Can the Subaltern Speak?

Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea

EDITED BY ROSALIND C. MORRIS
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 336
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/morr14384
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    Can the Subaltern Speak?
    Book Description:

    Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's original essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" transformed the analysis of colonialism through an eloquent and uncompromising argument that affirmed the contemporary relevance of Marxism while using deconstructionist methods to explore the international division of labor and capitalism's "worlding" of the world. Spivak's essay hones in on the historical and ideological factors that obstruct the possibility of being heard for those who inhabit the periphery. It is a probing interrogation of what it means to have political subjectivity, to be able to access the state, and to suffer the burden of difference in a capitalist system that promises equality yet withholds it at every turn.

    Since its publication, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" has been cited, invoked, imitated, and critiqued. In these phenomenal essays, eight scholars take stock of the effects and response to Spivak's work. They begin by contextualizing the piece within the development of subaltern and postcolonial studies and the quest for human rights. Then, through the lens of Spivak's essay, they rethink historical problems of subalternity, voicing, and death. A final section situates "Can the Subaltern Speak?" within contemporary issues, particularly new international divisions of labor and the politics of silence among indigenous women of Guatemala and Mexico. In an afterword, Spivak herself considers her essay's past interpretations and future incarnations and the questions and histories that remain secreted in the original and revised versions of "Can the Subaltern Speak?"-both of which are reprinted in this book.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51285-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-18)
    Rosalind C. Morris

    Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea began as a conference, hosted by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, at Columbia University. The title was a seductive simplification, marking the spot where, it was hoped, several debates and discourses might converge in the consciousness of their debt to an extraordinary essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” penned by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak some twenty years previously. We might have subtitled the conference, or this volume, something as infelicitously expansive as Reflections on the history of some ideas about the s/Subject of history, the international division of...

  5. PART ONE Text
    • “Can the Subaltern Speak?” revised edition, from the “History” chapter of Critique of Postcolonial Reason
      (pp. 21-78)
      Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

      Women outside of the mode of production narrative mark the points of fadeout in the writing of disciplinary history even as they mime “writing as such,” footprints of the trace (of someone? something?—we are obliged mistakenly to ask) that efface as they disclose. If, as Jameson suggests, the mode of production narrative is the final reference, these women are insufficiently represented or representable in that narration. We can docket them, but we cannot grasp them at all. The possibility of possession, of being haunted, is cut by the imposition of the tough reasonableness of capital’s mode of exploitation. Or,...

  6. PART TWO Contexts and Trajectories
    • REFLECTIONS ON “CAN THE SUBALTERN SPEAK?”: SUBALTERN STUDIES AFTER SPIVAK
      (pp. 81-86)
      Partha Chatterjee

      It was terribly disappointing for me not to be present at this remarkable occasion at Columbia to reflect upon and evaluate Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” twenty years after it was first presented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne in the summer of 1983. Rosalind Morris pointed out to me that since the essay was at least partially provoked by the work of the subaltern studies group, the discussions at the conference would have been incomplete without a statement from someone associated with the group. I could not presume to speak on behalf of the entire subaltern...

    • POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES: NOW THAT’S HISTORY
      (pp. 87-99)
      Ritu Birla

      To reflect on the history of “Can the Subaltern Speak” as an idea, we are called to reflect on the idea of history as the practice of historicizing and as the narrative of subject-formation. We are also called to reflect upon the irreducible difference of historicity. Bringing these multiple meanings into play, and with unrelenting feminist praxis, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” confronts the production of subject-as-agent and the concomitant mechanics of its representation.¹ These problems also render it a formative text of postcolonial studies. Rereading it now, we are reminded that postcolonial critique should never be reducible to identity politics,...

    • THE ETHICAL AFFIRMATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS: GAYATRI SPIVAK’S INTERVENTION
      (pp. 100-114)
      Drucilla Cornell

      How are we to combine Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s insightful analysis into the complexities of political and aesthetic representation with her recent work on human rights? How does her lifelong engagement with deconstruction inform both her conceptualization and representation and the legal and moral entitlement in human rights discourse? This essay attempts to draw connections between Spivak’s relentless antipositivist critique in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” with her insistence that we must suture human rights discourse to an ethic of responsibility if we are to avoid the pitfalls of Social Darwinist liberalism. This ethic is in turn analyzed in terms of Spivak’s...

  7. PART THREE Speaking of (Not) Hearing
    • DEATH AND THE SUBALTERN
      (pp. 117-138)
      Rajeswari Sunder Rajan

      It is in the context of a renewed and pervasive connection between death and being in our times that I propose to go back to an earlier theoretical intervention that named the subject in terms of a different set of attributes, those deriving from consciousness, speech and agency.¹ These criteria have defined the project of subaltern historiography,² whose most famous theoretical elaboration is to be found in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”³ True, Spivak’s most dramatic early historical example of the colonial subject who was subaltern (that is, not elite) is the sati, the Hindu woman who...

    • BETWEEN SPEAKING AND DYING: SOME IMPERATIVES IN THE EMERGENCE OF THE SUBALTERN IN THE CONTEXT OF U.S. SLAVERY
      (pp. 139-155)
      Abdul JanMohamed

      Gayatri Spivak’s groundbreaking and widely influential essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” has powerfully enabled postcolonial and minority discourses by clearing a theoretical minefield that lay buried beneath certain Eurocentric discourses as well as beneath the phallocentric appropriation of certain traditional Vedic formulations. The hidden assumptions of these discourses, had they remained buried, would have repeatedly detonated and hence derailed many critical projects designed to excavate subaltern consciousnesses. This essay, however, will not contribute to the further clearing of specific minefields, important and necessary though it may be; instead, I will take up the spirit of her essay, or at least...

    • SUBALTERNS AT WAR: FIRST WORLD WAR COLONIAL FORCES AND THE POLITICS OF THE IMPERIAL WAR GRAVES COMMISSION
      (pp. 156-176)
      Michèle Barrett

      The First World War is currently being interpreted in a postcolonial context. The traditional focus on the trench warfare of the Western Front, with perhaps a nod toward the war at sea and the casualties on the Eastern Front, is giving way to a less Eurocentric perspective.¹ The role played by colonial soldiers, in the British case particularly the Indian Army, is attracting renewed attention.² A glance at one of the popular atlases of the war is enough to indicate just how much the war (which was being fought by the imperial powers for imperial motives) involved military action in...

  8. PART FOUR Contemporaneities and Possible Futures:: (Not) Speaking and Hearing
    • BIOPOWER AND THE NEW INTERNATIONAL DIVISION OF REPRODUCTIVE LABOR
      (pp. 179-212)
      Pheng Cheah

      The signal contribution of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” to contemporary critical theory is its immanent critique of theory’s material embeddedness in global capitalism. What struck me when I first read the essay, and what still impresses me today, is the sharp manner in which Spivak exposed the myriad ways in which Michel Foucault’s and Gilles Deleuze’s accounts of power were ideologically blind to the international division of labor (IDL). Spivak’s essay thus follows a classical gesture of one of Marx’s own practices of ideology-critique: the critique of forms of knowledge such as Hegelian idealism and British...

    • MOVING ON FROM SUBALTERNITY: INDIGENOUS WOMEN IN GUATEMALA AND MEXICO
      (pp. 213-224)
      Jean Franco

      In 2003, Gayatri Spivak was invited by the Latin American Studies Association to give a keynote address at its conference. It is unusual for a non–Latin American specialist who is not a secretary of state or a Washington presence to be invited. Among members of the audience was the Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú, around whom millions of words have been uttered, and a number of academics who had helped form a Latin American subaltern studies group, founded on the model of the Indian subaltern studies. The initiative had foundered on disagreements and on the incongruity of ostentatiously not representing...

  9. PART FIVE In Response
    • IN RESPONSE: LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD
      (pp. 227-236)
      Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

      “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was delivered as “Power and Desire” at the Institute on “Marxist Interpretations of Culture: Limits, Frontiers, Boundaries,” in the summer of 1983. That version was never published. It was an exciting occasion, held in the evening. In the audience were my student Forest Pyle, now teaching at the University of Oregon, Jenny Sharpe, now teaching at UCLA; new friend Patricia Clough, then a student, now teaching at CUNY; Peter Hitchcock, a cool stranger recently arrived from England, now teaching at Baruch; Hap Veeser, whom I did not then know, but now a good friend, then a...

  10. APPENDIX CAN THE SUBALTERN SPEAK ?
    (pp. 237-292)
    Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
  11. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 293-308)
  12. CONTRIBUTORS
    (pp. 309-312)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 313-324)