"Can the subaltern be heard?": political theory, translation, representation, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

Author:Maggio, J.
Position:Critical essay
 
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Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" questions the notion of the colonial (and Western) "subject" and provides an example of the limits of the ability of Western discourse, even postcolonial discourse, to interact with disparate cultures. This article suggests that these limits can be (partially) overcome. Where much commentary on Spivak focuses on her reading of Marx through the prism of Derrida, and on her contention that the "native informant" is simultaneously created and destroyed, I contends that Spivak's terms of engagement always imply a liberal-independent subject that is actively speaking. Moreover, given the limits of understanding implied by Spivak's essay, I advocate a reading of culture(s) based on the assumption that all actions offer a communicative role, and that one can understand cultures by translating the various conducts of their culture. On this basis I argue that the title of Spivak's essay might be more accurately stated as "Can the Subaltern Be Heard?" Keywords: Spivak, postcolonial, culture, translation, political theory

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Along with Edward Said's Orientalism, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" is probably the most influential work in the field of postcolonial theory. (1) Its impact has spanned "across the disciplines of history, anthropology, sociology, literary studies, women studies and cultural studies, amongst others." (2) In her famous essay, Spivak questions the notion of the colonial (and Western) "subject." She argues that European intellectuals have assumed that they know the "other" and can place it in the context of the narrative of the oppressed: "[I]ntellectuals must attempt to disclose and know the discourse of society's Other." (3) In fact, through this act of epistemic knowing/violence, the essentialization of the other is always the reinforcement of the menace of empire. As Spivak writes: 'There is no more dangerous pastime than transposing proper names into common nouns, translating, and using them as sociological evidence." (4) All transcendental cultural logic is, at its heart, imperialistic. (5)

Like Said, Spivak wants to expose the complicit nature of literature and the intellectual elite, which often appears innocent in the political realm of oppression. (6) The intellectual elite of the Western (and sub-Western) academy pretends to be blameless in the arena of colonialism. In other words, Western thought "masquerades as disinterested history, even when the critic presumes to touch its unconscious." (7) The academy is both part of the problem and part of the solution. Spivak writes, "I think it is important to acknowledge our complicity in the muting, in order precisely to be more effective in the long run." Hence, the intellectual Western scholar is almost in a Derridean paradox, setting the limits of discourse as well as expelling the nondiscourse.

Given these limits of discourse, Spivak is always aware that "theory" may have limited value to the subaltern. (8) In fact, though Spivak wants to make, for example, "feminism" more theoretical, she recognizes that the subaltern "cannot be served by the call for more theory in Anglo-American (society)." (9) Theory, though powerful, cannot act as an elixir to the issues of the subaltern. Hence, the initial question is what is the role of the academy, and whether there is a liberating place for the intellectual desires of studying the subaltern.

This sets the intellectual in a rather bizarre position, and it is a position where simple multicultural liberalism cannot be a solution. (10) Although liberalism seeks neutrality, it actually destroys all difference. As J. G. A. Pocock writes: "[The narrative of the oppressed] will be part of the history of [liberalism's capacity to absorb all difference] and will reinforce the capacity itself." (11) In fact, on Spivak's account, even the radically postmodern "subject" is still colonial. (12) Yet there is a desire, even a need, to "develop resources to begin to talk about culture as a multiplicity of trajectories." (13)

Given this desire to communicate with (and about) the subaltern, in this article I argue that Spivak's landmark essay provides an example of the limits of the ability of Western discourse, even postcolonial discourse, to interact with disparate cultures. Yet this is an example that can be (somewhat) overcome. Whereas most of Spivak's commentators (both critics and admirers) have focused on issues of subjectivity/difference/alterity, or, as Terry Eagleton writes, on Spivak's attempt to be "as obscurantist as you can decently get away with," (14) I offer a reading that challenges the conventional interpretation of Spivak's essay. Most interpreters of Spivak have noted that she is asserting that all claims to subjectivity, even "postmodern" subjectivity, are at their foundation a form of neocolonialism. In this sense, Spivak's scholarship focuses on her reading of Marx through the prism of Derrida, on her contention that the "native informant" is simultaneously created and destroyed. In contrast, I contend that Spivak's terms of engagement always imply a liberal-independent subject that is actively speaking.

Yet it is presumptuous to assume that all cultures speak a similar language of "identity." Hence, the "best" a Western critic (citizen) can do is "open up" the way he/she listens and understands. I suggest that an effective way to do this--to "translate" the non-Western--is to try to understand all actions as a form of communication and to construe such communication on its own terms. Given the limits of understanding implied by Spivak's essay, I advocate a reading of culture(s) based on the assumption that all actions, to a certain extent, offer a communicative role. Hence, one can understand a culture by translating the various conducts of their cultures. By adopting this more open-ended view of discourse and communication, one that aspires to not privilege Western (or any) culture, one can attempt to understand across cultures. With this critique in mind, I assert that the title of Spivak's essay might be more accurately stated as "Can the Subaltern Be Heard?"

Marx, Derrida, and Spivak's (Non)Speaking Subaltern

The notion of the subaltern can be daunting because it is often "employed far too vaguely to denote 'oppression' or 'otherness.'" (15) Spivak resists this definition, though she offers only a description of the subaltern. Of course, such a definition/description is interesting because it reinforces the notion that the subaltern can be situated only in the context of the imperial power. In this sense, Spivak's (non)definition acts as an aegis against the accusation of her creating a metaphilosophy.

Of course, such metaphilosophies are exactly what Spivak wants to avoid. This is partially why she takes aim at certain applications of Marxism. To scrutinize Marxism's relation to the subaltern, Spivak analyzes Marx's notion of "representation," as well as examining two thinkers influenced by Marx: Foucault and Deleuze. If Edward Said attempted to blend the work of Foucault and Gramsci, then Spivak seeks to drive a Derridean wedge between the two thinkers. In fact, as noted above, one can read Spivak as attempting to read Marx through Derrida, to understand a Marx where the "use-value is something of a theoretical fiction" and "questions of origin become questions of process." (16) As Forest Pyle suggests, Derrida's work acts as a sort of "lever" for Spivak in questioning the foundations of the Western philosophical traditions. (17) And in questioning these foundations, Spivak, unlike Said, seeks to resurrect a "usable Marx." (18)

This "usable Marx" cannot be based on antediluvian notions of representation. Marx, on Spivak's account, uses two German terms for the verb to represent. They are vertreten, which means something like "to fill in for" or "to stand in the place of," and darstellan, which implies a "re-presentation." These terms are confused (in translations) when Marx writes: "The small peasant proprietors cannot represent themselves; they must be represented." (19) However, in other languages both terms are characterized generally as represent. Yet "[t]hese two senses of representation--within state formation and the law, on the one hand, and in subject-prediction, on die other--are related but irreducibly discontinuous." (20)

Vertreten implies a total understanding of the subject being "represented." It is almost as if the representative has the total "agency" of the subject--a complete "filling in." In contrast, dartelling is about representing a "constituency." "[I]t is not about giving voice but is concerned with constituting, working for, representing for and with, the marginalized group." (21) Hence, the Western approach to the subaltern is either to speak for or to silently let them speak for themselves. Both strategies silence the subaltern because they ignore the positional relations of the dominant to the subaltern.

Thus the amalgamation of the two notions of representation establishes a silencing of the subaltern. They can never speak because they are both being "stood in for" and "embodied" by others in the dominant discourse. Using "Marxist" terms, the relationship between global capitalism and national alliance cannot explain the "textures of power." (22) In other words, the Marxists silence the subaltern by (re)presenting them in discourse in which they have no speaking role. Spivak writes that "the banality of leftist intellectuals' lists of self-knowing, politically canny subalterns stands revealed; representing them, the intellectuals represent themselves as transparent." (23) In other words, the representation of the other destroys the subjectivity of the subaltern.

Spivak notes that Deleuze's focus on the "workers' struggle" is characteristic of his Eurocentrism. It is a "genuflection." (24) There is no way, for example, in which Deleuze can...

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