Representation of the Subaltern: Spivak and Historiography
Y. T. Vinayaraj
(Article Published in the Mar Thoma Seminary Journal of Theology, Vol. II, No. 2, December 2013)
Representation is first and foremost an act of performance, bringing forth in the mode of staging something which in itself is not a given- Wolfgang Iser
Representation, whether it is re-presenting or re-presencing something, is a political activity. It is the epistemological and the question of power implied in it make the politics of representation complex and contestatory. The question of power in the act of representation has been closely examined by the postcolonial theorists and they have exposed the process of ‘worlding’ and ‘othering’ embodied in the colonial modern Western historiography, literature, and culture. Since Edward Said’s Orientalism, this has been one of the major undercurrents that determined the postcolonial discourses in historiography and politics. Taking the cue from Edward Said and other postcolonial theorists, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak problematizes the question of representation of subaltern in the colonial and postcolonial texts. Spivakian account of subaltern offers a radical turn in the issue of representation and envisages a new rhetorical space of social engagement especially with regard to the social agency of the marginalized sections in the ‘Third world.’ Taking a different theoretical position that interstice postcolonialism, postmodernism, Marxism and post-feminism, Spivak offers a radical positionig of (subaltern) subjectivity and social responsibility. This paper explores the fecundity of the Spivakian theory of subalternity and the challenge that poses to historiography, theology and politics.
History, Representation, and the Epistemological Trajectories
As a product of modernity, historiography finds its epistemological location in humanism. Humanism as a modern Western enlightenment product envisaged new definition of human subjectivity in contradictory to the pre-modern epistemological trajectories. The fundamental premise of the humanism is that it believed in a universal human nature despite of the differences across time, place, culture, gender and ethnicity. It was this notion of universal humanity later became a point of attack from the post-humanists. Along with this, the writing of history and culture in the post-enlightenment period had to encounter many subsequent epistemological shifts. The notion of the linguistic constructivity of the social world, as it was theorized by the ‘linguistic turn’ and the proceeded theoretical shifts like structuralism and post structuralism became instrumental for the emergence of the post-humanist era. Poststructuralism/ postmodernism as an epistemological shift problematizes the modern gaze on human relationship, texts/ narratives and on human bodies for being Euro-centric, essentialist, universalist, and colonial. In this new epistemological context, the act of representation becomes multifaceted, fragmentary, deconstructive and postcolonial.
It was Michel Foucault who theorized the interconnection between text and the question of power in the postmodern epistemological context. Foucault unsettled the settled notions of (modern) historiography which categorized or ill-treated the ‘subjugated’. For Foucault, the insurrection of the ‘contested knowledges’ of the ‘subjugated’ invoke new resistances and politics. Jean-Francois Lyotard, in the same vein of thought, criticizes the modern historiography as metanarrative. By metanarrative he means, “master stories that serves as a comprehensive narratives, which subordinate, organize and account for other narratives. For Lyotard, the authoritative, over-arching, and totalizing narratives are no longer tenable because they reject and invalidate the difference of the local/ little narratives that hesitate to be accommodated, appropriated, and emplotted. Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction shook the Euro-centric epistemic foundation, through which modernity rationalized the existence of ‘non-European,’ ‘variations,’ ‘aberrations,’ and ‘marginal identities.’ Deconstruction brings out the politics behind the construction of meaning and the desire for representation of the ‘other’ in the historiography and culture. It was this post-humanist epistemological context that enriched the insurrection of the postcolonial knowledges and historiographies from the ‘non-European’ peoples and cultures. Postcolonial historiography envisages a radical turn in the writing of history and politics locally and globally.
Postcolonialism that emerged as a critique of Euro-centric approach in the post-humanist era, problematized the modern Western (mis)representation of the ‘non-European other’ in the colonial historiographies and literatures. It was Edward Said’s Orientalism that represented the first phase of postcolonial theory. Said’s intention was to unmask the ideological disguises of imperialism as a hegemonic epistemological project. According to Said, ‘the Orientalism’ unveils the Western style of dominating, restructuring and having authority over the non-European cultures and people. For Said, the representation of the East in terms of the European imaginations (what Said calls ‘fantasies’) was integral to the conquest of the East. Said argues that ‘the Orient’ is an epistemological construction of ‘the Occident’ by which they retained their political and cultural superiority over ‘the Orient.’ He asserts that “orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the orient but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment.”
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, as a literary critic and political theorist, locates herself in this wider spectrum of post-humanist theoretical location. Engaging with Edward Said, Spivak addresses the question of ‘worlding’ and ‘othering’ in historiography in order to expose the unequal power relationships embodied in the representation of the West’s Other-the ‘Third World’ and the Third World’s Other –the subaltern. Critiquing both postcolonial and poststructural engagement to ‘speak for’ the subaltern, Spivak argues that there is no ‘unrepresented’/ ‘essentialist’ subaltern who can know, speak, and represent themselves in history, culture and politics. Spivakian theory of subalternity makes its representation impossible and at the same time denies any kind of essentialist position of subaltern identity. This ‘im/possible subalternity’ makes Spivakian method unique in the question of representation and thus signals a methodological shift in the hermeneutical program of historiography, culture, politics, theology, and philosophy.
The Spivakian methodology is highly informed and influenced by three theoretical frameworks: Marxism, postcolonialism and deconstruction which constitute the triadic theoretical foci of her methodology. However, Spivak offers a feminist critique of all these theories and even re-locates feminism itself in a subverted way. Spivak may use one theory of this triadic focus to interrogate the other and adopts a novel method of interchanging and exchanging of theoretical gift to envisage a deconstructive, interdisciplinary and trans-theoretical methodological approach of feminism. Even though she is designated as one among the ‘postcolonial trinity,’ Spivak hesitates to be located as a postcolonialist. One of the main reasons for this rejection of the label ‘postcolonial’ is an increasing recognition that postcolonial theory focuses too much on past forms of colonial domination, and is therefore inadequate to criticize the impact of contemporary global economic domination of the economic agencies of the West on the economies and societies of the global South.
At the same time, Spivak’s relationship with deconstruction is very complex and contestatory. Spivak’s use of deconstruction is to question the cultural and philosophical foundations of the Western imperialism. Spivak uses an ‘affirmative deconstruction’ in order to exemplify how textuality justifies colonial expansion and thereby intersects postcolonialism and deconstruction for an effective political hermeneutics. Spivak has been persistently critical of the universalist claims of Western feminist thoughts to represent all women, rather than acknowledging its culturally partial and relatively privileged position. She warns the Western deconstructionist feminism not to become ‘complicit with an essentialist bourgeois feminism.’ Spivak exhorts the ‘first world’ feminists to learn to stop feeling privileged as a woman. What she is intended to do with feminism is to re-locate the gendered subaltern/ the Third World women/ the marginal women and to emphasize the differential, dispersed, and heterogeneous location of women. In short, Marxist-deconstructionist-feminist epistemology seems to be her methodological focal point through which she tries to attend the issues of the representation of the colonized, disempowered, marginalized and disenfranchised women in the complex context of postcolonialism, postmodernism and globalization.
Spivak, Subaltern and Historiography
Spivak’s use of the term ‘subaltern’ is primarily informed by the work of the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci on the rural-based Italian peasantry and the research off the international Subaltern Studies collective on the histories of subaltern insurgency in colonial and postcolonial South Asia. The Italian term subalterno, as used by Gramsci, translates roughly as “subordinate” or “dependent.” Gramsci used this term to question the received Marxist emphasis on the urban proletariat and economy neglecting the culture and the consciousness of the peasantry. The peasantry was dynamic and numerically predominant in Gramsci’s Italy and thus Gramsci wanted to bring them into the alliance with the revolutionary forces in the city. According to Gramsci it is the responsibility of the intellectual “to search out signs of subaltern initiative and incipient class identity that could be nurtured and educated into true class consciousness and effective political action.” In the program of the Subaltern Studies Collective, this Gramscian category was extended to “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.” 
The subaltern has been used by the Subaltern Study Collective as a category that cut across several kinds of political and cultural binaries such as colonialism vs. nationalism, or imperialism vs. indigenous cultural expression, in favor of a more general distinction between subaltern and elite. For them, it was a category that points to the subordinate sections-the marginalized-the Dalits, the Tribals, the Adivasis, the farmers, the unorganized laborers, the minorities, the women etc. who have not been considered as subjects of their own histories and consciousness in the colonial and national elite historiographies. Spivak argues that the subaltern in the early Ranajit Guha of the Collective was the name of a space of difference; although Guha seems to be saying that the words “people” and “subaltern” are interchangeable. By reviewing the Subaltern Study Collective, Spivak proposes a new definition of subalternity- subalternity as ‘identity-in-difference’, as it charts two distinct but related problems of othering, the first concerning the politics of identity and the second contemplating an ethics of alterity.
Can the subaltern speak?
In her essays ‘Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography’ and ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ Spivak offers a productive critique of the theoretical methodology of the Subaltern Study Collective and there by proposes a revised version of Subalternity. These essays have been revised and incorporated in the expansive “History” chapter of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 198-312) published in 1999. In this chapter, Spivak exposes the exclusions and the gapes in the representation of the subaltern subject in the colonial and postcolonial historical records.
First, the essay addresses the question of the ‘worlding’ of the ‘native’ or the formation the ‘other’ by the European self. It is the colonial epistemological trajectory, Spivak argues that, through which the ‘other’ comes to know and narrate its ‘self.’ It is the moment in which the colonial authority speaks for/ as ‘the native’-the other becomes self. Here Spivak destabilizes both colonial and postcolonial representations of subaltern identity that can provide an “authentic voice” in history. As Ritu Birla clearly contents, it is a call to “quit-other,” or the problem of alterity, that is, that which escapes consolidation into narrative and identity.
Spivak’s contention with the postcolonial or proto-deconstructive approach of the Subaltern Study Collective is based on her theoretical critic of the Foucault-Deleuze’s conversation on the relationship between the “masses” and the “intellectuals.” Spivak questions Michel Foucault and Deleuze who endeavor to produce a radical critique of the Western subject or an authentic postcolonial subject by exposing their double incapacity to recognize the ‘non-universality’ of the Western position and the constitutive space of the gender in the formation of the subaltern subject. By rereading Marx through the lens of Derrida, Spivak brings out the Marxian dichotomy between Vertreten (proxy) and darstellen (portrait), and exposes the politics and dilemma of representation. Spivak rejects both the idea that “the masses” are known to themselves and able to make their interests manifest politically (Foucault and Deleuze), and the idea that intellectuals can fulfill their political responsibility by representing or speaking for the masses (Marx). Spivak’s criticism on the postcolonial method of the Subaltern Study Collective who draws heavily on Foucault-Deleuze conversation is that by constituting a self-speaking postcolonial subject as an ‘essentialist other’, and trying to speak for them, in effect, the ‘true subaltern’ becomes silent. Spivak here problematizes the ‘radical autonomy’ / the claim of the authenticity of the “real experience” of the subaltern and on the other hand, signifies its ‘radical alterity’ and ‘irreducible difference.’
Spivak rejects any kind of essentialist notion of subaltern subjectivity and asserts that there is no such essentialist postcolonial subject who can speak and know their conditions by themselves. She contends that “there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself” and asks, “With what voice-consciousness can the subaltern speak?” Spivakian thesis is double bind; on the one hand, she argues that the colonialists and postcolonials have misrepresented the subaltern subject and on the other hand, there cannot be an ‘essentialist subaltern subject’ to speak against the colonial representation as it was proposed by the Subaltern Study Collective. It is out of this epistemological context, the Spivakian thesis arises: “The subaltern cannot speak themselves” which indicates the ‘irreducibility’ and the ‘untranslatability’ of subalternity in historiography and politics.
The Gendered Subaltern
The question of ‘unrepresentability’ of subaltern is further extended to the question of gender. By focusing, women as subaltern, Spivak asserts, “within this effaced itinerary of the subaltern, the track of sexual difference is doubly effaced.” Spivak explains this doubly effaced female subjectivity by entering into the discussion of the psychobiography of Sati (widow-immolation) in pre-colonial India. According to Spivak, women as subaltern, their voices have been silenced in between the imperialist/ colonialist object-constitution and the nationalist/ patriarchal subject-formation. She argues that the voices of the gendered subaltern subjectivity has been lost in between the notion of the ‘liberative act’ of the imperialists who tried to abolish this ‘crime’ in the name of civilization and the patriarchal notion of Sati as a “heroic act” through which it was translated as the subaltern women “wanted to die.” For Spivak, the voices of the female subaltern subjectivity is silenced in between the colonial and nationalist/ patriarchal translations of their ‘consciousness’: (i) “White men were saving the brown women from the brown men” and (ii) “The women wanted to die in order to become good wives (Sati).” The British colonial rule legally abolished Sati by considering it as a crime and thereby, Spivak argues that the ‘differentiated voice’ of the gendered subaltern subject kept unattended, unheard and silenced. Both the ‘axiomatics of imperialism’ and ‘the Hindu patriarchal legacy’ are responsible for keeping their voice in shadow. Spivak here not only problematizes the politics of gender representation but also displaces both the Eurocentric (colonial)and anti-Eurocentric (postcolonial) notions of the ‘authenticity’ of the ‘lived experiences’ of women as an ‘essentialist other.’
Spivak exemplifies this ‘shadowing’ of the voice of the subaltern women by narrating the story of the suicide of a young woman-Bhubaneswari Bhaduri- in Calcutta in 1926. Bhubaneswari Bhaduri was a young woman of sixteen or seventeen; she hanged herself in her father’s house. She was menstruating at the time, which would indicate that she was not pregnant. Years later it emerged that she had killed herself because she had been unable to carry out a mission for a revolutionary group of which she was a member. According to Spivak, Bhubaneswari’s suicide was an act of subaltern re-writing of the social text of Sati-suicide. Yet the “message” self-inscribed on her body was not read. “She ‘spoke,’ but women did not, do not, ‘hear her.” Thus, Spivak argues that the subaltern as female cannot be heard or read even though they speak or write.
Spivak here problematizes the dilemma of the subaltern subject who even tried to speak or re-inscribe something on her body. According to Spivak, the silence of the subaltern women is not a failure of articulation but the result of the failure of representation. The point here is not that subalterns do not know how to speak for themselves; rather, the claim on the part of the intellectual that subalterns can and do speak for themselves stands in favor of their civilizing mission of benevolence while occluding the question of audibility. Spivak argues, while the intellectuals’ claim that the subaltern can speak for themselves, they assume the position of ‘proxy’ and the absence/ presence of the subaltern voice remains as aporia-the im/possibility. Subalternity according to Spivak is a sheer space of this aporia-the im/possibility where the possibility and the impossibility of absence and presence, voice and viocelessness, essentialism and constructionism coincides each other. It is here Spivak’s most controversial phrase comes in to the discussion-‘the strategic use of positive essentialism.’
Strategic use of positive essentialism
It is out of this theoretical lacuna of representation, Spivak proposes what she calls the ‘strategic use of positive essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest’. Spivak explained it latter in an interview where she denied any kind of theoretical sanction for essentialism. She warns that it can be used as a theoretical alibi for proselytizing academic essentialisms. For her it is not a theory but a strategy or tactic fitting a specific situation. It is a political space of alterity and difference which has nothing to do with identitarianism. As she remarks in the interview: “I think identitarianism ignores what is most interesting about being alive, that is to say, being angled towards the other. I therefore found that it was unfortunate that people liked that phrase (‘strategic essentialism’).” On this Spivakian phrase, Stephen D. Moore and Mayra Rivera comment: “rather than assuming that action flows naturally from identity, strategic essentialism acknowledges the employment of or appeal to an essentialized concept of identity, however deconstructible, as a sometimes necessary political tactic.”
What Spivak reiterates is that subalternity is a political position-a ‘decolonized space’ without identity through which the subalterns are speaking and resisting. She defines the word -subaltern as the “sheer heterogeneity of decolonized space” and denies it as a synonym for the word “oppressed”. Spivak explained this in a recent interview with some of the postcolonial theologians at Drew University: “if the subaltern speaks, and it is heard; then he or she is not a subaltern.” Subaltern speaks, but, she argues, ‘it is not heard” and of course “it cannot be heard”. By defining ‘speaking’ as ‘transaction between the speaker and the listener,’ Spivak contents that “Bhubaneswari has spoken in some way”, but “it is effaced even as it is disclosed.”
For Spivak, Subalternity is a ‘rhetorical space,’ that cut across any essentialist position in terms of caste, class, gender and nationality. Spivakian subalternity is a “secrete”-the irreducible alterity—the (im)possible. If subaltern speaks, it demands deconstruction; because it is “an Echo.” According to Spivak, ‘Echo’ is an attempt to give gendered subaltern a space to deconstruct her out of the representation and non-representation, however imperfectly. The intellectuals, who defend for the autonomy of the subaltern voice, stand for their civilizing mission of benevolence and speak for the subalterns and the make the true subaltern silent. The true subalternity is a ‘secrete,’ ‘Echo’, which is ‘indefinable’ and ‘unrepresentable.’ As it is exemplified in the case of Bhaduri, it is beyond our gaze, cognition, and representation, because; it lies in the realm of death. It lies ‘in-between’ representation and non-representation. It is ‘in between’ human right slogans and the desire for the infinite justice-the justice to come. Thus, for Spivak, subalternity is the im/possibility that makes the subaltern voice or viocelessness a possibility in the contemporary social engagements. What is most dynamic in the assumption of Spivakian subalternity, it destabilizes the ‘epistemic violence’ of the ‘othering’ of the subaltern and it postpones the ‘truth’ of subalternity in order to rescue it from any kind of representation in history, culture, and politics.
Spivak problematizes the representation of subaltern in historiography, culture and politics. For that purpose, Spivak uses an interdisciplinary method that spans between Marxism, postmodernism, postcolonialism and feminism. Spivak offers a radical critique to any kind of approach that easily appropriates, accommodates, and emplotes the ‘subaltern consciousness’ in the name of obligation, duty or solidarity. Spivakian subalternity is a ‘decolonized space,’ where any kind of ‘worlding’ or ‘othering’ is being denied. Voicing against the silencing and the foreclosure of the subaltern, Spivak upholds the irreducibility and the alterity of the subalternity which cannot be emplotted. Spivakian method of writing history is neither objective nor subjective; rather ‘in between.’ This ‘in between’ space is a ‘dialogical space’ where the relationship between the historian and the historicized are re-imagined and re-constituted. It is the ‘deconstructive space’ where the historian becomes no-historian and it is the ‘postcolonial space’ where the historicized denies any kind of fixity of subjectivity. It is here, as Wolfgang Iser contends, we recognize the representation as an act of performance through which we re-define ourselves not on the basis of the other. Writing historiography demands a self-interruption (kenosis) within the historian before he or she inters into the act of representation which is nothing but a political activity. Historiography has never been an innocent activity whether it is colonial or postcolonial. Spivakian subalternity is an ‘im/possible space’ in which the historian tries to listen to the silence-the echo-the secrete of the silenced. It is here the act of writing history becomes an act of im/possibility.
 Wolfgang Iser, “Representation: A Performative Act”, in The Aims of Representation, Subject/ Text/ History edited by Murray Krieger (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 232.
 Edward Siad, Orientalism, (London: Routledge, 1978).
 For a detailed study on humanism and post-humanism, see Patrick Fuery and Nick Mansfield, Cultural Studies and Critical Theories (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality (New York: Pantheon, 1970), 96.
 See Willie Thompson, Postmodernism and History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Emplotment is the concept propounded by Hayden White who draws attention to the reality that any historical narrative requires to be represented in a manner that is analogous to certain forms of literature. See Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: MD, 1973).
 Edward Said, Orientalism, 6.
 Edward Said and Homi Bhabha are the two other most influential exemplars of postcolonial theory.
 Stephen Morton, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Ethics, Subalternity and the Critique of Postcolonial Reason (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 2
 Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New York: Methuen, 1987), 132.
 Ibid., 136
 It was a group of historians who aimed to promote a systematic discussion of subaltern themes in South Asian Studies. The group-formed by Ranajit Guha, and initially including Shahid Amin, David Arnold, Partha Chatterjee, David Hardiman and Gyan Pandey-has produced five volumes of Subaltern Studies: essays relating to the history, politics, economics and culture of subalternity.
 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and ed. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 52-120.
 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 28. Stephen Morton argues that “it is hard to read Gramsci’s use of the term subaltern only as a simple code –word for the more familiar Marxist category of proletarian; rather it seems to precisely denote subordinate group such as the rural peasantry in Southern Italy, whose achievement of social and political consciousness was limited and their political unity weak.” See, Stephen Morton, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 96.
 Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies, Vol.I, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982), vii
Bill Ashcroft, et al. Post-Colonial Studies; The Key Concepts (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 218
For a detailed study of the epistemological trajectories of the category-subalternity in the theoretical methodology of the Subaltern Study Collective, see the introductory essay ‘A brief History of Subalternity’ in Reading Subaltern Studies, edited by David Ludden (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001), 1-42
 Spivak, ‘Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular,’ Postcolonial Studies, 8 (4) (2005): 476
 Ritu Birla, “Postcolonial Studies,” in Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, edited by Rosalind C. Morris (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), pp. 87-99
 Spivak’s most controversial essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” exists in different forms. It was first published in 1985 and revised in Marxism and the Interpretation of Cultures, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (pp. 271-313) in 1988. Here, I will examine the updated version of this text appeared in the expansive “History” chapter of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 198-312.
 ‘Worlding’ is Spivak’s term for the process whereby a colonizing agent assimilates a subject people through acts of epistemic violence, such as naming or remapping. Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 211-212.
 Ritu Birla, “Postcolonial Studies,” 88
 I Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 252
 Ibid. 262
 Ibid., 273
 Ibid, 307
 Ibid., 72-74.
 Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, 205
 Chakravorty, Milevska, and Barlow, Conversations with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (London and New York: Seagull Books, 2006), 64
 Ibid., 64
 Stephen D. Moore and Mayra Rivera, eds., Planetary Loves: Spivak, Postcoloniality, and Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 10-11
 Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 310
 Spivak, The Post-Colonial critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. By Sarah Harasym (New York: Rutledge, 1990), 158. This idea is reiterated in her discussion with the postcolonial theologians recently. See Stephen D. Moore and Mayra Rivera, eds., Planetary Loves, 145-6
 Spivak, ‘Subaltern Talk’, in The Spivak Reader, eds Donna Laudry and Gerald Maclean, (New York and London: Routledge, 1996), 289
 Spivak, ‘Introduction’, in Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, eds, Selected Subaltern Studies, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 11
 See, Spivak, ‘Echo’, The Spivak Reader, 177