What insights from postcolonial studies seem especially relevant in contemporary, cultural analysis -- inevitably shaped by if not directly focused on the COVID-19 pandemic?


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May 15, 2020

I think Spivak's "Subaltern Studies Deconstructing Historiography" could offer two interventions:

(1) First, her notion of "cognitive failure" is helpful to understand how COVID-19 is unfolding. For her, it is not being able to grapple the object of analysis: “Unless the subject separates from itself to grasp the object, there is no cognition, indeed no thinking, no judgment.” She writes this statement to talk about the Marxist and anti-humanist tendency to abhor cognitive failure and see it as inducing paralysis. For Marx and Gramsci, for example, this has been a question of the proletariat class recognizing that they are excluded from the labor of their own bodies, through which their shared consciousness can arise.

For Spivak, however, through her critique of the Subaltern Studies collective,  there is no escape from cognitive failure. Just as it is okay that the collective will not be able to speak for the subaltern as much as there is value in it, it is alright to not be able to grapple. The COVID-19 moment is instructive of failures upon failures: failure of neoliberalism, of the nation-state, of parochial activism, of scholarly projects. It is a failure of not being able to do anything even though we have a shared consciousness of failure. It is a failure of being able to be a person, or even being mourned with dignity. Spivak, through her stubborn insistence on being able to build from failure and residues, says that our usual ways of performing scholarship, activism, and subalternity will not work. We have to be able to come together from a point of exhaustion and failure. 

(2) Second, Spivak opens up the question of how we construct oppression and exclusion in the archive, especially if the oppressed and excluded figure is not present. The way COVID-19 is unfolding builds upon histories of institutional and informational opaqueness. How do we read absences of the archive, or "against the grain", against institutional and informational opaqueness?

Nadine Tanio's picture
May 15, 2020

I first read Gayatri Spivak's, "Can the Subaltern Speak?," many years ago and re-reading it now offers a different context and path to making sense of this work. First, Kim Fortun's contextual introduction is a generative space from which to read this brilliant and complex critique of the Subaltern Studies collective. She provides an opening from which to re-think the place of scholarly engagement within, and as participants of, communities of practices inspired by the research Katie Cox and Angela Okune. Fortun's introduction is a pedagogical gesture, a reflection on her own teaching and learning over time. In re-reading this essay, I can see now that Spivak's essay is also a gesture, opening a place of critique as the grounds for re-imagining and reclaiming the possiblity of Subaltern voices. Spivak highlights the assumptions, the metanarratives, embedded in the collective's historiographical practice as a form of knowledge production.

I have two reflections. First, in reading Spivak's critique of historiography both specific (Guha and Chakrabraty) and more general (Western European) and her analysis of their strategic utility is persuasive. I am reminded of other forms of historiography--specifically microhistory--which also engages in the practice of reading the archive against the grain and which, by avoiding making claims about broader historical patterns and systems, is not subject to Spivak's analysis of historiography. I wonder what microhistorical work emerges from the colonial archive.

My second reflection is more broadly about critique as a generative opening. In the zoom discussion there were moments when contributors began mapping their own encounters with theory (French, German), almost as a rite of passage. I began wondering what other genealogies we bring to our work. This text is a tour de force. It is powerfully incisive. Prerna Srigyan spoke of the multiple meanings of "dangerous" within it. As a strategic text, I find the difficulty in reading Spivak exasperating. As a narrative strategy I think the difficulty is, in part, intentional, which compounds my interpretation. I cannot read Spivak and find affinity, even as I recognize her masterful critique. In a prior discussion Duygu Kasdogan introduced me to the idea of dissenus, as opposed to consensus, as a strategic goal. In reading Spivak as critique, perhaps Spivak is an author willing to position herself not as a guide for collaboration but as a figure of dissenus even as she works to create this generative opening for further work.

May 15, 2020

The training of and role for the (humanist?) intellectual in the world seems to be a relevant take-away point of discussion from postcolonial theory. I have been noticing a proliferation of thought pieces and various genres of writing by engaged scholars in this COVID-19 moment. While indeed there is lots to think and write about, the Late Industrial times we are in are also marked by a heavy saturation of information. Rather than feeling enlightening and motivated by the increased proliferation of opinions on COVID-19, I find it has the opposite effect. What other (new) forms of knowledge, processes for knowledge making, and ways of engaging in the world (not to mention education for critical consciousness) are needed in this moment? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find the value and strength of new research collectives like this one to be rich spaces from which to start thinking about this question.

Ahmed describes the importance of a "humanist education" that trains the “ethical reflex” to open one up to forms of consciousness fundamentally different from one’s own. He notes that such openness eventually requires one to “rebel” against one’s training itself (developing critical consciousness?).

Ahmed also writes about the relationship where the intellectual refuses to speak for the subaltern--where the intellectual enters into a relationship with something foreign to him about which he will absolutely refuse ever to produce authoritative knowledge. "The point of the relationship is, in fact, "to question the grounds of knowledge itself."

James Adams's picture
May 15, 2020

         Bringing last week’s conversation on education into contact with this weeks’ discussion of deconstruction and post-colonial theory, I would like to ask the following question: what would it yield if we extended Spivak’s affirmative deconstruction of the subaltern studies group and their participation in historiography to the university and to process of academic publication more generally? In this text, Spivak engages in deconstruction to highlight the subalternists’ own participation in the projects of discursive displacement that they analyze and for successfully failing to incorporate post-structural theory into their method of historiography. Extrapolating from this point, both post-structural and post-colonial theory, too, have been successful as failed-discursive displacements within the university. They have achieved (somewhat paradoxically) some level of hegemony in certain disciplines within the university. However, we learn them, develop them, publish and teach them within an ecology of departments, schools, and institutions that are structured by and that reproduce antithetical values and ethical commitments. This is coming to a head. The neoliberal model of university is in crisis, both from an ideological and logistical standpoint. The question is then not if a discursive displacement will take place within the university’s current sign system, but rather when, how, and what kind of functional change this displacement (however un/successful) will engender.

         The COVID-19 pandemic is implicated in both the logistical and ideological dimensions of this crisis. In short, the logistical crisis posed by quarantine is bringing to light aporias of “the social text” that rendered the university’s existence legitimate and its value legible. Both graduate and undergraduate students alike are being forced to critically reconsider the possibility and expected benefits of their pursuits of higher education. In a complementary if reactionary fashion, the leadership and public representatives of many universities are making the strategically unsound decision to double-down on defending their value in conventional terms. What could be gained by adopting the scholastic ethical commitments of deconstruction, as a first step towards “question[ing] the authority of the [academy] without paralyzing [it], persistently transforming conditions of impossibility into possibility.” (Spivak 1996, 210).


          At another level, I think it is important to consider how the successes and blind spots of the Subalternists might help us to identify our own, as critical scholars of our historical moment. Spivak describes the theoretical contribution of the Subalternists as a theory of change, one that on pivots on/from the force of crisis. Living in the midst of a crisis, it is easy to look backwards from the contemporary and to feel nostalgic for what now seems to be much more endurable and sensible times. However, to do so is to fail to recognize how the germs of our current present were working in those times. Or, in Spivak’s terms, “if the space for a change (necessarily also an addition) had not been there in the prior function of the sign-system, the crisis could not have made the change happen. The change in signification-function supplements the previous function” (1996, 206). Nostalgia is not an escape, no matter how far back you go, the past always leads to this present. Secondly, it is also easy to witness the blunders of the Trump administration or to watch as lockdown protestors arm themselves for open conflict and to essentialize these characters as an origin or source of social problems. But to do so would be to deny the “instituted trace at the origin.” While Trump and lockdown-protestors may not fit the bill of the subaltern, it is important to realize that their “subject effect” has taken shape in and through contrast and conflict with the contemporary left. How can we understand the role of critical scholarship in laying the scene for anti-academic sensibilities of the more radically conservative groups to take hold? They did not take shape in a vacuum but rather as “part of an immense discontinuous network ("text" in the general sense) of strands that may be termed politics, ideology, economics, history, sexuality, language, and so on” (Spivak 1996, 213). In other words, how might we rethink and refashion cultural critique in light of the consequences of our own history of failures at discursive displacement?

Duygu Kasdogan's picture
May 12, 2020

shortly attaching this news article on "coronavirus lockdown protests" to this reading. should be an obvious one to all. 

Re: the discussion on "our" concepts of freedom


Adding a popular quote - from Kafka's "A Report to an Academy

I fear that perhaps you do not quite understand what I mean by "way out." I use the expression in its fullest and most popular sense—I deliberately do not use the word "freedom." I do not mean the spacious feeling of freedom on all sides. As an ape, perhaps, I knew that, and I have met men who yearn for it. But for my part I desired such freedom neither then nor now. In passing: may I say that all too often men are betrayed by the word freedom. And as freedom is counted among the most sublime feelings, so the corresponding disillusionment can be also sublime. In variety theaters I have often watched, before my turn came on, a couple of acrobats performing on trapezes high in the roof. They swung themselves, they rocked to and fro, they sprang into the air, they floated into each other's arms, one hung by the hair from the teeth of the other. "And that too is human freedom," I thought, "self-controlled movement." What a mockery of holy Mother Nature! Were the apes to see such a spectacle, no theater walls could stand the shock of their laughter.

No, freedom was not what I wanted. Only a way out; right or left, or in any direction; I made no other demand; even should the way out prove to be an illusion; the demand was a small one, the disappointment could be no bigger. To get out somewhere, to get out! Only not to stay motionless with raised arms, crushed against a wooden wall.