The Premise of the Subaltern

Artists and the creative souls during renaissance had no idea what implications the spirit of inquiry would have on groups of people other than the Europeans. The spirit of inquiry and the search for the unknown encouraged sailors and merchants to discover new sea routes which were romantically either painted, composed, sculpted or dreamed about in Lisbon, Modena, Venice, Marseilles, and other European centres of intellectualism, art, and reformation. The implications were of great magnitude and spread to the continents of Americas, Africa, Oceania and Asia. Native cultures were replaced or influenced by Judaeo-Christian cultures.

The premise of this article is not to argue if this replacement was good or bad. Rather, the premise is about how and why the subaltern remains subaltern in spite of a raging movement for fighting against cultural and political imperialism. Renaissance unfortunately could be described as the single most precipitating factor for colonization and the colonial discourse that arose later.

Colonial discourse from the colonized areas such as India, Africa, and the American nations emphasized the need for the white man’s presence in these areas where rationality and objectivity seemed unknown. However, colonial discourse soon had to be replaced by postcolonial rhetoric which aimed at mourning the loss of an indigenous culture, protest imperialism of the Western European nations, and celebrate a new found pride in the colonial period and struggle. The subaltern, who usually formed the majority of the colonized found a voice in postcolonial literature.

Gayatri Spivak in her acclaimed essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” spoke about her concern wherein postcolonial literature seek to protest the colonial imposition but paradoxically end up further pushing the subaltern into a terrain hitherto buried deep underground. She feels that mere criticism and collective identity of the colonized would lead to a situation where the colonized and the subaltern become a homogenized population, though in reality there might be more in common with certain groups of the “subaltern” and the imperial forces than among subalterns themselves.

The subaltern as a collectivist and homogenous group does not solve the problem of imperialism and nor does it lend voice to the voiceless. Instead, it does more damage to the “subaltern” by homogenizing them into a victim’s position. Playing the victim, has never worked and the best example for that situation could be that of India’s and even Africa’s.

Rich in postcolonial literature, Indian publishing industry spews hundreds of books which still dwell on the horrors of colonization while ignoring or attaching little importance to existing social problems. In fact, there is a trend of colonization within the Indian society where the upper classes assume the roles of the colonizers and the lower classes, that of the subaltern. Collectively ascribing the tern “Subaltern” to these two groups would do more damage to the “real subaltern” if such a group even exists.

Text and discourse which seek to speak for the subaltern end up further stigmatizing the groups of population for which these texts aim to lend voice. Postcolonial literature seeks to revel in the victimhood that had been supposedly imposed by the colonizers. Thus, much of the postcolonial literature as Gayatri Spivak notes do not lend a voice to the subaltern by generalizing the colonized. They assign importance to the colonizing forces unknowingly and do damage to the subaltern’s self esteem.

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