Addressing the Subaltern: A Response to Clayton’s “Subaltern Space”

by Shaun Terry

In describing the subaltern’s other, Clayton refers to Chatterjee’s descriptions: “a ‘pedagogy of culture’ as well as a ‘pedagogy of violence’ (Chatterjee 2005: 496) (p. 248).” The reason that I start here is that I find it imperative to note that this seems to me to be, at its heart, about kinds of violence. Here, I am not contesting what Chatterjee has to say—rather, I am stricken by the relationship between the dominant class’s alterations of subalterns’ minds and the dominant class’s physical violence to the bodies of those subalterns who do not assent to these forms of domination.

Lawrence Grossberg helps to clarify this:

Geographers expose (but how successfully do they subvert or rectify?) how, from a Western vantage point, the subaltern is the ‘product of the failure of interpellation (on the part of the subaltern itself) or of the refusal to allow the subaltern to enter into the economy of interpellation (on the part of the colonizers)’ (Grossberg 2000: 76–7). (p. 250)

The formation of subjects as complicit participants in practices of domination appears necessary to the oppressive regime’s ability to carry out its domination. So long as the subaltern fails to be interpellated as a subject in the dominant regime, the subaltern remains problematic to the dominant regime’s project(s). Resistance to oppression is complicated, though.

As Clayton describes on p. 249, attempts, by non-subaltern people, to speak for the subaltern are often distorted by hegemonic frameworks and language. In part, this takes place because the oppressed are often (at least in some sense) voiceless. This happens despite conscious attempts to properly give voice to the concerns of the subaltern. “An inventive geographical vocabulary […] is geared to destabilising hierarchies of knowledge and advocating a subaltern politics of place, yet without lapsing into essentialism and the reactionary shibboleths of nativism and its geographical corollary, place-bound identity” (pp. 250-1). But, as Clayton suggests on p. 256, we should not hope to fully rectify colonialistic problems while using language that has historically been used to oppress the subaltern.

Further complicating the matter is the question of history. On p. 250, Clayton points out the relationship between recorded history and emergent subaltern movements. If the victors always get to write the history, then how many subaltern movements have been erased from the record? Does this not make it easier for the regime to stand against resistance movements? If people cannot look to the past and see the successes, failures, stories, emotions, and inspirations for past movements, then it seems that there is less fuel made available to run subaltern movements’ figurative engines.

On the same page, Clayton goes over a list of criticisms of geography’s historical relationships to the subaltern. On p. 255 and, again, on p.257 (albeit in the form of his final question), Clayton implies a need for us to look back at these issues in retrospect. What strikes me here is that these efforts reflect consciousness of previous geographies without necessarily reflecting consciousness of in-the-moment geographies. When Clayton asks, “How might a desire for change be related to a geography that does not try to be fully up to date or in full command of itself, a progressive geography of belatedness and incompleteness?” it is surely true that we cannot always be fully aware of ourselves in-the-moment, but that does not seem to mean that we need necessarily take for granted that attempts at in-the-moment self-awareness are wholly impossible and useless.

Instead of only trying to criticize previous geographical work, perhaps there is space for trying to understand one’s own positionality and speaking to that positionality through one’s inclusive (of those ideas that may be useful in properly addressing the subaltern, among other concerns)—but also constrained—argumentation. Keeping performance in mind while performing the act of addressing the complications in geographical work seems to me at least as valuable as criticizing that which came before. Even these acts of sensitive, thoughtful critical analysis can sometimes come with their own erasures, distortions, and tensions. That is, I think that there can be something radical in simply trying to do the right thing. It seems to me that it is not as difficult to criticize some work as it is to be vulnerable to criticism from those invested in the status quo and from those who might have legitimate criticisms of the progressive (in whatever sense) move(s) that one tries to make, but exposing oneself through an attempt to dismantle—or to at least draw consciousness to—oppressions that appear in one’s own writing seems to me somewhat more radical.

Even attempts to look at history with sensitivity to subalternity can run up against issues. Clayton, referring to Mignolo, writes, “‘If you can imagine Western civilization as a large circle with a series of satellite circles intersecting that larger one but disconnected from each other,’ he writes (2000b: 745) in cosmographic terms that announce a ‘critical cosmopolitanism’, ‘diversality will be the project that connects the diverse subaltern satellites appropriating and transforming Western global designs’ (p. 251).” Here, Western civilization is at the center. There may be good reasons to do this, but there also appear to be problems with thinking of it this way. Again, even attempts to decolonize geographic thinking can come with aspects that privilege the West. Moreover, Geography’s attempts to face otherness still occur within a Western, modernistic, racialized, gendered set of spaces, which can lead to distortions, forced assimilations, and misunderstandings.

Related to these issues, I found that the focus on the subaltern as external to the West seemed to form a bias that rendered the argument incomplete. Perhaps, I am missing something here. It seems that subaltern space could work outside of spaces of domination. A remote location that is relatively unaffected by the global capitalist order might serve as an example without it needing to be conscious of its other, i.e. non-resistant and non-anticipatory.

Perhaps obversely, it may be that colonialistic outcomes can take place even within the empire. Relating to coloniality, Clayton writes, “Subaltern inquiry finds one of its most important political cues in the recognition that this insensitivity [to anti-colonialist consciousnesses and efforts taking place within colonialist spaces] […] has outlived the formal experience of colonialism (p. 252).” Perhaps because the ideological assumptions necessary to engage in material colonization are subtler and more diffuse (by virtue of their invisibilities and multiple potential applications) than material colonizations are, colonization’s ideological form is formed in a way that allows it to persist in a way that practices of material colonization cannot (although it should be noted that some contemporary practices still do look very much like past colonizations, albeit perhaps with some caveats). If we think of colonization as infiltration, alteration, and exploitation, then colonization can happen in any number of ways in any number of spaces.

As a final note on coloniality, I would responds to Clayton’s claim—“[S]ince the emergence of ‘the Atlantic circuit’ during the sixteenth century modernity and colonialism have been mutually constitutive (p. 251)”—by saying that perhaps modernity has even served to justify exploitation. But, that is a theoretical point that cannot conscientiously be worked out here.

Clayton, Daniel. “Subaltern Space.” The SAGE Handbook of Geographical Knowledge. Edited by John A. Agnew and David N. Livingstone. London: SAGE Publications. 2011. 246-260.

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