Spivak, Gayatri

Assigned: Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. From A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, from Chapter 3. “History: [Can the Subaltern Speak?]” (2001-2012). Also read the editors’ introduction (1997-2001).

From A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1985/1999)

From Chapter 3. History: [Can the Subaltern Speak?]

1. On 2001-03 (“In the face of the possibility…”), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak addresses the problem of intellectuals’ complicity in colonial oppression, in the othering of entire groups of people as the foundation of one’s own supposedly superior identity. What does Spivak apparently mean by the phrase “epistemic violence” (2002)? What happens to an entire way of understanding when such violence is visited upon human minds and bodies, and upon subjugated groups? In what sense, according to Spivak, is British colonial recasting of India’s Hindu legal system an example of what she and Michel Foucault call “epistemic violence” (2002)? How did colonial education and scholarship accord with and reproduce this kind of epistemic imposition? (2003)

2. On 2003-05 (“Let us now move to consider…”), Spivak points out that in Foucault and Deleuze’s work, a certain “First-World” set among oppressed people “can speak and know their conditions” (2003 bottom). However, with regard to the vital question about those who do not fit within this group, Spivak poses the question, “can the subaltern speak?” (2004 top) What difficulties does she immediately suggest stand in the way of such a possibility? How do her references to Antonio Gramsci (Leitch 927-35) and Edward Said (Leitch 1780-1821) help to draw out what stands in the way of “the subaltern” (or in more common language, the oppressed who live outside the First World) gaining access to genuine expression of their grievances? (2004-2005)

3. On 2005-06 (“Certain members of the Indian elite…”), Spivak examines the sociological work of Ranajit Guha, who tries to delineate the various groups set over against the Indian elite. In what sense, however, does his work, according to Spivak, state its goals in a manner consistent with “an essentialist agenda” (2005), and yet turn out to do something rather different? Why does this author adopt “a curious methodological imperative” that may not be reducible to such an essentialist goal as identifying a simple, pure class-based or group-based identity or consciousness? (2006)

4. On 2006-07 (“It is to this intermediate group…”), Spivak introduces the issue of gender into her exploration of the question, “can the subaltern speak?” What additional difficulties does gender add to the already seemingly intractable quality of the primary question? With regard again to the issue of the essentialist goals that seem to haunt even poststructuralist discourse in Spivak’s area of study, how, according to her, do “internationalist Marxism,” its critics such as Michel Foucault (Leitch 1388-1450) and Gilles Deleuze (Leitch 1367-82), and the Indian Subaltern Studies Group all express belief in “a pure form of consciousness” (2007)?

5. On 2008-09 (“I am generally sympathetic with…”), Spivak considers “the problem of the muted subject of the subaltern woman…” (2008). What reflections does she offer regarding the limitations of Western literary and cultural theory in such matters? Why, in her view, would directing more theory at the problem most likely be no better than the pursuit of the essentialist investigations she has already criticized? What is the implication of Spivak’s formulation of the sentence, “White men are saving brown women from brown men” (2009) with regard to the “politics” of those authors and intellectuals who propagate “savior” narratives about colonial domination? (2009)

6. On 2009-10 (“A young woman of sixteen or…”), what insight about the silencing of “subalterns” does Spivak draw from the sad story of a young Indian woman named Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, who committed suicide in North Calcutta in 1926 when she felt unable to carry out a political assassination that a pro-independence rebel group had ordered her to accomplish? (2009) How was this young woman’s suicide an act of defiance as well as (in its aftermath) cause for Spivak’s own lament that “the subaltern cannot speak!” (2010)?

7. On 2010-11 (“In the intervening years between…”), how does Spivak, in response to critiques of her work, further explain her near-despairing declaration, “the subaltern cannot speak!” (2010)? In what ways, and by whom, has Bhubaneswari Bhaduri (who committed suicide in North Calcutta in 1926 when she felt unable to carry out a political assassination that a pro-independence rebel group had ordered her to accomplish) been silenced instead of allowed to speak? To what extent does Spivak revise her declaration, and how does she refine our sense of what it means “to speak”—what troubles her about the notion that an academic “decipherment” (2011) by a literary theorist counts as “letting someone speak”?

8. On 2011-12 (“In ‘Can the Subaltern Vote?’…”), what three points does Spivak offer concerning the range and significance of “subalternity”? With regard to the “third group” of silencers; namely, the descendants of individuals such as Bhubaneswari Bhaduri (mentioned in questions 6-7), what irony does Spivak find in their usefulness to modern, global capitalism that V. I. Lenin identified as “imperialism” and considered the final or “highest” stage of capitalism (2012)?

9. General question: In our selection from A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Chapter 3, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak both expresses and modulates her own distress at the sheer difficulty of letting the oppressed or “subaltern” people of the world speak. A deconstructive author herself, she is not reducing her stance to a version of essentialist purity-seeking, but the problem seems to be that any way we try to approach subalternity, we end up doing further injustice or engaging in some kind of self-serving distortion. What is your opinion on this matter: if the researcher or theorist always confronts this problem in trying to do justice to the struggles of subaltern or oppressed and effaced people, what hope is there of “getting it right”? What, indeed, would constitute “getting it right,” or at least coming close to that? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake