A key movement in postcolonial studies was the 1980 intervention of the subaltern studies group. Within “subaltern studies,” a term first used by Ranajit Guha, the word “subaltern” stands as “a name for the general attribute of subordination in South Asian society whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender and office or in any other way” (“Preface” 35). Subaltern studies analyzes the “binary relationship” of the subaltern and ruling classes, and thus studies the interplay of dominance and subordination in colonial systems, most notably India, though the methods of the movement have since been applied to other nations, spaces, and historical moments.
Subaltern studies as a whole aims to uncover the histories of groups that within the colonial and nationalist archives went largely shunted to the margins or undocumented altogether. Turning towards popular accounts of public history and memory in order to combat what Guha terms as “elitism,” the subaltern studies group’s primary focus was and is to recover, examine, and privilege the agency of the underclass within the networks of capitalism, colonialism, and nationalism.
Taking cue from the “history from below” methods of cultural studies scholars and historians such as E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Eric Hobsbawm that circulated in the 1960s, the subaltern studies group aims to focus on working class and particularly “peasant” historical accounts in post/colonial and post-imperial South Asia, specifically India. This group of scholars emerged out of the University of Sussex under the academic guidance of professors Ranajit Guha and Eric Stokes, and largely involved the following scholars: Shahid Amin, David Arnold (joined later), Gautam Bhadra, Dipesh Chakrabarty, N. K. Chandra, Partha Chatterjee, Arvind N. Das, David Hardiman (joined later), Stephen Henningham (joined later), Gyanendra Pandey, and Sumit Sarkar. In 1982, these collaborators produced the Subaltern Studies journal, writing on South Asian history and society in a way that they felt had not been done; this project thus birthed “subaltern studies” as a field.
The formulation of the term “subaltern” used by the group is not taken from the British colonial rank of the “subaltern,” which referred to military officers who were subordinate. Instead, the term “subaltern” is taken from Italian Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci’s own use of the word in his prison notebooks (English translations of which appeared in 1966). In its original Gramscian context, “subaltern” referred solely to peasants who had not been integrated into Marx’s conception of the industrial capitalist system. Subaltern studies then seeks to fill the gap in historiography between the people’s history and the perceived history of India—between what has been archived in a narrative of power by the British Raj and what has been regarded as popular history. The scholars of the subaltern studies group sought, and still seek in the group’s subsequent iterations, to give the subaltern, peasant domain autonomy as the voice that facilitated political action despite imperial dominance. Dipesh Chakrabarty notes that subaltern studies emerged out of “anti-colonial” thought rather than “postcolonial,” but cites Gayatri Spivak’s work and membership with the group as integrating “postcolonial” studies into the movement (“Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change” 4).
According to Ranajit Guha, subaltern studies intervened in historical schools of thought that could not represent the history of nationalism in India without celebrating the role the elites played in bringing the larger nation into the discourse. This existing version of history, Guha argues, discounted subaltern contributions, and so the subaltern studies group sought “to rectify the elitist bias” in a field “dominated by elitism — colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism” (403).
Dipesh Chakrabarty states that “the declared aim of Subaltern Studies was to produce historical analyses in which the subaltern groups were viewed as the subjects of history” rather than the objects of it (15). The subaltern class was not homogeneous, nor was it an object that history “happened to,” but a living group of people comprised of active participants in society. Ranajit Guha, in what is considered a hallmark work of subaltern studies, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, pluralizes the discourses of power by refusing to conflate capital and modernity in the extant histories. Capital and power can be considered as separate variables in understanding systems of subordination in colonial India in a way that European Marxist scholars like the Cambridge School of historiography (including John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson) did not theorize as separate. Subjecthood is a large concern with the subaltern studies group’s analyses of colonial society. Dipesh Chakrabarty discusses how the initial configurations of the subject in subaltern studies worked from an understanding of subjecthood as driven by social justice and political rebellion:
“The human in our anticolonial mode of thinking was a figure of sovereignty. We wanted to make the peasant or the subaltern the subject of his or her history, period. And we thought of this subject in the image of the autonomous rights-bearing person with the same access to representation in national and other histories as others from more privileged backgrounds enjoyed” (“Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change” 4).
However, Chakrabarty states that 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 subjecthood” (4).
Another critical tenet of subaltern studies at its conception was the rejection of a teleological understanding of progress. European historians, usually those of the “history from below” movement, writing on India often referenced the peasant consciousness as that of “pre-political,” “feudal,” or “pre-modern,” suggesting that it could progress into political consciousness. Guha and the rest of the initiative rejected such evolutionary formulations of political consciousness. Instead of considering the peasant consciousness as a “backward” anachronism in the face of the “modern” political world, subaltern studies argues that the peasant was contemporaneous with colonialism and had equal and important participation in the political realm.
Dipesh Chakrabarty in retrospect later saw the two main sub-themes of subaltern studies as “the archaic in the modern, and the subject of history” (“Subaltern Studies in Retrospect and Reminiscence” 13).Tracing the systems of silencing and oppression is another key aspect of the subaltern studies intervention. The interrogation of systems of what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls “worlding” (where a colonial or imperial narrative separates the colonized as “Third World,” fetishizes the “Third World” as exotic, and thus legitimizes colonial domination) is a primary concern of subaltern studies work, especially in how these systems of worlding appear in the historical archive and narrative. In this vein, rather than focusing on highly visible displays of political consciousness like documented riots or uprising, subaltern studies seeks to discover the discourses of dissent and resistance arising from everyday political action. Since archival documents necessarily privilege the elite and ruling class and completely occlude the illiterate, interrogations of such systemic and documented imbalance are crucial to a fuller understanding of the subaltern.
CRITIQUE OF SUBALTERN STUDIES
Though the original subaltern studies group emerged out of historical and cultural studies, the concept of the subaltern has expanded in interpretation from the original configuration to apply to any population that is disenfranchised and unreachable due to hegemonic oppression. Subaltern turns in other fields, specifically literature, anthropology, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, have been made by scholars across the globe. Subaltern studies often overlaps with postcolonial studies as having similar aims and projects.
Gayatri Spivak intervened in postcolonial literary studies with her seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and, alongside Rosalind O’Hanlon, critiqued the subaltern studies collective for not going far enough in their consideration of gender in questions of subalternity. This comes up most markedly in Spivak’s book A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, where in the chapter “History” she embarks on an effort to find the Rani of Sirmur in the colonial archive and determines that even women considered “elite” were rarely traceable in the colonial narrative.
Subaltern studies has also been accused of reducing understandings of class to oversimplified dichotomies. David Ludden takes this up in his introduction to Reading Subaltern Studies:
Even readers who applauded Subaltern Studies found two features troubling. First and foremost, the new substance of subalternity emerged only on the underside of a rigid theoretical barrier between “elite” and “subaltern,” which resembles a concrete slab separating upper and lower space in a two-storey building. This hard dichotomy alienated subalternity from social histories that include more than two storeys or which move among them; and not only histories rendered through the lens of class analysis, because subaltern social mobility disappeared along with class differentiation. Secondly, because subaltern politics was confined theoretically to the lower storey, it could not threaten a political structure. This alienated subalternity from political histories of popular movements and alienated subaltern groups from organized, transformative politics, in the past and in the present. (16)
While praising the subaltern studies movement as yielding interesting insights from the dismantling of elitist historiography,” Darshan Perusek has simultaneously critiqued the movement as “at best, problematic, and at worst, tediously neo-antiquarian and remarkably unremarkable in their banality” due to contradictions in the notion of “subalternity” (1931). After Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism, subaltern studies moved to deconstruct the binary of self/Other prominent in discourses of nationalism (the us versus them mentality, the rhetoric of inclusion that is inevitably twinned with exclusion). Scholars of the collective, including Gyanendra Pandey, Partha Chatterjee, and Shahid Amin, have responded to this by using the methods of subaltern studies to interrogate the idea of a “whole” nation or a “total” narrative of belonging to nationalism itself into more plural representations and defending the “fragment” (as in Gyanendra Pandey’s work of similar title).
Aside from contemporary critiques of the subaltern studies group’s 1980s publications, Vivek Chibber’s 2014 volume Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital is one of the most comprehensive critiques of subaltern studies as a theory. Taking up not only the issue of binarism as previously discussed, but also subaltern studies’ place within Marxism writ large, Chibber’s critique of the baseline of subaltern studies as a theoretical enterprise is that its reliance on binaries “fails to deliver on its two basic promises—that it has developed an explanatory framework adequate for understanding the nature of modernity in the East, and that it is a platform for radical critique” (23).
SUMMARIES OF SELECT TEXTS
Amin, Shahid. Event, Metaphor, Memory
Similar to Guha’s project of looking at colonial revolt, Amin examines the singular event of the infamous 1922 arson of the Chauri Chaura thana (police station) that a mob of “peasants” enacted in the name of Mahatma Gandhi and the Non-Cooperation Movement. In his book, Amin seeks to examine the circumstances and context surrounding the actual Chauri Chaura rather than the metonymic word that has become synonymous with nationalism. To do this, Amin returns to the area of the Chauri Chaura event and interrogates the colonial, the judicial, and the national accounts of the event alongside oral histories of surviving residents or relatives of those involved in the incident. In doing so, he expands the narrative to include multiple viewpoints and interpretations of the event itself and the local political context preceding it.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe.
Chakrabarty seeks to reinvestigate the writing of Indian histories by situating the entire body of that writing so far as existing in a state of subalternity, where both India and Europe are “hyperreal” imaginary constructs with Europe given the upper hand. Europe is a “silent referent” that symbolizes a completeness, a modernity, and a bourgeoisie present, thus positing India, even within subaltern studies’ framework, as a symbol of lack, historical primitivism, and peasantry. He associates this state of Europe as referent as associating strongly with capitalism, citing Marx as laying forth a temporal framework that focuses on developmental stages where Europe comes before the Other. The modern bourgeoisie subject of capitalism thus becomes the default assumption of history, and all histories are then taught and written with that default in mind. Europe comes to signify not only a region but an entire body of scholarship and thought system grounded in historicist liberalism. Chakrabarty traces several texts through the British Indian colonial example that illustrate not only the European-driven production of the idea that a European future is the only one worth aspiring to, but also the Indian upholding of such Eurocentric historicism.
Because of this, the Indian colonized subject exists as a split subject between modern elite and not-yet-civilized peasantry, constantly in “transition.” Chakrabarty examines the antinomies of the Indian experience in comparison to the Eurocentric model, specifically problematizing notions of freedom, equality, the Habermasian public/private spheres, and the cohesive nation-state, rejecting the narrative of development and linear temporality. Most memorably, Chakrabarty proposes a “provincialization of Europe,” a move to incorporate feminist, poststructural, and late Marxist theory in order to better understand the marginalized voices that have been relegated to the subaltern position in history. However, he acknowledges that such a move necessarily comes from academic institutions whose foundations are based on Eurocentric hegemonic knowledge. This “politics of despair” will in Chakrabarty’s model make visible the systems of propping up the modern citizen and nation-state narrative and dismantle those systems to make a heterogeneous understanding of history possible.
Guha, Ranajit. Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India.
Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India is considered one of the inaugural works of the subaltern studies group. In Peasant Insurgency, Guha marks not only the bias of the historiography and archive of colonial India’s government documents, but also the bias of the folklore, which has traditionally been perceived and touted by nationalist groups as authentic and untainted by the colonizer Britain. Thus, for Guha, any colonial historiography of the peasant in India is necessarily tainted by a bourgeois lens, either through the colonial agenda or through the nationalist agenda. Guha’s intervention is then to trace the mounting everyday actions that are silenced in favor of the larger event. In this intervention, he moves to dispel the notion that Indian colonial subjects were powerless during the colonial rule, specifically from 1783-1900, and instead seeks to describe from the peasants’ point of view the complex relations of subordination, dominance, and subsequent rebellion.
Pandey, Gyanendra. Unarchived Histories: The “Mad” and the “Trifling” in the Postcolonial World.
Gyanendra Pandey takes up the opposite side of Spivak’s project, moving not to merely trace what the archive considers reasonable but to account for the “unarchived” unreasonable, what he terms the “trifling” and the “mad.” The archive, he remarks, is not only a space of remembering, but “also at the same time a project of forgetting” things and people deemed trivial, inconsequential, and thus unhistorical (4). The background noise from which the archive moves to distinguish itself is unreason. Pandey turns his attention to the “trifling,” the commonplace that happens so often in the everyday that it is forgettable, namely domestic abuse, domestic labor, and microaggressions as they concern subaltern women in lower castes and classes. Such acts are so forgettable that even the women writing the narratives Pandey examines do not think to include them, like the way Viola Andrews “never remember[s] to mention” race relations in her 1960s Atlanta memoirs (10) and how Baby Kondiba Kamble’s memoirs do not include her husband beating her because she didn’t know how to talk about something so commonplace that happened to everyone (14). The ephemeral, fleeting acts of the everyday thus cannot register as evidential or as reasonable, and thus are cast into the domain of unreason, not to be taken into account by the archive, but still extant for the historian to locate.
- Amin, Shahid. Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922-1992. U of California Press, 1995.
- Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change.” New Literary History vol. 43, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-18.
- Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Provincializing Europe: Postcoloniality and the Critique of History.” Cultural Studies, vol. 6, no. 3, 1992, pp. 337-357.
- Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial Historiography.” Nepantla: Views from South, vol. 1, no. 1, 2000, pp. 9–32.
- Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Subaltern Studies in Retrospect and Reminiscence,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 1, 2015, pp. 10-18.
- Chibber, Vivek. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. Verso Books, 2014.
- Guha, Ranajit. Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. Duke UP, 1999.
- Guha, Ranajit. “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India.” Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism, 1982, pp. 403-409.
- Ludden, David. “Introduction.” Reading Subaltern Studies: Critical History, Contested Meaning and the Globalization of South Asia. Anthem Press, 2002.
- Pandey, Gyanendra. “In Defense of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today.” Representations, no. 37, 1992, pp. 27–55.
- Pandey, Gyanendra. Introduction. Unarchived Histories: The “Mad” and the “Trifling” in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, Routledge, pp. 3-19.
- Perusek, Darshan. “Subaltern Consciousness and Historiography of Indian Rebellion of 1857.” Economic and Political Weekly, 1993, pp. 1931-1936.
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?.” Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, 1988, pp. 21-78.
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “History.” A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Harvard UP, 1999, pp. 198-311.
- Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Habitations of Modernity : Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies. University of Chicago Press, 2002.
- Chatterjee, Partha, and Pradeep Jeganathan. Community, Gender and Violence. Hurst, 2000.
- Chibber, Vivek, et al. The Debate on Postcolonial theory and the Specter of Capital. Verso Books, 2016.
- Guha, Ranajit. A Subaltern Studies Reader, 1986-1995. University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
- Guha, Ranajit., and Gayatri Chakravorty. Spivak. Selected Subaltern Studies. Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Ludden, David E. Reading Subaltern Studies: Critical History, Contested Meaning, and the Globalisation of South Asia. Permanent Black, 2001.
Author: Bailey Betik, Spring 2020
Last edited: Spring 2020