Notes on “Can The Subaltern Speak?” as the next step from this suggested by Rob.

Spivak asserts “an interested desire to conserve the subject of the West, or the West as Subject.” I don’t think I know what this means, but assuming the forming is a type or way of (lived? philosophical fiction of?) humans being in the world, such that there is one which characterizes the West, then it seems to me that this different from the latter, understood as a geopolitical region (or the so-called people of that region) which has a world-historical mission such as civilizing savages, advancing technology, whatever. I also don’t know what is meant by “undermining subjective sovereignty” or what Spivak later calls the sovereign subject. That term has a similar ambiguity as “subject of the West”/”West as Subject” in that it could mean an understanding of subjectivity as sovereignty over self, and it could mean an understanding of some type of subjectivity implied within political sovereignty. I expect that both are meant, and I expect that this is a conflation I disagree with. (271.) On the other hand, perhaps Spivak is criticizing others who put forward these ideas, not putting them forward herself, in which case I’m not criticizing Spivak but rather am following her charge.

Her remarks about French Maoism in her discussion of Deleuze and Foucault are too simple and don’t show an awareness of the relevant history. Deleuze and Foucault’s conversation begins with Foucault quoting an unnamed Maoist who once said to Foucault “I can easily understand Sartre’s purpose in siding with us (…) I can partially understand your position, since you’ve always been concerned with the problem of confinement. But Deleuze is an enigma.” (“Intellectuals and Power”, 205 in Language, Countermemory, Practice.) Spivak criticizes the anonymity of the Maoist as an example of “monolothic and anonymous subjects-in-revolution,” in contrast to the intellectual who “are named and differentiated; moreover, a Chinese Maoism is nowhere operative. Maoism here simply creates an aura of narrative specificity, which would be a harmless rhetorical banality were it not that the innocent appropriation of the proper name “Maoism” for the eccentric phenomenon of French intellectual “Maoism”” which “symptomatically renders “Asia” transparent.” (272.)

Spivak’s criticisms would be more accurate if they were true. Or at least less ambiguous. The interview was published in 1972. The French Maoist group Gauche Proletarienne – which Foucault’s partner Daniel Defert was a member of for at least some time – was proscribed by the French government in 1970, with many members thrown into prison. Sartre took up being the editor of the GP publication, the Cause du Peuple, as part of his solidarity with the imprisoned GP Maoists. Foucault and Deleuze took part in the Prison Information Group, which sought to publicize conditions outside prisons in order to help support prisoners and help them improve their conditions. GP was announced in 1971 (via), after a hungerstrike by imprisoned GP members (via). This is likely what is referred to in the quote Foucault provides from the unnamed Maoist, given the timing, the reference to Sarte and Deleuze, and the reference to confinement. If that’s the case, then the anonymity of the Maoist is just as plausibly an attempt to protect a member of a criminalized organization, since, if the unnamed Maoist was not publicly a member of GP, to name them would be to out them in print to the authorities.

Spivak’s scare quotes around the Maoism of some in France and the reference to “French intellectual Maoism” – characterized with the diminutive term “eccentric – may not be deliberately intended to say that French Maoism was simply a thing of the professoriat and that it wasn’t really Maoism. Likewise, she may not have intended to say that all the French Maoists were unaware of China and Chinese Maoism such that “Chinese Maoism [was] nowhere operative.” Still, it’s hard to read the remarks otherwise. If that’s not Spivak’s intent, so much the better. Either way, it should be noted that GP was not solely a student or university or ‘intellectual’ phenomenon and that this was even more the case for at least some other currents of French Maoism. It should also be noted that these currents were not wholly unaware of what was occurring in China. And why is Maoism an Asia-specific phenomenon (and why “Asia”, why not “China”? Are the two identical?) such that French can not take it up while Marxism travels from Germany to France? There are of course questions and criticisms that could be posed about French Maoism(s) and French thinkers’ involvement therewith, and some of Spivak’s criticisms might prove true in the end if one worked through the available material, but Spivak isn’t interested in any of that – her conclusions are (al)ready made when she begins discussing Foucault and Deleuze. If she steps over the stories of the lives of a few imprisoned proletarians while storming barricades of the geopolitical determinations of the Western subjectivity of poststructuralist theoreticians, surely the ends justify the means, no?

It’s tempting to conclude that Spivak’s references to Chinese vs French Maoism
creates an aura of narrative specificity, which would be a harmless rhetorical banality were it not that she – hopefully unwittingly – misrepresents the historical conjuncture at the moment in question in order to score points in a game of academic political credibility: Spivak attacks Foucault and Deleuze for unwittingly rendering Asia transparent while at the same time helping continue the occlusion of a case of state repression. Indeed, the latter is the condition for the former, which makes me wonder about Spivak’s utility at all, as well as the accuracy of her other representations. (Fool me once … fool me twice, etc.)

Spivak asserts but doesn’t argue that “a theory of [ideology] is necessary for an understanding of interests”, as part of castigating Deleuze and Foucault for “their indifference to ideology.” (273.)

I find Spivak compelling when she criticizes a running together of “[t]wo sense of representation (…) representation as “speaking for,” as in politics, and representation as “re-presentation,” as in art or politics.” (275.) That’s dead on. Perhaps representation is a problem, but if so then in some respects at least the problem of representation is an ensemble of problems of representations and it’s not clear what the relationship between elements of that ensemble are. This is important in my view in order to avoid the idea that statements questions about aesthetic and philosophic representation(s) automatically and without mediation impact political representation in some fashion. As Spivak writes, “the shifting distinctions between representation within the state and political economy, on the one hand, and within the theory of the Subject, on the other, must not be obliterated.” (275-6.) Spivak is dead on here, though I want to make two caveats. First, it’s hard not read her opening gestures about the subject of the West, the West as Subject, and sovereign subjectivity as running together different things in a way which she here (rightly) decries. Second, in each case – state, economy, theories – there are not so much specific representations – as in, one for each – as there are modes of representation. While we can and should generalize, we do so from contextually specific instantiations.

I find her treatment of the Marx quote from the 18th Brumaire a bit uncritical. Marx writes, “in so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that cut off their mode of life, their interest, and their formation from those of the other classes and place them in an inimical confrontation [feindlich gagenuberstellen], they form a class.” (Quoted on 276. Return to this passage in the Brumaire post-Spivak post.) Perhaps Spivak addresses this later in the essay, but the quote doesn’t reference divisions within the working class – the family as site of production as in the Boydston article – but imputes a common interest distributed relatively evenly across the class. This interest does exist as far as I’m concerned, but differences within it should be noted, at least by someone who is concerned about Deleuze and Foucault treating “the workers’ struggle” as a case of “monolothic and anonymous subjects.” (272.)


I finished the essay, don’t really know what to make of it. These notes aren’t very satisfying –

I find Spivak’s point about not moving so rapidly from macro to micro levels somewhat compelling, but I don’t find her placement of theories of ideology as the connective tissues between these levels less so. (279.)

This, however, is great: “The reduction of Marx to a benevolent but dated figure most often serves the interest of launching a new theory of interpretation.” (279.) Marx(ism) carries a sort of rhetorical weight in its association with radicalism. Academic dissing of Marx(ism) from the left is often an attempt to take this weight, this association.

I don’t understand Spivak’s objection (is it an objection?) to the idea that “the oppressed can know and speak for themselves.” (279.) I’m sympathetic if the criticism is something like “D and F think they allow space to consider the oppressed as thinking (for) themselves, but really they don’t” and perhaps with the addition that this is self-serving on D and F’s part. But if the claim is “oppressed do not or can not know and speak for themselves” then that strikes me as absurd and self-serving.

I still don’t understand Spivak’s point about subjectivity. “This S/subject (…) belongs to the exploiters’ side of the international division of labor.” (280.) I’m still not clear what the subject refers to here – a structure of being in the world (something like what is meant in an utterance like “in studying the factory we must attend to the type of subjectivity it produces or seeks to produce in factory workers and managers”) or some theoretical claims about structure(s) of being in the world. Second, what is the sense of ‘belongs’ here? I can think of two, neither of which I’m convinced of. ‘Belongs to’ might means ‘reinforces’, or it might mean ‘originates on.’ Part of what I’m unconvinced about in Spivak’s presentation is ‘epistemic violence’. Insofar as it means to claim that certain bodies of knowledge and/or ways of knowing originate in instances of (non-epistemic) violence then I’m sympathetic; likewise with the claim that these cases of ‘epistemic violence’ serve to help the perpetuation or enactment of (non-epistemic) violence (I’m more sympathetic with either claim with regard to the former, bodies of knowledge, than with the latter, ways of knowing. With both cases I don’t see that the chosen idiom adds much and I think the metaphorical use of ‘violence’ is rhetorically and possibly politically suspect).

I also don’t understand and have mixed feelings about Spivak’s criticisms of the Subaltern Studies group. Spivak expresses sympathy with a Foucaultian moment of “rendering visible the medical and juridical mechanisms that surrounded the story” of subalterns. She criticizes a slippage from this to “rendering vocal the individual” and I think this applies to individual classes as well as individual persons. Again I’m sympathetic if the goal is a sort of deflation of an overly inflated sense of self or account of the subject that might have academic careerist – or worse, political substitutionist motivations or outcomes – but Spivak seems suspicious of any attempt whatsoever to “touch the consciousness” or “voice-consciousness” of the subaltern. (285.) It seems to me that as long as one holds all conclusions as provisional, admits some level of nuance and tries not to flatten (ie, not taking too seriously the singular nouns like ‘the subaltern,’ ‘the worker’, ‘the class’ etc), then this isn’t a problem at all.

Again I find myself sympathetic with part of the step but only part, when Spivak writes against the association of Foucault with politics – and thus, Foucault as having a crucial contribution to make to the extra-theoretical world – as opposed to the idea of Derrida as merely textual. But Spivak doesn’t criticize the game here so much as assert that Derrida should be the real winner. (291.)

I can’t tell the point Spivak is trying to make about the practice of sati, nor do I understand how that section relates to the section of Deleuze and Foucault. And what is “the circumscribed task” which “[t]he female as intellectual (…) must not disown with a flourish”? Since “[t]he subaltern can not speak” and “[r]epresentation has not withered away” is the task to speak on behalf of – that is, to represent – the subaltern? (308.) In that case, the attack on Deleuze and Foucault is not “they represent, and worse, while claiming not to” but rather “they represent badly despite claiming not to.”

[Note to self – reread in its entirety the interview that Spivak reads w/ D and F, in Language Countermemory Practice, it’s called “Intellectuals and Power”]


Speaking of Spivak and enervating, I started Derrida’s Specters of Marx and … ugh. I really hate it. It not only saps my will to read it, but it saps my will to read. Like I get tired of reading that book and any other book I pick up next I also don’t want to read. Like a taste of some food that kills the appetite altogether. Because of Specters I nearly decided this morning to throw in the towel on the summer of enervating reading. My wife suggested instead that I try to downgrade how closely and seriously (ie, with how much energy) I read this stuff (though my reading level is already questionable). I think that’s the thing that will be most conducive to maintaining the project. Rather than the summer of enervating reading, then, it will be the summer of trying hard to look at all the words in enervating texts.

Maybe I’ll finally go back and read Derrida‘s response to Searle. I think I never got around to taking notes on Searle’s response to Derrida – I remember thinking Searle was right about everything he said.