I’ve just attended a guest lecture with Gayatri Spivak, an Indian scholar of some repute. It was very much in the spirit of “Lettre Internationale”: Cosmopolitical intellectualism, working for the common good in ways that ordinary people cannot comprehend. A true and dedicated intellectual, she has mastered being intellectually funny in such a way that a whole lecture theatre can be left unsure of when to laugh. She constantly refers to her professor and author colleagues in such sentences as “as I discussed recently with my friend Jim Clifford in Santa Cruz” or “I touched upon this very issue with dr. Mukherjee last week”. It’s very relaxed and worldly knowledgable, but you have to be on your toes to follow it.
I was (obviously) not on my toes, when she began her talk, and I spent the first 10 minutes of the lecture wondering just what “saboltant” meant, because she used that word again and again, even though the title of her talk was “Learning to learn” which was what had interested me in the first place. It wasn’t until I had sneaked a peek at the notes of the diligent student next to me that I realised that the word was in fact subaltern.
By then, Spivak had been trying to define the term between the use in both Gramsci’s and Marx’ terminologies. In the end, she settled for saying that “Subalternity is the contentless nonrecognition of agency” – meaning that you’re a subaltern if you’re not recognised as anything else. She then went on to argue that it is a sign of power and social maneuverability to be able to dismiss parts of your identity, leave your differences behind. She cited Derrida for saying “I am sometimes European”, and I suspect most europeans feel the same way: Sometimes we would like to dismiss our western outlook and try for another perspective. Spivak’s point is that this is not possible for the subalterns of the world. As she put it: “Our religion is convenience” – if we took notice of the subalterns, they wouldn’t be subaltern anymore.
By now, you are most likely thinking as I were: Who the hell are these subalterns, anyway?
Well, Spivak refused to give up the term to describe specific groups, claiming that different groups of subalterns have nothing in common and thus subalternity cannot carry any inherent meaning of its own (except, of course, the very general one she gave above). The group of subalterns that she has identified is apparently somewhere in India where she’s teaching them. Hoping that they can learn to learn. Exactly what it is that she’s teaching she was rather loathe to discuss, but she did put own position as a teacher into a catchy phrase:
“A teacher: something like a servant, rearranging desires (both in the elite and the subaltern)”
Her hope was that through her teaching them, these nameless unwashed masses of India one day would ask her: “Why are you here?” thus leaving the subaltern mindset and thinking for themselves.
I don’t think it will happen the way she envisions it. During the lecture I noted that words such as “Subaltern Studies“, “Subalternist” and “Subalternisation” were being thrown about in a quite casual manner. How can she ever teach people to think for themselves if she’s maintaining her knowing better to people who, as she says herself, cannot even disagree or represent themselves?
I find it difficult to believe that a woman who is clearly at her best talking to an academic audience, punning and referring to various high brow obscurities, can help any “subaltern”, whatever they may be, to a more meaningful position.
*Sigh* – maybe I underestimate her, but I just can’t take that cosmo-intellectual “let’s-write-a-paper-on-subalterns-to-make-things-better-and-to-earn-my-fat-salary-at-my-elitist-American-university” attitude. It’s just so.. bogus.
.. my brain hurts now.