Elevate Difference

Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea

I was first introduced to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous 1988 essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” during a graduate seminar that focused on postcolonial and feminist literature. While I read many works by various important and transformative authors during that semester, Spivak’s discussion of the subaltern stood out to me as being more important and more transformative than the others. To be honest, there are portions of the essay that I still don’t understand; there are analogies and culturally based references that elude me.

However, the ideas that I took away from Spivak’s essay were powerful and thought-provoking because they allowed me to think about a group of women, whom Spivak calls the “subproletariat subaltern,” in a manner that allowed me to connect with these women. Specifically, Spivak’s interwoven application of Marxist, deconstructionist, feminist, and postcolonial theories allowed me to understand the capitalist system in which I—a middle class, white, woman born and raised in America—navigate, at times successfully and at others with great disappointment.

To an ever greater extent, Spivak’s assertions in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” made it clear to me that this is the same system which has worked to imprison a certain global class of women, specifically in formerly colonized nations. While women of all socioeconomic statuses and ethnic backgrounds have suffered under the cruel grasp of capitalism, Spivak’s detailed analysis of the international division of labor and the global market-based economy shows that subproletariat women have suffered the most. As a subaltern group, they have had few to no opportunities to be heard, much less to speak.

In this newest anthology, Can the Subaltern Speak?, various scholars and authors have written essays in response to Spivak’s essay. The topics of these essays include research and pedagogy, the human rights of indigenous women in Guatemala and Mexico, slavery in the United States, and the interpretation of World War I in a postcolonial context. The diversity of these responsive essays shows the impact and far-reaching implications of Spviak’s original essay. Also included in this anthology is an Introduction by Rosalind C. Morris and an Afterword by Spivak, in which the author discusses the original essay’s past and future.

This is a not a light summer read. If you are interested in postcolonial theory and found Spviak’s original essay to be of value, as I and many others have, then this collection of essays is worth reading. Scholars and teachers of critical theory would find no shortage of material to discuss, evaluate, and consider. This text is not one that you sit down and read in an entire afternoon. Instead, it is a collection of ideas that you can revisit time and again. The sentiments discussed by Spivak and the other authors are especially poignant now because of the strife in the global economy, international warring, and the increased stratification of the classes. I suspect, sadly, that these sentiments will be relevant for years to come.

Written by: Rachel Scheib, July 4th 2010