Can the Subaltern Speak? by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Some of the most radical criticism coming out of the West today is the result of an interested desire to conserve the subject of the West, or the West as Subject. The theory of pluralized ‘subject-effects’ gives an illusion of undermining subjective sovereignty while often providing a cover for this subject of knowledge. Although the history of Europe as Subject is narrativized by the law, political economy, and ideology of the West, this concealed Subject pretends it has geo-political determinations. The much publicized critique of the sovereign subject thus actually inaugurates a Subject. This S/ subject sew together into a transparency of denegations, belongs to the exporters’ site of the international division of labor.

It is impossible for contemporary French intelectuals to reimagine the world of the diner. To understand the power and Desire that would inhabit the the anonymous subject of the other of Europe. 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. … In the face of the possibility that the intellectual is complicit in the persistent constitution of Other as the Self’s shadow, a possibility of political practice for the intel­ lectual would be to put the economic ‘under erasure,’ to see the economic factor as irreducible as it reinscribes the social text, even as it is erased, however imperfectly, when it claims to be the final determinant or the tran­ scendental signified.

The clearest available example of such epistemic violence is the remotely orchestrated, far-flung, and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonia subject as Other. This project is also the asymetrical obliteration of the trace of that Other in its precarious Subjectivity. It is well known that Foucault locates epistemic violence, a complete overhaul of the episteme, in the redefi­ nition of sanity at the end of the European eighteenth century. But what if that particular redefinition was only a part of the narrative of history in Europe as well as in the colonies? What if the two projects of epistemic overhaul worked as dislocated and unacknowledged parts of a vast two-handed engine? Perhaps it is no more than to ask that the subtext of the palimpsestic narrative of imperialism be recognized as ‘subjugated knowledge,’ ‘a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insuffi­ ciently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity’ (Foucault 1980: 82).

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 was website.Let us now move to consider the margins (one can just as well say the silent, silenced center) of the circuit marked out by this epistemic violence, men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban proletariat. according to Foucault and Delleuze in the First World. Under de standardization and regimentation of socialized work  here)   can  speak  and  know  their  conditions. We   must   now   confront the following question: On the other side of the international division of labor from socialized capital, inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak? . .

The first part of my proposition – that the phased development of the subaltern is complicated by the imperialist project – is confronted by a collective of intellectuals who may be called the ‘Subaltern Studies’ group. They must ask, Can the subaltern speak? Here we are within Foucault’sown discipline of history and with people who acknowledge his influence their project is to rethink Indian colonial historiography from the perspective of the discontinuous chain of peasant insurgencies during the colonial occupation. This is indeed the problem of ‘the permission to narrate’ discussed by Said (1984). As Ranajit Guha argues,

The historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism – colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism . . . shar[ing] the prejudice that the making of the Indian nation and the development of the consciousness-nationalism which con­ firmed this process were exclusively or predominantly elite achieve­ ments. In the colonialist and neo-colonialist historiographies these achievements are credited to British colonial rulers, administrators,

“Policies, institutions, and culture; in the nationalist and neo-nationalist writings – to Indian elite personalities, institutions, activities and ideas” (Guha 1982: 1)

“Certain varieties of the Indian elite are at best native informants for first-world intellectuals interested in the voice of the Other.

But one must nevertheless insist that the colonized subaltern subject is irretrievably heterogeneous. Against the indigenous elite we may set what Guha calls “the politics of the people”. Both sides (this was an autonomous domain, for it) neither originated form elite politics or did its existence depend on the latter’) and inside (‘it continued to operate vigorously in spite of [colonialism], adjusting itself to the conditions prevailing under the Raj and in many respects developing entirely new strains in both form and content’) the circuit of colonial production (Guha 1982: 4). I cannot entirely endorse this insistence on determinate vigor and full autonomy, for practical historiographic exigencies will not allow such endorsements to privilege subaltern consciousness. Against the possible charge that his approach is essentialist, Guha constructs a definition of the people (the place of that essence) that can be only an identity-in-differential. He proposes a dynamic stratification grid describing colonial social production at large. Even the third group on the list, the buffer group, as it were, between the people and the great macrostructural dominant groups, is itself defined as a place of in-betweenness, what Derrida has described as an ‘antre’ (1981):


Dominant foreign groups.

Dominant indigenous groups on the all-India level.

Dominant indigenous groups at the regional and local levels.

The terms ‘people’ and ‘subaltern classes’ [are] used as synony­mous throughout [Guha’s definition]. The social groups and Elements- Included in this category represent the demographic difference – Between the total Indian population and al those whom we have described as the élite. Consider the third item on this list – the antre of situational indeter­ minacy these careful historians presuppose as they grapple with the question, Can the subaltern speak? Taken as  a  whole  and  in  the  abstract  this   .  .  .  category   .  .  .  was heterogeneous in its composition and thanks to the uneven character of regional economic and social developments, different from area to area.

The same class or element which was dominant in one area . . . could be among the dominated in another. This could and did create many ambiguities and contradictions in attitudes and alliances, especially among the lowest strata of the rural gentry, impoverished landlords, rich peasants and upper middle class peasants all of whom belonged, ideally speaking, to the category of people or subaltern classes. (Guha 1982: 8)

‘The task of research’ projected here is ‘to investigate, identify and measure the specific nature and degree of the deviation of [the] elements [constituting item 3] from the ideal and situate it historically.’ ‘Investigate, identify, and measure the specific’: a program could hardly be more essentialist and taxonomic. Yet a curious methodological imperative is at work. I have argued that, in the Foucault-Deleuze conversation, a postrepresentationalist vocabulary hides an essentialist agenda. In subaltern studies, because of the violence of imperialist epistemic, social, and disciplinary inscription, a project understood in essentialist terms must traffic in a radical textual prac­ tice of differences. The object of the group’s investigation, in the case not even of the people as such but of the floating buffer zone of the regional elite-subaltern, is a deviation from an ideal – the people or subaltern – which is itself defined as a difference from the elite. It is toward this structure that the research is oriented, a predicament rather different from the self­ diagnosed transparency of the first-world radical intellectual. What taxonomy can fix such a space? Whether or not they themselves perceive it – in fact Guha sees his definition of ‘the people’ within the master-slave dialectic – their text articulates the difficult task of rewriting its own condi­ tions of impossibility as the conditions of its possibility.

‘At the regional and local levels [the dominant indigenous groups] . . .of all-indian, groups of dominant all-Indian groups acted in the interests of the latter and not in conformity to the interests corresponding truly to their own social being, when these writers speak, in their essentialising language, a gap between interest and action – IN the intermediate group, their conclusions are close to Marx than to the self-conscious naiveté of Deuleusé’s

Guha, like Marx, speaks of interest in terms of the social rather than the libidinal being. The Name-of-the-Father imagery in The Eighteenth Brumaire can help to emphasize that, on the level of class or group action, ‘true correspondence to own being’ is as artificial or social as the patronymic. So much for the intermediate group marked in item 3. For the ‘true’ subaltern group, whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself; the intellectual’s solution is not to abstain from representation. The problem is that the subject’s itinerary has not been traced so as to offer an object of seduction to the representing intellectual. In the slightly dated language of the Indian group, the question becomes, How can we touch the consciousness of the people, even as we investigate their politics? With what voice-consciousness can the subaltern speak?

Their project, after all, is to rewrite the development of the consciousness of the Indian nation. The planned discontinuity of impe­ rialism rigorously distinguishes this project, however old-fashioned its articulation, from rendering visible the medical and juridical mechanisms that surrounded the story of [Pierre Riviere] Focault is correct in suggesting that ‘to make visible the unseen can also mean a change of level, addressing oneself to a layer of material which had hitherto had no perti­ nence for history and which had not been recognized as having any moral, aesthetic or historical value.’ It is the slippage from rendering visible the mechanism to rendering the individual, both avoiding ‘any kind of analysis of [the subject] whether psychological, psychoanalytical or linguistic, is consistently troublesome (Foucault, 1980:49-50). When we come to the concomitant question of the consciousness of the subaltern, the notion of what the work cannot say becomes important.

In the semioses of the social text, elaborations of insurgency stand in the place of ‘the utterance.’ The sender – ‘the peasant’ – is marked only as a pointer to an irretrievable consciousness. As for the receiver, we must ask who is ‘the real receiver’ of an ‘insurgency?’ The historian, transforming ‘insurgency’ into ‘text for knowledge,’ is only one ‘receiver’ of any collec­ tively intended social act. With no possibility of nostalgia for that lost origin, the historian must suspend (as far as possible) the clamor of his or her own consciousness (or consciousness-effect, as operated by disciplinary training), so that the elaboration of the insurgency, packaged with an insurgent-consciousness, does not freeze into an ‘object of investigation,’ or, worse yet, a model for imitation. ‘The subject’ implied by the texts of insurgency can only serve as a counterpossibility for the narrative sanctions granted to the colonial subject in the dominant groups. The postcolonial intellectuals learn that their privilege is their loss. In this they are a para­ digm of the intellectuals.

It is well known that the notion of the feminine (rather than the subaltern of imperialism) has been used in a similar way within decon-structive criticism and within certain varieties of feminist criticism. In the former case, a figure of ‘woman’ is at issue, one whose minimal predi­ cation as indeterminate is already available to the phallocentric tradition. Subaltern historiography raises questions of method that would prevent it from using such a ruse. For the ‘figure’ of woman, the relationship between woman and silence can be plotted by women themselves; race and class differences are subsumed under that charge. Subaltern historiography must confront the impossibility of such gestures. The narrow epistemic violence of imperialism gives us an imperfect allegory of the general violence that is the possibility of an episteme.

Within  the   effaced   itinerary   of  the   subaltern   subject,   the  trac   of sexual difference is doubly effected. The question is not of female partici­ pation in insurgency, or the ground rules of the sexual division of labor, for both of which there is ‘evidence.’ 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. . . .

Excerpt from:

Spivak, G.C (1999). A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason. Harvard University Press.