Spivak (1988). Can the Subaltern Speak? (Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture)

Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the Subaltern Speak? In C. Nelson & L. Grossberg (Eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (pp. 271–313). University of Illinois Press.
[Why surprise? Seems reasonable that one might follow the other … ]
“And I will have recourse, perhaps surprisingly, to an argument that Western intellectual production is, in many ways, complicit with Western international economic interests.” (p 271)
[The definitions of words and ideas are used to exploit and repress … ]
“‘The reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class `in and by words` [_par la parole_].'” (p 273-274) [per Althusser, _Lenin and Philosophy_, pp. 132-33.]
[As if the oppressed are to be envied … ]
“The unrecognized contradiction within a position that valorizes the concrete experience of the oppressed, while being so uncritical about the historical role of the intellectual, is maintained by a verbal slippage.” (p 275)
[The meaning of action? … ]
“Are those who act and _struggle_ mute, as opposed to those who act and _speak_ (FD, 206)?” (p 275) [per Foucault 1977]
[The vocabulary of the intellectual is not that of the Other … ]
“It is not only that everything they read, critical or uncritical, is caught within the debate of the production of that Other, supporting or critiquing the constitution of the Subject as Europe. It is also that, in the constitution of that Other of Europe, great care was taken to obliterate the textual ingredients with which such a subject could cathect, could occupy (invest?) its itinerary–not only by ideological and scientific production, but also by the institution of the law. However reductionistic an economic analysis might seem, the French intellectuals forget at their peril that this entire overdetermined enterprise was in the interest of a dynamic economic situation requiring that interests, motives (desires) and power (of knowledge) be ruthlessly dislocated.” (p 280)
[Definitions are subjective … ]
“This is not to describe ‘the way things really were’ or to privilege the narrative of history as imperialism as the best version of history. It is, rather, to offer an account of how an explanation and narrative of reality was established as the normative one.” (p 281)
[Using vocabulary of one’s existing ‘historical canvas’ … ]
“My Indian example could thus be seen as a nostalgic investigation of the lost roots of my own identity. Yet even as I know that one cannot freely enter the thickets of ‘motivations’, I would maintain that my chief project is to point out the positivist-idealist variety of such nostalgia. I turn to Indian material because, in the absence of advanced disciplinary training, that accident of birth and education has provided me with a _sense_ of the historical canvas, a hold on some of the pertinent languages that are useful tools for a _bricoleur_, …” (p 281)
[Dislocation through how knowledge is constructed … ]
“… epistemic violence …” (p 281)
[Education replicates legal (political) structures … ]
“The education of colonial subjects complements their production in law.” (p 282)
[Unable to gain a vocabulary of the Other … ]
“The postcolonial intellectuals learn that their privilege is their loss.” (p 287)
[Different-ness leading to dominance … ]
“It is, rather, that, both as object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant. If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow.” (p 287)
[Consumerism is not a goal in ‘comprador’ regions … ]
“… the urban proletariat in comprador countries must not be systematically trained in ideology of consumerism (parading as the philosophy of a classless society) …” (p 288)
[No one can speak for the voiceless? … ]
“In their case, the denial and withholding of consumerism and the structure of exploitation is compounded by patriarchal social relations. On the other side of the international division of labor, the subject of exploitation 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. The woman is doubly in shadow.” (p 288)
[Western ideas have a hard time recognizing their production? … ]
“… to buy a self-contained version of the West is to ignore its production by the imperialist project.” (p 291)
[Blindness to one’s privilege … ]
“… sanctioned ignorance …” (p 291)
[Absence as in distance? For some, the Other only exists in theory? … ]
“Derrida is hard to read; his real object of investigation is classical philosophy. Yet he is less dangerous when understood than the first-world intellectual masquerading as the absent nonrepresenter who lets the oppressed speak for themselves.” (p 292)
[What are the mechanisms through which the Other is produced? … ]
“Whatever the reasons for this specific absence, what I find useful is the sustained and developing work on the _mechanics_ of the constitution of the Other; we can use it to much greater analytic and interventionist advantage than invocations of the _authenticity_ of the Other.” (p 294)
[Is there anything the elite can do? … ]
“What must the elite do to watch out for the continuing construction of the subaltern?” (p 294)
[Research is to be praised but it cannot help when imperialist/colonialist structures remain. …]
“We should also welcome all the information retrieval in these silenced areas that is taking place in anthropology, political science, history and sociology. Yet the assumption and construction of a consciousness or subject sustains such work and will, in the long run, cohere with the work of imperialist subject-constitution, mingling epistemic violence with the advancement of learning and civilization. And the subaltern woman will be as mute as ever.” (p 295)
[Postcolonial unlearning and undifferencing … ]
“In seeking to learn to speak to (rather than listen to or speak for) the historically muted subject of the subaltern woman, the postcolonial intellectual _systematically_ ‘unlearns’ female privilege. This systematic unlearning involves learning to critique postcolonial discourse with the best tools it can provide and not simply substituting the lost figure of the colonized. Thus, to question the unquestioned muting of the subaltern woman even within the anti-imperialist project of subaltern studies is not, as Jonathan Culler suggests, to ‘produce difference by differing’ …” (p 295)
[Mindful of positionality of researchers …]
“I am also far from averse to learning from the work of Western theorists, though I have learned to insist on marking their positionality as investigating subjects.” (p 296)
  • Positionality can be defined as “the social and political landscape inhabited by a researcher (e.g. gender, nationality, race, religion, sexuality, (dis)abilities, social class and social status).” [See here.]
[Provocative? …]
“As a product of these considerations, I have put together the sentence ‘White men are saving brown women from brown men’ in a spirit not unlike the one to be encountered in Freud’s investigations of the sentence ‘A child is being beaten’.” (p 296)
[Are names inadequate? Or is it the disrespect to these identities and names? … ]
“As one goes down the grotesquely mistranscribed names of these women, the sacrificed widows, in the police reports included in the records of the East India Company, one cannot put together a ‘voice’.” (p 297)
“The subaltern cannot speak.” (p 308)

Selected References

  • Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster, Monthly Review-Press: New York, 1971, pp. 132-3.
  • Jonathan Culler. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1982). p. 48.
  • Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 88f. (hereafter cited as OG).
  • Sigmund Freud. ‘”A child is being beaten”: a contribution to the study of the origin of sexual perversions’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey et al., Hogarth Press: London, vol. 17, 1955.
  • Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected essays and interviews, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY, 1977, pp. 205-17 (hereafter cited as FD).



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