A Reading of Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?

Lajos Vajda, Leopard and lilies (1930-1933)

As the title says: this is a reading of Gayatri Spivak, with no claims to definitive answers or to foreclose the text for other interpretations. I’ve no expertise in Spivak, nor subaltern studies in general, and this reading deals with her conception of the subaltern tangentially. My focus is on Spivak’s critique of ’Intellectuals and Power: A conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze’. It is through this text that Spivak formulates her own analysis of subjectivity, representation/re-presentation, and subalternity. I want to present two alternative readings of this critique. One which remains ‘negative’ insofar as appears to limit Spivak as a critic of representational politics as ‘totalizing’ eurocentrism. Versus another in which Spivak wants to re-emphasize totalities as constitutive of universal representations limit. In part this reading is enabled (or necessitated) by the fragmented manner which her critique is expressed. The topics of Can the Subaltern Speak? run parallel and partially throughout the text; hindering ossification as a foreclosed/dead text but also contributing to its infamous reputation as ‘difficult’ or ‘obscurantist’.

Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault’s text handles multiple questions: what is the relation between theory and practice? What is the role of the intellectual in political struggle? How and who can represent repressed subjects? These questions are intimately related, and I am only going to provide a sketch of them here. Deleuze and Foucault voice their scepticism towards what they term “representative consciousness”. This is the notion that the intellectual, as subject possessing knowledge (such as Marxism), serves to interpret the demands of the masses into a developed theory and critique. To raise fragmentary demands to the position of a “truth”. Representation in this case takes place when the masses organize themselves in accordance with such a truth and successfully acquire a consciousness of it: through bodies such as labour unions, political parties, etc. Bodies themselves beholden to represent this truth.

Deleuze and Foucault posit instead a relationship between theory and practice that is “partial and fragmentary”. Theories are local and related to a limited field and its appliance is always elsewhere, away from this theoretical field into a proper domain: the factory, the prison, the school and so on. This movement is one of friction: the theory encounters blockages, walls, obstacles and must be relayed by another form of discourse. To quote Deleuze: “Practice is a set of relays from one point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.” (Foucault & Deleuze, 1977, 206)

Thinking practice and theory through such a system of points and relays no longer privileges the position of the representative intellectual. The intellectual too must struggle against being enclosed into this system of power/knowledge and conduct their theory alongside those who struggle for power. Not “ahead and to the side” as if illuminating this struggle from a safe distance. Nor can one universal truth reign above all these fragmentary and partial struggles against power. If Marxism is taken as the privileged consciousness it will subsume other struggles to its own posited problems, methods, and goals. Instead, there must be networks of alliances that enables these disparate subjects (Foucault lists women, prisoners, patients, homosexuals, conscripts) to fight power on their own terrain, with their own objectives and methods, and thus enter a revolutionary process.

From this perspective, a quote from Foucault summarizes the text’s thesis: “the intellectual discovered the masses no longer need him to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than he and are certainly capable of expressing themselves.” (Foucault & Deleuze, 1977, 207).

Gayatri Spivak’s harsh critique of this text as Eurocentric and totalizing might then come as a surprise.  In fact, her own critique of representation appears to share many similarities with Deleuze and Foucault’s. In short terms: Spivak analyses the two terms used for “representation” in Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: vertreten and darstellen. With each signifying the rhetorical concepts of representation as persuasion (as a political representative) and ‘re-presentation’ as a description (as in how one would present a scene) respectively. These terms, she argues, cannot be innocently separated but constantly intermingle: any form of political representation also re-presents ‘how things really are’. So far this appears similar to the description of the intellectual and representative consciousness, but according to Spivak this is where the French philosophers fall short. Trapped in a conception of the subject as rational, ‘sovereign’ and intimately aware of its own interests Deleuze and Foucault have reduced the issue of representation to the simplistic idea of ‘false consciousness’: where the oppressed subject is lied to or bribed to act against their own interest.

Spivak argues that this stems from a ‘positive’ interpretation of desire. Instead of recognizing a Freudo-Lacanian split in the subject, whereby there is no given relation between desire and interest – Deleuze and Foucault presumes a direct correspondence between the two. But there is nothing natural about desire. Referring to Louis Althusser, for whom subjective representation (in both terms) must go through the finite descriptive tools available to it (i.e., ideology).[1] Spivak argues that what lies in one’s interest as say, a part of a class, by no means needs to naturally correspond to desire – which when articulated is always echoes back to us through ideology. Going back to her analysis of 18th Brumaire, the small peasant proprietors lacked the capacity to organize and represent themselves as a class in their own terms. Therefore, Napoleon III could step in as political representative and re-present their own interests and desires back to them.

Both desire and interest are in this sense ‘artificial’ for Spivak and requires some form narrative/theoretical framework to be articulated – enabling it to become a political project but also establishing limits and internal blank spaces. It is from these blank spaces, the heterogenous (non-)subjects excluded from the discourse, that Spivak goes on to articulate her conception of subaltern through the theories of Jacques Derrida.

I am not however going in that direction. Instead let us stay with the question of the subject and desire. It appears very odd that Spivak would criticize Foucault for lacking a theory of subject formation. Further, Daniel W. Smith helps clarify what Deleuze means by positive desire and its relation to interest, well worth quoting at length:

“[Your] interest exists as a possibility only within the context of a particular social formation, our capitalist formation. If you are capable of pursuing that interest in a concerted and rational manner, it is first of all because your desire—your drives and impulses—are themselves invested in the social formation that makes that interest possible. Your drives have been constructed, assembled, and arranged in such a manner that your desire is positively invested in the system that allows you to have this particular interest.” (Smith, 2007, 74)

This does not appear to present any sovereign or rational subject at all! At this point it appears that Spivak’s interpretation of Intellectuals and Power is, put bluntly, a misreading. Either Spivak has not been able to contextualize Deleuze usage of positive desire or her critique is to be read as an attack on subject representation tout court. This interpretation would stress that “all claims to subjectivity, even ‘postmodern subjectivity’, are at their foundation a form of neocolonialism.” That “[a]ll transcendental cultural logic is, at its heart, imperialistic.” (Maggio, 2007, 420-421)

But as stated above I want to posit a different interpretation. In my perspective, this initial reading has limited itself to exploring Spivak’s text as only operating on a literary plane. This appears to have its roots in the mistaken presumption that when one is discussing Jacques Derrida, you are by default operating on such a literary/linguistic plane; or that Spivak would want to formulate an ideological project of deconstructionism (against Marxism). A gross simplification of Derridas project (See: Jonathan Basile, Other Matters, 6; endnote 6). Such a reading ignores that Spivak arrives at Derrida only after at length stressing precisely the ‘transcendental logic’ that is imperialism itself and it is “international division of labour”. Here Spivak formulates her critique of in the clearest terms: “Foucault is a brilliant thinker of power-in-spacing, but the awareness of the topographical reinscription of imperialism does not inform his presuppositions.” (Spivak, 1988, 290) It is not on the micrological level of power and subject formation that Deleuze and Foucault fails, but on the other level: Spivak argues there is an absence of recognition for how macrological systems operates behind and through the micrological systems Foucault analyses. The clinic, the prison, the school etc become self-contained and forecloses “the broader narratives of imperialism.”

Rather than interpreting Spivak’s critique as that of a sovereign subject as such, it might be more fruitful to see her as a critic of a sovereign formation of subjectivity. The reason Spivak uses the French small peasants to differentiate her position from Foucault and Deleuze is not to simply post a split individual subject but a split collective subject. In this reading Foucault’s mistake is not an uncritical attitude towards the enlightenment figure of reason, his reading is Eurocentric in the sense he fails to account for how the diagram operating in the prison is itself ordered by the totalities of capitalism and imperialism. Collectives of women, prisoners, workers, or queer people are split by these totalities, which organize the many diagrams of micrological power differently within its own internal territories. From this perspective, any reading of Spivak as a quietist analyst must give way to one which stresses the incontestable reality of these totalities: a political Spivak.


Basile, Jonathan. 2020. Other Matters: Karen Barad’s two materialisms and the science of undecidability. Angelaki. 25(5): 3-18

Foucault, Michel & Deleuze, Gilles. 1977. Intellectuals and Power. In Bouchard, D. F. (ed.). Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press: 205–217

Maggio, J. 2007. ”Can the Subaltern Be Heard?”: Political Theory, Translation, Representation, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Alternatives. 32(1): 419–443

Smith, Daniel W. 2007. Deleuze and the Question of Desire: Towards an Immanent Theory of Ethics. Parrhesia. 2: 66–78

Spivak, Gayatri. 1988. Can the Subaltern Speak?. In Nelson, Cary & Grossberg, Lawrence (ed.). Marxism and the interpretation of culture. Houndmills: Macmillan Education, 271–313

[1] Initially I here planned for a short exposition of Althusser’s concept of ideology and subject formation, but it became increasingly long-winded and I decided to cut it altogether. For an excellent summary on the topic, I recommend: Balibar, Etienne. 1993. The Non-Contemporaneity of Althusser. In Kaplan, E. Ann & Sprinker, Michael (red.). The Althusserian Legacy. London: Verso, 1–16

This entry was published on January 19, 2021 at 7:39 pm and is filed under Blog Post. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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