Can the Subaltern Hear?: The Rhetoric of Place and the Place of Rhetoric in Postcolonial Theory

Colin Wright, the University of Nottingham

In February 1999, the Oxford Marxist Terry Eagleton published an article in the London Review of Books which provoked angry responses, and opened a debate deeply relevant to the concerns of this conference. The article was a review of Gayatri Spivak's book A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present. Provocatively titled "The Gaudy Supermarket," the review displayed all the vitriolic verve which we have learned to associate with Eagleton. In it, Eagleton accused post-colonial theory of obscurantism, narcissism, solipsism, political disorientation and -- for him, the ultimate faux pas -- complicity with American cultural Imperialism.

Because time is short, I will concentrate on the issue of obscurantism, with its supposed connection to American Cultural Imperialism. At its limit, the problem of obscurantism is fundamentally a question of style, and its appropriateness for a presumed audience. To this extent, I would suggest that the doctrines of rhetoric -- which have dealt for well over two thousand years with exactly this relationship -- are extremely pertinent to these and surrounding debates. Indeed, at bottom, Eagleton (who has himself called for a return to rhetoric) effectively accuses Spivak of breaching the Aristotelian injunction toward decorum, or stylistic propriety in respect to subject matter. That the etymological evolution of this term in English has lead it to resonate today with a rigid moralistic prissiness is very useful for me here, in that I will be arguing that Eagleton's position is characterized by the ordering (as both arranging and commanding) of place. I will therefore look firstly at how "place" function's rhetorically in his review; secondly (and necessarilly more sketchily) at Spivak's general position on place; and thirdly I will be coming back to the question of decorum, and whether in fact Spivak's style is at odds with her project. It is hoped this line of enquiry will open up our own discussions to the complex, and indeed interminable, question of the relationship between expressive style and theoretical content (a relationship which I would argue has been brought to its greatest degree of self-conscious performance in poststructuralism).

Some preliminary remarks then about Eagleton's argument.

As -- biographically -- an Indian woman living and working in the U.S., and - intellectually -- as a post-Marxist, a feminist and a deconstructionist all at once (not to mention a translator of some very complex French texts as well as Bengali poetry on the side), Spivak's catholicity of mind is mirrored by her migratory life. However, it is one particular migration to which Eagleton objects most loudly: that towards America, or, more precisely, American academia. This is what is being pilloried in his title, and which in the text itself he calls a "gaudy, all-licensed supermarket of the mind." He cynically suggests that Spivak's dazzling juggling act -- in which the three balls of Marxism, poststructuralism and feminism are deftly and often productively manipulated -- is at bottom a marketing ploy, nothing but the intellectual entrepreneur's canny reluctance "to be left out of any theoretical game in town." This "good old American eclecticism," he claims, has left her incoherent even to her colleagues. Implying that the influence of academia American-style has wreaked what should properly be called an epistemic violence against Spivak's own writings, he thus lays the blame for her "wretched sentences," her "duff ear for tone and rhythm," her "careless way with verbal texture," and her proclivity for "theoretical soundbites" squarely at the feet of Uncle Sam.

If this critique of Spivak's style was as far as Eagleton went, the review would no doubt have remained merely churlish, rather than controversial. Yet he expands his diatribe to suggest that, far from a radical outsider deconstructing the host virally from within, Spivak and her ilk are invited into the U.S. because of a structural guilt which requires the soothing balm of post-colonial theory. He states this emphatically: "for this exportation to get underway, certain imports known as Third World intellectuals are necessary ...." It would be naive to deny that such a commodification of post-colonial theory exists, even must exist, but it perhaps does not do so simply, as Eagleton claims, as "an exported version of the US's own grievous ethnic problems." This line of reasoning hypostatizes the US into just the kind of monolith that, coincidentally enough, increasingly embattled Marxists need, and it belittles the very real social, political, historical and epistemological issues to which the post-colonial thinker at least purports to speak. It also belies the fact that Spivak has herself long been acknowledging this double-bind. Nonetheless, there seems a kernal of truth in Eagleton's assertion that "Nothing is more voguish in guilt-ridden US academia than to point to the inevitable bad faith of one's position." In other words, the crisis of the young white male, for example -- that he has been paradoxically disenfranchised by privilege -- is alleviated by post-colonial theory itself: with vicarious help from the wretched of the earth, the YWM's own debilitating empowerment is transformed into a cross he bares with heroic contrition (and he gets to lacerate himself over the violently Christian origin of this very metaphor). In all of this, Eagleton laments the absence of the subaltern native as a viable audience. To repeat, then, this commodification and inward turning of post-colonial theory has impacted upon its stylistics, contributing to its degredation into what he calls an "hermetically private idiom." Thus, while Eagleton's trenchant Marxism causes him to portray this problem in rather oppositional, simplistic terms, it does, however, position him to ask what I think is the most incisive question of this review: to whom, in light of her knotted, baffling style, is Spivak speaking?

I will come back to this crucial question towards the end of the paper. Eagleton expresses its stakes in typically concussive fashion: "Post-colonial theory," he says,

makes heavy weather of a respect for the Other, but its most immediate Other, the reader, is apparently dispensed from this sensitivity. Radical academics, one might naively have imagined, have a certain political responsibility to ensure that their ideas win an audience outside senior common rooms.

Notwithstanding his habitual pomposity of tone, I would suggest that Eagleton's interrogation here of the immemorial relationship between speaker and audience remains absolutely critical to post-colonial theory, a working definition of which should surely include a foregrounding of the difference, and differance, between those who have the privilege of speaking, and those who have access to hearing. The physiological gulf between the mouth and the ear necessitates not only the question Œwhat is the place of enunciation', but also, and incessantly, Œwhat are the places of its reception'?

Turning back to Eagleton's review, then, we can immediately see a strong emphasis on place. The very nub of his article can be found in the following lines: "Spivak is at once the best and worst-placed author to carry out such a project" [meaning the critique of postcolonial reason promised by her title]. He suggests that she is best-placed inasmuch as the place from which she originates, by virtue of its Eastern difference, gives her privileged access to the blindspots of Western thinking. However, she is also worst-placed because now "she is too much the insider" (meaning inside the US, inside Capital). His critique thus amounts to the assertion that the moment Spivak set foot on American soil, her noble project became distorted because seen through the perverting prism of Capitalism. This sentiment is apparent in the praise of its opposite: Eagleton claims that Aijaz Ahmad is less complicit than Spivak because "he has spent far less time teaching in the West." Ahmad's voice is more authentic, his ethos more suasive, because he speaks in greater proximity to his subject. He is immersed in his referent. He is, as it were, the head of his own household, and therefore speaks with authority. In contrast, Spivak has upped roots, packed her bags, and left home. In so doing, she has also left the privileged vantage point of the Outsider looking in: instead, and by gradual cultural osmosis, she has surrendered herself to the telescoped perspective of the Insider looking out.

Would it be scandalous to gather from this that Eagleton would rather she had stayed at home? Though tempting, I will not go so far as to suggest that Eagleton implies that specifically woman's place is in the home. Indeed, the place of woman is meticulously elided by Eagleton, despite the fact that three of the four chapters in Spivak's book are directly addressing the subalterneity of woman, in and out of the Imperial context. So he does not, at least overtly, confine only woman to a curtailed domesticity, but calls for an un-gendered home-loving, a general stay-at-home attitude which seems nonetheless to pass in his mind for radical political commitment.

So central is this restricted and restricting notion of Œplace' in his argument, that one could easily play at being a structuralist, and condense his position into a number of spatial binaries:

  1. U.S./"Third World"
  2. North/South
  3. East/West
  4. Right/Left
  5. Centre/Margin
  6. Import/Export
  7. Inside/Outside

As a homelover, Eagleton has a pathological distaste for stepping across the threshholds of these oppositions. Entry into the U.S. is entry into a foredoomed Faustian bargain. The import/export couplet is tainted on both sides by naked mercantilism. The political Left is drifting with hateful apathy toward the centre, and yet, the modish concentration on margins has dis-placed the centre from its rightful centrality. However, a tran-slation -- albeit linear and one-directional -- is demanded across one of these pairings: the post-colonial theorist must breach the stifling interior of academic capital, and address, en plein air, the subaltern outsiders. Contextualized within the liberal humanist tradition, Eagleton is invoking an ethical obligation on the part of the intellectual to speak for, but also to, those whose consciousness is lagging behind whatever Hegelian discourse of utopian progress is being espoused. There is plenty of worthy rhetoric to support such a position, most of it centering on the idea of giving a voice to the voiceless Other. Despite this liberal rhetoric, and despite the apparently generous gesture toward expansiveness, it is my contention that these spatial binaries in fact operate in the review as, paradoxically, a rhetoric of violent foreclosure.

Refering, for example, to the continuing need for a liberatory politics, Eagleton writes that "to imagine that it would be nice to be in Siena is not necessarily to disavow the fact that I am in Scunthorpe." The sussurating consonance of "Siena" and "Scunthorpe" has nothing to do with opening up space, but merely with signifying the sign of spatiality: this juxtaposition stands in for the "There" verses "Here" topology, which bares a distinct family resemblance to the "Them" versus "Us" mentality. Four sentences later, he again employs the chiasmatic syntax which so aptly figures his favoured oppositional relation, when he describes postcolonial theory as "a body of work which you can dismiss in Delhi just as you can support it in Sacramento." These signs of place seem to enact the polarization of the debates. It is as if he is trying to contain the dissemination of ideas by caging them inside the place-names which signify their origin, the homes they should never have left. Under the name, and the naming of "place," there is in fact a reigning in of argumentative space. Place as residence, locale, abode, province or position - all of which imply habitation, and spatial relations - is compressed into a singular, undifferentiated name. Spivak herself, in the very book which Eagleton is reviewing, writes of just this phenomena: "There is no more dangerous pastime," she says "than transposing proper names into common nouns" (p.232), and, later, " ... the incantation of names, far from being a composition of place, is precisely the combination of effacement of specificty and appropriation that one might call violation" (p.161).

In contrast, Spivak's ambitious project seems to me to involve exactly the opposite movement: a complexification and problematization of place. Her theoretical Marxism enables her to remain sensitive to the stratified spaces of class and economic structuration, the vertical within the horizontal as it were. She muddies clean distinctions by, for example, acknowledging the role of the Indian elite in shoring up British Imperialism. She displays a vigilant awareness of the differences between metropolitan politics, and those of the rural provinces. She has demonstrated the structural "place" of the concept of the "Third World" in the discourses of the west. She has articulated the placing of the subaltern woman both in the "masculism" of imperialsm, and in the broader phenomena of advanced Capitalism. Moreover, her deconstructive readings endow her with a more nuanced understanding of the shuttle-effect between margin and centre than Eagleton's rather ham-fisted treatment yields. In a paper from the late seventies, for example, she has written in a way that suggests she is more aware of the "predicament" Eagleton imputes to her than he gives her credit for: "The putative centre welcomes selective inhabitants of the margin in order better to exclude the margin." Indeed, in a more recent interview, she has stated the importance of place in her thinking, at the same time making a distinction which separates her from the position I have been ascribing to Eagleton. She says:

I have trouble with questions of identity or voice. I'm much more interested in questions of space, because identity and voice are such powerful concept-metaphors, that after a while you begin to believe that you are what you're fighting for ... Whereas, if you are clearing a space, from where to create a perspective, it is a self-separating project, which has the same politics, is against territorial occupation, but need not bring in questions of identity [and] voice.

It is obvious that Eagleton, as an unreconstructed Marxist, is unwilling to relinquish the notion of the raising of class-consciousness, and seems to be demanding of postcolonial theory a commitment to the raising of a postcolonial-consciousness. Marx of course endured the double-bind of being a bourgeois writing against his own kind and for the oppressed proletariat. By implication, Eagleton's critique of Spivak boils down to this: that she doubles this same double-bind. By trading places, she forsakes the potent ethos of the proletariat/non-western, to become a bourgeois/western who tries to speak with a now-cloven tongue about the position she used to occupy, but cannot regain. She is thus a double agent who has betrayed herself. However -- and this would represent the most radical counter-critique of Eagleton -- Spivak has herself pointed out many times that the axiomatics of imperialism are repeated in the inequality inerradicably inscribed in the notion of western discourse speaking for the "illiterate" subaltern. Condescension and the easing of historical conscience are inextricably linked in the negotiation of this differend.

Eagleton is right to maintain that this assertion in turn induces an equally violent differend -- silencing those who would speak, from any position, of the oppressed (as if, analogously, men could have nothing which wasn't patriarchal to say about feminism) -- but he also betrays his deep misunderstanding of Spivak's project. Where he valorizes the colonizer-colonized discursive trajectory, Spivak's work moves against this grain, and, crucially, back again in an endless reverberation. The sequencing of the opening chapter of the book in question confirms this: Spivak moves from Kant, through Hegel and on, predictably, to Marx. Not wanting to underrepresent this Western narrative of self-critique, she also has plenty to say about Freud. Thus, though it is dangerous to invoke the idea of a cure, she writes toward the causes, not the symptoms, of postcoloniality. To answer the question, then, of who Spivak is addressing in her indecorous writings, it would seem to be the patriarchal, metaphysical and still imperial discourses of the West, not the sexually discriminated, essentialized, subproletariat of the West's Other, and, above both of these, against the tenability of such brute oppositions.

We are encountering here the clash of (at least) two irreconcilable political correctnesses: on the one hand we have the enlightenment injunction to educate, on the other the deconstructive call for a rigorous problematization of Grand Narratives (including that of the role of pedagogy in the project of Humanism). It seems to me that Eagleton's critique of Spivak's style -- to return finally to the question of decorum -- represents a wilful misunderstanding of the deconstructive move. He can see no political potency in its self-reflexivity because he retains a notion of the role of theorizing which -- as I have evoked rhetoric -- is always related to homiletics, or preaching. Spivak, on the other hand, is not proselytizing, or, more neutrally, merely transmitting unproblematic information (which is the untheorized assumption behind the possibility of clarity): she is performing a work through her texts. As with any use of deconstruction, the division between style and content becomes untenable: style is content, and vice versa.

Aristotle's exhortation to clarity and purity is thus no longer adequate to apprehend deconstructive rhetorics. Or, rather, decorum would have to be radically rethought to include the stylistic necessity of ellipsis, fracture, irony, inversion, discontinuity and paradox. Indeed, the concept of place in rhetoric would also require an overhaul, since it is conscpicuous in the rhetorical tradition only by its absence. Place only has a place in the cannon of rhetoric as an abstract entity, in the commonplaces of argument, the topoi. I think it would be possible to explain this via the administration of civic discursive spaces in ancient Greece, and indeed Imperial Rome: the platforms for oratory were in both cases so closely regulated, it was not thought necessary to include place in the variables of delivery. Epideictic rhetoric related to public audiences, deliberative to the political assembly, and forensic to the law courts: each had its own circumscribed realm.

It is this same rigidity of place that I have tried to show Eagleton surreptitiously espousing. However, contemporary globalization -- driven by transnational corporations whose founding precursors were, precisely, colonial economic giants like the East India Company -- is unsettling place, making the home which Eagleton covets increasingly unheimlich. If one were to allow a brief lapse into crude periodization, perhaps both poststructuralism and post-colonial theory arose, as precisely formal responses to this new fluid sense of place, a wrestling with language toward a new eloquence appropriate to the dis-placing of place, which is the inevitable concomitant of globalization.

I would like to close by problematizing the conclusions just reached with a kind of disclaimer. I have clearly come down on the side of poststructuralism. However, my final remarks should acknowledge the specificity of my own discursive position as a "white boy talking postcoloniality:" like any idea, poststructuralism also travels. As it crosses borders -- geographical, linguistic, cultural, political -- it meets resistances. In the resistence to these resistences, it is important to acknowledge the pressure which foists this quintessentially intellectual non-theory on those who might wish to speak otherwise. However, I would maintain that these reservations pertain to a specifically academic mode of deconstruction, whereas the true potential of deconstruction resides in those rare moments when it breaches its institutional strictures (a distinction with which Spivak closes her own book). Deconstruction is thus, and above all, not a theoretical panacea: it must actively resist its own ossification into a universally applicable meta-theory. Paradoxically, it can do this only through a rigorous scrutiny of the specificity of given texts. In other words, and to conclude, it must always honour with ethical discretion the particularity of place.


Postcolonial OV discourseov Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Casablanca Conference

Last modified: 8 May 2001