The Problem of Representation/Making Visible the Invisible
I would like to pick up on the questions posed by contemporary art historian TJ Demos: “How can one represent artistically a life severed from representation politically?” (Demos 74) or in other words, “how can representation document bare life?” (Demos 75). It seems appropriate to continue this discussion thread with a recap of Spivak’s argument in “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, so I here outline my reading of the text:
The framing question of Gayatri Spivak’s article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” underlines the seamless power structures acting upon the underrepresented. The phrasing of the question itself suggests the presence of an audience, but importantly—that implied audience’s governance of the subaltern’s speech is invisible. For Spivak, that unspecified audience is Western, while the subaltern “represents” (a problematic word for Spivak) a people who are utterly disposed of their right or access to speech, which include “men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariat” (Spivak 78). Perhaps intentionally so, Spivak does not ask the question “Can the subaltern speak to a Western audience?” in order to frame the very problem of representation; she argues that Western philosophy excludes the subaltern’s material existence, while re-inscribing its symbolic Otherness. Western power structures thus act upon the figure of the subaltern; they either recreate the subaltern in their own narcissistic image, or require that so-called subaltern intellectuals stand in for a unified voice of the Other. Spivak argues that both of these modes of representation essentialize the Other and ignore the specificities of Being as such. This homogenous representation of the subaltern, then, is a dangerous erasure of the subaltern’s possibility for speech—dangerous in its seeming movement towards that very speech.
While Cartesian meaning-giving subjects supposedly think themselves into being, Spivak’s notion of representation as both proxy and portrait underlines the inherent prejudices at work when indexing both Self and Other. Spivak’s identification of modes by which the subaltern is misrepresented grounds her argument that the subaltern cannot speak or be heard on two distinct planes. While a Western audience denies the ideological conditions underlying its romantic reconstruction or consumption of the subaltern’s narrative, the subaltern’s voice is also subsumed by the third world intellectual’s, whose access to education reflects the influence of Western power structures. In the act of representation by “portrait,” the Western intellectual will always be recreating the Other in her or his own image. In the act of representation by “proxy,” the third world intellectual, or subaltern studies group, will always be acting as a kind of native informant, or essentialist representation of the subaltern. Theorizing on the Other as constituted by and always in relation to the Western Subject merely brings the Subject further into relief.
According to Spivak, poststructuralist theory’s invocation of the Other in fact reinforces the traditional Western enlightenment-ideal of the Subject. Hence Spivak’s claim: “The much-publicized critique of the sovereign subject thus actually inaugurates a Subject” (Spivak 66). “Can the Subaltern Speak?” criticizes Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault for attempting to concretize the subject of oppression without accounting for their own subjectivity. The language of Gilles Deleuze and FélixGuattari’s Anti-Oedipus, for example, pinpoints Spivak’s claim that the subaltern disappears in a space created by a “verbal slippage” that enmeshes proxy and portrait, respectively: “Two senses of representation are being run together: representation as ‘speaking for’, as in politics, and representation as ‘re-presentation’, as in art or philosophy” (Spivak 70). Spivak critiques the subaltern studies group for giving voice to the oppressed by approaching theorization of the Other from the Other’s perspective. She also deconstructs the Western notion, from Foucault and Deleuze specifically, that those considered radically Other could in fact speak for themselves. In the Western intellectual’s attempt to deconstruct the centrality of the subject, she or he carves out a new space for the Other; however, this space ignores the liminality of the Other in a given material specificity.
Deleuze and Guattari create a new vocabulary for desire and power, but in so doing, paradoxically throne the Other as central to deconstructing the Western Subject as they erase the Other’s possibility for speech. Spivak exposes how this Western theorizing fails to acknowledge the subaltern’s material conditions within a given historical context, in its totalizing structures of power and desire. Deleuzian desire is presented as a bounded whole, in theoretical opposition to Freudian and Lacanian notions of desire as constituted by lack. Deleuze and Guattari, it seems, in overcompensating for psychoanalytic definitions of desire—present a unity that does not reflect existence in ideology. In their failure to recognize Althusser’s distinction between Subject as an ideological structure and subject as a historically-located individual that fills subjectivity’s structure, Deleuze and Guattari further remove the subaltern from any possibility of discourse. Not only does their theorizing serve as a kind of self-gratifying merging of self and other, they “systematically ignore the question of ideology and their own implication in intellectual and economic history” (Spivak 66). In Anti-Oedipus, for example, Deleuze and Guattari assert that “Everywhere it is machines—real ones, not figurative ones [. . .] with all the necessary couplings and connections” (Deleuze and Guattari 1). This statement, in its totalizing language of “everywhere” and “all” implies a unified state of Being. For Deleuze and Guattari, Being is all there is and it is everywhere the same. Spivak points out how this implied state of Being excludes the possibility of an Outside, or otherness, to that existence.
If the only object of desire is production itself, then how does Deleuzian desire account for those who cannot produce the very conditions that it seeks to carve out for the Other? Deleuze and Guattari assume that the subject has access to the sign that “produce[s] desire, engineering it in every direction” (39); therefore, Spivak argues that according to Deleuze and Guattari (not to mention Foucault), “the oppressed, if given the chance [. . .] can speak and know their conditions” (Spivak 78). Deleuze’s notion of desire as a productive force does account for the subaltern’s failure to be heard—but he accepts that failure as part of his totalizing theory of desire: “In desiring-machines everything functions at the same time, but amid hiatuses and ruptures, breakdowns and failures, stalling and short circuits, distances and fragmentations, within a sum that never succeeds in bringing its various parts together so as to form a whole” (Deleuze and Guattari 42). If the subject is a product of desire, and desire is a “sum that never succeeds”—then Spivak is right to criticize Deleuze and Guattari’s failure to confront the different material conditions that give body to desire.
If, as Spivak suggests, Western theory can be explained in terms of its “persistent constitution of Other as the Self’s shadow” (75), then the “subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow” (Spivak 83). This double oppression of the subaltern woman is at work within Western feminist alliance politics. At the moment of female representation, the real subject of woman disappears behind her essentialist projection. Hence “[f]or the ‘figure’ of the woman, the relationship between woman and silence can be plotted by women themselves; race and class differences are subsumed under that charge” (Spivak 82). Spivak thus mobilizes French theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard’s term “differend” to note the ways in which the “constitution of the female subject in life is the place of the differend” (Spivak 97). Lyotard’s term speaks to the incompatibility of discourses—for Spivak’s purposes, between colonialism and nationalism. This discourse entraps woman in a liminal space of violence; the subaltern woman does not disappear into absence, but into the scene of the violence between competing discourses, or a “violent aporia between subject and object status” (102). This violence is enacted between patriarchy and Western imperialism, and between notions of proxy and portrait. The insufficiency of either mode of representation leads Spivak to claim that Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri’s suicide is an unreadable act. As the woman substitutes her own body for the politician’s body, she merely facilitates her double erasure, as both the body and the law of the male politician come to replace her own. While traditionally, man has been associated with the mind and woman with the body, this feminist “writing the body” reveals that even within this revisionary space of female agency, the “subaltern as female cannot be heard or read” (104).
Spivak’s critique of the Western intellectual confronts the ideological assumptions at work in the demarcation between Self and Other, and woman’s displacement within the arenas of power and desire. The language of Spivak’s essay locates her argument in a physical space fraught with limits, boundaries and borders. The recurring motif of Center/Outside speaks to the notion of the subaltern as a “figure” at the center of a contact zone of power plays in which she or he has no agency. Thus, Spivak draws the parallel between “the margins [. . .] of the circuit marked out by this epistemic violence” (78), and “the silent, silenced center” (78). She here critiques French poststructuralism, and how it carves out a theoretical space for the Other, but ignores the socio-historical conditions underpinning the Other’s physical silencing. Ultimately, for Spivak, even if the Other shatters the mirror of the Subject’s own projection—who will be left to interpret the image’s fragments? The subaltern cannot speak because speaking is necessarily an interaction between speaker and listener. As exemplified in Spivak’s example of the Hindu woman’s suicide, the subaltern’s speech is so radically limited that any communicatory act will prove unreadable. The ideal relation, for Spivak, operates not within an implied dichotomy of Self and Other, but as an intimate space where two people interact on non-essentialist terms. Spivak’s article speaks to the need for self-reflection as opposed to narcissistic projection of the Other on the self’s own terms.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Preface by Michel Foucault. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” from Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Edited and introduced by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.