Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

"Can the Subaltern Be Heard?": Political Theory, Translation, Representation, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

"Can the Subaltern Be Heard?": Political Theory, Translation, Representation, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Article excerpt

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. …

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