Blindspots in Postcolonial Theory

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18th May 2020 Sociology Reference this

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WEEK 4: POSTCOLONIAL THEORY AND ITS BLINDSPOTS

Word count: 1089

When discussing postcolonial theory and its blindspots two crucial writings must be examined, namely “Can the Subaltern Speak?” by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak as well as „Becoming Postcolonial: African Women Changing the Meaning of Citizenship” by Patricia McFadden. Both thinkers write about the subaltern and their inability to be heard.  Spivak in her article explains why, according to her, the Subaltern cannot speak. McFadden speaks of neo-colonial Zimbabwe and the struggle of women fighting for their rights. When discussing both texts it is important to look into the term Subaltern itself. The word Subaltern was first introduced by Antonio Gramsci; it was used to describe a section of people, subordinate to the hegemonic groups[1]. In the most simplistic meaning the subaltern could be said to mean all other then the elite. Spivak takes a different meaning of the word, for her Subaltern are not just an ‘oppressed class’ as she believes that  “everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern”[2]. But most importantly it’s the subaltern women who cannot articulate their interests through political and economic terms of the West (she illustrates her point with the story of Bhubaneswari Bhaduri and her suicide protest being interpreted as an emotional, trivial gesture, as it is viewed through a patriarchal and western lens)[3]. For McFadden, the Subaltern are women of Zimbabwe; they do not fit into the conditions required for citizenship, namely ‘whiteness, maleness and ownership of property’[4] (especially the lower class women who are not represented by their middleclass counterparts).

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Both Spivak and McFadden examine not the inability of Subaltern to physically speak but rather how and why their efforts to convey their thoughts and fight for their own discourse can never be successful. To my understanding Spivak rather than asking whether Subaltern can speak is actually posing a different question : Can the subaltern be heard? She believes that Subaltern speech is not heard by the West. It does not translate to our modes of knowledge as it is not created in western socio-political articulation.

 The work could also be interpreted differently depending on what definition of the word ‘speak’ one will adopt. If it is ‘speaking’ as in ‘generating discourse’, then indeed the Subaltern cannot speak. What is accepted as discourse will always be determined by the one who possesses power in society, namely the elites.[5] Even if the Subaltern can generate discourse it would not be the one that will be accepted or heard by either the West or the elites of their communities heavily influenced by European thought through colonialism. Spivak highlights this struggle when she speaks of Subaltern women and the absence of their voices form debates on abolition of Sati. They have been silenced by colonialism and patriarchy. She writes; “ the figure of woman disappears (…) into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘third world’ woman caught between tradition and modernisation”[6]. McFadden highlights the same issue; Zimbabwe women having to fight not only the postcolonial regime but also men that rule it. As the struggle for Subaltern is caused by imperialism, a struggle for Subaltern women is twofold; they need to function within the patr2iarchal framework as well.  When it comes to lower class women of Zimbabwe their ability to generate discourse is non-existent; they cannot compete with the middle class women representing modernity, the leaders of the women’s’ movement.[7]

Spivak’s article just like all postcolonial theories is not without its blindspots. What I find problematic about her writing is that she herself belongs to the elite. She is a highly influential writer in the Western World, one of the people that can create discourse. Even though she is influenced by deconstruction and criticises existing binaries, it could be argued that she perpetuates them. Spivak is not Subaltern, she does not speak about herself but of the Other therefore creating a Subject. She criticises Foucault and Deleuze for being intellectuals ‘ diagnosing the episteme’[8], however she too creates a Subject, does not give it voice, simply represses it, ‘kills it’. Spivak points out the role of intellectuals in the colonial machinery, the power of knowledge and how it is an integral part of Western influence.[9] She condemns Foucault for not being critical of his position as an intellectual, however she is not critical of her power. The essay is highly inaccessible for most of the population, especially not the Subaltern. It is aimed at the elites, those responsible for creating the world we live in today. She aims it only at people with ‘voice’.

Ultimately, by re-presenting the issue with writings about the Subaltern Spivak reinforces the idea of subaltern as helpless, perpetuating the image of ‘postcolonial peoples’ as powerless. Spivak assumes that whenever the Subaltern try to speak they speak to ‘us’. Any action made by them has to be directed towards the West. Everything she discusses is embedded in the progress narrative. The end goal for the Subaltern is to speak, be heard, create discourse. The West is already doing it; the subaltern shall aim at progress (as in progress towards West). Similar pattern can be seen in McFaddens article; she depicts Zimbabwe women attending UN conferences and gaining useful tools, strategies aimed at combating their issues.[10] This again presents UN as equating to civilized and Zimbabwe as equating to traditional and barbaric.  Rather than writing about Subaltern, one could try and include their voices. Or maybe we should writing about them at all and focus on facilitating creation of a world with no Western interference, so Subaltern can create their own discourse.

References

  1. De Kock, L. (1992). Interview With Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa. Ariel, 23(3), p.45.
  1. Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Discourse. Gallimard.english transaltion in Young, R. (1981). Introduction to Foucault, M. The order of discourse. Routledge & Kegan Paul, p.53.
  1. Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks. London [England]: Lawrence & Wishart.
  1. Loomba, A. (2005). Colonialism/Postcolonialism. 2nd ed. Routledge, p.2.
  1. McFadden, P. (2005). Becoming Postcolonial: African Women Changing the Meaning of Citizenship. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, 6(1), p.8.
  1. Spivak, G. (1983). Can the Subaltern Speak?. Die Philosophin, 14(27), p.103-104.

[1] Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks. London [England]: Lawrence & Wishart.

[2] De Kock, L. (1992). Interview With Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa. Ariel, 23(3), p.45.

[3] Spivak, G. (1983). Can the Subaltern Speak?. Die Philosophin, 14(27), p.103-104.

[4] McFadden, P. (2005). Becoming Postcolonial: African Women Changing the Meaning of Citizenship. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, 6(1), p.4.

[5] Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Discourse. Gallimard.english transaltion in Young, R. (1981). Introduction to Foucault, M. The order of discourse. Routledge & Kegan Paul, p.53.

[6] Spivak, G. (1983). Can the Subaltern Speak?. Die Philosophin, 14(27), p.306.

[7] McFadden, P. (2005). Becoming Postcolonial: African Women Changing the Meaning of Citizenship. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, 6(1), p.8.

[8]Spivak, G. (1983). Can the Subaltern Speak?. Die Philosophin, 14(27), p.69.

[9] Spivak, G. (1983). Can the Subaltern Speak?. Die Philosophin, 14(27), p.68.

[10] McFadden, P. (2005). Becoming Postcolonial: African Women Changing the Meaning of Citizenship. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, 6(1), p.10.

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