Sean Watkins Subaltern
For the past few weeks, we have been discussing issues of subalternity and affect. I have some experience with subaltern studies, especially in terms of Spivak, but very little with affect theory. In reading for class, I have been struggling with these ideas on many levels. The main struggle, I think, is whether or not I find any of these concepts useful. Subaltern studies has a long and important history and many of the ideas dealing with representation (which I will discuss later) are useful to my dissertation, however, I am still not convinced that examining groups as if they were subaltern is really all that useful. Firstly, it seems that the status of subalternity is often placed upon groups by the academic. I find this troubling because this may limit the ways in which we study power. Homi bhabha complicates these issues with his concept of hybridity (Beverley 16), however he still works within the paradigm of the subaltern. Perhaps rather than asking, can the subaltern speak, we should ask the important question; what counts as speaking? Secondly, the subaltern moniker can be perceived as being condescending. Does anyone really want to be called the subaltern? Would I self identify as being the subaltern? To call someone subaltern is to imply that they do not have power or voice in the current systems of power and dominance. Some may say that there are obvious groups that are struggling in the neo-liberal capitalistic system, however, this assumes a great deal. If we are to use the term subaltern at all, should it be something that a group self-indentifies as? Thirdly, it seems that subaltern studies have done little to create accessible theory or practical advice to those they are studying. I am by no means an expert on subaltern studies, but I highly doubt that the unnecessarily complicated jargon of a Spivak has directly helped any marginalized groups. Perhaps she has helped to confuse many a scholar, and caused many hours of translating her ideas, but how have scholars like Spivak interacted with those they consider subaltern? How does the subaltern benefit from our scholarship? And if they don’t benefit, why do we do it? These questions and observations are only my initial feelings for subaltern studies. I am not set in stone with anything, but it seems that a lot of these questions need to be addressed in the next few weeks if I am to find these scholars directly useful. The other side of the coin, affective studies also seems to be as, if not more, confusing, but simultaneously, I find it to be almost more useful. As we have done the readings for class, I keep thinking back to a chapter I read in Parables of the Virtual. Massumi argues that we should look at modulations rather than binaries or hybridities. I find this to be a really useful way of better understanding issues of power in different texts. However, affective theory seems to have many different twists and turns without much grounding. Similarly to subaltern studies, I tend to pick and choose what fits my own work.
In examining representation of nonprofit clients, it seems that subaltern studies will be useful in terms of its own history and yet it makes me wonder if I should also be looking elsewhere for different interpretations of representation throughout the world. When I was reading John Beverely’s Subaltern and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory, I noticed that he had cited a lot of the same scholars that I had been using in older literature reviews of representation. Scholars like Guha, Bhabha, and Spivak used Gramsci and other western scholars to build their concepts of the subaltern. Interestingly, to contrast this with Chakrabarty’s work, there seems to be this desire to use theory that comes out of Marxist scholars, but at the same time talk about the unique situation of the Indian community. Chakrabarty’s is interested in how modernism has effected India differently than in western countries because of the long struggle between British and traditional Indian culture. In his chapter about the khadi, he argues that, while perhaps not conscious of it, Indian politicians and the public were constantly grabbling with different symbols of western (the idea of the modern politician) and Indian ideologies (specifically those that stem from Gandhi about the public nature of a politician) that are often mashed together. To Chakrabarty these tensions, I think, are important because it represents the current identities of those that live in India today. Importantly, we mustn’t forget these origins or else the Indian people will lose an important part of their identity that makes them distinct (Chakrabarty 62). These chapters made me think about talking about the subaltern from a western paradigm. While many subaltern scholars have adapted western theory under their own thoughts, perhaps we need to look at some of these symbols of power in deeper ways. Maybe we need to push ourselves to look outside of the western tradition in order to better situate the ways in which we understand the world today. This is especially important for international nonprofits because they have to deal with people from all over the world.
Beverley, John. Subalternity and Representation Arguments in Cultural Theory. Durham [u.a.: Duke Univ. Pr., 2004. Print.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002. Print.
Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2002. Print.