Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory / Edition 1

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The term “subalternity” refers to a condition of subordination brought about by colonization or other forms of economic, social, racial, linguistic, and/or cultural dominance. Subaltern studies is, therefore, a study of power. Who has it and who does not. Who is gaining it and who is losing it. Power is intimately related to questions of representation—to which representations have cognitive authority and can secure hegemony and which do not and cannot. In this book John Beverley examines the relationship between subalternity and representation by analyzing the ways in which that relationship has been played out in the domain of Latin American studies.

Dismissed by some as simply another new fashion in the critique of culture and by others as a postmarxist heresy, subaltern studies began with the work of Ranajit Guha and the South Asian Subaltern Studies collective in the 1980s. Beverley’s focus on Latin America, however, is evidence of the growing province of this field. In assessing subaltern studies’ purposes and methods, the potential dangers it presents, and its interactions with deconstruction, poststructuralism, cultural studies, Marxism, and political theory, Beverley builds his discussion around a single, provocative question: How can academic knowledge seek to represent the subaltern when that knowledge is itself implicated in the practices that construct the subaltern as such? In his search for answers, he grapples with a number of issues, notably the 1998 debate between David Stoll and Rigoberta Menchú over her award-winning testimonial narrative, I, Rigoberta Menchú. Other topics explored include the concept of civil society, Florencia Mallon’s influential Peasant and Nation, the relationship between the Latin American “lettered city” and the Túpac Amaru rebellion of 1780–1783, the ideas of transculturation and hybridity in postcolonial studies and Latin American cultural studies, multiculturalism, and the relationship between populism, popular culture, and the “national-popular” in conditions of globalization.

This critique and defense of subaltern studies offers a compendium of insights into a new form of knowledge and knowledge production. It will interest those studying postcolonialism, political science, cultural studies, and Latin American culture, history, and literature.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Bringing together aspects of cultural studies, Latin American studies, postcolonial theory, and subaltern studies, this is an important book. . . .” - K. Tölölyan, Choice

“[An] excellent book. . . . It is impossible to convey the richness and complexity of this book . . . I urge everyone interested in cultural politics and political culture at the dawn of the millennium to read it without delay.” - Edward Baker, Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies

"John Beverley’s Subalternity and Representation is an important and timely work. . . . It is, unquestionably, an invaluable addition to the field of cultural studies particularly for academic institutions interested in creating and/or maintaining dynamic programs capable of responding to the ever-changing landscapes of culture and identity. So too, for Latin American studies, Subalternity offers the opportunity to engage more fully and more critically the myriad of experiences and expressions that make up this New World." - Shelly Jarrett Bromberg, Jouvert

"The tensions in Beverly's work indicate not so much a personal failure as the stubbornly difficult nature of the political and theoretical problems he investigates. Finally, the most important lesson he wishes us to learn-that academics must assume 'a new kind of responsibility for what we say and do'-is one with which even his harshest critic could agree." - Joseph Flanagan, interventions

“A brilliant discussion of current debates in cultural studies and subaltern studies. Beverley’s style is vibrant, irreverent, subversive, and a pleasure to read. This is clearly one of the most interesting contributions to subaltern studies since Ranajit Guha’s definition of the field in the early 1980s.”—José Rabasa, University of California, Berkeley

“An excellent, compelling overview and mise en question of subaltern studies. At once clear and conceptually sophisticated, this book engagingly rehearses many of the basic issues, texts and problems of the field but is in no way derivative. It is an intelligent, thorough, thoughtful ‘reading’ of an increasingly important area of study.”— Brad Epps, Harvard University

Edward Baker
“[An] excellent book. . . . It is impossible to convey the richness and complexity of this book . . . I urge everyone interested in cultural politics and political culture at the dawn of the millennium to read it without delay.”
K. Tölölyan
“Bringing together aspects of cultural studies, Latin American studies, postcolonial theory, and subaltern studies, this is an important book. . . .”
Shelly Jarrett Bromberg
"John Beverley’s Subalternity and Representation is an important and timely work. . . . It is, unquestionably, an invaluable addition to the field of cultural studies particularly for academic institutions interested in creating and/or maintaining dynamic programs capable of responding to the ever-changing landscapes of culture and identity. So too, for Latin American studies, Subalternity offers the opportunity to engage more fully and more critically the myriad of experiences and expressions that make up this New World."
Joseph Flanagan
"The tensions in Beverly's work indicate not so much a personal failure as the stubbornly difficult nature of the political and theoretical problems he investigates. Finally, the most important lesson he wishes us to learn-that academics must assume 'a new kind of responsibility for what we say and do'-is one with which even his harshest critic could agree."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822324164
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 12/28/1999
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.84 (w) x 9.18 (h) x 0.67 (d)

Meet the Author

John Beverley is Professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the coauthor of Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions, author of Against Literature and Una Modernidad Obsoleta: Estudios sobre el Barroco, and coeditor of The Postmodernism Debate in Latin America.

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Read an Excerpt

Subalternity and Representation

Arguments in Cultural Theory

By John Beverley

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8219-5


Writing in Reverse: The Subaltern and the Limits of Academic Knowledge

Jacques Lacan told the following story in his Seminar:

I was in my early twenties or thereabouts—and at the time, of course, being a young intellectual, I wanted desperately to get away, see something different, throw myself into something practical, something physical, in the country say, or at sea. One day, I was on a small boat, with a few people from a family of fishermen in a small port. At the time, Brittany was not as industrialized as it is now. There were no trawlers. The fisherman went out in his frail craft at his own risk. It was this risk, this danger, that I loved to share. But it wasn't all danger and excitement—there were also fine days. One day, then, as we were waiting for the moment to pull in the nets, an individual known as Petit-Jean, that's what we called him—like all his family, he died very young from tuberculosis, which at that time was a constant threat to the whole of that social class—this Petit-Jean pointed out to me something floating on the surface of the waves. It was a small can, a sardine can. It floated there in the sun, a witness to the canning industry, which we, in fact, were supposed to supply. It glittered in the sun. And Petit-Jean said to me—You see that can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn't see you!

He found this incident highly amusing—I less so. I thought about it. Why did I find it less amusing than he? It's an interesting question.... The point of this little story, as it had occurred to my partner, the fact that he found it so funny and I less so, derives from the fact that, if I am told a story like that one, it is because I, at that moment—as I appeared to those fellows who were earning their livings with great difficulty, in the struggle with what was for them a pitiless nature—looked like nothing on earth. In short, I was rather out of place in the picture. And it was because I felt this that I was not terribly amused at hearing myself addressed in this humourous, ironical way.

I am using the figure of Lacan here to stand for the dominant subject of knowledge—the "master thinker." Lacan intended this "little story" to illustrate his theory of the relation between the subject and the visual field (it forms part of his lectures on the gaze and scopic pleasure). But it is also a story about subalternity and representation—in this case, about how the subaltern represents the dominant subject to itself, and thus unsettles that subject, in the form of a negation or displacement: "I was rather out of place in the picture."

In Ranajit Guha's succinct definition, the word subaltern is "a name for the general attribute of subordination ... whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender and office or in any other way." "In any other way" might surely be understood to include the distinction between educated and not (or partially) educated that the apprenticeship in academic or professional knowledge confers. That is what Lacan expresses, from the other side of the subaltern/dominant split, when he says that, as a young intellectual, he wanted to "see something different"—in effect, to exchange the position of the master, alienated from the world of labor and matter, for that of the slave.

For Guha, as for Lacan, the category that defines subaltern identity or "will" is Negation. Guha's epigraph for Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency is a passage in Sanskrit from Buddhist scripture, which he translates as follows:

(Buddha to Assalayana): "What do you think about this, Assalayana? Have you heard that in Yona and Kamboja and other neighboring janapadas there are only two varnas, the master and the slave? And that having been a master one becomes a slave; having been a slave one becomes a master?"

To access the peasant rebel as a subject of history requires a corresponding epistemological inversion: "the documentation on insurgency must itself be turned upside down in order to reconstitute the insurgent's project at reversing the world" (Aspects 333). The problem is that the empirical fact of these rebellions is captured precisely in the language, and the corresponding cultural assumptions, of the elites—both native and colonial—the rebellions were directed against. Such a dependency, Guha argues, betrays a bias in the very construction of colonial and postcolonial historiography in favor of the written record and ruling classes and their agents, whose status as such is partly constituted by their mastery of literacy and writing. This bias, evident even in forms of historiography sympathetic to the insurgents, "excludes the rebel as the conscious subject of his own history and incorporates the latter as only a contingent element in another history with another subject" (Aspects 77). Thus, "the historical phenomenon of peasant insurgency meets the eye for the first time as an image framed in the prose, hence the outlook, of counter-insurgency.... Inscribed in elite discourse, it had to be read as a writing in reverse" (Aspects 333). (Lacan's story is about a kind of seeing in reverse.)

Guha means by "the prose ... of counter-insurgency" not only the record contained in the nineteenth-century colonial archive, but also the use, including the use in the present, of that archive to construct the bureaucratic and academic discourses (historical, ethnographic, literary, and so on) that purport to represent these peasant insurgencies and place them in a teleological narrative of state formation. He is concerned with the way in which "the sense of history [is] converted into an element of administrative concern" in these narratives. Since the subaltern is conceptualized and experienced in the first place as something that lacks the power of (self) representation, "by making the security of the state into the central problematic of peasant insurgency," these narratives (of perfection of the state, of lawlessness, of transitions between historical stages, of modernization) necessarily deny the peasant rebel "recognition as a subject of history in his own right even for a project that was all his own" (Aspects 3).

Guha's project is to recover or re-present the subaltern as a subject of history—"an entity whose will and reason constituted the praxis called rebellion"—from the welter of documentary and historiographic discourses that deny the subaltern that power of agency. In that sense, as Edward Said observes in his presentation of the work of the South Asian Subaltern Studies Group, it is a continuation of the insurgency it represents historically. But that means that subaltern studies cannot be not simply a discourse "about" the subaltern. What would be the point, after all, of representing the subaltern as subaltern? Nor is subaltern studies simply about peasants or the historical past. It appears and develops as an academic practice in a contemporary setting in which globalization is producing new patterns of domination and exploitation and reinforcing older ones. It responds to the pressure on the university and research and policy institutions to produce the knowledges appropriate to the task of understanding and administering increasingly multicultural populations and a heterogenous transnational working class. Subaltern studies is not only a new form of academic knowledge production, then; it must also be a way of intervening politically in that production on the side of the subaltern.

There is a passage in Richard Rodriguez's autobiographical essay Hunger of Memory that retells Lacan's story from the other side, the side where the dominant emerges into consciousness of itself as such in a movement of differentiation and splitting from the subaltern. It captures eloquently how academic knowledge is implicated in the social construction of subalternity and, vice versa, how the emergence of the subaltern into hegemony necessarily disrupts that knowledge. Hunger of Memory tells the story of Rodriguez's apprenticeship as a Chicano "scholarship boy" majoring in English, first at Stanford and then, as a graduate student, at Berkeley, which gave him the chance to transcend his parochial (in his view), working-class, Spanish-speaking family background. Returning from college to his old neighborhood in Sacramento to take a summer job, Rodriguez observes of his fellow workers:

The wages those Mexicans received for their labor were only a measure of their disadvantaged condition. Their silence is more telling. They lack a public identity. They remain profoundly alien.... Their silence stays with me. I have taken these many words to describe its impact. Only: the quiet. Something uncanny about it. Its compliance. Vulnerability. Pathos. As I heard their truck rumbling away, I shuddered, my face mirrored with sweat. I had finally come face to face with los pobres.

What Rodriguez means by los pobres is, of course, what Guha means by the subaltern. In fact, I know of no more exact description of the production of subaltern identity as the "necessary antithesis" (the phrase is Guha's) of a dominant subject than this brief passage, built on a conceptual binary of verbal fluency-power versus mutism-subalternity, which as writing the passage also enacts performatively. Though it is not without marks of conflict and irremediable loss that its neoconservative admirers often tend to overlook, Hunger of Memory is ultimately a celebration of the power of the university, the traditional humanities curriculum in literature, and English writing skills in particular, to give a "'socially disadvantaged' child," as Rodriguez describes himself, a sense of self and personal agency.

By contrast, readers of I, Rigoberta Menchú, which is also an autobiographical text about how one negotiates between subaltern and elite status in the Americas, will recall that it begins with a strategic disavowal of both the culture of the book and the liberal concept of the authority of personal experience that literature can engender: "My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I am twenty-three years old. This is my testimony. I didn't learn it from a book, and I didn't learn it alone." What Hunger of Memory and I, Rigoberta Menchú share, along with the fact that they are autobiographical narratives of how a subaltern subject "comes to power," so to speak, is a coincidental connection to Stanford. The decision to include I, Rigoberta Menchú in one of the tracks of the Western Culture requirement for Stanford undergraduates was a defining issue in the public debate over multiculturalism and political correctness during the Reagan era, with the much publicized interventions of Dinesh D'Souza, in his bestseller Illiberal Education, and then—Secretary of Education William Bennett. The debate was not so much over the use of I, Rigoberta Menchú as a document from the world of the subaltern: Western culture has always depended on reports of or from subaltern others. It was rather about placing the text at the center of a required set of readings for undergraduates at a university whose primary function was to reproduce local, national, and transnational elites.

When Gayatri Spivak makes the claim that the subaltern cannot speak, she means that the subaltern cannot speak in a way that would carry any sort of authority or meaning for us without altering the relations of power/ knowledge that constitute it as subaltern in the first place. Richard Rodriguez can speak (or write), in other words, but not as a subaltern, not as Ricardo Rodríguez, and not, despite the fact that the United States is today the fifth largest nation of the Spanish-speaking world, in Spanish. The "silence" of the subaltern, its acquiescence or "vulnerability" in Rodriguez's image, is only so from the perspective of the elite status he feels he has attained, his narrative authority. It is what norms that authority and status, just as, as Spivak puts it, "subaltern practice norms official historiography." Los pobres also have lives, selves, narratives, cognitive mappings. Their silence in the face of Rodriguez is strategic: They do not trust him; they sense that, despite his mestizo features, he is not one of them, that he is a letrado—a word that in Latin American vernacular Spanish often carries the negative connotation of an agent of the state or the ruling class. If their narratives were somehow to be produced as texts for us, they would resemble I, Rigoberta Menchú. And if, in turn, such texts were admitted into the hegemony—for example, required as part of a core humanities curriculum reading list at an elite university—this would give lie to Rodriguez's claim to difference and authority, a claim based precisely on his mastery of the codes of Western literature he learned as an English major at Stanford and Berkeley.

Moreover, it is not at all clear that Rodriguez himself can, or wants to, erase all marks of subalternity in his own identity. Henry Staten has noted in an incisive re-reading of Hunger of Memory that

despite his family ideology of distinction from los pobres, despite his transcendental metaphysics, Richard feels an intense connection with the most abjected Mexicans and longs to make contact with them.... In part, these feelings constitute the very "middle-class pastoral" against which he warns (Hunger 6): a cross-cultural class romance in which the bourgeois longs for the physicality and immediacy of the laborer. But in Richard's case it is much more than that, for at least two reasons: first, because he shares the phenotype of the laborers and, second, because his father, though "white" and bourgeois-identified, speaks English poorly, has hands worn by labor, and has been humbled by the life of the subaltern (Hunger 119–20)—like the dark-skinned Mexicans that Richard resembles. Richard's identity splits in relation to this father, who on the one hand represents the self that makes Richard different from los pobres and on the other hand represents los pobres from which Richard is different.

Staten's point is that subalternity is a relational rather than an ontological identity—that is, a contingent, and overdetermined, identity (or identities). Rodriguez cannot himself escape that contingency.

In a sense, the very idea of "studying" the subaltern is catachrestic or self-contradictory. Even as they practice a form of elite academic discourse, Guha and the members of the South Asian Subaltern Studies Group maintain an acute sense of the limits imposed by the inescapable fact that that discourse and the institutions that contain it, such as the university, written history, "theory," and literature, are themselves complicit in the social construction of subalternity. Subaltern studies must itself confront and incorporate the resistance to academic knowledge that Menchú expresses in the concluding words of her testimonio: "I'm still keeping secret what I think no-one should know. Not even anthropologists or intellectuals, no matter how many books they have, can find out all our secrets" (247).

What are the implications of subaltern studies for academic knowledge and pedagogy, then? My own answer in this book is ambiguous. I find within the project of subaltern studies a tension between the need to develop new forms of scholarship and pedagogy—in history, literary criticism, anthropology, political science, philosophy, education, and so forth—and the need for a critique of academic knowledge as such. On the one hand, subaltern studies offers a conceptual instrument for retrieving and registering the presence of the subaltern both historically and in contemporary societies. The breakdown of certain forms of thought associated with the idea of modernity—so the argument might go—has to with their inability to represent adequately the subaltern (the failure of U.S. strategy in the Vietnam War—a strategy designed in the academy, at a moment of tremendous expansion of higher education—was one of the first signs of the traumatic problems caused for public policy by the incomprehension or misunderstanding of subaltern classes or social groups by dominant academic methodologies and disciplines). We are disconnected from the subaltern by virtue of being in a doubly elitist position—that of the academy and that of the metropolitan academy. But now we have a "lens"—subaltern studies—that allows us to "see" it. We no longer have to depend on the native informant of classical anthropology, who only told us what we wanted to know in the first place. We can "boot up" the subaltern, so to speak.

That is one idea of subaltern studies, then, and to the extent that subaltern actors and cultural forms become visible in and through our work, this will produce new forms of pedagogy and representation in the humanities and social sciences (because "we are all multiculturalists now"). But being able to hear in Menchú's remark the force of the resentment against being "known" by us must imply also what Spivak calls "unlearning privilege": working against the grain of our own interests and prejudices by contesting the authority of the academy and knowledge centers at the same time that we continue to participate in them and to deploy that authority as teachers, researchers, administrators, and theorists.


Excerpted from Subalternity and Representation by John Beverley. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Writing in Reverse: The Subaltern and the Limits of Academic Knowledge 25
2 Transculturation and Subalternity: The "Lettered City" and the Tupac Amaru Rebellion 41
3 Our Rigoberta? I, Rigoberta Menchu, Cultural Authority and the Problem of Subaltern Agency 65
4 Hybrid or Binary? On the Category of "the People" in Subaltern and Cultural Studies 85
5 Civil Society, Hybridity, and the "'Political' Aspect of Cultural Studies" (on Canclini) 115
6 Territoriality, Multiculturalism, and Hegemony: The Question of the Nation 133
Notes 169
Index 195
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