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Can the subaltern speak?


Subaltern, meaning ‘of inferior rank’, is a term adopted by Antonio Gramsci to refer to those groups in society who are subject to the hegemony of the ruling classes. Subaltern classes may include peasants, workers and other groups denied access to ‘hegemonic’ power. Since the history of the ruling classes is realized in the state, history being the history of states and dominant groups, Gramsci was interested in the historiography of the subaltern classes. In ‘Notes on Italian history’ (1934—5) he outlined a six point plan for studying the history of the subaltern classes which included: (1) their objective formation (2) their active or passive affiliation to the dominant political formations (3) the birth of new parties and dominant groups (4) the formations that the subaltern groups produce to press their claims (5) new formations within the old framework that assert the autonomy of the subaltern classes; and (6) other points referring to trade unions and political parties.


Gramsci claimed that the history of the subaltern classes was just as complex as the history of the dominant classes, although the history of the latter is usually that which is accepted as ‘official’ history. For him, the history of subaltern social groups is necessarily fragmented and episodic, since they are always subject to the activity of ruling groups, even when they rebel. Clearly they have less access to the means by which they may control their own representation. and less access to cultural and social institutions. Only ‘permanent’ victory (that is, a revolutionary class adjustment) can break that pattern of subordination, and even that does not occur immediately.


The term has been adapted to post—colonial studies from the work of the Subaltern Studies group of historians, who aimed to promote a systematic discussion of subaltern themes in South Asian Studies. It is used in Subaltern  Studies as a name for 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’ (Guha 1982: vii). 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 sociology of subalterneity ‘as well as the attitudes, ideologies and belief systems in short, the culture informing that condition’.


The purpose of the Subaltern Studies project was to redress the imbalance created in academic work by a tendency to focus on elites and elite culture in South Asian historiography. Recognizing that  subordination cannot be understood except in a binary relationship with dominance, the group aimed to examine the subaltern ‘as an objective assessment of the role of the elite and as a critique of elitist interpretations of that role’. The goals of the group stemmed from the belief that the historiography of Indian nationalism, for instance, had long been dominated by elitism  colonialist élitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism both consequences of British colonialism. Such historiography suggested that the development of a nationalist consciousness was an exclusive elite achievement, either of colonial administrators, policy or culture, or of elite Indian personalities, institutions or ideas. Consequently, asserts Guha, such writing cannot acknowledge or interpret the contribution made by people on their own, that is, independently of the élite. What is clearly left out is the class outlook of such historiography is a ‘politics of the people’. which, he claims, is an autonomous domain that continued to operate when the elite politics became outmoded.


One clear demonstration of the difference between the elite and the subaltern lies in the nature of political mobilization: elite mobilization was achieved vertically through adaptation of British parliamentary institutions, while the subaltern relied on the traditional organization of kinship and territoriality or class associations. Popular mobilization in the colonial period took the form of peasant uprisings and the contention is that this remains a primary locus of political action, despite the change in political structure. This is very different from the claims of elite historiography that Indian nationalism was primarily an idealist venture in which the indigenous elite led the people from subjugation to freedom.


Despite the great diversity of subaltern groups, the one invariant feature was a notion of resistance to elite domination. The failure of the bourgeoisie to speak for the nation 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 Indian historiography’. Clearly the concept of the subaltern is meant to cut across several kinds of political and cultural binaries, such as colonialism vs. nationalism, or imperialism vs. indigenous cultural expression, in favour of a more general distinction between subaltern and elite, because, suggests Guha, this subaltern group is invariably overlooked in studies of political and cultural change.


The  notion  of the subaltern became an issue in post-colonial theory when Gayatri Spivak critiqued the assumptions of the Subaltern Studies group in the essay ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ This question. she claims is one that the group must ask. Her first criticism is directed at the Gramscian claim for the auton­omy of the subaltern group, which, she says, no amount of qualification by Guha — who concedes the diversity, heterogeneity and overlapping nature of subaltern groups — can save from its fundamentally essentialist premise. Secondly, no methodology for determining who or what might constitute this group can avoid this essentialism. The ‘people’ or the ‘subaltern’ is a group defined by difference from the elite.


To guard against essentialist views of subalterneity Guha suggests that there is a further distinction to be made between the subaltern and dominant indigenous groups at the regional and local levels. However, Guha’s attempt to guard against essentialism by specifying the range of subaltern groups serves only, according to Spivak, to problematize the idea of the subaltern itself still further. The task of research is to investigate, identify and measure the specific nature of the degree of deviation of the [dominant indigenous groups at the regional and local level] from the ideal [the subaltern] and situate it historically’. But, asks Spivak, ‘what taxonomy can fix such a space?’ For the ‘true’ subaltern group, she says, whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself.


One cannot construct a category of the subaltern that has an effective voice clearly and unproblematically identifiable as such, a voice that does not at the same time occupy many other possible speaking positions. Spivik goes on to elaborate the problems of the category of the subaltern by looking at the situation of gendered subjects and of Indian women in particular, for ‘both as an object of colonialist historiography and as a subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant’. For if ‘in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow’. Spivak examines the position of Indian women through an analysis of a particular case, and concludes with the declaration that ‘the subaltern cannot speak’. This has sometimes been interpreted to mean that there is no way in which oppressed or politically marginalized groups can voice their resistance, or that the subaltern only has a dominant language or a dominant voice in which to be heard. But Spivak’s target is the concept of an unproblematically constituted subaltern identity, rather than the subaltern subject’s ability to give voice to political concerns. Her point is that no act of dissent or resistance occurs on behalf of an essential subaltern subject entirely separate from the dominant discourse that provides the language and the conceptual categories with which the subaltern voice speaks. Clearly, the existence of post-colonial discourse itself is an example of such speaking, and in most cases the dominant language or mode of representation is appropriated so that the marginal voice can be heard.




Gramsci, Antonio, Escritos Políticos, 4 vols, Lisboa, Seara Nova, 1976-1978.

Guha, R., Subaltern Studies, 7 vols, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1982.

Spivak, G., In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, N. Y., Methuen, 1987.