Can the Subaltern Speak

Gayatri Spivak | Can the Subaltern Speak – Summary

The essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988) by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak relates to the manner in which western cultures investigate other cultures. Spivak uses the example of the Indian Sati practice of widow suicide as an example. However the main significance of the article is in its first part which presents the ethical problems of investigating a different culture base on “universal” concepts and frameworks.

Can the Subaltern Speak

“Can the Subaltern Speak?” critically deals with an array of western writers starting from Marx to Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida. The basic claim and opening statement of “Can the Subaltern Speak?”  is that western academic thinking is produced in order to support western economic interests. Spivak holds that knowledge is never innocent and that it expresses the interests of its producers. For Spivak knowledge is like any other commodity that is exported from the west to the third world for financial and other types of gain.

Spivak is wondering how the third world subject can be studied without cooperation with the colonial project. Spivak points to the fact that research is in a way always colonial. In defining the “other”, the “over there” subject as the object of study and as something that knowledge should be extracted from and brought back “here”.  Basically we’re talking about white men speaking to white men about colored men/women. When Spivak examines the validity of the western representation of the other, she proposes that the discursive institutions which regulate writing about the other are shut off to postcolonial or feminist scrutiny.

This limitation, Spivak holds, is due to the fact that critical thinking about the “other” tends to articulate its relation to the other with the hegemonic vocabulary. This is similar to feminist writers which abide by the patriarchic rules for academic writing.

In the following parts of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak is criticizing different critical writers and then moves on to the example of the Indian “Sati” practice.

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak is criticizing the intellectual west’s “desire for subjectivity”. Spibak claims that “research” or “knowledge” have served as a prime justification for the conquest of other cultures and their enslavement, as part of the European colonial project. The western scholar authoritatively presented himself and his produced knowledge about the other culture as objective. He presented himself is without interests, and scientific, ethical and accurate. This is, for Spivak, very much not the real case for the opening statement of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is that knowledge about the third world was always tainted with the political and economical interests of the west.

Spivak points to the fact that the west is talking to itself, and in its own language, about the other. Like other commodities, data or raw material (ethnographical ,for example) is harvested in the third world country and taken back to the west, to be produced and sold for the benefit of the western readers and especially the western writer. Spivak wonders if under these conditions it can be possible for the west to speak about the non-west without sustaining the colonial discourse.

Spivak is hardly impressed with western efforts to speak for the other or try to “present his own voice”. She believes that the west is obsessed with preserving itself as subject, and that any discourse is eventually about the discoursing agents themselves. Spivak is opposed to the western attempt to situate itself as investigating subject that is opposed to the investigated non-western object. Spivak’s answer to “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is no, they cannot, not when the western academic field is unable to relate to the other with anything other than its own paradigm.

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