Blesok no. 97, July-August, 2014

The Silence of the Subaltern and the Epistemic Violence of Imperialism

Trajanka Kortova

“Imperialism’s epistemic violence … constituted/effaced the subject that was obliged to cathect … the space of the Imperialists’ self-consolidating other. The clearest available example of … epistemic violence is the remotely orchestrated, far-flung, and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonial subject as Other”[1].
“Europe … consolidated itself as sovereign subject by defining its colonies as ‘Others,’ even as it constituted them, for purposes of administration and the expansion of markets, into programmed near-images of that very sovereign self”[2].
By constituting the colonial subject as the Other, colonialism/imperialism performs epistemic violence. What does this violence consist of? Within the context of the theory of Gayatri Charkravorty Spivak, it represents using the knowledge, i.e. epistemology of the West in order to justify the political and cultural domination over the non-West; foreclosing the colonial Other from any valid discourse of knowing and feeling; preventing the appearance in this Other of any awareness of self, his situation and the manner of seeking a way out of it; causing his existence in conditions of marginality and fragmentation, inability to achieve unification with others who share his lot and, consequently, forcing him to play merely an episodic role in history. A result of the epistemic violence of imperialism is the absence of almost any valid knowledge coming from the non-West that can exist only by virtue of its intrinsic value, without having to be compared to what comes from the West or to be benevolently “adopted” by it. The epistemic violence of imperialism has also brought about the destruction and degradation of nonwestern cultures and worldviews, which, in turn, has installed European epistemology in a position of universality and an entelechy of universal values.
The word “episteme” is derived from the Greek ἐπιστήμη, meaning ‘knowledge’ or ‘science’; the corresponding verb ἐπίσταμαι signifies ‘to know, to understand’. The episteme is different from τέχνη = skill, knowledge or art. In Plato’s theory, episteme refers to “true knowledge”, as opposed to doxa, which connotes ‘common belief or opinion’[3]. Epistemology is thus the study of knowledge. In the philosophy of Michel Foucault, episteme is the corpus of knowledge and ideas current in a certain period. However, the term refers not only to the corpus of knowledge defining a certain period, but also that which conditions the possibility for the appearance of that knowledge, that which determines what is actually possible to know in a certain period. In other words, the episteme is an unconscious category that determines the appearance and development of thought and refers to the “unconscious structures underlying the production of scientific knowledge in a particular time and place. It is the ‘epistemological field’ which forms the conditions of possibility for knowledge in a given time and place”[4]. The episteme is often compared to Thomas Khun’s notion of paradigm; however, there are significant conceptual differences between an episteme and a paradigm that do not allow them to be deemed synonymous. A paradigm is primarily a scientific category describing the sum of scientific practices and suppositions organised in particular scientific theories, whereas Foucault’s episteme comprises an area that surpasses science and that consists of the patterns of thought defining a certain period, namely epistemology in its entirety. In addition, the episteme also comprises the unconscious principles of a given period that condition and determine the limits of its knowledge. Whereas a paradigm refers exclusively to the dominant scientific supposition/theory characteristic of the period, an episteme also analyses the existence of opposed theories and discourses in science, the extent to which they are or are not permeated by ideology, etc.
The episteme manifests itself in discourse, which represents a sum/system of statements reflecting social knowledge, i.e. the manners in which a given society experiences and represents the world (to itself). Since the process of such a systematisation of statements inevitably entails selection and delimitation of the bases of thought that will form a certain discourse, the formation thereof becomes inextricably linked to the power and ideologies prevalent in that society. In accordance with this, Foucault establishes an unbreakable, symbiotic relation between knowledge and power, which later on Edward Said, in his seminal book Orientalism (1978), will apply in the colonial context. Said’s basic premise is that colonial “discourse, ⦋which represents a⦌ way of knowing the ‘Orient’, is a way of maintaining power over it”[5]. Knowledge of the Orient (and, by analogy, of anything that is not Europe/the West) was tarnished by imperialist ideology and the complicity between them necessitated the creation of a deep ontological and epistemological difference between the Orient and the Occident. This difference polarized the self (the Occident) and the other (the Orient) by attributing to them pure racial, cultural and civilizational essences that homogenized the Oriental Other into an object of western representation that was invariably static, inferior, silent, non-individualized and collective.
In line with Spivak’s assertion in the abovementioned quote, the colonialist episteme constituted the colonized subject at its Other; one of the manifestation of this “othering” was the rejection and devaluation of this Other as possessor and carrier of valid, true knowledge (in Plato’s definition of an episteme, as opposed to doxa) – hence, we are talking about “the epistemic violence of imperialism”. Spivak’s critical oeuvre is largely oriented towards two manifestations of marginality arising out of this violence – the native informant and gendered subalternity.
In her book A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Spivak analyses the status that the native informant, as a mediating category between the colonising elite and the native subaltern masses, has in European philosophy, literature, history and culture. Spivak takes over the term “native informant” from ethnography; although a source of information, the native informant remains unrecognized as such and anonymous – the European has the exclusive right to be a discoverer, theoretician, epistemologist. The role of the native informant in the (post)colonial situation is dual: on the one hand, he is invoked to provide the ethnographer information on his native culture, while on the other, he is marginalised because he himself is not positioned as a subject/narrator. He is excluded from the European historical, philosophical, literary and cultural narrative and does not have a space for articulation as a valid possessor of knowledge. Analysing the works of, as she herself calls them, “the last Three Wise Men of the Continental (European) tradition” – Kant, Hegel and Marx, Spivak diagnoses their characterisation of the native informant as a lack, deviation, whereby their narratives remain profoundly Eurocentric in their metonymic representation of the European as Man. Thus, Kant considers the non-European as incapable of experiencing the sublime, because “Without development of moral ideas, that which we, prepared by culture, call sublime presents itself to man in the raw (dem rohen Menschen) merely as terrible”[6]. Hegel writes that the art and science of the non-European peoples are nothing more than “normative deviations of the unconscious symbolic”[7], hence they do not constitute true knowledge, whereas Marx posits “the Asiatic model of production” as an opposite of the bureaucratic imperial systems and as a deviation from the norm that is the West. Spivak’s analysis demonstrates that the works of these grand names in European philosophy and culture are complicit in imperialist ideology and that all knowledge, regardless of the extent to which it assumes the guise of universality, is invariably a product of a certain culture and certain circumstances – in this case, the imperialist episteme[8].
In Spivak’s essay Can the Subaltern Speak?, this exclusion/foreclosure of the Other (read: the native intellectual/informant or the subaltern masses) becomes an inability to speak[9]. Originally denoting a military rank, the term “subaltern” is transformed in the political theory of Antonio Gramsci as a modification of Marx’s position that the industrial working class in Europe, understood as homogeneous and of identical interests, will usher in political changes. As opposed to Marx’s model of a unified and coherent working class, Gramsci uses the term “subaltern” to signify any subject, non-hegemonic group lacking cultural and political self-awareness as a group, devoid of systematicity in its oppositionality to the state and other factors of power, incoherent in the political and economic interests of its members. Spivak uses the term situationally and in her theory it represents various social locations – it comprises varying subject positions that cannot be subsumed under a given social class or a coherent group.
In the beginning of her essay, Spivak engages in a polemic with the French philosophers Foucault and Deleuze concerning representation – the two philosophers claim that representation is no longer necessary because the masses/the subaltern can speak for and represent themselves. Spivak, however, categorically denies this – the subaltern cannot speak and even if he could express his position, he would not be heard; moreover, subalternity as silence implies an inability on the part of the subaltern not only of self-articulation, but also of understanding or using any type of dominant discourse, just like that same dominant discourse is unable to understand the subaltern. Spivak attributes this to two fundamental factors: first, the subaltern as a homogeneous class does not exist, he is by definition fragmentary, as was the stance of a group of mainly Indian historians gathered around the Subaltern studies group[10], of which Spivak was also a member. The characterization of the subaltern as a universal subject is wrong[11], because it prevents their realization in their particular local heterogeneity. It seems that Spivak here performs a new split in the authority of western (colonialist) discourse because she refuses to constitute the Third World subject as transparent for the analysis of western intellectuals, be they Foucault and Deleuze, while opening new horizons for postcolonial criticism – just like psychoanalysis split the individual psyche, social analysis must open itself to the view of the collective as fragmentary and divided. The second factor is the operation of power – the subaltern is by definition marginalized by the centres and discourses of power, which are not capable of hearing his voice, i.e. of establishing communication with him. Thus, the lowest groups of the multilayered Indian social hierarchy are unable to realise themselves even in their new, national state, there is no place reserved for them in the new order, because they are yet again placed in the position of the social other by the new centre of power – the native political elite, which has positioned itself in the place vacated by the British colonized.
The subaltern cannot speak precisely because of the operation of the epistemic violence, the most evident example of which is, according to Spivak, gendered subalternity – namely, the female subaltern is a victim of a double epistemic violence – that of colonialism and that of the domestic patriarchal order. The framework within which Spivak analyses gendered subalternity is dual: on a general plane, it the custom sati – the burning of widows on the funeral pyre of their husbands; on a more specific plane, it is the destiny of a woman from her family, who committed suicide when she was 17 years old. The custom sati, be it understood as a barbaric act, as it was in the eyes of British colonisers, or a necessary domestic tradition, as it was for the Indian patriarchal order, does not leave the woman much space for self-articulation – as a subject, she disappears from the arena of discussing whether to abolish the custom or not: if the patriarchal order immolates her in the flames of the funeral pyre, she will be irrevocably silenced in death; if she is given the opportunity to choose/speak, it will be given and limited by the conceptual boundaries set by the coloniser and Indian patriarchal society.
The subaltern woman, who embodies threefold subalternity – gendered, ethnic and social – appears in the archive, like the rani of Sirmur[12], only when this serves the colonial or domestic-patriarchal interests. Everything she wants/ed to say through her act is lost in these two global discourses that exclude and misunderstand her – the significance of the act of her immolation on her husband’s pyre is exhausted between the interpretation thereof as a barbaric act by the British coloniser, the eradication of which justifies his colonialist ideology and colonial presence in India, and as a laudable act of self-sacrifice that defines the virtuous woman by Indian patriarchal society. The silence of the subaltern woman (which should not be understood literally – as an inability to speak, but rather in the meaning that whatever she says is either unheard or not understood properly by a dominant discourse) occurs because of the inability of dominant discourses to embrace her in all her heterogeneity. An example of this is the reactions to the suicide of Spivak’s great-aunt, Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, who for ideological reasons, in the turmoil around the national awakening on the Indian subcontinent, committed suicide, deliberately choosing a moment when she was having her period in order to avoid that her act be understood as despair due to an illicit love affair or unwanted pregnancy. Unable to speak with her voice, she sent a message through her body, but even thus she was not understood – the opinion that she committed suicide out of a personal, selfish motive prevailed, although what she did was essentially a profound social and ideologically motivated act.
In this context, Spivak analyses the short story “Breast Giver” by Mahasweta Devi, an Indian writer writing in Bengali. The breast giver in the title is Jashoda, a low-caste woman, who, in order to feed her family, works as a wet-nurse for a rich Brahmin family, in the process of which her body becomes a terrain for economic exploitation by the family and ends up diseased by cancer, exhausted, numbed. The story of Jashoda is, according to Spivak, a parody of the nationalist idea of Mother India, evoked during the passive resistance of Mahatma Gandhi and the anticolonial movements of resistance against the British coloniser, when nationalists mobilised powerful female figures from Hindu mythology such as Kali, Sita, Draupadi, Savatri and others to inspire women in their struggle and to create a sense of Indian national identity. However, after this episodic role in national history, women, in particular subaltern women, such as Jashoda, continue to exist in abject poverty, political irrelevancy and economic impasse. “Like the protagonist Jashoda, India is a mother by hire. All classes of people, the post-war rich, the ideologues, the indigenous bureaucracy, the diasporics, the people who are sworn to protect the new state, abuse and exploit her”[13].
This radical position of equating subalternity with silence has been met by outraged rejection by the majority of postcolonial theoreticians. Thus, Benita Parry states that “the story of colonialism which she [Spivak] reconstructs is of an interactive process where the European agent in consolidating the imperialist Sovereign Self, induces the native to collude in its own subject(ed) formation as other and voiceless. Thus while protesting at the obliteration of the native’s subject position in the text of imperialism, Spivak in her project gives no speaking part to the colonized, effectively writing out the evidence of native agency recorded in India’s 200 year struggle against British conquest and the Raj—discourses to which she scathingly refers as hegemonic nativist or reverse ethnocentric narrativization”[14]. Following the same argumentative line, the anthropologist Andrew Apter reads Spivak’s negation of the subaltern’s voice as silencing “the very people … whose condition it purports to demystify… Does not this most ‘radical’ of critical positions in fact recapitulate the logic of colonial conquest – the negation of the Other by a magisterial discourse that today masquerades as its antithesis[15]?” However scandalous Spivak’s theory of the subaltern as a silent and silenced subject may seem, it is relevant if we take into consideration the current government and mass media propaganda for “manufacturing consent” (a term of Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman) on the part of the masses for certain policies, whereby any other, alternative versions of current political events on the international scene are effectively erased. Although colonialism was officially brought to an end half a century ago, the current international division of labour, particularly the exploitation of the Third World by the multinational corporations of the First, continues the process of subjection, ideological-economic domination and subalternisation practiced by colonialism. The subaltern today, as then, is silent.
Despite the epistemic wasteland evoked by Spivak, Branislav Sarkanjac finds an outlet for the subaltern’s articulation and in his book Macedonian Catachresis or How to Speak of Macedonia affirms catachresis as a “subaltern hermeneutics”, a means whereby the subaltern will speak of himself. Sarkanjac cites the film Dust by Milcho Manchevski as an example of catachresis because it “deliberately misuses the western and the alien discourse to construct its own”:
Milcho, as an eminent filmmaker, could have made a brilliant western, but then he would have been nothing more than an excellent director and would not have spoken as a Macedonian. On the other hand, if he had made a new version of Black Seed, he would not have been understood again. Those to whom he addresses himself – the West – would have seen it as a documentary. But, by using a catachresis (a deliberate misuse) of the western he attracts attention and becomes a subject who speaks of himself as a Macedonian… The educated ‘catachrestician’ should be capable of saying, for instance, you want me talk to you about Macedonia through Habermas or Derrida, well then, I will, but in the process nobody can tell me that I do not know them or that I misinterpret them. The person to whom I speak should know: I am speaking of myself and I abuse, I deliberately misuse such-and-such discourse… All of a sudden, you have a film by an author who is at the same time the product of a national state culture as much as he is, if you want, the product of American cinematic education. Precisely because of it, he should be adopted and preserved as part of the cultural legacy of the state of Macedonia and not of the Macedonian ethnicity. This is why I interpret the film Dust as a powerful tool against the folklorisation and ethnologisation of Macedonian culture[16].
Initially catachresis meant a grammatical misuse of a term, whereas Jacques Derrida defines it as a trait of all signifying systems, foremost among which is language. In Spivak’s theory, catachresis receives a meaning similar to appropriation and becomes a process whereby the colonised takes a certain linguistic or ideological category, ‘appropriates’ it and reinscribes it to denote something that was traditionally a characteristic of imperial culture. On the one hand, catachresis reinforces the ideological position of the colonised because it disrupts the coloniser’s discursive system and reverses his language in order to describe and understand himself, but on the other catachresis seems to denote certain spiritual poverty on the part of the colonised, who apparently needs the coloniser’s terminology in order to express his own identity. Or, as Branislav Sarkanjac writes, “when you talk about yourself, you have on the one hand the problem of a derivative discourse – of uncritical appropriation of alien discourses, whereby you easily lose the status of subject; on the other hand, if you reject derivativity, if you say I will not accept anything external to me, but rather will think of myself by means of what is mine, you have the problem of autoreferentiality, and then you will close yourself up, you will evoke only yourself and no one will understand you”. Therefore, says Sarkanjac, catachresis is necessary as a middle ground between derivativity and autoreferentiality. According to him, catachresis represents “a weapon of the cunning of the local mind”, a tool with which the subaltern will construct his own discourse. The very existence of the cognitive models of postcolonialism, among which catachresis takes a prominent place, that are subversively and oppositionally positioned against those of colonialism, undermines the theory of the silence of the subaltern and his inability to speak for and represent himself.
1. Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.
2. Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures.. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.
3. Bhabha K. Homi. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
4. Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?” Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories. (Winter, 1992) pp. 1-26. JSTOR, 13 February 2012,
5. Loomba, Ania. Colonialism / Postcolonialism. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
6. Morton, Stephen. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Routledge Critical Thinkers. London & New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2003.
7. Parry, Benita. “The Postcolonial: Conceptual Category or Chimera?” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 27, The Politics of Postcolonial Criticism. (1997), pp. 3-21. JSTOR. 7 October 2011 .
8. Prakash, Gyan. “Subaltern Studies as Postcolonial Criticism.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 99, No. 5 (Dec. 1994), 1475-1490. JSTOR. 20 October 2011
9. Prakash, Gyan. “Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World: Perspectives from Indian Historiography.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Apr., 1990), pp. 383-408. Cambridge University Press. 17 November 2011 .
10. Саркањац, Бранислав. По свое: македонски катахрезис или како да се зборува за Македонија. Скопје: Макавеј, 2009.
11. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, second printing, 1999.
12. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, pp. 66-111.
13. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. „The Rani of Sirmur“. History and Theory, Vol.24, No.3, (October, 1995), pp. 247-272. Blackwell Publishing,
14. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism”. Critical Inquiry 12 (1985), 243-262.


1. Gayatri Spivak, quoted in Benita Parry. “The Postcolonial: Conceptual Category or Chimera?” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 27, The Politics of Postcolonial Criticism. (1997), pp. 3-21. JSTOR, p.9.
2. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. „The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives“. History and Theory, Vol. 24, No. 3, (October, 1995), p. 247. Blackwell Publishing,
5. Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 64.
6. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, second printing, 1999, p. 13.
7. Ibid, p. 41.
8. Dipesh Chakrabarty cites another example of the epistemic violence of the West against the non-West: at a lecture held in Vienna in 1935, Edmund Husserl establishes a fundamental difference between the “oriental philosophies” of India and China and the “Greek-European science” (to which he attributes the universal title of “philosophy”), whereby the latter produces „theoria“ (absolute, universal science), while the former have a “mythical-religious” character - Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?” Representations, No. 37, p. 3.
9. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, pp. 66-111.
10. A group of Marxist historians from India, Britain and the USA, who reinscribe history “from below”, examining the reasons for the failure of the nationalist project in India. Members of the group are Shahid Amin, David Arnold, Partha Chatterjee, David Hardiman, Ranajit Guha (founder of the group), Gyanendra Pandey, Gyan Prakash, Gayatri Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty and others. The group severely criticizes tha nationalist bourgeois elite because of excluding the poor and rural inhabitants from the benefits of national independence, preserving the same social structure as in the period of the Raj, when power was in the hands of few, while the majority of the population lived devoid of civil rights and in poverty. A central project of the group was to study the failure of the new national elite to put an end to the colonial constellation of social relations in modern India.
11. Spivak reproaches Foucault and Deleuze with using generalised, master words such as ‘woman’, ‘the colonised’, etc., because they universalise categories that manifest themselves differently and situationally. For this reason she criticises western feminism for speaking on behalf of all women, in spite of always thinking of Western women. Along with Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Nawal el Saadawi and Kumari Jayawardena, Spivak rethinks feminism from a postcolonial perspective by challenging the assumption that all women are the same and emphasises the importance of respecting differences in race, class, religion, citizenship and culture between women (Morton, Stephen. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Routledge Critical Thinkers. London & New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2003, pp. 71-72).
12. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. „The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives“, op.cit.
13. Spivak, quoted in Morton, Stephen. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Routledge Critical Thinkers. London & New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2003, p. 125.
14. Parry, “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse“. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Eds. Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. London and New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 37.
15. Quoted by Parry, Benita, op.cit., p.10.
16. Саркањац, Бранислав. По свое: македонски катахрезис или како да се зборува за Македонија. Скопје: Макавеј, 2009, стр. 253-257.

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