Can the Subaltern Speak?
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Can the Subaltern Speak?

Reflections on the History of an Idea

Rosalind Morris

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Can the Subaltern Speak?

Reflections on the History of an Idea

Rosalind Morris

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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.

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Year
2010
ISBN
9780231512855

CAN THE SUBALTERN SPEAK?

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, to tease out Marx rather than follow Jameson, the mode of production narrative is so efficient because it is constructed in terms of the most efficient and abstract coding of value, the economic. Thus, to represent an earlier intuition, the ground-level value-codings that write these women’s lives elude us. These codes are measurable only in the (ebb and flow) mode of the total or expanded form, which is “defective” from a rationalist point of view. We pay the price of epistemically fractured transcoding when we explain them as general exemplars of anthropological descriptions.1
As a feminist literary critic pulling deconstruction into the service of reading, I am more attentive to these elusive figures, although of course deeply interested in the accounts of women who are in step with the mode of production narrative, as participants/resisters/victims. If indeed the relationship between capitalism and socialism is that of a pharmakon (medicine in différance with poison), these elusive figures mark moments where neither medicine nor poison quite catches. Indeed, it is only in their death that they enter a narrative for us, they become figurable. In the rhythm of their daily living the elusion is familiarly performed or (un)performed, since to elude constatation in the act is not necessarily a performance. I attend to these figures because they continue to impose the highest standards on our techniques of retrieval, even as they judge them, not in our rationalist mode. In fact, since they are outside of our efforts, their judgment is not intended. Following a certain statement of Derrida’s, perhaps we should rather say: they are the figures of justice as the experience of the impossible.2
[Here] I will focus on a figure who intended to be retrieved, who wrote with her body. It is as if she attempted to “speak” across death, by rendering her body graphematic.3 In the archives, Rani Gulari emerges only on call, when needed, as coerced agent/instrument/witness for the colonialism of capital. She is the “purer” figure of fadeout. This woman tried to join uncoerced intending (male) agents of anti-colonialism. She was born in Calcutta a hundred years later and understood “nationalism,” another efficient coding.4 Anticipating her production world-historically though not in intent, Gulari had been a letter in the alphabet of the discursive transformation that remotely set in motion the definition of “India” as a modern nation—miraculating site of state-as-intention—a word that could find enunciative completion only as object of “liberation” in order, then, to constitute “identity.” The woman in this section tried to be decisive in extremis, yet lost herself in the undecidable womanspace of justice. She “spoke,” but women did not, do not, “hear” her. Before I come to her, I will lay out, in a long digression, some of the decisive judgments that I risked, some years ago, in order to attend to her mystery.
Whatever power these meditations may command has been earned by a politically interested refusal to acknowledge the undecidable, to push to the limit the founding presuppositions of my desires, as far as they are within my grasp. This three-stroke formula, applied both to the most resolutely committed and to the most ironic discourse, keeps track of what Althusser so aptly named “philosophies of denegation,” and Derrida, before psychoanalysis, “desistance.”5 Calling the place of the investigator into question remains a meaningless piety in many recent critiques of the sovereign subject. Although I attempt to sound the precariousness of my position throughout, I know such gestures can never suffice.
Some of the most radical criticism coming out of the West in the eighties was the result of an interested desire to conserve the subject of the West, or the West as Subject. The theory of pluralized “subject-effects” often provided a cover for this subject of knowledge. Although the history of Europe as Subject was narrativized by the law, political economy, and ideology of the West, this concealed Subject pretended it had “no geo-political determinations.” The much-publicized critique of the sovereign subject thus actually inaugurated a Subject. I will argue for this conclusion by considering a text by two great practitioners of the critique: “Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.”6 In the event, just as some “third world women’s” critique romanticize the united struggle of working-class women, these hegemonic radicals also allow undivided subjectivity to workers’ struggles. My example is outside both circuits. I must therefore spend some time with the hegemonic radicals.
I have chosen this friendly exchange between two activist philosophers of history because it undoes the opposition between authoritative theoretical production and the unguarded practice of conversation, enabling one to glimpse the track of ideology. (Like the conference, the interview is a site of betrayal.) Earlier and elsewhere I have considered their theoretical brilliance. This is a chapter of another disciplinary mistake: telling life stories in the name of history.
The participants in this conversation emphasize the most important contributions of French poststructuralist theory: first, that the networks of power/desire/interest are so heterogeneous that their reduction to a coherent narrative is counterproductive—a persistent critique is needed; and second, that intellectuals must attempt to disclose and know the discourse of society’s other. Yet the two systematically and surprisingly ignore the question of ideology and their own implication in intellectual and economic history.
Although one of its chief presuppositions is the critique of the sovereign subject, the conversation between Foucault and Deleuze is framed by two monolithic and anonymous subjects-in-revolution: “A Maoist” (FD 205) and “the workers’ struggle” (FD 217). Intellectuals, however, are named and differentiated; moreover, a Chinese Maoism is nowhere operative. Maoism here simply creates an aura of narrative specificity, which would be a harmless rhetorical banality were it not that the innocent appropriation of the proper name “Maoism” for the eccentric phenomenon of French intellectual “Maoism” and subsequent “New Philosophy” symptomatically renders “Asia” transparent.7
Deleuze’s reference to the workers’ struggle is equally problematic; it is obviously a genuflection: “We are unable to touch [power] in any point of its application without finding ourselves confronted by this diffuse mass, so that we are necessarily led . . . to the desire to blow it up completely. Every partial revolutionary attack or defense is linked in this way to the workers’ struggle” (FD 217). The apparent banality signals a disavowal. The statement ignores the international division of labor, a gesture that often marks post-structuralist political theory. (Today’s post-Soviet universalist feminist—“gender and development,” United Nation style—dissimulates it; its rôle will come clear later.8
The invocation of the workers’ struggle is baleful in its very innocence; it is incapable of dealing with global capitalism: the subject-production of worker and unemployed within nation-state ideologies in its Center; the increasing subtraction of the working class in the periphery from the realization of surplus value and thus from “humanistic” training in consumerism; and the large-scale presence of paracapitalist labor as well as the heterogeneous structural status of agriculture in the periphery. Ignoring the international division of labor, rendering “Asia” (and on occasion “Africa”) transparent (unless the subject is ostensibly the “Third World”); reestablishing the legal subject of socialized capital—these are problems as common to much poststructuralist as to “regular” theory. (The invocation of “woman” is as problematic in the current conjuncture.) Why should such occlusions be sanctioned in precisely those intellectuals who are our best prophets of heterogeneity and the Other?
The link to the workers’ struggle is located in the desire to blow up power at any point of its application. It reads too much like a valorization of any desire destructive of any power. Walter Benjamin comments on Baudelaire’s comparable politics by way of quotations from Marx:
Marx continues in his description of the conspirateurs de profession as follows: “. . . They have no other aim but the immediate one of overthrowing the existing government, and they profoundly despise the more theoretical enlightenment of the workers as to their class interests. Thus their anger-not proletarian but plebeian—at the habits noirs (black coats), the more or less educated people who represent [vertreten] that side of the movement and of whom they can never become entirely independent, as they cannot of the official representatives [Repräsentanten] of the party. Baudelaire’s political insights do not go fundamentally beyond the insights of these professional conspirators. . . . “He could perhaps have made Flaubert’s statement, “Of all of politics I understand only one thing: the revolt,” his own.9
This, too, is a rewriting of accountable responsibility as narcissism, lower case; perhaps we cannot do otherwise, but one can tend. Or else, why speak of “the gift,” at all?10
The link to the workers’ struggle is located, simply, in desire. This is not the “desire” of Anti-Oedipus, which is a deliberate mis-name for a general flow (where the “subject” is a residuum), for which no adequate name can be found: a nominalist catachresis.111 have admiration for that bold effort, especially for the ways in which it is linked with that other nominalist catachresis: value. To check psychologism, Anti-Oedipus uses the concept-metaphor of machines: Desire does not lack anything; it does not lack its object. It is, rather, the subject that is lacking in desire, or desire that lacks a fixed subject; there is no fixed subject except by repression. Desire and its object are a unity: it is the machine, as a machine of a machine. Desire is machine, the object of desire also a connected machine, so that the product is lifted from the process of producing, and something detaches itself from producing to product and gives a leftover to the vagabond, nomad subject.12
One of the canniest moments in deconstruction is its caution, from early days to the latest, that the catachrestic is bound to the “empirical.”13 In the absence of such a practical caution, the philosopher oscillates between theoretical catachresis and practical naive realism as a contradiction that may be harmless in a context, where much goodwill may perhaps be taken for granted. As we see daily, such a contradiction between theory and its judgment is dire if “applied” globally.
Thus desire as catachresis in Anti-Oedipus does not alter the specificity of the desiring subject (or leftover subject-effect) that attaches to specific instances of “empirical” desire. The subject-effect that surreptitiously emerges is much like the generalized ideological subject of the theorist. This may be the legal subject of socialized capital, neither labor nor management, holding a “strong” passport, using a “strong” or “hard” currency, with supposedly unquestioned access to due process. Again, the lineaments of the UN-style feminist aparatchik are almost identical; her struggles against patriarchal measures are altogether admirable in her location; but dire when “applied” globally. In the era of globalizing capital, the catachreses “desire” and “globe”—the global crust as body-without-organs—are contaminated by empirical paleonymy in particular ways. It is a (Euro-U.S.) cut in a (Group of Seven) flow.
Deleuze and Guattari consider the relations between desire, power, and subjectivity on the “empirical” or constituted level in a slightly off-sync mode: against the family, and against colonialism. This renders them incapable of articulating a general or global theory of interests textualized to the conjuncture. In this context, their indifference to ideology (a theory of which is necessary for an understanding of constituted interests within systems of representation) is striking but consistent. Foucault’s work cannot work on the subject-constituting register of ideology because of its tenacious commitment to the sub-individual and, at the other end, the great aggregative apparatuses (dispositifs). Yet, as this conversational register shows, the empirical subject, the intending subject, the self even, must be constantly assumed in radical calculations. Thus in his influential essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards An Investigation),” Louis Althusser must inhabit that unavoidable middle ground, and assume a subject even as he uses “a more scientific language” to describe abstract average labor or labor-power: “The reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for the domination of the ruling class ‘in and by words’ [par la parole].”14
When Foucault considers the pervasive heterogeneity of power, he does not ignore the immense institutional heterogeneity that Althusser here attempts to schematize. Similarly, in speaking of alliances and systems of signs, the state and war-machines, in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari open up that very field.15 Foucault ...

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