Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, on the Subaltern and Epistemic Violence (Bite-Sized Study Notes Series)


On The ‘Subaltern’

The ‘subaltern’ is the collectively name given to those considered to be at the lowest level of the social hierarchy. This heterogeneous community consists of those denied the opportunity of self-representation and ‘access to hegemonic power’: the illiterate peasantry, the sub-proletariat and tribal communities restricted by their linguistic exclusivity. This leads Spivak to question whether the ‘true’ subaltern group are able to ‘speak’ for themselves (i.e. self-represent). In the face of epistemic violence, cultural repression and their designated submissive role in society, she believes this is not currently possible. These oppressed minorities are defined and understood solely by their differences to the rest of the social strata. The systematic implication is always one of inferiority. They are not able to think or communicate as a unified collective subject because they have been objectified. To truly understand the consciousness of the subaltern we must appreciate the significance of their silence, Spivak argues, instead of forcing their representation by speaking on their behalf.


On ‘Epistemic Violence’

For Spivak, to commit ‘epistemic violence’ is to actively obstruct and undermine non-Western methods or approaches to knowledge. This imperialist subjugation of non-Western understanding is a way of constituting the colonial subject solely as a heterogeneous ‘Other’. The dominant Western narrative, according to Spivak, is ‘palimpsestic’: that is, it aims to alter the historical and social native consciousness; to delete all traces of the original and overwrite it with something considered more appropriate. Non-Western epistemology is dismissed as inadequate, ‘insufficiently elaborated’ and naïve. She provides examples of this epistemic violence through the Western intrusions into Hindu laws, such as the right to perform ‘sati’ (widow sacrifice).


8 thoughts on “Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, on the Subaltern and Epistemic Violence (Bite-Sized Study Notes Series)

  1. TY for this post.

    When I feel like I’m starting to pass judgement on someone, I always tell myself one thing. “You always fear what you don’t understand.”

    We, as a society, must make more of an effort to get to know our fellow man, it’s the only way to stop the hate and the violence it brings. I, for one, enjoy learning about other cultures, it’s opened my eyes to many different possibilities, and it saddens me that more people don’t make the effort.

    I could say, “Oh well, that’s their loss.”, but honestly, it’s a loss for us all.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I couldn’t agree more, Lisa! 🙂 I wish more people thought like that! We live in a world where, even where some of the judgments we make about others are being challenged (like prejudice against homosexuality, for instance, or skin colour), there is still a great deal of ignorance and fear in other areas (like the fear of the differences between our belief systems)…. this is an obstacle we placed in our paths ourselves.

      If everyone of Earth could just realise that we’re not so different, after all – and that the ways that we ARE different should be a cause of interest and celebration (at least, in most cases… this, of course, excludes any extremist practices of beliefs that perpetuates hatred towards others) – the world would be a much kinder, happier, and all-round less bloody place.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Brilliant analysis; one most intriguing phrase ‘communicating as a unified collective subject’. In my humble view, even for educated western society that system has failed miserably. Representation at any level is flawed and resulting system extremely corrupt. Poor has no voice, wherever they are. Chavs of Britain, Dalits of India or black and Hispanic communities of US all suffer the same treatment and only after some apparent inhuman treatment of rape, murder or downright genocide, us , the so called educated class, show shock and horror for few days before going back to status quo. Logic suggests that such cycle will break after a big enough jolt, however it hasn’t happened yet.

    Apologies if I have overextended my stay and became a blabbering magpie (not the writing kind).


    • I can’t argue with that, AB, because you’re right… can’t help but wonder, given the atrocities we all witness every day (especially those poorer communities in certain parts of the world, as you say), what could provide a big enough ‘jolt’ to collectively wake the world up. I don’t think everyone reacts in the way you describe – there’s some wonderful people out there that have been inspired to help others as a result of their experiences – but the systems in place don’t exactly aid this.


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