In the last two decades of the 20th century, Subaltern Studies, postcolonial theory and criticism gained momentum, especially, as a corollary to globalisation in the Third World countries. If postcolonial criticism is taken as an offshoot of postmodernism, subaltern studies derives its force from Marxism, poststructuralism and becomes a part of the postcolonial criticism.
“Subaltern”, meaning “of inferior rank”, is a term adopted by Antonio Gramsci to refer to those working class people in Soviet Union who are subject to the hegemony of the ruling classes. Subaltern classes may include peasants, workers and other groups denied access to hegemonic power. Gramsci was interested in the historiography of the subaltern ‘classes’.
In Notes on Italian History, he outlined a six-point plan for studying the history of the subaltern classes which include: 1) their objective formation; 2) their active and passive affiliation to the dominant political formations; 3) the birth of new parties and dominant groups; 4) the formations that the subaltern groups produce to press their claims; and 5) new formations within the old framework that assert the autonomy of the subaltern classes; and other points referring to trade unions and political parties.
Gramsci claimed that the history of the subaltern classes was just as complex as the history of the dominant classes, although the history of the latter is that which is accepted as the “official” history. For him, the history of the subaltern social groups is necessarily fragmented and episodic, since they are always subject to the activity of the ruling groups, even when they rebel.
The term has been adopted to postcolornial studies from the work of the Subaltern Studies Group, a team of historians, who aimed to promote systematic discussion of subaltern themes in South Asian studies. It is used in Subaltern Studies as a name for the general attribute of subordination in South Asian society, whether this is expressed in terms of class, gender race etc. The group was formed by Ranajit Guha and included Shahid Amin, David Arnold, Partha Chatterjee, David Hardiman Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Gyanendra Pandey. The group has produced 5 volumes of Subaltern Studies – essays relating to the history, politics, economics and sociology of subalternity as well as the attitudes, ideologies and belief systems. In other words, Subaltern Studies defined itself as an attempt to allow the people to speak within the pages of elitist historiography, and in so doing, to speak for, or to sound the muted voices of the truly oppressed. The group’s seminal essays Selected Subaltern Studies (1988) was edited by Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak, with a foreward by Edward Said.
The concept of the “subaltern” gained increased prominence and currency with Gayatri Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak? (1985) which was a commentary on the work of the Subaltern Studies Group, questioning and exposing their patronizing attitude. Contradictory to the stereotyping tendencies found in Said’s Orientalism and other similar texts, which presume the colonial oppression as monolithic, Spivak adapts Derridean deconstructive techniques to point out the different forms of subject formations and “othering.” Much of Spivak’s ideas are informed by her interactions with ‘the Subaltern Studies Group, including Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Spivak suggests that it is impossible to recover the voice of the subaltern, hinting at the unimaginable extent of colonial repression and its historical intersection with patriarchy — which she illustrates with particular reference to colonial debates on widow immolation in India. As observed by scholars like Lata Mani, in the colonial discussions on the practice of Sati, the Indian widow is absent as a subject and that the subject is denied a space to speak from.She suggests that etite native men have found a way to “speak”, but for those, .further down the hierarchy, self representation is almost impossible.
Spivak challenges the intellectuals’ and the postcolonial historians’ assumption that the voices and perspectives of the oppressed can be recovered. She therefore suggests that such intellectuals adapt the Gramscian maxim — “pessimism, of the intellect, optimism of the will” — by combining the philosophical skepticism about recovering the subaltern agency, with a political commitment of representing the marginalized. She effectively warns the postcolonial critics against homogenizing and romanticizing the subaltern subject.
However, Spivak’s insistence on subaltern “silence” has been attacked by Benita Parry, in her critique of Spivak’s reading of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea as ‘deliberate deafness to the native voice, where it can be heard.” Parry suggests that such deafness arises out of Spivak’s theory of subaltern silence which attributes “absolute power to the hegemonic discourse. Parry goes along with Homi Bhabha in asserting that the colonists’ text contains a native voice, though an ambivalent one. The colonial text’s hybridity in the words of Bhabha means that the subaltern has spoken.
The historian of modern India, Gyan Prakash, points out that the subaltern studies project derives its force as postcolonial criticism from a combination of Marxism, post- structuralism, postmodernism, Gramsci and Foucault, the modern West and India, archival research and textual criticism.
Subaltern Studies borrows postmodernist ideas and methods for textual analysis. Postmodernism cannot be understood without a reference to capitalism. Therefore, postcolonial criticism must also be explained in terms of capitalism and neo-colonialism.
Members of the Subaltern Studies group felt that although Marxist historians produced impressive and pioneering studies, their claim to represent the history of the masses remained debatable. Their main thesis is that colonialist, nationalist and Marxist interpretations of Indian history had robbed the common people of their agency. The subaltern studies collective thus announced a new approach to restore agency to the subordinated, in order to rectify the elitist bias characteristic of much academic work in South Asian studies. The subaltern’s agency was restored by theorizing that the elite in India played a dominant role and not simply a hegemonic one. Thus, with the logic of this theory, the subaltern were made into autonomous historical actors, who then seemingly acted on their own, since , they were not seen to be led by the elite.
At the same time, Subaltern Studies differed from Western historian’s attempts to write “history from below.” British workers left their diaries behind for British historians to find their voice in, but Indian workers and peasants did not leave behind any “original, authentic” voices. Therefore, to find Indian subaltern voices, subaltern studies had to use different methods, of reading the available documents, i.e, read them “against their grain.” In the process of pursuing this goal, subaltern studies concentrated more and more on how subalternity was constituted rather than finding their voices.
Other subalternist writings on elite/colonial discourse includes David Arnold’s work on the Indian body, disease and medicine; Gyanendra Pandey ‘s critique of the “construction of communalism in colonial North India” and Bernard Cohn’s essay on language and colonial command.Subaltern theorists of the nation and modernity such as Partha Chatterjee, Sudipta Kaviraj and Dipesh Chakrabarty maintain that “the Indian nation is not an object of discovery but an invention.” Narratives of the nation conceal inconsistencies, ideological contradictions, fissures and ruptures in the national fabric, and present the picture of a unified nation. This homogenizing of the narratives of the nation coincide with the grand narratives of the triumph of modernity.
Spivak points out that, by such a practice, the oppressed are being more silenced, in that, s/he cannot/does not speak, but is spoken for. The subaltern consciousness is a construction of the elite discourse and it is due to this discourse that their marginality is sustained. Robert J.C. Young, in his commentary on Spivak, observes that subaltern woman has her identity only within the patriarchal and imperialist discourse. Spivak, in a later work, French Feminism in an International Frame (1987) discusses the irony of the French Feminists, in their investigation of issues faced by the Third World women.