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A Re-reading of Paradigm Shifts in Subaltern Studies from the Present Perspective


A Re-reading of Paradigm Shifts in Subaltern Studies from the Present Perspective

Dr. Elham Hossain


Department of English

Dhaka City College

Dhaka, Bangladesh


Paradigm shift is an inevitable phenomenon of literatures. An author cannot but respond to the changing course of realities around him. As a result, theories and patterns of conceptual and observational apparatuses of the society imperatively experience alterations, revisions and innovations. A paradigm is both an ability and a constraint because epistemological aspects of human realities are always in flux and fluidity. Hence, a paradigm is essential for the structural framework of cognition and at the same time shifting of paradigms is imperative for dynamism and onward advancement of knowledge. One paradigm follows another in a regular succession. Subaltern studies which emerged in 1970s in the subcontinent under the leadership of Ranajit Guha in response to the politics suppression of colonial historiography for the marginalization of the peasants requires now to challenge the domestic politics of marginalizing the working class of people by the capitalists and the corporates. This paper seeks to explore the paradigm shifts of subaltern studies in the countries with colonial past from the perspective of modernity and globalization.

Key words: subaltern; capitalism; corporatization; centre; home place; historicity

Like many other incidents in different phases of human history COVID-19 Pandemic has brought about some radical changes in the perspective and orientation of the present world literatures. Like the history of civilization and culture, world literatures inevitably go through changes, transitions and paradigm shifts which are of momentous importance. In response to the present pandemic a huge bulk of literature is being produced world-wide. For example, Peter Wuteh Vakunta, a poet, literary theorist and professor with Cameroonian origin published a book of poetry in 2020 entitled Tragedy of the Commons; dedicated this book to the victims of COVID-19 and the first poem of this book is ‘COVID-19’. In the Preface to this book he writes, “The poet refuses to sit on the fence and watch the world go by” (Vakunta viii).Vakunta writes in the last few lines of the poem:

Zillion interrogations

A propos this strange bedfellow-

Tragedy of the Commons.

Monster with convoluted nomenclature

Corona Virus, COVID-19 aka SARS-COV-2

COVID-19- Undesirable bedfellow. (3)

The humanist approach to the fluctuations of human history and civilization and an author’s desire for enunciating his stentorian voice against the social injustice, endemic of moral crisis and the voicelessness of his fellow human beings mostly stimulates a paradigm shift in the existing epistemology. Literatures cannot but respond to the time and context in which it is produced and thus it goes through the historicity of text and the textuality of history. As the premise of Marxist criticism claims that literatures emerge out of the ideological apparatuses of the society, the shifting of these apparatuses are basically responsible for the paradigm shifts in it. Like different phases of human history, the present phase traumatized by the world-wide pandemic caused by COVID-19 expedites a radical paradigm shift of literature inevitably. On 17 May 2020 Indian prominent author Amitav Ghosh in an interview with the Italian newspaper il manifesto asserted, “I suspect there will be a huge wave of novels about the pandemic.” In his opinion, literatures always make sense of the changing world. As the rise of capitalism, imperialism, political oppression for dehumanization, displacement and climate disruption have brought about significant paradigm shifts in literatures, the present pandemic will of course stimulate a paradigm shift in the world literatures.

In the same vein, during the post-colonial period the study of subalternity, as pedagogy of the oppressed, emerged as an inevitable consequence of the response to the process of silencing and marzinalizing the natives in the colonial historiography and epistemology. Capturing the very idea of ‘subaltern’ from Gramsci some historians in response to Jakobson, Barthes, Michel Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard and many other Indian historians among whom Ranajit Guha was the most remarkable, started subaltern studies and paved the new way of reading history from below, not from the top, challenging the theoretical trajectories set by the Western historiography. Some historical incidents in this subcontinent vehemently worked behind the rise of subaltern studies. After 1947 only a particular class, especially bourgeois class very rapidly assumed an elitist status and began controlling politics. Nation-state failed. Precariat class of people fell into the bog of uncertainty of employment due to the wake of global capitalism and cronycapitalism. Besides, “imperialism and postcolonial histories,” according to Sumit Sarkar, “are equally beholden to the oppositions of East and West, spiritual and material, and the like (qtd. in Vinay Lal139). These dichotomies or binary oppositions, both in domestic and international spheres, gave an impetus to the rise of the study of subalternism.

From 1745 to 1945 there was an amazing rise of nationalism hand in hand with capitalism. “From long before World War Two until the early 1970s, the main tradition of comparative literature studies in Europe and the United States was heavily dominated by a style of scholarship that has now almost disappeared” (Newton 281). Study of comparative literature was hierarchical and the world maintained a notion that Europe and United states together were at the centre of the world. The focus of this vanity lied in their belief that they were powerful not only economically but also epistemologically. But in the Post world War Two, Europe and the United States were bound to think that the countries with colonial past were to be read and heard. The structure of consciousness of the post-colonial nation showed its incorporation with the root and history of their own because these elements construct their identity. Only political independence does not construct the identity of a nation. Their own ideologies and normative realities covering culture, language, belief-system and psychology which are mostly and genuinely cherished by the peripheral section of people of the society construct the narratives of their identity. But subalternity is not an identity; it is rather a position or location associated with the periphery or margin of the power-structure. This margin locating the home place, marked for dehumanizing scorn and devaluation, according to bell hooks, serves “as a site of resistance and liberation struggle” (43). In this site the oppressed hear each other and learn to respect each other. Consciousness about their home place gives them a thought that they have a task and it is, according to Paulo Freire, “…the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well” (21). The marginalized sections of people also realize that the nexus between power and knowledge of the oppressors emerges out of the weakness on their part. They feel an urge to liberate themselves from this weakness and the oppressors from their prejudice. It also inspires them to explore the root which was overtly neglected by the oppressive despotism. In this subcontinent the historiography produced by the Orientalist historians such as James Stuart Mill, Friederich Max Mueller constructed a version of Indian history without the Indians. The Indians are not allowed to speak in this irrational historiography as these orientalists keep speaking with a view to falsifying the social, political, religious, cultural and economic realities. Shashi Tharoor, in his book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India has criticized the monolithic construction of Indian history in James Mill’s book The History of British India, published between 1817 and 1826 (Tharoor 132). Borrowing the term ‘novelization’ from Bakhtin, as Ranajit Guha in his book Dominance without Hegemony asserts, it can be said that novelization of the deficiencies of the historical discourses tends to portray the Indians, even educated Indians as caricatures (Guha 180).Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India is depicted with all possible crudeness and ludicrous abstracts. In Kipling’s Kim Indian native Huree Chander Mukherjee is depicted as a caricature contributes to the fortification of the deliberate orientalist discourse that the Indians are devoid of civilization and culture.

But an extensive study of subalternity widely began in 1970s and 1980s and a counter discourse in response to the falsification of the history of the natives and the politics of silencing and dispossessing them started its formation process. This attempt geared up a new form of fictions, poems, dramas and short stories which dedicated themselves to the portrayal of the subaltern people such as peasants, women, and oppressed people in the centre of the readers’ interest. Ranajit Guha, Sumit Sarker, Ashish Nandi and many historiographers and theorists extend the area of subaltern study to a remarkable extent .Gayatri Chakraborti Spivak empirically explores the cases of the marginalized women. A huge bulk of literary works has emerged with intensive interest in the voice of the subalterns.

Neo-subalternism refers to the present situation of compartmentalization of the society initiated by the economically advanced class of people and the petty-bourgeois who control the economic base and its inevitable element of the superstructure, that is, political power or hegemony. So, now the reality invites all to think of the construction of subalternity in the domestic socio-economic perspectives side by side with the colonial perspective that many thinkers assume in relation with Gramsci’s conception of ‘subaltern’ as incorporated into his Prison Notebooks. In the perspective of the colonial realities all the natives were grossly defined as subaltrern as the binary opposition of the colonial masters who occupied the centre of the power-structure and the natives were forced to the margin. But in the Third World countries subalternity has been constructed by the local bourgeoisie who possesses capital, enjoys hegemonic status and compartmentalizes the society into posh areas and ghettos and haves and precariat. People living in the ghettos serve the purpose of these capitalists as, in Marxian conception, factory of labour. A female garments worker works in a factory from dawn to dusk and does not get enough time to spend with her children at home and enough money to send them to a good school. In this way, discriminated economic dissemination perpetuates the ironical production of the factory of labour who never dreams of sharing the national cake. These working people are subalternized into indentured labourers devoid of any voice for equal rights. They are forced to be silenced by the promulgation of the capitalists that they create employments for many people all over the world and if they had not done it the impoverished must have died of starvation. Hence, their eyes are deliberately drawn to their hungry stomach, not to their head because if they had exercised their consciousness of their location they might have developed the capacity to intellectualize their conditions and produce a counter narrative.

But all living in the margin of the power-structure cannot be sweepingly branded as subalterns. Different ways of viewing the position of the subalterns in respect of the subtle nuances of the realities in which they live bring about a paradigm shifts in the average way of exploring the term from colonial backdrop only. Actually, “…a paradigm is constituted by a set of belief which both enables and constrains research: a framework or scaffold which can underpin or support further work but which of necessity also excludes a range of possibilities” (Hawthorn 253). Hence, a paradigm plays double roles. It provides an epistemological framework to a particular community to define itself, and the discursive dialectics produced in it are engendered and represented by it. It can also function as an apparatus to ensure subjugation of the people outside and inside the community and dissuade them about the aesthetics of innovation and representation in a new light. A paradigm also tends to recognize a community in a structural framework that stereotypes it with prejudice or superiority complex. The sets of concepts, ideas and attitudes constituting the colonial paradigm manipulated with colonial dominance and hegemony are challenged by the study of subalternity in the Post-colonial literature through placing the marginalized or the colonial others in the centre of the narrative in the form of ‘writing back’. The literature of the colonizers excludes the natives from the centre and leads them to the margin. But the Post-colonial cultures from the countries with colonial past, especially in South Asia give “voices to those who have been written out of history” (Hawly 425). Thus, subaltern studies in post-colonial literature pose a challenge to the hermeneutics offered by the Western canon of theories and patterns of thoughts. It is a shift of voice from the centre to the margin, from the elites to the proletariat, from the oppressors to the oppressed groups such as indigenous people, women, peasantry, factory workers and the people living in the periphery wrestling for survival. The metanarratives of Europe as the ‘Sovereign theoretical subject’ are challenged by the rise of subaltern studies especially in the subcontinent.

Subalternity offers itself as a counter discourse of an elitist construction of the history. Europe occupies the sovereign subject of historiography and all national histories are the extensions of the European metanarratives. This disposition denies the ‘strategic use of positivist essentialism’ that attributes to the identity of the subaltern. In 1983 Ranajit Guha wrote Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India in which he attempts to recover the native suppressed voice. Spivak in her ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ criticizes the focus on Eurocentric subjects and intellectual colonialism that works coercively to silence the natives of the colonized and the imperialized lands. Even after the end of political colonial enterprise many post-colonial countries continue carrying the legacy of the former colonizers with the construction of neo-colonial aura. Consequently, a portion of the local epistemology is still apprehended to be entrapped by the elitist prejudices. It is often found that even in post-colonial realities in many of the movements and rebellions common people’s involvement and sacrifices are not recorded in the local history with sincerity because of the political association of the intellectuals which amplifies ‘the conviction in the nation states and historians’ imbrications in elitist and neo-colonialist practices. But the post-colonial historians and theorists such as Spivak, Partha Chatterjee, Ashis Nandi, Salman Rushdie, SumitSarker, Dipesh Chakrabarti and Shahid Amin in response to the discursive ideas of Micheal Foucault, Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, produce a bulk of narratives that stimulates the thinking of the space of the displaced. Post-colonial literature in Asia, Africa and Latin America shows an intense interest in the subject of subalternity with an urge to write back the orientalist historiography.

True, Gramsci’s Notes on ‘Italian History’ written between 1934 and 1935 throws light on different classes of the subaltern. According to him, subalterns are not homogeneous. The title of the first section of his Notes entitled ‘History of the Subaltern Classes: Methodology Criteria’ refers to the heterogeneity of the state of subalterns and Gramsci hopes the voice of all these classes can be ensured only when they have a state. For this they need negotiation or dialogues among themselves and at the same time with the hegemony of the society. Gramci also regrets that the voice of the subalterns is muted since the history is written by the rulers and the subalterns are overtly treated as an inferior subject. Spivak from the perspective of praxis explores the dialogues between these two parties in her seminal article, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ deriving impetus from Micheal Foucault’s conception of the relationship between power and knowledge, Derrida’s conception of deconstruction, Gilles Deleuze’s conception of capitalism and Marx’s socialism. Spivak in her article suggests that the phased development of the subaltern is complicated by the imperialist project” (Quoted from Hawthorn 346). This question confronted by a cluster of intellectuals whose task is to rethink and re-read Indian colonial historiography, serves as a vehement paradigm shift of the intellectualization of post-colonial literature. Not only Indian but also African and Latin American historiography elapses the role of the peasants or the proletariat and constructs an elitist narrative. So, subaltern studies draws the readers’ attention to the space where these people are intentionally left out and silenced.

In the present situation of the world economy, developing countries are still viewed as part of the neo-colonial centre-periphery linkages. In the unequal power-structure of the world the developing countries find it difficult, though not impossible, to be self-reliant. Rich European countries are branding the literature of developing countries as ‘Third World Literature’, ‘Commonwealth literature’ and ‘Diaspora literature’. But by developing a new way of writing of their own subject-matter these countries are producing literature which is running counter with European literature. Now Indian English literature, African literature, Caribbean literature and Latin American Literature are writing back with a new and huge bulk of literary oeuvre and bringing about a huge paradigm shift in the present world literatures.

Actually, the subalterns are not allowed to have any political voice and participation in the hegemony or the power structure. But in post-colonial situation subalternity has become a very complicated term, fraught with ambiguity and confusion. Even in politically independent countries subaltern’s voice is faintly echoed only on the day of national election and then it is muted through various mechanisms set and controlled by a group of political elites and these “controlling elites often engage in activities that run counter to the well-being of the wider population and, in some cases, may even lower levels of living and perpetuate under development” (Hawly 140). Even in this subcontinent subalterns like peasants and workers contributed immensely to the impetus behind the movement for freedom against the British Raj. But the historiography influenced by the bourgeois disposition revolves round only a few elitist political leaders who are idealized for the freedom of India and Pakistan in 1947.

But in the present state of globalization the relationship between the centre and periphery has rather been complicated by the incursion of the mechanism for extracting labour from the oppressed class of people or workers. So, they don’t find any scope to voice their demand. Corporatization has bound the working class of people with such a dependency thesis that the workers living from hand to mouth are not deliberately allowed by the existing capitalistic framework of economy to voice their demand. With the onset of the institutionalization and internationalization of capitalism different multinational organizations are vigorously contributing to the formation of unequal power-relationship. This mechanism creates a binary opposition in the existing power-structure of post-colonial independent countries. It creates centre and periphery and the groups in a developing country such as landlords, Army, entrepreneurs and public officials hold superior socio-economic status and political power. In his A Man of the People Chinua Achebe depicts the vulnerability of political leadership when the elitist politicians fail power slides into the pocket of the Army, not to the struggling voiceless people. Even Odili and Max representing the burgeoning bourgeois class of people fail to go to the centre of the power-structure due to a suppressed disposition of sharing the national cake and fatal failure in negotiating properly with the periphery. Sometimes power experiences paradigm shift. But this does never descend upon the subalterns in true sense as the transformation of the subalternity into a revolutionary power focusing fully on the normative values of the community is difficult due to the lack of a philosophic leadership. The subalterns are controlled by a publicity that they have their participation in power in the form of voting right in a democratic country. But this participation is also controlled in many ways through various mechanisms. The way of developing vision and philosophy among the subalterns is also restrained and controlled by the centre of power through, as one of the examples, insufficient funding for the conservation of the fundamental rights of the marginalized people.

In the past, the peasants of this subcontinent participated in various political movements. But now it is found that agriculture-sector is subtly and deliberately lying in the grip of the capitalists and the prices of the agricultural products are now controlled and decided by the corporates. Banks are giving loans to the farmers in the name of co-operation. They are ironically serving the purpose of the capitalists directly or indirectly even if they work in their own land. Women in the Third World countries are to wrestle against social and economic injustice. Not only that, they are to fight against social, cultural and political ideologies, local myths and rituals packed in the contour of modernization. In the name of modernization machines are being introduced to the agricultural land. A machine is now doing the job of dozens of farmers. Now these dozens of jobless farmers come to the metropolitan cities and sell their labour at low prices in the mills and factories of the capitalists who promote the use of machines in the agricultural farms of the farmers. All these mechanisms are implemented under the subterfuge of modernization, globalization and economic development. Consequently, the poor are getting employments which enable them only to survive, not to be well-equipped with sufficient fundamental rights to make themselves capable of voicing their words.

As the economic base in the capitalist framework determines the nature and behavior of all the ideological state apparatuses, the content of literature is mostly controlled by this economic reality. Even a huge part of the main stream literature of the Third World countries is dominated by the depiction of bourgeois life style. Many of the popular TV serials, package dramas, cinemas and reality shows are now vibrant with the thoroughfares of the upper middle class and upper class life style and even wonderland which always dwells in the subalterns’ utopia. A considerably smaller portion of literature of many of the countries with colonial past has started bringing the subalterns into the centre of the canvas of the poems, dramas, fictions and short stories. Modern Indian literature is, of course, now producing a huge bulk of subaltern historiography and presenting a re-reading of the historical realities of the subalterns. Mahashweta Devi, for example, deserves special mention. Arundhati Roy is also a glaring name in this field. Dalit literature is flourishing immensely. Manik Badyopadhyay’s Padma Nadir Majhi (Fisherman of the river Padma) depicts the picture of economic and political oppression of the fishermen living on the banks of the Padma. In Bangladesh Akhtaruzzaman Elias in his Khwabnama (Interpretation of Dream) has depicted the life of the oppressed fishermen. Syed Shamsul Haque, Hasan Azizul Haque and a handful of authors are producing literature keeping the subalterns in the centre of the canvas of their writings and thus, it is running counter to the elitist literature produced by the colonial writers and the local bourgeois litterateurs. But it is found that the quantity of interest of the present day litterateurs in the life and realities of the subalterns is far less than their interest in middle class bourgeois life style. Bourgeois publishers are not much interested to publish books about the marginalized people. Readers are now considered as market and profit is the precondition of investment. Investment or money is at the hand of the corporates.Then it is found that capitalism which worked once under the disguise of colonialism is now working deliberately in the form of domestic power-structure to keep the subalterns or oppressed people out of the canvas of literature. Capitalism inherently never wants to be challenged by subalternity.

A lot of examples of such bourgeois intolerance towards the authors showing interest in subaltern studies can be mentioned from history. African authors like Chinua Achebe, Mia Cuoto, Ngugi WaThiong’o, Ben Okri, Elechi Amadi and many others have produced a huge bulk of literature focusing on the realities of the peripheral, indigenous section of the people from the post-colonial perspective. For writing Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) in Gikuyu language about the class struggle, poverty and clash of the oppressed peasants with the rise of modernity patronized by the capitalists, Ngugi had to undergo a lot of harassments from the bourgeois government of Kenya. He had to go to the jail and ultimately he was forced to leave his country only for letting the subaltern speak in their own language in the canvass of his fictions and dramas. Ben Okri lets the hungry people living in the unhealthy ghettoscreated by the colonial legacy bearers speak in his Femished Road. He is now living in England in exile. Taslima Nasrin attempts to let the marginalized women speak. But she is now living in exile in India. Then, can it be safely assumed that even in post-colonial situations letting the subaltern speak and inviting people to listen to the subalterns is not easy? So, subaltern cannot speak because those who are controlling the, in Louis Althusser’s term, ideological state apparatuses, do not intend to listen to them.

No intellectual fashion remains in the limelight for at best more than thirty years due to the rapid change of the contextual realities. It is almost impossible for any essentialist study or philosophy to continue its appeal for several decades.  Many of the questions raised by subaltern studies are not yet resolved, neither dismissed. Capitalism is not now where it was in the last century. The subaltern cannot speak easily because it is a violent process not only of compelling the power-structure or the hegemony to listen to them but also of freeing themselves from the mindset imposed upon them by it. Besides, the subalterns are divided regarding the economic, ideological and political realities in which they live. This division disintegrates the integrated language of the subalterns. Urban subalterns are not equal to the rural subalterns and the subalterns of the First World are not equal to those of the Third World regarding the nuances in realities within which they live. Besides, the intellectual who, according to Foucault, is ‘conscience, consciousness, and eloquence’ and who does not show his subordination to the oppressive mechanism that he must not say that ‘the emperor had no clothes’ are now the target of capitalism and as their bourgeois mentality shows a sort of interest in being stereotyped by the capitalist framework, they fail to speak in the language of praxis; they remain confined to theory (Foucault in a conversation with Gilles Deleuze, 4). Deleuze says in his conversation with Foucault, “We don’t revise a theory, but construct new ones; we have no choice but to make others” (Delueze and Foucault 4). Hence, to address the domestic and global changing trends of capitalism, imperialism, crony capitalism and multiculturalism and to enable the subalterns to be listened to by the power-structure, subaltern studies is to go through a paradigm shift in its construction of a new way of approaching the problems of the subalterns and exploring the dialogues and negotiations among themselves.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles and Michel Foucault. “Intellectuals and Power”. L’Arc. no. 49, 1972, pp. 3-10.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Education, 1972.

Guha, Ranajit. Dominance without Hegemony. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hawthorn, Jeremy. A Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. Arnold, 2000.

Hawly, John C. Encyclopedia of Post-colonial Studies. Greenwood Press, 2001.

Hooks, Bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. South End Press, 1990.

Lal, Vinay. “Subaltern Studies and Its Critics: Debates over Indian History”. In History and Theory 40 (February 2001), Wesleyan University,135-148, ISS: 0018-2656.

Newton, K.M. Twentieth Century Literary Theory: A Reader. Macmillan Press Ltd., 1988.

Tharoor, Shashi. An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India. Aleph, 2016.

Vakunta, Peter Wuteh. Tragedy of the Commons. Langaa Research & Publishing CIG, 2020.