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Anthropophagus

Another blog recommendation: of late, I’ve become enamored of anthropophagus, a great blog by an anthropology student who writes about all manner of things political, anthropological, and more. A couple of examples of the sorts of things that come up, prolifically, in her links, that I would not otherwise have noticed:

Dead Nuns Still a Health Hazard? While those who survived old-style Catholic educations may only consider living nuns truly dangerous, a historic crypt in Montreal has refused to allow a crypt to be opened, because the nuns interred within died of infectious diseases. Conversation on metafilter continues. [via]

The reactionary nature of the subalternist. An article from Monthly Review, by Pratyush Chandra, writes compelling of the ‘usefulness’ of terrorism and victimization to ‘the system,’ (which I would like to see better defined) and includes a surprising quote from Gayatri Spivak (“the scholar” in the below excerpt):

Terrorism in the present shape is not a threat to the system but like its counterpart creates an opportunity for the hegemonic bloc to (re)create consensus to (counter)terrorize and further subalternize the alienated voices and stop them from ever becoming a meaningful and organized threat to the system by transcending their own subalternity.  A prominent post-modernist, post-colonialist scholar categorically said, “Who the hell wants to protect subalternity?  Only extremely reactionary, dubious anthropologistic museumizers”1 — like terrorists and (counter)terrorists.  How do we break this vicious circle?  The scholar added: “No activist wants to keep the subaltern in the space of difference. . . .  You don’t give the subaltern voice.  You work for the bloody subaltern, you work against subalternity.”2

Terrorism in the present shape is not a threat to the system but like its counterpart creates an opportunity for the hegemonic bloc to (re)create consensus to (counter)terrorize and further subalternize the alienated voices and stop them from ever becoming a meaningful and organized threat to the system by transcending their own subalternity.  A prominent post-modernist, post-colonialist scholar categorically said, “Who the hell wants to protect subalternity?  Only extremely reactionary, dubious anthropologistic museumizers”1 — like terrorists and (counter)terrorists.  How do we break this vicious circle?  The scholar added: “No activist wants to keep the subaltern in the space of difference. . . .  You don’t give the subaltern voice.  You work for the bloody subaltern, you work against subalternity.”2

During my qualifying exams, I got in very serious trouble for making an argument very much along these lines, following largely in the vein of Arif Dirlik, whose work I like very much. One of my committee members literally started screaming at me (thankfully, the member in question was on the phone, and not there in person).

This quote from Spivak makes me wonder what she thinks she was doing for so many years (see below, and especially in the famous exchange between Gyan Prakash and O’Hanlon and Washbrook, which picks up Spivak’s themes). Maybe she’s changed her mind, or did I misread her and the founders of ‘subaltern studies?’

  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and The Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. London: Macmillan, 1988. pp. 271-313.
  • Prakash, Gyan. Writing Post-Orientalist Histories in the Third World: Perspectives from Indian Historigraphy,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 32, 2 (April 1990) pp. 383-408.
  • O’Hanlon, Rosalind, and David Washbrook, “After Orientalism: Culture, Criticism, and Politics in the Third World,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 34, 1 (January 1992), pp. 141-167.
  • Prakash, Gyan. “Can the Subaltern Ride?” A Reply to O’Hanlon and Washbrook,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 34, 1 (January 1992) pp. 168-184.
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4 thoughts on “Anthropophagus

  1. I think these are great ideas…BUT…but, few are the anthropologists who ever would have declared the objects of their research as being “subalterns”, a more recent label and one that inherently refers to vast power differentials and inequality. “Protecting subalternity” can be read in so many different ways, including usefully critical and counter-hegemonic ones that don’t seek to mash everyone up in the same stew, that I don’t find the bluster above to be valuable by itself. If not in “the space of difference” then in the space of what, exactly?

  2. erikwdavis says:

    Well, I accept the criticism you’re offering here, and think I agree with it in principle, but….I read the quotation from Spivak specifically as an attack on the notion of the subaltern as a privileged class for the purposes of cultural/historical analysis, one which must be understood and constructed as disempowered, and kept that way, so that those who decide to speak for them and build careers on their backs (the philosopher of hybridity and member of TATA’s wealth, for instance) may maintain their privileged position.

    My objection to subalternerity has always been that it is a poorly-constructed analytical notion, which seems to have much more to do with the analyst’s relationship to global (‘cosmopolitan’) discourses than with the people being analyzed.

    Thoughts?

  3. Yes, I can’t disagree.

    My comments stem from a general unease I feel with usages of terms such as ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’, usages that can in context and practice range vary widely/wildly. Some treat the mere postulation of difference and otherness as if that were, in itself, racist. Others will point to themselves as others, and insist that they be recognized as different. Anthropologists of previous generations, for as much as I might respect them, lacked sufficient creativity and imagination to concoct a world of complexity and variety as they encountered it — some of their discourses may have bolstered this or that rendition of difference, for various purposes. I would not say that their encounters were innocent and not power laden, just that there are more sides to this story. I see difference as fundamentally relational, not static at all. It cannot be “preserved” in a static state by anyone. To dispel difference can become a way of erasing the relation, conflict, tension, even basic disagreement, so I don’t think it’s useful to delete the notion, which is not what I think you are doing, nor Spivak for that matter. My worry is more with the loose statements in the article by Chandra, which I otherwise find is very good.

  4. erikwdavis says:

    Oh, I’m a big fan of (morally) uncharacterized difference, and agree with the critique to which you are alluding here. But my surprise emerges from Spivak’s apparent (if only momentary) volte-face. She was one, with many other well-connected and elite South Asians, who promoted themselves as the ‘voice of the oppressed’, and made their career on the same point. Now she appears to be saying, for the first time, that oppression is a bad thing and ought be fought against, rather than merely ventriloquized, which I think is lovely.

    Bottom line for me is that oppression is real, and that ‘oppression’ is meaningless unless it is understood to rely on real bases (‘real’ can obviously include culturally-instituted notions of reality). Those who revert to mere generalized notions of ‘oppression’ are often the targets of Marx’s Thesis Eleven: those who merely attempt to understand the world, and not aim to change it.

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