The Subaltern in History: Towards a New History
Before we begin today's lecture, we need to understand various terms. Decolonization: the process of removing an imperial power over a colonized region. Post-colonial: after colonization is over, or when decolonization is complete. Postcolonial refers also to a specific type of history: Postcolonial theory / studies, the study of the formerly colonized regions and their independent development
One is subaltern. Historians who use this term take it from Antonio Gramsci, who declared that the subaltern was the subjected underclass in a society on whom the dominant power exerts its hegemonic influence.
Subaltern Studies emerged in the mid-1980s as a series of journal articles published by Oxford University Press in India. Its main goal was to retake history for the underclasses, for the voices that had not been heard previous. Scholars of the subaltern hoped to break away from histories of the elites and the Eurocentric bias of current imperial history. Edward Said wrote:
Historicism meant that one human history uniting humanity either culminated in or was observed from the vantage point of Europe, or the West... What...has never taken place is an epistemological critique at the most fundamental level of the connection between the development of a historicism which has expanded and developed enough to include antithetical attitudes such as ideologies of Western imperialism and critiques of imperialism on the one hand, and on the other, the actual practice of imperialism by which the accumulation of territories and population, the control of economies, and the incorporation and homogenisation of histories are maintained (quoted in White Mythologies p. 10)/
One of the leading scholars of subaltern studies is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. She draws on a number of theoretical positions in her analysis of Indian history: deconstruction, marxism, feminism. She was highly critical of current histories of India that were told from the vantage point of the colonizers and presented a story of the colony via the British adminstrators (Young, 159). What she and other historians (including Ranajit Guha) wanted was to reclaim their history, to give voice to the subjected peoples. Any other history merely reconstructs imperialist hegemony and does not give voice to the people—those who resisted, those who supported, those who experienced colonial incursion. According to the Subaltern Studies group, this history is designed to be a "contribution made by people on their own, that it, independently of the élite" (quoted in Young 160).
Obviously, the introduction of subaltern studies, like all of our theories we've encountered this term, has tremendous political repercussions. In a society like Great Britain, that claims to operate as a "Commonwealth" yet sees racism around every corner as well as the desire to keep out the blacks who cause all the problems (refer to recent Prime Minister elections), the writing and mapping of a history of previously silent groups creates an undercurrent throughout the society
Thus subaltern history will help to lay bare previously covered histories, previously ignored events, previously purposeful hidden secrets of the past.
Ramachandra Guha's piece for today is very much about the interrelation of local politics with colonial administration.
But Tabili's piece is much different. Clearly, given the definition provided about subaltern studies, Tabili's piece can't really be it—or can it? Look at how she talks about the administrative apparatus of the shipping company.
I. Why choose the term "subaltern"? What does it mean? According to my handy OED, it means, of inferior status or rank; subordinate; hence, of rank, power, authority, action
Am I saying that somehow these histories are inferior or belong to a subordinate position?
ABSOLUTELY NOT: however, "traditional" histories, like the kind discussed in the very beginning of this term, often neglected the ordinary, the average, the everyday because they were not the stuff of "big history."
II. How historians use the term—Historians have tended to use this term in a way that takes back the history—much the same way that the term queer has been brought into the language of queer theory, subaltern has been a way for historians (and theoreticians) to expand their language, to recognize the historically subordinate position of the lives of various groups of people, but in recognizing their "subalternity" giving them a voice and an agency.
III. Movement from the New Left to the New Cultural History. Recovering the histories
-We could argue that this move began with the Fabians in the early twentieth century—a group of scholars dedicated to uncovering the role of the laboring classes in history. In fact, we could argue that it began earlier, since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were very concerned with the history of the proletarian and his role in history.
-But even if we discount the "theoretical" discussion by these groups, we see some glimpses of this in the 1930s—CLR James' The Black Jacobins was a Marxist study of the successful slave revolt in San Domingo led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. The book continues to be regarded as one of the great work of black agency.
-Despite these early ventures, I argue that it's not really until the emergence of "The New Left" and the rise of non-Marxist social history in the 1960s that we see concerted efforts at a "history from below" that provided these characters with a voice.
-In the US, race and gender became especially important in the 1960s in the face of the Civil Rights Movement and the emergent Feminist Movement. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique really became a wake-up call
-In Europe, students faced the violence of global migration from colonized areas (specifically in England—Caribbean, African, South Asian, East Asian—and France—Vietnam/Indochina, Algeria/North Africa), they faced decolonization and in 1968 the huge student riots in Europe showed the emergence of the "subaltern."
-But other areas of the world as well in Cold War society: Latin American Revolutions, The revolutions in Asia and Africa.
-The post-war world then, was one of growing discontent "at home" and "abroad"—to be more sophisticated, we should say "globally."
The New Left came out of this discontent. Dissatisfied with the Soviets after 1956, young scholars thought about alternative ways of thinking about the past by not relying on "working" models. Saw a chance to see the past for what it was.
1960s—lots of great stuff on class beginning with EPT's MEWC.
1960s & 1970s—lots of great stuff that begin to combine all three—what historians sometimes refer to as the mantra: race, class and gender.
So what? How does this have to do with "subaltern" and "recovering" history? EVERYTHING.
IV. This gets us to the point where we can talk about "postcolonial" theory and history. It enables us to use a discourse that would have been forbidden.
1. sample arguments / thesis statements
While Cultural History moves away from Marxist thought through its attention to language, it nevertheless maintains much of the socio-economic dimensions of Marxism. (EPT, CH, CD)
Gender has served to throw a wrench into previous histories of class, and without it as a category of analysis, we would have an incomplete history of working-class struggle (AC, EPT, CH; or CS, EPT, AC)
Environmental history, despite its claims to be different, is really not substantially different from early Annales history.
Race has been a neglected arena for history of the working class. Laura Tabili's work shows the necessity of incorporating race (and/or gender) into any history of the working class (AC, CS, EPT or GSJ).
2. Structure and grammar: spell out centuries, be careful of adjectival clauses, no run-on sentences or fragments, apostrophes and dates, that/which/who, homonyms (lose/loose)