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Critiquing GC Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’

Critiquing GC Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’

chanchal kumar


Chanchal Kumar

chanchal kumarAnybody who has tried reading ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ will accede to the fact that it is a text rooted in the academic discourse. Perhaps that’s the reason why the ideas propounded therein are still considered to be unchallenged, or at least impossible to ignore. I am undertaking the task to bust a few myths surrounding the logic of this essay by Dr Spivak, and I realize I may not be perfect in doing so. My attempt is rather an effort to anticipate more engagements with Dr Spivak’s work through the lens of Bahujan thought. This is my intention behind writing this critique.

Let’s now delve into what I think is the central flaw in Spivak’s writing. She starts her seminal work by calling attention to her own positionality as a woman in a world of western thought hitherto dominated by men: she starts by naming Althusser in the first paragraph and continues to mention Derrida and Marx in the second, and the reader is assured that it is going to be an easy win for Spivak, who is not only a woman but also a Brown woman with roots in India. Until someone who her kins suppress and exploit does not rise to talk back to her, she will remain unchallenged in the world of academic thought.

Throughout the essay, and around most of her career, Spivak has taken on the role of the poor, weak Brown Indian woman oppressed by men from Europe and America, while expertly hiding the fact that she herself belongs to the elite Bengali Brahmin caste which has oppressed, and continues to oppress millions of people in South Asia. Through an elaborate trick, she hoodwinks the entire world into believing that the Brahmin woman is the most oppressed section of population on the Earth. The truth, in actuality, is something just the reverse of what she wants everyone to believe. By constantly naming and engaging with Eurocentric thought, and building her arguments on the grave of the most acclaimed western philosopher Derrida, she emerges as the lone surviving warrior who can take on such heavyweights as the names mentioned above. Now, considering that academia is dominated either by White or Brahmin men, Spivak’s primacy as a renowned scholar is confirmed.

Let’s now shuffle through the chaff and get into the narrative that Spivak builds into Can the Subaltern Speak. Just as she builds her argument after destroying the validity, in a sense, of the Western academics, similarly she upholds the primacy of the Bengali Brahmin woman. She speaks of a martyr woman during India’s freedom struggle who died by suicide during the time she was menstruating. This served a double purpose, that of proving her chastity and sacrificing her life for the cause of the nation. This historical incident confirms her thesis according to her, that the “subaltern” cannot speak. The subaltern can only convey their message through their body, after they are no more alive.

The questions that should be put forward to Dr Spivak are as follows: How can she, being of the oppressor Bengali Brahmin caste, pass a judgment condemning the lives of the marginalized and those without agency? What does she know about the experiences of the oppressed being from the dominant caste herself? Is this not a case of the Brahmins being cruelly insensitive to the aspirations and dreams of millions of the poor and impoverished? Isn’t she trying to determine the futures of people she has never seen and does not in the least know? In her recent interview, Spivak mentions how she has undertaken the task of educating children from the most underprivileged sections of rural Bengal.

My question is, why do Brahmins always feel the need to play saviors of those who oppress? Why can’t they first see to it that their own house is in order, to borrow a phrase from Black thought. When the entire world is undergoing a process of introspection and realizing the effects their actions have on others, why do people like Spivak pretend to be above human standards of right and wrong? Does she really believe to be a bhu-deva, or a God on Earth, who everybody must worship and appease? If she does, then it is high time she consult a psychiatrist who will help her find the human side of her personality. We, Ambedkarite Buddhists have had enough of the tantrums and wishful thinking of these self-appointed guardians of humanity. We are here to assert that we are capable enough to take care of ourselves.



 Chanchal Kumar is from Jharkhand and currently lives in Delhi, India. His poems have previously appeared and awarded in The Sunflower Collective, Hamilton Stone Review, Welter Journal, Name and None, Young Poets Network, UK including others. Recently, his poems were translated to Bengali by Harakiri Journal. He is pursuing M.Phil at University of Delhi.

(1) Comment

  1. Interesting comment on a publication from the 1980s addressing a specific audience (namely white). I am Dalit and I share in your concerns about the dominance of savarna Hindus and white people in academia. I also share in the concern that Dalit issues and struggles are swept under the carpet in the name of ‘postcolonial critique’. But have you really followed Spivak beyond the 1980s article? I grew up in South India, but since moving to the U.K. and living here, I think I realise how I’ve had to learn to emphasise different aspects depending on who my audience is. The purpose is to ‘speak truth to power’. It’s not always helpful to speak about caste issues to a bunch of white academics who refuse to acknowledge system racism and white dominance. In other contexts that are big on postcolonial critique, I speak about caste oppression, violence and murders – as a precolonial phenomenon. I think it’s important to know who one is writing to and what their work in the contexts they were writing was meant to do.

    I hope in our careers no one pulls out your or my work from 40-50 years ago and fail to locate the writing in its original context.

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