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Spivak: Making of the Subaltern

Visual by Karen Coelho

Article by Anand Maurya

Subaltern Studies is a field of academic enquiry associated with Postcolonial studies. Subaltern Studies began as a trend in history writing in the 1980s against Colonial, Nationalist and Marxist historiography. The Subaltern Studies project was an anti-essentialist project that studied ‘history from the below model’. The term subaltern references the writings of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). The term subaltern refers to any person who is subordinated due to their community, caste, class, race, ethnicity, physiology, gender, sexual orientation etc.

Subaltern studies aim to uncover the histories of groups that within the colonial and nationalist archives went deviated mainly to the margins or were undocumented altogether. Turning towards popular accounts of public record and memory to combat what Ranajit Guha(1989) terms“elitism,” the subaltern studies group’s primary focus was to recover, examine, and privilege the agency of the underclass within the networks of capitalism, colonialism, and nationalism.

The term ‘subaltern,’ in general, indicates a deprived person who ensemble within the representation of the Oppressor/Oppressed. A subaltern is a person with a low ranking in a social, political, economic or another chain of command. It also denotes the individuals who have been marginalised or oppressed. Gayatri Spivak’s outstanding article “Can the Subaltern Speak?”(1988) scrutinises the subaltern concept from the most theoretical perspective. According to Spivak, the subaltern cannot speak. She opines that the subaltern does not have a voice. Spivak, in her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ writes:

“The Subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with women a pious. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual has a circumscribe task that she must not disown with a flourish”(Spivak 1988, 308).

In the coming years, Post-Colonial Theory emerged as a new field of study and has become one of the most prominent academic disciplines in literature. Post Colonial literature constantly generated an enormous literature, especially by literary critics, feminists, the art of critics, social reformists, political scientists and political economists. The continued expansion of post-colonialism in its new account made its domains of attention extend beyond the other global academic fields like African American Literature, Literary Theory and Criticism, Anthropology and Cultural Studies. Consequently, Subaltern Studies have become one of the latest subdivisions of post-colonial theory. Many scholars and historians such as E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Eric Hobsbawm used the ‘history from below’ method to study the subaltern studies in the 1960s. They focused on the working class and mainly “peasant” historical accounts in post/colonial and post-imperial South Asia, specifically India. But after that, in the critique of subaltern studies, Spivak’s involvement led the group to think of the discursive figure of the subject as an unstable category and invited them to “write deconstructive histories of subject-hood”.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is one of the influential critics related to Post-colonialism, Feminism, Deconstruction and Marxism. She was a follower of Derrida and his translator. She is the author of the translator’s preface of Derrida’s “Of Grammatology”. She is interested in seeing how truth is constructed rather than exposing error. Fundamental to Spivak’s theory is the concept of Subaltern. The ‘Subaltern’ is a military term which means ‘of lower rank’. She borrowed this term from Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” shows that the earliest political historiography shifted the voice of the subaltern groups.

According to Spivak, subaltern means:

It refers to those who don’t give orders; they only receive orders. That comes from Antonio Gramsci, who made the word current. He was looking at people who were not, in fact, working-class folks or victims of capitalism. He was looking at people outside of that logic because he was himself from Sardinia, which was outside of the High Italy of the north. But “subaltern” also means those who do not have access to the structures of citizenship. I’m now talking about India today, where the largest sector of the electorate is the rural landless illiterate. They may vote, but they have no access to the structures of citizenship. So that’s a subaltern. (Spivak 1988)

In her essay, 'Can the subaltern speak?' (1988), Spivak exposes the irony that the subalterns have awakened to a consciousness of their rights by making practical utterances against unjust domination and inequality. She criticises the harm done to Women/Third World women and non-Europeans. She wants to give voice to the subalterns who can not speak or are silent. She focuses on speculations made on widow sacrifice. She attempts to restore the presence of the women writers whom their male peers have submerged. She investigates Women’s Double Colonisation viz. Dalit and Black women. She attacks the Eurocentric attitudes of the West. She holds that knowledge is never innocent; it is continuously operated by western economic interest and power. Spivak says that Deleuze and Foucault ignored the epistemic violence of imperialism and the international division of labour. Deleuze limits his consideration of the third world to these old local and regional indigenous elite who are, ideally, subaltern.

The term subaltern can be extended to the questions of gender and sexual differences, which analyses the representation and offers a profound critique of both subaltern history and radical Western philosophy. It also refers to how western cultures investigate other cultures. Spivak as a post-modern feminist and can the subaltern speak as a work of postmodern feminism. Spivak suggests in his career that we can't recover the voice of the subaltern or oppressed subject. And by this, she argues that natives are divided by differences of gender and class, caste, and other hierarchies, and these set of orders are also a certain kind of hierarchy that the Western historical framework and western social logical framework are not very familiar with. Spivak says that the issue of reading resistance takes on a specific kind of complexity when we deal with texts by Indian women.

Spivak uses deconstruction to examine how truth is constructed. We see how truth is a much negated, much-contested notion. There is an impossibility to see the real to real or the truth of a truth when we are or when various other forces are mediating everything at work and various other hierarchies forces. And often instance in this work, she points to the British outline of the Sati, which is the Hindu practice of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. And so, Spivak also draws attention to how there is a complete absence of women's voices in the debates on the abolition of Sati. She talks about how the silencing of the subaltern women by the combined violence of colonialism and patriarchy in Hindu society. Hence we can draw the attention to 1829 abolished Sati British law, abolish Sati and Spivak talks about how even had been presented as ‘white men saving the brown women from brown men’. As observed by scholars like Lata Mani, in the colonial discussions on the practice of Sati, the Indian widow is absent as a subject, and the issue is denied a space to speak from. She suggests that elite native men have found a way to “speak”, but self-representation is almost impossible for those further down the hierarchy.

Spivak challenges the intellectuals’ and the postcolonial historians’ assumption that the voices and perspectives of the oppressed can be recovered. She, therefore, suggests that such intellectuals adopt the maxim of Gramsci—“pessimism, of the intellect, optimism of the will”—by combining the philosophical scepticism about recovering the subaltern agency with a political commitment to representing the marginalised. Spivak effectively warns the postcolonial critics against homogenising and romanticising the subaltern subject.

While critiquing the agency and power, Spivak talks about the story of Bhubaneswari Bhaduri’s suicide note. This was the event that everyone misunderstood. Spivak uses the story of this incident as a text to analyse the complete absence of the subaltern’s voice. It is an example of an Indian woman’s inability to speak within Western discourse. Bhubaneswari Bhaduri becomes a text over here. She is a young woman who was forced to hang herself because she did not want to participate in a particular assassination that she was assigned to commit. She committed suicide, but I just had a protest against this assassination that she disagreed with. Still, the political act of this protest was negated entirely, and the story was rewritten by her family and society differently. Spivak uses this event to talk about denial of agency, the denial of voice within the subaltern. She also uses this example to talk about Indian woman’s inability, in general, to speak within western discourse. When one is being asked to say within predominantly Western discourse, there is no way in which one could also claim agency. And this is the problem that she addresses; this is the problem which continues to be controversial within the discussion of post-colonialism.

Conclusively, Spivak, in her essay, illustrates that the subaltern as a female can not be heard or read. Still, in patriarchy and imperialism, subject to constitution and object formation, the woman's figure disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘tired avoid woman’ got between tradition and modernisation. The disappearance of the women's figure that Spivak finds extremely disturbing, and it is this disappearance that she tries to question that she tries to engage within the essay can the subaltern speak. So ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ in multiple ways, can be seen as a radical postcolonial work it talks about. It engages with deconstructive interpretations of imperialism and is also the fight against colonisation. She also seeks to interrogate the principles of Marxism and feminism within a predominantly Derridean deconstruction. And this is what Spivak once told herself that my position is generally a reactive one; I am viewed by Marxists as too Codic, by feminists too male-identified, and by indigenous theorists as too committed to western theory. I am uneasily pleased about this; it is such an ambivalent position. It is such a complicated position that it also enables us to talk about Spivak within the postmodernist framework. We find Spivak using deconstruction as a method and as a tool to engage with the subaltern consciousness and expose the absences and gaps within nationalist and colonialist historiography.

Anand Maurya is a student of Philosophy at Ramjas College, University of Delhi.



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