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).