Subaltern

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  • Topic: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Jacques Derrida, Postcolonialism
  • Pages : 41 (12443 words )
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  • Published : December 19, 2012
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Can the Subaltern Speak
This is what I have understood of her extremely complex essay. It's also what I have submitted as my assignment.

Can the Subaltern Speak?

- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (b.1942) was born in India and educated at both Indian and American universities. She is well-known for her translation of and preface to Derrida's/Of Grammatology and her influential essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In the essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" she is primarily concerned with the issue of whether people who have been historically dispossessed or exploited by European colonialism are able to achieve a voice.

The term subaltern conventionally refers to a junior ranking officer in the British army. The Italian Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci, used the term interchangeably to mean subordinate or non-hegemonic groups or classes, specifically the unorganized groups of rural peasants based in Southern Italy. The Subaltern Studies Collective developed the term further to include the subordinates in South Asian society. Their use of the tern 'subaltern' encompassed the continued oppression of rural peasantry, working class and the untouchables in post-independenceIndia. Spivak, however, felt that the Subaltern Studies Group privileged the male as the primary agent of change and she believed that the word should have a more flexible definition so as to include the lives of women and their histories.

Spivak, using nuanced arguments, moves the essay from a critique of current Western efforts to problematize the subject to the question of the representation of the third world subject within the Western discourse. She begins by stating that some of the most radical criticism coming from the West is a result of the West conserving itself as the Subject by talking about, narrativising or othering the East. She refers to critics like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze who emphasize that a. it is counterproductive to reduce the networks of power/desire/interest because they are so heterogeneous and b. intellectuals must attempt to disclose and know the discourse of the Other. Both these critics, Spivak points out, 'ignore the question of ideology and their own implication in intellectual and economic history.' She then proceeds to question their use of two master terms, namely, ‘A Maoist' and ' the worker's struggle'. The use of essentialist terms such as the ones mentioned above assumes a cultural solidarity for a group that is heterogeneous in nature and the use of these terms by intellectuals such as Foucault and Deleuze casts the intellectual in the role of a medium who represents the voice of the oppressed. However, it is only possible to represent another through one's own value system.

Constituting the colonial subject as the other is an example of what Foucault terms ‘epistemic violence’, which is the imposition of a given set of beliefs over another. Foucault locates an epistemic overhaul in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century and Spivak proposes that the epistemic violence carried out in the nations that were colonized byEurope was a consequence of this epistemic overhaul. Spivak explains the notion of epistemic violence with the example of the British reformulation of the Hindu legal system and reveals that such epistemic violence is kept alive by the establishment of one explanation and narrative of reality as the normative one. Spivak goes on to indicate that on ‘the margins of the circuit marked out by epistemic violence are men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals’. According the Foucault and Deleuze, the oppressed if given a chance can speak out or revolt, in other words, Spivak, while pointing out that in the discourse of the First World or Europe the subaltern can ‘speak and know their conditions’ asks ‘can the subaltern on the other side, the third world, speak?’

Gayatri Spivak also considers the works of The Subaltern Studies Collective which...
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