Metafiction ——————————————————————————– Introduction Although implicit in many other types of tichonal works, self-reflexivity often becomes the dominant subject of postmodern fiction. In 1970, William H. Gass wrote an essay in which he dubbed the novel’s self-reflexive tendency “metafiction” (Waugh 2). Critics of post-modern metafiction claim that it marks the death or exhaustion of the novel as a genre, while advocates argue that it signals the novel’s rebirth. Devotees claim that other genres have undergone the same critical self-reflexivity and that the definition of the novel itself, “notoriously defies definition”(Waugh 5). Waugh comments that, “contemporary metafictional writing is both a response and a contribution to an even more thoroughgoing sense that reality or history are provisional: no longer a world of external verities but a series of constructions, artifices, impermanent structures”(Waugh 7). Explicit use of metafictional technique, as Waugh describes it, stems from modernist questioning of consciousness and ‘reality.’ Several common epithets used to describe contemporary metafiction are: self conscious, introspective, introverted, narcissistic or auto-representational (Currie 14). Attempting to defend twentieth century metafiction, theorists link metafictional technique to older literary works. Some supporters trace self-reflexivity as far back as Miguel Cervantes’ fifteenth century novel, Don Quixote. Hamlet’s references to acting in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1600) and Jane Austin’s mention of writing the novel by her narrator in Northanger Abbey (1817) are also often cited as instances in which classic works display metafictional tendency. Waugh goes so far as to claim that, “by studying metafiction, one is, in effect, studying that which gives the novel its identity”(5). Similarly, Linda Hutcheon says that “in overtly or covertly baring its fictional and linguistic systems, narcissistic narrative transforms the authorial process of shaping, of making, into part of the pleasure and challenge of reading as a co-operative, interpretative experience”(154). ——————————————————————————– Definition Employing the term “metafiction” to refer to modern works that are radically self-reflexive as well as to works that contain only a few lines of self-reflection creates ambiguitiy. In her review of Patricia Waugh’s Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction (1984), Ann Jefferson argues that “the trouble is that Waugh cannot have it both ways, and present metafiction both as an inherent characteristic of narrative fiction and as a response to the contemporary social and cultural vision” (574). Other theorists often employ the same double definition of metafiction, which makes it difficult to know whether his or her definition refers to contemporary metafiction or to all works containing self-reflexivity. John Barth contributes a short blanket definition of metafiction as being a “novel that imitates a novel rather than the real world” (qtd. in Currie 161). Patricia Waugh also provides a comprehensive definition by describing metafiction as “fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (2). Metafictional works, she suggests, are those which “explore a theory of writing fiction through the practice of writing fiction” (2). Mark Currie highlights current metafiction’s self-critical tendency by depicting it as “a borderline discourse, a kind of writing which places itself on the border between fiction and criticism, which takes the border as its subject” (2). Yet, he too encompasses works that are marginally metafictional by proposing that, “to see the dramatized narrator or novelist as metanarrative devices is to interpret a substantial proportion of fiction as meta-fiction”(4). Despite the subtle differences between their definitions, most theorists agree that metafiction cannot be classified as a genre nor as the definitive mode of postmodern fiction. They suggest that metafiction display, “a self-reflexivity prompted by the author’s awareness of the theory underlying the construction of fictional works,” without dividing contemporary metafiction from older works containing similar self-reflective techniques (Waugh 2). ——————————————————————————– Spectrum of Metafictional Technique Further individuating the differences between metafictional characteristics present in post-modern fiction becomes even more complicated because some self-reflexive works also fall under more radical definitions. Some contemporary metafiction can also be called surfiction, antifiction, fabulation, neo-baroque fiction, post-modernist fiction, introverted novel, irrealism, or as the self-begetting novel (Waugh 13). Patricia Waugh identifies three types of contemporary metafiction. John Fowles’ subversion of the role of the ‘omniscient narrator’ in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) exemplifies the first type, which Waugh describes as upsetting a particular convention of the novel. Within the second type, she includes works that present a parody on a specific work or fictional mode. John Fowles’ Mantissa (1982) for example, presents a metafictional parody of metafiction (Ommundesen 1-2). The third type are works that are less overtly metafictional. Like Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (1967), these works attempt to create alternative linguistic structures or to merely imply old forms by encouraging the reader to draw on his or her knowledge of traditional literary conventions (Waugh 4). Ommundeson also makes efforts to differentiate between aspects present in metafiction. She divides metafiction according to its use of three common allegorical plot devices. The first plot allegory is use of a sexual act as a metaphor for creating fiction. She describes the second common metaphor as the use of the detective to serve as a model for the reader’s activity. The third common allegory she cites is that of the use of game structures to represent codes of fictional systems. ——————————————————————————– Characteristics Although characteristics of metafiction vary as widely as the spectrum of technique used within them, a pattern of several common traits can be traced. These techniques often appear in combination, but also can appear singularly. Metafiction often employs intertextual references and allusions by * examining fictional systems * incorporating aspects of both theory and criticism * creating biographies of imaginary writers * presenting and discussing fictional works of an imaginary character Authors of metafiction often violate narrative levels by * intruding to comment on writing * involving his or herself with fictional characters * directly addressing the reader * openly questioning how narrative assumptions and conventions transform and filter reality, trying to ultimately prove that no singular truths or meanings exist Metafiction also uses unconventional and experimental techniques by * rejecting conventional plot * refusing to attempt to become “real life” * subverting conventions to transform ‘reality’ into a highly suspect concept * flaunting and exaggerating foundations of their instability (Waugh 5) * displaying reflexivity (the dimension present in all literary texts and also central to all literary analysis, a function which enables the reader to understand the processes by which he or she reads the world as a text) ——————————————————————————– The Purpose of Metafiction Proponents believe that the metafictional novel gains significance beyond its fictional realms by outwardly projecting its inner self-reflective tendencies. Ironically, it becomes real by not pretending to be real. Mark Currie posits that metafiction allows its readers a better understanding of the fundamental structures of narrative while providing an accurate model for understanding the contemporary experience of the world as a series constructed systems (7). In reflecting on the significance of metafiction, he goes so far as to say that it provides an “unlimited vitality: which was once thought introspective and self-referential is in fact outward looking” (Currie 2). Patricia Waugh further states that: Far from ‘dying’, the novel has reached a mature recognition of its existence as writing, which can only ensure its continued viability in and relevance to a contemporary world which is similarly beginning to gain awareness of precisely how its values and practices are constructed and legitimized. (19) ——————————————————————————– Historiographic Metafiction Linda Hutcheon differentiates the terms “metafiction” and “historiographic metafiction.” She says that “historiographic metafiction, in deliberate contrast to what I call late modernist radical metafiction (American surfiction), attempts to demarginalize the literary through confrontation with the historical, and it does so both thematically and formally” (289). Works are dubbed “historiographic metafictions” because of their conscious self-reflexivity and concern with history. The earliest histories contain fictional elements. They are implicit amalgamations of fact and myth. The composition of the word “history” itself contains the word “story”. Yet, as realism took root, history came to represent “objective” fact and the novel came to represent subjective “fiction.” Modernist and postmodernist questioning challenged the authority of histories by acknowledging that the “fact” presented is the author’s subjective interpretation. Historiographic metafictions are “novels that are intensely self-reflective but that also both re-introduce historical context into metafiction and problemitize the entire question of historical knowledge” (Hutcheon 285-286). Historiographic metafictions bridge the fissure between historical and fictional works by recombining the two genres. They employ “a questioning stance through their common use of conventions of narrative, of reference, of the inscribing of subjectivity, of their identity as texuality, and even of their implication in ideology” (Hutcheon 286). Beyond reconnecting history and fiction, Linda Hutcheon remarks that “postmodern fiction suggests that to re-write or to re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological” (209). To accomplish this re-presentation of the past, historiographic metafiction, “plays upon the truth and lies of the historical record. Certain known historical details are deliberately falsified in order to foreground the possible mnemonic failures of recorded history and the constant potential for both deliberate and inadvertent error” (Hutcheon 294). Through its play upon “known truth” historiographic metafiction questions the absolute “knowability” of the past, specifing the ideological implications of historical representations. In its process of redefining “reality” and “truth” historiographic metafiction opens a sort of time tunnel which rediscovers the histories of suppressed people such as women or colonized natives. Good examples of metafictional works are Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, B.S. Johnson’s Travelling People, Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

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Ditulis oleh pada Mei 30, 2008 in cultural studies


Spivak: Marxist, Feminist, Deconstructionist

Spivak: Marxist, Feminist, Deconstructionist

Benjamin Graves ’98, Brown University

If Spivak’s chief concern can be summarized as a wariness of the limitations of cultural studies, what’s particularly interesting about her engagement of the postcolonial predicament is the uneasy marriage of marxism, feminism, and deconstruction that underlies her critical work. “Three Women¹s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” an analysis of Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, portrays the complicated interface of competing critical practices. According to Spivak, Bronte’s novel may well uphold its protagonist as a new feminist ideal, but it does so at the expense of Bertha, Rochester’s creole bride who functions as a colonial subject of “other” to legitimate Jane’s simultaneous ascent to domestic authority. In other words, a feminist approach to theory perhaps precludes an understanding of the novel’s depiction of the “epistemic violence” (and in the case of Bertha, physical containment and pathologization) done upon imperial subjects. In the following passage, Spivak portrays such imperialism as a “worlding” process that attempts to disguise its own workings so as to naturalize and legitimate Western dominance:

If these ‘facts’ were remembered, not only in the study of British literature but in the study of the literatures of the European colonizing cultures of the great age of imperialism, we would produce a narrative in literary history, of the ‘worlding’ of what is now called ‘the Third World.’ To consider the Third World as distant cultures, exploited but with rich intact literary heritages waiting to be recovered, interpreted, and curricularized in English translation fosters the emergence of ‘the Third World’ as a signifier that allows us to forget that ‘worlding,’ even as it expands the empire of the literary discipline (269).

Spivak’s description of the Third World becoming a “signifier that allows us to forget that ‘worlding'” resembles in many ways Marx’s notion of the commodity fetish that he describes in volume one of Kapital. In “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret,” Marx suggests that commodity products become part of an obfuscating network of signs that obscure the history of labour that went into their production. Spivak suggests that the Third World, like the commodity fetish, becomes a sign that obscures its mode of production, thus making Western dominance appear somehow given or natural.




1. Presence, bearing, air; Appearance; impression on the sight. 2. An Image, likeness, or reproduction in some manner of a thing; A material image or figure; a reproduction in some material or tangible form; in later use, a drawing or painting. (of a person or thing); The action or fact of exhibiting in some visible image or form; The fact of expressing or denoting by means of a figure or symbol; symbolic action or exhibition. 3. The exhibition of character and action upon the stage; the performance of a play; Acting, simulation, pretense. 4. The action of placing a fact, etc., before another or others by means of discourse; a statement or account, esp. one intended to convey a particular view or impression of a matter in order to influence opinion or action. 5. A formal and serious statement of facts, reasons, or arguments, made with a view to effecting some change, preventing some action, etc.; hence, a remonstrance, protest, expostulation. 6. The action of presenting to the mind or imagination; an image thus presented; a clearly conceived idea or concept; The operation of the mind in forming a clear image or concept; the faculty of doing this. 7. The fact of standing for, or in place of, some other thing or person, esp. with a right or authority to act on their account; substitution of one thing or person for another. 8. The fact of representing or being represented in a legislative or deliberative assembly, spec. in Parliament; the position, principle, or system implied by this; The aggregate of those who thus represent the elective body.

from The Oxford English Dictionary




Representation is presently a much debated topic not only in postcolonial studies and academia, but in the larger cultural milieu. As the above dictionary entry shows, the actual definitions for the word alone are cause for some confusion. The Oxford English Dictionary defines representation primarily as “presence” or “appearance.” There is an implied visual component to these primary definitions.Representations can be clear images, material reproductions, performances and simulations. Representation can also be defined as the act of placing or stating facts in order to influence or affect the action of others. Of course, the word also has political connotations. Politicians are thought to ‘represent’ a constituency. They are thought to have the right to stand in the place of another. So above all, the term representation has a semiotic meaning, in that something is ‘standing for’ something else. These various yet related definitions are all implicated in the public debates about representation. Theorists interested in Postcolonial studies, by closely examining various forms of representations, visual, textual and otherwise, have teased out the different ways that these “images” are implicated in power inequalities and the subordination of the ‘subaltern’.

Representations– these ‘likenesses’–come in various forms: films, television, photographs, paintings, advertisements and other forms of popular culture. Written materials–academic texts, novels and other literature, journalistic pieces–are also important forms of representation. These representations, to different degrees, are thought to be somewhat realistic, or to go back to the definitions, they are thought be ‘clear’ or state ‘a fact’. Yet how can simulations or “impressions on the sight” be completely true? Edward Said, in his analysis of textual representations of the Orient in Orientalism, emphasizes the fact that representations can never be exactly realistic:

In any instance of at least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a re-presence, or a representation. The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient therefore relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on the Orient as such. On the contrary, the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of its having excluded, displaced, made supererogatory any such real thing as “the Orient”. (21)

Representations, then can never really be ‘natural’ depictions of the orient. Instead, they are constructed images, images that need to be interrogated for their ideological content.

In a similar way, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak  makes a distinction between Vertretung and Darstellung. The former she defines as “stepping in someone’s place. . .to tread in someone’s shoes.” Representation in this sense is “political representation,” or a speaking for the needs and desires of somebody or something. Darstellung is representation as re-presentation, “placing there.” Representing is thus “proxy and portrait,” according to Spivak. The complicity between “speaking for” and “portraying” must be kept in mind (“Practical Politics of the Open End,” The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues.) Elsewhere, Spivak addresses the problem of “speaking in the name of”: “It is not a sulution, the idea of the disenfranchised speaking for themselves, or the radical critics speaking for them; this question of representation, self-representation, representing others, is a problem.” Spivak recommends “persistent critique” to guard against “constructing the Other simply as an object of knowledge, leaving out the real Others because of the ones who are getting access into public places due to these waves of benevolence and so on” (“Questions of Multi-Culturalism” The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues).

If there is always an element of interpretation involved in representation, we must then note who may be doing the interpreting. Ella Shohat claims that we should constantly question representations:

Each filmic or academic utterance must be analyzed not only in terms of who represents but also in terms of who is being represented for what purpose, at which historical moment, for which location, using which strategies, and in what tone of address. (“The Struggle over Representation: Casting, Coalitions, and the Politics of Identification,” Late Imperial Culture, 173)

This questioning is particularly important when the representation of the subaltern is involved. The problem does not rest solely with the fact that often marginalized groups do not hold the ‘power over representation’ (Shohat 170); it rests also in the fact that representations of these groups are both flawed and few in numbers. Shohat asserts that dominant groups need not preoccupy themselves too much with being adequately represented. There are so many different representations of dominant groups that negative images are seen as only part of the “natural diversity” of people. However, “representation of an underrepresented group is necessarily within the hermeneutics of domination, overcharged with allegorical significance.” (170) The mass media tends to take representations of the subaltern as allegorical, meaning that since representations of the marginalized are few, the few available are thought to be representative of all marginalized peoples. The few images are thought to be typical, sometimes not only of members of a particular minority group, but of all minorities in general. It is assumed that subalterns can stand in for other subalterns. A prime example of this is the fact that actors of particular ethnic backgrounds were often casted as any ethnic “other”. (Some examples include Carmen Miranda in The Gang’s All Here (1943), Ricardo Mantalban in Sayonara (1957), and Rudolph Valentino in The Son of the Sheik ). This collapsing of the image of the subaltern reflects not only ignorance but a lack of respect for the diversity within marginalized communities.

Shohat also suggests that representations in one sphere–the sphere of popular culture–effects the other spheres of representation, particularly the political one:

The denial of aesthetic representation to the subaltern has historically formed a corollary to the literal denial of economic, legal, and political representation. The struggle to ‘speak for oneself’ cannot be separated from a history of being spoken for, from the struggle to speak and be heard. (173)

It cannot be ignored that representations effect the ways in which actual individuals are perceived. Although many see representations as harmless likenesses, they do have a real effect on the world. They are meant to relay a message and as the definition shows, ‘influence opinion and action’. We must ask what ideological work these representations accomplish. Representations or the ‘images or ideas formed in the mind’ have vast implications for real people in real contexts.

Both the scarcity and the importance of minority representations yield what many have called ” the burden of representation”. Since there are so few images, negative ones can have devastating affects on the real lives of marginalized people. We must also ask, if there are so few, who will produce them? Who will be the supposed voice of the subaltern? Given the allegorical character of these representations, even subaltern writers, artists, and scholars are asking who can really speak for whom? When a spokesperson or a certain image is read as metonymic, representation becomes more difficult and dangerous.

Solutions for this conundrum are difficult to theorize. We can call for increased “self representation” or the inclusion of more individuals from ‘marginalized’ groups in ‘the act of representing’, yet this is easier said then done. Also, the inclusion of more minorities in representation will not necessarily alter the structural or institutional barriers that prevent equal participation for all in representation. Focusing on whether or not images are negative or positive, leaves in tact a reliance on the “realness’ of images, a “realness” that is false to begin with.

Finally, I again turn to Spivak and her question, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’. In this seminal essay, Spivak emphasizes the fact that representation is a sort of speech act, with a speaker and a listener. Often, the subaltern makes an attempt at self-representation, perhaps a representation that falls outside the ‘the lines laid down by the official institutional structures of representation’ (306). Yet, this act of representation is not heard. It is not recognized by the listener, perhaps because it does not fit in with what is expected of the representation. Therefore, representation by subaltern individuals seems nearly impossible.

Despite the fact that Spivak’s formulation is quite accurate, there must still be an effort to try and challenge status quo representation and the ideological work it does. The work of various ‘Third world’ and minority writers, artists, and filmmakers attest to the possibilities of counter-hegemonic, anti-colonial subversion.

It is obvious that representations are much more than plain ‘likenesses’. They are in a sense ideological tools that can serve to reinforce systems of inequality and subordination; they can help sustain colonialist or neocolonialist projects. A great amount of effort is needed to dislodge dominant modes of representation. Efforts will continue to be made to challenge the hegemonic force of representation, and of course, this force is not completely pervasive, and subversions are often possible. ‘Self representation’ may not be a complete possibility, yet is still an important goal.    


“Untitled Heads” by Jin Lee



Author: Ann Marie Baldonado, Fall 1996


Gayatri Spivak

Gayatri Spivak

“I am not erudite enough to be interdisciplinary, but I can break rules.”
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,
A Critique of Postcolonial Reason

Breaking rules of the academy and trespassing disciplinary boundaries have been central to the intellectual projects of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the leading literary theorists and cultural critics of our times. Professor Spivak was born in India and received a B.A. at the University of Calcutta. She came to the United States in 1961 and in 1967 she graduated with a Ph.D. from Cornell University. She was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh till 1991, and is currently the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. In addition she has taught at Université Paul Valéry, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, University of British Columbia, Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Riyadh University, and Stanford University among others. She has been a Fellow of the National Humanities Institute, the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan, the Humanities Research Center at the Australian National University, the Center for the Study of Social Sciences (Calcutta), the Davis Center for Historical Studies (Princeton), the Rockefeller Foundation (Bellagio). She has been a Kent Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow. Among her many Distinguished Faculty Fellowships is the Tagore Fellowship at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (India). She has been a member of the Subaltern Studies Collective. She is on the editorial Board of many journals, among them Cultural Critique, boundary 2, New Formations, and Diaspora. Professor Spivak has been active in hands-on educational reform and teacher training in aboriginal India for about a decade, and is active in other social movements.

Professor Spivak is a scholar of deconstructive approaches to verbal, visual and social texts. By translating Jacques Derrida‘s De la grammatologie into English (published as Of Grammatology, with a critical introduction) she initiated a debate on deconstruction in the Anglo-American academy. She defines deconstruction as “…a constant critique of what you cannot not want,” and admits that what she continues “…to learn from deconstruction is perhaps idiosyncratic, but it remains my rein.” Her most important contribution to the field of literary studies is helping to define, elaborate on, and then complicate the field of postcolonial studies. About two decades ago she raised the question “Can the Subaltern Speak?” whereby she took issue with Western intellectuals’ almost confessional account of their inability to mediate the historical experience of the working classes and the underprivileged of society. In rendering visible the complexities of the “Native Informant” in her publications In Other Worlds, The Post-Colonial Critic, and Outside in the Teaching Machine, Professor Spivak has followed up on this question. Furthermore, through her translations of the Bengali author/activist Mahasweta Devi’s fiction work into English, published in Imaginary Maps, she has added another dimension to postcolonial debates about the native informant. Her forthcoming publications include Red Thread and Other Asias.

A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999) is “…a practitioner’s progress from colonial discourse studies to postcolonial studies.” “…. This book “…belongs on the same shelf as bell hooks, Deniz Kandiyoti, Trinh-ti Minh-ha. Chandra Talpade Mohanti and Sara Suleri…” and is Spivak’s “…attempt to look around the corner, to see herself [oursleves] as others would see her [us].” As footnotes become the foundation stones of the main text, Spivak addresses feminists, philosophers, critics and activists as they converge and diverge in the game of global political economy. Spivak ends her book with a profound observation: “Marx could hold The Science of Logic and the Blue Books together; but that was still only Europe, and in the doing it came undone.” As we try to learn about the history of the vanishing present from this global feminist Marxist scholar, it would be safe to say, “Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak can hold the Bhagwad Gita and UNESCO’s Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems together, but it is still only the post-industrial information-age global village, and look how in the doing it comes undone!”

Text by B. Venkat Mani
Department of German Studies,
Stanford University


Can the Subaltern Speak and Other Transcendental Questions

Can the Subaltern Speak
and Other Transcendental Questions


Warren Montag 


Gagged Indian Woman 

     1. Althusser insisted throughout his work that a philosophy must be judged by the effects that it produces, all the effects, whether internal or external to whatever disciplinary boundaries might be thought to impose their jurisdiction on it. For Althusser history no more forgives the “misunderstood” or “misinterpreted” philosopher than it does the defeated revolutionary. From a materialist standpoint there is no more a “court of final appeal,” as Machiavelli put it, in philosophy than in politics. To grant philosophy a material, practical existence in this way is to admit that “misinterpretations” are not subjective errors (whether malicious or benign) in the minds of one’s readers but are rather the objective effects of one’s own work, not of course of the intentions behind it but in its real existence and in its unforeseeable encounters with other works, and other forces. It hardly needs to be said that few philosophers have openly endorsed such a position, just as few philosophers have ever written books with the phrase “self-criticism in the title. And more disturbing than the narcissistic injury that results from the recognition that one is not entirely master of one’s words and arguments, no matter how painstakingly constructed, is the idea that truth is not enough, that false and harmful ideas are held in place by relations of force that can be changed only by opposing force. In other words, Plato was right to see philosophy as the site of a war that can have no end insofar as one must constantly confront the unforeseeable consequences of one’s own work.

     2. Not that Gayatri Spivak needs to be told any of this. Her essay “can the Subaltern Speak?” (which exists in several forms–I’ll be examining the longest version, which appears in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture) displays a dazzling array of tactical devices designed to ward off or pre-emptively neutralize the attacks of critics. We might say of Spivak what Althusser said of Lacan–that the legendary difficulty of the essay is less a consequence of the profundity of its subject matter than its tactical objectives: “to forestall the blows of critics . . . to feign a response to them before they are delivered” and, above all, to resort to philosophies apparently foreign to the endeavor “as so many intimidating witnesses thrown in the faces of the audience to retain the respect.” To acknowledge this does not automatically imply a criticism of Spivak (which is precisely why I cited the case of Lacan the importance of whose work for me at least is unquestionable): after all, tactics are dictated by the features of the concrete situation.

     3. Of course, the difficulty of the essay cannot be reduced to a matter of tactics alone. Its difficulty is also a consequence of the fact that Spivak carries on several struggles simultaneously. the first, and perhaps the most important, is her intervention in the debates surrounding the field of Subaltern Studies as it existed in India in the early eighties, particularly as represented by the work of Ranajit Guha. As a critical supporter of Subaltern Studies as a project, Spivak seeks to point out a discrepancy between its research and the way its practitioners theorized that research. In particular, she objects to the notion that Subaltern studies seeks to allow the previously ignored voice of the subaltern finally to be heard and that its objective can be to “establish true knowledge of the subaltern and its consciousness.” The notion that the subaltern is a kind of collective individual, conscious of itself, an author, an actor, in short, the classical subject, allowed the movement to differentiate between the subaltern and the representation of the subaltern by imperialism, and thus to call attention to the blank spaces imperialist discourse. The subaltern studies movement did so, however, only by suppressing the heterogeneity and non-contemporaneity of the subaltern itself, that is, by assigning it an essence and therefore falling into a metaphysical abyss from which Spivak seeks to rescue it.

     4. And according to Spivak they found themselves in some very distinguished company in that Abyss. The other major objective of the essay is to intervene in a quarrel not so much between Foucault and Derrida (who did engage in a philosophical debate which Spivak curiously neglects to mention) as between their champions, acknowledged and unacknowledged, in the U.S. A third figure, Deleuze, also comes to play a part, if a minor one, in this scene as Foucault’s accomplice. In particular, she seeks to lay to rest the “received idea” that “Foucault deals with real history, real politics and real social problems; Derrida is inaccessible, esoteric and textualistic.” She will show, in contrast, that “Derrida is less dangerous” than Foucault, who not only privileges “the ‘concrete’ subject of oppression” but even more dangerously conceals the privilege he thus grants himself by “masquerading as the absent non-represented who lets the oppressed speak for themselves.” While this may seem a surprising charge to lay at the feet of Foucault, who, after all, asked the famous question, “What is an Author?” and in doing so had a few things to say about Derrida that Spivak might profitably have consulted, she invokes “the labor of the negative” to sustain her accusation. Foucault’s critique of the subject is itself a ruse of subjectivity. The ruse is so clever that its work cannot be glimpsed in any of Foucault’s major texts where it labors to dissemble the negation of the subject that it will finally itself negate. Accordingly, Spivak must turn to what she calls “the unguarded practice of conversation,” i.e., an interview to discover Foucault’s thought. Of course, one might be tempted to argue that it is not only possible but inevitable that Foucault would contradict himself not only in interviews but in his most important works, unless that is, we assign to Foucault the position of Absolute subject, whose writing, despite the appearance of contradiction , possesses total coherence and homogeneity. Spivak, however, suggests that what Foucault utters in apparently “unguarded” moments can only reveal a truth kept carefully hidden under a veil of appearance; such a procedure of reading resolves the apparent contradiction to restore Foucault’s work to the bad totality that it has always been.

     5. What Foucault and Deleuze, First World intellectuals, share with the subaltern studies group is the notion no less dangerous for being naive that “the oppressed . . . can speak and know their conditions.” And thus to the general plague of essentialism which in truly internationalist fashion circulates freely between the First and Third Worlds, Spivak proposes the antidote of a single question: can the subaltern speak? It is a testimony to the power of Spivak’s essay that this question has come to dominate an entire theoretical field to such an extent that the vast majority of responses have consisted of answers to, rather than examinations of, her question. It is as if there exists a simple dilemma before us: either we argue that the subaltern can indeed speak, in which case according to one’s perspective we have either brought agency back in or, in contrast, lapsed into essentialism; or we argue with Spivak that the subaltern cannot speak, which means for some that we have silenced the oppressed, which for others we have refused the myth of the originary subject. Few have ventured to question the question itself, to ask how such a question functions and what are its practical effects.

     6. A recent exception has focused on the putative subject or non-subject of speech: the subaltern. Chakrabarti and Chaudhury have criticized Spivak’s use of the term as suppressing class antagonisms, not simply essentialistic or reductive ways of understanding these antagonisms, but class contradictions per se. In fact, if we examine the essay closely we can go even further to say that Spivak has elevated the contradiction between the First World and Third World as opposing blocs to a position of strategic and political dominance, as if the working classes in the West (and it appears that only the West has working classes–from the essay one would think that India was a primarily peasant society rather than one of the largest manufacturing economies in the world) is structurally allied more closely to its own bourgeoisie than to those forces traditionally regarded as its allies in the nations outside of Europe, North American and Japan: workers, rural laborers, landless peasants, etc. Thus, the idea of international alliances between the working classes East and West is for Spivak only a relic of so-called orthodox Marxism, it is even more menacingly a component of the strategy to maintain the domination of First World over Third World by subordinating the interests of the subaltern to those of their privileged counterparts. It is worth remarking that this is hardly a new position: on the contrary, it has a long history in the socialist and communist movements. Lenin flirted with it in his attempts to explain the capitulation of European social democracy in the First World War, Stalin embraced it and its very language derives from the period of the Sino-Soviet split and the consolidation of Maoism as an international current. Accordingly, those who hold this position might want to draw their own balance sheet of its real political effects.

     7. My objective, however, is to question the question itself, “Can the Subaltern Speak,” which even if we replace the subaltern with another noun of our choice (the working class[es], the people, the oppressed, etc.) rests on an obvious paradox. Of course the subaltern speak and write; the archives of the world are filled not only with the political tracts of their parties and organizations, but there are literary texts, newspapers, films, recordings, leaflets, songs, even the very chants that accompany spontaneous and organized protests all over the world. To all appearances, there is speaking and writing always and everywhere and even more where there is resistance to exploitation and oppression. But here we must be very careful; Spivak does not ask whether the subaltern does speak but whether it is possible for them to speak. Her question is a question of possibility which as such functions as a transcendental question, akin to Kant’s famous question: what can I know? That is, what we take to be the subaltern speaking may in fact be determined to be only the appearance of their speaking, if our theory deems it impossible for them to speak. Such transcendental questions thus necessarily produce a distinction between appearance and reality: if what is, is impossible then it must be declared no longer to be what is and a second real reality substituted for it.

     8. Even more curious than this transcendental turn itself is the argumentation Spivak musters to support her declaration, against all appearances, that the subaltern cannot speak. And she has called forth some very intimidating witnesses on her behalf, the primary one, of course, being Derrida. Who better than the translator of Of Grammatology to remind us of the relevance of Derrida’s critique of Western logocentrism and phonocentrism to political life and to show the utter folly, if not the disingenuousness, of Foucault’s call to publish the writings of prisoners as an integral part of the movement against the prisons, or the attempt to set up and archive for the workers’ voices as part of the project of proletarian self-emancipation (a project which Spivak has already criticized in categorical terms)? It appears, however, that no one has thought to ask whether Derrida’s argument’s (especially in Grammatology, the work in which such questions are most extensively examined, lead to such conclusions). Is there anything in Derrida’s critique of logocentrism that would allow us to say the subaltern cannot speak but must be spoken for, that is, represented both discursively and politically by those who can speak, those who are real subjects of speech? In fact, it would appear that Derrida’s argument leads in precisely the opposite direction. For if we accept Derrida’s arguments against the speaking subject as ideal origin of speech, present to its utterances as a guarantee of their truth and authenticity, that is, that speech is always already a kind of writing, material and irreducible, we are left only with the fact that there is no pure, original working class or subaltern (or ruling class), possessing a consciousness expressed in its speech or for that matter its acts. There is speech and writing (although these are only modalities of action which are in no way privileged) always and everywhere. It is precisely in and through the struggles that traverse these fields of practice that collectivities are constituted. The question of whether or not the subaltern, or to use the Leninist term, the masses can speak cannot be posed transcendentally but only conjuncturally by the disposition of opposing forces that characterizes a given historical moment.

     9. To recognize this is to recognize that Spivak has carried out a double displacement: not only has she replaced the question of whether the subaltern does speak at a given moment with the question of whether it is possible for them to speak at all, she has even more importantly substituted speech for action, as if, again, there exist opposing worlds of language (in which we are trapped) and being (which remains inaccessible to us). Had she not carried out this substitution, her essay would have been far less effective; for the subaltern or the masses never cease to resist and rebel even as they are constituted by these actions as the masses. Here we must draw a line of demarcation: on the one side, the transcendental questions that declare what exists impossible so as to declare necessary and inevitable the representation of the masses by others; on the other a materialism that recognizes the irreducibility of what exists, including the voices and actions of the masses as they wage their struggles for self-emancipation with or without intellectuals of the Third and First World at their side.


“Can the Subaltern Speak?”

Benjamin Graves ’98, Brown University

Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”–originally published in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg’s Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988)–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. 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.


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak




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 (1976) and she has since applied deconstructive strategies to various theoretical engagements and textual analyses: from Feminism, Marxism, and Literary Criticism to, most recently, Postcolonialism.

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. (Post-Colonial Critic).

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. Nonetheless, the glossary of key terms and motifs that is available on this site may serve as a kind of legend to a map of her work. It is not intended as a “bluffer’s guide to Spivakism” (to cite the introduction to The Spivak Reader) but rather blazes on a trail into this difficult and important body of work.

Glossary of key terms in the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak




Gayatri Chakravorty was born in Calcutta, West Bengal, 24 February 1942 to “solidly metropolitan middle class” parents (PCC). She thus belonged to the “first generation of Indian intellectuals after independence,” a more interesting perspective she claims, than that of the Midnight’s Children, who were “born free by chronological accident” (Arteaga interview). She did her undergraduate in English at the University of Calcutta (1959), graduating with first class honours. She borrowed money to go to the US in the early 1960’s to do graduate work at Cornell, which she chose because she “knew the names of Harvard, Yale and Cornell, and thought half of them were too good for me. (I’m intellectually a very insecure person . . . to an extent I still feel that way)” (de Kock interview 33). She “fell into comparative literature” because it was the only department that offered her money (Ibid.). She received her MA in English from Cornell and taught at the University of Iowa while working on her Ph.D. Her dissertation was on Yeats (published as Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats [1974)]) and was directed by Paul de Man. Of her work with de Man she says, “I wasn’t groomed for anything. I learnt from him. I took good notes and slowly sort of understood” (de Kock interview). “When I
was de Man’s student,” she adds, “he had not read Derrida yet.  I went to teach at Iowa in 1965 and did not know about the famous Hopkins conference on the Structuralists Controversy in 1966″ (E-mail communication).  She ordered _de la grammatologie_ out of a catalogue in 1967 and began working on the translation some time after that (E-mail communication).  During this time she married and divorced an American, Talbot Spivak.   Her translator’s introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology has been variously described as “setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces” (editor’s introduction to The Spivak Reader) and “absolutely unreadable, its only virtue being that it makes Derrida that much more enjoyable.” Her subsequent work consists in post-structuralist literary criticism, deconstructivist readings of Marxism, Feminism and Postcolonialism (including work with the Subaltern Studies group and a critical reading of American cultural studies in Outside in the Teaching Machine [1993]), and translations of the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. She is currently an Avalon Foundation professor at Columbia.


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