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Notes Towards Day 19: "Can the Subaltern Speak?"

Notes Towards Day 19 of
Critical Feminist Studies

"Can the Subaltern Speak?"

I. Coursekeeping
the "naming," knowing and clapping ritual
Thursday: Schlepfer-Hughes on "death without weeping"
(to bring home "salience of social location" in feminism)
Friday: 2nd 5-pp. paper looking @ how gender is
operating in a specific history/culture (math class?)
please submit it along w/ your first marked paper
(my reading needs to be contextual, also!)

post this week: on another text you'd like to read/
film you'd like to watch together as we conclude the course
(delighted also to have commentary
on this complicated assigned material...)

so far--
anorton: The Awakening, Pride & Prejudice,
anything by Cather or Woolf
Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (seconded by sarina)
Un Lun Dun or His Dark Materials (young adult fantasy novels by men)
Caryl Churchill's play Cloud 9

jlustick: Reading Lolita in Tehran
film Born into Brothels

mpottash: Middlemarch
the movie of Persepolis

II. Charlie, Becky? Get us going today?

Look back or forwards?
(Spivak in both directions....)

III. Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?"
Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture,
Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (1988)
encourages/criticizes the efforts of the subaltern studies group,
which reappropriated Gramsci's term "subaltern" (the economically dispossessed) in order to locate and re-establish a "voice"/collective locus of agency in postcolonial India. Speaking out and reclaiming a collective cultural identity re-inscribes the subordinate position, creating a totalizing, essentialist "mythology" that doesn't account for the heterogeneity of the colonized body politic. The Subaltern can not speak; a single “voice” is essentialist, reductionist, "bipolar"...and not available (by definition: subaltern is dispossessed/does not know/understand his struggle....)

IV. Related questions re: classroom politics
raised here last week about how I ask you to represent yourselves;
aka "The Politics of Intimacy":
Using=Losing the Personal?

Takagi writes: “To be out is really to be in – inside the realm of the visible, the speakable, the culturally intelligible” (27)....engaging in...dialogue about “personal” or “private” aspects of yourself...can make you TOO easy to understand...maintaining the liminal...position...means that you do not become “culturally intelligible”. You can’t be mainstreamed; your deviance cannot be absorbed...“cannot be contained” (Spivak 162).
The power of being silent/not being "used"
"One can make a strategy of taking away from [students] the authority of their marginality, the centrality of their marginality...that authority will not take them very far because the world is a large place. Others are many. The self is enclosed."
(Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine)

V. What's all this have to do with Devi's "Breast-Giver"?
what happens in the story? what are your reactions to it?
what do you get? what don't you understand? where are you puzzled?

VI. Spivak on Devi
cf. similar/not-identical tasks of historian/literature teacher:
assigning a new subject-position vs. making the assignment visible
critically interrupting each other:
lit teacher wrenches text out of proper context
to show limits of theory
has implications for subalternization of "third-world" lit, but
elite methodologies working on subaltern material
cannot solve the problem

1. historical & literary representations both discursive
different in degree, not kind: both structured/textured alike
Devi pushed from the "literary" into "historical" forms
claim to legitimacy in "effect of the real"

2. author's own reading
parable of India after decolonization
(Jashoda's life shows citizens taking, not giving:
nationalism a product of imperialism)
all-too neat reading of subaltern as metaphor
vehicle for greater meaning excludes the subaltern as such

3. subject-positions of teacher and reader
deconstruct detritus of nationalism participating w/ colonizer
combat mind-set of radical reading of homogenized ethnicity
flotsam of subaltern as gendered subject
least susceptible to those ideas
literature particularly susceptible to didactic use
4. elite Marxist-Feminist approaches
another reductive allegorical reading:
Jashoda's gestation, lactation means of production
labor theory of value taking reproduction into account:
use-value/exchange value of superfluity of milk
"professional mother"

stutter in pre-supposition that women's work is non-productive
Marxism, feminism persistent interruptions of each other
emphasizing literariness of literature: endistance from reason
(Jashoda alienated from her breasts)
substance of story is failure of the exchange:
absence of child @ end: mother gives more than she gets
interruptive relations of class, race, sex systems,
and of indigenous and imperialist ones
Marx's view of the economic sphere: site of the production of value
what's @ stake in invoking the singularity of the gendered subaltern?
5. elite liberal feminist approaches
benevolence/ravenous hunger for Third World texts
participation in production of knowledge=
share in structures of privileges
(253-4): subaltern's own idiom did not allow him
to know his struggle, articulate self as its subject:
story stages loneliness of gendered subaltern

possibility of knowledge not predicated on identity,
but sustained by irreducible difference:
knowledge is never adequate to its object
impossibility of ideal knower, identical with her predicament

continued subalternization of Third World material
text dramatizes indigenous class-formation under imperialism,
its connection to women's social emancipation
mind-set of imperialist displaced/replicated in comprador capitalist
contradiction/failure:Brahmin brutalized:elite in case/subaltern in class
decode granddaughters-in-law as post-Independence Indian diaspora...

understanding subjectivity/growth in consciousness
is beside the point: subaltern not made individualist
Joshada, as subaltern, distanced from reproductive body
solution to her problem: productive rights
text for us raises constructive questions, corrective doubts

(to be continued....)

VII. Devi on herself
From The Telegraph, Calcutta India (March 2007):
What has it been like to inhabit a woman’s body?
I find such a question neither intelligent nor of much use to the way I write or work. I feel, quite strongly, that these gendered notions of the body have been thought up largely by the middle classes who are seldom in touch with the people. One is born either a woman or a man, and it is positively idiotic to make a fuss about this. Perhaps if such questions were put to women like Tapasi Mallik, raped and burned in Singur, then the senselessness of these queries would be made even plainer. When I started writing, it was my only means of earning a living. The Bengali literary establishment was then entirely male, but even so, I did not feel either constrained or empowered by my body. Nor was this ever an issue in my activist life. I have travelled to remote villages and towns all over the country, often on my own or with unfamiliar men. I was born with a female body, and now that I have grown old, no new little bits seem to have sprouted anywhere (aar notun kichhu to gojay-tojay ni)! So I must be a woman still.

VIII. And U.S. Politics-->
"Uncritical Exuberance?"
Judith Butler cautioning against the politics of exuberant identification:

If the election of Obama signals a willingness on the part of the majority of voters to be "represented" by this man, then it follows that who "we" are is constituted anew.

The public figure who allows the populace to sustain and mask its ambivalence nevertheless appears as a figure of 'unity': this is surely an ideological function.