Event reflections - Thinking with/against/past the “Subaltern”

This article was written by Clive Gabay and Titilayo Ayoola
This article was published on

On 11 September 2015, the Colonial, Postcolonial and Decolonial (CPD) Working Group ran their annual workshop, this year titled 'Thinking with/against/past the “Subaltern”'. Here Clive Gabay and Titilayo Ayoola give their reflections.

You can also read the call for papers and see the programme.

Post-workshop reflections: Clive Gabay

Whose words are these words? Subaltern, indigenous, victim, oppressed…who are they used by, why and for what purposes? Taken out of their immediate and parochial political context can they convey more general analytical purchase? Questions like these can be unsettling, probing as they do the very heart of any number of critical scholarly projects. We invoke with language but with every invocation we also exclude. Representation, in the Spivakian sense, is not always undesirable, but it is risky, the subject always mutable and mutating. These then are some thoughts on how we might pursue what other contributors to the CPD workshop called a critical ethic of engagement.

First, we must be more willing to call out racism and paternalism for what it is. When the forces of the far right can claim to be speaking for ‘indigenous rights’ it becomes clear that even language claimed by critical scholars is not unproblematic. When peoples dubbed ‘indigenous’ are reprimanded by paternalistic scholars and/or activists for appropriating elements of ‘modern’ economy and technology, we know that labels can be used to subject rather than liberate. Of course, when the subjects of racism, paternalism and oppression claim the subjectivity of indigeneity, victimhood, or (much less likely) subalterity, in order to amplify and pursue their political demands then that is another matter. But here is precisely the point. Racism and paternalism are racism and paternalism. When those subject to such prejudices decide to appropriate the language of indigeneity or subalterity in how they respond to such impositions then contingently supporting and thus learning from such endeavours can be a mode of ethical engagement for critically minded scholars. When those scholars start to decide who and what counts as indigenous, subaltern, and so on, then the risk of creating far more problematic modes of representation which silences and disempowers the very subjects whose (preconceived) liberation is being sought becomes much more amplified.

A second mode of comprehending a critical ethic of engagement with the subjects of racism and paternalism is to work on becoming parochial. But not a parochial form of parochial-ness! Being parochial is not about being local, glocal, or any other such spatial imaginary. Rather, being parochial is a call to decolonize our sense of selves as autonomous, liberal rational subjects, and to comprehend the social relationality and historicity which produces our contemporary selves. Such a comprehension is always an immanent work in progress, but one through which we can begin to work on ourselves, to develop more horizontal ethics of engagement which predicate against the tendency (especially in the academy) to see ourselves as sources of liberating expertise, a well-meaning but ultimately paternalistic route. How does my horizontally and historically constituted self, replete with its own oppressions and privileges, enable me (or not) to enact relationships of solidarity and empathy with other equally contradictory selves? What are the limitations of my empathy? When does my positionality turn away from enabling liberation to enabling new forms of oppression? Similarly, what new forms of relationality are opened up by my consideration of my self (selves) as multiple, historical and horizontal? How might this sense of self/selves allow me to dissolve modern distinctions of expert/subject, teacher/student, educated/uneducated, civilised/uncivilised, whilst still retaining a reflexive sense of my privilege to have the time and luxury to even ask these questions of myself?

By necessity, to be continued...

Post-workshop reflections: Titilayo Ayoola

On Friday 11 September 2015, the Colonial, Postcolonial, De-colonial working group of the British International Studies Association held its second annual workshop at SOAS, University of London. I found this workshop a truly enriching, thought provoking experience that reinforced the many challenges that accompany thinking through the “subaltern”. It was a good continuation from last year’s workshop, in that I engaged with the themes from last year’s annual workshop also at this year’s event. Last year’s workshop brought to light the issue of knowledge production, and how it is controlled, refined and interpreted in the hegemonic Western Academy. In short, the most powerful are the authors of the stories of the less powerful. This year’s workshop being on the topic of the subaltern. Participants came with their perceptions of what the term subaltern might be, while others were reluctant to use the term subaltern, and some were still trying to make sense of the buzzword popularized by Spivak’s popular work ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Postcolonial Studies, International Relations and beyond. At its broadest, the term makes reference to the marginalised, oppressed and culturally powerless subjects. Meera Sabaratnam at the workshop asked whether the concept of the subaltern is for historiographical and/or abstract purposes.

The workshop fleshed out not only the scholarship of Spivak, but also that of Gramsci. During the discussion it was brought to light that because Gramsci applied the term specifically to the context of Italy the “subaltern” might not be applicable to all contexts. Indeed, a person might be a subaltern in one context, and an elite in another context. For instance, a workshop participant, Zeynep Gulsah Capan argued that here in the UK she is a subaltern, but in Turkey she is an elite. Thus, being a subaltern is context specific. I added the point that within subaltern communities there are people who are further marginalised and voiceless, and thus as I like to say, are the marginalised of the marginalised. People who inhabit such spaces are female. So it is one issue to be a subaltern and another issue to be a subaltern woman. Thus, having to contend with these two constraints is more of a burden to a particular gender. During the course of interaction during the workshop, it became obvious – or rather agreed – that the subaltern is very much fluid and not a fixed term. The subaltern varies in different contexts, thus we cannot use the term subaltern generically.

Personally, since I became acquainted with Spivak’s work, I cannot but help to think of it when the term subaltern is mentioned. I find that the term is disempowering and even disempowers the subject of concern by forcing her into this category. What is more, I think that the mantle should be in the hands of the subject as to whether they determine themselves as subaltern. However, although I argue that people should be the ones to define themselves as subalterns, the term itself has perhaps been taken from the works of scholars such as Gramsci and Spivak in the context of Postcolonial studies and appropriated. A different interpretation of the term subaltern was discussed by Spivak at a lecture I attended at the LSE in June. Spivak’s lecture re-orientated my thought about her perception of the term subaltern. Spivak in her lecture also confirmed that, to her, certain criteria are required to be considered a subaltern. What others state to be subaltern, Spivak does not. This issue is one I later revisited at the annual workshop.

The question of whether indigenous people are subaltern was also discussed at the workshop. To my mind, the term indigenous appears to be typically tied together with the term subaltern. However, again it depends on what context we are in and how it is used. In certain contexts indigenous people might be considered subaltern, for example in South Africa, Canada, New Zealand just to mention a few. While in other contexts the term indigenous is used as a weapon by extreme far right parties, for example in European contexts, to marginalise people classified as non-indigenes. This was an important issue that I brought up during group discussion at the workshop.

Pedagogical issues – especially how to teach the subaltern – were also discussed at the workshop. I argued that studying about the subaltern presents an opportunity for students to go beyond the confinements of the mainstream approaches, and thus allows students to apply more relevant theories to particular contexts. Moreover, even the basic presence of the “subaltern” as a curriculum topic gives the subaltern some voice – some agency – rather than its traditional outright erasure. Having said that, this does not go without pitfalls. This brings me to my next point with regards to knowledge production, an issue discussed at last year’s annual workshop as I mentioned earlier.

The delivery of a topic can be refined/processed/manipulated in the process of delivery. How should the topic of the subaltern be delivered without distortion and stereotype? Perhaps let the subaltern be the one to teach about their situation? This is very much the case in some countries, such as Canada where some indigenous people participate in the teaching about their people, their story – an example that was brought up by one group during the workshop discussion. Indeed, as I have noted above, the process of knowledge production is an act of power in itself, especially the power to write the story of the subaltern for the subaltern. Robbie Shilliam gave the example of a Maori man in New Zealand not completing his postgraduate diploma in Public Policy: the Maori man undertook the course not to get the qualification, but to understand how scholars think in the academy of Maori people. This example again echoes last year’s workshop on knowledge production and how the authors of the stories are not usually written by the owners of the story.

Some participants also discussed different ways in which they teach the subaltern, and the different challenges that might arise. For instance, Shabnam Holliday, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Plymouth stated that her department arranged a regular Sub-Saharan Africa trip to South Africa. While Vidya Kumar discussed her critical approaches of teaching International Law at the University of Birmingham. Personally, I am most concerned with the order in which the topic of the subaltern is be taught. Should the critical, non-mainstream perspectives be delivered first? Or should the mainstream approaches be taught first before the critical perspectives?

Overall the workshop provided a space for healthy discussion about the subaltern in International Relations and beyond: how it is researched, interpreted, perceived and taught. The subaltern is fluid and is perceived differently to different people. Thus, the context should be understood before the term subaltern is used: the context cannot be separated from the term. Finally, beyond the mere teaching of the subaltern there is the challenge of critiquing how the topic of the subaltern is taught.