Can the Subaltern Speak?

Can the Subaltern Speak?

Q. Critically explain and analyze the essay Can the Subaltern Speak? by Gayatri Spivak.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is grounded in three major theoretical frameworks:

  1. Deconstruction
  2. Marxism
  3. Feminism

Each of these theories plays a significant role in shaping her arguments and perspectives.

1- Deconstruction

Originating from the work of philosopher Jacques Derrida, deconstruction involves questioning and breaking down the established structures of thought, language, and texts to reveal inherent contradictions and ambiguities.

Spivak applies deconstructive analysis to critique how Western academic discourse represents (or fails to represent) the subaltern.

She deconstructs the assumed authority and objectivity of Western narratives, revealing how these narratives often silence the subaltern voices they claim to represent.

2- Marxism

Marxism, with its focus on class struggle, power dynamics, and economic factors in society, provides a framework for Spivak to explore the material conditions and power relations that shape the lives of the subaltern.

She examines how the economic and political structures of colonialism and capitalism contribute to the marginalization and oppression of the subaltern. Spivak extends Marxist analysis to consider not just class but also the intersections of race, gender, and geography in forming social hierarchies and power dynamics.

3- Feminism

Spivak’s essay is heavily influenced by feminist theory, mainly focusing on gender and the critique of patriarchal structures.

She integrates feminist perspectives to highlight the specific challenges faced by subaltern women, who are marginalized not only by colonial and postcolonial power structures but also by patriarchal systems within their societies.

Spivak’s use of the sati practice as a case study exemplifies her feminist approach, as she examines how both colonial and nationalist narratives fail to represent the experiences and agency of Indian women.

Explanation of Can the Subaltern Speak?

Theory of Subject-Effect: In her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Spivak discusses the “theory of subject-effect.”

This concept is about how individuals or groups are shaped and defined by the broader social and political structures around them. It suggests that our society influences our identities and ways of thinking.

Spivak argues that these influences can be so strong that they affect how we perceive and express ourselves and others.

Who is the Subject?

Spivak suggests that the subject is not an inherent, autonomous entity but is constructed through discourse and power relations. Drawing from post-structuralist theory, particularly the work of Foucault, Spivak emphasizes that power and knowledge play a crucial role in defining a subject. 

The subject is thus a product of the prevailing power structures and epistemic frameworks, which can both enable and constrain individual agency.

Deconstruction of the ‘Subject’

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Spivak deconstructs the Western idea of the ‘subject.’ The ‘subject’ in Western academic thought is usually seen as an independent, self-aware person with the power to act.

Spivak argues that this view does not fit the subalterns, who are marginalized people affected by colonial powers. 

Western vs. Subaltern Subject: In the Western intellectual tradition, the subject is often envisioned as a rational, independent individual, a perspective deeply rooted in Enlightenment thought. 

Spivak contrasts this with the subaltern subject, which is marginalized and often excluded from dominant discourses. The subaltern subject lacks the agency and voice typically accorded to subjects in Western contexts.

The West often tries to speak for the subaltern, but this can end up silencing them instead. Spivak suggests that the Western model of a ‘subject’ maintains power imbalances and does not recognize the subaltern’s unique experiences and identities shaped by colonial history.

She calls for a new understanding of who can be a ‘subject,’ including the subaltern’s voices and experiences. It would help to hear the subaltern’s words instead of speaking over them.

French Intellectuals Use of Maoism

The use of ‘Maoism’ by French intellectuals oversimplifies and misrepresents the diversity of Asian cultures and societies. This approach, reflecting a Western-centric view, risks stereotyping and misunderstanding the complexity of Asia. It highlights the need for acknowledging and respecting the unique aspects of different Asian contexts in global discussions.

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak discusses the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the context of Marx’s critique of professional revolutionaries.

Spivak highlights Marx’s argument that a revolution led by a small group, without the involvement and consciousness of the working class, is insufficient.

She extends this to argue that the voices of the marginalized, or the subaltern, are often overlooked or misrepresented by those claiming to represent them.

It connects to her broader point that true change or representation must involve the participation and self-representation of the oppressed rather than being imposed from above.

Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” relates to the Marxist vision of a class struggle leading to socialism. At the same time, Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” addresses questions of representation and voice within postcolonial and feminist discourse.

Althusser Perspective

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak uses Althusser’s ideas to explain why marginalized groups struggle to be heard. Althusser argues that society teaches people, especially workers, to accept the ideas of the ruling class.

This teaching happens through language and education, making people see the world as the ruling class wants.

Spivak connects this to the subaltern, marginalized groups who struggle to voice their perspectives because the dominant society’s language and ideas overpower them. How society is structured and communicates keeps these marginalized voices silent and misunderstood.

Michael Foucault and Gilles Deleuze

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Spivak discusses how Foucault and others view power in institutions. Foucault sees power differently within institutions, while Althusser tries to categorize it—Deleuze and Guattari link power to relationships and symbols. 

However, Spivak points out that Foucault does not fully explore how institutions create ideologies through knowledge. She criticizes their oversimplification of the conflict between personal desires (human wants and aspirations) and material interests (material or economic benefit).

Spivak uses these ideas to show that marginalized groups, or subalterns, are silenced by complex power structures and ideologies in society, making it hard for them to express their true identities and needs.

Spivak discusses Foucault and Deleuze’s ideas on power and individuals. She notes that Foucault sometimes mixes up ‘individual’ and ‘subject’ and uses a metaphor of power spreading from a central point, like the sun.

This approach, according to Spivak, can oversimplify complex power dynamics. Both Foucault and Deleuze believe oppressed groups, like prisoners, can and should speak for themselves. Foucault even says these groups understand their situation better than intellectuals.

However, Spivak questions how this approach deals with challenging dominant power structures. She argues that focusing only on real-life experiences in places like prisons or factories, as Deleuze does, might overlook the need to confront broader oppressive ideologies.

It could unintentionally support the systems they are trying to critique, especially in the context of capitalism and colonialism, making it harder to truly understand and represent the perspectives of marginalized groups like the subaltern.

Representation vs Re-presentation

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak discusses Deleuze’s views on class and power. Deleuze sees ‘representation’ as both political ‘speaking for’ and artistic or philosophical ‘re-presentation.’

Spivak criticizes this, noting that such theories often miss the real voice of the oppressed. She also talks about how some groups, like small farmers, cannot represent themselves, needing others to do it, which often leads to misuse of power.

Spivak highlights that class formation is more about economic interests than natural ties, like family. She also points out that true class consciousness comes from political and national connections, not just family or local ties. 

Overall, Spivak questions how well these theories let marginalized groups, or the subaltern, truly express themselves. She suggests that intellectuals representing these groups often overshadow their needs and voices.

In the context of representation and political theory, “darstellen” and “vertreten” are two German terms that carry distinct meanings:


This term can be translated as “to represent” or “to depict.” It implies acting as a proxy or a stand-in for someone else. In a political context, “darstellen” represents a group or an individual’s interests, views, or positions. It is about portraying or presenting something or someone in a specific way.


This term means “to represent” in the sense of substitution or advocacy. It involves acting on behalf of someone else, often more actively and directly.

In politics, “vertreten” suggests advocating for or defending the interests or rights of others, usually in a more engaged and participatory role.

These terms highlight different aspects of representation. “Darstellen” is more about portraying or presenting someone or something, while “vertreten” is about actively advocating for or standing in for someone.

Epistemic Violence

The term “epistemic violence” was popularized by Indian scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. She uses it to describe the dismissal and undermining of non-Western ways of knowing by Western dominance.

It refers to the harm caused by colonizers or dominant cultures suppressing or ignoring other groups’ knowledge, language, and cultural practices.

This concept highlights how power is used to privilege certain types of knowledge over others, often leading to the loss of cultural identity and heritage in the oppressed group. 

Spivak’s work mainly addresses the impact of British colonialism in India and its effects on the knowledge systems there. She uses the British takeover of Hindu laws in India as an example.

The British changed these laws from being flexible and open to interpretation to being strict and written down, which ignored how Hindu law worked. 

This forced change was a way to push British ideas of law onto India, damaging the local culture and knowledge. Spivak also notes that British officials often thought their culture and religion were superior to India’s.

It shows the kind of thinking that helped justify taking over other countries. She argues that this mindset continues to affect how Westerners see and treat other cultures’ knowledge today.

Representation and the Subaltern

Central to her argument is the concept of “epistemic violence,” where Western methods of knowledge production and understanding often disregard or misinterpret the realities of the subaltern.

This displacement and marginalization of subaltern knowledge and culture by Western academia and colonial powers underscore the problematic nature of representation.

Spivak emphasizes that the structures of power that define and create the subaltern also inherently limit their ability to speak. When the subaltern manages to ‘speak,’ their voice is often co-opted or filtered through the dominant narrative.

Thus, the issue is not just whether the subaltern can speak but also whether there is a willingness to listen to and authentically understand their voice.

Antonio Gramsci

The term “subaltern” was initially coined by the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci. He used it in his “Prison Notebooks” to refer to groups in society who are outside the power structures of the state.

Therefore, they are marginalized or oppressed. Gramsci’s use of “subaltern” was a way to describe the classes that do not have access to societal power in the same way the ruling classes do.

Subaltern Studies

Spivak also mentions the “Subaltern Studies” group, a collection of scholars who re-examine Indian colonial history, focusing on peasant uprisings and the perspectives of the oppressed.

This approach contrasts with traditional Indian nationalism historiography, which often overlooks the diverse experiences of the colonized, particularly the subaltern.

Defining the Subaltern

  • Subaltern: Spivak borrows this term from Antonio Gramsci, referring to people marginalized by the social, political, and economic hierarchies of colonial imperial rule and its aftermath. It includes the voices and experiences of those who are effectively rendered voiceless and powerless.
  • Elite: The opposite of subaltern is elite.

Subaltern Agency

Question of Speech and Silence

Spivak also talks about how people in power, like intellectuals or activists, often try to speak for these marginalized groups.

However, this can be tricky because it can end up silencing the voices they are trying to help. They might have good intentions, but their efforts can worsen the situation by continuing the marginalization cycle.

The key issue here is not just about whether the subaltern can talk but whether anyone is listening and understanding them correctly. 

Spivak suggests that to help truly, we need to change the way things are to create a situation where the subaltern can speak and be heard as they are, without their words being twisted or ignored.

So, Spivak’s main point is that we need to look at how we listen to and represent marginalized voices.

It is not enough to just let them speak; we need to listen actively and make sure their voices are heard and respected in their proper form. It means changing how we think about power and who gets to be heard in our society.

Doubly Smashed Women

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak discusses the extra challenges subaltern women face, whose experiences are often overlooked twice.

First, like all subalterns, their voices are marginalized in history and society due to their lower social and political status.

Second, as women, they face additional layers of gender-based oppression.

Spivak points out that both deconstructive and feminist criticisms sometimes fail to address these unique struggles of subaltern women fully.

She emphasizes the need for a more careful and inclusive approach in historiography and criticism that acknowledges and represents subaltern women’s complex experiences.

Shift of Territorial Imperialism

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak discusses how imperialism has changed over time. In the 19th century, imperialism was mainly about powerful countries taking over other territories.

It is more about economic control, primarily through dividing labor across different countries. She points out that the set up of transportation, laws, and education systems is mainly to help grow industrial capital.

This modern form of imperialism allows powerful countries to control weaker ones economically without needing to take over their land. This shift shows how imperialism has evolved and continues to affect marginalized groups in new ways.

A New Apparatus of Power

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak talks about a shift in power from controlling land and resources to controlling people and their actions. This new power targets what people do and how they live.

It is about influencing individuals directly, which can limit their freedom and silence their voices. This change makes it harder for marginalized groups to express themselves because they are under tighter control.

Spivak argues that this kind of power stops these groups, called subalterns, from having a say in society.

Critique of Western Intellectualism

Criticism on Foucault

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak critiques Foucault for not fully grasping the scale of European imperialism because he focuses too much on power within European institutions like prisons, clinics, asylums, and universities.

She suggests that this narrow view misses how imperialism works globally. Spivak also mentions that Deleuze and Guattari talk about “deterritorialization,” showing how cultural power shifts worldwide, something Foucault might not cover enough.

Spivak points out that ignoring these broader issues might be a conscious choice, which she calls “approved ignorance,” and stresses that tackling this when studying imperialism is important.


In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Spivak discusses the concept of nostalgia, particularly the longing for “lost origins,” and its impact on analyzing social realities within the context of imperialism critique.

She argues that romanticizing a past before imperialism can hinder our understanding of social issues. This nostalgia can lead to idealizing a time before colonial influence as pure or authentic. It overlooks the complexities and ongoing effects of imperialism on subaltern populations.

This can also prevent us from seeing how colonial legacies continue to shape present-day social and power dynamics, thus limiting the effectiveness of critiques against imperialism.

Derrida’s Of Grammatology

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Spivak discusses Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” to show how Western thinkers often misunderstand or misrepresent marginalized groups, like the subaltern.

Derrida’s work criticizes how Western culture often wrongly defines ‘Others,’ showing a biased view. Spivak uses this to argue that Western academics can silence subaltern voices by imposing their ideas onto them, even if they mean to help.

She suggests Derrida’s questioning of these biases is more helpful and less harmful than that of Western intellectuals. They claim to represent oppressed groups but overshadow their true voices and experiences.

Limitations of Grammatology 

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Spivak refers to Derrida’s discussion on the limitations of viewing grammatology (the study of writing systems) as a purely scientific or objective field. Derrida uses historical examples from European imperialism in the seventeenth century to show how biases and prejudices influenced the understanding of writing systems.

He points out three main prejudices:

  1. Theological Prejudice: This is the belief that God created a special script in Hebrew or Greek, suggesting these languages are superior.
  2. Chinese Prejudice: This view admires Chinese writing but thinks it should be changed to a simpler script, implying it is not practical enough by Western standards.
  3. Hieroglyphist Prejudice: This is the idea that Egyptian hieroglyphs are too mysterious to understand, treating them as fascinating but ultimately unknowable.

These biases highlight how even imperialist attitudes influence the study of writing. It favors Judaeo-Christian and Western perspectives and undermines other cultures’ languages and scripts. Spivak uses this to show how colonial thinking can affect our understanding of different cultures.

Subaltern Women

Spivak talks about the struggles of subaltern women, who are overlooked both in colonial history and because of their gender.

She tells postcolonial scholars to question their biases and not just replace one dominant story with another. Spivak points out that Western feminism often does not fully understand the experiences of these women, simplifying their complex lives.

She criticizes how people think about “third-world women” as all the same, ignoring their individual stories and challenges.

Spivak uses the phrase “White men are saving brown women from brown men” to show how colonial attitudes often pretended to ‘rescue’ women while actually ignoring their real needs and voices.

She emphasizes the importance of truly listening to and understanding the experiences of subaltern women.

Comprador Periphery

Comprador Class: Traditionally, the term “comprador” refers to a local agent in a colonized country who serves the interests of foreign capitalists, often at the expense of their own country’s development.

This class serves as an intermediary, gaining from the global capitalist system. They aid in the exploitation of local resources and labor by foreign powers.

Periphery in World Systems Theory: In world systems theory, the “periphery” refers to less economically developed countries. They are often exploited by more developed “core” countries.

The periphery typically provides raw materials, agricultural products, and cheap labor. On the other hand, the core countries dominate in terms of capital and technological advancement.

Comprador Periphery in Postcolonial Context: Combining these concepts, the “comprador periphery” would refer to peripheral or less developed countries where a comprador class facilitates the exploitation and extraction of resources for the benefit of the core countries.

This dynamic perpetuates economic dependency and colonial-like relationships even after formal colonial rule has ended.

Example of Indian Sati

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri uses the historical practice of Sati in India. She used it as an example to illustrate her arguments about representation and the subaltern.

Sati is a practice where a Hindu widow would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. It is analyzed by Spivak to demonstrate how the voices of the subaltern, particularly subaltern women, are silenced or misrepresented.

Context of Sati in Colonial India

Colonial Interpretation: British colonizers in India often used sati to justify their rule. It depicts the practice as barbaric and in need of civilizing. The colonizers presented themselves as saviors, rescuing Indian women from their own culture.

Indian Nationalist Response: Indian nationalists, on the other hand, sometimes depicted sati as a symbol of Indian tradition and resistance to colonial rule. They framed it as a voluntary act of devotion and a symbol of Indian womanhood’s purity and sacrifice.

Spivak’s Analysis

Subaltern Silence: Spivak points out that in both these narratives – colonial and nationalist – the actual voices of the women who were subjected to sati are absent. Nobody represents or considers their experiences, thoughts, and agency.

Misrepresentation: Both the British and Indian nationalist representations serve their respective political agendas and fail to convey the reality of the women’s experiences. It is a classic case of the subaltern being spoken for rather than allowed to speak for themselves.

Critique of Western Feminism: Spivak also uses this example to critique certain forms of Western feminism. It attempts to ‘speak for’ women in other cultures without fully understanding their contexts or experiences.

Limitations of Representation: The case of sati exemplifies the limitations of representation regarding the subaltern. It shows how the subaltern’s voice can be co-opted, misunderstood, or completely silenced by dominant power narratives.

Through the example of sati, Spivak demonstrates that representation is a complex issue. Especially when dealing with marginalized groups in historical and postcolonial contexts.

She highlights the need for a more nuanced understanding and approach to representing the experiences and voices of the subaltern.

White Men as Savior

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s phrase “white men saving brown women from brown men” critically summarizes the colonial mindset. It is relevant, particularly during British rule in India.

This perspective justified colonialism as a rescue mission to save Indian women from their own culture’s oppressive practices.

However, Spivak points out that this attitude silences the women it aims to protect. It overlooks their experiences and their ability to act for themselves.

Her critique highlights the need to challenge narratives that justify power imbalances and listen genuinely to marginalized groups’ voices.

Strategic Essentialism

Strategic essentialism is a concept in postcolonial theory often associated with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. This strategy is used by marginalized or oppressed groups that temporarily present a united, homogeneous identity. They do this to achieve political goals or to fight against oppression.

It is done even though the group is diverse and complex. These groups simplify their identity into a single essence to better communicate and advocate for their rights. They can more effectively express their needs by reducing their identity to a core element.

This approach is a strategic use of essentialism. Essentialism is the belief that certain categories, like gender or race, have a fixed, inherent nature. Here, it serves as a form of resistance or empowerment.

However, Spivak also warns of the risks involved in this approach. While it can be effective in certain political contexts, it can also reinforce stereotypes or simplistic understandings of the group.

Using essentialism as a tool for political action requires a delicate balance. It should not define or limit the group’s true, diverse nature.


Spivak mentions “srutis,” which are important religious texts in Hinduism believed to be revealed by the divine. They are vital sources of spiritual and moral guidance.

Spivak brings up these points to demonstrate colonial powers’ frequent disregard for India’s deep knowledge. She shows how they often undervalue the richness of cultures like India’s.

By talking about “srutis,” she emphasizes the need to respect and understand different cultural and religious knowledge systems. Especially when trying to hear and represent the voices of marginalized groups like the subaltern.


In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Spivak talks about “catachresis,” which means using words that do not fit their original meaning. She notes that in discussions about colonialism, important terms from less marginalized groups are often misused.

It happens often with terms related to the subaltern used by scholars or dominant cultures. This misuse can lead to misunderstandings or stereotypes about these cultures.

Spivak highlights that language issues are not just about words. It reflects deeper problems in how dominant groups understand and represent marginalized ones. It is important for her main point about the challenges in genuinely hearing and representing the voices of the subaltern.

Death of Bhuvaneshwari Bhaduri

Spivak discusses Bhuvaneshwari Bhaduri, who hanged herself in 1926. This act was a challenge to patriarchy. In West Bengal at that time, people often believed that if a young woman died by suicide, it was because of a romantic problem.

Bhuvaneshwari wanted to avoid this stereotype. She chose to end her life during her menstrual period to prove that her suicide was not about love. Her goal was to confront the patriarchal narrative.

Her family later found out she was in an anti-colonial group. She wanted to assassinate a political figure but could not. Her inability to complete this task led to her suicide, not a failed romance. Her story highlights how patriarchal societies can misinterpret women’s actions.

Final Words

In the last part of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, Spivak notes that subalterns can’t express themselves in current power systems. This is especially true for women.

She criticizes how often “woman” is just added to global discussions as a token gesture, like an item on a checklist. She stresses that it is not enough to include women; how they are represented is crucial.

Spivak highlights that female intellectuals play a vital role, mainly from postcolonial backgrounds. They should not speak for the subaltern but help make sure subaltern voices are genuinely heard and understood in their own right.