15 April 2010

Mastering Spivak: A Subaltern Speaks

I don’t really see why Spivak has to be a monster. I mean, yes, jokingly of course, but even then, isn’t the joke’s carried a bit too far? Agreed her style is difficult and hard to penetrate, but then at the end of the day she is a practitioner, however esoteric, of a form and style notorious for its impenetrability. Bad writer or not, to say that she doesn’t know what she’s saying is to do her a great injustice.

But then, what is she saying? The question, clear and concise- can the subaltern speak? The answer, simplicity itself: no.

But that’s not all. Life would be so much easier if it were, if the route which Spivak takes to come to this conclusion were not as it is. Can the subaltern speak? No. Why not? Herein lies the problem.

Using her skills as a translator, Spivak plays on the connotations of vertreten and darstellen to highlight the Western intellectual’s complicity in consolidating “the international division of labour” by unifying the oppressed as a “sovereign subject” capable of identifying all those exploitative socio-economic processes and practices which make it what it is. To these intellectuals, such a subject not only knows how and why he is being exploited but is also capable of representing his class as a whole. That is to say that such a subject, oppressed though he is, can correspond desire with interest and so create a class consciousness which would ultimately make him capable of articulating the interests of his class as a whole and so rid him the need of any “theorizing intellectual” to represent him or his class. The subaltern, for the intellectuals Spivak quotes, can speak.

And yet he cannot. For the subaltern, much more the subaltern Other, is constituted not as an undivided, homogenous, monolithic self. Instead, consciousness for Spivak – and going by her ‘re-presentation’ of that doyen of class and ideology, for Marx too – is as divided and heterogeneous as can be. Particularly “the colonized subaltern subject”, who is posited as “irretrievably heterogeneous”.

Now, first of all, what is the subject? As far as I remember it, Althusser throws some light upon the matter, arguing that ‘tis ideology that transforms an individual into a subject. Spivak too seems to be going along pretty much the same line so that when she asserts that “the colonized subaltern subject is irretrievably heterogeneous”, she is taking into consideration those practices – and, by extension, the ideologies that determined those practices – which at first arranged for and then reinforced continually the subordination of particular sections of society to particular ruling class(es). That these practices, or ideologies, conspired to subject the subaltern subject to such socio-economic forces as kept him under subjugation by fragmenting his consciousness and preventing him from linking desire with interest is the basic thrust of her argument.

An argument which seems valid enough. The subaltern, particularly the subaltern woman, has been victim to politics of re-presentation on one hand and essentialisation on the other. In analysing sati and so exposing the consequences of an all too essentialist and redundant translation of the Hindu scriptures, Spivak is highlighting as much, the role of the indigenous elite in re-presenting, in speaking of and not for the subaltern, the women, and the role of the colonial administration in essentialising indigenous knowledge and means of interpretation. That women themselves could not “speak” for their own community, or class, is, again, a fallout of patriarchal domination which, through re-presentation, denied them the means to fruitfully identify and articulate their desire(s) and link them with communal interests on the whole. It is this failure, a failure ruthlessly institutionalised in service of dominant groups in power, that the crux of the matter lies- women could not speak because their desires were dictated and their interests re-presented by others, by those above them in the hierarchy of production.

Be that as it may, to say all this, to say that ideologies perpetuated by the ruling, dominant elite enmeshed the subaltern classes in such a web of socio-economic forces as made it possible for them to only be re-presented by those immediately above them in the hierarchy of colonial social production and thus further denied them the agency to move from a descriptive to a transformative class consciousness is in no way to posit the impossibility of such a change in future. True, she denies agency to even the contemporary subaltern, but that is a two fold negation heavily contingent first on developments in the Western academia which seem to present the subaltern as a homogenised self in no need of “theorizing intellectuals” to represent it and then on socio-economic forces which further entrench the current “international division of labour” on the lines which the dominant order has prescribed. In the first, she’s salvaging the intellectual’s role in generating discourse on ideology – “the female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish” – and its role in determining the relations of lived experience and even though this seems like denying the subaltern the possibility of representing her/himself by giving agency to intellectuals to speak for them, the very act of orienting the intellectual thus in subaltern studies is to pave the way for the subaltern classes to come up on their own. Ultimately, this is in keeping with that old Marxist formula of the intellectual paving the way for transformative class consciousness to take root.

The answer seems clear for Spivak. No, the subaltern cannot speak- and yet, it can.


Nirbhay Bhogal said...

Wow! I searched the word subaltern on wikipedia and found an extract of an essay by Spivak. I wasn't expecting that.

AP said...

Yes, very pertinent to the discussion. Good for you anyway.

manisha said...

resourceful extact, a quiet useful and informative especially for the scholars pursuing research.

Anonymous said...

So, is it because the subaltern can never speak when trapped in the 'role'(or identity) of being a subaltern, that the actual person/group who occupies such a role (and I'm really asking if you think role is the right word) can move out of it once they are heard in a way that gives them power (however limited)?