The subaltern speak essay

The essay is thus unusual in eliciting praise from all sides, not just from advocates for Subaltern Studies or postcolonial theory. I will argue, however, that it fails to make the case on both these counts — of showing female solidarity and agency. I argue that Guha mistakes self-preservation for solidarity. In other words, Guha constructs a narrative in which an act of acquiescence is brandished as resistance.

Cultural Reader: Gayatri Spivak / "Can the Subaltern Speak?" – summary

The essay describes the circumstances leading to the death of a young woman named Chandra in mid-nineteenth-century rural Bengal. Chandra has had an affair with her brother-in-law Magaram and discovers that she is pregnant. To Guha, this event has an intrinsic significance, which we will consider shortly. But it is also important in the way it has been absorbed into Indian historiography. Even more, Guha seeks to establish the central role of gender both as a site of oppression and a fount of resistance, which the grand narratives of class and nation inevitably marginalize in their reconstructions of the events.

Guha begins by establishing the context for the decisions Chandra made. Her family belonged to the Bagdi caste, a stratum of landless laborers who resided in a western district of Bengal in the mid-nineteenth century. In this setting of acute scarcity, the Bagdis relied on a complex system of local caste and subcaste alliances as a survival strategy. Finding an appropriate household for their children to marry into was a central part of the survival strategy of these landless laborers.

Anything that threatened the viability of that strategy, by extension, also posed a grave threat to the material welfare of the entire subcaste. But it would also land a severe blow to the reputation of the larger group of families within the marriage circle. For Magaram, it made little difference whether Chandra opted for bhek or for abortion. Either choice would have insulated him from exposure. But the fact that Bhagobati decided in favor of abortion is, for Guha, significant, since it brought with it tasks and risks that bhek would not. The drugs to induce the abortion had to be procured from another village.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty

Her own daughter, her sister, and their husbands and brothers had to be mobilized to arrange the matter. Each of these tasks carried an additional risk of exposure or failure. These are the basic facts about the events and the role of the various actors involved. Guha does an admirable job adding context and texture to the fragment that recounts the case.

We are able to locate Bhagobati and her family in their setting and also to understand the awful choice with which she was confronted.

Gayatri Spivak: The Trajectory of the Subaltern in My Work

Guha carries this out with exemplary clarity and sensitivity. But this is not what has made the essay a classic within postcolonial studies, for it is seen, we will recall, as a demonstration of subaltern resistance , an act of recovery that the traditions blinded by master narratives of class and nation systematically marginalize. The women enacted their agency in ways that are not picked up by dominant historiographical traditions, as a small history, in ways that do not conform to the image of struggle that Marxism, for example, has handed down.

Guha observes that much of what transpired was clearly impelled by a pervasive fear among the principals of losing status within the village. If it was the power of patriarchy that brought about the first, it was the understanding of the women which inspired the second.

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What understanding? Chandra would have had to accept bhek ; in addition, however, for the wider clan, the mere association with her transgression could entail sanctions directed toward them. Guha explains their predicament:. Indeed, what risk it entailed was borne overwhelmingly by her. Perhaps Chandra expressed a greater fear of social ostracism than of the dangers that came with abortion; perhaps the women were aware of her preferences and acted on these, even though they turned out to also benefit them.

It is certainly possible. The point is that Guha does not provide one bit of textual evidence to suggest that this was in fact the case. Indeed, in the text as presented by him, there is no evidence of this kind. All we have is Guha, mysteriously turning against his own presentation of the facts, and insisting that what appears to be a choice made out of fear and practicality was in fact an act of resistance. This latter interpretation is no less guilty of overreaching than are the others.


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If that was all there was to the matter, our critique would be no more than an academic quibble about texts. The deeper problem has to do with what his argument implies about resistance as a political act and about agency itself.

Can the subaltern speak full essay

Bhagobati was given a choice between two awful alternatives, a choice that was the product of the local patriarchal order. Neither she nor Chandra had any means, nor did they show any inclination, to change the choice set or even contest the terms on which the choices were offered. Their agency was limited to opting for one or the other — bhek or abortion. In the end, they went for the later and Chandra paid for it with her life.

Choosing between two options that have been generated by an oppressive social structure is not resistance — it is acquiescence to that order. It is not, therefore, something to be celebrated , but the very circumstance that a critical analysis ought to insist that needs to be changed. For it operates in an area of liminality not strictly governed by the will of husbands and fathers — an area which appears to the latter as fraught with uncertainty and danger, since women speak here in a language not fully comprehensible to men and conduct themselves by rituals that defy male reasoning.

Beauvoir never privileges the body as the site of resistance, nor does she consider childbirth as an assertion of autonomy.


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To insist, as I do, on an interpretation that highlights the constraints under which Bhagobati labored rather than on her supposed resistance, is not to deny her agency. It is to point out that, for Bhagobati and for millions of women in her circumstance, agency is exercised in making the best of a horrible situation, day after day and year after year.

It is to call attention to the fact that those circumstances are unjust precisely because no matter which choice is made, the outcome will be unjust. That is why it is the choice set itself that needs to be changed, by making it the object of struggle. If merely choosing between the options given to you is to resist them, then why enjoin the oppressed to struggle against the choice set itself? It has generated a cottage industry of interpretation, no doubt in part owing to the dense prose but also because of the sheer range of issues that Spivak throws into the mix.

Spivak seeks to engage both the issue of imperialism in its relation to the Third World as well as the problem of revolutionary agency in the contemporary setting. This patriarchy was instantiated clearly in the debate around widow immolation — known as sati — in British India.

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Bhuvaneswari, an unmarried woman, did not, of course, commit sati. Bhuvaneswari was careful to hang herself during her menstrual cycle, so that it was clear that she was not pregnant at the time of her death. She did so because, in the patriarchal culture of Bengal, when teenage girls committed suicide, it was typically assumed that they had done so to cover up a sexual tryst that had been or was about to be discovered. Bhuvaneswari knew that, like most female suicides, hers too would be viewed as the outcome of an illicit relationship. So she killed herself when she was menstruating as proof that she was not a victim of failed romantic passion.

We see, then, the significance of the suicide for Spivak. Although Bhuvaneswari kept these details to herself, she clearly wanted it to be known that, whatever the motivation for the suicide might have been, it was not the shame of an illicit affair and its consequences. For years her family remained in the dark about the background to her act, knowing only that it was not because of a pregnancy. These criticisms have some merit; in response to them, Spivak has modified or redrawn some aspects of her analysis. Furthermore, Spivak also allows that there are other forms of agency that women, and subordinate groups more generally, might have available to them — a point I will return to shortly.

So Spivak now agrees that it is possible for the subaltern to engage in resistance. But what has been largely ignored in this debate around her work, and is of deeper significance in any assessment of the politics of postcolonial theory, is what counts as resistance. Let us return for a moment to the specifics of her death. We know that she was entrusted with the job of a political assassination and for some reason found herself unable to carry it out — which in turn seems to have led her to take her life. She also understood that, given the mores of Bengali culture, her suicide was likely to be apprehended as an admission of moral failure, of being guilty of illicit love.

Hence her decision to show emphatically that any such interpretation would be an error, as evidence by her active menstrual cycle. What this shows, however, is not that Bhuvaneswari rejected or punctured Bengali patriarchal norms. Bhuvaneswari was not calling for a rejection of the idea that women should abjure romantic entanglements not approved by their betters.

She is merely proclaiming her innocence from the idea that she might have been guilty of such an act. To be sure, the act did embody agency of a kind — it was a volitional stance intended to respond to something in her situation. But whatever else it was, it was also a plea not to be associated with the norms of impurity and transgression sanctioned by that very same patriarchal order. Bhuvaneswari went to great lengths to assert her innocence from accusations of an immoral act, but never questioned the grounds on which acts such as those were deemed immoral.

It was therefore an action carried out very much within the parameters internal to the order. Thus, much like Guha, Spivak discovers resistance in this text — resistance that dominant discourses and conventions supposedly refused to recognize — not by uncovering it where it had in fact been obscured but by redefining it — or, more to the point, by turning it into its opposite.