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As one of the founders and perhaps most prolific proponents of post-colonial theory, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak announces herself as a radical deconstructionist of imperialist interpretations whose struggle for decolonization seeks as well, an interrogation of the premises of Marxism, feminism and Derridian deconstruction. An exposition of her ideas, with a view to critiquing them poses as much of a challenge as does the inaccessibility of her language, which has been famously branded as opaque whereby substance has been compromised for style. Regardless, Terry Eagleton, a renowned Marxist literary critic has noted that, "there can be few more important critics of our age than the likes of Spivak. She has probably done more long-term political good, in pioneering feminist and post-colonial studies within global academia than almost any of her theoretical colleagues."
Known mostly for her landmark and controversial essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" which was published in 1985, Spivak uses the essay to come to the much speculated and misunderstood conclusion that the subaltern is voiceless and in fact cannot speak. Although, a statement such as this, at first seems to warrant extreme finality and is reductive to a Western thinker, it gains relevance when viewed through the eyes of an activist fighting for women's rights in the patriarchal backdrop of rural India, and as such it can be surmised that Spivak is alluding to those who belong to positions of extreme marginalization in rural India and have no way of having their voices heard or of gaining any form of visibility through self-representation. While the birth of subaltern studies reflected marginalized sections of people in India, the scope of these studies has since come to include groups of people from mostly the global south, famously known as "The Third World", who have been victims of racial, gender, class, sexual, ethnic and religious subjectification as a result of capitalist narrative that has cast them into the periphery as 'the other'.
No matter what Spivak's position is, it is no doubt problematic from the point of view that if the subaltern cannot speak, it can therefore not be heard, seen or read about and as such has no political or personal autonomy. Such a position of marginality denies all forms of meaningful selfhood or agency to the subaltern and presents inconsistencies through Spivak's failure to account for her own recounting of the story of Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, a young woman who hung herself in 1926 while she was menstruating. Bhaduri was a freedom fighter who deliberately waited to menstruate so death would not be read as motivated by illicit pregnancy. In doing so Bhuvaneswari displaced the "sanctioned motive for female suicide." By resurrecting the above story in her essay" Can the Subaltern Speak?", Spivak seems to be presenting evidence of agency for the subaltern (in this case female rights), while at the same time overlooking the voice of Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri in her rhetorical question, not to mention the fact that she discounts all the numerous peasant revolts that originated from the grass root levels in India during the freedom movement.
Spivak has often been recognized as a feminist theorist speaking from the position of subalterity, for the subalterns, due to the fact that she is a scholar from India practising in the western world as a teacher of comparative literature in Columbia University. However, such recognition is contentious because of her roots within the elite group of intellectuals that she hails from in India, the very elites who the subalternists claim played a dominant part during the colonial period in the perpetration of the hegemonic rule.
In "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Spivak does, however, offer a fresh perspective by correcting that Foucault and other French intellectuals have principally concentrated on the notion of the Subject as a Western/ethnocentric agent that 'presides by disavowal', failing to travel well across the 'international division of labour.' She vehemently demands, instead, that our inclinations to 'recognize' the third world Subject through its assimilation into our own history should be resisted. Along similar lines, fellow subalternist Ranajit Guha also argues what Spivak has highlighted that subaltern knowledges in the colonies were subjugated through power relations marked by extreme domination, which was very different from the way in which it was exercised on the domestic front. This does not however mean that Foucault belongs to the side of the "exploiters" as she suggests. Another compelling argument that she forwards is her rejection of a 'monolithic' categorization of a female subjectivity in which women's interests are perceived as an "unfractured" whole against an equally monolithic patriarchal system. One of the criticisms that has set Spivak apart from her fellow subalternists is her partial rejection of the subaltern project due to its insensitivity towards the problem of women, which has been supported by Rukmini Bhaya Nair's questioning of the representation of the accounts of rural women in the written medium, when it is common knowledge that "they are and have always been kept at a safe distance from any kind of even elementary literacy". One can add to Nair's predicament that written texts can only give information about those women who were from well-off families and had some opportunity to be literate, like Spivak herself.
Although Spivak acknowledges the "epistemic violence" done upon Indian subalterns, she suggests that any attempt from the outside to ameliorate their condition by granting them collective speech invariably will encounter the following problems: 1) a logocentric assumption of cultural solidarity among a heterogeneous people, and 2) a dependence upon western intellectuals to "speak for" the subaltern condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. She argues that by speaking out and reclaiming a collective cultural identity, subalterns will in fact re-inscribe their subordinate position in society. While there is truth to the above, it presents one of Spivak's many inconsistencies, due to her continuing work as a feminine activist among the rural populace of India. One can therefore question Spivak's own position by asking how she qualifies herself as a spokesperson for the subalterns, being an educator trained in Western thought, teaching in a Western university. Does she not then fall into the same category of western intellectuals who attempt to speak for the subaltern condition? She seems to both affiliate as well as distance herself from her training in western thought and the subalterns themselves. Her fear of commitment, so to speak, seems to resonate in her two books The Postcolonial Critic (1990) and Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1991), in discussion of which Stephen Morton has observed that "if the first signifies an affiliation to postcolonial studies, the second indicates a clear critical distancing from the 'postcolonial' label". Morton goes on to defend Spivak's shifting position as not simply a "symptom of changing intellectual trends, but a political commitment to re-thinking and revising theoretical concepts and approaches in response to social, economic and political changes in the contemporary world order." He addresses her critique of nineteenth-century English literature as a furtherance of British imperialism in that it carried along the idea that the subordinated class of native inhabitants was culturally and intellectually inferior to the British. He indicates the similarity between Edward Said's and her thought but then shows how she disagreed with Said when it came to applying a Foucaultian analysis to Postcolonialism.
While Gayatri Spivak has, as a result of her own entrepreneurial spirit and outspoken nature, been the most influential and prolific thinkers, recognized by the West and therefore internationally, in the field of radical feminism and postcolonial deconstruction, there have been others such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty whose work along similar lines deserve equal measure of international recognition. The question of representation of women subalterns in the global south has been dealt by Mohanty in her 2003 book titled Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. She writes from a feminist and postcolonial perspective highlighting the real world links between scholarship and development policies. Her most influential essays "Under Western Eyes" (1986) and "Under Western Eyes' Revisited" (2002), draw from a Foucauldian notion of power, while at the same time dismisses the deeper post-modernist leap, thereby asserting that generalizations of power should be accompanied with a cautionary label.
In her earlier works Mohanty responds to the problems of Western feminist writing that seems to be plagued by the tendency to reproduce colonial -imperialist assumptions, whereby Western feminists attach reductionist characteristics to women of The Third World and completely ignore variables such as race, class, sex and ethnicity, factors that bring out the underlying differences that need to be acknowledged in order to voice their subjectification. The "woman" (a composite, discursively constructed 'other') of the global South, she says, is presented as a "singular, monolithic subject" in much of the literature.
Mohanty has observed that feminist scholarship has largely concentrated on making aprioristic and ahistorical assumptions about Third World women, which has led to the production of an image of women in the global south as belonging to a homogenous group that has been constituted and exists without accounting for their social circumstance. She draws our attention to the fact that ethnocentric assumptions that further reinforce the notion of western cultural imperialism have been propagated by drawing a definite and universalizing line of contrast between the self-professed Western female agent, characterised by her modernity, independence, education and sexual liberty as opposed to the religious, dependent, backward, family oriented, sexually restrained and ignorant Third World woman. Such binary relationships that exist between women of the west versus the third world woman also exists between men and women, where the monolithic powerless woman is victimized by the monolithic patriarchy, that Spivak talks of.
Apart from presenting analytical inaccuracies, Mohanty explains that such assumptions discount the differences that constitute the identity of diverse female subjects, thereby denying the possibility of change by taking away their agency and history. The Third World woman therefore never emerges "above the debilitating generality of their 'object' status." It is perhaps in this sense that Spivak's question of "Can the Subaltern Speak?" be conceptualized. Development projects in the global south therefore may be benevolent but are nonetheless informed by such misconceptions and misrepresentations in social science critiques that rick complicating the premise of the development projects and potentially produce several extra layers of harm to the subaltern groups that they seek to emancipate.
With the onslaught of global capitalism and its far reaching effects on the Third World, Mohanty has currently shifted her interests from a broader focus of feminist scholarship to a narrower regimen of confronting globalization and the brutal inequalities that accompanies it. In her argument she contends that as a result of the prevailing consequences of the spread of global capitalism, the position of the subalterns in the Third world exists not "under" Western eyes anymore, but "under and inside" them. Such subjectivation therefore warrants closer attention to the development of North-South connections in the field of feminists in academia and in political struggles, thereby necessitating a three pronged approach to achieving solidarity in feminist politics, as Mohanty enumerates in her book Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. She appeals for a) a contextualized feminist analysis that overlaps sexual inequality with other modes of subjugation (racism, capitalism, imperialism), b) a broader collaboration with the 'antiglobalization' movement and focus on social movements, and c) thinking from the position of the most disenfranchised sectors, which are "most likely to envision a just and democratic society capable of treating all its citizens fairly." The latter is not to say that all subaltern stations will yield key insights, but that that theirs is the most propitious viewing platform.
It is easy to identify the commonalities between Spivak and Mohanty's approaches to the question of representation and subalterity, however, while Mohanty articulates strategies by which the subaltern can indeed speak, Spivak departs from her in her claim of inevitability on the part of scholars to not hear the subalterns' voice. Spivak does not present any solutions whereby such inevitability can be overcome. While Mohanty propositions a sort of "comparative feminist" approach that illustrates the "interconnectedness of the histories, experiences and struggles" of women in the global North and South, focusing on domination as well as resistance, Spivak seems to assume a stance that challenges any attempt made at interconnectedness.