Annual Workshop

Thinking With/Against/Past the “Subaltern”

Annual Workshop

BISA Colonial/Postcolonial/Decolonial working group (CPDBISA)

 Friday, 11th September 2015

SOAS, London

The figure of the “subaltern” is at the heart of philosophical debates in postcolonial studies regarding the politics and limits of knowledge production. One of the central texts, in this regard, is Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak” wherein, in the context of elite and western academic inquiry, the answer given is no. However, Spivak has changed her orientation to this question since the 1980s, when it was written. And there have always been other traditions of thought, both within and outside of the academy, which have refused the efficacy of working with the subject of the subaltern. Indeed, there are many nuanced and shifting positions on the relationship between liberation and representation amongst intellectuals who study the colonial question. This workshop will dwell on these nuances in order to unpack and bring into dialogue different apprehensions of the “subaltern” and its value to the project of colonial critique.


10.30-11.00 Arrival and coffee

11.00-11.30 Welcome from CPD conveners

11.30-12.45 Session 1 – The History and Philosophy of the Subaltern

Q: “Is the subaltern a historical-sociological category or is it a philosophical concept? Are there tensions between the historical-sociological and philosophical renderings of the subaltern?”

Chair: Meera Sabaratnam (SOAS). Conversation initiated by:

  • Zeynep Gulsah Capan (Bilkent)
  • Meera Sabaratnam (SOAS)
  • Nivi Manchanda (Cambridge)

12.45-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.15 Session 2 – Indigenous Peoples and Subaltern Studies

Q: “Are indigenous peoples subaltern?”

Chair: Mustapha Pasha (Aberystwyth).

Conversation initiated by:

  • Lisa Tilley (Warwick)
  • Ipshita Basu (Surrey)
  • Robbie Shilliam (QMUL)

15.15-15.30 Coffee

15.30-16.45 Session 3 – Pedagogies of/beyond the subaltern

Q: “How might we teach about the ‘subaltern’? Should we?”

Chair: Robbie Shilliam (QMUL).

Conversation initiated by:

  • Min Kyung Yoo (Free University Berlin)
  • Ademar Mercado (Aberystwyth)
  • Vidya Kumar (Birmingham)

16.45 – 18.00 Final Plenary

  • Chair: Meera Sabaratnam (SOAS)

Conversation initiated by:

  • Mustapha K. Pasha (Aberystwyth)
  • Clive Gabay (QMUL)
  • Althea-Maria Rivas (Bath)

Post-workshop Reflections: Clive Gabay

Whose words are these words? Subaltern, indigenous, victim, oppressed…who are they used by, why and for what purposes? Taken out of their immediate and parochial political context can they convey more general analytical purchase? Questions like these can be unsettling, probing as they do the very heart of any number of critical scholarly projects. We invoke with language but with every invocation we also exclude. Representation, in the Spivakian sense, is not always undesirable, but it is risky, the subject always mutable and mutating. These then are some thoughts on how we might pursue what other contributors to the CPD workshop called a critical ethic of engagement.

First, we must be more willing to call out racism and paternalism for what it is. When the forces of the far right can claim to be speaking for ‘indigenous rights’ it becomes clear that even language claimed by critical scholars is not unproblematic. When peoples dubbed ‘indigenous’ are reprimanded by paternalistic scholars and/or activists for appropriating elements of ‘modern’ economy and technology, we know that labels can be used to subject rather than liberate. Of course, when the subjects of racism, paternalism and oppression claim the subjectivity of indigeneity, victimhood, or (much less likely) subalterity, in order to amplify and pursue their political demands then that is another matter. But here is precisely the point. Racism and paternalism are racism and paternalism. When those subject to such prejudices decide to appropriate the language of indigeneity or subalterity in how they respond to such impositions then contingently supporting and thus learning from such endeavours can be a mode of ethical engagement for critically minded scholars. When those scholars start to decide who and what counts as indigenous, subaltern, and so on, then the risk of creating far more problematic modes of representation which silences and disempowers the very subjects whose (preconceived) liberation is being sought becomes much more amplified.

A second mode of comprehending a critical ethic of engagement with the subjects of racism and paternalism is to work on becoming parochial. But not a parochial form of parochial-ness! Being parochial is not about being local, glocal, or any other such spatial imaginary. Rather, being parochial is a call to decolonize our sense of selves as autonomous, liberal rational subjects, and to comprehend the social relationality and historicity which produces our contemporary selves. Such a comprehension is always an immanent work in progress, but one through which we can begin to work on ourselves, to develop more horizontal ethics of engagement which predicate against the tendency (especially in the academy) to see ourselves as sources of liberating expertise, a well-meaning but ultimately paternalistic route. How does my horizontally and historically constituted self, replete with its own oppressions and privileges, enable me (or not) to enact relationships of solidarity and empathy with other equally contradictory selves? What are the limitations of my empathy? When does my positionality turn away from enabling liberation to enabling new forms of oppression? Similarly, what new forms of relationality are opened up by my consideration of my self (selves) as multiple, historical and horizontal? How might this sense of self/selves allow me to dissolve modern distinctions of expert/subject, teacher/student, educated/uneducated, civilised/uncivilised, whilst still retaining a reflexive sense of my privilege to have the time and luxury to even ask these questions of myself?

By necessity, to be continued…

Post-workshop Reflections: Titilayo Ayoola

On Friday 11th September 2015, the Colonial, Postcolonial, De-colonial working group of the British International Studies Association held its second annual workshop at SOAS, University of London. I found this workshop a truly enriching, thought provoking experience that reinforced the many challenges that accompany thinking through the “subaltern”. It was a good continuation from last year’s workshop, in that I engaged with the themes from last year’s annual workshop also at this year’s event. Last year’s workshop brought to light the issue of knowledge production, and how it is controlled, refined and interpreted in the hegemonic Western Academy. In short, the most powerful are the authors of the stories of the less powerful. This year’s workshop being on the topic of the subaltern. Participants came with their perceptions of what the term subaltern might be, while others were reluctant to use the term subaltern, and some were still trying to make sense of the buzzword popularized by Spivak’s popular work ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Postcolonial Studies, International Relations and beyond. At its broadest, the term makes reference to the marginalised, oppressed and culturally powerless subjects. Meera Sabaratnam at the workshop asked whether the concept of the subaltern is for historiographical and/or abstract purposes.

The workshop fleshed out not only the scholarship of Spivak, but also that of Gramsci. During the discussion it was brought to light that because Gramsci applied the term specifically to the context of Italy the “subaltern” might not be applicable to all contexts. Indeed, a person might be a subaltern in one context, and an elite in another context. For instance, a workshop participant, Zeynep Gulsah Capan argued that here in the UK she is a subaltern, but in Turkey she is an elite. Thus, being a subaltern is context specific. I added the point that within subaltern communities there are people who are further marginalised and voiceless, and thus as I like to say, are the marginalised of the marginalised. People who inhabit such spaces are female. So it is one issue to be a subaltern and another issue to be a subaltern woman. Thus, having to contend with these two constraints is more of a burden to a particular gender. During the course of interaction during the workshop, it became obvious – or rather agreed – that the subaltern is very much fluid and not a fixed term. The subaltern varies in different contexts, thus we cannot use the term subaltern generically.

Personally, since I became acquainted with Spivak’s work, I cannot but help to think of it when the term subaltern is mentioned. I find that the term is disempowering and even disempowers the subject of concern by forcing her into this category. What is more, I think that the mantle should be in the hands of the subject as to whether they determine themselves as subaltern. However, although I argue that people should be the ones to define themselves as subalterns, the term itself has perhaps been taken from the works of scholars such as Gramsci and Spivak in the context of Postcolonial studies and appropriated. A different interpretation of the term subaltern was discussed by Spivak at a lecture I attended at the LSE in June. Spivak’s lecture re-orientated my thought about her perception of the term subaltern. Spivak in her lecture also confirmed that, to her, certain criteria are required to be considered a subaltern. What others state to be subaltern, Spivak does not. This issue is one I later revisited at the annual workshop.

The question of whether indigenous people are subaltern was also discussed at the workshop. To my mind, the term indigenous appears to be typically tied together with the term subaltern. However, again it depends on what context we are in and how it is used. In certain contexts indigenous people might be considered subaltern, for example in South Africa, Canada, New Zealand just to mention a few. While in other contexts the term indigenous is used as a weapon by extreme far right parties, for example in European contexts, to marginalise people classified as non-indigenes. This was an important issue that I brought up during group discussion at the workshop.

Pedagogical issues – especially how to teach the subaltern – were also discussed at the workshop. I argued that studying about the subaltern presents an opportunity for students to go beyond the confinements of the mainstream approaches, and thus allows students to apply more relevant theories to particular contexts. Moreover, even the basic presence of the “subaltern” as a curriculum topic gives the subaltern some voice – some agency – rather than its traditional outright erasure. Having said that, this does not go without pitfalls. This brings me to my next point with regards to knowledge production, an issue discussed at last year’s annual workshop as I mentioned earlier.

The delivery of a topic can be refined/processed/manipulated in the process of delivery. How should the topic of the subaltern be delivered without distortion and stereotype? Perhaps let the subaltern be the one to teach about their situation? This is very much the case in some countries, such as Canada where some indigenous people participate in the teaching about their people, their story – an example that was brought up by one group during the workshop discussion. Indeed, as I have noted above, the process of knowledge production is an act of power in itself, especially the power to write the story of the subaltern for the subaltern. Robbie Shilliam gave the example of a Maori man in New Zealand not completing his postgraduate diploma in Public Policy: the Maori man undertook the course not to get the qualification, but to understand how scholars think in the academy of Maori people. This example again echoes last year’s workshop on knowledge production and how the authors of the stories are not usually written by the owners of the story.

Some participants also discussed different ways in which they teach the subaltern, and the different challenges that might arise. For instance, Shabnam Holliday, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Plymouth stated that her department arranged a regular Sub-Saharan Africa trip to South Africa. While Vidya Kumar discussed her critical approaches of teaching International Law at the University of Birmingham. Personally, I am most concerned with the order in which the topic of the subaltern is be taught. Should the critical, non-mainstream perspectives be delivered first? Or should the mainstream approaches be taught first before the critical perspectives?

Overall the workshop provided a space for healthy discussion about the subaltern in International Relations and beyond: how it is researched, interpreted, perceived and taught. The subaltern is fluid and is perceived differently to different people. Thus, the context should be understood before the term subaltern is used: the context cannot be separated from the term. Finally, beyond the mere teaching of the subaltern there is the challenge of critiquing how the topic of the subaltern is taught.

Post-workshop Reflections: Shabnam Holliday

When and how to use the term subaltern?

One of the themes that I found emerged during the CPD workshop was the issue of who our audience is; and in light of this how and whether we should use the term subaltern. On reflection, I feel that two groups of people are important when thinking about the term subaltern in terms of when and how it should be used: our students and the people about whom we carry out research. It seems to me that the notion of responsibility is important for both groups. With regard to the latter, what is our responsibility to those about whom we carry out research? This question raises a series of important questions that were discussed at the workshop. Do those about whom we do research consider themselves as ‘subaltern’?  Does it matter whether or not they consider themselves as ‘subaltern’? If they do not consider themselves as ‘subaltern’, how should we be using the term in our academic work? Or, should we be using the term at all?

With regard to the students we teach, what is our responsibility to them? In this instance, I found the discussions about how we teach the ‘subaltern’ stimulating and, again, discussions raised a series of important questions. How do we teach the ‘subaltern’? Should we use the term at all when teaching about a particular social group, community, society, region, polity? Which areas of knowledge should be taught first in a module on IR theory, for instance? In this context should the starting point be critical approaches to IR, as opposed to traditional approaches? Should the starting point be issues such as identity, poverty etc. rather than the development of theory in the context of the discipline of IR? What would the implication of this be for undergraduate and postgraduate students who are trying to navigate the discipline of IR? That is, are we putting students at a disadvantage if they do not have the traditional tools of the discipline? Therefore, should we in fact be teaching IR theory with traditional theories as our starting point?

I have outlined several questions here, all of which were discussed at the workshop in the context of stimulating discussions about the concept of the ‘subaltern’. As was clear during our discussions, there is a need to try and answer these questions and somehow address them in our work as academics. For me, in order to have a meaningful reflection on my own practice, there is the need to think about the issue of responsibility. As ‘learning facilitators’, what is our responsibility in the process of providing a space for students to learn, to both the students, as well as to those about whom we carry out research? It was clear at the workshop that this issue of responsibility is influenced by a number of factors among which are: stage of career and type of contract (e.g. a GTA or Teaching Fellow who is told what to teach and may not have power to change curricula), the academic discipline, the module being taught, and the priorities of the academic department.

It is also important to remember that we work in very fluid environments and carry out research on very fluid social groups, communities, regions, societies, polities. Nevertheless, perhaps we should always bear in mind our sense of responsibility in changing environments.

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