Colorblinding is bringing me back to the days of Bad Subjects forum in the early to mid90s. And school. Thanks.
Believe it or not, “Can the subaltern speak” is still super relevant in poco today!
Wanted to have a link to “Can the Subaltern SPeak?” on my blog, though I will say that I have frequently voiced annoyance over the extended reading of Foucault and Deleuze and the way Spivak concludes by saying, “well, that’s why Derrida is more political than Foucault and Deleuze, JUST SAYIN.” But that is reductive and everyone should really read this essay.
Well the thing is, Spivak’s critique of Foucault and Deleuze in terms of how they talk about resistance is extremely relevant and important, and I would even say it is completely on the mark. I do think that her valorization of Derrida and deconstruction as the best thing ever is really kind of annoying because she performs the work of theoretical imperialism, especially as deconstruction is a Western methodology and discourse. And therefore any attempt to actually represent/re-present the subaltern within that discourse, even with a methodology such as deconstruction, would result in silencing the subaltern who cannot enter that discourse.
I just dug up some notes on Spivak’s article that I wrote for a discussion on “Can the subaltern speak” recently:
“The subaltern as female cannot be heard or read… The subaltern cannot speak.” This assessment of the subaltern’s ability to self-represent concludes Spivak’s interrogation of the Western intellectual’s attempt to represent/re-present the subaltern as a subject capable of forming a class that might somehow gain a voice of resistance as a collective oppressed group. For Spivak, there are a number of problems at work here: not only does the intellectual’s attempt to represent the subaltern as a subject produce subaltern identity as always the “shadow of the Self,” in an intellectual constitution of “the colonial subject as Other,” (281) but also, because the subaltern exists subordinate but in ambiguous relation to the discursive power structure of cultural imperialism, he/she is incapable of ever speaking/representing within that system. It is in this sense that when intellectuals speak for/represent subaltern “subjectivity” (which Spivak seems to suggest does not exist due to the heterogeneous state of subaltern identity), they only succeed in “represent[ing] themselves as transparent” (275).
What is represented then, is not the subaltern, but the intellectual, who performs an act of epistemic violence through what might as well be considered intellectual imperialism in valorizing “the ‘oppressed’ as subject and in so doing circumvent the difficulty of the task of ‘counterhegemonic ideological production’ by adopting a ‘positivist empiricism—the justifying foundation of advanced capitalist neocolonialism’” (Spivak qtd. in Caroline Hau 148). In other words, intellectual romanticization of the oppressed thereby essentializes the subaltern through an imposition of the very colonialist discourse that is meant to be the subject of critique. By always representing the “oppressed” subaltern as the third world victim who requires first world western intervention and salvation, or homogenizing the subaltern experience as one that necessitates a collective subjectivity that will somehow liberate itself from the very system of oppression that denies the subaltern any entry, the intellectual only serves to silence the very subaltern voice he/she attempts to represent.
The subaltern it seems, can only gain admission not as a speaking subject, but as a spoken-for subject within this system—an abjected other whose existence outside of legitimate fields of intelligibility and discourse makes impossible the task of self-representation. Spivak’s article suggests that even if the subaltern were to attempt to speak for him/herself, the imperialistic performance of Western logocentricism would thereby function as a mechanism of silence in the very attempt at self-representation.
What recourse, then, does the subaltern have to self-represent? If the subaltern cannot speak, and exists only as a perpetually mute subject (or perhaps “object” is a better word here, if we consider Spivak’s critique of suggesting the possibility of a subaltern subject as imperialistic), then to what extent can the subaltern represent/be represented? How do we, as intellectuals, think through and talk about, or attempt to represent the subaltern, when we are told our attempts to represent are necessarily violent and imperialistic? Spivak concludes, “Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with flourish” (308), yet it is not clear what she means with this conclusion. She seems to suggest that despite the difficulty (or seeming impossibility) of subaltern representation, there is some possibility of representation; yet this “circumscribed task” (which I assume refers to an intellectual task of representation circumscribed by the language of Western imperialism) must not be disowned. The ambiguity of Spivak’s language is not only frustrating, but also does not seem to suggest a strategy or solution to the very problem she wrestles with throughout her article, other than to elevate Derridean deconstruction of ideology over Foucauldian and Deleuzean methodologies. The self-reflexivity of deconstruction by “rendering delirious that interior voice that is the voice of the other in us” (Derrida qtd in Spivak 308) may seem to offer the only path an intellectual might embark upon in attempting to talk about the subaltern; yet, we might also consider the fact that deconstruction as such is also a product of Western intellectualism, and therefore the act of deconstruction would also be a performance of the intellectual imperialism Spivak critiques.
It seems almost that if we were to hold Spivak’s assessment of subaltern representation as the barometer against which we perform all intellectual work, there would therefore be no point for an intellectual sensitive to these issues to even attempt to embark upon this impossible task of representing the subaltern. However, Caroline Hau suggests that Spivak does not think through how “the intellectual can contribute to enriching the knowledge of social relations other than her own, a knowledge that, Spivak agrees, is crucial to the transformation of consciousness” (152). This, I suppose, is the primary question around which all my other questions are organized: is a female intellectual always only enriching her own knowledge and producing herself transparently when she attempts to represent and/or think through the subaltern? Or is there a possibility of a contribution to subaltern political struggle that does not necessarily perform an act of epistemic violence?
Reblogging for later study.