The subaltern-effect

The subaltern-effect:
negation to deconstruction hybridity?

Subaltern Studies X
Edited by Gautam Bhadra, Gyan Prakash and Susie Tharu

Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, 252 pp., Rs.
ISBN 0-19 564 5707

Reviewed by PRATHAMA BANERJEE‘Nothing–not elite practices, state policies, academic disciplines, literary texts, archival sources, language–was exempt from the effect of subalternity.’ This is what Subaltern Studies X, as the editors exclaim in their Preface, seeks to demonstrate. The volume distances itself from the elitist

prejudices of those Left-radical positions which let many practices and ideas escape their critique because they are comfortable with simply labelling and filing them away as bourgeois, feudal or merely upper class. Such radical rejections, the volume shows, actually confirm the elitist claim that there can exist such ‘purely’ elitist cultures and positions which are irrevocably distant and always safe from the “presence and pressure” of the subaltern-effect. In contrast to such positions, the Subaltern Studies Group wishes to expand its own critical horizon, from which nothing escapes, not even the most fortified and exclusive of elite existences.The profound generality–that nothing is safe from the subaltern-effect–has the power of a slogan, of a mobilising rationale, a rallying spirit which can pull together such different modes and themes of history-writing as the essays of Subaltern Studies X. Individually, each contributor asserts a distinct mood. It is this which gives the volume its strength as a whole–the fact that multiple moods of history-writing could pervade a single and common slogan.

*That these essays are so very different from each other makes it clear, once again, that we must approach the Subaltern Studies more as a project and a practice than as a school of historiography. To miss this practical nature of the effort, as most critics of the Subaltern Studies do, is to impute a ‘school of thought’ kind of unity, which is not only not claimed by the group but which is also, to my mind, contrary to the spirit of the endeavour. The nature of the Preface makes it clear that if one must look for a collectivity in the work of this volume, one must address the slogan-like act of the Preface–the cryptic assertion that nothing is free from the subaltern-effect. *

Sudesh Mishra‘s prose–almost in the ‘stream of consciousness’ mode, without a punctuating stop–charts the work of the memory of an indentured Indian emigrant to Fiji, a mix of “history and hyperbole” as he calls it. Written in an intensely personal mood, making itself opaque to easy readings and yet resisting the impulse to become too easily poetic, Mishra’s prose articulates with history through the individual’s recognition of the impossibility of dying in pure solitude and homelessness. For death, that ultimate ceasing of the world for the individual, remains pointless until it is situated in the translating act between the dying and the living, the passing and the remaining. Which is how Mishra’s protagonist learns that “dying is an art like living… learnt in the ripeness of time” and that he must recognise the world through the language of the Other: “I began to live through all my senses…. because I began to discover what was already discovered, to name things as they were already named…” .

Kaushik Ghosh’s remarkable essay, on the other hand, is written in the ironic mood. He shows that the “primitive”, far from being a relic of past centuries, was actually born in colonial-modernity as a highly profitable “waste” produced by plantation capitalism. Marx’s note on ‘primitive accumulation’, Kaushik shows, can thus be made to denote, literally, the making of a section of the world’s population into “aborigines”, into “primitive” labour, in fact much before the “primitive” was discursively constructed by evolutionary anthropology in the 1860s. The rhetorical power of this essay lies in the author’s enunciation of the ironic sleight of historicism-where the “primitive” becomes archaic and pre-modern precisely as s/he is produced post capitalism.

Indrani Chatterjee‘s essay on colour, gender and slavery, on its part, exudes the tragic mood, as she describes the creation of a genealogically suspended community of ‘half-castes’, rejected by both the colonizer and the colonized, through slave-concubinage and the use of slave-women’s children as clerical and manual labour by the East India Company’s military establishment. She urges a rethinking of both the idea of family and the scope of slavery-studies, in view of this dimension of early colonialism in India which created a coloured and labouring community through the manipulation of “marriages” and “households”. Interrogating the conventional oppositions between kin and slave, between productive and domestic labour, Indrani arrives at the difference that colonial law made in the terms of earlier modes of slave-holding. For colonial law attributed to the slave a permanent jural marginality while insisting on her/his cultural incorporation/emancipation through education and religion, thus disabling, tragically, the slave’s easy identity with even the colonized.

Sundar Kaali, on his part, borrows the hopeful mood from what he calls the “not-for-a-moment silent” subaltern politics. In a beautiful essay that puts together early Indian textual traditions, contemporary oral narratives and subtle political insights, he reckons with the politics of spatialization in the context of south Indian villages, towns and temples. Crucial to his essay is an understanding of the organisation of space not in a static or architectural mode, but through the mode of processing and traversing, which transforms space from a Kantian a priori to a political arena, where spatiality becomes both a practice and a metaphor and space stands for both the scope and the goal of politics.

Also, Ishita Banerjee Dube discusses Mahima Dharma, a subaltern religious movement in Orissa, and its mobilization and appropriation of the colonial legal apparatus in the construction of the idea of an “authentic” religion.

Vijay Prashad questions the language and vision of India’s freedom from the perspective of Dalit politics, situated in the originary contradiction of bourgeois nationalism, the contradiction between the impulse to erase the Dalit/subaltern identity and integrate with the Indian/Hindu nation and the impulse to critique and subvert the nation from a Dalit standpoint.

Christopher Pinney explores whether ‘magical realism’ as an attitude towards reality is an appropriate name for representational techniques used by the colonized, by painters like Ravi Varma, to produce a reality which seemed both incredible and threatening to the colonizer; and Rosemary Sayigh relocates Partha Chatterjee’s theory of a rupture between the problematique and thematique of nationalism to the Palestinian context, in order to explore the “troubled, asymmetric” relationship between nationalism and feminism.

That these essays are so very different from each other makes it clear, once again, that we must approach the Subaltern Studies more as a project and a practice than as a school of historiography. To miss this practical nature of the effort, as most critics of the Subaltern Studies do, is to impute a ‘school of thought’ kind of unity, which is not only not claimed by the group but which is also, to my mind, contrary to the spirit of the endeavour. The nature of the Preface makes it clear that if one must look for a collectivity in the work of this volume, one must address the slogan-like act of the Preface–the cryptic assertion that nothing is free from the subaltern-effect. I use the term ‘slogan’ to imply a statement of collectivity, which appears in and remains confined to the practice of coming together. It is a statement not to be proved once and for all, but one that must be reiterated over and over again in one voice and in the course of the act-in the recognition that the collectivity must be a product of immediate practice. For there, is, after all, no idealized unity which is always already available.

Yet, however simple and easy this slogan might sound, however truistic and profound as a generality it may appear, behind this utterance that nothing is safe from the subaltern-effect lay more than a decade and a half of agonistic reckoning with history and history-writing. It began with the Subaltern Studies charter, so to speak–particularly Ranajit Guha’s preface to the first volume and his Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency–which argued against the use of class categories as positivistic entities, which argued that domination is relational in principle, that both rule and subjection appear as a theorization of each other. The most common debate in those days was whether subaltern consciousness operated by snatching an autonomous field for itself, an excess which dominant discourses could never hegemonize, or whether subaltern consciousness worked primarily in reference to dominant discourses and acted as its negation, inversion and appropriation. It soon seemed, however, that the problem with these terms of relationality was the appearance of subalternity as necessarily a ‘failure’. It appeared as if the consciousness of protest and resistance was always already implicated in the terms of the dominant discourses themselves, for inversion and negation had to depend on the continued existence of the dominant as the necessary Other. Subaltern histories thus appeared most often as tragic, as stories of the failure and of the self-alienation of the subaltern.

Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak and others, however, by the fourth volume of the Subaltern Studies, had turned this spectre of ‘failure’ around into a story of success. The very instances of subaltern and contemporary use of dominant and past categories- which seemed like the unfortunate complicity of subaltern consciousness in the existing rules of the game-now appeared as the deconstructive effect of subalternity upon dominant discourses. It became proof of the intrusive and subversive impact of the subaltern-effect that subalterns operated “from the inside, borrowing all the strategic and economic resources of subversion from the old structures, borrowing them structurally…” (Spivak, Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography, SS IV. New Delhi, 1985), and thus rendering past relations of domination unconvincing by their very own account. In other words, the acknowledgement of acts of deconstruction irrevocably showed that the subalterns’ use of dominant idioms and parameters was always a use with a difference. By a temporally nego- [++Page 18] tiated and deferred harnessing of dominant discourses for its own purposes, the subaltern-effect imploded the discourse from inside while at the same time de-authorizing the dominant uses themselves. This was not complicity but an act of deconstruction.

Yet this sensitivity to difference–which no longer allowed the subaltern’s use of dominant categories of colonial modernity to be seen as simple complicity and defeat-still remained inadequate and understated in Derridean deconstruction, at least in so far as post-colonial peoples were concerned. For colonialism, exiled from the discipline of European philosophy and to a great extent unproblematized by Derrida himself, was a politics of difference and sameness par excellence. The idea of difference–between white and black, the colonizer and the colonized, the nation and the world, the modern and the not-so-modern–here took on a potent and power-ridden history. The assertion of difference as a reason to colonize and the assertion of difference as a strategy for identity and freedom, the use of difference as a strategy for and as a strategy against the imagination of the nation–senses of difference here, in the colonial context, had of necessity to bear a political and practical weight in a manner in which the Derridean difference-deferral idea was never compelled to. Subaltern Studies, therefore, moved on to the project of enunciating difference in a way which went beyond the deconstructive project outlined by Spivak earlier. Though Homi Bhaba himself has not written in any Subaltern Studies volume, his idea of ‘hybrid’ histories has become popular with many of the authors precisely in this context.

Bhaba shows that it is in the emergence of interstices, rather than in the domains of Otherness a la Edward Said, that the politics of difference is really played out. For what has hitherto been written as the colonized’s imitation. of the colonizing white man’s image and rationality (or the subaltern’s internalization of the discourses of domination) has actually operated in history as a mimicry and parody of this rationality. The hybridized existence of the colonized and the subaltern annuls the claim of the colonizer and the dominant that a pure rationality can exist by itself and provide an originary reason and authority to dominate. If in the deconstructive strategy, the subject position (as that of the subaltern) appeared as merely a tactical, untheorizable location-that propelled Gyan Pandey for instance to use a merely descriptive term like “fragmentary” to denote the nature of history as reality, history as text and the historical subject as an existent–Bhaba in a way intends to return the subaltern subject to history, but with difference. This is a subaltern agency which “singularises the ‘totality’ of authority by suggesting that agency requires a grounding, but it does not require a totalization of those grounds; it requires movement and manoeuvre, but it does not require a temporality of continuity and accumulation; it requires direction and contingent closure but no teleology and holism.” (Bhaba, “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern: the Question of Agency”, in The Location of Culture, London and New York, 1994). The latest volume of Subaltern Studies shares in this transformed sense of the subaltern subject. There no longer remains the dubious necessity for a pure and authentic subaltern position, just as there no longer remains an original and uncontaminated dominant position which is not subject to ‘hybridization’ by the subaltern-effect.

Clearly the issue, as it was earlier, is no longer whether the subaltern can save an autonomous space for him/ herself, beyond the hegemonic reach of the dominant. Now what works is the realisation that there can be no autonomous space per se, and certainly not a space which is defended by the dominant as autonomous of and safe from the subaltern. One must indeed recognise this as a radical and effective transformation of the terms of both history and politics. Sudesh Mishra addresses the hybridized realm of the Indian migrant labourer inventing the art of living and speaking in the land of his banishment so that “it was as if machli (fish in Hindi) as a word and idea and culture had never existed prior to ika…. and yet the one was forever inside the other”. And Christopher Pinney calls the domain of 19th century Indian art, its new “realist” techniques of representation and the industry of its commercial reproduction and transformation as the “new hybrid space of magical realist mytho-politics”.

I outline this trajectory–in which the subaltern-effect appeared to change from being that of negation to that of deconstruction and then to that of hybridity– in order to situate the latest volume of the Subaltern Studies. For otherwise, many of the essays in the volume seem to give the impression of being merely descriptive efforts, which seek to prove ‘objectively’ and inexorably that subalternity is both radical and conservative, both resistant and complicitous–a conclusion which is perhaps too tautological to offer either a theoretical or a strategic edge to history and/or practices of political change. One is left terribly uneasy with self-descriptions like Ishita Banerjee Dube’s, when she claims to write her story as the “entangled histories of ,resistance’ and ‘incorporation'”. Or with Vijay Prashad’s description of his story as that of “ambiguity between protest and integration”. Even more theoretically informed pieces like Christopher Pinney’s and Sudesh Mishra’s–though they do not attempt to list and add instances of protest and incorporation, merits and demerits, as it were make ‘hybridity’ into a purely descriptive and experiential category. Perhaps in empirical terms, that is not wrong. But as a description of reality it may just as well be said that there is nothing which is not hybridized, that the search for the pure, the originary and the uncontaminated is futile, that to claim certain realities to be hybrid and others pure is to confirm the claim of hyperreal Europe, that its rationality, and none other, is the original, authorial and therefore authentic one.

To my mind, the tension lies within the notion of hybridity itself. Bhaba’s own use of the term is susceptible to two interpretations. One, hybridity may be seen as a strategy developed by the subaltern in his/her practice of reckoning with the dominant order. And two, at the same time, hybridity may be seen as an empirical description of the subaltern’s most plausible and usual mode of existence. Historians, by habits instituted by their discipline, often tend to read Bhaba’s hybridity as the latter. And it is this reduction of the use of hybridity to empirical descriptions which make hybridity into a profound generality in which the purpose of history-writing is lost, a generality true for all realities at all times, at least in colonial societies. Perhaps it is necessary then to dwell on the possibilities opened up by the former interpretation-the interpretation of hybridity as a strategy Historians would have problems with this interpretation because the use of the term strategy may imply a dependence on the analysis of intentions. After all, it is against the over-emphasis on intentions that the discipline of history works, it is how history distinguishes itself from becoming the biography of a nation or a society For the biographic insistence on intentions creates an invincible subjectivity, which must in the last instance appear a-historical.

But let us move elsewhere, to an understanding of practice itself which does not need to propose the practiceprocess dichotomy-practice being that which deals with the subject’s intentions and process being that which may render intentions irrelevant by the march of history. One could, for instance, take one’s clue from the statement made by Michel de Certeau in his The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, 1984)–that strategies offer a resistance to the movement of time by the establishment of a place. Hybridity may perhaps be seen as Just such a strategy, a mode of practice which established a space for being neither the (European) Self nor the (indigenous) Other–which disrupts the time of historicism. After all, historicism, the ground for colonial modernity, enunciates an evolutionary time where the pre-modern and the traditional, in due course, transform themselves into the modern and the contemporary–often with the aid of colonial education and commerce. Hybridity, however, exhibits before this over-determining historicism, a space and form of existence which not only is neither ‘modern’ nor ‘traditional’, neither ‘advanced’ nor ‘backward’ though it is tellingly contemporary–but which also disrupts the historical, and the extra-historical, claims of both (futuristic) modernity and (revivalistic) traditionalism. Hybridity, in other words, as a practice of living disputes the theoretical claims of historicism itself.

If one puts such an interpretation to work in the name of Bhaba’s ‘hybridity’, Kaushik Ghosh and Sundar Kali become the crucial presences in Subaltern Studies X. Sundar Kali’s essay–though he does not directly use the concept of hybridity and does not need to–foregrounds this politics of spatialization. Better still, he does not write the history of the creation of a (hybrid) space by subaltern politics. Rather, he writes of the “dialectics as he calls it, of the practice of spatialization: “the politics of freezing and enclosing, on the one hand (by the dominant), and that of fluiding and opening up, on the other (by the subaltern).” He even attributes to history of the subaltern-effect must itself “spatialize”. Perhaps what he means, or also means, is that history-writing must itself make its own space and operate as a strategic practice. Kaushik Ghosh provides the perfect supplement to this strategy of spatialization, when he unpacks the temporality of historicism by exposing the absurd modernity of the being called the ‘primitive’ and the pre-modern.

To reclaim subaltern historiography as a strategic practice, however, we must end up by questioning the influence that Bhaba’s idea of ‘hybridity’ seems to throw on the project. It is not accidental that the earlier notions of negation and deconstruction–even though they might appear to some as antagonistic acts–shared something with each other. They were both primarily verb-forms. They denoted the subaltern-effect to be, and to be the product of, a kind of practice. Hybridity on the other hand appears as primarily the noun-form of an adjective, making itself prone to becoming a mere description of a certain inevitable reality, the proper name for a kind of post-colonial existence, irrespective of practice. Apart from the fact that the usage “hybridity” seems to smack of the memory of a pure original–a proposition already problematized by the earlier phase of Subaltern Studies which took deconstruction seriously–hybridity falls short of connoting a practice. And it is a practice which Subaltern Studies seeks to claim for itself as a collective Project.

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