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After Subaltern Studies?

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For the past few years, the CGSC have been especially concerned with the adequacy of inherited categories to grasp the contemporary situation. We were thus quite interested in Chatterjee’s reflections on the contingent conditions through which the Subaltern Studies collective and conversation developed, the scholarly and worldly situation into which they were intervening, and the subsequent shifts that may now require an intellectual reorientation.

By Gary Wilder

For our February 4 seminar the CGSC discussed Partha Chatterjee, “After Subaltern Studies,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. xlviI no. 35  (September 1, 2012): 44-49; Vivek Chibber, “How Does the Subaltern Speak?” Jacobin Issue 10, and Chris Taylor, “Not Even Marxist: On Vivek Chibber’s Polemic Against Postcolonial Theory,” Of CLR James (blog). We thereby began to identify some of the issues that might animate our efforts in the coming months through

The group seemed less interested in considering Chibber’s universalist and transhistorical condemnation of Subaltern Studies for being insufficiently Marxist than in discussing Chatterjee’s reflections on taking stock of the Subaltern Studies project thirties years after its inception. Several people did recognize the importance of considering the relation between existing postcolonial thinking and the analytic and political demands of the present moment. But most agreed that Chibber’s framing of Marxism versus postcolonialism was not especially helpful. Some felt that whether or not the scholars associated with Subaltern Studies were proper Marxists was beside the point. Others felt that Chibber’s own reading of Marx was itself problematic. (For a Marxian critique of Chibber’s self-identified Marxist criticism, I highly recommend Chris Taylor’s piece.)

For the past few years, the CGSC have been especially concerned with the adequacy of inherited categories to grasp the contemporary situation. We were thus quite interested in Chatterjee’s reflections on the contingent conditions through which the Subaltern Studies collective and conversation developed, the scholarly and worldly situation into which they were intervening, and the subsequent shifts that may now require an intellectual reorientation.

Above all, Chatterjee emphasizes the changing character of mass democracy and the governmentality of everyday life in India. He suggests that since economic liberalization in the 1990s, a new political subject – one who is invested in electoral politics, civil society, and citizenship – has displaced the figure of the peasant insurgent or subaltern rebel that stood apart from and in permanent opposition to the state. The new subaltern citizens, he contends, belong to population groups that negotiate with the state for the provision of governmental services. (He develops this idea more fully in The Politics of the Governed (2006).)

Given these shifts, Chatterjee, suggests, the “figure of the mass-political subject in India needs to be redrawn” and “subalternity would have to be redefined.” He boldly concludes, “the task, as it now stands, cannot, I think, be taken forward within the framework of the concepts and methods mobilised in Subaltern Studies and certainly cannot be carried out by the original participants in that project. What is needed is not an extension or reformulation of Subaltern Studies; what is needed are new projects.”

Most of our group concurred with Chatterjee’s assessment that “Subaltern Studies was a product of its time; another time calls for other projects.” Our lively discussion, and disagreements, revolved largely around Chatterjee’s preliminary thoughts about the directions in which he thought some of those projects should proceed.  These latter he grouped under the rubrics of “cultural history” and “popular culture” with a renewed focus on visual materials and embodied practices rather than written texts, and ethnography rather than intellectual history. Regarding social scale, he keyed this call for studies of “the ethnographic, the practical, the everyday and the local” to subnational “regional formations” and “minority cultures” and languages whose specificities, he observed, had not been sufficiently engaged by earlier Subaltern Studies research on “India,” “Pakistan,” or “Bangladesh.”

In our discussion, I questioned whether such culturalism and localism, with its place-based assumptions about territory, consciousness, and categories, could provide a sufficient foundation for the kind of reformulation of Subaltern Studies in relation to new political realities that Chatterjee invites. Others wondered whether he was proposing a return to an earlier iteration of British Cultural studies, and if so what that would or should look like. More sympathetic readers around the table suggested that Chatterjee is not proposing a descriptivist or empiricist retreat from theorizing the present. In their estimation, his reflective essay is a gesture of theoretical modesty, an eschewal of grand theory and strong explanations which proceeds from the belief that neither he nor we know where things are moving or how to conceptualize that movement with existing analytic tools. It was also suggested this Chatteree’s ethnographic interest in everyday life and embodied practices underscored the importance for him of grounded theory that emerges from concrete situations.

These exchanges raised at least three more points worth noting, as our discussions this semester will surely circle back around to them. One concerned the Another concerned the place of non-academic ethnographic research and writing that uses literary techniques and style to grasp some aspect of the political present, especially in or in relation to the non-Western world. A disagreement about the merits of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and led us to agree to read Gaiutra Bahdur’s Coolie Woman: An Odyssey of Indenture at our next session. Related to this was a question about whether the image of “the subaltern” has eclipsed its status as a concept. This led to a productive discussion of “image-concepts” – with people in the group underscoring how powerful it can be when image and concept work together to disclose something about an object that neither would be able to on its own. Ideas were exchanged about poetics and understanding, aesthetics and knowledge production.

A third concluding set of questions concerned whether Chatterjee’s call for more attention to the ethnographic, the local, and the everyday would be able to grasp the kind of translocal processes, linkages, and formations that Gilroy explored in the Black Atlantic. This led to a discussion of whether Gilroy’s intervention was meant primarily to make claims about diasporic or transnational blackness or about cosmopolitan entanglement. We wondered how best to think about both of these legacies of his work in relation to this larger question about what might follow Subaltern Studies, but more importantly, what kind of projects (i.e. concepts, objects, frameworks) might best correspond to these new times.

Several of these issues were then taken up in the CGSC’s first public event on February 7, a roundtable discussion of Ann Laura Stoler’s recent edited volume Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination (Duke University Press, 2013). This, event included introductory remarks by Megan Vaughan, and informal presentation by Ann Stoler, and prepared comments about the concepts of ruin and ruination in relation to imperial pasts and (ongoing) presence by Fiona Lee, Chelsea Shields, Neferti Tadiar, and myself.

These conversations about the contemporaneity of postcolonial thinking will continue and intensify in the coming months through additional public events. These include a book launch for Anthony Alessandrini’s forthcoming Finding Something Different: Frantz and the Future of Cultural Politics (with comments by Kandice Chuh and J. Michael Dash) and two full day symposia in April (Critical Horizons: Beyond Marxism vs. Postcolonialism, with papers by Vinay Gidwani, Anne-Maria Makhulu, and Jini Kim Watson, comments by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and a roundtable with Peter Hitchcock, Anupama Rao, and Anjuli F. Kolb Raza and Globalizing Critical Theory, with papers by Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Yoav DiCapua, and Manu Goswami, and comments by Uday Singh Mehta and Nick Nesbitt).

Please come and join our discussion!