Catalyst

Volume 1 No. 1 Spring 2017

Silencing the Subaltern

Resistance & Gender in Postcolonial Theory

  • Nivedita Majumdar

One of the central claims of postcolonial theory is that it upholds the social agency of dominated groups. This paper focuses on some of the foundational texts in the field by Ranajit Guha, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha to examine how they analyze the place of resistance in gender relations. It shows that there is a considerable gap between what the theorists claim to show and what they actually argue in these texts. Instead of upholding women’s resistance to patriarchy, they redefine agency so that acquiescence to patriarchy is presented as a struggle against it. This calls into question the contribution that postcolonial theory can make to subaltern politics.

Among critical and progressive academics today, the influence of postcolonial theory is unmistakable. Though born in the narrow confines of literature departments in the wake of Asian and African decolonization, its intellectual apparatus has increasingly become associated with more directly political commitments. Postcolonial theory today is viewed as an indispensable framework for understanding how power works in modern social formations and, in particular, how the West exercises its dominance over the Global South. Even more, it is lauded for its attentiveness to the marginal, the oppressed — those groups that have been relegated to obscurity even by political traditions ostensibly committed to social justice. On elite university campuses, the concepts associated with this theoretical stream have increasingly displaced the more traditional vocabulary of the Left, particularly among younger academics and students. Indeed, the two most influential political frameworks of the past century on the Left, Marxism and progressive liberalism, are often described not just as being inadequate as sources of critique, but as tools of social control.

The extraordinary success of postcolonial theory has not precluded some important and highly charged debates about its implications, most recently revived by the publication of Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. Chibber focuses on the work of theorists associated with the influential Subaltern Studies project, using them as exemplars of the wider approach. Regardless of what one makes of his arguments, it remains the case that in confining his attention to the Subaltern Studies school, he fails to address the work of some of the most important developers of the wider tradition — most notably Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak and Homi Bhabha. A reckoning with these theorists’ work is indispensable because they are making theoretical contributions that are distinct from those of the Subaltern Studies school, and hence are not necessarily undermined by Chibber’s critique.

This essay proposes to take up an issue which is at the very heart of postcolonial theory — the relationship between social domination and resistance and, specifically, how gender is conceptualized as a site of struggle within this framework. It does so via an examination of several of the classic, agenda-setting essays in the field: by Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, and Ranajit Guha. Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak”1 and her commentary on Mahashweta Devi’s “Draupadi,”2 Guha’s germinal foray into gender history in “Chandra’s Death,”3 and Bhabha’s influential “The Commitment to Theory,”4 which seeks to reinstate gender into a reading of the British miners’ strike of 1984 and 1985, thus comprise my focus.

The theme of resistance is, of course, one of the signposts of the entire postcolonial turn. While the emphasis in the field’s early years was on how forms of political agency arose in a colonial and postcolonial context and became embedded in movements for self-determination, this is no longer the case. Postcolonial theory today, under the influence of Bhabha, Spivak, and others, has taken on a far more ambitious agenda, going beyond the specificities of geographical location to generate more encompassing arguments about the nature of agency itself. In this respect it has, as many commentators have observed, become one of the most influential political theories on the contemporary scene, certainly to the point of rivaling the traditions inherited from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What makes the postcolonial turn especially important is that it foregrounds precisely those forms of agency and political identity that have tended to remain at the periphery of Marxist and liberal considerations — gender, sexuality, and race in particular. Whereas these forms of oppression have only recently become analytical foci within the traditional left, they have been central to postcolonial theory from its inception.

Examining how postcolonial studies conceptualizes the problem of resistance and how resistance takes specific shape around gender has to be part of any assessment of the field. Several theorists in the recent past have taken on this problem, most notably Aijaz Ahmad in his brilliant In Theory, which set some of the basic terms of the debate between postcolonial theory and the more traditional left. But it has also been joined by Neil Lazarus, Benita Parry, Terry Eagleton, and others, all of whom have expressed grave doubts about the evolution of the field and in particular its understanding of class politics. I propose in this essay to add to this body of critical work by carefully engaging with a small number of central texts of the postcolonial school.

The decision to focus on this handful of essays is intended to serve a specific purpose. In part, it is motivated by the fact that the works in question have been hugely influential in the field — indeed, so much so that some of them are even identified with the latter. But precisely because they exercise such inordinate influence, to criticize them without a careful engagement would be to invite skepticism toward, if not outright dismissal of, my claims. Just as importantly, it is through close examination of these texts that one can also raise the natural question about their reception and canonization in the field. Although other critics have cast doubt on some of the arguments made by Spivak, Guha, and Bhabha, the more specific issues that I raise — about the manner in which they conceptualize resistance and subalterneity — have rarely been taken up, much less debated. In other words, postcolonial studies has tended to take on board the very aspects of these essays that I find most objectionable. The indictment of the arguments in these texts should also, then, raise some worries about the intellectual culture in the field.

Guha’s Small Drama

Ranajit Guha’s essay “Chandra’s Death” occupies a special place in postcolonial scholarship. Even though it is not as influential as some of the other canonical works in the field, it has been recognized as an agenda-setting piece, not only by postcolonial theory’s proponents but also by its detractors. Thus, Sumit Sarkar, an early defector from the Subaltern Studies project, of which Guha was a founding member, regards the essay as offering “glimmerings of an alternative approach” that was, sadly, abandoned.5 Priyamvada Gopal, also a critic of the Subalternists, aligns with Sarkar in her assessment of the essay as a “profoundly humanist” engagement with the histories of the oppressed in its investigation of the layered complexity of human predicaments.6 What is especially praiseworthy to many readers is its engagement with gender. “Chandra’s Death” was published in the pivotal fifth volume of Subaltern Studies and was, in some measure, a response to admonishments from feminist scholars that the Subalternist project, in its first four volumes, had largely been blind to gender issues. After this essay, the historian Florencia Mallon lauded Guha for having provided a “powerful answer” to charges of ignoring women’s agency.7 So too, Gayatri Spivak praised the essay as having inaugurated the incorporation of gender into the Subalternist project.8

The essay is thus unusual in eliciting praise from all sides, not just from advocates for Subaltern Studies or postcolonial theory. Indeed, there is much in it to admire, not the least of which is Guha’s prodigious research into the context for the events he recounts, the clarity with which he presents his case, and, of course, the commitment to bringing gender to the center of the Subalternist project. Guha’s concern in the essay is to recover an instance of women’s gendered solidarity in a highly patriarchal setting and how women strove to preserve their autonomy against the weight of male authority. I will argue, however, that it fails to make the case on both these counts — of showing female solidarity and agency. I argue that Guha mistakes self-preservation for solidarity. Insofar as he tries to make a case for women’s agency, he does so by redefining the concept in such a way as to turn it into its opposite. In other words, Guha constructs a narrative in which an act of acquiescence is brandished as resistance. This amounts, not to a recovery of women’s agency, but to its effacement.

The essay describes the circumstances leading to the death of a young woman named Chandra in mid-nineteenth-century rural Bengal. Chandra has had an affair with her brother-in-law Magaram and discovers that she is pregnant. Upon discovering this, Magaram approaches Chandra’s mother and informs her that Chandra has two options available to her — to have an abortion or to be ostracized from the village as an adulteress — a punishment known as bhek, which Guha aptly describes as a “living death in a ghetto of social rejects.”9 Chandra’s mother decides in favor of the abortion and mobilizes her familial network to procure the necessary drugs. These are then administered to Chandra by her sister; they have the intended effect, but they also result in Chandra’s own demise. Chandra’s death is deemed a murder by the colonial authorities and Chandra’s relatives are tried for the crime.

To Guha, this event has an intrinsic significance, which we will consider shortly. But it is also important in the way it has been absorbed into Indian historiography. Guha observes that the dominant tradition of historical analysis has little interest in small events like Chandra’s death, since it is preoccupied with the master narratives of nation-building, statehood, capitalism, etc. — making historians oblivious to “the small drama and fine detail of social existence.” Second, Guha questions the appropriation of the event in legal discourse, which has the effect of reducing the “complex tissue of human predicament” to a mere case. The experience of the event and the humanity of the actors are all erased in the “abstract legality” that turns Chandra’s relatives into “murderers.” Legal and historiographical discourses remain deaf to the “sobs and whispers” in which the subaltern voices speak.

Against the established weight of such renderings, Guha takes on the task of reconstructing a history of Chandra’s death that “by bending closer to the ground . . . [would] pick up the traces of a subaltern’s life in its passage through time.”10 So Chandra’s death is important not just as an event but also as an analytical exercise, an act of historical recovery that at once excavates and honors the agency of actors buried under the weight of academic convention and also demonstrates the shortcomings of dominant intellectual traditions. Even more, Guha seeks to establish the central role of gender both as a site of oppression and a fount of resistance, which the grand narratives of class and nation inevitably marginalize in their reconstructions of the events.

Guha begins by establishing the context for the decisions Chandra made. Her family belonged to the Bagdi caste, a stratum of landless laborers who resided in a western district of Bengal in the mid-nineteenth century. As rural proletarians, the Bagdis were at the bottom of rural society and reviled as a “filthy deposit” by higher-status castes in the village. In addition to being agricultural laborers, the men were also employed as the village’s night watchmen, guarding their employers’ property. Yet the men were branded as “incorrigibly prone to criminality,” and while Bagdi women were routine victims of sexual exploitation by upper-caste men, they were labeled as women of “easy virtue.”

In this setting of acute scarcity, the Bagdis relied on a complex system of local caste and subcaste alliances as a survival strategy. Bagdi children would marry within the sections of the subcaste to which they belonged, which amounted to several families in the two or three neighboring villages, so the village cluster was a “kinship region for six Bagdi families.”11 In common with the rest of India and many rural societies, the marriage circles served not only as a site of biological reproduction but also as a crucial source of material support. Finding an appropriate household for their children to marry into was a central part of the survival strategy of these landless laborers. Anything that threatened the viability of that strategy, by extension, also posed a grave threat to the material welfare of the entire subcaste.

When Magaram approached Chandra’s mother and confessed his affair with Chandra, the implications were clear. If it were revealed that she had been impregnated by her brother-in-law, it would of course disgrace Chandra’s mother and immediate family. But it would also land a severe blow to the reputation of the larger group of families within the marriage circle. A woman’s honor, her fidelity, were among the most important elements in the reputation of any family and constituted an important marker of a village’s ability to establish internal order. The prestige of a caste, Guha points out, was primarily based on its “degree of purity,” which translated as a “maiden’s virginity, a widow’s chastity and a wife’s sexual fidelity.”12 A child born out of wedlock in such a setting therefore threatened the delicate system of mutual dependence into which the Bagdis were inserted.

For Magaram, it made little difference whether Chandra opted for bhek or for abortion. Either choice would have insulated him from exposure. But the fact that Bhagobati decided in favor of abortion is, for Guha, significant, since it brought with it tasks and risks that bhek would not. The drugs to induce the abortion had to be procured from another village. Her own daughter, her sister, and their husbands and brothers had to be mobilized to arrange the matter. Each of these tasks carried an additional risk of exposure or failure. Chandra’s sister Brindra was responsible for administering the drugs, but several men played an important role in arranging for payment and then, when it resulted in Chandra’s demise, in burying her body nearby. In spite of the greater burdens, what is clear is that Bhagobati managed to secure the cooperation of much of her clan in covering up her daughter’s illicit affair.

These are the basic facts about the events and the role of the various actors involved. Guha does an admirable job adding context and texture to the fragment that recounts the case. We are able to locate Bhagobati and her family in their setting and also to understand the awful choice with which she was confronted. Guha brilliantly exposes the brutality of the patriarchal order, its cold logic manifested especially in Magaram, who impregnated Chandra, and the women’s attempts to minimize the inevitable damage to their well-being. Guha carries this out with exemplary clarity and sensitivity. But this is not what has made the essay a classic within postcolonial studies, for it is seen, we will recall, as a demonstration of subaltern resistance, an act of recovery that the traditions blinded by master narratives of class and nation systematically marginalize.

For Guha, the acts of resistance are to be found in Bhagobati’s decision to abort Chandra’s fetus and the women’s consequent actions to carry it out. He presents these actions as an assertion of women’s autonomy and solidarity. He reads Bhagobati’s initiatives to prevent Chandra’s excommunication as “a choice made by women entirely on their own in order to stop the engine of male authority from uprooting a woman from her place in the local society.”13 For Guha, the women’s actions in the hour of crisis were nothing short of an “act of resistance” against a patriarchal order and in defense of “another woman, to fight for her right to a life of honour within her own society.”14 Further, Guha argues that the response was not merely dictated by the women’s desire to protect an immediate family member; to read the “resistance merely in terms of the obligations of kin and kutum is to ignore what is distinctive about it … [it is] an alternative solidarity — a solidarity of women.”15

So what makes Bhagobati’s choice, and those of the other women involved, acts of resistance is that they were motivated by empathy and were intended to undermine patriarchy. The women enacted their agency in ways that are not picked up by dominant historiographical traditions, as a small history, in ways that do not conform to the image of struggle that Marxism, for example, has handed down. Hence, it is only through an approach that “bends closer to the ground” that we can locate this agency and see the resistance for what it was.

But Guha’s argument strains credulity. Take first the issue of the women’s motivation. Guha observes that much of what transpired was clearly impelled by a pervasive fear among the principals of losing status within the village. This fear bred a kind of solidarity among all the actors, men and women, which was expressed in their cooperation to effectuate Chandra’s abortion. Yet, he insists, if we look deeper, we will see that the women were not fundamentally driven by fear: “The solidarity born out of fear contained within it another solidarity activated by a different, indeed contradictory, principle — namely empathy. If it was the power of patriarchy that brought about the first, it was the understanding of the women which inspired the second.”16

What understanding? From Guha’s own account, had Chandra’s indiscretion been discovered, the consequences would have been dire for the whole clan, women included. Chandra would have had to accept bhek; in addition, however, for the wider clan, the mere association with her transgression could entail sanctions directed toward them. Guha explains their predicament:

Any violation of the norms in this respect could pollute all of an offender’s kin, especially her consanguines, and undermine the group’s ability to sustain and reproduce itself . . . the object of solidarity was also the person who could, by her transgressions, bring shame upon those she would most expect to stand by her when found guilty and share the rigour of all penalties prescribed by the samaj.17

Given the likelihood of sanctions for Bhagobati and other kin, one can only wonder how Guha can present Bhagobati’s actions as solidaristic and not self-interested. The choice of abortion had one unambiguous merit for the family — unlike bhek, which left a stigma for the entire clan, a successful abortion erased any evidence of Chandra’s sin once and for all. Indeed, what risk it entailed was borne overwhelmingly by her. This is not to say that Bhagobati’s choice for her daughter could not have been motivated by empathy. Perhaps Chandra expressed a greater fear of social ostracism than of the dangers that came with abortion; perhaps the women were aware of her preferences and acted on these, even though they turned out to also benefit them. It is certainly possible. The point is that Guha does not provide one bit of textual evidence to suggest that this was in fact the case. Indeed, in the text as presented by him, there is no evidence of this kind. All we have is Guha, mysteriously turning against his own presentation of the facts, and insisting that what appears to be a choice made out of fear and practicality was in fact an act of resistance.

One can legitimately object here that, under the slogan of “bending closer to the ground,” Guha is committing the very sin of which he accuses dominant traditions — of erasing the actual structure of events and sliding them, instead, into some master narrative. In this case, it is the narrative of “agency” and “resistance” that is the hallmark of postcolonial theory. Whereas for nationalist historians, every historical event is forced into the telos of nation-building, and for legal scholars into the narrative of crime and social order, in this instance a poor woman’s death is turned into a heroic saga of collective struggle against patriarchy. This latter interpretation is no less guilty of overreaching than are the others.

But that is not the real problem with Guha’s interpretation. If that was all there was to the matter, our critique would be no more than an academic quibble about texts. The deeper problem has to do with what his argument implies about resistance as a political act and about agency itself. Bhagobati was given a choice between two awful alternatives, a choice that was the product of the local patriarchal order. Neither she nor Chandra had any means, nor did they show any inclination, to change the choice set or even contest the terms on which the choices were offered. Their agency was limited to opting for one or the other — bhek or abortion. In the end, they went for the later and Chandra paid for it with her life. Choosing between two options that have been generated by an oppressive social structure is not resistance — it is acquiescence to that order. It is not, therefore, something to be celebrated, but the very circumstance that a critical analysis ought to insist that needs to be changed.

The conservatism of Guha’s argument shows in even sharper relief as he expands on what Chandra’s relatives achieved and on the content of their resistance. Chandra’s female relatives, he suggests, are able to resist because they’re acting within a sphere where they’re empowered — that of biological reproduction. Chandra’s pregnancy itself opens up an autonomous space for women where “patriarchy retreat[s] in the face of women’s determination to assert her control over her body.” In pregnancy, women establish ownership of their bodies, and this constitutes a challenge which is genuinely dreaded by male authority. For it operates in an area of liminality not strictly governed by the will of husbands and fathers — an area which appears to the latter as fraught with uncertainty and danger, since women speak here in a language not fully comprehensible to men and conduct themselves by rituals that defy male reasoning.18

But it is not clear how the decision was in any way an assertion of control by Chandra over her body and, in that manner, patriarchy’s “retreat.” It was, after all, Bhagobati who made the choice, not Chandra, which made the act a relinquishment of autonomy by the woman, not an assertion thereof. Even worse, the decision was made in acquiescence to the demands laid out by the very “male authority” that Guha sees as somehow in retreat.

As if realizing the dubiousness of his claim, Guha turns to Simone de Beauvoir for support, quoting from The Second Sex, where she describes pregnancy as a “drama that is acted out within the woman herself” — and therefore, we are to infer, an assertion of her individuality.19 But this only deepens Guha’s folly, for not only does it misconstrue the following of a command for an assertion of autonomy, it quite dramatically distorts Beauvoir’s argument regarding pregnancy and the body. Beauvoir never privileges the body as the site of resistance, nor does she consider childbirth as an assertion of autonomy. She insists, to the contrary, that a liberation from patriarchy presupposes a transcendence of the biological and of the domestic sphere, which Guha offers as the natural domains for women’s agency. Indeed, when Guha describes women’s embrace of natal care as operating in an “area of liminality,” speaking in a “language not fully comprehensible to men,” and “conduct[ing] themselves by rituals that defy male reasoning,” he comes perilously close to excavating not women’s resistance, but the hoary idea of the “feminine mystique.”

To insist, as I do, on an interpretation that highlights the constraints under which Bhagobati labored rather than on her supposed resistance, is not to deny her agency. It is to point out that, for Bhagobati and for millions of women in her circumstance, agency is exercised in making the best of a horrible situation, day after day and year after year. It is to call attention to the fact that those circumstances are unjust precisely because no matter which choice is made, the outcome will be unjust. That is why it is the choice set itself that needs to be changed, by making it the object of struggle. By celebrating the choice as an act of antipatriarchal resistance, Guha turns Bhagobati’s resignation to her condition into an act of resistance against it — and, in so doing, he both devalues and denatures what resistance entails. If merely choosing between the options given to you is to resist them, then why enjoin the oppressed to struggle against the choice set itself?

Spivak’s Speech

If Guha finds an act of subaltern resistance in Chandra’s death, Gayatri Spivak finds one in a woman’s suicide. Since its publication in 1988, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” has taken its place as perhaps the most widely cited essay in in postcolonial studies. It is seen as both a call for the acknowledgement of subaltern — especially women’s — agency and an acknowledgement of its suppression. It has generated a cottage industry of interpretation, no doubt in part owing to the dense prose but also because of the sheer range of issues that Spivak throws into the mix. There are some obvious differences between her essay and Guha’s recuperation of Chandra; while Guha draws primarily on archival research, Spivak’s intervention is more focused on the landscape of poststructuralist theory. But they both seek to recover and acknowledge instances of women’s resistance that either are ignored by establishment discourses or are suppressed in the exercise of power.

“Can the Subaltern Speak?” is a complex, sprawling essay, the bulk of which is an engagement with contemporary — mainly French — philosophy through the prism of Foucault and Derrida. Spivak seeks to engage both the issue of imperialism in its relation to the Third World as well as the problem of revolutionary agency in the contemporary setting. It is therefore interesting that critical commentaries on the essay almost invariably foreground a tiny section at its very end that examines the fate of a young woman, then extricates from the story some conclusions about the nature of subaltern — especially women’s — agency. Although the portion of the essay dedicated to women’s agency is short, the outsized attention it has garnered is probably deserved, for Spivak draws conclusions from it that carry enormous significance not only for theory but for practice.

Spivak relates the fate of Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, a relative of Spivak’s who hanged herself in 1926 Calcutta. Bhuvaneswari’s story interests Spivak because while her staging of her suicide exemplifies the “interventionist practice” that resistance entails, the absorption of her story into the broader culture reveals the futility of such gestures in the face of the patriarchal order. This patriarchy was instantiated clearly in the debate around widow immolation — known as sati — in British India. Spivak views this controversy as a clear example of women’s agency being denied, in that the two poles of the controversy were both comprised of men — either as defending the practice or as denouncing it — but with neither side ever taking into account, or even bothering to discover, women’s views on the matter. The absence of women’s voices in a debate that was quintessentially about their interests embodies the erasure of subaltern agency.

Bhuvaneswari, an unmarried woman, did not, of course, commit sati. But for Spivak, her act of suicide was nevertheless significant because it was an instance of resistance against the patriarchal ideology that generated sati — so that, through the suicide, Bhuvaneswari “rewrote the social text of sati-suicide in an interventionist way.”20 She did so by carefully transmitting certain signals through the details of how she staged the event. Bhuvaneswari was careful to hang herself during her menstrual cycle, so that it was clear that she was not pregnant at the time of her death. She did so because, in the patriarchal culture of Bengal, when teenage girls committed suicide, it was typically assumed that they had done so to cover up a sexual tryst that had been or was about to be discovered. Bhuvaneswari knew that, like most female suicides, hers too would be viewed as the outcome of an illicit relationship. So she killed herself when she was menstruating as proof that she was not a victim of failed romantic passion.

We see, then, the significance of the suicide for Spivak. The theological basis of sati is a wife’s unwavering devotion to her husband, evidenced in her willingness to end her own life when her husband dies. If Hindu theology, Spivak contends, silenced the woman’s voice in this manner, so did imperialist British legal discourse which, even while banning the practice, remained unconcerned with women’s subjectivity: “Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears… into a violent shuttling between … tradition and modernization.”21 For Spivak, Bhuvaneswari rewrites this text by inserting female subjectivity into it. By offering physical proof that her death was not a consequence of a failed love for a man, Spivak claims that Bhuvaneswari “generalized the sanctioned motive for female suicide by taking immense trouble to displace (not merely deny) in the physiological inscription of her body, its imprisonment within legitimate passion by a single male.”22

The actual motivation for Bhuvaneswari’s act was revealed years later: Her relatives discovered that she had been a member of a militant anticolonial organization and had been given the responsibility of carrying out an assassination but found herself unable to fulfil her mission, for reasons that were never fully understood. Although Bhuvaneswari kept these details to herself, she clearly wanted it to be known that, whatever the motivation for the suicide might have been, it was not the shame of an illicit affair and its consequences. For years her family remained in the dark about the background to her act, knowing only that it was not because of a pregnancy. It is the mystery that she left behind, the family’s cluelessness about her death, that Spivak offers as confirmation of the idea that the subaltern cannot speak.

In the voluminous commentary generated by Spivak’s essay, her reading of the event has not been without controversy. Critics have pointed out that Bhuvaneswari can hardly exemplify the subaltern’s inability to speak when Spivak herself retrieves her suicide act as a rewriting of the patriarchal text23: Surely the “interventionist act” is a kind of agency on the young woman’s part, which by Spivak’s own definition makes it a speech act. Another issue critics have raised is how a middle-class woman with Bhuvanesari’s comfortable background can be characterized as “subaltern,” so that she falls into the same category of oppression or marginalization as peasants and workers.24 Still others have made the observation that, in reconstructing the motivation behind Bhuvaneswari’s actions and making an inference about what her reasons might have been for ending her life, Spivak is assigning to her the very unitary subjectivity which she describes as an intellectual fantasy.25 So we seem to have here a non-subaltern who does in fact speak, and with a coherent subjectivity that cannot in fact exist.

These criticisms have some merit; in response to them, Spivak has modified or redrawn some aspects of her analysis. In a revised version of the essay, she holds that in Bhuvaneswari’s case, the subaltern did speak in a manner, but was silenced in the fact that the broader patriarchal culture had no interest in hearing her.26 As Spivak recalls, when Bhuvaneswari’s own relatives attempted to dissuade her from gathering the facts about the suicide, she was “unnerved by this failure of communication.”27 (308). Furthermore, Spivak also allows that there are other forms of agency that women, and subordinate groups more generally, might have available to them — a point I will return to shortly. Indeed, she now takes the view that her declaration in the original essay, that the subaltern cannot speak, “was an inadvisable remark.”28

So Spivak now agrees that it is possible for the subaltern to engage in resistance. But what has been largely ignored in this debate around her work, and is of deeper significance in any assessment of the politics of postcolonial theory, is what counts as resistance. Spivak’s critics have been at pains to note the contradiction in her presentation of Bhuvaneswari’s action — that she describes the suicide as an interventionist act, and hence an attempt to disrupt patriarchal discourse, while also denying that it is such an act. But it needs to be emphasized that in making this criticism, the interlocutors implicitly agree with Spivak on one crucial point — that Bhuvaneswari’s action should indeed be understood as an attempt to “rewrite the social text of sati-suicide.” Much of the debate thus turns on Spivak’s reluctance to acknowledge the full weight of the young woman’s disruptive act.

Just as we raised doubts about Ranajit Guha’s presentation of Chandra’s death as an act of gender solidarity and resistance, so might we question the very idea that Bhuvaneswari’s actions were an attempt to question, much less disrupt, the patriarchal field into which she had been inserted. Let us return for a moment to the specifics of her death. We know that she was entrusted with the job of a political assassination and for some reason found herself unable to carry it out — which in turn seems to have led her to take her life. She also understood that, given the mores of Bengali culture, her suicide was likely to be apprehended as an admission of moral failure, of being guilty of illicit love. Hence her decision to show emphatically that any such interpretation would be an error, as evidence by her active menstrual cycle.

What this shows, however, is not that Bhuvaneswari rejected or punctured Bengali patriarchal norms. It does not indicate a denial of the “sanctioned motive for female suicide,” as Spivak would have it. What it amounts to is an attempt on the young woman’s part to proclaim her innocence of accusations generated by those conventions — and hence, by implication, an acquiescence to those very conventions. Bhuvaneswari was not calling for a rejection of the idea that women should abjure romantic entanglements not approved by their betters. She is merely proclaiming her innocence from the idea that she might have been guilty of such an act. Hence, just as in the case of poor Chandra’s untimely demise, Spivak takes an instance of a woman’s subordination to her circumstances as an example of her resistance to her subjugation. To be sure, the act did embody agency of a kind — it was a volitional stance intended to respond to something in her situation. But whatever else it was, it was also a plea not to be associated with the norms of impurity and transgression sanctioned by that very same patriarchal order. Bhuvaneswari went to great lengths to assert her innocence from accusations of an immoral act, but never questioned the grounds on which acts such as those were deemed immoral. It was therefore an action carried out very much within the parameters internal to the order.

Thus, much like Guha, Spivak discovers resistance in this text — resistance that dominant discourses and conventions supposedly refused to recognize — not by uncovering it where it had in fact been obscured but by redefining it — or, more to the point, by turning it into its opposite. What is especially striking in this instance is that while she valorizes this act of resignation to the colonial patriarchal regime, she relegates to obscurity the parts of Bhuvaneswari’s life that were unambiguously acts of resistance — namely, her involvement in the anticolonial movement. Spivak brings up this aspect of Bhuvaneswari’s practice as part of the background to her actions, but then banishes it from the discussion, as if it has no bearing on our verdict regarding subaltern agency.29

Can we not, however, insist that it is not only relevant but in fact central to the matter? Bhuvaneswari was apparently an active participant in a movement that articulated the agency and the “speech” of hundreds of thousands of women in the colonial era. Indeed, if Spivak had explored a little further, she could have uncovered not just these actions but a rich archive of thousands of these women, in the peasant movement and in the Communist movement, which have been available for years in regional and national archives as well as in oral testimonies. Some such accounts from just one region of India were published in a pivotal volume some years after “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was written that provide some indication of how deeply involved rural women were in the revolutionary movement.30 However, the experience of women in the movement was widely studied and known even by the late 1970s, when Spivak set about composing her essay, certainly enough so as to undermine any doubts about women’s capacity for political action.

The effacement of women’s agency when it takes organized, collective form is on display again in Spivak’s commentary on Mahashweta Devi’s “Draupadi.” The story is set in the context of the Naxalite movement in India, which emerged in 1967 as an armed insurgency by peasants against landed classes in rural Bengal. After the movement spread to the cities, the state unleashed a brutal counteroffensive, empowered with draconian antiterrorist laws, that succeeded in suppressing the insurgency’s first phase. Against this backdrop, Mahashweta Devi narrates the story of the capture of a young woman, Draupadi, an indigent tribal and a militant in the movement. She is on the run after participating in the assassination of a landlord; her husband, a fellow activist, has been killed by the police. Draupadi is good at hiding in the dense forests, home to her but almost impenetrable to the law enforcement teams. Ultimately, however, she is outwitted by a particularly ruthless and efficient army officer, Senanayak.

Unlike the officials who worked for him, Senanayak is something of an intellectual, having steeped himself in revolutionary literature in order to better analyze the Naxalite movement. He views Draupadi’s capture as a signal achievement for himself; once she is in custody, he initiates the inevitable process of interrogation. Once it becomes clear, however, that the young revolutionary is not going to make any revelations, Senanayak’s methods become ever more drastic. He eventually orders his minions to “make her” and disappears from the scene. Draupadi is brutally and serially raped all night long. In the morning, she’s ordered to clean herself, get dressed, and appear before Senanayak. Draupadi does go out to meet Senanayak, but does so naked, having refused the soap and water that were offered her. She appears before him with her mangled and mutilated body in full view and challenges him: “You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? . . . What more can you do? Come on, counter me.”31 The story ends with Senanayak unable to move or answer, paralyzed by the terrible specter of this woman standing before him, brutalized but utterly defiant.

“Draupadi” is a key text illuminating both the brutality of the Indian state’s suppression of the Naxalite movement and the heroism and solidarity of the youth who comprised its political cadre. Draupadi joins the movement with her husband; she is clearly trusted and valued by her comrades, as evidenced by her inclusion in a political assassination; and she values the movement itself enough to withstand inhuman torture and rape at the hands of the police. But if we turn to Spivak’s commentary, these political and organizational dimensions of Draupadi’s agency are strenuously pushed to the background.

Spivak confines her focus to the final sentences of the story, when Draupadi is presented to Senanayak and refuses to clean and clothe herself for her interview. Draupadi the subaltern revolutionary comes into her own for Spivak only after her gendered brutalization: “It is when she crosses the sexual differential into the field of what could only happen to a woman that she emerges as the most powerful ‘subject.’”32 It is in her refusal to follow instructions, in choosing not to act, that she emerges as a conscious agent, so that “she will finally act for herself in not ‘acting.’”33 What Spivak means here is that Draupadi only takes control of her volitional self in her decision to refuse to clean up for an audience with Senanayak. It is in this refusal to act that she manages to “finally act for herself.” As for her life as a revolutionary prior to her capture, Spivak blithely dismisses it as Draupadi’s way of keeping “political faith as an act of faith toward [her husband]”34 Her decision to join the movement, we are to assume, is not conscious political agency — that decision simply expresses her fidelity to her husband. Indeed, her immersion in the revolutionary movement only continues her gendered subordination, which is why, for Spivak, her torture marks a break, it provides her with the opening to emerge out of the shadows of the men in her life. It is only with her response to her torture, then, that the “male leadership stops.”35 By “male leadership,” Spivak here refers to Draupadi’s dead husband and comrade and, more pertinently, to the leadership of the Naxalite movement.

Contra Spivak’s reading, there is not even the slightest hint in the story that Draupadi joins the movement as her husband’s shadow, that her activism is shaped by a distant “male leadership,” or even that she sees her final defiant act toward Senanayak as her political awakening. To the contrary, in the events leading up to her capture, Mahashweta Devi offers us a window into the girl’s thoughts and we see her — now aware that her capture is imminent — anticipating the inevitable torture, and thinking of… what? Escape? Regrets? Bitterness toward the leadership? No, her mind goes to the fate of another comrade, whom she vows to emulate — a young man of twenty-two who bit his tongue off during torture rather than reveal the information demanded of him. “That boy did it,” she reminds herself. Then her thoughts return to her martyred husband, also killed in an encounter. “I swear by my life. By my life, Dulna, by my life. Nothing must be told.”36

Everything we learn about Draupadi’s state of mind, every thought that Devi reveals to us in her narrative, is presented to generate an organic link between Draupadi’s political conviction, her commitment to her comrades — male and female — and her contemptuous dismissal of Senanayak’s command. The inner sources upon which she draws throughout her ordeal include her gender identity, of course. But they also include a steely courage, a sense of obligation to the sacrifices of others, and an unshakable commitment not to endanger the lives of other comrades — all of which come from her political conviction as a revolutionary, and all of which Spivak sweeps aside with the back of her hand.

This gesture by Spivak not only devalues and submerges Draupadi’s political agency, it reinserts a highly paternalistic, and hence patriarchal, view regarding her choices. Her subjectivity is affirmed when she steps forth and expresses awareness of her subjugation specifically as a woman — when the brutalization is to her body. Spivak denies her this when Draupadi rejects her brutalization as a class subject and joins in with her comrades to overturn that class hierarchy. So when she fights alongside the male members of her underground squad, she is not yet fully a subject; when she declares to her dead husband, “I swear by my life. By my life, Dulna by my life,” this is merely “an act of faith toward her husband,” not an act of political commitment or principle. Why not? Why is she assumed to be a passive follower of commands when she is in the company of men, instead of a political actor fully aware of the imperatives behind her choices? Surely a feminist reading of the text might at least allow for the possibility that she proceeds with an understanding of her interests when she takes up arms against the landlord armies of Eastern India, no less than when she taunts Senanayak while in captivity?37

The congruence with Spivak’s treatment of Bhuvaneswari is striking. But whereas in Bhuvaneswari’s case the facts about her political past were shrouded in obscurity, this is not so with Draupadi. The bulk of the narrative in “Draupadi” is dedicated to highlighting precisely those dimensions of the woman’s consciousness that Spivak dismisses as irrelevant. And this is what makes Spivak’s interpretation of the narrative especially puzzling. What Spivak holds up as a paradigm of resistance is Draupadi’s refusal to obey a single command, not her refusal to abide by an exploitative and patriarchal social order. What is admired is her act as an individual, not her willing and conscious participation in a revolutionary movement — and not just as an individual but as a woman. As Spivak puts it herself, only when Draupadi experiences violence that “can only happen to a woman” does she come into her own as a historical subject — not when she experiences violence as an indigent peasant or a revolutionary. There is a direct line connecting this argument with Guha’s valorization of a woman’s biological realm as the natural habitat for her resistance — a remarkable return to the very tropes that feminists have tried for decades to overturn.

Bhabha’s Negotiation

The marginalization of women’s class agency finds an even more pointed expression in Homi Bhabha’s influential essay “The Commitment to Theory.” Written just a few years after the British miners’ strike of 1984, Bhabha’s essay uses that event as an emblem of all the problems that arise from classical socialist views on power and interests, politics and resistance. Much as Spivak and Guha do, Bhabha seeks to rescue women’s agency from the narrow confines of conventional political theorizing, not to mention the actual practice of class politics. Whereas socialism privileges the politics of class, Bhabha seeks to restore the salience of other interests and identities inevitably ignored under the singular weight of economic issues.

Bhabha does not seem to view the strike, in its essence, as a response to Margaret Thatcher’s offensive against the working-class families in the mining towns, though of course he does recognize that it was her decision to close down the pits that triggered the conflagration. For Bhabha, the essence of the strike lay in the men’s attempt to preserve the traditions and cultures — the way of life — of the mining communities. “The choice,” he observes, “was clearly between the dawning world of the new Thatcherite city gent and a long history of the working man, or so it seemed to the traditional Left and the New Right.”38 So it was a clash between two conflicting visions of the social order, both male — the emerging world of the “city gent” and the venerable culture of the “working man.” The class culture of the miners was, for Bhabha, constructed around the male identity and hence patriarchal to its roots. He contends that it was around precisely this traditionalism of the laboring classes that the strike was “enjoined”: though the strike mobilized entire communities, “the revolutionary impulse . . . belonged squarely to the working class male,” with women decidedly relegated to the inevitable “heroic supporting role.”39

The strike was another instance in which working-class men crafted their strategy to defend not only their economic interests but also their dominant position in the gender order. In other words, it was a demonstration of how one set of interests was promoted at the expense of another. But as it happened, it became the occasion for a dramatic overturning of the very patriarchal order that the men were trying to sustain. The men relied on the fact that their women would internalize their framing of the issues and fall into line. In fact, the women’s approach to the conflict turned out to be “startlingly different and more complex” than that of the men.40 Once involved in the struggle, “many women began to question their roles within the family and the community — the two central institutions which articulated the meanings and mores of the tradition of the laboring classes around which ideological battle was enjoined.”41 The result was a churning of the inner world of the mining communities themselves, as women rejected and then walked away from the world that their men had constructed for them.

Bhabha presents this episode as an illustration of his view that the rise of “class politics” is a discursive creation — a construct created by the placement of a rigid conceptual grid on a world in which interests and identities are in fact highly fluid. It finds order only by erasing or suppressing all the myriad complexities that constitute the social world. This complexity goes down to the level of the individual. Hence, for women in the mining towns, the strike opened up both a dilemma and an opportunity. The women were not “class” subjects, as their men defined them. They were also gendered subjects, and both identities coexisted. This created a dilemma: “What does a working woman put first? Which of her identities is the one that determines her political choices?”42 What many of the women decided, he argues, is that they would embrace their gender identities — which meant a rejection of their imposed class identities and of the social order and priorities that the men were trying to defend.

Bhabha’s point is not as simple as saying that the mining women came to discover their gender identities or interests only when they set aside those associated with class. It is the more radical thesis that the very idea of fixed identities or objective interests is mistaken. There simply is no such thing as a class interest, for what we know as “class” is the product of a discursive grid imposed on a fluid and shifting landscape. Thus he approvingly quotes Stuart Hall’s assertion that even while we might agree that people have interests, “material interests on their own have no necessary class belongingness.”43 Hence, there is no identity or constellation of interests for agents to be wedded to, or to commit to, for they are and remain divided subjects. “There is no simple political or social truth to be discovered,” he argues, “for there is no unitary representation of political agency, no fixed hierarchy of political values and effects.”44 What the strike achieved for its women was not a widening of their social identity, so that it might embrace their status as class actors as well as gendered actors; it supposedly revealed to them the intrinsic artificiality of those categories.

Bhabha therefore describes the effects of the struggle in a very particular manner. When the women joined the struggle against Thatcher’s attack—and, in so doing, also brought matters of gender into the movement—they did not merely add a dimension to their political identities. They constructed a new hybrid that is not an additive compound of two elements, but something more — “a rearticulation, or translation of elements that are neither the One (unitary working class) nor the Other (the politics of gender), but something else besides.”45 The question that naturally arises is: What is this new hybrid complex that works upon class and gender identities but leaves both behind? Bhabha never describes it. It remains unnamed and unspecified, but he is quite clear about the notion that, upon emerging from and rejecting their class identities, the women of the mining towns moved on to a new form of social identification that could be described neither as class nor gender.

Bhabha illustrates his argument by drawing on an article written by Beatrix Campbell for the Guardian at the one-year anniversary of the strike.46 Campbell had interviewed a number of women active in the struggle to see how it had affected their lives, both during the conflict and in its aftermath. The interviews are supposed to have illustrated how the women were initially divided by their two identities, but then, though the course of the strike, transcended both to create a new gestalt.

If we examine the testimonies that Campbell’s article relates, however, the picture that emerges is rather different from the one advanced by Bhabha. All of the women interviewed do recall a transformation in their perspectives, if not their lives, as a consequence of their experience in the struggle. Gendered conventions were denaturalized for all of them in varying degrees. Yet not one of the women Campbell interviews viewed their gendered identity to be in conflict with their class identity. These working-class women accepted the logic of the strike, the inherent class contradiction that it embodied, without any hesitation. They all seemed to have viewed the attack on the miners as an attack on them no less than on their husbands; they all looked back at the strike with admiration and even nostalgia.

Campbell describes the experience of Margaret Storr, to whom the experience of the strike opened up an entirely new life even as she continued with her old roles. A housewife and mother of four, the strike transformed her marriage. After some hesitation, she participated in the strike support efforts, and also joined her husband on the picket line. The decision, she recounts, transformed the relationship: “My husband Paul and I talked a lot during the strike—and since. Our marriage is a lot happier since, because we talk and we say what we feel . . . he listens to me now because he knows I mean it.” She continues, “I used to have trouble with my nerves. But I never took a Valium during the strike and I have never taken a tablet since. . . . How come I didn’t get anxiety during the strike? It gave me strength.” Campbell reports that Storr keeps a scrapbook of the strike and finds the need to dive back into it occasionally, for since those heady days “she has sunk back into her shell.”

Campbell then turns to Margaret Dransfield, who, unlike Storr, had been politically active all her life. The strike nonetheless transformed her consciousness in complex ways. She realized that she had absorbed most of her political beliefs passively, but after her experience in the struggle, became more independent in her judgment. “The strike was hard work,” Dransfield recounts, “but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was a challenge.” In its aftermath, Dransfield went through a period of withdrawal, but soon reactivated her political identity: “Politics is very important to me now. I’m in CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] and I went to the German Common.” Lynn Dennett reports that the strike opened up her life in entirely new ways. As an activist, she recalls, “I got a taste for not knowing where I’d be the next day, and I wanted more.” After the strike, she divorced her husband. Crucially, she has no regrets; to the contrary, she credits those days with giving her the confidence to strike out on her own. She and three of her friends had been active in fundraising: “Of the three of us who went out fund-raising, we’ve all left our husbands. It was the strike that gave us the confidence to go. I learned how repressed I’d been. . . . I’m at peace now.” The final woman Campbell interviews is Kim Young, who also divorced after the strike and, like Dennett, credits the strike experience for her transformation. The fault wasn’t her husbands, she recalls: “Our husbands had their faults, but they were nice men, it wasn’t that so much.” So what was it? Campell asks. It was, Young recounts, that “the strike was a diving board for a lot of women. They were able to say what they actually felt.”

In brief, what emerges from these testimonies has almost no connection to Bhabha’s summary of them. The women overturned the norms of the patriarchal order, no doubt, but none of them questioned the importance of their class interests, nor of the identities attached to the latter. The strike triggered a restructuring of gender codes, but it simultaneously reaffirmed to them their class identities. In other words, whereas Bhabha’s description of the new complex is that, with respect to class and gender, it was “neither the one nor the other,” the testimony of the women suggests something very different — it was both the one and the other. The women grew into and embraced their interests with respect to gender, but did so while continuing to embrace their class solidarity. It was not something they grew out of or left behind. To the contrary, it was something they saw as a necessary part of their emancipation and, further, an engagement of which they remained proud. Even the women who left their husbands seemed aware of the necessity of the class response to Thatcher.

The women saw their class interests and identities as real because Margaret Thatcher was kind enough to draw their attention to them. To the men and women in the mining communities, the intent behind the assault was quite clear — to break one of the most powerful unions in the country. The decision to fight back was not motivated by something as nebulous as defending a traditional “way of life” — though of course this was part of what the miners were trying to sustain. The struggle was “enjoined” for something for more mundane — to defend their homes and basic livelihoods. All of the women interviewed by Campbell show a clear awareness of this as the animating issue, and none of them place their emancipation from gender constraints in opposition to it. Bhabha’s argument crucially relies on a displacement of the logic of the strike from these interests held in common by both genders to one that pits the women against the men. Even more, he describes it in essentially cultural terms — as a battle to defend the traditions of the working class — rather than the terms in which the women themselves viewed it, which revolved around their very real interests as women and as miners.

Of course, there were many women whose experience of the strike would have been very different from that of the women Campbell interviewed. For many, the strike would surely trigger painful and even negative memories, and it would not be difficult to find women who regretted their participation in it or whose subordination in the home continued or even intensified. Perhaps they would even blame the strike and the traditional mining culture for this outcome. Political conflicts never settle evenly upon individual lives and the forces that they unleash are often more brutal than the circumstances that give rise to them. The argument here is not that Margaret Storr’s testimony captures the essence of women miners’ experience in the days of struggle. The point, rather, is that Bhabha thinks that it does — or at least, that his distorted interpretation of it does. His view not only denies the possibility that the class interests of the women were real — every bit as real as their gender interests — but also the possibility that the women might be aware of this and uphold the sanctity of both.

So just as Spivak pushes Draupadi’s class politics to the background when she analyzes Mahashweta Devi’s text, so Bhabha effaces the women’s agency as miners, not just women. In both instances, women are taken seriously as political actors only on the condition that they keep their goals confined to gender issues. Draupadi is deemed a “true subject” only after she undergoes a brutalization specific to women, and the wives from the collieries acquire political maturity only when they grow out of their identification with their class. Even more, when the subjects of these texts express a political consciousness broader than the one assigned to them by these theorists, this consciousness is either dismissed as manipulation (Spivak) or simply ignored (Bhabha). Perhaps this is not quite so confined a space as the one endorsed by Guha, who locates Chandra and her mother’s heroism in their embrace of the biological — in this instance, the women are at least allowed some dalliance with politics. But the leash remains tight.

Conclusion

There is something eminently praiseworthy about a theoretical framework setting out to recover the agency of the oppressed, to recognize instances and forms of resistance that so often are buried under the weight of posterity. To the extent that postcolonial theory has contributed to this enterprise, it is to be lauded and its insights upheld. Guha, Spivak, and others are entirely correct to insist upon the salience of the local as a site of contestation, and to insist that any political theory worth its salt has to be able to connect to the quotidian struggles that extend beyond the economic realm.

They are not, of course, the first to embrace such a challenge. For decades, socialists and Marxists have understood that political struggles unfold in specific places and times — in particular workplaces and specific localities, not on a plane hovering above them. Whatever political analysis flowed from their theory would therefore have to be relevant at the micro level, not just on some rarified plane reserved for grand theory. If there is something novel about postcolonial theory, it is not that its practitioners are the first to insist on the importance of the local — though they often make out as if they were. Their claim to innovation has to rest on their success in recovering dimensions of agency that other radical theories are unable or unwilling to recognize.

The essays examined above have achieved notoriety because of their putative success on this dimension — in highlighting instances of resistance impugned or ignored by more conventional narratives. But as we have seen, this success is based on rather questionable grounds. Guha and Spivak recover instances of resistance only by redefining the concept and, indeed, by having it transform into its opposite — what they brandish as subaltern agency are in fact instances of acquiescence. Of course there is something admirable, even heroic, in the choices made by Chandra and her family, as well as by Bhuvaneswari. What we see is women making the best of the choices that are handed to them. They are trying to preserve their dignity in circumstances that are intrinsically hostile to them. But they do so while taking their constraints as a given, not by trying to transform those constraints. If we are to now accept actions such as these as emblematic of political action, as episodes of struggle, then there ceases to be any distinction between a dominant ideology and a critical theory — for it is the signature of a dominant ideology that it enjoins subaltern groups to accept their location as parametric and to then make the best of what they’ve been handed.

Indeed, it is fair to say that what these essays achieve is the denigration of the very concept of agency, something at the very heart of the postcolonial project. In obscuring the effects of social circumstances, in denying — implicitly or explicitly — the role of structure, the theorists under consideration whisk away what makes political praxis distinctive as a volitional act. For what is political agency if not a form of practice aimed at the structures of power within which it is embedded? Whether it aims to reproduce them, as in ruling-class strategies, or seeks to transform and undermine them, as is the case with subaltern classes, political agency is defined by its relation to these fields of power. But with Spivak and, in particular, Guha, it seems that it is the simple exercise of will that enables the actions of their protagonists to serve as political agency — even those actions are an acquiescence to their subjugation.47

If we turn to the question of gender in particular, the conservatism of all three theorists is unmistakable. There is a baseline commitment to upholding the distinctiveness of patriarchal domination, to insist that it cannot be collapsed into class — which is entirely laudable and has to be the lynchpin of any sustainable feminist politics. But all three theorists go much further than that. In Spivak’s and Bhabha’s cases, the political agency of the women in their texts is not so much recognized as it is whittled down, so that it is recognized on the condition that it is confined to issues of gender. Bhuvaneswari and Draupadi are both dedicated militants in revolutionary movements, yet in neither case does Spivak acknowledge, much less analyze, the importance of their choices in this domain. Bhabha takes a story of women’s amalgamation of their gender identity to class solidarity and turns it into a struggle of one against the other. Guha, for his part, demarcates and then sanctifies the biological as not just an acceptable domain of struggle for women but the natural one. The accompaniment to this curious promotion of gender as the preferred site of resistance for women — however narrowly it is defined — is the consistent denigration of class politics, indeed of organized politics in most any form. It is not that struggles of the latter kind are denigrated tout court, but they are presented as irrelevant or unnatural for women.

What makes this contrasting treatment of the women characters’ politics interesting is that the denigration of their class agency is not a case of unbalanced treatment. It is not that Spivak and Bhabha, for example, just give more importance to one aspect of their women’s political involvement than to another. Rather, they altogether suppress aspects of the texts that would invite another interpretation. The elements of the narratives that highlight the women’s commitment to organized and class politics are simply ignored. We only learn about them by reading the texts ourselves. In other words, aspects of political agency that are very much part of the textual record are suppressed by the narrative favored by the theorists — the very sin of which they accuse the holders of grand narratives. In this case, it is a quite particular and narrow conception of gender politics displacing and marginalizing the various dimensions of the women’s broader political agency.

What this amounts to saying is that postcolonial theory should not be described as a theory that systematically dismantles master narratives. Instead, it should be taken as functioning with its own preferred narrative — a distinct unease with class and organized politics, whether as an analytical category or as a form of political engagement. This anxiety with class also sits well with the general intellectual climate in which postcolonial theory has developed and flourished. As Aijaz Ahmad observed in his intervention two decades ago, the field came into its own precisely when working-class movements around the world fell into a steady retreat and a general pessimism set in about class politics. During the years in which postcolonial theory has flourished, the sense of despair very quickly morphed into a general hostility to class which has not only pervaded cultural studies but has extended to most every nook and cranny of the academy. This at least partially explains why the rather blatant antipathy to women’s class agency and the pessimism regarding resistance have largely escaped scrutiny in the field.

While there could be other sources for this antipathy to class politics, in Spivak’s case it also seems to emanate from a genuine theoretical confusion. Upon several occasions, she has expressed an understanding of subalterneity that precludes class struggle as a real option in the Global South. One of the defining aspects of the proletariat in the South, she contends, is that it is inserted into politics in a manner fundamentally different from that in the advanced West. In the West, the working class matures into class politics largely through “its training in consumerism,” whereas “the urban proletariat in comprador countries [] must not be systematically trained in the ideology of consumerism (parading as the philosophy of a classless society) that, against all odds, prepares the ground for resistance.”48 In fact, in the sprawling export-processing zones and subcontracting arrangements typical of economic development in these parts of the world, the suppression of workers’ wages means that “the training [] in consumerism is almost snapped.”49 Hence, what makes a politics organized around class interests so unrealistic in the Global South is that the working class does not get properly trained in it, and what makes that training so rare is that its source is not available to them — an immersion in the ideology and practice of consumerism.

It’s curious that critics have hardly paid any attention to the strange assertion of consumerism being a training ground for, or the fount of, class politics. We are to believe that the simple experience of work — the subordination to the employer’s authority, long hours, brutal pace of labor, physical intimidation, exposure to injury, insecurity — that all of this is not what impels labor to organize. It is not the daily degradation and humiliation or the experience of grinding poverty that is behind class politics. It is, rather, the participation in consumerism. Now, Spivak has to know that there is a pivotal and venerable distinction between consumption and consumerism. Whereas the former refers to the quotidian act of physical reproduction by workers, the latter points to an ideological formation in which the internalization of goods is turned into an end for itself. The central importance of consumerism has been noted by many social theorists since Marx, most notably members of the Frankfurt School — but only as a development that impedes class consciousness and secures the working class ever more firmly to the mast of capitalism. In redescribing it as the training ground for capitalism, Spivak exhibits confusion on multiple levels. She obscures what is and has been the real source of working-class resistance in capitalism — the experience of oppression and exploitation in the class relation—and at the same time sanctifies as the real source of such politics what is in fact one of the main obstacles to it.

Regardless of the reasons, a dismissal of women’s class agency is evident in these texts, and it has profound implications for postcolonial theory’s political claims. Our reading confirms the observation made by other critics: that postcolonial theory has not so much enriched the critique of a globalizing capitalism as it has weakened the resources to resist it. While there is no question that the subaltern class’s political agenda must be an expansive one in this era, the struggle against capital is surely at its core. But no such struggle can be waged without a clear conception of what counts as resistance — how to distinguish between strategies that question the dominant order and those that accept its terms — and how to organize to make that resistance more effective. Women’s collective agency around their gender and class interests have to be indispensable parts of deepening that resistance. It is remarkable that in these essays, which are foundational to the development of postcolonial theory, such concerns are either denigrated or dismissed altogether. What is even more striking is that in all the commentary that they have generated, these maneuvers have either gone unnoticed or have been set aside as being of minor consequence. Both of these facts are redolent of not just the direction that the theory has taken, but also of the larger intellectual culture of the field. 

  1. 1Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Lawrence Grossberg and Cary Nelson (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271–313.
  2. 2Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, “’Draupadi’ by Mahasweta Devi,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 8, no. 2 (Winter, 1981): 381–402.
  3. 3Ranajit Guha, “Chandra’s Death,” Subaltern Studies V (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), 135–65.
  4. 4Homi Bhabha, “The Commitment to Theory,” New Formations, no. 5 (Summer 1988): 5–23.
  5. 5Sumit Sarkar, “The Decline of the Subaltern,” in Writing Social History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), 93.
  6. 6Priyamvada Gopal, “Reading Subaltern History,” in The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies, edited by Neil Larsen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 140–41.
  7. 7Florencia Mallon, “The Promise and Dilemma of Subaltern Studies: Perspectives from Latin American History,” American Historical Review, vol. 99, no. 5 (December 1994): 1509.
  8. 8Gayatri Chakrabarty Spivak, “Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular,” Postcolonial Studies, vol. 8, no. 4 (2005): 434.
  9. 9Guha, “Chandra’s Death,” 161.
  10. 10Ibid., 138.
  11. 11Ibid., 148.
  12. 12Ibid., 152.
  13. 13Ibid., 164.
  14. 14Ibid., 162.
  15. 15Ibid., 164–65, emphasis in original.
  16. 16Ibid., 160.
  17. 17Ibid., 152-53.
  18. 18Ibid., 163.
  19. 19Ibid., 162.
  20. 20 Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” 103.
  21. 21Ibid., 102.
  22. 22Ibid., 103-104.
  23. 23See, for instance, Abena Busia, “Silencing Sycorx: On African Colonial Discourse and the Unvoiced Female,” Cultural Critique, no. 14 (Winter 1989–90): 81–104.
  24. 24Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, “Death and the Subaltern,” in Reflections on the History of an Idea: Can the Subaltern Speak? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 117–38.
  25. 25Bart Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Theory: Contexts Practices, Politics (London: Verso, 1997), 104–107.
  26. 26Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 306–10.
  27. 27Ibid., 308.
  28. 28Ibid., 308.
  29. 29For one of the few instances of this point being raised, see Priyamvada Gopal, “Reading Subaltern History,” 150.
  30. 30 Stree Shakti Sanghatana et al., We Were Making History: Life Stories of Women in the Telangana People’s Struggle (London: Zed Press, 1989).
  31. 31Spivak, “Draupadi,” 402.
  32. 32Ibid., 389. Emphasis in original.
  33. 33Ibid., 389. Emphasis added.
  34. 34Ibid., 388.
  35. 35Ibid., 388.
  36. 36Ibid., 397 and 399, respectively.
  37. 37For a critique along these lines, see Darshan Perusek, “Post-Colonial Realities, Post-Structuralist Diversions: An Unamused Exchange,” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 29, no. 5 (January 29, 1994): 243–49.
  38. 38Bhabha, “The Commitment to Theory,” 12.
  39. 39Ibid., 12.
  40. 40Ibid., 11–12.
  41. 41Ibid., 12, emphasis in original.
  42. 42Ibid., 14.
  43. 43Ibid., 14.
  44. 44Ibid., 13.
  45. 45Ibid., 13. Emphasis in original.
  46. 46Beatrix Campbell, “Monday Women: Pitting Their Wits? Fate of Women’s Support Groups in Aftermath of the Miners’ Strike,” Guardian, August 25, 1986.
  47. 47I would like to thank Aijaz Ahmad for pressing me on this point.
  48. 48Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” revised edition, 42.
  49. 49Ibid., 42.