The notion of the Subaltern

This post is a response to an earlier post by Kishore about the problematic of Subaltern Studies, with particular appropriation of the term to the study of media, communication, and culture.

Arrival of new subaltern by Richard Caton Woodville (1856 - 1927)The notion of the subaltern, meaning of ‘inferior rank’, was adopted by Antonio Gramsci as a concept referring to groups in society subjected to the hegemony of the dominant ruling classes. More concretely, Gramsci first used the term as a euphemism or original covert usage for the proletariat in his “Notes on Italian History”, a six point project that appears in his Prison Notebooks (1973). He also claimed that the subaltern classes had just as complex a history as the dominant classes. However, this “unofficial” history was necessarily fragmented and episodic since even when they rebel, the subaltern are always subject to the activity of the ruling classes. In Gramsci’s theory, the term ‘subaltern’ linked up with the subordinated consciousness of non-elite groups.

The concept was then adopted and adapted to post-colonial studies from the work of the Subaltern Studies historians group. This group used subalternity as a catch-all concept encompassing all oppressed groups – working class, peasantry, women, tribal communities… and used it as a name for a general attribute of subordination. The project as such was lead by Ranajit Guha with the explicit aim of expanding and enriching Gramsci’s notion of the subaltern by locating and re-establishing a “voice” or collective locus of agency in postcolonial India. The purpose of the Subaltern Studies project was therefore to redress the imbalance created in academic work by a tendency to focus on elites and elite culture in South Asian historiography. Paraphrasing Guha’s influential “On some aspects of the historiography of colonial India”(1988:37-44) the goals of the group stemmed from the belief that the historiography of the victorious pro-independence movement in India was dominated by elitism – both British colonialist and local bourgeois nationalist. Such historic literature suggested that the development of Indian national consciousness was an exclusive elite achievement and failed to acknowledge or interpret the contribution made by “the people on their own”, that is, “independently of the elite” (39). In this respect, “the politics of the people” (40) should be understood as an autonomous domain that operates outside elite politics.

One clear example of this radical difference between the elite and the subaltern would be the nature of political mobilisation. Whereas elite mobilisation was achieved vertically through the adaptation of British parliamentary institutions, the subaltern relied on traditional modes of social organisation where popular mobilisations took the form of peasant uprisings. Moreover, the contention by the Subaltern Group would continue to be that this remains a primary locus of political action, despite the change in the political structure of independent India. In other words, despite the great diversity of subaltern groups, the one unvarying feature continued to be encapsulated in the notion of resistance to elite domination. In such a context “the failure of the Indian elite to speak for the nation”(41) meant that the nation of India failed “to come into its own” and for Guha “it is the study of this failure which constitutes the central problematic of the historiography of colonial India” (43).

Certainly, the very notion of the subaltern became an issue in post-colonial theory when Gayatry Spivak takes on the main assumptions of the Subaltern Group. This she did in the seminal essay Can the Subaltern speak? (1985) where her first criticism was directed at the Gramscian claim for autonomy of the subaltern group. This approach would make the concept rather ineffective because it tended to determine the subaltern group and subaltern identity as a homogeneous entity. Instead, the need to conceive subversive agencies would require that identity should be thought of as being fragmented to allow for multiple alliances to take place.

In order to guard against essentialist views of subalternity, Guha himself acknowledged that the ‘people’ or the ‘subaltern’ is a group fundamentally defined by difference from the elite but willingly conceded on the diversity, heterogeneity and overlapping nature of subaltern groups. He thus suggested further distinctions to be made between the two main opposites: the subaltern and the dominant. Ideally speaking thereby (44) the category of ‘ the people’ within the context of postcolonial India would be made up of different types of ‘subaltern classes’ ranging from the lowest strata of the rural gentry to the upper-middle peasants. Moreover, the elite itself would come to be defined according to three different geo-political positions (the dominant foreign groups, the dominant (all India) indigenous groups and the regional or local elites generally acting on behalf of the former.)

Another major issue arose also in regards of the various ‘success histories’ that could be claimed by a particular subordinate or subaltern agency as the outcome of a sustained rebellious consciousness. According to Prathama Banerjee (1999), for instance, every victory, so to speak, also accounts for an obvious ‘failure’. On the one hand, subaltern agency materialises as a success because it operates by “snatching an autonomous field for itself, an excess which dominant discourses [can] never hegemonize”. On the other hand, however, it also operates as a failure because subaltern agency enacts its politics of possibility and becoming in order, ultimately, to overcome the subaltern condition that defines its practice. As it appears, therefore, “the consciousness of protest and resistance [is] always already implicated in the terms of the dominant discourses themselves”; which is to say that, through various forms of inversion, negation and appropriation it also relies “on the continued existence of the dominant as the necessary Other”, which from another angle Judith Buttler (2000: 28) clarifies as follows:

“This happens when we think we have found a point of opposition to domination, and then realize that the very point of opposition is the instrument through which domination works, and that we have unwittingly enforced the powers of domination through our participation in its opposition”.

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak already anticipated Banerjee and Buttler’s concerns. She pointed out that no act of dissent or resistance occurs entirely separate from the dominant discourse that provides the linguistic framework and the conceptual categories with which the subaltern voice speaks. This can, and has been, interpreted to mean that there is no possible way oppressed or politically marginalised groups can voice their resistance since the subaltern has only a dominant language available through which to be heard. Spivak’s point, however, is not that the dominant language or mode of representation cannot be appropriated so that the marginal and/or subaltern voice can be heard. Rather than the subaltern subject’s ability to give voice to political concerns, Spivak’s target is the notion of an unproblematically constituted subaltern identity in essentialist terms. In this respect, albeit criticising some of the outcomes of the work carried out by the Subaltern Studies group, she also cites this very intellectual effort as an example of how critical work can be practiced: not to give the subaltern voice, but to clear the space to allow it to speak.

The point here, therefore, is against the uncritical deployment of essentialism. It is the interrogation of essentialist terms, which in any case, nonetheless, can also be understood as effective in dismantling unwanted structures if judiciously applied – hence the famous (and controversial) notion of strategic essentialism; but Spivac’s point was not meant to paralise the political critique of the subaltern, nor was it to deploy a fatalist plea against academic projects privileging politically committed scholarship. The point was rather the opposite. It was to extend the possibility of engaged academic critique. The very subject positioning of the subaltern as low or inferior rank and as the necessary beholder of dominant discursive practices should not undermine the possibility of positive transformative agency in strictly political terms.

In fact, when recapturing, covering and recording the history of the subaltern, it does not take long before one notices how the term refers to disenfranchised and silenced masses, crowds and groups, certainly, but to groups that rebel, revolt and rise up also. In this respect, it does not take reading many issues of the Subaltern Studies Journal to realise that the vocabulary of uprising, √©meute, rioting, mutiny and insurgence cuts across subaltern writing almost at every turn of a page. This not only challenges the notion that voiceless subordination is passively endured by the subaltern classes. In addition, the study of subalternity also offers, as Spivak (1988:3) put it, “a theory of change” whereby “moments of change are pluralized and plotted as confrontation rather than transition” and this also brings about “a revision or shift in perspective: agency of change is located in the insurgent or the ‘subaltern’.”

To summarise, the well known ‘postmodern turn’ of late subaltern studies may have pushed the agenda into simply defining subalternity in descriptive terms according to a more or less specific low rank subject position in any given social or cultural formation. But the risk is also apparent that subalternity is then positivised, so to speak, and even enhanced as a subject position that people would like to occupy willingly, almost as if anybody occupying a subaltern position would like to be a subaltern. As Ileana Rodriguez (2001:12) from the now dissolved Latin American Subaltern Group, puts it however:

“The term ‘subaltern’ [should be] employed not because the critical intellectual wants to subalternize the masses but because s/he wants to point out how in the logic of hegemony and domination the popular democratic project becomes subordinated”.

The subaltern is not only a descriptive notion whereby, since the subaltern cannot speak, they need an advocate to speak on their behalf. As Spivak objected (“Intro” Selected Subaltern Studies) one of the main themes in subaltern theory is not passively accepting a condition of permanent subordination. It is also accepting “subaltern consciousness as emergent collective consciousness” (15); and this also requires “the strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political project” (13). Therefore, inhabiting the condition of subalternity also means consciously reclaiming the political in order to bring about the conditions to step out from subalternity:

“Who the hell wants to protect subalternity? Only extremely reactionary, dubious anthropologistic museumizers. No activist wants to keep the subaltern in the space of difference . . . You don’t give the subaltern voice. You work for the bloody subaltern, you work against subalternity”. (Outside in the Teaching Machine, 1993: de Kock interview)


  1. Banerjee, P. Historic Acts? Santal Rebellion and the Temporality of Practice Studies in History.1999; 15: pp. 209-246
  2. Butler, J. “Restaging the Universal: Hegemony and the Limits of Formalism” in J. Butler, E. Laclau and S. Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Comtemporary Dialogues on the Left, London, New York: Verso, (2000) pp. 11-43
  3. Chakravorty Spivak, G., “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In C. Nelson, L. Grossberg (eds.), Marxism & The Interpretation of Culture, Macmillan, London, 1988, pp. 271-313.
  4. Chakravorty Spivak, G., In Other Words: Essays in Cultural Politics, N. Y.: Methuen, 1987.
  5. Chakravorty Spivak, G., Outside In the Teaching Machine London: Routledge, 1993.
  6. Gramsci, A. (1973) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
  7. Guha, R “On some aspects of the historiography of colonial India” R. Guha (ed) Subaltern Studies I: Writings on South Asian History & Society, New Delhi: Oxford University Press India (1982) pp.37-44
  8. Guha, R., G. Chakravorty Spivak G.. Selected Subaltern Studies Oxford university Press, 1988.

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