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As a method of investigation and analysis of the political role of subaltern populations, Marx's theory of history presents colonial history from the perspective of the proletariat ; that the who and what of social class are determined through the economic relations among the social classes of a society. Since the s, the term subaltern denoted the colonized peoples of the Indian subcontinent, imperial history told from below , from the perspective of the colonised peoples, rather than from the perspective of the colonisers from Western Europe; by the s, the Subaltern Studies method of historical enquiry was applied to South Asian historiography.

As a method of intellectual discourse, the concept of the subaltern originated as a Eurocentric method of historical enquiry for the study of non-Western peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East and their relation to Western Europe as the centre of world history, thus subaltern studies became the model for historical research of the subaltern's experience of colonialism in the Indian Subcontinent.

In postcolonial theory, the term subaltern describes the lower social classes and the Other social groups displaced to the margins of a society; in an imperial colony, a subaltern is a native man or woman without human agency , as defined by his and her social status. In post-colonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern — a space of difference. Now, who would say that's just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It's not subaltern. Many people want to claim [the condition of] subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous.

I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus; they don't need the word 'subaltern'.

Marxist Critique of Post-colonialism

They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They're within the hegemonic discourse, wanting a piece of the pie, and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern. In Marxist theory , the civil sense of the term subaltern was first used by Antonio Gramsci — In discussions of the meaning of the term subaltern in the work of Gramsci, Spivak said that he used the word as a synonym for the proletariat a code word to deceive the prison censor to allow his manuscripts out the prison , [5] but contemporary evidence indicates that the term was a novel concept in Gramsci's political theory.

Bhabha emphasized the importance of social power relations in defining subaltern social groups as oppressed, racial minorities whose social presence was crucial to the self-definition of the majority group; as such, subaltern social groups, nonetheless, also are in a position to subvert the authority of the social groups who hold hegemonic power.

In Toward a New Legal Common Sense , the sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos applied the term subaltern cosmopolitanism to describe the counter-hegemonic practice of social struggle against Neoliberalism and globalization , especially the struggle against social exclusion. Moreover, de Sousa Santos applied subaltern cosmopolitanism as interchangeable with the term cosmopolitan legality to describe the framework of diverse norms meant to realise an equality of differences , wherein the term subaltern identifies the oppressed peoples, at the margins of society, who are struggling against the hegemony of economic globalization.

Subaltern (postcolonialism)

Context, time, and place determine who, among the marginalised peoples, is a subaltern; in India, women, dalits , and rural, immigrant labourers are part of the subaltern social stratum. Postcolonial theory studies the power and the continued dominance of Western ways of intellectual enquiry, the methods of generating knowledge.

In the book Orientalism , Edward Said , conceptually addresses the oppressed subaltern native, to explain how the Eurocentric perspective of Orientalism produced the ideological foundations and justifications for the colonial domination of the Other. Before their actual explorations of The Orient, Europeans had invented imaginary geographies of the Orient; predefined images of the savage peoples and exotic places that lay beyond the horizon of the Western world. The mythologies of Orientalism were reinforced by travellers who returned from Asia to Europe with reports of monsters and savage lands, which were based upon the conceptual difference and strangeness of the Orient; such cultural discourses about the Oriental Other were perpetuated through the mass communications media of the time, and created an Us-and-Them binary social relation with which the Europeans defined themselves by defining the differences between the Orient and the Occident.

As a foundation of colonialism, the Us-and-Them binary social relation misrepresented the Orient as backward and irrational lands, and, therefore, in need of the European civilizing mission , to help them become modern , in the Western sense; hence, the Eurocentric discourse of Orientalism excludes the voices of the subaltern natives, the Orientals, themselves. The cultural theorist Stuart Hall said that the power of cultural discourse created and reinforced Western dominance of the non-Western world.

That the European discourses describing the differences between The West and The East, applied European cultural categories, languages, and ideas to represent the non-European Other. The knowledge produced by such discourses became social praxis, which then became reality; by producing a discourse of difference, Europe maintained Western dominance over the non-European Other, using a binary social relation that created and established the Subaltern native, realised by excluding The Other from the production of discourse, between the East and the West.

In Geographies of Post colonialism , Joanne Sharp developed Spivak 's line of reasoning that Western intellectuals displace to the margin of intellectual discourse the non—Western forms of "knowing" by re-formulating, and thus intellectually diminishing, such forms of acquiring knowledge as myth and folklore. To be heard and to be known, the subaltern native must adopt Western ways of knowing language, thought, reasoning ; because of such Westernization , a subaltern people can never express their native ways of knowing, and, instead, must conform their native expression of knowledge to the Western, colonial ways of knowing the world.

For example, in Colonial Latin America , the subordinated natives conformed to the colonial culture, and used the linguistic filters of religion and servitude when addressing their Spanish imperial rulers. To make effective appeals to the Spanish Crown, slaves and natives would address the rulers in ways that masked their own, native ways of speaking.


The historian Fernando Coronil said that his goal as an investigator must be "to listen to the subaltern subjects, and to interpret what I hear, and to engage them and interact with their voices. We cannot ascend to a position of dominance over the voice, subjugating its words to the meanings we desire to attribute to them. That is simply another form of discrimination. The power to narrate somebody's story is a heavy task, and we must be cautious and aware of the complications involved. That in order to truly communicate with the subaltern native, the academic would have to remove him or herself as "the expert" at the center of the Us-and-Them binary social relation.

Traditionally, the academic wants to learn of the subaltern native's experiences of colonialism, but does not want to know the subaltern's own explanation of his or her experiences of colonial domination. In light of the mechanics of Western knowledge, hooks said that a true explanation can come only from the expertise of the Western academic, thus, the subaltern native surrenders knowledge of colonialism to the investigating academic.

“The Postcolonial Gramsci”: Edited by Neelam Srivastava and Baidik Bhattacharya

About the binary relationship of investigation, between the academic and the subaltern native, hooks said that:. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain.

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I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority.

I am still [the] colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk. As a means of constructing a great history of society, the story of the subaltern native is a revealing examination of the experience of colonialism from the perspective of the subaltern man and the subaltern woman, the most powerless people living within the socio-economic confines of imperialism; therefore, the academic investigator of post-colonialism must not assume cultural superiority when studying the voices of the subaltern natives.

Mainstream development discourse, which is based upon knowledge of colonialism and Orientalism , concentrates upon modernization theory , wherein the modernization of an underdeveloped country should follow the path to modernization taken and established by the developed countries of the West. In the House of the Interpreter. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. Empire's Wake. Mark Quigley.

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