115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Subaltern Can Not Speak:  The Universal, the Particular, and the Remainder of Rational Discourse

Carole-Anne Tyler, "University of California, Riverside"

Spivak opens “Can the Subaltern Speak?” with a critique of Foucault and Deleuze, whose affirmative answer to her question is grounded in humanist ideas about demands, desires, and self-interest.  Her turn to Freud to theorize the desire to speak for the sati sustains her essay’s question as such and complicates their model of subjectivity and representation. 


Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” remains as controversial as when an initial version appeared in the New Left journal Wedge in 1985, to which its numerous reworkings over the years testify. A cornerstone of both postcolonial studies and feminist studies, it also threatens their disciplinary foundations. For Spivak’s titular “subaltern” is neither “post/colonial man” nor “woman,” in question as a question about those figures structuring the reasoned critique of humanism as white, imperial, and patriarchal. The subaltern is the remainder of the process of producing such universals. Recent discussions of the essay have focused on the logic of representation Spivak critiques yet nevertheless performs, the violence of abstraction and universalism in the process of speaking for, about, and as a subaltern/woman, who is a figure of the particular that must be transcended in the ethical universal of discourses of rights. Speech and writing are key for becoming universal, which is why Enlightenment philosophers posit a linguistic contract that precedes the social contract “proper.” As Spivak’s opening critique of Foucault and Deleuze suggests, interests are the product of Enlightenment reason, universalizing discourses about rights and needs that rationalize a body resistant to it, which she argues can actually desire against its interests. She turns to Freud to theorize the desire to rationalize the subaltern by speaking for and about her, finding in his essay on the multiple enunciations of the beating phantasy a theory that complicates rational humanist ideas of representation. That paper is one of Freud’s early attempts to grapple with what is beyond the pleasure and reality principles and therefore to think the limit of a humanist reason sustaining them. In suggesting there are multiple enunciations of a rescue fantasy at stake in both post/colonial and feminist discourses about the sati, Spivak theorizes and uses a language at odds with Enlightenment theories of speech.

Though Spivak’s essay makes the sati as figure of the subaltern/woman speak, it also insists on her silence. If unconscious desire is a remainder of the universalizing process of representation and self-representation, it is not radically excluded, silent, etc. Rather, as psychoanalysis has theorized it, the unconscious speaks in the disruptions of rational language and the calculating pursuit of interests. Poised between life and death, pleasure and suffering, self-interest and the masochistic jouissance celebrated in particular in queer studies, the sati as a fantasy of the subaltern figures the impossibility of the rationalization of needs and the pleasure that accompanies their satisfaction in “interest,” something beyond the pleasure principle that troubles Freud’s late work and disjoins indigenous and imperialist patriarchies and the bodies and interests their languages produce. As the unconscious of the neo/liberal humanization of the globe, the subaltern “can not speak,” emerging in the dislocations between saying and said that destructure rational representation, including Spivak’s own essay.

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