The problematic of Subaltern Studies

SubalternIn continuation of the attempts to deconstruct the objectives of our collective one is forced to confront exacting questions, specifically ones about the foundations of our goals. Gayatri Spivak’s essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’ (originally published in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg’s Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, 1988), is a fine instance of questions about “speech” and “agency”. The most important of them being, who speaks on whose behalf?

Since we have appropriated the term Subaltern for the study of media and communications, the question remains whether we are complicit (knowingly or otherwise) in the project of hegemony?

In her essay Spivak suggests that any attempts from the outside to ameliorate the condition of the subaltern (for example re-establishing their “voice”) raises the following questions:

  1. a logocentric assumption of cultural solidarity among heterogenous people
  2. a dependance upon western intellectuals to “speak for” the subaltern condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.

As Spivak argues this will in fact re-inscribe their subordinate position in society. The academic assumption of a subaltern collectivity becomes akin to an ethnocentric extension of Western logos — a totalising, essentialist “mythology” as Derrida might describe it.

These concerns were earlier raised in 1985 in an essay ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’, in which she pointed at the problematic of “objectively” inscribing the “third world” as a distant other culture, with rich indigenous traditions waiting to be recovered. This “fosters the emergence of the ‘Third World’ as a signifier that allows us to forget that ‘worlding'”. What she means by this is the refusal to acknowledge the conditions by which the third world became such. The third world is not an objective thing, but a product of othering that is only possible through hegemonic domination, whether through brute physical means or epistemic.

As Spivak warns us:

Subalternity cannot be generalised according to hegemonic logic. That is what makes it subaltern (2005:475).

Subalternity is a position without identity. It is somewhat like the strict understanding of class. Class is not a cultural origin, it is a sense of economic collectivity, of social relations of formation as the basis of action. Gender is not lived sexual difference. It is a sense of the collective social negotiation of sexual differences as the basis of action. ‘Race’ is not originary; it assumes racism. Subalternity is where social lines of mobility, being elsewhere, do not permit the formation of a recognisable basis of action. (2005:476)

I am still grappling with these questions as they force me to think about the epistemic hegemony our project might be inflicting. And in the face of such a sobering conclusions Gayatri Spivak argues that it is the responsibility of relatively privileged intellectuals like herself to “unlearn” their privilege in order to help give a voice to the voiceless and power to the unempowered.


Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1985) Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 1. (1985), pp. 243-261.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1988) ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg’s Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture Urbana : University of Illinois Press

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (2005) ‘Scattered speculations on the subaltern and the popular’, Postcolonial Studies, 8:4, 475 – 486

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