Subaltern Narratives


This is not to describe ‘the way things really were’ or to privilege the narrative history of imperialism as the best version of history.  It is, rather, to offer an account of how an explanation and narrative of reality was established as the narrative one.”[1]


Last year Dr. Randy Martin introduced me to the wonderful work of Gatrayi Chakravorty Spivak.  For his class, “Issues in Art Politics,” we read Spivak’s essay “Can the subaltern speak?”.  Just the title of the essay triggered a whole movement of thoughts in my mind. Her words against intellectual domination and her discussion of subalternism strongly resonate with my ideological approach.  And now a few months later a journey of association brings me one more time to meditate about the oppressed.  I think about oppressed peoples’ agency regarding their bodies, and the castrating social judgment that mandates how to express themselves.

In her essay Spivak explores how the Western intellectual tradition maintains imperialist domination while the third-world Other is categorized, and hence reduced.  Subalternism is the consequence of an interventionist practice in which the dominant intellectual erases the subject sovereignty of the Other.  The Other is thus defined by the dominant force rather than by its own agency.  Therefore, the Other is obligated to assimilate the first-world given category; the Other is relegated to be a subaltern.

Unfortunately, oppression doesn’t exist just within cultures and classes, but also within the self.  The body is being oppressed too.  It has being cut and muted for centuries.  As a body practitioner I seek to acknowledge both personal and collective identity through an intimate and personal connection with each person’s own body.  My interest is to recognize the personal story behind each person and to embrace the body as an aesthetic and political experience.  I want to encounter the most concrete manifestation of the self.  I want to embrace the body, embody it.

Spivak’s fight should also be fought from the body.  What is supposed to be a body, no matter whose standpoint is considered, is not what the body truly is.  To encounter the trace of personal history might be a way to hear what is the body saying.  The problem is not that the body does not speak, but rather that we are not taught to deeply listen to it. Maybe because it is too painful, maybe because it is too dangerous.  Nonetheless, the own narrative of the body is yelling to be heard.

Likewise, we find subalternism in a wider level, a level that goes beyond human sphere. Even though nature is what makes us human beings to exist (we are part of it, we were born from it); animals, plants, and natural resources are often time merely relegated to serve our purposes.  As the dominant specie, we act from selfish necessities, without paying attention to nature’s vital ones. And we sadly annul its agency because nature can’t defend itself. We wrongly see nature as the Other. We do not realize that this Other is actually inside us.

Spivak ends her essay saying that the subaltern cannot speak.  While saying that “[r]epresentation has not withered away[2], she postulates that the need of talking for is still deeply rooted in our Westernized culture.  We might say that modern science can translate facts from nature and thus can talk on behalf of it.  Is it really possible?  Are facts and the imperialist way of thinking good advocates for nature?

 Next week Deborah Goldberg is coming to our class to share with us her work with the organization Earth Justice.  I am exited!  “Because the Earth needs a good lawyer” is what says as a sort of slogan right under the organization’s name.  I totally agree.  Nature needs us to defend it.  Its defense should not be made from a patronized standpoint, but rather from a sensible and an open-minded one.  We should not think that talking on behalf of nature is separate from protecting ourselves. While caring more about nature, we will be caring more about human beings.

We might agree that human beings are an important specie in the Earth.  But certainly we have to agree that we are not the most important one.  We are the most dominant one though. It is sad, but it looks like we actually need to defend nature from ourselves.

Subaltern narratives exist because there is a dominant narrative that hardly oppresses.  Maybe the subaltern cannot speak, that is the way the dominant can maintain its title.  But subaltern narratives have certainly a trace; and when it concerns to human destruction of nature, the trace becomes clearer and clearer.


[1] Gatrayi Chakravorty Spivak, Can the subaltern speak?, page 76

[2] Gatrayi Chakravorty Spivak, Can the subaltern speak?, page 104

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