India’s only daily art newspaper

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asks “Can the Subaltern Speak?”


February 24, ON THIS DAY

And she answers it as well, declaring that the “subaltern cannot speak”, in her 1988 essay. 

Within today’s neo-colonized world, an important question arises when it comes to the topic of representation of the marginalized. At the center of this discussion is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, hailed as one of the most influential postcolonial thinkers and feminist critics of the 21st century, who deals with the problems surrounding the representation of the said marginalized and the manifestation of their agency. She was born on 24th February 1942 in Calcutta, where famine was at its peak, and studied at the Presidency College, University of Calcutta. Spivak has been a prolific writer and activist, often fighting for the empowerment of women in rural spaces. She founded the Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty Memorial Rural Education Project in 1986 for this purpose. 

Spivak has gained a lot of recognition in the past few years in fields beyond academia, especially in the world of art, as newer art institutes, curators, and artists are trying to break away from the Western stigma and decolonize their practices. Several artists have engaged with Spivak’s conceptions addressing the question of subaltern representation and Spivak herself delivered a lecture in 2019 titled “How Can Art Help Our Ailing World?”. 

A key subject that emerges from Spivak’s writings is that of the subaltern, a term she borrows from Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who defined the subaltern as “small groups on the fringes of history”. Spivak uses this terminology and expands on the concept of the marginalized in her seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. There is a visible and noticeable divide in the third-world, or the formerly colonized, countries where there exists another layer of oppression on the marginalized, rendering them essentially “voiceless”. The subaltern are removed from all lines of social mobility, and they have no political visibility, buried among centuries of historic inequality. 

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Courtesy- Firstpost

One of Spivak’s major criticisms is targeted at the Western intellectuals who feel like they can speak on behalf of the oppressed from these “third-world” spaces, occupying the space that should have belonged to the repressed with their own dominant and privileged voices. In a satirical statement, Spivak remarks that it appears that “white men are saving brown women from brown men, exposing the hypocrisy of these well-meaning intellectuals. Spivak argues that there is no possibility for the subaltern to even make an attempt at speaking when they are spoken for by those who hold the power– who cannot even understand or comprehend the struggle. 

Spivak at a lecture
Courtesy Britannica

Spivak points out that inherently, within Western domains of knowledge, whether it be art or academia, there is a power system in place that privileges the first-world voices. The disciple itself is restrictive and excludes the marginalized, whether be it their voices, culture, or artistic forms of representation. There is a clear binary erected between the two; there is the West and then there is the “Other”, a term that is exclusionary at even a linguistical level. There are several levels of gatekeeping when it comes to restricting the knowledge that could have allowed the subaltern to perceive their voice and speak.

Following Spivak’s essay that brought the subaltern to the spotlight, there were several attempts to enable the voices of the subaltern in both the academic field and the art world. But, as recognized by Spivak, unless there is a move away from the Western structures of power that keep formulating the disciples of arts and dictating the market, no true emancipation can be found. 


An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *