Semi-Subalternity: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis?

Friday, January 7, 2011: 10:10 AM
Room 201 (Hynes Convention Center)
Colin R. Johnson , Indiana University at Bloomington, Bloomington, IN
Semi-Subalternity: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis?

As the organizers of this panel suggest, comparative analysis between India and the United States promises to shed new light on our understanding of the histories of both societies.  At the same time, it is difficult to overlook the fact that a potentially mediating concept like subalternity has been profoundly shaped by the specifically South Asian context in which it emerged during 1970s and 80s as a powerful category of theoretical and historical analysis.  Indeed, some leading postcolonial theorists—most notably Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—have been extremely outspoken regarding their dismay at seeing the term “subaltern” used by scholars and activists in the west as a “ just a classy word for oppressed, for Other, for somebody who's not getting a piece of the pie.”  Spivak’s reservations are well founded, of course, but they are also profoundly limiting.  For example, given their very different historical genealogies, it would seem hazardous at best to mobilize the concept of subalternity in an effort compare the discourses of, say, “untouchability” in India and “poor white trashiness” in the United States—and this despite the fact that, on some basic level and for whatever their historical specificities, both discourses do depend for their coherence on a startlingly similar set of material and symbolic associations between racialized bodies, certain kinds of labor, and refuse.  Using precisely the example mentioned above as fodder for experimentation, this paper proposes and explores the concept of “semi-subalternity” as an analytic compromise formation that may allow students of American culture to borrow productively from South Asian historiography without doing damage to it.

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