Like the practitioners of what came to be called Subaltern Studies—historians working on the colonial history of India, and friends of mine—I take this word from Antonio Gramsci. As I very clearly say in my essay, "Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular," a subaltern is someone who is "removed from all lines of social mobility." (I am so over people's complaints about my writing being hard to understand, by the way. What could be clearer than that definition, I ask you?)
Fine, fine, I'll explain. Yawn. A subaltern is someone who is oppressed by the upper and middle classes and very often by gender norms as well. He or she—but more often "she," cuz our lives usually suck more than men's, am I right?—cannot move upward by accessing state resources, including education, unlike others who occupy better socioeconomic positions from the get-go.
This is important: not anyone can claim subaltern status. "The subaltern" do not simply = "the oppressed," anywhere and everywhere. Plenty of women and people of color in the U.S., for example, do not qualify because of all the monetary and institutional privileges they enjoy. I, myself, am not a subaltern, and neither is any other U.S. academic.
The subaltern is, by definition, outside of the circuits of institutional recognition and validation. This means that if you know someone by name, she's probably not a subaltern, since she has already entered your consciousness through the media. The subaltern is exploited, and will keep on being exploited unless we commit collectively to what I call re-imagining the planet. Sounds like a tall order, you say? Well good, because it is. Get with it or get lost.
This term means that people trained in the Euro-American tradition—just about everyone in U.S. universities, except for some Area Studies scholars here and there—are essentially exempt from knowing about any other tradition or culture or history. (And don't even get me started about "foreign" language learning in the US. It's pathetic!) The reverse isn't true: post-colonial critics are still expected to have read their Shakespeare. The unilateral flow of information here proves that the power lies in European traditions.
And the sanctioned ignorance of so-called well-educated people has always struck me as not only deeply unfair but also stupid. I don't want to abandon the classics entirely. On the contrary, like W. E. B. Du Bois, I think people the world over should keep on reading Shakespeare. Dude's works are good for the soul. But they should also start reading others—other others, that is. You know, like people from other areas of the world, not just Europe and North America.
This phrase really caught on among U.S. academics, though, personally, I never thought it was my best innovation. In my essay, "Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography," I meant for it to refer to a way of temporarily claiming an identity to pursue a political goal, without ever really thinking that the identity captures the true essence of your being. Like, look everybody, today I'm a guy because we all know that guys are afforded more privilege in most (all?) cultures, but it's not like I believe the gender binary is a real thing. I just wantz your privilege, so I takez it by claiming myself as a member of that category.
Now, as a deconstructionist, I am very, very suspicious of "essences," "identities," and anything else that threatens to do away with difference. These constructs are dangerous—just think of ethnic nationalism and you'll see why—but deconstructionism also teaches that they're wrong.
They're wrong because we will always be defined by our differences. We know who we are because we know who we're not—who would the "nerds" be without the "jocks" (please take a look at The Butter Battle Book)? And differences are what bring change in the world; we change through encounters with the other. So no attempt to abolish difference can succeed. At best this is denial. At worst, it's violence.
But that all being said, it is sometimes necessary to claim an identity in order to get things done on the ground. What's an example? Well, take the struggle for civil rights in the US. In this context, minorities had to present themselves as minorities in order to make urgently necessary claims on the state. In order to get things done—schools integrated, laws passed, and so on—these groups couldn't endlessly reflect on their internal differences. They had to come together as if their members were identical to one another and as if their race were: (a) not a social construct; and (b) their primary defining characteristic.
As a committed deconstructionist, I believe there is a time and a place for asking difficult questions about differences within social groups and even within individuals. (Trust me: as a Marxist-deconstructionist-feminist I know what it's like to be thirty-two flavors and then some.)
But as a political person, I acknowledge the need to sometimes bring this reflection—all this why? why? why?—to a temporary halt. Or Mom will turn this car around. Er. I mean, we will stop the car of sociopolitical progress. Sometimes, strategic essentialism is a perfectly justifiable means to a better world.
I could care less if you think this word is ugly. I coined it in my book Death of a Discipline to name an ethical alternative to globalization.
Globalization is driven by capitalist demands for resource extraction and profit—by concern for the bottom line rather than for the earth or the people busting their butts to make our towns and cities run smoothly. We need another image that will allow us to overwrite the globe.
Yes, the globe is abstract. It's an idea made up of lines of latitude and longitude, dollars and cents. The planet, on the other hand, is concrete and ecological. If we are going to share it as one species, alongside other species, then we need to imagine it not as a place to put our capitalist markets, but as a sanctuary for our bodies and minds. And that's planetarity, folks.