Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Gayatri Spivak / "Can the Subaltern Speak?" – summary

"Can the Subaltern Speak?" (1988) by Gayatri Spivak relates to the manner in which western cultures investigate other cultures. Spivak uses the example of the Indian Sati practice of widow suicide, however the main significance of "Can the Subaltern Speak?" is in its first part which presents the ethical problems of investigating a different culture base on "universal" concepts and frameworks.

"Can the Subaltern Speak?" critically deals with an array of western writers starting from Marx to Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida. The basic claim and opening statement of "Can the Subaltern Speak?"  is that western academic thinking is produced in order to support western economical interests. Spivak holds that knowledge is never innocent and that it expresses the interests of its producers. For Spivak knowledge is like any other commodity that is exported from the west to the third world for financial and other types of gain.

Spivak is wondering how can the third world subject be studied without cooperation with the colonial project. Spivak points to the fact that research is in a way always colonial, in defining the "other", the "over there" subject as the object of study and as something that knowledge should be extracted from and brought back "here".  Basically we're talking about white men speaking to white men about colored men/women. When Spivak examines the validity of the western representation of the other, she proposes that the discursive institutions which regulate writing about the other are shut off to postcolonial or feminist scrutiny.
This limitation, Spivak holds, is sue to the fact that critical thinking about the "other" tends to articulate its relation to the other with the hegemonic vocabulary. This is similar to feminist writers which abide by the patriarchic rules for academic writing.

In the following parts of "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Spivak is criticizing different critical writers and then moves on to the example of the Indian "Sati" practice.   
Gayatri Spivak / "Can the Subaltern Speak?" - review - summary part 1 - summary part 2

Suggested Spivak reading:


  1. Thanks for this. I'm reading Spivak now and I had so much trouble understanding what she was arguing.

  2. Thank you so much, this has REALLY helped me to understand the paper.

  3. Replies
    1. Sorry, I'm sure the author meant "persons of slightly different aesthetic qualities/nationality(ies)". That's the proper term nowadays, amirite? Please, let the Subaltern summary-writers do their thing without any pedantic, white guilt trips ;)

    2. Sure this may seem pedantic but I think this is exactly what Spivak is critiquing, namely white, male, intellectual, Western discourses that others and colours the subaltern thus making it difficult, if not impossible, for the subaltern to speak, resist and be acknowledged outside of the discursive terms of, to quote hooks, "imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy." And so, questioning the use of words like "coloured" is important because as a "coloured" person I can bear witness to the fact that the context within which labels are applied constitute (or fail to constitute) identity.