Spivak and Chatterjee (The Subaltern, The Governed)

Spivak: Can the Subaltern Speak

Spivak works with many concepts in this essay, but for our purposes lets build off of one, the concept of the subaltern. The subaltern is pulled from Gramsci’s Notebooks and it refers to any person or group who is low ranking in the grand scheme of society. In other words, the subaltern is that person who is suffering under the dominant hegemonic class, such that their basic rights of participation are denied. They are denied political activity, in other words. In Gramsci’s work the subaltern are specifically the workers and peasants under the Mussolini regime who are oppressed and discriminated upon. These groups and the subaltern in general is not unified and cannot be unified unless it organizes as a counter hegemony. A fundamental difference between Gramscian and Marxist analysis in the raising of class-consciousness and the construction of a new hegemony was the fact that Gramsci included peasants, whereas Marx (in Northern Europe) was convinced of their dwindling significance and the rise of the workers. This, according to El Habib Louai, is the connection between Indian historians and cultural theorists of the 1980s and Gramsci.

At the forefront is Ranajit Guha, who defines the subaltern as a name for the general element of subordination in South Asia, expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender, etc (Louai, 2011). In the Indian context, the subaltern are the general population in contrast to the elite (be that it may the colonial elite or the localized native elite). More to the point, from the perspective of the historian rather than the political activism of Gramsci, to study the subaltern for Indian scholars, was to assess the role of the elite and to critique the elitist interpretations of that role (Guha, 1982; in Louai, 2011). The significance of what Guha was doing here as far as historiography goes cannot be understated. He and many others (particularly anthropologists, who were undergoing a reflexive turn) during this period were re-considering how history was written. This was because of their growing concern based on the assumption that Indian national history was controlled by colonial elitism or was being produced by nationalist-bourgeois elitists (also produced by British colonialism). The question then became, how do we get at, or get to the subaltern? This is the same as asking what is the history that is not the “accepted” history? Is such a history possible? We reside here at the use and abuse of discourse broadly construed. This takes us into the epistemological. This is where Spivak’s text comes into the discussion.

Spivak is interested in the epistemological structures that denote the parameters of our discourse. Like Guha, she is interested in how history is written and the extent to which a vast majority of the individuals in that history are left out, written out, written over, unvoiced, or given a voice. What is written about? For what reason is it written certain ways? We can take this further of course. What is the extent that we can write about this something? Without the knowledge of something or an exposure to it and therefore without the language for it, can it be discussed? Interesting here is what is done when we are exposed to something we have no words for. The abject comes to mind here, but other examples abound, particularly in the form of artistic development (eg: Duchamp’s urinal), or socio-cultural “abnormalities” (homosexuality as an example, if we witness the level of sophistication of discussion here in Korea compared with the US).

With Spivak however we are not in this potentially emancipatory space. She takes us to a question before the “What is to be done”, before the “What do we talk about”. Who is the “we”? Who is talking? Who or what are they talking about? The work of colonial historians as we have mentioned More importantly, if they are talking about a “who”, why doesn’t the “who” speak for itself? Can the subaltern speak? Spivak says no. A great deal of her reasons why the subaltern cannot speak, we have already touched upon above through Guha and Gramsci. However this claim that the subaltern cannot speak was met with great criticism. Spivak seems to have been trying to refuse the possibility of a subaltern voice, though her argument was more towards a recognition of how well buried the voice of the subaltern is given the historical discourse.

Half way through her text, Spivak finds herself trying to fully understand what the subaltern is and thereby finds herself raising an example of what might be one instead, women. Here she reflects on the status of Indian women by analyzing the sati practices of women under British colonial rule and comparing it with the Hindu policy. Under the British discourse in the colonial there was a writing of the individual freedom of sati women, the overarching analysis being one where the woman were forced into the practice. But under Hindu policy sati was understood to be a voluntary ritual. The conflict between these two positions produced two different discourses, which simply could not reconcile with one another. The British one, in Spivak’s words being: “white men are saving brown women from brown men,” while the other discourse being, “the woman actually wanted to die” (Spivak, 92). In either of these contradictory discourses however, the woman is totally without voice. In some respect, the next Chatterjee piece tries to reconcile this voicelessness through a more contemporary historical and ethnographic analysis.

Chatterjee: The Politics of the Governed

Chatterjee’s set up, his brief conceptual history of the world in the second chapter, is as follows. The French Revolution came from coming together of enlightened modernity and the universal political aspirations of citizenship. What came out of this was a formula: the identity of the people with the nation and the identity of the nation with the state (Chatterjee, 28). His claim is that the legitimacy of a modern state from this point onwards was grounded in the concept of popular sovereignty and indeed this is the beginning of democratic politics of today where all regimes today claim to rule on behalf of the people (ibid). Through the concept of this modern state, “the people” and the entire discourse of rights have become generalized within the very idea of the nation state, but there exists a massive gap between the advanced democratic nations of the west (where these concepts came from) and the rest of the world (where these concepts were applied). Moreover, and this gets to the crux of Chatterjee’s discussion, there was a particular framework of rights of and for those people in the modern state, these included the ideas of freedom and equality. We know all too well and could easily open up a massive discussion on this, but these two core concepts at the heart of the nation state, are constantly pulling at one another in opposite direction.* Because of the opposition of these two core concepts of the modern state, to further concepts were required to ameliorate the inevitable conflict. The French philosopher, Etienne Balibar, has labeled them simply, property and community (30). “Property” was meant to resolve the contradictions between freedom and equality from the perspective of the individual in relation to all other individuals, whereas with “community” the resolution was implied in regards to the level of the entire “fraternity” (ibid). The correlations to larger dimensions of political discourse that Chatterjee briefly makes here could be written as: resolutions of property are liberal, while resolutions of community are communitarian. In the third chapter he describes “property” as “the conceptual name of the regulation by law of relations between individuals in civil society” (74). “Community” on the other hand, is “conferred legitimacy within the domain of the modern state only in the form of the nation” such that, “[o]ther solidarities that could potentially come into conflict with the political community of the nation are subject to a great deal of suspicion” (75). In order for a modern nation state to properly operate then, we could more simply correspond “property” with the necessity of the legal and paralegal and “community” with the necessity for moral solidarity (74/75). At the heart of Chatterjee’s discussion is that these ideals of a modern state and its correlative, modern citizenship, required a very specific form of homogeneity (30). Put into terms we have discussed in the Spivak piece, the tension of equality and freedom with their twin operatives of property and community as they were realized in modern state “defined the conceptual parameters of political discourse of capital, proclaiming liberty and equality, could flourish” (30). Chatterjee’s use of “capital” here has many implications, but he is referring to the latter incarnations of a modern state with the rise of industrialization and capitalist practices, which in fact heightened the ideals of equality and freedom. Additionally equality and freedom got rid of a great deal of restrictions against individual mobility which were traditionally confined by birth and status, however the legal-political theory which unraveled in trying to reach these ideals separated the domain of Right (universal equal rights) from the actual domain of life of civil society (ibid). Again, rights of citizens were unrestricted by race, religion or class, but this did not mean that these distinctions were abolished in society, that is, they remained heterogeneous. The promise of universal equal rights coupled with this heterogeneity of course propelled the vast majority of struggles over the past two centuries based on social differences of race, religion, caste, class, and gender (ibid). Given this universalism promised in the domain of Right and the heterogeneity of the actual civil society, a whole new range and ordering of power relations came into play; entirely new methods of governance set out to resolve threats to its order. This birth of new modes of governance is familiar to us by now, but it’s worth examining a few points.

Taking us into the end of the colonial era and the beginning of the postcolonial period, in the West at least in the early 20th century, an entirely new distinction was made between citizens and populations. Here to be a “citizen” was/is to carry an ethical connotation of participation in the soverienty of the state, while “population” referred/refers to the domain of policy (34). Populations are wholly descriptive; there is no normativity involved. Populations are identifiable, classifiable and describable, and amendable through statistical technique, as Chatterjee explains. As we have learned from Foucault several decades ago, the implications just described in the use of the very concept of “population”, gives various institutions of the government or bodies of the government “a set of rationally manipulable instruments for reach large section of the inhabits of a country as the targets of their policies–economic, administrative, law or mobilization” (ibid). The shift then is away from a participatory politics of the citizen within the modern state, represented in the term “civil society”, toward a governmentalization of the state where state legitimacy is gained through a claim to provide for the well being of the population, a management of bodies, so to speak. The shift then is from politics to governance, from political representation to administration.

More substantially, in Asia and Africa, this chronological sequence was rather different, since under colonial regimes, these forms of governmentality actually predated the nation-state. Individuals in these countries were subjects, never exactly citizens since colonial rule never recognized a popular politics. Nevertheless these ideals, which we have already looked at, of the republican citizen and of citizenship guided the growing consciousness of colonized peoples and accompanied their historical movement and the very politics of their national liberation (37). In this well known story of a postcolonial state however Chatterjee adds an additional caveat: neither citizenship nor national liberation were every fully realized in postcolonial states because, without exception, “they were overtaken developmental state which promised to end poverty and backwardness by adopting appropriate polices of economic growth and social reform” and by deploying the latest governmental technologies which promoted the well-being of their populations” (ibid). In this governing of the population through technical strategies, all the old ethnographic concepts of classifying people and even in the using of the national languages (as we saw with Spivak) were used out of convenience and expediency.

Chatterjee’s long set up here returns us to Gramsci of last week and the loosely defined distinction between political society and civil society. It might be noted that the distinction is not only useful for India or other postcolonial states, but to all subalterns as we have defined them above. Civil society is connected with the nation-state, founded on popular sovereignty and granting equal rights to all citizens. This is politics, as we traditionally know it. Civil society is bourgeois society, inhabited by a small group of elites. Across the board even as colonial powers left or passed over their modes of governance to the people, a vast majority of those who held on to power were native individuals who had previously eased the governance by foreign powers (India and Korea are good examples of this). Point being, everyone is necessarily a member of civil society, but in practice, civil society and the benefits that come with access to it was and remains to be inhabited by only a small group. Chatterjee then refuses to give this term to everyone in society. In theory it should be an access point into political activity, but in practice it is not. What Chatterjee wants to call political society on the other hand, connects people to governmental agencies, which pursue modes of security and welfare to the population. More to the point, those subalterns who are being governed often have tenuous and ambiguous rights as citizens, yet they are not outside the state and therefore demand to be looked at by the state. In trying to discern the entanglement between clearly demarcated citizens and the subaltern Chatterjee is trying to bring out this space of political society. His question is, might this relationship between these subaltern and those who have a readily available access to civil society, require a different mode of politics?

His third chapter is a fuller discussion of how the politics of the dispossessed might be realized. Here Chatterjee returns us to that tension of freedom and equality and their correspondents, property and community. He builds towards his argument of how this kind of politics may look like first with an interesting discussion of a smallish religious group, but later in a discussion of the 100’s of thousands of squatters throughout the country. Going over the various success stories and the not so successful, his claim is that the subaltern (squatters here), must first find recognition as a population group, but more than that they must invest in a collective identity of moral content, they must, in other words, shoot for that (moral) community (57). Property on the other hand, as we have seen is the regulation of law of regulations between individuals and civil society. Pushing the subaltern further, refugees, landless people, day laborers, people below the poverty line, (and we can take this beyond Chatterjee’s context), aborigines, Native Americans, those registered as offenders, those registered with AIDS, women, etcetera etcetera—are all demographics categories of governmentality and it is on this ground of their governance, through these demographics, as opposed to through their rights as citizens, that they define their claims (59). These claims are always political and not limited to postcolonial states of course.* Returning us to Spivak’s question, “Can the subaltern speak?” Chatterjee ends this chapter on the quest for a mediator, someone who is capable of pursuing a persuasive politics of the governed, and someone who equally has certain access points to that civil society. The mediator must “succeed in mobilizing the population groups to produce a local political consensus that can effectively work against the distribution of power in society as a whole” (55). These individuals are meant to mediate between those who govern and those who are governed. Chatterjee briefly mention the significance of teachers in the Indian context here, but leaves us hanging toward the end of the chapter as he says they have lost a certain amount of “social capital” for this kind of mediation.


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