Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea

 

Edited by Rosalind C. Morris, published by Columbia University Press, 2010
 
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s original essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” transformed the analysis of colonialism through an eloquent and uncompromising argument that affirmed the contemporary relevance of Marxism while using deconstructionist methods to explore the international division of labor and capitalism’s “worlding” of the world. Spivak’s essay hones in on the historical and ideological factors that obstruct the possibility of being heard for those who inhabit the periphery. It is a probing interrogation of what it means to have political subjectivity, to be able to access the state, and to suffer the burden of difference in a capitalist system that promises equality yet withholds it at every turn.
 
Since its publication, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” has been cited, invoked, imitated, praised and debated. In these probing essays, eight scholars take stock of the effects and response to Spivak’s work. Opening with a masterful introduction by Morris, which places the essay in an intellectual history of the present, the book’s essays begin with a reflection on the development of subaltern and postcolonial studies and the quest for human rights. Then, through the lens of Spivak’s essay, they rethink historical problems of subalternity, voicing, and death. A final section situates “Can the Subaltern Speak?” within the contemporary context, paying particular attention to the new international divisions of labor and the politics of silence among indigenous women. In an afterword, Spivak herself considers her essay’s past interpretations and future incarnations and the questions and histories that remain secreted in the original and revised versions of “Can the Subaltern Speak?”—both of which are reprinted in this book.