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The subaltern cannot speak. — From "Can the Subaltern Speak?"
This pithy answer to the question posed in my essay's title has gotten me into some serious trouble over the years. It's been read out of context, treated like a sound bite, and very badly misunderstood. As I explain yet again in An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, I define the subaltern as the person "removed from all lines of social mobility." That is, the subaltern is barred from access to all public resources that would allow for upward movement, out of dire poverty and into political invisibility. (Check out the "Buzzwords" section for more on what I mean by subaltern.)
My whole point in "Can the Subaltern Speak?" is that you can't simply makethe subaltern visible or lend her a voice. (Heads up: the subaltern is very often, though not quite always, gendered female in my work… because women the world over are still structurally subordinated to men.) But just to make sure you've all got it into your heads this time, I'll say it again: there's no quick fix for inequality.
And if the subaltern is to be taught to speak, as I believe she must be, humanitarian efforts (would-be quick fixes) won't cut it. We also need what I call "infrastructural followup." This followup, often taking the form of public schools, will do long-term good by manifesting our commitment to improving the material conditions of far-away lives and honing the mental skills of far-away young people. (See A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason for more on infrastructural followup.)
Lots of European theorists—smart ones, too, like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze—didn't get this memo. They thought they could access the subaltern's voice directly. My essay tries to show why this project is doomed to fail. And it's not because the subaltern cannot pronounce words or produce sentences. The subaltern "cannot speak," instead, because her speech falls short of fully authorized, political speech. Too much gets in the way of her message's being heard, socially and politically.
What gets in the way, you ask? Well, first there's the subaltern's lack of access to institutionally validated language. Not everyone grows up knowing how to write and talk like a scholar, right? Then there's the European theorist's sense that he knows what the subaltern will say when she goes to speak, because he knows what's good for her. Sometimes, when I read the classics, I feel like their authors are saying, "Sit down, little girl, and let the big boys talk business." Gross. Anyway, I've got truckloads (bookloads?) to say on this topic, so just go read some of my other work if you want to know more about what stands between a subaltern and her true "voice."
White men are saving brown women from brown men. – From "Can the Subaltern Speak?"
"Wait, what?" is the common reaction to this quote. Yep, this little sentence has gotten me in a lot of trouble as well. (I've never been one to shy away from controversy.) Maybe I should have been more moderate in my wording here, but I needed people to snap their imperialist heads up from their desks and listen here.
This sentence aims to convey how certain brands of feminism—and cultural gender norms more generally—become an excuse for colonial and neo-colonial forms of violence. So, when white men are all like, "Hey, you! Yeah, you Third World Women, you! You look oppressed! Why don't you come live in our super progressive (but still sexist, heyo) First World countries and be free from harm? Why don't you come marry us and be free from harm?" they're actually further silencing the subaltern.
These seeming acts of benevolence are actually acts of violence. This is because the privileged male theorists in this example are, in a way, claiming to know how Third World women think and feel, what they desire, and so on. So the quote highlights how European and American academics are often quick to try to save Third World women, when their idea of "saving" might not be what these women want at all.
In "Can the Subaltern Speak?" I show how white men attempted to save brown women from brown men in colonial India. At the time, natives were defined as barbaric, and the British intervened to "save" Indian women from their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons. Later, I argued that this happened again in the post-9/11 American "war on terror," a war that I believe aims not only to redeem the nation but also to "save" women oppressed by Islam. This kind of thinking makes me squirm.
Yeah, this is heavy stuff. I may be shaking up some of what you came to this page believing: certain ideas about what happened when, what gender oppression looks like, and what wars are about. But, in my opinion, if you're feeling uncomfortable, confused, or scared, you're doing something right.
Of course, I don't deny that women are oppressed the world over. What I do deny is the right of "civilizing" or colonizing projects to claim to rescue and free women from this oppression. So I composed my firecracker of a sentence—"White men are saving brown women from brown men"—to put people on their guard, and to get them to ask of future civilizing missions: is this really about saving women? Or is it about a superpower further consolidating its power, and denying others speech?
The impossible solution is the infinite unguaranteed patience to learn to learn from below how to teach the subaltern. – From "What's Left of Theory?" now in An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization
Now you know why people call me impossible… and sometimes even have the nerve to ridicule my hard-to-read writing style. But the joke's on those fools in the end, if you ask me. Because if they learned to learn the patience to read me, they'd be sharper thinkers for it—and better, more ethical, people, I might add!
In any case, in this quote, I am continuing my discussion of the subaltern two decades after writing "Can the Subaltern Speak?" But here, in 2000, I state explicitly that we do need to "teach the subaltern." Lots of people misread my earlier essay as a demand that the subaltern be allowed to stay in her place. Nuh-uh. That wasn't what I was saying at all, and I've spilled a lotta ink in my later work clearing up that unfortunate misunderstanding.
Keeping the subaltern in her place is no solution. Remember, the subaltern is excluded from all kinds of institutions, including democratic ones, and we want her to have a role in the governance of herself and others. In fact, we want everyone to be able to govern; that's true democracy after all. So a desire to keep the subaltern in her place would be antidemocratic, and that's just crazy talk IMO.
What we need to do is figure out how to best teach the subaltern so that she can become literate, and eventually govern. But we can't teach her in a top-down way, European Scholar Tells Third World Brown Woman What To Do-style. On the contrary, we need to unlearn our intellectual prejudices in the encounter with the subaltern. Otherwise we're not "learning to learn to teach" her, we're just lecturing. And even if I've been known to get up on my soapbox from time to time, do as I say, not as I do, okay? When you teach, don't hold forth. Learn to learn.
I call this solution to the problems of global capitalism "impossible" not because I think it really can't be done. If there weren't any hope for it, I wouldn't be prescribing this medication for all that ails ye ole subaltern. I say that because "learning to learn" ain't easy. We're used to imagining solutions as quick fixes, but my work is all about encouraging a shift in this way of thinking. You see, real revolution happens slowly, one school, and even one student, at a time.
The meaning of the figure is undecidable, and yet we must attempt to dis-figure it, read the logic of the metaphor. We know that the figure can and will be literalized in yet other ways. All around us is the clamor for the rational destruction of the figure, the demand for not clarity but immediate comprehensibility by the ideological average. This destroys the force of literature as a cultural good. Anyone who believes that a literary education should still be sponsored by universities must allow that one must learn to read. And to learn to read is to learn to dis-figure the undecidable figure into a responsible literality, again and again. — From Death of a Discipline
When I start with a word like "undecidable," you may be tempted to throw the book across the room. I know, I know, I've seen it all before: you're afraid you'll never decide what on earth I'm talking about.
But bear with me. If you spend a bit of time—okay, maybe a whole lot of time—with my texts, they'll reward you. I'm no Jacques Lacan. But I do value difficulty in writing, as this passage both shows (with how it's written) and tells (with what it's written about).
A bit of background: I am a staunch defender of the social good of literature and a firm believer that education in the humanities is crucial to the building of a better world. We cannot imagine a future that is different and better than the present if we cannot imagine, period. And we cannot imagine unless our imaginations are trained by what I call, in the passage above, learning to read.
Now, what's all this business about the figure and dis-figuring? Can't make head or tails of the above prose, which itself looks dis-figured to you? My heart goes out to you, reader, but only to a degree. Keep up with me now and ya might learn something.
Literature, in the above passage, is the repository or container for figures. The demand for "immediate comprehensibility by the ideological average" comes from business, finance, philanthropy, science, mainstream politics, and other sectors that can't accommodate the "undecidable" as this is figured in literature.
Oh, and I borrow the word "undecidable" from Derrida, who uses it to name the uncertainty behind any decision. See, deconstructionism teaches us that there will always be undecidability lurking in every choice. Once you deconstruct the classics of great literature and social theory, it can be pretty hard to find anything to believe in, 100%, without a doubt. Doubt is good, you know?
And this goodness of doubt explains why it's crucial to invest in literature. Literature teaches us to live with the undecidable, rather than ignore it in the rush to do something certain, be something certain. Ideology is all about "I am X (woman, Indian, …), hear me roar!" But as us dedicated deconstructionists have said before, the seed of activism lies not in knowing, but in not knowing.
That any reader will waste the time to parse the desires (not the needs) of collective examples of subalternity is my false hope. — From the introduction to An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization
This sentence ends the hefty introduction to my latest collection of essays, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. It sounds a sad note, because I've become more and more hopeless as the years have passed, global capital has conquered all, and Marx's dream of world equality has come to seem ever more remote. Impossible, even.
Notice that I'm still fighting the good fight. I'm continuing to draw attention to the subaltern, as I have since the beginning. But, this time, I'm trying to shift the focus from the "needs" of subaltern groups to their "desires." I do this because so much humanitarian work thinks the job is done when it has met, or begun to meet, what privileged white people in air-conditioned offices think are the needs of the global poor.
This kind of humanitarianism acts as though the subaltern can't even have desires—they have only needs. By forgetting that everyone has desires, First World Humanitarianism forgets the whole question of education, which I define elsewhere as the "rearrangement of desire."
To "parse the desires" of subaltern groups is, therefore, to look closely at how these groups imagine the world, valuing their differences from Euro-American and capitalist ways of "worlding." But it's not enough to ooh and aah and say, "Isn't that subaltern beautiful?" Or: "Look, how cute, she speaks!"
No. You have to learn from the subaltern even as you're bringing her into democracy through education. Your desire has to be rearranged, just like hers.