Can the Subaltern Speak?: Gayatri Spivak and Post-Colonialism

While she is best known as a postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak describes herself as a “para-disciplinary, ethical philosopher” though her shingle could just as well read: “Applied Deconstruction.” Her reputation was first made for her translation and preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology and she has since applied deconstructive strategies to various theoretical engagements and textual analyses: from Feminism, Marxism, and Literary Criticism to, most recently, Post-colonialism.


My position is generally a reactive one. I am viewed by Marxists as too codic, by feminists as too male-identified, by indigenous theorists as too committed to Western Theory. I am uneasily pleased about this.[1]

Despite her outsider status — or partly, perhaps, because of it — Spivak is widely cited in a range of disciplines. Her work is nearly evenly split between dense theoretical writing peppered with flashes of compelling insight and published interviews in which she wrestles with many of the same issues in a more personable and immediate manner. What Edward Said calls a “contrapuntal” reading strategy is recommended as her ideas are continually evolving and resist, in true deconstructive fashion, a straight textual analysis. She has said that she prefers the teaching environment where ideas are continually in motion and development.


Of Grammaology – an English translation of Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie – introduced and positioned her as a postcolonial critic whose deconstructive interpretations of imperialism and the struggle for decolonization seek also to interrogate the very premises of marxism, feminism, and Derridean deconstruction that underwrite her own work.


Encompassing literary criticism, a learned application of European enlightenment philosophy, as well as ambitious forays into economic problems of labor and capital, Spivak’s eclectic and often contradictory critical scope resembles her shifting position as an academic “subject.” Simultaneously privileged as an elite, even esoteric intellectual currently teaching at Columbia University, and marginalized as a “Third-World woman,” “hyphenated-American,” and Bengali exile, Spivak uses deconstruction to address the ways in which she is in fact complicit in the production of social formations that she ostensibly opposes. In the following passage from “Bonding in Difference,” an interview with Alfred Arteaga, Spivak describes her indebtedness to deconstruction in order to explain the postcolonial critic¹s responsibility to question the assumptions not only of the social formations under their scrutiny but their own critical and institutional allegiances:


So right form the beginning, the deconstructive move. Deconstruction does not say there is no subject, there is no truth, there is no history. It simply questions the privileging of identity so that someone is believed to have the truth. It is not the exposure of error. It is constantly and persistently looking into how truths are produced. That’s why deconstruction doesn’t say logocentrism is a pathology, or metaphysical enclosures are something you can escape. Deconstruction, if one wants a formula, is among other things, a persistent critique of what one cannot not want. And in that sense, yes, it’s right there at the beginning.[2]


While Of Grammology jumpstarted her career, her 1988 essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” redefined it and post-colonialism at large. The essay, initially presented as a lecture and then later published, introduced questions of gender and sexual difference into analyses of representation and offering a profound critique of both subaltern history and radical Western philosophy.


Spivak’s eloquent and uncompromising arguments engaged with more than just power, politics, and the postcolonial. They confronted the methods of deconstruction, the contemporary relevance of Marxism, the international division of labor, and capitalism’s “worlding” of the world, calling attention to the historical and ideological factors that efface the possibility of being heard. 

Since the publication of Spivak’s essay, the work has been revered, reviled, misread, and misappropriated. It has been cited, invoked, imitated, and critiqued.


Benjamin Graces, an industrious and brilliant Brown student, introduces Spivak’s seminal essay quite critically and astutely:


Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” – originally published in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg’s Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988)[3] – perhaps best demonstrates her concern for the processes whereby postcolonial studies ironically reinscribe, co-opt, and rehearse neo-colonial imperatives of political domination, economic exploitation, and cultural erasure. In other words, is the post-colonial critic unknowingly complicit in the task of imperialism? Is “post-colonialism” a specifically first-world, male, privileged, academic, institutionalized discourse that classifies and surveys the East in the same measure as the actual modes of colonial dominance it seeks to dismantle?


According to Spivak, postcolonial studies must encourage that “postcolonial intellectuals learn that their privilege is their loss” (Ashcroft. et al 28). In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Spivak encourages but also criticizes the efforts of the subaltern studies group, a project led by Ranajit Guha that has reappropriated Gramsci’s term “subaltern” (the economically dispossesed) in order to locate and re-establish a “voice” or collective locus of agency in postcolonial India. Although Spivak acknowledges the “epistemic violence” done upon Indian subalterns, she suggests that any attempt from the outside to ameliorate their condition by granting them collective speech invariably will encounter the following problems:

1) a logocentric assumption of cultural solidarity among a heterogeneous people, and

2) a dependence upon western intellectuals to “speak for” the subaltern condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.[4]


As Spivak argues, by speaking out and reclaiming a collective cultural identity, subalterns will in fact re-inscribe their subordinate position in society. The academic assumption of a subaltern collectivity becomes akin to an ethnocentric extension of Western logos–a totalizing, essentialist “mythology” as Derrida might describe it–that doesn’t account for the heterogeneity of the colonized body politic.


Spivak’s essay should be required reading for everyone. But if you don’t have the time or if you do have the time and want a critical companion, there’s one listed below for you.




“My view is that radical practice should attend to this double session of representation rather than reintroduce the individual subject through totalizing concepts of power and desire.” (279)


Fourfold Argument of the Essay:


  1. Problematize the Western subject and see how it is still operational in poststructuralist theory (Foucault and Deleuze)
  2. Re-read Marx to find a more radical de-centering of the subject that also leaves more room for the formation of class identifications that are non-essentialist (Derrida, also)
  3. Argue that Western intellectual production reinforces the logic of Western economic expansion
  4. Perform a close reading of sati to analyze the discourses of the West and the possibilities for speech that the subaltern woman has (or does not have) within that framework


Arguments 1-3 are addressed in the first half of the essay, which address Spivak’s theoretical framework and argument, while argument 4 is addressed in the second half of the essay, which serves as an example of Spivak’s argument and her conclusion.


Spivak’s article moves from a critique of current Western efforts to problematize the subject to a still more radical de-centering of the subject implicit in Marx and Derrida. It makes the point that western intellectual production is complicit with Western international economic interests, and finally raises the question of how the third-world subject is represented within Western discourse, using the example of sati (widow sacrifice).


The juxtapositions brought into play over the course of the article emphasize how ‘benevolent’ Western intellectuals can paradoxically silence the subaltern by claiming to speak for their experience (by asserting that the subaltern ‘knows’) in the same way that ‘benevolent’ colonialists silenced the voices of the women who ‘chose’ to immolate themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres i.e. it is in the appropriation of the voice of the subaltern that s/he is silenced.


Foucault and Deleuze (Guattari):

  • Spivak’s criticism:
    • They [Foucault and Deleuze] short-circuit the radical implications of the ‘crisis of the subject’ by introducing the concept of ‘subject effects,’ which differ in name, but not in function, from traditional subjects (273)
    • She criticizes Foucault for emphasizing the pervasiveness and heterogeneity of power while ignoring how power produces ideology, and instead filling the place of ideology with a generalized notion of ‘culture’ (274)
    • Spivak finds a contradiction between Foucault and Deleuze’s valorizing of the concrete experience of oppression while providing little explanation of the baggage of the intellectual in the conflation of the ideas of ‘representing’ (as in politics/speaking for the interests of a group of people) and ‘re-presenting’ (when what is presented becomes fused with its signified and takes on an immediacy of presence) (274-275)
    • Spivak’s response:
      • While many of their contributions are useful, their political effectiveness is impaired by systematically ignoring the question of ideology and their own implication in intellectual and economic history
      • She objects to their use of ‘master words’ such as ‘the workers’, which generalize the experience of a diverse range of people (272)
        • Conversely, her own use of the term ‘subaltern’ is emphatically multiple
      • Beginning with Deleuze and Guattari’s implementation of an undifferentiated ‘desire’ supporting all kinds of revolutionary movements and acts, Spivak demonstrates how the unspoken and un-interrogated assumptions behind these totalizing theories end in reinforcing the subject positions of the theorists themselves (273-274)
      • To Spivak, the idea that desire and interest may work in opposition to one another under the effects of ideology seems to escape Deleuze and Foucault (273)


Marx and Derrida:

  • Spivak refers to Marx to demonstrate how his concept of class formation clearly differentiates between darstellen (re-presentation) and vertreten(representation) (276-278)
    • Darstellen
      • Re-presentation
      • Rhetoric as trope
      • Class as a descriptive concept, class in a system
      • Class consciousness
      • Vertreten
        • Representation
        • Rhetoric as persuasion
        • Class as a transformative concept, through substitution/representation
        • Transformation of consciousness
    • Spivak uses Derrida as a tool to deconstruct and de-center, particularly when it comes to Foucault (primary motives of the essay and of Spivak’s work generally)
      • “I have tried to argue that the substantive concern for the politics of the oppressed which often accounts for Foucault’s appeal can hide a privileging of the intellectual and of the “concrete” subject of oppression that, in fact, compounds the appeal.” (292)
      • Following up this passage, Spivak notes that: “though it is not my intention here to counter the specific view of Derrida promoted by these influential writers [Anderson and Said], I will discuss a few aspects of Derrida’s work that retain a long-term usefulness for people outside the First World…yet he is less dangerous when understood than the first-world intellectual masquerading as an absent non-representer who lets the oppressed speak for themselves.” (292)
    • Spivak cites a chapter of Derrida’s “Of Grammatology As a Positive Science” (a book she famously translated and provide a critical introduction for in 1976)
      • For Spivak: Derrida = Deconstruction







[1] Sarah Harasym, The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (London: Routledge, 1990)

[2] Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean, ed. The Spivak Reader (New York and London: Routledge, 1996), 28.

[3] Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, et al, eds. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988) 271-313.


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5 responses to “Can the Subaltern Speak?: Gayatri Spivak and Post-Colonialism

  1. Moderad

    Wow, this is amazing. I’ve been struggling through this essay for a while and I’m looking forward to revisiting it with this critical companion. Super thanks!

  2. Pingback: Spivak concrete | Inkinmyblood

  3. Great analysis of a very difficult text

  4. Jessica

    Hi, what is your name? I need to cite this for an assignment on Postcolonial Theory. 🙂

  5. Thanks for putting this up. This was really helpful.

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