Who are the Subaltern?

The post-colonial theory term, subaltern, is often broadly equated with not only those from colonized cultures without a voice in their larger society, but also with all groups that face discrimination – such as women, workers, minority groups in a developed country, etc. Gyatri Spivak, whose seminal work, “Can the Subaltern speak” , helped popularize the term in 1983  argued in a 1992 interview that by so liberally applying that word, there is a risk that the term will lose its initial significance of giving a name to those who are out of the conventional narrative of civilization.

She states “the subaltern is not just a classy word for ‘oppressed’, for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie”, rather “everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is Subaltern – a space of difference”. She states that while the working class is oppressed, they are not subaltern and neither are members of “a discriminated-against minority on the university campus”. The reason for this is that these people are able to see “the mechanics of discrimination” utilized by the hegemonic forces to deny them equal treatment. Merely by being aware of the instruments of oppression that is applied against, these groups have the possibility of speaking up and making their voices heard by their oppressors. This group includes people like Spivak and Dabydeen who have the power of subverting the mainstream narrative.

The truly Subaltern people however, are voiceless because they are completely excluded the spheres of hegemonic discourse. They are unaware of the extent and true cause of their oppression and lack the means to either fully realize or to disseminate their discontent to a wider audience. They live in isolated areas, use localized speech not easily understood by outsiders and have little contact with the hegemonic forces yet is still intimately affected by their every action.

Subaltern peoples are unable to reach their oppressors because of various obstacles such as being unable to speak the majority language as well as the different ways of seeing, knowing, and thinking about the world by different cultures. In order to reach a wider audience, they must compromise their ways of seeing into a form that is easily understood by the oppressor, thereby making any such effort to portray the voice of the subaltern in an unfiltered and authentic manner by definition impossible.

Anyone capable of articulating the plight of the subaltern and the need of greater representation of these powerless and marginalized people in society are by definition  part of the cultural hegemony, therefore, in response to Gyatri’s initial question: no, the subaltern cannot speak, they can only be spoken for.

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