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.