Lecture 17 -Gayatri C. Spivak: Answering the question Can the Subaltern Speak?

Lecture 17 -Gayatri C. Spivak: Answering the question Can the Subaltern Speak?


Hello and welcome back to this course on postcolonial
literature. Today we are going to take up the writings of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
who is one of the most influential critical voices, theorists, in the field of postcolonial
studies. Now, I am sure that by now, after going through the previous lectures in this
series in this course, you have realised that at the most fundamental level, postcolonial
studies is an exercise in ethics. One of the main agendas of postcolonial criticism
has been the dismantling of the Eurocentric worldview, which colonialism had naturalised
and which had, in turn, marginalised numerous indigenous cultural and epistemic traditions
across the colonised parts of the world. The other agenda of postcolonial studies has been
to foreground the voice of the oppressed and to create conditions, at least within the
academic institutions, so that the people subjugated by colonialism can be heard. Both of these efforts, these ethical interventions,
I would call them, are already prominently displayed in the works of Edward Said, the
founding figure in the field of postcolonial studies. And, in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
too, we find a continuation of this ethical imperative that underlines post-colonialism.
Now, Spivak’s ethical intervention is most associated with her work with the subaltern. And, here I am talking about work. When I
am talking about work, I am not only thinking about her academic writings, they are important.
Yes, we are going to discuss them. But I am also thinking about her work as a teacher
and activist among the landless illiterate population in the villages of West Bengal.
So, Spivak’s ethical intervention is characterised by her work with the subaltern, for the subaltern,
both as an academic writer, theoretician and as an activist. And indeed, at least within the academic circles,
Spivak’s name is today most widely associated with the highly influential essay titled “Can
the Subaltern Speak.” So, in this lecture, we will try and understand the contribution
of Spivak in the fore field of postcolonial studies, by focusing on her elaboration of
the term subaltern. But before we do that, let me introduce Spivak to you. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born in Calcutta
in 1942 and it was a time when the British Raj, was fast losing its political grip over
the Indian subcontinent. And these last years of the colonial rule was marked by calamitous
violence. The Bengal famine of the early 1940’s, which was triggered by the opening up of the
Pacific Theatre during the Second World War, left literally thousands of skeletal human
bodies dying in the streets of Calcutta. And, if you remember, I had mentioned in one
of my earlier lectures, that although we are primarily going to talk about colonialism
and postcolonial legacies, resistance to colonialism, etcetera, in terms of cultural colonisation
and cultural resistance, nevertheless, we should never lose sight of the physical violence
that characterised colonial rule and colonial subjugation. And so, as we see here, Spivak, who was to
emerge as one of the foremost postcolonial theorist, grew up witnessing some of the most
gruesome incidents of violence that were brought about by the colonial rule and also, ironically,
by the middleclass class nationalists, who in a place like India, touted the promise
of ending British rule and its evil. So, if we read Spivak’s writing, we will see
that when she is talking about this brute physical violence, to which she was exposed
as a child, she is talking about a strange nexus between the British colonialist and
the middle class nationalists. Indeed, for someone living in Calcutta during the 1940’s,
the violence of the artificially created Bengal famine was only surpassed by the violence
that marked the birth of India and Pakistan as two distinct nation-states in 1947. And, this birth of India and Pakistan was
made possible by a pact that the middle class nationalists and the British colonialists
had made together. And, it was basically a pact- what the pact actually meant was- a
carving up of the communities living together in the subcontinent for ages, carving them
up into citizens of two distinct nation-states. And, for young Spivak, growing up in Calcutta,
this pact did not translate so much into the abstract idea of freedom, as to the more real
spectacle of blood on the streets. Now, just like Punjab, Bengal was also the
site of partition and of gruesome violence and Calcutta was one of the cities which witnessed
the most horrible scenes of crime and violence during the partition period. Thus, in her
essay “Nationalism and Imagination,” Spivak writes, that her earliest memories as a child
are those of seeing blood on the streets and she emphasises on the statement. She says,
that they were not metaphorical blood, they were real blood, coming out of killed colonised
subjects. And therefore, we need to remember, that the
blood in this picture of colonialism and postcolonialism is not metaphorical, is not cultural, but
real physical violence, was a real fact that informed colonialism. And the very fact that
Spivak recalls these memories later on as a postcolonial intellectual to think through
the idea of nationalism and the role of aesthetic imagination in conceiving nationalism, this
shows how postcolonial high theory can grow out of one’s engagement with the physical
violence that has always underlined colonialism and its legacies. But, this raw physical violence
apart, which colonialism and nationalism exposed to Spivak, Spivak as a child was also exposed
to some of the forces resisting this carnage, this violence. And this force, for Spivak, was primarily
the force of the Indian People Theatres’ Association, for instance, which was an association of
leftist artists who were trying to raise social awareness, during this period of time, through
organising street theatres and through very popular songs that were introduced during
these theatres. So, Spivak also remembers these theatres and these songs, produced by
leftist artists. And indeed, political leftism and engagement
with the writings of intellectuals like Marx and Lenin, have remained prominent characteristics
of Spivak’s work. Apart from this leftist current, Spivak’s intellectual horizon was
also shaped by a thorough exposure to British literature, which she received as a student
of the University of Calcutta. After graduating in 1959, Spivak moved to the West, where she
completed her Master’s degree at Cornell university in the United States of America. And, this was followed by a year of fellowship
at the University of Cambridge. For her PhD, she again returned to Cornell university,
to work on the poetry of W B Yeats and she worked under the supervision of Paul De Mann.
And De Mann is noted for, among other things, his efforts to import the insights of Jacques
Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction into the field of literary studies. And, Spivak
too, following the lead of De Mann, has remained strongly enthusiastic about deconstruction
throughout her career as an academician. Indeed, Spivak first came to international
limelight, as a critic, when in 1976 she published an English translation of Jacques Derrida’s
“Grammatology” under the title “Of Grammatology”. And she published this translation along with
an extensive commentary on the text, which formed the Translator’s Preface. Since then, Spivak has gone on to publish
a number of books including In Other Worlds, Outside in the Teaching Machine, A Critique
of Postcolonial Reason, Death of A Discipline, Other Asias, and more recently, Aesthetic
Education in the Era of Globalization. However, as I’ve told you near the beginning of this
lecture, Spivak’s most influential and recognisable work has remained, “Can the Subaltern Speak.”
And, the first version of this essay, indeed this essay has a number of versions now, but
the first version was published in 1985 in a journal called Wedge. So, let us now turn to the notion of the subaltern
and to the question that Spivak so famously asks in the title of her essay, “Can the Subaltern
Speak”. Now, before we start exploring who or what is a subaltern, and before we start
answering can the subaltern speak or not, it is essential to clarify at the very onset
that though Spivak has occasionally been mistaken as the founder of the concept of the subaltern,
this concept does not originate in her writings. In fact in “Can the Subaltern Speak,” we see
Spivak engaging with versions of the concept of the subaltern which is already strongly
established before she came out with her essay. But the very fact that today the word subaltern
immediately conjures up the name of Spivak, tells us something about the impact that Spivak
had on elaborating the notion of the subaltern. Now, let us again return to the word subaltern.
And, as by now, I am sure you will know, my favourite habit is to first to go to a dictionary
and see what the dictionary tells us. And, in this case, if you go to a dictionary,
you will find that the original meaning of the term subaltern was a junior ranking military
officer. And this particular use of the word subaltern, in fact, is still very much prevalent
within the military even today. But in the field of critical theory, because we are concerned
with critical theory here, the term can be traced back to the writings of the early 20th
century Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci, who was a very prominent Marxist
intellectual, Marxist theoretician, used the word subaltern to signify a section of people
who were subordinate to the hegemonic groups or classes. Now, to understand this definition,
we need to first comprehend the notion of hegemony as it operates in the writings of
Gramsci. Now, in its simplest form, hegemony can be
understood as a mode of exercising authority. Now, if you think about the concept of authority,
you will notice that one of the most obvious ways in which authority can be asserted, and
is asserted, is through the exercise of brute physical force. Now, for instance, if I have
a gun, and I can terrorise you into submission, I can terrorise you into obeying my instructions,
and fulfilling my self-interest, then that will be one way of asserting my authority
over you. Right, that is very simply understood. And, we can see, how this form of asserting
and exerting authority operates within a society, if we think of the role that the police force,
for instance, plays. However, Antonio Gramsci argues, that there is also another way in
which one can exert one’s authority over another. Thus, for instance, if I can somehow convince
you that whatever I do, in my- sort of- to fulfil my self-interest, whatever I do in
my good, also serves your good, it is also in your self-interest. If I can convince you of that, then that is
a more effective way of asserting my authority over you than using physical force. Because,
if I can convince you that my self-interest is your self-interest, then you will do whatever
is required to be done for my self-interest, I mean, without any sense of external force,
you will do it willingly. Because, you have become convinced that whatever serves me,
is also good for you. So, according to Gramsci, within a society,
the ruling class mostly asserts itself, mostly asserts its authority, by this non-coercive
method. That is, by convincing the entire population that the interest of the ruling
class is the interest of the entire population. Now, this non-coercive assertion of political
authority by a particular class over other groups of people is referred to by Gramsci
as hegemony. So, as I said earlier, Hegemony in its simplest form, is actually a mode of
asserting authority. Now, to understand, how hegemony works, let
us go back to the discussion about Indian nationalism that we have had in our previous
lectures. If you remember, we had noted in those lectures, that most of the figures who
lead the charge against the British belonged to a particular social class. And, I have
referred to that social class, following Sumit Sarkar, as the middle-class. And, be it C
R Das, for instance, or M K Gandhi, or Jawaharlal Nehru, or Subhash Chandra Bose, we have seen
how all of these people, they share similar career trajectories. But, when we think about them, we do not conceive
them as middle-class heroes, but as national heroes. Heroes who spoke not on the behalf
of a particular class, the middle-class, but on the behalf of the entire nation, right.
And, Gramsci would argue that such ready acknowledgement of middle-class heroes as national heroes,
is an example of the hegemony that the middle-class has exercised in postcolonial India over all
other groups of people. And how the middle-class has managed to convince
all the other groups of people living within the subcontinent, that what is in the interest
of the middle class is also the national interest. So, according to Gramsci, if Gramsci were
to read the situation, it would be something like this, that postcolonial India has been
characterised by the hegemony of the middle-class, where the middle-class has been able to convince
the entire national population that whatever serves their interest, is also in the interest
of the nation. Which is why, for instance, we do not regard
people like M K Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, C R Das, Subhash Chandra Bose as heroes or
representatives of a particular class, but rather as national representatives. Now, this Gramscian understanding of the term
subaltern was taken up by the influential group of South-Asian historians who formed
the Subaltern Studies Collective in the 1980’s. And this group of historians, whom we refer
to as the Subaltern Studies Group, or Subaltern Studies Collective, they were primarily studying
postcolonial societies, postcolonial India, postcolonial South-Asia. And, one of the most significant figures within
this group was the historian Ranajit Guha. And, Ranajit Guha, in his essay titled, “On
Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India,” gives us an account of how the group,
Subaltern Studies Collective, was using the word subaltern. In his essay, Guha writes,
that the term subaltern is oppositionally related to the term elite. And, for Guha, who in his essay, in this particular
essay that I have just mentioned, was working for within the context of colonial India,
the term elite was constituted not only of the European colonisers, but it also included
dominant indigenous groups who had access to hegemony, either through their association
with the colonial government, or through their western-style education, or in case of big
landowners, for instance, or industrial and mercantile bourgeoisie, through their wealth. Thus, in a more general context, the term
elite, represents all the sections of a society, which have political and economic agency,
right, power to act out their self-interests and desires within the political and economic
arenas. That is what an elite is. So, in other words, the elites are the people who can intervene
and articulate their self-interests within the field of politics and economics. And, Guha defines the subaltern, because he
said that subaltern is oppositionaly related to the elite. Subaltern is the opposite of
the elite. So, Guha defines subaltern as all those people within a society, who do not
fall under the category of elite. So here, subaltern is not really defined as a special
class, or caste, or race, but rather subaltern represents a negative space or a negative
position. It is a position of disempowerment, opposition
without social or political agency, opposition without identity. Now, Spivak and “Can the
Subaltern Speak,” that essay, as I said, engages with these existing definitions of the subaltern.
So she engages both, with Antonio Gramsci, as well as with the essay of Ranajit Guha
that I have just mentioned. But, for Spivak, and this is Spivak’s intervention,
she characterises subaltern, or she identifies the characterising feature of this subaltern
position as that of being unable to speak. Again, to repeat, for Spivak, the characterising
feature of this subaltern position is that no speech is possible from here. So, in other
words, the answer to the question ‘Can the Subaltern Speak,’ according to Spivak, is
an unequivocal no. The subaltern cannot speak. Now, the terseness of this assertion has often
led to confusion about Spivak’s intent. And she has also been criticised for an attempt
to silence the subaltern but Spivak’s argument is really simple to grasp if we understand
speaking as generating discourse. Now, if you recall our discussion of Michel Foucault
and discourse, in one of our early lectures, you will know that we had defined discourse
as meaningful utterances. And, we had also discussed, how within each
society, there are checks and filters which allow certain utterances to be accepted as
discourse and certain others to be rejected. So, theoretically, though anyone can speak
or write infinitely, on any given topic under the sun, what will be accepted as discourse,
and what will not, is ultimately determined by the power equations that underline the
society. And this is a known fact. So, I am not going into further details about this. But, let me give you an example. For instance,
in a society, where the dominant power structure equates reproductive heterosexuality with
normalcy, it is very difficult, if not all-together impossible, to generate discourse regarding
the rights of homosexuals. So, the position of the homosexual in a society underlined
by reproductive heteronormativity, and reproductive heteronormativity is a term, that Spivak uses. It basically means regarding reproductive
heterosexuality as the only normal mode of sexuality- in such a society, homosexuals
take up the position of the subaltern because discourse generation about homosexuality,
by the homosexuals, become impossible in that society, which regards heterosexuality as
the norm. And, it is a position of disempowerment, opposition without any access to agency that
will enable one to define one’s own identity, and it becomes impossible to generate discourse
from within this subaltern position. Now, this is however not to say that the physical
act of speaking is impossible from within the subaltern position. But, it is to say
that this speech never gets accepted as meaningful utterances, which carries the weight of socio-political
agency, and which can articulate self-interest and self-identity. So, it has been argued
by some scholars, that rather than saying that the Subaltern cannot speak, it is more
apt to say that the subaltern cannot be heard by the society, just like the mad person cannot
be heard by the society because her speech is considered as vacuous. Now, such rephrasing of Spivak’s insight,
is perfectly alright, provided, we understand that both the statements, “subaltern cannot
speak,” and “subaltern cannot be heard,” refers to the same inability to generate discourse
from within the subaltern position. This is a complex issue. And, it will become more
clear in the next couple of lectures, where we will again take up this concept of subaltern,
and we will take up the writings of Spivak. But, we will apply them to a short story by
Mahasweta Devi. And, if we read the notion of subaltern with the help of this story by
Mahasweta Devi, which Gayatri Spivak herself has translated, I think this complex issue
about the subaltern position, as well as the possibility/impossibility of subaltern speech,
will become clearer. We will continue this discussion in our next lecture. Thank you.

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