The Book Review
Volume XXI Number 6 June 1997 p. 5-7
The Subaltern Studies series has established itself as a touchstone for research in South Asian history, society and culture. Each volume is ensured its loyal readership that has expanded beyond the horizons of students of (subaltern) history, which was where it all began many years back. In recognition of this shift -- or broadening -- the more recent volumes have brought together essays that are no longer confined to the discipline of history, displaying, as the editors of this collection describe it, the Collective's "engagements with more contemporary problems and theoretical formations". This expansion of critical and theoretical scope has benefited the fast growing body of South Asian sociocultural studies, providing it with the (predictable, but) dependable subalternist slant, routed, usefully, through history.
The present volume (IX), edited by two members of the Subaltern Studies Collective, is made up of nine essays, three of which were presented earlier at seminars/ lectures. As Amin and Dipesh Chakrabarty explain in their preface, the aim of the Editorial Collective is to publish "new and original research on aspects of subalternity in colonial and contemporary South Asia"; the politics of publishing and marketing demands, of course, that we accept that the new and original research comes, most often, from old and established names in the field of historical and socio-cultural scholarship. And so we encounter, once again, erudite essays from Ranajit Guha, Gyan Prakash, Susie Tharu and Tejaswini Niranjana and David Lloyd, amongst others. The subjects under scrutiny range from a re-examination of the place of subalternist histories/stories in critical studies, to explorations of writing/orality/ power in two forest communities of western India, nationalist ideology and historiography, and subalternity and science, the partition, politics, gender, labour and Irish "new histories". There is something in it for almost everyone with an interest in subalternist perspectives.
In the opener, Ranajit Guha (re)considers 'The Small Voice of History': which is an evaluation of where, and how, the "small" voices could assume mythic proportions of authority, given a hearing. He names the ideology of nominating authority to certain events (as "historic") statism that which authorizes the dominant values of the state to determine the criteria of the historic and then examines the inadequacy of this ideology for a truly Indian historiography, given that it was introduced in India by the British in the nineteenth century, and suffers from, a predilection to speak "to us in the commanding voice of the state which by presuming to nominate the historic for us leaves us with no choice about our own relation to the past".
Guha instructs us on how to be a discerning student of history by making the extra effort to hear, and interact with, the small voices that are otherwise drowned in the cacophony of statist commands.To clarify, he goes to some of the stories that the small voices tell. To begin, he takes us back to nineteenth- century Bengal, to a story of sickness and sin, where diseases of the body (leprosy, asthma, tuberculosis) were equated with afflictions of the soul, and the colonialist enterprise enlisted the help of "soap and the Bible" to cure and convert. To continue much more interestingly, Guha interrogates the statism which prevails in nationalist and (++Page 6) Marxist discourses as well. The referent in both of these is a state that differs in a significant respect from that in colonialist writing. The difference is one between power realized in a well-formed. and well established regime of many years' standing and power that is yet to actualize; a dream of power". He then concentrates on the particularly complex articulation of "statism" within left-nationalist and Marxist writing by re- examining the documentation of the Telangana Uprising of the 1940's in Andhra Pradesh through the less-heard voices of the women who participated in the struggle and emerged cheated and pained from it for the non-realisation of their own liberationist agendas. Guha sets the tone of the volume by demanding a hearing for the "despair and determination in woman's voice, the voice of a defiant subalternity committed to writing its own history".
Ajay Skaria in "Writing, Orality and Power in the Dangs, Western India, 1800-1920" explores the subalterns' perception of writing as a weapon of the dominant. He begins by looking at the notion that non-literate communities perceive the power of writing as "magical" (Goody, Henige, Levi-Strauss, Guha), part of a "myth-model which glossed over conquest and domination to focus on the civilized European whose technologies bedazzled and awed the colonized primitive." Of course, this myth assumed that literacy was characteristic of "civilized" societies while orality was symptomatic of a mentality that is described by Walter Ong as additive, aggregative, redundant or copious, traditionalist, empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced, situational rather than abstract. Derrida, however, has undermined the presuppositions that make the distinctions between oral and literate mentalities possible, by arguing that despite the affirmation of the civilizational role of writing in the West, the spoken word has been privileged; he calls this "logocentrism. . . nothing but the most original and powerful ethnocentrism". Skaria explores this Derridian dictum in the light of his anthropological study of the Dangs in Western India, and argues that despite its insights, Derrida's is a deeply problematic approach that ignores the relations of power involved in writing; the very fact that the meanings of various forms of writing in the Dangs changed considerably in the course of a century (with the consolidation of British authority) proves that earlier perceived notions of the power relations between oral and written documents were subject to modification by changing notions of political power and authority. Written documents -- or simply, books -- often became "embodiments of fetishized writing", "assertions of the subaltern right to write", restating, "in the baldest and most moving terms, the subaltern perception of writing as a desirable, dangerous instrument of elite domination, one that has to be both challenged and incorporated."
In a most involved and very interesting piece of theorizing, Gyan Prakash reads "Science Between the Lines" to posit a theory about translation as a site for negotiating and realigning incommensurate colonizer-colonized positions. Starting with Ashis Nandy's premise that colonial rule produced an enduring dominance of the ideology of modern science, he makes a departure in order to "offer another understanding of modemity's historKin colonial India": he considers, instead, the premise of Rajendralal Mitra, a nineteenth-century Bengali Orientalist and intellectual, that the question of the diffusion of western science in British India could be treated as an issue of translation. Cyan Prakash appreciates Mitra's recognition of the problem of translating western science into Indian languages (that it could not be a "Chinese copy"), because translation was a form of aligning and realigning non-equivalent languages, and transforming one into another. This process "exposed science to the contagion of the subordinated, indigenous culture in which its authority was represented. There ensued, then, the dissemination, not dialectic, of western science and indigenous culture from which neither one nor the other could appear in its'original' position". This calls, Prakash feels, for placing the discourse of science in what Walter Benjamin called an "interlinear", or between the lines, translation: "Translation turns our attention to the undoing of binaries and borders entailed in the authorization of the [scientific] discourse, and ithighlights them as those productive in-between strategies and spacesin which an authoritative discourse takes shape". If the coming of science/ modernity to the colonies represented a "second colonization", GyanPrakash says that it functioned as a renegotiation, as "a form of translation between the lines"; in the ensuing struggle between traditional entities and new scientific knowledge, repressed knowledges and subjects returned as figures of subalternityto reclaim some ground.
Kamala Visweswaran's essay, "Small Speeches, Subaltern Gender: Nationalist Ideology and Its Historiography" is refreshing in that it interrogates Subaltern Studies even while it participates in the Collective's ongoing deliberations on subalternity. She begins by retrieving Spivak's seminal "Can the Subaltern Speak?" essay from the dusty archives and challenging it: "What are the places subaltern speech is denied; the ways in which it is contained; the moments when an act of speech might puncture, even rupture, official discourse?" Visweswaran's essay takes as its point of departure the problematics of retrieving speech, and of constituting certain gendered subjects as subaltern; she asks how it is that subalternity is inflected by gender, which is where she feels that the Subalternists have failed to provide adequate answers, because to them, "either gender is subsumed under the categories of caste and class, or gender is seen to mark a social group apart from other subalterns (which is symptomatic of the formulation' women and the subaltern')". Visweswaran, by initially distinguishing between the figure of 'Woman' (universalized, essentialized) as subaltern and subaltern women, appears to locate her argument in the non- essentialized subject Her analysis focuses on colonialist strategies for the containment of women's agency in the nationalist movement -- identified with the discursive process of domesticization -- through the reading of records from the Madras Presidency, in which she discerns dual strategies of containment: "Women are not admitted as proper subjects of the discourse, but it does register and seek to contain their agency'. It is in this moment of oscillation, and tension, that Visweswaran recognizes the effect where the gendered subaltern is felt -- both Woman as subaltern, and subaltern women.
Shail Mayaram also investigates the politics of speaking and silencing: in "Speech, Silence and the Making of Partition Violence in Mewat", she explores the organization, experience and representation of violence that accompanied the partition of India, with Mewat in north-eastern Rajasthan as her region of study. The particular issue that she problematizes is the relation between speech and silence, and the apparent constructions of truth that accompany it with reference to questions of "victim" and "victimization". She distinguishes between consensual and non-consensual forms of violence; in the absence of the consent of the victim, the creation of a moral ideology on the part of the victimizer then (re)constructs the violence as counter-violence, thereby representing it as necessary and the self as the (fictive) victim. These processes are aided by the facts and fictions that are associated with speech and silence. Mayaram footnotes Lyotard's analyses of the silent/ silenced victims of Auschwitz in The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (trnsl. 1988), where he argues that silence surrounds the (spoken, written) phrases and that silence itself is a phrase, and exposes the problematic inherent to having faith, as a historian and political anthropologist, in "records". In investigating the Mewat records of partition violence, Mayaram concludes that "writing is the clue to both the representation and obliteration of violence.. it is counterposed by the lexical reordering in the speech of victims... [but].. the issue of speech as ripping silence is, however, not quite as straightforward. Layers of silence mask both inscription and speech, and obliterate annihilatory practice."
The editors, in the preface, have made a startling revelation, that the essay by Kancha Illaih in this volume marks the first time that the Collective has engaged with contemporary discussions of Dalitbahujan politics in India. Illaih reiterates this, in a rather more brusque fashion, at the start of his essay: "Mainstream historiography has done nothing to incorporate the Dalitbahujan perspective in the writing of Indian history: Subaltern Studies is no exception to this". Pointing to an alarming trend in recent Hindu politics and historiography to coopt the Dalitbahujan into the fold (as "fallen" Hindus) and deny them a different and unique history, Illaih in this essay intends to "make the personal political" by constructing a new narrative and text for the Dalithahujans. Simply told, the life that he narrates encompasses an entire history that clearly needs to be perceived in its separateness from the larger Hindu ("Brahminical") narrative that seeks to swallow it: from birth, through adolescence and adulthood, from languages, schooling, food, ideals ("Hindu Ideals and Our Ideals"), caste and power, gods and goddesses, daily routines and gender divisions, to two last sections entitled, ominously, "Brahminical Death" and "Dalitbahujan Death", Illaih's intent is clear and loud, that he seeks to assert difference. The message certainly cannot be (dis)missed.
Vivek Dhareshwar and R. Srivatsan, in "Rowdy-sheeters": An Essay on Subalternity and Politics: examine the figure of the "rowdy" or "lumpen" in contemporary Indian socio-politics, with particular reference to what the middle-class in India like to see as "the criminalization of politics". They raise this question: "If we take the term 'subalternity' as a shorthand for the critique of various 'norming' and exclusionary narratives, such as the nation, secularism, citizenship, etc. can one use that critique to interrogate the everyday practice of 'citizenship' (or 'democracy') that sustain and define our conception of the public sphere? In other words, can subalternity, as a critical category and as an approach, help destabilize existing political identities and conceptualize new ones?" This is the question that is raised through their analysis of the "rowdy-sheet", a record that all police stations in the cities and towns of Andhra Pradesh keep of a rowdy; through theirinterviews with the police and their conversations (++Page 7) with the "referents" or "potential referents". In turn, the question behind that of destabilizing existing political identities is raised: "how to conceive of democratic politics around the rights of citizenship if the very discourse of citizenship contains within itself a drive to differentiate , to double"? There is of course no satisfactory answer, except for Dhareshwar and Srivatsan to concede that "these concepts -- citizenship, rights -- themselves have a politics; there is, in other words, a politics of citizenship that is not external to the forms of power that produces and reproduces the 'rowdy'. . . if there is an aporia involved in demanding that democratic politics interrogate our political modernity, then it irreducibly defines our political present".
"Suddenly", write Susie Tharu and Tejaswini Niranjana, "'women are everywhere". In "Problems for a Contemporary Theory of Gender", Tharu and Niranjana interrogate this new visibility of women across the political and social spectrum, and attempt to understand the problems that have grown along with this phenomenon in the early 1990s: "a wide range of issues rendered critical by feminism are now being invested in and annexed by projects that contain and deflect that initiative. . .the crisis of feminism is clearly related to the crisis of democracy and secularism in our times". They investigate the contradictions that confront gender analysis today, and the relationship of these contradictions to the gender, caste, class and community composition of the "subject" in the dominant order. They call for an investigation and critique of the so-called "humanist" practices that legitimize bourgeois and patriarchal interests, also configuring the "subject of feminism". To illustrate their reading of 1990s feminism as disabled by hegemonic mobilizations, they analyze the "metonyms" of feminist participation in the Mandal and Chunduru agitations, and in movements as diverse as the Hindutva, the anti-arrack, and the procontraceptive-choice; though the essay concentrates on the disabling effect of alliances between feminist and other democratic political initiatives, Tharu and Niranjana hope that this will be "a crucial first step in the shaping of a feminism capable of a counter-hegemonic politics adequate to our times."
One is not sure how or why the categorization of David Lloyd's essay as "Discussion" distinguishes it from the other eight in the volume but apparently this is in keeping with the series' overarching scheme. Is there an implied tentativeness here, in comparison to the rest? Aren't all essays (which is what Lloyd calls his anyway) discussions of a sort? One is intrigued. In any case, Lloyd's subject takes subalternity out of South Asia, into "post-colonialism"at large. His essay, as he says, has a "threefold agenda": to account for recent shifts-in Irish historiography that align some of its critical praxis with the Subaltern school, to explore its implications for Irish cultural studies particularly in its critique of enlightenment assumptions, and to engage with such critiques, especially those from feminist perspectives, as they are practised under the rubrics of subalternity or post-colonialism. Lloyd begins by looking at the large body of non-homogenous "revisionist histories" that have emerged in Ireland in contestation of nationalist narratives, of agrarian, local, social, class, anti- imperial and women's movements. Much of the contradiction in the development of Irish postcolonial identity, says Lloyd, can be traced to an "ideological necessity by which the state was constituted around a conservative cultural identity whose traditionalism conflicts with concepts of abstract individual rights that are fundamental to the idea of the modem state". Feminist critiques have questioned both the conservatism of the Irish states and the presumed conservatism of Irish communities. Lloyd refers to the constitution of 1937 that explicitly divided masculine and feminine spheres within cultural and social spaces, and argues for adequate documentation and analyses of these spheres, whether seen "merely as effects of colonial damage or as resources for alternative visions of cultural life... The consideration that in fact social forms regarded as damaged ... may nonetheless represent resources for alternative projects, is fundamental to the possibilities I am seeking to draw from Irish subaltern historiography".
Certainly, and expectedly, in this volume, subalterns are everywhere, and there is nothing sudden or surprising about it anymore. In fact, the Collective, as it presumably plans its next volume that will take them into double figures, will need to guard against the staling effect that is the very doom of academic endeavour. The Subalternists appear to be caught in a peculiar bind: that of indispensibility coupled with a kind of debilitating predictability. And while, there is little else as energizing as the knowledge that one cannot be done without, the lurking fear that something akin to the effect of boredom hides beneath all the glory can be truly enervating. It is clearly time for the school to interrogate its own praxis (as a couple of essays in this volume have refreshingly attempted), and to -- forgive the unfortunate metaphor -- rise above its emergent limitations.
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Brinda Bose teaches in the Department of English, Hindu College, Delhi University, and researches in postcolonial theory, literature, gender and culture.
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