary criticism was being solidified by the interventions not only of Spivak herself but many others. It nonetheless remained the case that deconstructionism most dominated those spaces of the literary critical establishment where the textual objects of reading could be recognized as cultural artifacts of the same philosophical system to which it turned its critical eye. Spivak has often reminded her audiences of her training as a Europeanist. And one notes that, in that second subaltern studies conference reported on by David Hardiman, she delivered a paper in which she read Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” next to Mahasweta Devi’s “Stranadayini.” Nonetheless, it is for the reading of Devi more than of Brecht that her intervention is recalled. The isomorphism between the subject and the object of knowledge, which Spivak shows to be an impossibility for the subaltern in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is nonetheless a demand made upon “minoritized” persons (women, people of color, persons of alterior sexuality) within the identitarian formation of the U.S. academy—especially, if ironically, in those domains that resist most vociferously the rise of identitarianism. It would be tendentious to adduce here the place of European literary productions in Spivak’s analysis of subalternity, but it is not tendentious to note the degree to which deconstructionist (and other) literary criticism in the Anglo-American academy tends to attribute to the third world literary text an irreducible particularity, to withhold from it the capacity to signify the general (a capacity it grants begrudgingly even to the “women’s literature” of Charlotte Brontë, Jean Rhys, or Mary Shelley) and to demand, instead, that it signify itself as, precisely, “third world” literature. This gesture constitutes the inverse and displacement of the desire that subalternity be given a voice. The resistance here is not of or by the third world writer and/or her writings, let alone by the subaltern; it is the resistance of dominance to its possible displacement from the exclusive claim on universality.
It is not my intention to conclude or to supplant the work of the writers whose various contributions to this volume pursue many of the threads mentioned so briefly here. Rather, I mean to sketch the space within which their analyses might be productively read.
This book is divided into four parts and has as its bookends an introduction and an afterward, the latter by Spivak herself. Part 1 comprises both the origin and the revised versions of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” as they appeared, first in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg) and Spivak’s own A Critique of Postcolonial Reason . Readers will discern a vast movement, but also significant continuity, between these “versions” of the text, and the subsequent essays in the volume help to map and to comprehend the space and the consequences of the distance traveled during the decades between the first and the revised publication.
The essays in part 2 are concerned to situate and reflect upon the historic, rhetorical, and philosophical aspects of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Partha Chatterjee’s essay, written by an original member of the subaltern studies group and Spivak’s constant interlocutor, sets the stage by describing the intellectual milieu into which the essay arrived in India. It then sketches for us the arguments “Can the Subaltern Speak?” made possible within that country’s tradition of radical social analysis. Ritu Birla’s essay performs a careful reading of the arguments and rhetorical gestures that structure the original essay, while providing us with a sense of how and in what ways its revision for A Critique of Postcolonial Reason reflected new emphases and conceptualizations of the problematic of “speaking.” Drucilla Cornell’s essay then situates Spivak’s essay in the broader context of European philosophical modernism and the ethical turn in deconstructionism as part of an effort to understand what “Can the Subaltern Speak?” made possible as a revised approach to the possibilities and pitfalls of human rights discourse.
Part 3 focuses specifically on the problematic of death in the theorization of subalternity, asking not merely about the material deaths of those who are called subaltern in Spivak’s writings but also about the constitutive place of death in the (often thwarted) claim to subjectivity that the subaltern makes, if only in the enabling negation of her subalternity. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s essay brings to bear new reflections on the case of Bhubaneswari Bhaduri and the question of suicide in the analysis of subalternity, asking once again how and what we can know about subalternity on the basis of this particular figure. Reading Spivak against Guha and Bhubanswari against Chandra, Sunder Rajan both questions the ways in which the body is made to speak in these critics’ analyses and reiterates Spivak’s conclusion that the subaltern cannot speak. Abdul JanMohammed’s essay on African American literatures of death in/and slavery revisits Hegelian dialectic and the labor of the negative in the context of what he perceives to be Spivak’s demand for a measurement of silence and offers an ethically demanding alternative to the memory industry. By separating out the question of what preconditions structured the production of speech for deceased slaves, from the issue of what kinds of audition can be learned now in the service of “hearing” the fugitive call of slavery’s death-bound-subjects, JanMohammed offers the strongest argument in the collection for the project of recuperation, reading deconstructionism as a labor of the negative in a neo-Hegelian mode. Michèle Barrett, similarly plumbing the archive, takes a contrary approach. Her account of the subaltern soldiers in the British military campaign in Mesopotamia does not point in the direction of a re-presentable but occluded presence. Rather, mobilizing Spivak’s concept of “erasure in disclosure,” she traces the debates surrounding the memorialization of the subaltern solders as the scene of an effacement of Indian and other colonial combatants in British war memorials.
Part 4 offers readings of the contemporary geopolitical scene with reference to the insight and questions that “Can the Subaltern Speak?” posed for an analysis of the international division of labor as well as for the relations between analysis and the political of resistance. Pheng Cheah’s essay moves us into the contemporary moment with a reconsideration of Spivak’s debate with Foucault on the question of biopower and then exposes the operations of the new international division of labor in the Asian Pacific. To conclude, Jean Franco’s essay on women’s writing in Latin America reframes the question of silence in terms of secrecy to introduce an agency that might function through strategies of illegibility and dissimulation rather than self-disclosure.
The volume closes with Gayatri Spivak’s final reflection on the metamorphoses and interpretive readings to which the essay has been subject and on the questions that emerged in the context of the conference. Bhubaneswari Bhaduri returns there as the haunting figure of a continually misread woman whose impossible story has, in so many ways, accompanied and perhaps even possessed Spivak in her own effort to be accountable to and for history. From her we learn that, though “Can the Subaltern Speak?” answered its own question in the negative, its corollary question, How can we learn to listen? remains radically open.
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