Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is an unsettling voice in literary theory and especially, postcolonial studies. She has describes herself as a “practical deconstructionist feminist Marxist” and as a “gadfly”. She uses deconstruction to examine "how truth is constructed" and to deploy the assertions of one intellectual and political position (such as Marxism) to "interrupt" or "bring into crisis" another (feminism, for example). In her work, she combines passionate denunciations of the harm done to women, non-Europeans, and the poor by the privileged West with a persistent questioning of the grounds on which radical critique takes its stand.
Her continual interrogation of assumptions can make Spivak difficult to read. But her restless critiques connect directly to her ethical aspiration for a "politics of the open end," in which deconstruction acts as a "safeguard" against the repression or exclusion of "alterities"-that is, people, events, or ideas that are radically "other" to the dominant worldview. She writes against the "epistemic violence" done by discourses of knowledge that carve up the world and condemn to oblivion the pieces that do not easily fit. Characteristically, she does not claim to avoid such violence herself; rather, she self-consciously explores structures of violence without assuming a final, settled position. Can the Subaltern Speak?
"Can the Subaltern Speak?" may be Spivak's best-known essay; it is certainly her most controversial. Postcolonial critics, like many feminists, want to give silenced others a voice. But Spivak worries that even the most benevolent effort merely repeats the very silencing it aims to combat. After all, colonialists often thought of themselves as well-intentioned. Spivak points to the British outlawing of sati, the Hindu practice of burning a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. While this intervention saved some lives and may have given women a modicum of free choice, it also served to secure British power in India and to underscore the asserted difference between British "civilization" and Indian "barbarism." Hindu culture was driven underground, written out of law, denied any legitimacy. Can today's intellectuals avoid a similar condescension when they represent the oppressed? What is Subaltern?
A subaltern, according to the dictionary, is a person holding a subordinate position, originally a junior officer in the British army. But Spivak draws on the term's nuances. It has particularly rich connotations for the Indian subcontinent because the Anglo-Indian writer Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) so often viewed imperialism from the ambivalent position of the' subaltern functionary in the complex colonial hierarchy, caught between detested superiors and feared "natives." The Italian Marxist theorist ANTONIO GRAMSCI later applied the term to the unorganized masses that must be politicized for the workers' revolution to succeed. In the 1980s the Subaltern Studies Group (a collective of radical historians in India with whom Spivak maintains ties) appropriated the term, focusing their attention on the disenfranchised peoples of India. The "subaltern" always stands in an ambiguous relation to power-subordinate to it but never fully consenting to its rule, never adopting the dominant point of view or vocabulary as expressive of its own identity. Subalterns, in the Indian context are defined as those who did not comprise the colonial elite- such as the lesser rural gentry, impoverished lamdlords, rich peasants and upper middle class peasants. "One must nevertheless insist that the colonized subaltern subject is irretrievably heterogeneous," declares Spivak. Can this difference be articulated? And if so, by whom?
As a way of mounting her critique of the scholars’ assumptions concerning the subaltern in colonial texts, Spivak begins by turning first to the work of poststructuralist thinkers such as Michael Foucault and...