Speaking of/for the Subaltern, Again

12 Jun

I was reading an essay by John Lie about the situation of foreign workers in Japan that pointed out the problematic way in which such workers are often regarded, by progressives and conservatives alike, as “impoverished and lower class”, regardless of educational and status attainments in their home country, establishing a juxtaposition that lumps both “college-educated and illiterate” foreign workers into one category against the “affluent, middle-class Japanese” (74, ref. below):

“Ironically, politically progressive people most clearly articulated the contrast between Japanese and the new foreign workers. Claiming to be sympathetic to their plight, one self-appointed supporter of foreign workers’ struggle argued that they should be allowed to work in Japan because they are pitiful (kawaisou) and poor (mazushii). Progressive Japanese analyses therefore highlighted external, structural factors, such as poverty, rather than individual desires and initiatives (Tou 1992: 29-33). It is, of course, misleading to emphasize only the exploitation and the pathos of the new foreign workers. After all, most of them enter Japan voluntarily and consciously endure the demanding working conditions.” (John Lie, “The discourse of Japaneseness,” in Japan and Global Migration: Foreign Workers and the Advent of a Multicultural Society. Eds. Mike Douglass and Glenda S. Roberts, Hawaii: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2003. 70-90, 74.)

Japan, of course, is not the only place where the noblesse oblige of the educated and liberal proves problematic. The contemporary Western academy has for some time attempted to counter this pouboir/savoir problem with all sorts of reflexive and self-distancing measures. Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak” has enjoyed a good deal of citation, no doubt partly because, like Said’s Orientalism, its provocative, polemical elements, aimed as a wake-up call, drew wide attention. The essential argument of Spivak’s essay is something of a logical fallacy – that if the subaltern even could speak, they would not be subaltern anymore – is overstated, and it is not surprising that Spivak has since allowed for a good deal of possibility that the subaltern can somehow be heard in the dominant or hegemonic register, writing:

“It is the disenfranchised who teaches us most often by saying: I do not recognize myself in the object of your benevolence. I do not recognize my share in your naming…she tells us if we care to hear…that she is not the literal referent for our frenzied naming of woman in the scramble for legitimacy in the house of theory” (“More on Power/Knowledge” and “Feminism and Deconstruction, Again”, Outside in the Teaching Machine, 48 and 137).

As Bart Moore-Gilbert remarks, “Like Said’s Orientalism, which is also ostensibly so concerned to undermine the equation of the West with ‘voice’ and the East with ‘silence’, an essay like ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ actually ends up by constructing the subaltern as the West’s ‘silent interlocutor’. (Moore-Gilbert also offers an excellent single-sentence summation of the ambiguity at the heart of Orientalism: “the question of whether Westerners are ontologically incapable of ‘disinterested’ or ‘true’ knowledge of the non-West”, Postcolonial Theory 110). Perhaps the greatest irony of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in this respect is that if Spivak’s account of subaltern silence were true, then there would be nothing but that non-subaltern (particularly the West and the native elite) left to speak to or write about” (Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics. London and NY: Verso, 1997, 104). Bruce Robbins has criticised Spivak for repeating the gesture of speaking for/in place of the subaltern in Foucault and Deleuze. Writing in defence of Said against similar charges, he note: “The critic who accuses another of speaking for the subaltern by denying that subalterns can speak for themselves, for example, is of course also claiming to speak for them” (Bruce Robbins, “The East is a Career: Edward Said and the Logics of Professionalism” in Sprinker, Edward Said 50; see Parry, “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse”, 39, for a critique of Spivak’s “deafness” to the voice of the Other).


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