Paper presented at the National Seminar on Methodological Shifts in Indian Christian Theology: A Re-search held at the Ecumenical Christian Center (ECC), Whitefield, Bangalore from June 7-9, 2010 and published in the "Theology for our Tmes" Nov.2010 & NCCI Review, Nov. 2011.
Yes, the ‘Subaltern’ can speak!
Subaltern is a military term that refers to a person of inferior rank. It was the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci used this term to designate the subordinated social groups/ subordinated class. The subaltern study group that emerged in India in 90’s, used this category to refer the general attribute of subordination in South Asian society ‘whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender and office or in any other way.’ Since then we use this category in our discussions to delineate the political, aesthetical and epistemological engagements of the marginalized sections such as Dalits, Tribals, Adivasis, minorities, women and other forgotten people of Indian social history.
As a knowledge system, subaltern discourse locates itself as a ‘contested epistemology’. Its politics is to interrogate the knowledge and institutional practices of any kinds of domination and hegemony. The social history of the subaltern discourses in India tell us the history of the struggles of the subjugated people through which they created constructive encounters with the power structures of domination like caste, patriarchy and hierarchy.
However, we need to bear in mind that the subalternity itself is a ‘contested disposition’. It was Gayatri Spivak who interrogated first with this category by raising the question; ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ (1985). According to Spivak the subaltern cannot speak because there is no ‘pure’/ ‘uncontaminated’ subaltern consciousness devoid of the imprints of the colonizer and thus somebody else must spoken for him/ her. All she wanted to clear is that subalternity itself is a ‘discursive construct’ and thus in order to re-figure the ‘marginality’ of the subaltern the transaction between the ‘colonizer’ and the subaltern needs to be deconstructed. It is in this process of deconstruction of the transaction; the subaltern can speak and re-look their subjectivity and their social engagement other than that of the subjectivity of ‘victimhood’. These discussions were in fact elucidating the politics of the subaltern discourses and its potentiality of resisting dominations. Thus the subalternity as a ‘contested disposition’ has envisaged new ways of being and resisting in the contemporary context of plurality.
‘Ruptures’ or ‘Repetitions’? The Subaltern Discourses as the Methodological challenges to Christian Theology
The emergence of the new social movements of all colonized people such as Africans, Afro-Americans, Asians, women, Blacks, Dalits, Tribals and so on in the post colonial context that challenged the Euro-centric theological methodology, marked the epistemological shift in Indian Christian Theology. By rejecting the universal, monolithic and homogenizing methodology of modern theology, this new shift provided the space for the emergence of ‘contextual Theologies’. The subaltern aspirations for a just democratic-dialogic civil society and a theology that attends to this passion for justice and transformation was well attended by these theologies such as Dalit Theology, Tribal Theology and Feminist Theology and thus opened a new face in the history of the Indian Christian Theology in the postcolonial context. However, the question that becomes inevitable today is that whether they were theological ‘ruptures’ or just ‘repetitions’ due to their inclination to the liberal humanistic foundation and symbiotic connection with the Latin American Liberation Theology.
It is attempted here to delineate the contours of postmodern subaltern discourses by taking three vital issues of postmodern shift viz: epistemology, ontology and politics, as it poses new methodological challenges to Christian Theology and politics at large.
Need to ‘De-contextualize’ the Contextual Theologies? The question of Epistemology
The significance of the postmodern subaltern epistemologies lie in its ability to enrich our understanding of how subordinate groups create knowledge that fosters both their subjectivity and resistance. Subaltern knowledges are embodied knowledges giving importance to emotions rather than reason that emerges out of their ‘lived experiences’ of self empowerment and resistance. The discourses of resisting dominations are embodied in their memories, myths and even in their bodies. These embodied histories constitute their epistemologies through which they create counter imaginations and aesthetics of transformation. As Chung Hyun Kyung says, “Asian Women’s epistemology is an epistemology from the broken body, a broken body longing for healing and wholeness…”
Of course, the subaltern ‘lived experiences’ or ‘memories’ are to be deconstructed because they are constructed ‘discursively’. In this process of deconstruction the ‘lived experiences’ are placed dialogically even with the knowledges that contest each other. Thus it demands the process of dialoging, listening, hearing, and sharing of the different ‘lived experiences’ within and outside. Here I want to mention the argument of Rev. Joe Arun, a Dalit academician, with regard to the misrepresentation of India as a ‘caste India’ by the British colonial epistemology. He says: “In the nineteenth century the colonial ethnography represented India as the place and the peoples that had to be ‘civilized’ and ‘ordered’. In this anthropology aligned with the colonial administration produced knowledge about the colonized who were only an object to be known and controlled: their agency and subjectivity had no place in it…One of the ways in which the Indians could be civilized was to ‘order’ all the customs, values and statuses into one or two ‘tidy’ systems. Lyall successfully persuaded the Viceroy of India in 1884 to classify the diverse caste (jati) groups into two major slots. This classification led to an understanding of Indian society as essentially a caste society and caste was the only element that characterized Indian social life”. Joe Arun is not denying the fact that there were caste-like (jati) institutions before the British colonized India. But, according to him, it was ‘represented’ in colonial epistemology. Whether it is colonial epistemology or Brahmin epistemology, both of them were upholding a theory of essentialism.
The contextual theologies assumed the ‘context’ and ‘identity’ as the essentialist/ unified systems and neglected the micro power relations inherent in it and silenced plural locations within the category such as women, children, disabled so on. These theologies of identity by locating the unified self at the centre, defined themselves as ‘binary opposite’ and rejected the possibility of having a ‘third location’ for subalternity. This is the major issue with related to the methodological challenges to Indian Christian Theologies. If not simplistic, Indian Christian Theology has never attempted to have a dialogue between the subaltern-elitist discourses in order to pin point specifically to reject the practices of domination within and without. Thus, the ‘contextual theologies’/ ‘theologies of identity’ are to be invited to ‘de-con-textualize’ for re-locating them dialogically and transactionally.
Yes, there can be a Dalit/ women without holding the theory of essentialism! The question of ontology
Like the caste epistemology, the modern essentialist ontology that gives us a ‘unified’/ ‘fixed’/ ‘static’ ‘identity’ is to be challenged for being homogenized and monolithic. We need a social theory that provides us the possibility of ontological redemption. Postmodernism as a counter knowledge system that tries to insurrect ‘the subjugated knowledges, provides the epistemological possibility of alterity-the possibility of being ‘different’. Body is given here the possibility of re-figuring and re-reading. Body is not just ‘biologically given’ rather it is ‘volatile’ and ‘alterable’. In fact, the body, as the ultimate site of all violations is an “inscribed surface of events”. As Feminists say: “Our bodies our selves our histories”. Thus the task of the subaltern hermeneutics of body is to ask “what, when, where and how these events are being inscribed/ written-on/ embodied in our very bodies”. As Michel Foucault contents, freedom does not mean the freedom to do anything new; rather it is the possibility to reject all the colonial imprints inscribed on our bodies for several centuries. Body as the subaltern hermeneutical key offers Dalits, women and the other subaltern groups to experience new relations with other social groups at church, at home and in streets.
Just like the body, every text is an ‘inter-text’. Deconstruction as the hermeneutical activity finds validity in postmodern subaltern discourse by engaging with all texts in which they have been figured as ‘invalid’/ ‘marginal’/ ‘variation’/untouchable. The Biblical hermeneutics for subaltern theologies is a political activity because it engages with the texts within and interrogates how they are being treated or represented. The Bible as a textual collection of the liberative memories of encountering dominations provides immense possibilities of having ‘counter subjectivity’ and social space. The church as a eucharist space for the celebration of the ‘broken body/ bodies’, and its liturgies of reconciliation gives the subaltern the theological space for a dialogical community experience. Formulating counter liturgies and ecclesiologies are the new resistances for the subaltern theology.
For the subaltern theological discourse, as it locates itself in the de-ontological understanding of the postmodernism, finds validity in the plural perceptions of God, where the concept of Trinity is to be read as the sign post of ‘non-fixity’ of the being of God. It gives sanction for plural perceptions of God Viz: Dalit God, Women God etc. It is not just the alterity but also the mutuality, relationality and fraternity is also explicated in Trinity. By listening to the stories of our bodies and their struggles for re-figuration and resurrection, we celebrate a new kind of relationship where the ‘Other’ is re-visited and re-invented. The hermeneutics of body provides new possibility of multiple ways of being and resisting. Thus there can be a Dalit/ women without holding a theory of essentialism to have perspective of their own.
Shifting from ‘identity politics’ to ‘the politics of difference’: The question of politics
Modernity envisaged universal/ totalizing social engagements like class struggle in accordance with the development of the Reason. Unlike Marxism that founded on the Hegelian epistemology, the postmodern subaltern discourses promote ‘micro-politics’ and create empowering local practices through which they envisage renewed subjectivity and social agency. The consumerist body epistemology of the Market is being encountered dialogically by twisting it in a transformative way.
It is in the context of plurality we talk about self-reflexivity. So we need to talk about transformation and transgression of finding connections between the differences. The differences of the life worlds are to be acknowledged. What is argued here is that we need to attend and acknowledge the ‘politics of difference’ within the church and society. Chandra T. Mohanty, a known feminist academician says: “…[T]hird world’ women/s writings on feminism have consistently focused on (1) the idea of the simultaneity of oppression as fundamental to the experience of social and political marginality and the grounding of feminist politics in the histories of racism and imperialism; (2) the crucial role of hegemonic state in circumscribing their/ our daily lives and struggles; (3) the significance of memory and writing in the creation of oppositional agency; and (4) the differences, conflicts, and contradictions internal to ‘third world’ women’s organizations and communities. In addition, they have insisted on the complex interrelationships between feminist, anti-racist, and nationalist struggles...”
The Postmodern epistemological shift provides the theoretical possibilities for subaltern discourses to have different epistemology, ontology and politics. It calls for new theological engagements that transforms and transgress the ‘contexts’, ‘texts’ and bodies. As the postmodernism defines itself, the subaltern discourses are also open ended; open for interrogation and dialogue.
Ranjith Guha, “Preface,” Selected subaltern Studies, (eds.) (Delhi: oxford University, 1999).
Michel Foucault calls the counter epistemologies as ‘subjugated knowledges’ or ‘contested epistemologies’ whose resurrection creates resistances spontaneously. All dominations are power structures where some kind of knowledge systems is embodied and they are manifested through certain kind of social practices of marginalization and subjugation.
 Chung, Hyun kyung, Struggle to the sun again: Introducing Asian Women Theology, (London: SCM Press, 1991), p.39
 Joe Arun, Death of Representation: A Postmodern Challenge, VJTR 71 (2007) 267-8
 Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader(New York: Random House, 1984), 83
 Chandra T. Mohanty, “cartographies of Struggle: Third world Women and the Politics of Feminism”, in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1991), 10