Post-Colonial Theory: The Subaltern



Can the Subaltern Speak?

One can posit phases in Post-Colonial theory, moving across time from the post-war reaction against colonial rule in the fifties and the sixties, Albert Memmi (1920-), Aime Cesaire (1913-2008), and Frantz Fanon (1925-1962), to name a few writers, the shift towards an analysis of culture through the lens of representation, the “cultural turn,” of the seventies seen in the work of Edward Said (1935-2003), and then, in the eighties, a decisive break away from the Marxist framework to a Post-Structuralist position. Post-Structuralism, which is a hybrid alliance of philosophy with linguistic theory with literary analysis, allowed for a surge of pluralism. Before the end of the 20th century, there was a tendency to view what is a very complex picture of colonized territories as a homogeneous subject, subsumed under the yoke of imperialism. But as more and more voices from the bottom up being raised on high and asserting themselves, multiple points of view came to light: women, gays and lesbians, a variety of colors and ethnicities and religions.

With the opening of the discourse came new problems, the most important being elucidated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1942-) who asked a very good question in her groundbreaking 1988 essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The term “subaltern” comes out of the empire itself, for it is a British term for a military designation. A subaltern is a lieutenant, an officer whose rank is one notch higher than the non-commissioned soldiers and below the high ranking officers. The term was carried over from the military to connote the “natives” who were designated as mid-level bureaucrats and factotum figures in the service of the Empire. In order to be effective the subaltern had to learn the language of the colonizer and thus lost authenticity and were slightly removed from their native culture. By speaking the language of the dominator or the ruler, the subaltern validated or “recognized” the Master.

The trap for the colonized was certainly recognized by the early post-colonial writers but it was a problem that has yet to be resolved. When one writes/speaks in what one hopes is an authentic voice, such as Luce Irigaray, then one is not always heard and the impact is limited to one’s own community. When post-colonial critics use the theories of European philosophers thinkers and apply these Eurocentric ideas to the post-colonial condition, these same writers who question the appropriateness of Europeans speaking of and about the same colonial condition are speaking in the language of the master. As the feminist Audre Lorde (1934-1992) gave a talk in 1984 titled, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” As a double outsider, a black and lesbian scholar, she asked,

What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.

Like Edward Said, Spivak is an exile, living on the faculty of Columbia University. It is a stunning fact that when she was appointed Professor in 2007, she was the first woman of color to be elevated to that rank in the entire history of the University. This one fact explains why her question is important but the fact that she is able to “speak” is due to her privileged position in academia. Spivak, a native of India, a former colonial possession, completed her graduate education at Cornell, an Ivy League institution, wrote her dissertation a white male writer. W. B. Yeats, under the supervision of the renowned scholar Paul de Man (1919-1983). These bone fides gave her “permission” to “speak.” It is ironic that, in her turn, she took up the worthy cause of giving voice to those who were silence/d in society and in so doing takes up the position of someone who is “speaking for” the others. The position of Spivak is split and ambiguous–the colonized speaking as a colonizer–an illustrates the difficulties faced by any Other who seizes the power to “speak.”

Who can speak? And under what conditions does one speak? What language should be used? The answer depends on the point of view. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak investigated the issue of the “subject” in 1988. Borrowing from Structuralism and Georg Hegel, Spivak pointed out that the West is the Subject, the one who speaks and the East is the Object, the one who is spoken of. But Spivak’s essay which challenged the use of Western methodology to examine the non-Western Other, contributed to an important questioning of using Marxism in Postcolonial studies. She stated that the group of scholars who were among the first to consider the “subaltern,” the “Subaltern Studies” group “must” consider the question of whether or not the subaltern can ever speak. As Vivek Chibber pointed out in his 2013 book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, this group at the University of Sussex, used Marxist theory—a point also make by Spivak who effectively revealed the contradictions inherent in Western philosophy which empowers the One and silences the Other.


Spivak began her essay by referring to an unguarded conversation between Giles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Michel Foucault (1926-1984), which is an example of unintended ideological thinking. It was not her point to recount the conversation. Her point is that two Western philosophers were talking about the Other from the perspective of sovereign subjects. Not only that but Western philosophers, of whom Deleuze and Foucault are but examples, also interpret social and philosophical theories from a very limited and ideological perspective. Why use Marx instead of Mao? Why be confined to French thought? “The unrecognized contradiction within a position that valorizes the concrete experience of the oppressed, wile being so uncritical about the historical role of the intellectual , is maintained by a verbal slippage.” She insists that intellectual should attempt to know the Other and to not take the power position of interpreting the Other from the perspective of the One. The result is ironic: Michel Foucault had previously written about “epistemic violence” when a discourse is imposed upon a silenced group, and Spivak commented,

..a curious methodological imperative is at work. I have argued that, in the Foucault-Deleuze conversation, a postrepresentationalist vocabulary hides and essentialist agenda. In subaltern studies, because of the violence of imperialist epistemic, social, and disciplinary inscription, a project understood in essentialist terms must traffic in a radical textual practice of differences.

The issue of representation is critical here. By the time Spivak is writing, Foucauldrian thought has already been applied to a critique of those in power representing those not in power. Nevertheless, Deleuze and Foucault “represent” the oppressed group and speak for the “subaltern” while assuming that they themselves are self-knowing and transparent. Marx, who had a black son-in-law, refused to acknowledge that the oppressed masses of Europe could speak for themselves. They must be spoken for. Marx made a distinction between “Vertretung” or representation in the political context in terms of substitution in which the society is subordinated to itself and “Darstellung” the philosophical concept of representation in the sense of staging or signification.

Spivak pointed out that Edward Said also criticized Foucault for being complicit in the maintenance of power over oppressed people by mystifying power and by ignoring institutional responsibility. Said, a Palestinian in exile at Columbia University, maintained that Foucault and other European intellectuals, was caught up in the constitution of Europe as Subject. The Other is represented by the intellectual as, according to Spivak, “the Self’s shadow.” Both writers agree the position of the One is “epistemic violence,” the “heterogeneous project” to constitute the Colonial Subject as the Other. The activity of the intellectual One results in “an asymmetrical obliteration of the trace of the Other.” As she wrote,

This S/subject, curiously sewn together into a transparency by denegations, belongs to the exploiters’ side of the international division of labor. It is impossible for contemporary French intellectuals to imagine the kind of Power and Desire that would inhabit the unnamed subject of the Other of Europe.

Spivak charged that the nostalgia for lost origins is detrimental to any social realism within the critique of imperialism. In other words, the concern for the “oppressed” hides a privileging of the intellectual and of the study of oppression (over a study of the oppressed). Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) asked if Deconstruction could lead to actual practice: how to keep the Ethnocentric subject from establishing itself by selectively defining the Other. The problem is benevolent Western intellectuals. Spivak took up the possibility of Deconstructing the presence of the Westerner. Postcolonial critics attempt to displace their own production only by presupposing “text-inscribed blankness” to hide any recognition of the Other by assimilation to the Eurocentric science of writing. Like Fanon, Spivak makes a distinction between the Colonizer and the masses of the Colonized and the assimilated “subaltern.” The subaltern inhabits a buffer zone of in-betweeness or what Derrida referred to as “antre” or a situational indeterminacy. This class resides within the imperialist epistemic, which hides its essentialist agenda.

While Derrida points to the danger of appropriating the Other through this textual assimilation, Spivak noted that he, Derrida, has nothing to say about women. Third World women are triply disadvantaged; they are poor, black, and female. Spivak suggested that the colonies were subjugated through a “narrative of imperialism” and that First World intellectuals do not recognize the fact that the Oppressed can speak about and know their conditions. The subaltern, like women, have only the imperialist narrative just as women have only the phallocentric tradition. Women are silenced within this imperialistic phallocentric tradition. The track of sexual difference is doubly effaced through the ideological construction of gender, which keeps the male dominant. The subaltern female is even more deeply in this shadow. Her consciousness is ignored and unacknowledged and subsumed by masculine radicalism so that she is a historically muted subplot. Spivak wrote,

Subaltern historiography raises questions of method that would prevent it from using such a ruse. For the “figure” of woman, the relationship between women and silence can be plotted by women themselves; race and class differences are subsumed under that charge. Subaltern historiography must confront the impossibility of such gestures. The narrow epistemic violence of imperialism gives us an imperfect allegory of the general violece that is the possibility of the episteme.

The Third World Woman is a monolithic construction that is an imperialist subject production, a project Spivak called “..the ferocious standardizing benevolence..of human-scientific radicalism (recognition by assimilation)..” One never hears these women’s voices, only the voices of the Imperialist who claims to be “white men saving brown women from brown men.” If the Muslim culture puts women under black veils and covers them with long garments, then Western culture shrouds women with discourse and cultural constructions. The figure of the woman disappears and is shuttled back and forth between tradition and modernization. The imperialist measures the “protection” of women as a signifier of a good society.

The subaltern is lost in the colonialist rhetoric, in the imperialist program. Derrida found complicity between European writing, which revealed structures of desire, power, and capitalization. To a woman, a person of color, or to a non-Westerner, this revelation would hardly be surprising. To fight against inclusiveness and assimilation into male discourse as “victims,” it is important to be specific and factual instead of creating “pathetic” critiques of Eurocentrism. Another possibility is to intervene through silence, that is, a refusal to be engaged with an imperialist enterprise. To speak or to be silent? If one cannot speak what difference would silence make? The subaltern is still represented and the woman is still under the “protection” of imperialism. Spivak closes without closure.

The Subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with “woman” as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual has a circumscribed task, which she must not disown with a flourish.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Post-Colonial Theory: Frantz Fanon



Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth

Since the voyages of Columbus, Europeans sought out the territories of the Other, claimed the dark skinned people for slaves, and exploited the resources of those alien “virgin” lands. There are two steps to imperialism: economic imperialism in terms of a trading relationship in which the Europeans dominated the indigenous peoples of South Asia, and Asia and the Middle East and colonialism, in which colonizers are sent to these subjugated territories to either conquer and control them and keep them safe for capitalism. In this dyad of economic exploitation, the Americas were a special case: a huge continental mass supposedly “empty” and “undeveloped” through the inability of the “inferior” natives to properly put the lands to good use offended the European sensibility. Territories left in their virgin state, unclaimed and untamed cried out to be tended and in the colonial era, colonization was a migration to a permanent new home. Colonial Americans, seeing vast spaces in need of cultivation, an undertaking that required cheap of free labor, followed the lead of the British, French, and Dutch and brought in captured Africans to build the new continent.

Elsewhere, the Europeans settled in outposts that were embedded within large already established robust often urban cultures, from Hong Kong to Dubai to New Delhi. The outposts developed from trading stations to centers of conquest and rule, activities that were staffed by military and civilians shipped over from Europe. This ambiguous approach to colonialism in Africa and Asia brought a small but dominant population of Europeans into close contact with a large mass of the original inhabitants. As with American slavery, control could not be only physical–never could such a small number of people effectively control and subdue millions of human beings. As was pointed out in the last post on Albert Memmi, the problem of maintaining dominance was solved through establishing a psychological order of Master and Slave which was internalized by both the colonizer and the colonized alike.

Post-colonial writings have many points of beginning, both European and American, but among the most eloquent were the two books published by Frantz Fanon (1925 – 1960), Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Like Aime Cesaire, Fanon was Caribbean, born in Martinique, one of France’s “possessions,” like Albert Memmi, he studied in France but in Lyon, practiced medicine in Algeria, next door to Tunisia, and like, Memmi experienced the end of colonialism in North Africa. Fanon’s books came out of his experiences with racism as a black man and the struggle for self-determination as the colonized. Like Memmi, he attracted that positive attention and patronage of Jean-Paul Sartre. After a short life and an all-too-short career, he contracted leukemia and went to Baltimore for treatment where he died in 1961 of cancer. In his lifetime, Fanon was little noted but he would be long remembered for his anguished and emotional accounts of what it meant to be the Other. Algeria was the last major French colony to be relinquished to its “rightful owners,” after a long and bloody and repressive war.


Frantz Fanon (1925-1961)

After the war in which they absorbed a humiliating defeat and occupation, the French viewed their former imperial empire from two perspectives–either the empire should be retained as a point of pride or, so as to not mimic the Nazis, the colonies should be set free. The French public was split, left and right, over the ethics of retaining a colony and the immorality of keeping a people in imperial bondage. The French were the colonizer and their dual positions were political ones, but Frantz Fanon viewed the struggle between Algeria and France as one of racial and not religious difference. This political contest between unequals was not just a cultural clash or a quarrel over aspirations but, on a deeper level, there was also a psychotic confrontation between two wounded souls and maimed minds. Fanon sought to analyze the combatants as one would study a patient in need of help.

Educated in the French Hegelian, Marxist, Freudian tradition/s, Fanon asked “What does the Black man want?” He relied on Georg Hegel for his answer: the Black man wants to be recognized by the White man. The problem is that the White man and the Black man are caught up in the master/slave relationship that is not mere theory but is an actual psychosis. “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.” Fanon wrote freely and expressively in his first book, while The Wretched of the Earth, with the preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, is more measured and clinical, a theoretical critique. The early publication date of Black Skin, White Masks–1952–is remarkable, predating the rise of the Civil Rights movement in America and the wars of independence in North Africa. But this book is a shout of anger against the regime of colonialism, a form of rule that had outlived its usefulness. Fanon understood the power of the linguistic construction of opposites, the One and the Other, in which one term subordinates the other term and renders it inferior. The linguistic construction mirrored the domination of the white man over the black man in the colonies and in America. Both sides, guilty and innocent, are trapped in a sick relationship.

Fanon also paralleled the writing of his contemporary, Albert Memmi, who wrote of the “colonizer” and the “colonized”, in appropriate Structuralist language. Fanon dealt with language and pointed out that when the black man speaks the language of the white man, the black man assumes the culture and the civilization of his oppressor. The conqueror has no interest in the culture of the conquered who are considered in need of civilizing. As a result of the civilizing mission the mask of imperialism, colonized people have been stripped of their own languages and, without their own culture, they lived with inferiority complex. The colonized individual is faced with the “superior” culture that dominates her and is “elevated” above “jungle status” only to the extent that he adopts the mother country’s standards, from language to learning.

“I ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of language. To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization,” he wrote. The black man who approaches the white world and attempts to fit in–to learn French, to be educated in France, to live in France–becomes “white” only to his black friends but remains irredeemably “black” among white people. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Fanon writes of what DuBois called “two-ness,” or the sense of being caught between cultures, a state that Fanon called “two dimensions” or “self-division” or what DuBois called “double consciousness.” This self-division is the result of colonialism and subjugation by the colonizer. The result is a psychotic break that is a recognizable mental illness.

Descended from slaves captured in African to work the plantations of the Caribbean, Fanon writes of the mental state of “the modern Negro” as a “clinical study.” “The black man becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.” “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.” The black man wants only to break through this “seal” which is the white belief in white superiority to show the richness of black culture and African intellect. In other words, the black man/slave wants recognition form the white man/master. The black man has only one way out of his inferiority and that escape route is through the white world. The result of this contact or impact of whitening is that the black man is radically changed into what Fanon refereed as an “absolute mutation” with the result of “ego-withdrawal” or “restriction” or a renunciation of authenticity to avoid the pain.

The accommodation of the black man to the white man brings no rewards, only alienation, and this alienation or de-humanization, is the object of Fanon’s study. Writing in the early fifties and early sixties, Fanon could see no way out for either of the parties. “The Negro is enslaved by his inferiority, the white man is enslaved by his superiority”. The neurotic withdrawal of the black man is a defense mechanism and the Negro become abnormal due to the trauma of his encounter with white culture. Desiring the approval of the white man, the black man becomes impaired in his development and becomes one sided. In his deeply felt book, Fanon explains, more eloquently than any Hegelian variation on the One and the Other, what it is like to be judged negatively on the color of one’s skin. Fanon combined psychoanalysis and Marxism, understanding that colonized people were traumatized and could never create their own cultures unless they were truly liberated. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon described the process of “decolonization,”

Decolonization, which sets out to change the oder of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder..Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear to itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and content. Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact owe their originality to that sort of substantification which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. The first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together–that is to say the xpoloiatiaonof the native by he settler–was carried on by dine of a great array of bayonets and cannons. The settler and the nataive are old acquaitances.

Fanon was a warrior and a healer. He actually fought against fascism in the Second World War and was disgusted with the racism of the Allies. The American military was shamefully segregated and racist elements at home in Washington D. C. plotted to prevent soldiers of color from voting in federalized elections. The British military, as well as the Free French, kept their colonials carefully separate. After the war, even the French Communist Party supported the continuation of colonialism, perhaps because to be a colonial power would still mean something to the nation’s prestige. It was his disgust that led Fanon to participate as a revolutionary in the Algerian uprising against their French masters. Fanon also participated, as a teacher, in what we would term terrorist activities. Indeed, modern terrorism has as one of its beginning moments, the war in Algeria. Fanon realized, however, that the revolutionaries were like any other revolutionary power: essentially bourgeois and wanting only to take over power from the French and to maintain the class and religious oppressions that the French had set up. As he stated, “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white.”

Today, Algeria is a fundamentalist Muslim country, a far cry from Fanon’s Marxism vision of equality, even for women. The new interest in Fanon, for the uninitiated, can be dated back to 1995 London conference organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The book published in relation to an exhibition of the same name, Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire is an interesting example of how a writer—Fanon—has been re-contextualized and depoliticized and appropriated for contemporary purposes. The difficulty for the post-colonial writer lies in the famous opposition between the Colonizer and the Colonized, set up in a book of the same name by Fanon’s contemporary, Albert Memmi. To speak and to be heard, it is necessary to speak “in the master’s voice” and thus lose the specificity of one’s own heritage, one’s own voice. Fanon is an interesting writer because his voice was not blunted by accommodation or co-option. Although he died decades before the literary écriture feminine movement in France, Fanon, like Luce Irigaray, was an early disrupter of the politeness of university French. Fanon concluded,

I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world in which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself. And it is by going beyond the historical, instrumental hypothesis that I will initiate my cycle of freedom.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]