What is the subaltern?

Reading and writing. Today it is about the subaltern. This term is thrown about a lot, but there seems to be some confusion about what it means. There are a number of ways of approaching the subject, so I think I may just ramble a bit here about it.

The subaltern is a technical term for a certain kind of dispossessed person. It is a person who fits within the model of the Oppressor/Oppressed as the being so marginalized as to not even have the ‘voice’ of the oppressed. So, symbolically, we might say that the colonizer is Self, the colonized is Other, and all of those who are invisible to both Self and Other are the subaltern. Gayatri Spivak has the most theoretical look at the subaltern, and her work is still the root text for a discussion of the subaltern, in her article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The answer to the title of her essay is no. The subaltern does not have a voice. Indeed, technically, once a subaltern has a voice, they are no longer the subaltern. They become Other, merely altern.

From this theoretical insight, a sub-set of post-colonial studies, the Subaltern Studies Group, attempted to find the trace of the subaltern in Indian history. One interesting look at this is Dipesh Chakrabarty. His example of the subaltern is the Indian rural masses. He argues that within the notion of the modern Indian state, citizenship requires certain subject-positions that many rural, illiterate Indians do not have. What is often taken for granted in any idea of the citizen is a number of things, including the more positivist understanding of history. For the Indian peasant, however, Chakrabarty argues that their mytho-historical conception is so different, that they are NOT, in fact, citizens of India. Their worldviews are different enough that they are elided by the state apparatus. Other examples of the subaltern are indigenous groups or lower-caste, lower-class women who are marginalized in such a way as to not have a voice.

In my own work, the example I often come back to is the 19th century British raj and the construction of Hinduism. The British Self and its colonial epistemes collaborated with its Other, the elite indigenous population. Together, they constructed a Hinduism that fit both their needs, howevermuch the British (and French and German) set the terms for this collaboration (i.e. the category ‘religion’). The British got an essentialized Hinduism that could fit within their categories, and could be used for both colonial domination and romantic resistance to modernity at home. The Elite Indians got to assert their Hinduism as the authentic Hinduism and then use it to attain status within the new colonized space of India, or to fight that colonization within this new ‘Hinduism’. Who gets left out? Those that are doubly marginalized. Those who are Othered by both the British and the indigenous elites. The tantrikas, the devadasis, the hijras, the rural populance (many of whom even today have no historical connection to colonization), the scheduled classes etc. Those are the subalterns, to one degree or another. We could quibble about relative Othering here, but I think the general structure holds.

Rey Chow makes some interesting points about the construction of the subaltern and the category of the ‘native’. She argues that part of the problem of attempting to find the voice of the subaltern is that there may be some incommensurability between the subaltern and the rescuer. It may be the case that the very act of recovering the voice of the subaltern can be the act of ‘translating’ an ‘image’ that imperialism can make sense of. She says, “As we challenge a dominant discourse by ‘resurrecting’ the victimized voice/self of the native within our readings… this process, in which we become visible, also neutralizes the untranslatability of the the native’s experience… the hasty supply of original ‘contexts’ and ‘specificities’ easily become complicitous with the dominant discourse” (332). That is, our attempt to retrieve the native from its absence in our imperial histories can easily become a kind of co-optation or appropriation, that becomes more about our own visibility than that of the native. Leading into this point, she makes the interesting point, quoting anthropologists like Levi-Strauss alongside contemporary anthropologists, that there is a kind of romantic image of the native that anthropologists have a hard time reconciling with the natives themselves, who are often in a task of cultural change themselves. Of course, this is the problem with any claims to pin down authenticity. What makes a native authentic? How do we really determine who a subaltern is, and what they are saying, if there is a necessarily impenetrable distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’?

The subaltern cannot speak, not because there are not activities in which we can locate a subaltern mode of life/culture/subjectivity, but because, as is indicated by the critique of thought and articulation given to us by Western intellectuals such as Lacan, Foucault, Barthes, Kristeva and Derrida (Spivaks’s most important reference), ‘speaking’ itself belongs to an already well-defined structure and history of domination. As Spivak says in an interview: ‘If the subaltern can speak then, thank God, the subaltern is not a subaltern any more’

Now, all this is good and well, but it seems like much of the discussion of the subaltern, of natives, of ‘culture’, of ‘ethnicity’ (and the racist illusion that the ‘Other’ is ethnic, while we are ‘neutral’), and especially as all of this relates to authenticity comes back to a kind of mirroring. Much of what passes for thinking about the Other and the subaltern is often just a reflection of one’s own imaginings. So, in this light, the attempt to find a subaltern history, or the voice of the subaltern, etc. is in some ways, a romantic trope. Once one has located identifiable traces of the subaltern, what narrative is made of these fleeting and inimitable traces? The construction of a subaltern that can be known is in many ways the construction of our own desires. That we do this with the Other is a standard critique of orientalism. With the subaltern it is a double image. The marginalized often oriental-ize the subaltern, itself. It is a funhouse mirrors of discursive entrapment.

I think Chow is onto something though, when she locates a motivation for all of this imag(in)ing in the attempt to pin down something something stable and authentic in the other in order to feel authentic ourselves, through knowing the ‘truth’. Politically, we attempt to order the Other to match our construction of it. She says,

Our fascination with the native, the oppressed, the savage and all such figures is therefore a desire to hold onto an unchanging certainty somewhere outside our own ‘fake’ experience. It is a desire for being ‘non-duped’, which is a not-too-innocent desire to seize control. (344)

[Citations from Lewis and Mills (2003) Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader]


24 Responses to “What is the subaltern?”

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  2. Shweta D'souza Says:

    Tried to understand the meaning of Subaltern from your text. You have opened an entire new book which many chapters left to discover!

    • fuzzytheory Says:

      Oh wow! Thank you. That is very flattering. I am glad you found something of value in my ramblings.

  3. Ophelia Says:

    It is really explanatory. Thanks.

  4. madhuripratinidhi Says:

    Hi! I’m Madhuri. I’m a student of Post-Colonial Studies currently. I l;ike the way you’ve presented your theory per se. Could I reach you on your e-mail?

  5. ela Says:


  6. eslkevin Says:

    Reblogged this on Eslkevin's Blog and commented:
    I like this well-worded comment in the text:

    “Rey Chow makes some interesting points about the construction of the subaltern and the category of the ‘native’. She argues that part of the problem of attempting to find the voice of the subaltern is that there may be some incommensurability between the subaltern and the rescuer. It may be the case that the very act of recovering the voice of the subaltern can be the act of ‘translating’ an ‘image’ that imperialism can make sense of.”

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  8. Shantilal Ghegade Says:

    It is nice comment made of sualtern for which I am finding the truth of this concept in many ways-Shantilal Ghegade

  9. Meenakshi Says:

    After going through the article I came to know that among subalterns we have real and voiceless subalterns. Thought provoking article!

  10. Prabhat Gupta Says:

    You look like an advanced sepoy! I suggest you read “How the Jews became white” and also “How the Irish became white” and finally also read Being Different by Rajiv Malhotra to know “tradition” / “Culture war”.

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