It seems to me that Gayatri Spivak's 'Can the Subaltern Speak?' is one of the most widely mis-characterised, mis-interpreted and mis-used texts out there. I find myself constantly debating the productivity of this piece with other readers of the text, and have for a while been writing bits and pieces of my take on it.
Below is an excerpt from a presentation I gave at a symposium on postcolonial capitalism. It is written in response to an exchange I had some years about with a feminist scholar on Spivak’s writing of the subaltern.
Take it as you will...
This is an experiment.
My experiment begins with an image – a naked image (Ranciere 2009, 22)– sheer presence, without signification (p. 23).
Then the story – most have heard it before. December 3rd, 1984. The populus of Bhopal is gassed with 27 tons of methyl isocyanate from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory. ‘It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies, our eyes tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths’ (Champa Devi Shukla). Within 24 hours, this city-turned-gas-chamber claims over two thousand lives, devastates over 150,000 bodies, thousands of which were – which are – yet to be born. The next morning, a father buries – covers over with rubble – his child. ‘Unable to bear the thought of never seeing her again’, we are told, ‘he brushed away the dirt for one last look’.
The image, naked, a seething presence. Forced to signify… what? The gas leak? The dangers of industrial expansionism? The horrors of postcolonial capitalism?
What is this image? Must I show you… again? And to what end… still?
The spectacle of violence. The violence of the spectacle.
Do we need another moment of ‘show and tell’, another witness, to testify to the truth of brown sentience. ‘Does this not’, asks Hartman (1997), ‘reinforce the “thingly” quality of the captive by reducing the body to evidence in the very effort to establish the humanity of the enslaved?’ (p. 19).
And yet, what is the slave, the child covered over with rubble – what are they but things? ‘The refusal of repetition that reproduces what it refuses’ (Moten 2003, 5). No, behold the thing.
Close your eyes. See it. [No seriously, close your eyes.]
See the body of the child. Drained of life and color. Its mouth slightly parted. Perhaps from the last gasp for air. Or from frothing. See its unblinkingly eyes; white spots where there were once, perhaps, seeing eyes. See its torso. Is that broken flesh, broken bone or broken stone?
A good race and postcolonial scholar might call foul on this performance. Seize pain – not “mine” – and offer it to you, allow you to make it yours. Use brown brokenness – or broken brownness – to let you – us – feel… what? In the most general of terms, human? The image, from naked to ostensive – ‘Presence [opening] out into the presentation of presence’ (Ranciere 2009, 23).
But I am a bad postcolonial scholar. It is already too late. I learned to speak long ago, just as you already know how to see. You are no stranger to brown brokenness – or broken brownness; you heard me speak it before you saw me. I – am allowed no other language.
What about a name, the scholar might persist. The child – can it only represent? Does it not have a name?
Does it matter? I am that bad postcolonial who insists the subaltern cannot speak.
Here lies a buried thing. Do not be put off by my insistence on its ‘thingness’. For in our shared performance of its death – in that shared moment when we were moved to… Compassion? Empathy? Titillation? – we were confronted by our own subjectivity; our own impotent subjectivity.
Here, then, lies a thing with agency – agency, what Karen Barad (2007) describes as ‘the iterative reconfigurings of topological manifolds of spacetime-matter relations’ (p. 178). A thing that defies its own thingness, but protests any easy emancipation into subjecthood.
If we return again and again to a certain passion, a passionate response to passionate utterance, horn-voice-horn over percussion, a protest, an objection, it is because it is more than another violent scene of subjugation too terrible to pass on; it is the ongoing performance, the prefigurative scene of a (re)appropriation – the deconstruction and reconstruction, the improvisational recording and revaluation – of value, of the theory of value, of the theories of value. (Moten 2003, 14)
Barad, K (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press Books.
Hartman, S (1997) Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Moten, F (2003) In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. University of Minnesota Press.
Ranciere, J (2009) The Future of the Image. New York: Verso; Reprint edition.