feminist studies, feminist theory, herstory, postcolonial theory, subaltern studies

Essay Review: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader (London: Routledge, 1993), Pp. 66-111.



       (photo credits to link provided: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [ India, USA ] Biography. Accessed August 31, 2018)

Historical narratives try to give agency and articulate the subjects in colonial contexts, but have they done justice to these subjects (as Judith Butler would say)? For Gayatri Spivak this has been an unsuccessful project of theoretical and historical narratives. In Spivak’s essay entitled, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” the provocative argument of injustice and reproductions of imperialism have been suggested to some of the most influential theorists and historians of our time. Spivak critiques ideology and the intellectuals obsession to categorize categories. In this sense the author is claiming that those who have tried to use deconstruction, post-modern, and intervening language have actually in turn reproduced imperial narratives. This critique the author gives critiques, as well as gives credence to, names such as Foucault, Deleuze and Guattarie etc. The author critiques the ways in which theorists and historians have reproduced terms of subject and citizen ultimately creating a type of violence in the form of narrative presence. Spivak’s thesis states, “I have argued that, in the Foucault-Deluze conversation, a postrepresentationlist vocabulary hides an essentialist agenda. In subaltern studies, because of the violence of imperialist epistemic, social and disciplinary inscription, a project understood in essentialist terms must traffic in a radical textual practice of difference” (80). This critique searches to illuminate if the subject of the state, nation, and empire is adequately represented. Spivak’s continual question, “can the subaltern speak,” is complicated by what the author demonstrates as absences in historical narratives of those termed as oppressed or subjugated bodies. Power is thus driven out of knowledge and the ways in which reproduction rears its ugly head is through historical and theoretical narratives about binary othering (82). Spivak notes, “Deleuze and Foucault ignore both the epistemic violence of imperialism…”(84). By discussing the gaps of theory and history Spivak is able to point to types of personage that is not intelligible or is rendered in a  “blind-spot” to the “privileging of the intellectual” discourse (86-87). For example Spivak spends time teasing out how sati, which is a cultural death of husband and female sacrifice to honor and loyalty aka “good wife” ritual, is read outside of the flattened imperial discourse (101). What Spivak calls attention to is that intellectual discourse does a disservice or does not give justice to the whole story go culture, race, context, and letting one speak from their own experience.

Spivak states, “the broader question of the constitution of the sexed subject is hidden by foregrounding the visible violence of sati…when the status of the legal subject as property-holder could be temperately bestowed on the female relict, the self-immolation of widows was stringently enforced” (99). What the author highlights is the deeper projects of reproducing racialize gendered subject bodies as victims for saving rather than free agent respectable of self-reporting. Spivak states, “between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘third-world woman’ caught between tradition and modernization” (102). Reified bodies and histories is the crux of Spivak’s critique of historical and theoretical narration of bodies and the nation vis versa. In the end of this powerful essay Spivak answers her question, “can the subaltern speak?” with the answer— “the subaltern cannot speak” (104). Spivak calls for a more nuanced and self-reporting narration of history for those who are spoken for and spoken about. Wonderful read to expand your mind and theoretically challenge static historical narratives. 



feminist studies, history of europe, history of india, postcolonial theory, subaltern studies, world history

Book Review: Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Though and Historical Difference (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000), Pp. 301.

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Dipesh Chakrabarty’s monograph is a dense and heavily theoretical text on the history of modernity in Europe and its relation to global history. Specifically Chakrabarty uses examples of colonial contradiction in discussing the postcolonial thoughts on modernity and how this is discussed in the larger history of India’s Independence of 1947. The authors major issue is with the notion of modernity and its association with Europe. Chakrabarty’s central claim is to deconstruct Eurocentrism to expose the “imaginary figure,” specifically exhibited in  “social sciences to address questions of political modernity in South Asia” (4). Looking to modern education systems in Bengali, the author discusses the  European educational system and  suggest that the history of translation is at the center of modern manifestations.  The author starts out by looking at certain modalities of discourse and how they are historicized. To understand what Chakrabarty is trying to get at can be noted in his explanation of historicism stating, “historicism—and even the modern, European idea of history—one might say, came to non-European people in the nineteenth” (8). The author notes the epistemological side of how those who came in contact with Europeans were exposed to this notion of “modernity.” One of the most helpful examples, in this confusing monograph,  is the autobiographies of Nirad Chaudhuri and Ramabai Ranade. In these autobiographies Chakrabarty notes the history of desire to be “modern,” through music and notions of patriarchy. The example of Nirad Chaudhuri and his wedding night in which, the very notion of marriage as a “bourgeois legal fiction of citizenship,” was described as a moment in which Chaudhuri is trying to show and teach his new wife about the modern music of Beethoven” (36).  This is the central theme of the book, to show how the idea and history of modernity was a concept that not only Europeans strived for, but so did the colonized “other.” For the purposes of this essay I will try and discuss what Chakrabarty is getting at in his history on abstract ideas of subaltern, capital, class, and how South Asia is at the heart of his analysis. Chakrabarty springboards into the work of Karl Marx, looking at the critique of capital and its importance to the history of modernity and the Euro-centric notion of class. For Chakrabarty the importance of capital is more of a “philosophical-historical category;” by which the translation between cultures and peoples is rooted in some sort of notion of capital (70). South Asia’s labor system, in conjunction with the secular notions of culture, and practice are shown in this counter history in India (72). For example, the history of what constituted as a public holiday is negotiated between a South Asian and European discourse. For instance, the festival in India known as Vishvakarama and the European festival of Christmas are paralleled to illuminate the “secular narrative that would apply to any working-class religious holiday anywhere” (77). Even though there are similar class, secular, and discursive histories within the global framework of history, conversion and translation are not solely a European attribute. In the 1700s the “translation of divinities” such as Hindu gods into Islamic ones is not solely a European function of modern secular history (84). What Chakrabarty is getting at is that there is nothing intrinsically more modern about Europe than any other place, especially South Asia.

Chakrabarty’s  ontological treatment of  what he calls the “birth of the subject” is recorded in European time but also in Bengali time. For example, literature and magazines are a way in which places and times situate their history and their global position. In Calcutta the documentation of suffering in 1991 showed the ways in which widows still had not had any “historical change,” complicating the notion or narrative of progress (117). Notions of suffering also challenges the European notion of modernity. Taking the widow for example a step further, one can look at the history of sati.

Historically, sati has been a way in which female loyalty could be manifested India female culture predominately in the mid ninetieth-century. With the advent of social sciences and notions of modernity the ability to “critique” Bengali ritual as “not modern,” has become popular in Eurocentric historical narrative (118). The nuances of critique and “modern observation of suffering” allows for another way in which this notion of modern becomes sutured to the “Enlightenment thinkers of Europe” (119 &122).  European gaze become a way in which the differences can be critiqued and then reformed; thus, ultimately flattened into a single status and labeled as “modern.” The history of universality or the “universal subjects” in European Empires is essentially what Chakrabarty’s narrative is critiquing. The last example that is helpful to note in this complicated historical narrative by Chakrabarty is the example of Adda. The social practice of Adda in Calcutta represents “‘a place’” in which usually male friends would talk (181-182). Throughout the twentieth-century this tradition was said to be loosing its relevance in the advent of capitalism and ways in which intellectuals were starting to see themselves, mostly through literary apparatuses (198-199). Adda has made many different adaptations in the ways in which literature, women’s spaces, and capitalism have interacted with notions of modern and global exchanges of culture and the performance of male citizenship. For instance, in 1850 women were starting to participate in the public sphere of education, drastically changing the ways in which they were able to participate in Adda (208). Ultimately, Adda transforms into a “modern and hybrid space of Bengali” culture that becomes apart of the institution, education, and is adapted to meet the “tension brought about by the discourses of modernity and capitalism” (212). The gender aspects of Adda had to meet the capitalistic conditions. Justifying these conditions and transformations of culture and social space by the notion of “global modernity” and “progress.”  Unfortunately, by the end of the book Chakrabarty has unraveled and sabotaged his work by stating, “for at the end of European imperialism, European thought is a gift to us all” (255). This already confusing narration on the history of modernity through a postcolonial lens, was strong in its description of cultural parallelism. The monograph lost merit in falling back into narratives that stabilize the universalizing language, space, and time in Euro-centric terms.



#feminism, feminism, feminist studies, feminist theory, postcolonial theory, subaltern studies, world history

Book Review: Sumathi Ramaswamy, The Goddess and The Nation: Mapping Mother India (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), Pp. 380.


Gendered bodies are used to propel and signify national agendas. These bodies are disguised to send blatant messages of what it means to be a citizen. Citizenship, ultimately shows its final loyalty with its permanent act towards the nation-state. This willingness to die for ones country—  the ultimate sacrifice. Sumathi Ramaswamy’s book entitled, The Goddess and The Nation:Mapping Mother India, takes on these themes. Ramaswamy mobilizes the body to illustrate the way nationalism is produced not inherent to any locale. Ramaswamy’s analysis discusses how the female body, specifically, becomes a map in “making” the narrative of the gendered national ideal. Highlighting the use of cartography, Ramaswamy has engendered the use of the female, and how the female ideal propels the male citizenship idea to ultimately die for their “mother” nation. 

The book tracks the importance of a “pictorial history [that] challenges us to dwell dialectically in the overlapping zone between the sayable and the seeable” (233). Ramaswamy’s methodology is identified as an analysis that tracks “the myriad ways in which Mother India has been visualized in painting, print, poster art, and picture, with a view towards developing a key proposition…she is a tangled product of charged encounters between new and old and of a fraught and conflicted modernity that is India’s late colonial and postcolonial experience of history” (2). This study thus highlights the way in which the nation is used to produce ideology of the body. To drive this home Ramaswamy identifies the gendered aspects specific to the map of India’s stating, “the map of India—that proud creation of a self-consciously rational and modern science—is deeply gendered” (7). This is what the author calls the “‘geo-body’” which is the “convergence of the form of the mother/goddess with the mapped form of the nation” (8). Moreover, Ramaswamy identifies the way in which the empire needs notions of gender, race, and sex to be particularized either for colonial or anti-colonial agenda. Ramaswamy asserts, “this study demonstrates the entanglement of the secular sciences of modern cartography and geography in the is dangerous liaison, and its charts the salience of visual productions in the reproduction of the nation’s territory as a deeply gendered, divinized, and affect-laden place” (11).

The book takes on the different manifestations of female divinity and the map of India, but most interestingly identifies the influences of colonialism (notions of modernity and science). This is demonstrated through accounting for the appropriations that  colonialism has deployed onto  anti-colonial body within the nation-state, producing a “graphic politics” of  pictorial regimes (125). For example, the tie between Europe’s class divide is imbedded in the representation of representation through the female Indian body. Ramaswamy states, “ Mother India is one among such female bodies that are emblematic of the bourgeois fetishization of property and propriety in an age that witnessed the transformation of national territories into enclosed objects of possession and protection” (76). The female body become a form of property now for the nation and male militarized bodies, also become constructed through this lens, to protect the female bodies.  The use of feminizing the land genders the space as well as the people. For example Ramaswamy points that “the turn of feminizing India as a once-powerful but now venerable devi (mother goddess) under duress was culturally (and psychologically) enabled by an environment in which new goddesses were emerging and old devis were being revamped…if nationalism had to succeed and the new project of India to gain votaries of its own—to chart a different course of Bharat Mata (India Mother)” (98-99). This creation of national agenda to propel new efforts of modernization lead to the recreation of femininity in India. 

Fraternity is another element of the feminized manifestations of visual production of  the nation. Specifically in sacrificial citizenship, in which Ramaswamy highlights the “creat[ion of] a brotherhood dedicated to living—and dying—for Bharat Mata” (147).  This is one of the most important offering of this narrative—the connection of the visual, citizenship, and sacrifice to empire. Ramaswamy states, “the inanimate geo-body of the nation by the anthropomorphic form of the mother/goddess pictorially converts the citizen-subject from being a detached observer of the cargo-graphed image of India into its worshipful patriot, so that its territory is not just lines and contours on a map but a mother and motherland worth dying for” (176). This notion of sacrifice for empire and the stakes that particularizing the female body play  in protection, lends to a very specific kind of gender project India and British history. And lets not forget the female body has a certain type of patriotism and sacrifice as well. Ramaswamy notes this as “invisibiling of women…women’s lives become entangled with the national movement” (238). While simultaneously the female body is at the center it is reified and flattened into one homogenous group.

In closing, the author ends the monograph with a very similar sentiment as Benedict Anderson, the imagination that forms the idealized nation and its power. Ramaswamy’s last thoughts on the matter state, “she [Bharat Mata] has morphed yet again into another form—perhaps offering a new trajectory for another century” ( 298). Nationalism and the nation-state are once again re-imagined for the interest of the nations powers. Ultimately the nation leaves the bodies that inhabit that space to be called into question, redesigned, and reimagined.

american feminist literature, american literature, feminist studies, feminist theory, herstory, history, history of africa, history of europe, history of india, history of magic, history of the united states, literature, political theory, postcolonial theory, religious studies, science and technology, short story, subaltern studies, Uncategorized, witchcraft, world history

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“You ran away to find freedom, and you found it. You made it. Now you gotta tell it. You gotta figure out how to tell the story.” — Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha