Culture & Society

Will The ‘True’ Subaltern Please Rise?

While The Subaltern School of Indian historians woke all voices from the grassroots, another thinker, a woman this time redefined the term subaltern by using it as a reference for those marginalised by the mainstream

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Indian literary theorist and critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak adjusts her glasses, during her talk with Indian author Lakshmi Subramanian, titled as ''Spivak Moving'', on the first day of Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet 2023, at Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata on January 21, 2023. Photo: Getty Images
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It is a well-known fact that what happens in JNU today may well be a forerunner for university scenarios across the country. So when social media platforms are literally tripping on account of a gnarly exchange between a leading academic voice – Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and a first-year M.A student of the sociology department, the incident warrants critical leverage that would nuance the obvious appearance of power versus the powerless, and here’s my two-penny worth. 

Tipping his hat in the direction of multiplicity, particularly with regard to the inclusion of contradictory and contrapuntal voices, the French philosopher Roland Barthes, in an essay of the same name, proclaimed the Death of the Author. This heralded a much-needed epistemological change proclaiming the need to include a plurality of voices within domains of knowledge. This plurality was no longer viewed as a cacophony of voices to be ignored but rather as the prickly truths often marginalised by hegemonic power structures and the ivory towers they endowed.

While The Subaltern School of Indian historians woke all voices from the grassroots, another thinker, a woman this time redefined the term subaltern by using it as a reference for those marginalised by the mainstream. In all fairness, the term owes its origins to erstwhile military discourse wherein it referred to the lowest rung of foot soldiers recruited by the (British) Indian army. Since these ‘paltans’ were not on the regular pay wage but hired as and when the need arose, the nature of their duties remained indiscriminate, and their treatment even more so. 

With Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak”, one moves, (after slaying a dense thicket of obscurantist philosophical discourse) to address the question as to who or what category best fits the subaltern framework, keeping in mind the fault lines of the modern India nation. In this regard, it would not be amiss to begin with the fact that normatively, a subaltern refers to persons belonging to classes and categories which are economically backward and/or also to those depressed along lines of the caste hierarchies. These it would seem had been entirely bypassed by the civilising missions of the British Raj. Subaltern thus acquires meaning when pitted against a category such as the “elites”. Considering this, it is but necessary that development plans and goals of the modern Indian state be directed towards the betterment of subaltern categories and they hold our empathy and compassion. 

The subaltern, however, as per Spivak’s timely intervention escapes the limiting understanding this categorisation facilitates. It may not be confined to Dalits only or the proletarians only. Where, for instance, do women figure in this imbalanced equation between the Elites and Subalterns? Female literacy, it was ardently believed would solve any and every problem in that department but did it? Spivak’s text aims its critical thrust exactly at this simplistic thinking wherein we think we have identified subalterns and have done so by pitting them against (those who overtly appear) elite and likewise, sincerely believe that ‘educated’ women are not subaltern in any way. What Spivak’s classic post-structuralist text then is, that it expands cognitive, critical skills towards mindful insights regarding a socio-cultural landscape we think we know. 

So the subaltern then, may well on the one hand refer to the proletariat oppressed by the capitalist heralding the Industrial Revolution while on the other, to, and hold your breath here -- the beleaguered aristocracy being mercilessly butchered with the Bolshevik Revolution underway in the Soviet Union. This may well be turning on its head any and every assumption we have so far entertained about what or who really fits into a subaltern category. The beauty of this understanding requires deep empathy with the nature of oppression and its changing forms. No falling back on sequestered formulae here. Unthinking known categories and perceiving the situation from within its own unique parameters is what the text advocates.   

The final word of Spivak’s text “Can the Subaltern speak”, rests not only with those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder and/or at the lower rungs of a brutally dehumanising caste system but with a literate, middle-class person - a woman in her mid-twenties, who sadly takes her own life. The reasons for this extreme step - apart from the admission that unrequited love was not the culprit - are left to the reader’s conjuncture but what is made amply clear is that oppression exists in forms and spaces that we are happy to overlook as “elite”. Education, literacy – these were the hallmarks of elitism and this young woman seemed privileged enough to have both but felt her oppression so keenly that it left her with no will to carry on. The question is, may educated and upper-caste women - often categorised as privileged - live free of the strictures and taboos that oppressively govern the lives of women? The essay, as is the case with ‘exemplary’ academic writing, leaves the question ambiguously open-ended and with a host of probing questions for the discerning reader.   

Circling back to the premise with which we began this conversation, when a student queries Spivak during the Q&A following her invited lecture at the JNU campus, on the Haitian writer Du Bois (pronounced as Do Boys), as to Spivak’s upper-class and upper-caste status, the scales seem to be balanced unfairly against what appears to be a ‘privileged’, ‘upper-class’, first-world academic and an under-privileged, third-world student. Yet Brahminical studies is this student’s smug assertion - ascendant knowledge systems with clearly defined gender hierarchies. The scales seem to be weighing him down, and not in an oppressed way (wonder if his mother was granted the proverbial blessings of a ‘hundred sons’?). 

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Spivak moreover is known for her work with indigenous languages-clusters ousted by the Brahminical, so clearly our initial understanding of who is the subaltern here may well be a misnomer. Furthermore, with a blatant disregard of all systems of etiquette – Brahminical, colonial, academic and any other, the questioner insists on disregarding her forty-five-minute lecture wherein it was made amply clear why Du Bois (to be pronounced Do Boys) insisted on the Haitina pronunciation of his name rather than the obvious French.  It was not a matter of provincial accents for the questioner perfectly intoned the French pronunciation of Du Bois and refused the Haitian (Brahminical eh!). 

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Following this, filling in a long, summer evening’s social media was all aflame with stories tumbling out of skeletal closets regarding the arrogance of the said academic, so numerous that #Me too would have been envious.  This until, the said subaltern rode on proudly on his victory parade and took to social media handles himself to hold the academic, linguistically, to her (inferior) gender status. 

Some subaltern! 

Dr Simran Chadha is an Associate professor at Delhi University

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