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Antonio Gramsci (1891—1937) Italian political theorist and activist, co-founder and leader of the Italian Communist Party

Gayatri Spivak (b. 1942)



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A term conceived by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who because he was in prison and his writings subject to censorship used it as a codeword for any class of people (but especially peasants and workers) subject to the hegemony of another more powerful class. The term has been adopted by a group of Postcolonial Studies scholars, thus forming a sub-discipline within the field known as Subaltern Studies. The group was founded by South East Asian historian, Ranajit Guha and over time it has included such scholars as Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Partha Chatterjee, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Its aim, following Gramsci's precepts, is to examine the formation of subaltern classes in a variety of settings in South East Asia, but principally India and its near neighbours, with the aim of providing a kind of counter-history, to address the imbalances of ‘official’ histories, which tend to focus exclusively on the affairs of the state and the ruling class. Spivak's famous essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ (incorporated into A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), problematizes the key premise of Subaltern Studies, namely that the heterogeneous group of peoples classified as subaltern can in fact have sufficient unity such that ‘they’ can speak. Her answer to her own question is a resolute no. The term has also been used in Latin American studies to similar purpose, though there it is given a slightly different slant: it also refers to the habit or mindset of servitude and subservience that needs to be overcome in order to bring about political change.

Further Reading:

D. Chakrabarty and H. Bhabha (eds.)Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (2002).R. Guha and G. Spivak (eds.)Selected Subaltern Studies (1988).W. Mignolo Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (2000).

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