“Subalternity and Representation

Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory John Beverly, Duke University Press, 1999, chap. 1 “Writing in Reverse: The Subaltern and the Limits of Academic Knowledge” pp 26-40

This chapter begins with the story of Jacques Lacan and Petit Jean with regards to the symbolism of the can which is ” a witness to the canning industry” (26). With Lacan wishing to “see something new”, Beverly, in this chapter, deals with what Stephen Morton calls the “critique of representation (…) the ethical dangers associated with representing the disenfranchised from a standpoint of a relatively empowered, diasporic intellectual in the western academy” (95). In addition, what Lacan wishes to do, according to Beverly, is a splitting of position in the production of knowledge which has always been produced from the standpoint of the “alienated” master, an alienation that puts him aside from the experiences of the subalterns. That splitting goes from the position of the master to that of the slave (26).

Interestingly enough is the way Beverly schematizes the splitting of that position, not only writing in reverse for the sake of reversion, but writing in negation, “negation as the category that defines subaltern identity or ‘will'”. However, the methodology of this writing in negation might be replete with some of the dangers of essentialism and/or reversing the world, for the center to move to the periphery and vice versa. This notion of negation hints at the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre, a French philosopher of the 20th century, who was committed for the cause of the Négritude movement in Paris. Black Africans writers at the time wrote in negation about about African culture and historiography  againts the Eurocentric anthropology and colonial discourse. But what is interesting in Sartre’s ideology is that he warned his fellow African negritudists againts the dangers of writing in reverse for the sake of reversion; his ideas might, in a sense, echo Spivak’s “strategic essentialism” or again Guha’s “necessary antithesis”, considering the Negritude, not as an end in itself, but as a necessary passage that was to be “bypassed” (o bypass might be blurred but it is my personal conviction of it). In connection with this chapter, Beverly talks about the “epistemological reversion” directed againts the hegemonic linguistic and cutural “assumptions of the elites-both native and colonial” (27). What is at sake in this particular reversion is the fact that “the sense of history (has been) converted into an element of administrative concern”, thus refering to the colonial archive that has not to be burnt in its entirety. What Beverly is trying to say, to my mind, is that Guha’s the-lower-in-the-higher model of reversion has to be called into question. He draws the debate over negation as inversion vs. negation as “dialectical sublation” (32). And i think that Beverly is more likely to be for the dialectical dimension of representing the subaltern, in a sense, refering to the hegelian terms of negation, “one moment of dialectical process of necessary ‘development’ through stages that culminate in the Absolute Spirit” (32), the spirit being understood as modernity in itself.

However, as Beverly argues, the notion of subalternity has to be seriously defined. for him, subaltern studies is an academic project which, instead of being exlusively linked the ontological identity of the subaltern, has to be embodied in its developmental achievements in close relationship with globalization that reinforces its rhetorical framework. in order for that to be possible, Beverly argues that the role of intelletuals has to be “understanding and administering increasingly multicultural populations and heterogeneous transnational working class”, but this has to be politically done “on the side of the subaltern” (28).

Another story in this chapter is Rodriguez’s, a “chicano scholarship boy” whose autobiographical work, Hunger of Memory, deals with his tight relationship with his working class minority group, the “los pobres” (the subalterns). With this story, John Beverly “celebrates” the power of academia in triggering, like in Rodriguez’s case, consciousness about the mutism and lack of politicl agency of the “los pobres”. What Beverly means by the “power of academia” is not its power to name authoratively things (I mean producing eurocentric knowledge), but its power in giving ” a socially disadvantaged child (Rodriguez) a sense of self and personal agancy” (29). And what is interesting in Rodriguez’ story is that, even though he might be well-intentioned in trying to side with “his” socially disadvantaged minority group, he reprents a sort of threat for the members of that subaltern group since himself bears the marks of western education. This simple fact once again deals with the dangers of ethical positionality of the intellectual concerned with subalternity. Beverly in trun argues for a  new way of representing subalternity, “to develop new forms of scholarship and pedagogy – in history, literary criticism, anthropology, political science, philosophy, education and so forth -and the need to critique academic knowledge as such” (31). This intellectual task in representing subalternity is always challenging because the subaltern and/or postcolonial subject who is educated in the West is in a “doubly elitist position” for he/she is in “academia” and in “the metropolis”, thus reminding us of the dichotomy between metropolis (most of time associated with bourgeoisie) and “ruralness”.

Beverly ends up this chapter by emphasing the multiculturalist feature of scholars in the academy, “we are all muticuturalists now” he says. The multicultural disposition of subaltern studies entails the reconsideration of subalternity in the global and transnational movement or crossroads. The “particularistic, Manichean, (…)  and even sometimes reactionary” standpoint if the subaltern himself has to reconceptualized in the global era. Subaltern studies is not only speaking about the subaltern, but also “the possibility of building relationships of solidarity between ourselves (as intellectuals educated in the western academia) and the people and social pratices we posit as our abject of study” (38-39). therein lies the debate about objectivity vs. subjectivity in representing the subaltern/postcolonial subject,  what Richard Rorty has dichotomized as “desire for solidarity” with the subaltern vs. “desire for objectivity” about the subaltern, the former being more about “commitment than “conversation”.

I will end up by mentioning a passage in the chapter where Berverly states that “the writing of history is not about the past; it is about the present” (34 emphasis mine). This statement needs to be more  elaborated, may be the discussion in class will help all us to better understand.

extra work cited:

Morton, Stephen. Key Contemporay Thinkers: Gayartri Spivak. Cambridge: Polity Press,  2007

About Babacar

I am a graduate student at the Bowling Green State University (Ohio) in American Culture Studies program for a two year Master degree. Am studying the theories of race, multiculturalism and feminism and their intersectionality in the formation of Identity in the racial and postracial America.
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  3. magic bullet says:

    This intellectual task in representing subalternity is always challenging because the subaltern and/or postcolonial subject who is educated in the West is in a “doubly elitist position” for he/she is in “academia” and in “the metropolis”, thus reminding us of the dichotomy between metropolis (most of time associated with bourgeoisie) and “ruralness”.

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