A recently published anthology to which all of the panelists contributed, Subaltern Citizens and their Histories (Routledge 2010), signals the beginning of a conversation between scholars of South Asia and North America working on issues of marginality, citizenship, enfranchisement and disenfranchisement, and the writing of history, in these very different world areas. The proposed panel seeks to carry the conversation further, extending and deepening some of the lines of inquiry opened up in earlier stages. The focus is on issues of ‘subalternity’ and ‘difference’, once again in cross-continental perspective, and how these two concepts relate to one another. Difference, in the hands of the state and the dominant classes, has long been the mark of the subordinated or subalternized, precisely because it is measured against the purported mainstream, the ‘standard’ or the ‘normal’. The foregrounding of differences of gender, sexuality, caste, race, etc, in this manner, become multiple ways of organizing subalternity. For two hundred years and more, too, the political exertions of the subaltern (the oppressed, the marginalized and the subordinated) have been seen as a striving for recognition as equals. The history of these efforts appeared as a history of sameness, and the right to sameness: ‘one man, one vote’, equal pay for equal work, the need to overturn inherited structures of oppression and discrimination, and so on.
By the later decades of the twentieth century, however, the battle had been self-consciously extended to encompass another demand: the demand for an acknowledgement and even privileging of certain kinds of difference. The basis of the new oppositional politics is not only a growing awareness that differences of gender, of communal practices and ways of being, even of incommensurable languages and beliefs, have provided the ground for the diversity, density and richness of human experience. The new stance follows from a recognition that ‘difference’, and the very deployment of ideas of difference, has been the ground for claims of identity, unitariness, priority and privilege. Thus, feminist work has refused to accept any simple dichotomy between claims to equality and claims to difference, and argued instead that equality requires the recognition and inclusion of differences.
Such oppositional scholarship calls for a critique of the ways in which the idea of ‘difference’ is deployed, and of the operations of categorical difference – an operation that of course marks out only some ‘differences’ as consequential for our broader social and political arrangements. It leads us to ask: what happens when we bring the discourses surrounding subalternity and difference together? How do these notions intersect with, enable, or complicate one another? What happens to the idea of ‘difference’ – or ‘minority’, to which it is commonly reduced – when it is not already visible as a historically or biologically (or ideologically) established truth, but has instead to be constituted as a political category by the marginalized and the disenfranchised (in the broadest sense of those terms)? What, in a word, are the politics of difference?
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