A Rupture in Colonial Reason: Spivak, Fanon, and The Question of Subalternity

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This is an abridged draft for the upcoming ACLA conference in NYC in the Spring of 2014

I. Memories of a Spivakian

Given her revisions in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Spivak delineates three main point regarding the subaltern. First, the subaltern refers to the space of “sheer heterogeneity of” decolonization. Second, “when a line of communication is established between a member of a subaltern groups and the circuits of citizenships…this is absolutely desired.” This is to say, we should not valorize the condition of the subaltern unless, as Spivak writes, “we want to be romantic purists or primitivists.” And third, the trace-structure which characterizes the postcolonial intellectuals work is the experience of hearing the subaltern through this “effacement in disclosure”’(CPR, 310).

These three points could be summed up as follows: the inhabited spaces of difference and erasure are not to be valorized as the revolutionary space par excellence; rather, justice takes place in a move away from the space of subalternity, into forms of hegemony which counter those institutions which maintain the conditions of the subaltern. Moreover, the position of the postcolonial intellectual in this relationship is always at a particular remove, at a particular distance (temporal or geographical) from the subaltern. It is in the name of this movement out of subaltern space that the postcolonial intellectual actively critiques the sites of global capital which produce the truths of power masquerading as the Truth of the Other. Thus, what follows from Spivak’s revised position concerning subaltern speech are two important themes: the temporal structure of ethics and the idea of constructing a counterhegemony. Regarding the former, the ethical responsibility of the western intellectual has a temporal structure specific to its way of being in the world. Regarding the latter, Spivak’s belief in the political potential of constructing a ‘counterhegemonic ideology’ against the persisting forms of colonialism and imperialism is at the constitutive heart of her, seemingly, aporetic position.

Concerning the question of the ‘time of the ethical relation’ between the postcolonial intellectual and the subaltern group, it is always an ‘effacement in disclosure;’ it is as if the intellectual is always-already late to the scene of colonial and imperial violence and nonetheless, it is through the erasure of the subaltern that they are disclosed. Judith Butler articulates the logic of this time best, which is worth to quote at length:

“The norms by which I seek to make myself recognizable are not fully mine. They are not born with me; the temporality of their emergence does not coincide with the temporality of my own life. So, in living my life as a recognizable being, I live a vector of temporalities, one of which has my death as its terminus, but another of which consists in the social and historical temporality of the norms by which my recognizability is established and maintained. These norms, are, as it were, indifferent to me, to my life and my death. Because norms emerge, transform, and persist according to a temporality that is not the same as the temporality of my life, and because they also in some ways sustain my life in its intelligibility, the temporality of norms interrupts the time of my living. Paradoxically, it is this interruption, this disorientation of the perspective of my life, this instance of an indifference in sociality, that nevertheless sustains my living” (Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 35).

This time which is both not mine and yet mine; a time that is older than me and yet constitutes me in my subjectivity; this time which remains indifferent to me and is yet the time of my immediate experience; it is this double structure of time which lies at the heart of the ethical responsibility of those of us who find ourselves in the positions of intellectual/knowledge production. It is a time of preserving the past in the present; a time of memory in the name of the trace-structure of subaltern speech.

While Butler is working to articulate the conditions of possibility of how one can give an account of oneself and makes sense of the multiplicity of narratives that constitute who one is; Spivak’s relationship to this double structure of ethical time is thought within the context of how those in positions of knowledge production always-already inherit the history of exploitation, and how those whose subjectivities are created by the diasporic movements from the Third to First world become complicit in the absolute erasure of this history. This question of the relationship between ‘ethical time’ and politics is articulated, in my estimation, in a different way by Frantz Fanon.

II. Memories of A Fanonian

In The Wretched of The Earth, Fanon articulates Spivak’s first point on subalternity as follows: “In colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich” (The Wretched of The Earth, 5). On Fanon’s account, the space inhabited by the colonized subject, their way of being in the world, is such that they are in a position of radical exclusion such that they do not even constitute a class in themselves. This space of exclusion is a space where,

“you are born anywhere, anyhow. You die anywhere, from anything. It’s a world with no space, people are piled one on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together. The colonized’s sector is a famished sector, hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal, and light. The colonized’s sector is a sector that crouches and cowers, a sector on its knees, a sector that is prostrate”(WE, 4-5).

As Butler correctly articulates, this is a space whose time is one which is totally indifferent to the time of the Algerian people; a space of norms which are indifferent to their life and to their death. It is at this point in colonialism where the trace-structure of subaltern speech is effaced absolutely: “the colonist is right when he says he “knows” them. It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject” (WE, 2). Thus, subalternity is maintained when French colonialism speaks for the Algerian people; and it is an identity which is neither desirable for Fanon nor Spivak.

Additionally, Fanon methodologically articulates the logic of colonial ideology and then quickly juxtaposes them with the values which correspond to the way of being that would lead to the liberation of the Algerian people:

“How many times in Paris or Aix, in Algiers or Basse-Terre have we seen the colonized vehemently protest the so-called indolence of the black, the Algerian, the Vietnamese…The colonized’s indolence is a conscious way of sabotaging the colonial machine; on the biological level it is a remarkable system of self-preservation and, if nothing else, a positive curb on the occupier’s stranglehold over the entire country…Put yourself in his shoes and stop reasoning and claiming that the “nigger” is a hard worker and the reality of the “towelhead,” the reality of the “nigger,” is not to lift a finger, not to help the oppressor sink his claws into his prey” (WE, 220, my emphasis).

Thus Fanon establishes a rupture within colonial Reason; a break in the rational underpinnings of the logic of colonialism – the ‘reason’ of colonialism (it’s structure, it’s values, it’s economics, it’s temporality, it’s knowledge-production) is opposed to the ‘reason’ of the decolonial project with it’s own structures, values, economics, temporality, and knowledge-production. As Fanon aptly writes, “challenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of viewpoints. It is not a discourse on the universal, but the impassioned claim by the colonized that their world is fundamentally different” (WE, 6, my emphasis). It is this ‘fundamental difference,’ this understanding of the incommensurability of colonialism with the colonized’s condition, that rests at the basis of constructing a counterhegemony in the style of Fanon. Additionally, Fanon’s analysis of the psychiatric case studies during French colonialism marks a second moment of attempting to construct an alternative hegemony to that of bourgeois, French, ideology.

III. A Rupture in Time: Opening onto the Outside

Spivak’s approach to the question of the subaltern remains within certain limits (limits, which she herself acknowledges). By affirming the concept of ‘trace’ and carrying it over into postcolonial discourse, she marks the relationship between ‘the field of academic prose’ and the subaltern voice. As she says, “this trace-structure (effacement in disclosure) surfaces as the tragic emotions of the political activist, springing not out of superficial utopianism, but out of the depths of what Bimal Krishna Matilal has called “moral love” (CPR, 310). This trace-structure relationship is a bringing together of the earlier and later Derrida: not only is the trace-structure that which is always being set off from the dominant meaning systems of culture (differ-defer); it is also that which marks out the radical alterity of the subaltern voice (the experience of the impossible). This is something she also sees in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved: “In the novel…Morrison places the “Africa” that is the prehistory of Afro-America or New World African-to be strictly distinguished from the named contemporary continent-in the undeconstructible experience of the impossible” (CPR, 430). This trace-structure, on Spivak’s reading, is the structure of the subaltern relationship to globalization.

Moreover, the trace-structure as the relationship of Western intellectual subject-position to the subaltern is the extent to which, I believe, her analysis can bring her to doing ‘justice’ to the subaltern. It is telling through her examples and criticisms, most of which revolve around the production of cultural and historical objects, the way knowledge has been produced and transmitted throughout history, and the way in which Western intellectuals remain complicit in the silencing of subaltern speech (the second mode of complicity – the inclusion and absolute erasure of subaltern identity in globalization – is also at stake in this bringing together of the early and late Derridean concept of the trace-structure).

However, I believe the limit of Spivak’s analysis of subaltern identity is overcome by Fanon, which can be seen in his articulation of the position which the colonized subject finds themselves in colonial society. As he writes, “Challenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of viewpoints. It is not a discourse on the universal” (WE, 6). This logic is furthered by statements such as “to the expression: “All natives are the same,” the colonized reply: “All colonists are the same” (WE, 49); or “The work of the colonist is to make even dreams of liberty impossible for the colonized. The work of the colonized is to imagine every possible method of annihilating the colonist…The theory of the “absolute evil of the colonist” is in response to the theory of the “absolute evil of the native”” (WE, 50). As mentioned above, this logic articulated by Fanon is the logic of rupture; it is the logic of articulating a political position which is absolutely incommensurable to the colonial condition.

However, there is something deeper lurking in such claims to incommensurability. The fundamental premise of Fanon’s form of argumentation is the realization that colonialism, and the capitalism which benefits from it, is an internally rational system. That is to say, colonialism does not contradict itself. It’s forms of exclusion, segregation, the knowledge produced and imposed on the colonized subjects; all of these are positive and necessary elements within the logic of colonialism itself. It is at this point that Spivak’s reading of Deleuze limits her from seeing the ways in which a “social field is not defined by its contradictions” (Desire and Pleasure) can become a productive way of thinking through the subaltern condition.

Additionally, the differences between Spivak and Fanon also revolve around the idea of this trace-structure and her commitment to a theory of ideology. While for Spivak, the trace-structure is what it means to be constituted as a subject – an always-already differed-deferred experience of the impossible – for Fanon, this subject is constituted by the colonial situation itself: the interpellation of the black body, or the construction of the ‘native’ subject as ‘lacking a cortex’, these are truths of Power and not truths of the Other. Thus, it is the institutions of colonial power which construct the ‘truth’ of the lacking subject. Or as Deleuze and Guattari say, and as Spivak cites unapprovingly, “Desire does not lack anything; it does not lack its object. It is, rather, the subject that is lacking desire, or desire that lacks a fixed subject; there is no fixed subject except by repression” (AO, 26, my emphasis).

There is a fundamental difference, then, between Spivak and Fanon. While both agree for the need to attend to those abject spaces and peoples of global capital, their approaches remain distinct in the sense that Spivak seems to be fine with the integration of subaltern peoples into society as long as they preserve the memory of the subaltern space. Fanon, on the other hand, is not so quick to desire inclusion into society. In Fanon’s case, there is no place in existing social bodies for the colonized, abject, subject. Thus, the only way to articulate a politics that would do justice to the condition of the abject subject would be to institute a rupture within capitalist reason itself. It is rupture, and not inclusion, that Fanon calls for and which marks him off from Spivak’s approach. On this difference, perhaps Walter Mignolo has put it best when speaking of the difference between and ‘ethics of discourse’ (where I would place Spivak) and an ‘ethics of liberation’ (where I would place Fanon):

“an ethics of discourse argues for the “recognition of difference” and the “inclusion of the other”; such benevolent recognition and inclusion, however, leave those to be included with little say in how they are recognized or included. In that it assumes an abstract universal space in which to recognize and where to include, the ethics of discourse is, in essence, the standard version of multiculturalism, and, as such, is common, in spite of the obvious differences…The idea of an ‘ethics of liberation,’ on the other hand, thinks, as it were, from the thinking of the excluded…Whereas an ‘ethics of discourse’ allows only the tolerance of diversity within a refashioning of existing and hegemonic abstract universals, an ‘ethics of liberation’ proposes diversality as a universal project.” (‘The Zapatista’s Theoretical Revolution’).

Continuing, he writes “The Ethics of LIberation is transformation grounded in a philosophical discourse which questions the fact that in the politics of inclusion and recognition what is left unquestioned is the very place in and from which inclusion is being proposed. Those who propose inclusion do not reflect critically on the fact that those who are being welcomed for inclusion may not necessarily want to play the game generously offered by those who open their arms to the inclusion of what is perceived as different” (ZTR). It this difference, between inclusion and liberation, between the deconstructive rememberance and instituting a rupture within the logic of capital, that marks the shortcomings of Spivak, and the hope of Fanon’s work for the future.


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