The question of subalternity emerges in relation to subordinate social groups and individuals whose historical activity is repressed, neglected, misinterpreted or ‘at the margins’ of hegemonic histories, discourses and social formations. In particular, subalternity represents the common theme circulating among interconnected intellectual endeavours that have offered different interpretations of this issue. Its circulation started in the 1930s with Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and his observations on subalternity, which were written while he was a prisoner of the Italian fascist regime, just before his death. It has subsequently unfolded over the last 85 years, more recently informing Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial studies – notably, Gayatri Spivak’s work.
Gramsci’s idea of subalternity expands the Marxist categories of ‘proletariat’ and ‘underclasses’, focusing on the aspects of cultural subordination that are intertwined with economic oppression. Generally speaking, “he refers to slaves, peasants, religious groups, women, different races, the popolani (common people) and popolo (people) of the medieval communes, the proletariat, and the bourgeoisie prior to the [Italian] Risorgimento as subaltern groups. […] Gramsci […] conceives subalternity as an intersectionality of the variations of race, class, gender, culture, religion, nationalism, and colonialism functioning within an ensemble of socio-political and economic relations” (Green 2011: 399-400).
Gramsci’s reflections on subalternity form part of the strategy he devised for a revolutionary political party, which aims to emancipate subaltern groups. His reflections develop along two main axes. Firstly, a research programme on subaltern historiography, which he barely started due to the deterioration of his health while he was imprisoned. This programme aims to find the historical traces of the autonomous political initiatives of subaltern groups, whose mobilisations have always been undermined or repressed by hegemonic groups, and are therefore rarely recorded by historiography (Gramsci 1971: 54-55).
The second axis concerns the analysis of the culture of subaltern groups, or folklore. Gramsci does not consider folklore a mere collection of traditional tales, songs and legends. Rather, he argues that folklore is the perspective that subaltern groups have on their lives and surrounding world. A specific social position thus corresponds to the production of a specific cultural perspective – though folklore is never autonomous from the hegemonic domain (Crehan 2002: 72). In fact, subaltern cultures are both opposed to hegemonic worldviews (even if this opposition is often passive or unintentional) and influenced by them. As such, folklore is a ‘confused agglomerate’ of derived elements from preceding and current hegemonic cultures. Moreover, given its oppositional character, folklore retains some creative/productive capacity (Gramsci 2000: 360-362).
During the 1980s, the Subaltern Studies project developed and adapted Gramsci’s research programme on subalternity to the situation of (post)colonial India. The main aim of this project was to re-write Indian history between colonialism and decolonization from the perspective of the rural subaltern masses. As such, the historiographical project of Subaltern Studies criticises elitist approaches (colonialist/British, Indian (neo)nationalist/bourgeois, Marxist) to the history of India, since these have downplayed or misrepresented the role that subaltern groups played in both the independence struggle and the construction of the Indian nation.
In Subaltern Studies, a history written from a subaltern perspective must thereby focus on the politics and the culture of subaltern groups understood as autonomous domains. These interact and overlap with the politics and culture of the ruling/elite groups; although they are neither completely separated, nor fully integrated with them (e.g. Guha 1982: 4-8).
In this way, subalternity has a dual character in Subaltern Studies. Firstly, when looking for the autonomous subaltern traces in the (post)colonial archive, Subaltern Studies approaches subalternity as a sociological object of historiographical enquiry. Secondly, subalternity becomes a perspective of observation (Das 1989: 324) that redresses the exclusion of subaltern groups from historiographical accounts. As such, the use of subalternity in Subaltern Studies is not only socio-historical, but also epistemic/epistemological. Subalternity describes a position that is excluded from the hegemonic domain and that is deployed as a meta-theoretical tool to criticize and renovate historiography.
During the 1980s, Spivak’s observations on subalternity developed and criticized these positions by highlighting a fundamental tension in Subaltern Studies: on the one side, the project explicitly aims to ‘recover’ the perspective of the Indian subalterns as an ‘object’ in the text, while also providing an ‘accurate’ representation of this perspective. On the other side, in Spivak’s view, Subaltern Studies implicitly suggests that this attempt is always doomed to failure, because the archive never returns a ‘pure’ subaltern voice. Rather, the subaltern is always represented through the words of the elite – in this case, the historian (e.g. Spivak 1985: 338-344; 1988: 283-286).
In particular, in her often-cited essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), Spivak asks whether and how ‘the subaltern’ can be represented in hegemonic narratives. As such, Spivak puts forward two conceptions of subalternity: the subaltern-as-difference and the subaltern-effect. The former understands subalternity as the implicit exclusion that constitutes hegemonic narratives. The subaltern-effect, on the other hand, describes subalternity as a position internal to the hegemonic narratives which produce representations of the subaltern.
In this way, Spivak’s contribution develops Subaltern Studies’ epistemic approach to subalternity. Spivak thereby introduced the dominant question in postcolonial studies: “how the third-world subject is represented in Western discourse” (Chatterjee 2010: 85). Moreover, she understands subalternity as a perspective that is external/excluded from the hegemonic domain and that sheds light on the implicit code that organises hegemonic discourses, with their mechanisms of othering and exclusion. Many of her later studies (e.g. Spivak 1999) are dedicated to analysing hegemonic discourses in order to highlight the mechanisms that have brought about the obliteration and re-codification of the subaltern.
More recently, Spivak’s work (e.g. 2012 ) has focused on subalterns as subjects of relations, rather than as objects of study. Inspired by Gramsci and by her political-pedagogical activity with Adivasi tribes, Spivak asks not only whether and how subalterns can be represented by intellectuals, but also what the intellectual can learn from them. ‘Learning to learn from below’ thus represents a central strategy in Spivak’s later approach to subalternity, which opens up space for the ‘subaltern contamination’ of hegemonic discourses.
- Chatterjee, Partha (2010) “Reflections on “Can the Subaltern Speak?”: Subaltern Studies After Spivak”; R. Morris, (ed.), Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 81-86.
- Crehan, Kate (2002) Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology, London and Sterling: Pluto Press.
- Das, Veena (1989) “Subaltern as Perspective”; R. Guha, (ed.), Subaltern Studies VI: Writings on South Asian History and Society, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 310-324.
- Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci; Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith, (eds.), London: Lawrence and Wishart.
- – (2000) The Gramsci Reader. Selected Writings 1916-1935; D. Forgacs, (ed.), New York: New York University Press.
- Green, Marcus E. (2011) “Rethinking the subaltern and the question of censorship in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks”, Postcolonial Studies, 14 (4), pp. 387-404.
- Guha, Ranajit (1982b) “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India”; R. Guha, (ed.), Subaltern Studies I: Writings on South Asian History and Society, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-8.
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1985) “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography”; R. Guha, (ed.), Subaltern Studies IV: writings on South Asian history and society, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 330-363.
- – (1988) “Can the Subaltern Speak?”; C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 271-313.
- – (1999) A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press.
- – (2012) “Scattered speculations on the subaltern and the popular”; G. C. Spivak, (ed.), An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, pp. 429-442, [or. ed. “Scattered speculations on the subaltern and the popular”, Postcolonial Studies, 8 (4), pp. 475-486].
- Green, Marcus E. (2002) “Gramsci Cannot Speak: Presentations and Interpretations of Gramsci’s Concept of the Subaltern”, Rethinking Marxism, 14 (3), pp. 1-24.
- Hall, Stuart (1981) “Notes on Deconstructing “The Popular””; R. Samuel, (ed.), People’s History and Socialist Theory, London: Routledge, pp. 227-240.
- Ludden, David (2001) “Introduction”; D. Ludden, (ed.), Reading Subaltern Studies. Critical History, Contested Meaning and the Globalization of South Asia, London: Anthem South Asian Press, pp. 1-39.
- Morris, Rosalind (ed.) (2010) Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, New York: Columbia University Press.
- Who are ‘the subalterns’ today?
- What distinguishes a hegemonic cultural activity from a subaltern one today? To what extent does a hegemonic cultural activity contribute to or define a subaltern one? (note: approached in this way, subaltern cultural activity is neither completely autonomous, nor fully encapsulated within a hegemonic one)
- What is the difference between being subaltern and being oppressed?
- In what ways do Gramsci, Subaltern Studies and Spivak’s reflections on subalternity help us to understand the condition of subaltern groups in our times?
Submitted by Piermarco Piu