“Can the Subaltern Speak?” : Deconstructing the Postcolonial
Hello and welcome to yet another session of
the NPTEL course Postmodernism in Literature. And today’s lecture we take a look at the
celebrated essay can the subaltern speak written by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, And we also
discuss how this essay has been seminal in deconstructing the postcolonial. In last couple
of session we have been looking at the intersection of postmodernism and post colonialism.
We have already taken a look at how both the courses dismantle western and colonial centres
and also challenged their power history and prejudices. We have noticed some similarities
in the presentation of heterogeneity and we also noted that they they do have certain
overlapping concerns. And ah particularly in that previous session we discussed a Appiah
essay by high lights certain crisis in the ah postcolonality of the west, where the postcolonial
intelligence is under the influence of western culture global capitalism.
While there are number of similarities between postcolonialism postmodernism; there are also
certain references which needs to be dehiterate in this this discussion a particularly in
the way in which alienated is main conceived and being for grounded; why postcolonialism
asserts and affirms a denied or a alienated subjectivity postmodernism on the other hand
challenge is coherent autonomous subject. So, in this essay which is also again changing
essay in the discussions of postcoloniality; we find that is Spivak is talking about certain
constructions of identity which are crucial in the postcolonial are subjectivity. And
how through the framework of postmodernism one could ah one could critic the various
context which are available particularly in the form of subaltern consciousness.
And this also brings us to the question; if we talk about the global and the local and
the context postcolonialism and as well as postmodernism. How do be then think about
the local and the marginalised is there any way of talking about the marginalized other
than ah ah foregrounding them as silence subaltern. This essay can subaltern speak has been and
the heart of ah controversial for a long time. And this essay as a number of question related
to the a war the the agency and power which are part of a subaltern subjectivities.
Any discussion which ah tries to bring to get the postcolonialism, postmodernism is
also float with the number of challenges. And one of them being the precision that postmodernism
aspelitically ambivalent and in addition to this it is also important to notice the fact
that the postcolonial is as implicated in that which challenges as is the post model
. For example, both of them they they question,
they tell into the negate and reject the metanarratives of European enlightenment colonialism and
modernity. And we also find that the definitions of postcolonialism and the definition of the
postmodernism are also inherent in the ways in which we define colonialism and modernity.
And this is something that we were discussing right right from the beginning of this course;
how there could be various postmodernism depending on ah the the the kind of modernism that one
subscribe to in the same way there could be different versions of postcolonialities depending
on how we tend to approach ah colonialism. This brings us to ah more focused discussion
of Spivak essay can the subaltern speak; Spivak is celebrated figure in postcolonial studies,
she also a rost of fame with the translation of Derridas of grammatology, she also had
written a wonder full profess to the book. She is been describe as a third world women
hyphenated American as a Bengali exile and she also talks about herself as a practical
deconstruction is feminist Marxist. So, she perhaps a right kind of person to
approach postcoloniality from various ah points of you and for the same reason it is only
appropriate that we include Spivak’s essay in this ah in this discussion where we locate
the intersections between postcolonialism and postmodernism.
Whereas the central thesis of the essay second subaltern speak is that the subaltern cannot
represent themselves they must be spoken for .
And through a series of formulations, through a series of case study, through a series of
discussions which are part of postcolonial studies.
Spivak is the leading is to the conclusion that the subaltern cannot speak for themselves;
this essay though established in 1988 is based on a lecture which Spivak gave in 1983; it
also address that problems of representation in historiography in that sense it could be
also seen as part of the lot of work which was published by subaltern study historians.
And is also talks about the various problems of the subalternity voicing and death; and
these are also certain a ways in which she accesses this the problems which are at the
heart of the subaltern ah subjectivities. And since the publications this essay 1988;
this has been revered, reviled, misread and misappropriated in different context and work
has also been cited invoked imitated and critique and this could be easily considered as the
best known and the most controversial of a Spivak’s works.
And this is a background to the to the writing of this essay ah she place is this essay in
the context of the third world background; where in intellectuals are searching for individual
cultural national identity. In in that sense I also encourage you to see
the connections between Appiah and Spivak where ah Appiah is also extremely critical
of the certain ways in which African postcolonialism had been engaging with idea of postcoloniality
the concept of postcoloniality from a predominantly western a west centric view. What makes Spivak’s
very different and closer to the post modern approach? Is her being heavily influenced
by the construction again let me remind you she was the one who translated Derridas who
who who had put for the ideas of the constructions. And ah she in her most of her works particularly
in this work and the subaltern speak she is seeks. So, someone the binary opposition between
are subjects and object, self and the other the occident and the orient; the centre and
the marginal and the majority and the minority. And this version of the binary opposites and
this rejection of this binary opposites is also at the heart of most of postmodernist
poststructuralist depends. If you analyse the second subaltern speak
in detail we also notice that Spivak’s central motif is deconstructive her being heavily
influenced by Derrida and Subaltern is also what she borrowed from Antonio Gramsci is
idea of subalternity . And in that sense we also see a very power full influence of the
Marxist historians, she also uses this essay to introspect her own subject position as
an Indian intellectual. Does in multiple way this essay could be seen
as an extremely critical intervention which a questions and I change the paradigms of
all kinds of discussion related to postcoloniality as well as postmodernism.
It will be hard task to offer a summary of the text can the subaltern speak ah; it would
have sufficed to say that the text introduces questions of gender and sexual difference,
it analysis various forms of presentation and also offers a profound critique of both
subaltern history and radical western philosophy. While she is conscious about the ways in which
western philosophy and western narratives; inform the construction of the subaltern history,
she also allergic to the fact that there is a way in which the subaltern history and subaltern
subjectivities have been subjugated under the post of the western philosophical and
critical metanarratives. And she also refers to the manner in which
western cultures investigate other cultures she gross her attention particularly to be
ah Sati to pay part of the colonial history. And she also highlight the various ways in
which the debate by stage in particular ways. So, we should denied any sense of agency voice
or a power to the subaltern. And ah it it is a very much possible see Spivak
is a postmodern feminist and can subaltern speak as a work of postmodern feminism . Spivaks
suggest in this work that it is impossible for us to recover the voice of the subaltern
or oppressed subject. And this a she argues by way of the fact that natives are divided
by differences of gender class caste and other hierarchies. And these set of hierarchies
are also ah certain kind of hierarchy; so, which the western historical framework. So,
the hell western sociological from works are not very familiar with.
So, it is just gap it is this absence of a certain dialogue that she tries to problems
at that in her discussion during this essay. And ah she also take this issue of weeding
resistance and she argues this is takes on a specific kind of complexity when you deal
with text by Indian women. Here Spivak comes across as a feminist who is willing to critique
not just the tenets of a postcolonialism and postmodernism, but also the tenets over tenets
on which feminist historiography that has been built.
And she uses a certain ah entry points which is a Sati to pay or another ah private story
that she uses towards the end of a receipt that of a young woman named Bhubaneswari Bhaduri
and she uses these entry points to talk about these various metanarrative in a critical
fashion. I just do not it is also interesting to look
at how she uses deconstruction to make her arguments move fine an; she uses the constraction
to examine how truth is constructed . And here we also see parallels between Spivak’s
retrics and the ah Vasanise Phosphorian philosophies and theories has been built. And ah they also
talked about how truth is a much niketan much contested notion and there is an impossibility
to see the real to real or the truth of a true, when we are or when everything is being
mediated by various other ah forces at work various other hierarchical forces.
And ah offerenstincs in this works she points to the British outline of the Sati which is
the Hindu practice of burning a widow on a her husband’s funeral pyre.
And she also close attention to how there is a complete absence of women voices from
the debates on the abolition of Sati. And the debates which were related to the abolition
of Sati was one of the major anti colonial rhetoric on which the history of the subaltern
in the history of the nationalist movement itself has been written.
And would rather than focusing on that event of first say, rather than focusing on the
debate were same Spivak’s and courages us to look at the ways in which the subaltern
women have been silent. She talks about how the silencing of the subaltern women by the
combined violence of colonialism and patriarchy in Hindu society. And also leave the foundations
of certain kinds of historiography is being produced.
And for example, she draws attention to the night 1829 abolished Sati British law abolish
Sati and in 1829, she talks about how did even had been presented as white men saving
brown women from brown men . This is a major entry point that she uses to talk about the
voice the agency and the power which this subaltern ah had or the subaltern never had.
So, what are the implication in talking about Sati in this work with also talks about the
postcolonial presentation of the subaltern subjects. While this intervention of abolishing
Sati save some lives and may have given women a certain sensible modicum of free choice;
though not into alien a idea of free choice, it also serve to secure British power in India
and to underscore the asserted difference between British civilization and Indian barbarism
. So, whatever was presented as part of western
modernity, whatever was presented as product of western enlightenment eurocentric enlightenment
where highlighted as part of good civilization. And whatever was part of Indian tradition
quote un quote Indian traditional or Indian culture were also presented as barbarian practices.
Spivak’s also tells how this this kind of story telling; this sort of a narrative had
also ah let to a certain construction of the image of the subalterns as well as the subaltern
stories and historiography in general. As Spivak proceed further discussions; she
illustrate how Hindu culture was driven underground, written outer flow and denied any legitimise
see through this sort of a privilege hierarchical kind of a narrative and a retric which was
in place. And ah she also ask this question, but it today’s intellect weather the today’s
intellectuals can avoid a similar condescension when they represents the oppressed and this
question remain the heart of ah the the discussion in ah the essay can the subaltern speak.
And this question about how one can avoid the tone of condescension or how one can given
agency to the subaltern; when we are talking about the subordinate continues to remain
at the heart of discussion in a number of post colonial context.
And how can this essay be cited as an example of post modern approaches been used.
Spivak at some points and in this essay terns to the works of Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida.
And then these are also a theories and philosophers that we already taken a look at; one Spivake
uses the number of post structuralism approaches and while she remains inducted to be ah Derridian
philosophy and the deconstruction approaches. She also critiques Foucault and Deleuze for
committing epistemic violence; she is very conscious of the fact that though she ah herself
belongs to a certain poststructuralism mode of criticism, though she herself passions
and regulate her problematic within the post structural is irritatic she also acknowledges
the ways in which in a certain epistemic violence had been commited by these predominantly eurocentric
western thinkers. She also highlights the no ways in which a certain kind of a white
a European etymology was projected through these ah pretty through the critiques of a
Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida and how they also eventually ended up of forcing a certain
kind of an epistemology on to the rest of the world; especially the third world.
So, in this context we find Spivak’s turning the very tools used by the postmodern is against
them. The postmodernism had them critiques in the predominant of certain metanarrative.
And here we find Spivak as a postcolonial feminist critique ah critiquing the very ways
in which the post modern theories had have also been imposing a certain kind of a rhetoric
a certain kind of a framework on to the rest of the world particularly the third world.
In the cause of the D S I V also we can see how the acetous the line of the deconstruction
is a practice of everything being a construct through. The S S Spivak illustrates that human
consciousness reconstruct discursively and she also uses the example of the subaltern
subject for this . We do not constructed identities and we have written for this this is especially
true when it comes to the subaltern position of a person who is also located in the third
world. And she ah see postcolonialism as a new instance
of this item to liberate the other; the other being one of the important ways in which postcolonial
criticism talks about the subaltern. Spivak ask very important question whether such work
in succeed or not can the subaltern speak as a title of B S I course and her answer
is no. Though she is ah though she acknowledges the ways in which postcolonial studies in
postcolonialism as a of framework; opens at certain avenues with discussion she is a very
sceptical about the ways in which of the subaltern games a sense of agency or the subaltern games
any kind of power or voice within this frameworks. Because these frameworks are also predominantly
western, they do not get any sense of agency, we do not get any sense of power to the ones
who are the marginalised; the ones who are double marginalization in terms of where a
allocation in terms of their status. And when this movie also begin to critique
the production of knowledge in postcolonial postmodern society, she talks about how western
academic thinking its produce in order to support western economical interest. And this
is always something that we find in fabulous and discussions of a Spivak as well as Appiah.
And she also argues that knowledge is never innocent and that expresses interest of hits
produces, this is there also find a very predominance a postmodern rhetoric at work and as a postcolonial
protect. Spivak is also called conscious of the fact that knowledge is like any other
commodity that is exported from the west to the third world.
Here we find a various ways in which one could identify parallels between the works of postcolonialis
and work of postmodernist. This brings us to the question of agency and power. In fact,
if you could if we can can identify two major things which are being critique in this essay
can subalterns speak. We can easily identify the issues of agency and power in the context
of a postcolonial feminism. Spivak speaks against the tendency of political movements
to romanticize the other. And she is also very critical of the suggestion
that all third world people will stand in the same relation to global capitalism and
respond to it in the same way. And this is a position that he identifies as being essentialist
and it is this essentialism against which she primarily speaks. And she particularly
target the left it intellectuals who tend to essentialist the subaltern. And here we
also find she uses the Marxist framework to critique the Marxist critical practices itself;
she also argues that the leftist intellectuals in their attempt to essentials subaltern,
they eventually end up replicating the colonial discourses that the atom to critique.
So, here find here we find interesting ways in which Spivak invokes certain events from
history, certain frameworks from history and also exposed them for what they fail to do.
Now, we come to the heart of ah Spivak’s essay where she bring a speech of writing the subaltern.
Spivak is very critical of the a many attempts from the outside to ameliorate the subalterns
condition. She identifies two major problems that could arise in trying to attempt to write
the subaltern from the perspectives of outside. The first one being that logocentric assumption
of cultural solidarity among a heterogeneous people as a dangerous assumption.
And she is also extremely critical of any such assumption which is also inherently essentialist.
And secondly, she argues that when will attempt to write the subaltern from the outside; there
is a certain dependence on western intellectual to speak for the support and condition. And
this condition does not allow the subaltern to speak for themselves; this remains at the
heart of her essay, these issues are continuing to be discussed in the contemporary within
postcolonial studies. And it is a said point 3 brings in a twist
in the tale by talking about the story of Bhubaneswari Bhaduri who had left a suicide
note behind her. Bhubaneswari Bhaduri is not a well known person, she is not celebrity,
she is not a historical figure either and she uses this story this incident as a text
to analyse the complete absence of the subalterns voice.
Bhubaneswari Bhaduri becomes a text over here and she is a young woman who was forced to
hang herself ah because she did not wont to participate in a certain assassination which
she was assign to commit. In fact, she commit suicide, but I just have protest against this
assassination that she ah did not really agree with.
But the political act of a this protest was completely negated and the story was written
by her family and by the society in totally different way. Bhubaneswari Bhaduri ah suicide
is not seen as a protest on the contrary it was conveniently written of as an act of petty
personal slide; it was seen as the outcome of a failed love affect. The political nature
of the act which originally intended was totally negative and totally denied.
This eventually went down in history within the domestic history, within the societal
history as an event on misunderstood by everyone. Spivak uses this event to talk about denial
of agency the denial of voice within the subaltern and she you also uses this example to talk
about Indian women’s inability in general to speak within western discourse. When one
is being asked to speak within a predominantly western discourse;
there is no way in which one could also claim agency. And this is the problem that she addresses,
this is the problem which continues to be controversial within the discussions of the
postcolonialism. And ah she also uses the tale of Bhubaneswari
Bhaduri to show how Indian discourse has been better by the storms of colonial history;
how there is an impossibility to reclaim identity to reclaim agency and reclaim voice when one
continues to write the story within a predominantly colonial framework within a predominantly
colonial history. And now I read out you a certain except from
the essay can subaltern speak where is Spivak illustrates that the subaltern as female cannot
be hear or read, but in patriarchy and imperialism subject constitution and object formation;
the figure of the women disappear not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent
shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the third world women caught between tradition
and modernization. It is the disappearance of the figure the
women that is Spivak finds extremely disturbing. And it is this disappearance that she tries
to question, that she tries to engage within the essay can the subaltern speak.
So, ah can the subaltern speak in multiple ways can be seen as a radical ah postcolonial
work it talks about the ah it it engages with deconstructive interpretations of imperialism
and also are the fight against the colonization. And she also a seeks to interrogate the principles
of Marxism and feminism within a predominantly Derridean deconstruction.
And this is what Spivak once told about herself the my position is generally a reactive one;
I am viewed by Marxists as too codic, by feminists too male identified, by indigenous theorists
as too committed to western theory. I am uneasily pleased about this; it is such an ambivalent
position it is such a complicated position that also enables us to talk about Spivak
within postmodernist framework as well. However it is towards the end of the essay
that Spivak begins to show predominantly postmodernist tendencies when she seeks to question even
the postmodernist framework within which she begins to locate her work and the outset.
We even within her predominantly post structurelist position ah by way of her reuse of the deconstruction,
we find that she finds improved into the critiques against postmodernism as well. And here I
will extensively from the latter half of the essay towards the end of the essay.
I have attempted to use and go beyond Derridean deconstruction, which I do not celebrate as
feminism as such. However, in the context of the problematic I have addressed; I find
his morphology much more painstaking and useful than Foucaults and Deleuzes immediate substantive
involvement with more political issues. The latters invitation to become women which can
make their influence more dangerous for the US acadamic as enthusiastic radical .
Derrida marks radical critique with the danger of appropriating the other by assimilation
he reads catachresis as the origin he calls for a rewriting of the utopian structural
impulse as rendering delirious that interior voice that is the voice of the other in us
. I must here acknowledge a long term usefulness in jacques Derrida which I seem no longer
to find in the authors of the history of sexuality and mille plateaux.
Here she is very clearly privileging the usefulness of Derridean deconstruction are the Foucaults
and Foucaults and Deleuzes work. And ah this does not essentially mean that she is extremely
uncritical of ways in which Derridas work is also predominantly within a western framework,
but she also brings us certain political slant to the use of post modern theories over here.
And this how she is the subaltern cannot speak ; there is no virtue global laundry lists
with woman as a pious item representation has not withered away. The female intellectual
as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish, we cannot
entirely say that the essay ends on a an an negative or an pessimistic node.
While she is conscious of the fact that subaltern cannot speak; she is also very positive and
more optimistic about the role of the feminist intellectual which ah could emerge in a very
different way perhaps in the coming decades. To some of it would be possible to say that
there is a certain postmodern effect that this postcolonial work has subaltern speak.
Spivak has been able to successfully politicize Derridean deconstruction with the aim of elaborating
a technique for emancipator readings and cultural involvements.
This is also against the predominant criticism against postmodernism in general that postmodernism
is politically ambivalent that we cannot be used for any kind of constructive political
criticism. We find Spivak using deconstruction as a method and as a tool to engage with the
subaltern consciousness and expose the absences and gaps within a nationalist as well as a
colonialist historiography. As and when we why interrupt I will also leave
you whether certain code from McCloskey. This is from her conversations with us Spivak and
this is a passage with particularly exposes the postmodern conondromon possibility which
is at the heart of a discussion from the beginning of this course.
McCloskey writes I feel most things in my life a positivist social engineer a Joan Baez
socialist; a man. Now I am free market feminist a quantitative postmodernist a woman, I am
not ashamed of these changes of mind as Keynes reply to the complaint that he has changed
his mind on free trade; when I get new information I change my mind what do you do?
My main point here is that it is possible to be postmodernist and procapitalist and
feminist all it once. Of course, I think it is not merely possible; I think it is desirable
and natural the three hang together; I claim together they do good work in the world. So,
on this positive encouraging note we wind up today’s session, I look forward to seeing
when the next session. Thank you for listening .