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Updated: August 16, 2011 11:58 IST

Transnational conversations on subalternity

S. Anandhi
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‘Subaltern studies', which had its beginnings in 1982, marked the emergence of a new mode of history writing in South Asia, with its emphasis on ‘history from below'. The 12 volumes of Subaltern Studies bear testimony to the intellectual rigour and imagination of some of the world's best historians and social scientists.

While drawing its inspiration from the Subaltern Studies project, the book under review goes beyond South Asia. An outcome of two workshops held in the United States, it is an attempt to carry out transnational conversations between South Asia and North America on questions of marginality, citizenship, and subaltern history.

Gyanendra Pandey, editor of the volume, provides (in his introduction) a theoretical framework for an analysis of subalternity across historical and political diversities. In the process, he identifies two analytical categories: “subaltern citizens” and “difference.” These, he says, enable one to explore multiple conditions and contexts of subalternity and the agency of subalterns in mediating the quality of citizenship.

The first of the three parts in the book deals with subalternities in different contexts, examining issues such as power, dominance, and subordination as in the case of Dalit middle class and subaltern sexuality in the early 20th century America. Pandey highlights the predicament of the upwardly mobile Dalit middle class, citing examples from Uttar Pradesh. These people are unable to shed their “particular” subaltern caste identity even as they stake their claim to “universal” middle class identity and citizenship.

Earl Lewis's historical analysis of the processes of empowerment among the Black school teachers of the early 20th century America shows how the history and subjectivity of subalterns cannot be straight-jacketed into categories such as race, class and gender, but have to be placed at the intersection of such categories. Based on a critical reading of the reformist texts from colonial India, Rubi Lal discusses how colonial patriarchies, shared by the colonisers and the colonised, dispossessed women of their historical and social agencies by constructing them as infantilised women.

Colin R. Johnson offers a nuanced historical account of the homo-social world of subaltern male labourers of the early 20th century rural America. While effectively challenging the idea that capitalism and urbanisation provided the context for subaltern homosexual lives, he details the complexities of the phenomenon among male migrant labourers from the pre-capital rural America.

The second part, “Writing the Subaltern”, contains essays that are refreshingly new and engage with subaltern voices. Milind Wakankar analyses the mourning poetry of the now extinct ‘Kapalikas' and relates them to the question of simultaneous complicity and emancipation of subalterns in contemporary Indian politics. M.S.S. Pandian and Prathama Banerjee examine how the writings and oral traditions of the Dalits and Adivasis, embedded in affectivity, performances, and emotions, can challenge the existing theoretical orthodoxies and disciplinary Puritanism. Banerjee illustrates how alternative constructions of Adivasi history from their own texts could liberate them from the mainstream tribal history.

History of Afro-Americans

Leslie Hariss presents an alternative history of Afro-Americans in New Orleans by interweaving black family history and the history of the city. She narrates her own experience to illustrate the racial experience the Blacks go through in the city and goes on to show how the legal desegregation of the 1960s only led to a reinvention of racial segregation.

The four essays in the third part dwell upon issues of governance and legal and economic enfranchisement of subalterns in colonial and post-colonial India and the U.S. Analysing colonial legal documentation and the representation of subalterns as legal subjects, Sudipta Sen alerts us to the problems involved in writing the legal histories of subalternity. Mary E. Odem discusses the conditions of Mexican immigrants' marginality and exclusion from the list of “national immigrants” of America — they continue to be categorised as a temporary and dispensable workforce with limited rights. For his part, Steven Hahn explores the slaves' attempts to enfranchise themselves — through rumours, resistance and rebellion — in the pre-Civil War American South.

Partha Chatterjee offers a theoretical framework to understand the contemporary processes of socio-economic changes in India. Analysing the power and position of peasantry in contemporary India, he re-theorises the rural society and the new politics of the peasantry. Jonathan Prude, in the Afterword, critically captures the wide range of insights provided by the essays for further conversations on issues related to subalternity and subaltern citizenship.

Trans-disciplinary in nature, the methodological innovativeness and the rigour of the essays by both South Asian and American scholars are exemplary. The book introduces us to the sound archival research by the American scholars. It compels the reader to listen to the multiple voices of subalterns and understand their multiple histories at the interface of race, class, gender and caste.

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