Subaltern Studies

Some definitions to start: Decolonization: the process of removing an imperial power over a colonized region (1947-1997).  Post-colonial: after colonization is over, or when decolonization is complete.  Postcolonial refers also to a specific type of history: Postcolonial theory / studies, the study of the formerly colonized regions and their independent development.  As your textbook suggests, it's not w/o critics because postcolonial society (India, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, etc.) still feel the effects of imperialism

The final is subaltern.  Historians who use this term take it from Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian Marxist and Communist who was imprisoned for a long time by Mussolini's police (from 1926) until his death at age 46.  In prison, he wrote notebooks on politics and history and philosophy.  He declared that the subaltern was the subjected underclass in a society on whom the dominant power exerts its hegemonic influence.

I. Why choose the term "subaltern"? What does it mean?  According to my handy OED, it means, of inferior status or rank; subordinate; hence, of rank, power, authority, action

Am I saying that somehow these histories are inferior or belong to a subordinate position?

ABSOLUTELY NOT: however, "traditional" histories, like the kind discussed in the very beginning of this term, often neglected the ordinary, the average, the everyday because they were not the stuff of "big history."

II. How historians use the term—Historians have tended to use this term in a way that takes back the history—much the same way that the term queer has been brought into the language of queer theory, subaltern has been a way for historians (and theoreticians) to expand their language, to recognize the historically subordinate position of the lives of various groups of people, but in recognizing their "subalternity" giving them a voice and an agency.


Subaltern Studies emerged around 1982 as a series of journal articles published by Oxford University Press in India.  A group of Indian scholars trained in the west wanted to reclaim their history.  Its main goal was to retake history for the underclasses, for the voices that had not been heard previous.  Scholars of the subaltern hoped to break away from histories of the elites and the Eurocentric bias of current imperial history.  In the main, the wrote against the "Cambridge School" which seemed to uphold the colonial legacy—i.e. it was elite-centered.  Instead, they focused on subaltern in terms of class, caste, gender, race, language and culture.  They espoused the idea that there may have been political dominance, but that this was not hegemonic.  The primary leader was Ranajit Guha who had written works on peasant uprisings in India.  Another of the leading scholars of subaltern studies is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  She draws on a number of theoretical positions in her analysis of Indian history: deconstruction, marxism, feminism. She was highly critical of current histories of India that were told from the vantage point of the colonizers and presented a story of the colony via the British adminstrators (Young, 159).  What she and other historians (including Ranajit Guha) wanted was to reclaim their history, to give voice to the subjected peoples.  Any other history merely reconstructs imperialist hegemony and does not give voice to the people—those who resisted, those who supported, those who experienced colonial incursion.  According to the Subaltern Studies group, this history is designed to be a "contribution made by people on their own, that it, independently of the élite" (quoted in Young 160).  They did this by establishing a journal out of Oxford, Delhi and Australia and called it Subaltern Studies to write a history against the grain and restore history to the subordinated.  In other words, to give the common people back their agency.


In other words, proponents of subaltern studies suggest that we need to find alternate sources to locate the voice of the subaltern historically.  Elite records, like those at the home office or foreign office could still be used, but you had to read them with a different pair of lenses.  So even though we might be subject to using these same sources, we can read them "against the grain" –this phrase comes from Walter Benjamin's theoretical work.

Many SS critics, like Dipesh Chakrabarty ("postcoloniality and the artifice of history" in representations) suggest that it is really impossible to fully break from the western narrative.

Obviously, the introduction of subaltern studies, like all of our theories we've encountered this term, has tremendous political repercussions.  In a society like Great Britain, that claims to operate as a "Commonwealth" yet sees racism around every corner as well as the desire to keep out the blacks who cause all the problems (refer to recent Prime Minister elections), the writing and mapping of a history of previously silent groups creates an undercurrent throughout the society


Thus subaltern history will help to lay bare previously covered histories, previously ignored events, previously purposeful hidden secrets of the past.


All of these people dealt head on with the concept of the "other." Otherness is part of modern nationalist rhetoric to define a nation, to have a nationalist spirit—patriotism, for example is to suggest a certain level of inclusion.

If there is inclusion, a nation of the self, then how do you define it?  The most obvious idea is to think in terms of binary oppositions à self / other.  So, "the other" was constructed as outside the nation. When this kind of bipolarity is established, the opposite tends to be negated.  Otherness, once negated is subject to the power of the colonizer.  It is this discourse that early post-colonial thinkers, like Said, hoped to displace.  Like scholars of gender, Said argued that the bipolar reduced race to an "essentialist" category."


III. Movement from the New Left to the New Cultural History.  Recovering the histories

-We could argue that this move began with the Fabians in the early twentieth century—a group of scholars dedicated to uncovering the role of the laboring classes in history.  In fact, we could argue that it began earlier, since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were very concerned with the history of the proletarian and his role in history.

-But even if we discount the "theoretical" discussion by these groups, we see some glimpses of this in the 1930s—CLR James' The Black Jacobins was a Marxist study of the successful slave revolt in San Domingo led by Toussaint L'Ouverture.  The book continues to be regarded as one of the great work of black agency.

-Despite these early ventures, I argue that it's not really until the emergence of "The New Left" and the rise of non-Marxist social history in the 1960s that we see concerted efforts at a "history from below" that provided these characters with a voice.

-In the US, race and gender became especially important in the 1960s in the face of the Civil Rights Movement and the emergent Feminist Movement.  Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique really became a wake-up call

-In Europe, students faced the violence of global migration from colonized areas (specifically in England—Caribbean, African, South Asian, East Asian—and France—Vietnam/Indochina, Algeria/North Africa), they faced decolonization and in 1968 the huge student riots in Europe showed the emergence of the "subaltern."

-But other areas of the world as well in Cold War society: Latin American Revolutions, The revolutions in Asia and Africa.

-The post-war world then, was one of growing discontent "at home" and "abroad"—to be more sophisticated, we should say "globally."


The New Left came out of this discontent.  Dissatisfied with the Soviets after 1956, young scholars thought about alternative ways of thinking about the past by not relying on "working" models.  Saw a chance to see the past for what it was.

1960s—lots of great stuff on class beginning with EPT's MEWC.

1960s & 1970s—lots of great stuff that begin to combine all three—what historians sometimes refer to as the mantra: race, class and gender.


So what? How does this have to do with "subaltern" and "recovering" history?  EVERYTHING.


IV.   This gets us to the point where we can talk about "postcolonial" theory and history.  It enables us to use a discourse that would have been forbidden.


Over the next two weeks we will encounter various components of postcolonial theory.  We begin with race and nation and look to Said to provide definitions and starting ground for problematizing the lenses of European colonial historians.  We then look at Gilroy and his examples of a narrow definition of nationality.  We will then read another theory piece, Gyan Prakash's discussion of postcolonial discourse and its historical development.  Then one case of historical practice—Ramachandra Guha's history of Indian nationalist politics by using the vehicle of cricket.  A very important point to note: not all works that deal with race or racism are "subaltern studies."  There are plenty of critical works that still remain focused on European politics—these works are collectively known as the New Imperial History.