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Subaltern Ethico-politics
Subaltern Ethico-politics
Ethico-politics and the Subaltern
The subaltern might be summarized as spaces cut off from the lines of social mob
ility, or as women and men outside the lines of socio-economic class mobility, p
articularly rural illiterate women and men of the global south. Those active in
such spaces are illegible to those who occupy the space produced by complicity w
ith the patriarchal state and the secular liberal European imaginary, so communi
cation from and with the subaltern is troubled by foundational problems of the p
olitics of knowledge and action.
The term as classically defined in the writings of Antonio Gramsci (on southern
peasants) has meant a worker outside of systems of industrial production, someth
ing like a subproletariat, generally small-scale agrarian workers characterized
by weak socio-political consciousness. The term was adapted from Gramsci by the
Subaltern Studies group in India of historians and critics to emphasize rural r
esistance to British colonial rule in India, associating the term subaltern with
armed anticolonial insurgencies. Gayatri Spivak intervened in this approach by
recognizing that the subaltern was gendered and not easy to understand or even n
ame. And the term has spread to use in understanding rural and urban areas in La
tin America, East and Southeast Asia, Africa, and other regions.
Demographically subalterns might be understood in Spivak s writings to mean someth
ing like peasants and fisherfolk of the global south (Responsibility 88, 93). Re
adings or locations to start to understand the historical conditions of the suba
ltern might include Samir Amin s Unequal Development or, for works more centered o
n women s labor, Noeleen Heyzer s Daughters in Industry, Dignity and Daily Bread by
Swasti Mitter and Shiela Rowbotham, or Allen and Wolkowitz s Homeworking. (Subalt
ern Talk 294)
Examples of the subaltern include the illiterate rural women of the global south
that Spivak emphasizes in her work, including children in two aboriginal pocket
s of western West Bengal, India, and in southern Yunnan, China, where she has co
nstructed schools to work with subalterns. Other examples from fiction of subalt
erns include several figures found in the stories of Mahasweta Devi, such as the
pterodactyl in her story of that name and a number of women characters (e.g., J
ashoda, in the story Stanyadini translated by Spivak as Breast-Giver ). Insurgents wh
o might be considered subaltern include Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, about whom Spivak
wrote her initial article on the subaltern, and several figures prominent in the
fictional works of Mahasweta Devi (Draupadi; The Hunt ). Spivak has also written a
bout Assia Djebar, who includes Lla Zohra and other figures among the Algerian m
ujahidat or women freedom-fighters that she mentions in her autobiographical wor
k, Fantasia.
Spivak notes that gender is important in considering the subaltern ( Subaltern Stu
dies 226-32), so she has at times emphasized rural, illiterate women of the globa
l south, as in the Sahel, West Bengal, Bangladesh, southern Yunnan China, Afghan
istan, and elsewhere. Yet subalterns are also found in urban settings, as in the
low-income housing tracts of Wahran, Algeria, where Spivak worked in the early
1990s, or urban homeless and school dropout populations. Urban subalterns might
be compared usefully to what Fanon and some Marxists call the lumpenproletariat,
a population of often illiterate unemployed and underemployed urban underclass.
Spivak has also worked with examples of middle class women in developing her no

tion of the subaltern, as in her references to the suicide of Bhubaneswari Bhadu

ri in her foundational article on whether the Subaltern can speak and in her dep
loyment of the fiction of Mahasweta Devi, a journalist and teacher.
However Spivak and others warn against considering the subaltern in demographic
terms, however, given the association of demography with the pervasive surveilla
nce and the biopower of the state. She suggests instead thinking of the subalte
rn as a space obstructed from class mobility or from structures and institutions
that would allow the grievances and other speech of the subaltern to be recogni
zable and gain traction. ( In Response 228, 233-34) This space is cut off from what
is sometimes called the public sphere ( Resistance 72-3) or what Spivak variously
calls the the space produced by patriarchal complicity, namely the state or the sp
ace of those trained in the liberal European secular imaginary (Not Virgin 175), m
aking the speech and writing of the subaltern illegible to those who occupy thes
e other spaces. In other words, the silence of the subaltern is not literal sil
ence, but more of a blockage or aporia caused by the assumptions of Eurocentric,
liberal Enlightenment humanism. ("Can the Subaltern Speak 306).
Once the blockage between subaltern spaces and the space of the modern liberal s
tate becomes legible, Spivak urges a politics of decolonization of the mind and
behavior through negotiation with the often unrecognized founding violences of m
odern language and agency ( The Politics of Translation 181-3; Ethics and Politics n.
3, p. 18). Such an approach to the subaltern makes possible a refusal of the ap
propriations through modern logic and reason of disruptions in normal modern langu
age, history, and liberal presumptions to agency that otherwise would be carried
out on the assumption of the knowability, solidarity, and similitude with the s
ubaltern Other. ( French Feminism Revisited 170, 183; Ethics and Politics 22) Rather
than minimalizing these disruptions, considering the subaltern may refuse to be
articulated and appropriated under the normal of modern history, reason, and langu
This refusal allows for knowledge and action that gesture towards that which is
outside the historical limits language imposes on reason and for contesting neoc
olonial knowledge practices and the modern liberal family and nation-state. ( Ethi
cs and Politics 17-21, 23-26) Concrete examples of that which is outside the hist
orical limits modern language imposes on reason are scattered through Spivak s wri
tings, but might include the ways that an activist s speech to the World Bank is s
taged ( Responsibility 91-2), the erasure of possible women s solidarity through the
translation of descriptions of gendered violence (Death 61-4), or how English tr
anslations of Marx obliterate the specific task of collective, class consciousne
ss ( Subaltern Studies 214-6).
Spivak s early article on the difficulties of hearing the subaltern speak conclude
d with a brief discussion of the suicide of a young woman who had not been able
to be heard even when she made the effort to the death to speak. (Subaltern Talk
292) This notion of speaking is based on the linguistic theory of J.L. Austin,
who argued that for the speech act to be complete requires someone who can hear
the speech effectively, together with a careful reading of Marx on how workers c
an establish ways to make class resistance gain traction and a foothold in socie
ty. ( In Response 233) In the case of Bhaduri s suicide, the difficulties in hearing
the speech of the subaltern were not because of any lack of effort of subalterns
to represent the self or their collective resistance. The difficulty that those
educated in modern societies have in hearing and understanding the subaltern is
due to a combination of the lack of appropriate infrastructure as well as a fai
lure of responsibility in those addressed by the subaltern ( Responsibility 93). S
ubalterns work to represent themselves outside of the lines of representation la

id down by official institutions of representation, so their speech does not hav

e a structure or institution where it can count, so it ultimately does not catch
or hold. ( Subaltern Talk 306 ; In Response 233)
One goal of work to hear and understand the subaltern is to find ethical ways to
enter into relations of responsibility for those of us who are not subalterns (
Death 69; 101-2), to build structures that facilitate accountability to those wh
o generally go unrecognized and unheard. This may take the form of a kind of hau
nting by the subaltern, understood as a persistent effort to recognize the limit
s of generalizations and identifications as they persistently erase their inevit
able exclusions, their subalterns (Death 52-3). This notion of the subaltern cha
llenges activists and critics to rethink the limits of recognizability for activ
ism and revolutionary struggle. More precisely, this challenge invites us to wor
k to build institutions and organizations that would be able to respond to the s
ubaltern when they carry out resistance that erases the axioms and assumptions t
hat undergird modern and/or colonizing notions of justice, democracy, gender, or
class. ( In Response 228; Resistance )
Other goals for subaltern work are seen where Spivak has worked in sites where t
he impossibility of social mobility is accepted as normality, what might be refe
rred to as the underside of poverty in West Bengal, India, southern Yunnan, Chin
a, and elsewhere. ( In Response 229) Her work consistently intervenes in this norm
ality to carry out what she terms the uncoercive rearrangement of desires, the nu
rturing of the intuition of the public sphere. This work is to be contrasted with
the modernist projects of bettering the world through poverty or disease eradic
ation, exporting democracy forcefully, or exporting information and communicatio
ns technology. ( In Response 230) The ultimate goal of this work is in the possibili
ty of creating an infrastructure here as well as there which would make the suba
ltern not accept subalternity as normality. ( In Response 235) Such an infrastructu
re is grounded in the refusal of the situational imperatives and codings of thei
r historical conditions, as Bhaduri did, to animate alternative subjects to chal
lenge the broader scenario of Realpolitik. (Foucault and Najibullah 149)
By refusing class apartheid and supplementing internal class relations and hegem
onic institutions, this work can reject the emergence into class mobility in ter
ms only of reproducing what Paulo Freiere called sub-oppressors (Foucault and Naji
bullah 149). Instead, subaltern work may learn how to instead practice justice t
hat responds to the subaltern and animates alternatives as part of the wars of m
aneuver signaled by Gramsci. ( In Response 232) In this conception, emerging out of
the subaltern spaces blocked from access to mobility by hegemonic institutions
does not mean emerging into the working class or the middle class under capitali
st exploitation, as seen in sweatshops or urban prostitution. Rather this emerge
nce is the constructive crisis of the subaltern, where former subalterns instead
come into full citizenship in democratic nations that have heretofore denied th
em institutional rights and secular freedoms. ( More on Power/Knoweldge 45)
In this line of thinking the possibility of the subaltern operates more as a rem
inder or a warning when we may think we have solved a socio-political or intelle
ctual problem, rather than as a placeholder for a particular class or group. Th
is warning unravels the possibility of any universalizable generalization, opera
ting as a sort of space of difference which challenges us to enter into a relati
on or structure of ethics and responsibility. ( Subaltern Talk 293) Such an ethical
structure allows responses to flow both ways in the relationship, where learnin
g may take place without presumptions about doing good from a space of cultural
or material supremacy. ( Subaltern Talk 293)

In concrete political and ethical terms this means that activists, public critic
s, and researchers may pursue many different projects. Among the many examples
of such projects that Spivak has highlighted include the persistent short-term in
itiatives of local self-management against the financialization of the globe that b
rings subalternity to [constructive] crisis. ( 1996: Foucault and Najibullah 156 &
n. 65). Other such projects might include developing subsistence and small- and l
arge-market farming for the constitution of the subject for democratic freedom. ( 1996
: Foucault and Najibullah 157) They may also include reading and teaching in the
ways Spivak has elaborated in her writing on comparative literature (Death) and
pedagogy. ( Outside in the Teaching Machine ; How to Teach ; Explanation )
The fruitful and constructive aspect of Spivak s notion of the subaltern is that i
t directs us to give attention to the distant but necessary horizon of the end o
f exploitation ( Subaltern Studies 214-5). This moment might be variously conceive
d as the time when all subalterns have been brought into the circuit of parliame
ntary democracy ( Subaltern Talk 307), the moment when subaltern space is undone an
d is no longer be inhabited demographically. This moment might also be understoo
d as a time when customary practices have become vehicles for change (rather tha
n markers of backwardness under capitalism), and the boundaries of class, gender
, and other difference are no longer meaningful materially or intellectually. ( Su
baltern Talk 308, 295-96) Or it might be a time in the future beyond the reversal
s of capital logic advocated by left labor organizing or of the colonized-decolo
nized divide where decolonization is recognized as a misleading term. ( More on Po
wer/Knowledge 164) Working towards these ends make not only ethics and responsibi
lity possible, but also a justice outside the pale of modern legal notions of th
e law and justice. It is this move beyond the limits of modern language and noti
ons of the real, outside the travesties of modern institutions such as the state a
nd juridical apparatuses, and dislodging Enlightenment assumptions and practices
that considerations of the subaltern invites.
Subaltern further reading:
General Readings:
Chaturvedi, Vinayak, Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial, Verso, 2000
Cherniavsky, Eve, Subaltern Studies in a United States Frame, boundary 2, 23.2 (19
96): 85-110.
Cooper, Frederick, Conflict and Connection: Rethinking African History, American H
istorical Review, 99.5 (1994): 1516-45.
Guha, Ranajit, A Subaltern Studies Reader: 1986-1995, Univ. Minnesota Press, 199
Guha, Ranajit and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ed., Selected Subaltern Studies, O
xford Univ. Pr., 1988.
Kapoor, Ilan, Hyper-self-reflexive Development? Spivak on Representing the Third
World Other , Third World Quarterly, 25.4 (2004): 627-47.
Latin American Subaltern Studies Group, Founding Statement, boundary 2, 20.3 (1993
): 110-21.
Pandey, Gyanendra, ed., Subaltern Citizens and their Histories: Investigations f
rom India and the U.S., Routledge, 2010. JQ220 M5 S83 2010
Poitevin, Guy, The Voice and the Will: Subaltern Agency, 2002.
Rodriguez, Ileana, ed., The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader, Duke Univ.
Pr., 2001.
Verdisio, Gustavo, Latin American Subaltern Studies Revisited, Dispositio/n, 25 (2
005): 5-42.

Winant, Howard, Gayatri Spivak on the Politics of the Subaltern, Socialist Review
20.3 (1990): 81-97.
Gayatri Spivak on the Subaltern:
Spivak Articles for general audiences:
In Response, Can the Subaltern Speak: Reflections on the History of an Idea, New Y
ork: Columbia Univ. Pr., 2010, 227-36.
"Looking Back, Looking Forward," in R. Morris, ed. Can the Subaltern Speak: Refl
ections on the History of an Idea (2010)
Not Really a Properly Intellectual Response,
in Conversations with Gayatri Chakra
vorty Spivak, 87-135.
Not Virgin Enough to Say that (S)he Occupies the Place of the Other, Outside in th
e Teaching Machine, 173-78.
Resistance that Cannot be Recognized as Such, in Conversations with Gayatri Chakra
vorty Spivak, 57-86.
Subaltern Talk interview 1996 (in The Spivak Reader), 287-308.
Spivak Technical articles:
Can Subaltern Speak? (first given as 1983 talk without reference to Bhaduri; pub.
in Wedge; then revised version pub. In Carey & Nelson, ed., Marxsm and the Inter
pretation of Culture Carey & Nelson vol. version became standard; revised again in
Critique of Postcolonial Reason)(repr. in Can the Subaltern Speak: The History
of an Idea)
Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching, diacritics
, 32.2-4 (fall-winter 2002): 17-31.
Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography (in The Spivak Reader).
Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 1999: Revised Can Subaltern Speak found in History
chapter, esp. 269-311 (repr. in Can the Subaltern Speak: The History of an Idea)
"Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular," _Postcolonial Studies
_ (2005 (1987))
Response to Schmitt and Poststructuralism, Cardozo Law Review, 2001.
Death of a Discipline, Columbia Univ. Pr., 2003.
The Politics of Translation , Outside in theTeaching Machine, 179-200 (orig. 1992).
Righting Wrongs (repr. In Other Asias, 2008), esp. 43-57.
1992: Testing Theory in the Plains (repr. In Other Asias, 2008), es
p. 88-96.
"Discussion: An Afterword on the New Subaltern," in Partha Chatterjee and Pradee
p Jeganathan, eds., Community, Gender, and Violence: Subaltern Studies XI (2000)

Other authors useful for understanding Spivak on the subaltern:

Devi, Mahasweta, Chotti Munda and His Arrow, Trans. and Intro., Gayatri Chakravo
rti Spivak, Blackwell, 2003 (1980).
---. Draupadi by Mahasveta Devi, Trans. and Foreword, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, C
ritical Inquiry, 8.2 (1981): 381-402.
---. The Hunt, and Pterodactyl,
in Imaginary Maps; s.a. Spivak preface and intervie
---. Stanyadini.
(trans. Spivak, A Literary Representation of the Subaltern: A Wom
an s Text from the Third World, in Spivak, In Other Worlds, p. 241-6)
Djebar, Assia, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, Heinemann, 1993 (1985).
---. Far from Medina, Quartet, 1994.
Rosalind Morris, ed., Can the Subaltern Speak: The History of an Idea (essay col

Stephen Morton, Subaltern Studies, Gayatri Spivak, 95-123.

Mark Sanders, Translating Devi, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Live Theory, 38-48.