Reading Subaltern Studies

Review: Rao on Ludden

Ludden, David. Reading Subaltern Studies: Critical History, Contested Meaning and the Globalization of South Asia. London: Anthem South Asian Studies 2002. 429pp+Appendix I, 6pp.+Appendix II, 7pp. (paperback) ISBN 1843310597.

Reviewed for H-ASIA by Anupama Rao, Barnard College.

Subaltern Studies has acquired a talismanic power, not only in the field of South Asian studies, but more generally for scholars of anthropology, history, literary studies, and politics. What is the intellectual project that unifies this collective endeavor? How do we evaluate the crossing of borders- real, theoretical, methodological-that marks the successful "globalization" of Subaltern Studies? Reading Subaltern Studies sets out to explore these questions by outlining "a history of contextuality at the intersection of Subaltern Studies and its readership, and in doing [so to] indicate how the subject of subalternity has changed over the years." (p. 2) Of wide-ranging interest to both generalist and South Asianist alike, this is an important collection which explores the "Subaltern-effect" in the global academy!

As David Ludden notes in his introductory essay, this is a project that has morphed many times over, and "[i]ts internal coherence has been less intellectual than personal and more formal than substantive" (p. 3), with external criticism often generating a sense of unity to the diverse interests of the members of the collective. The first volume, Subaltern Studies I, was published in 1982. The most recent volume, Subaltern Studies XI was published in 2000, marking two decades of debate, discussion, and polemic about the relevance and utility of the subalternist paradigm. When Ranajit Guha retired as the editor of the series in 1989, he and his eight collaborators who formed the "inner circle" had published thirty-four of the forty-seven essays in the first six volumes of the series, and fifteen books that dealt with a range of topics about colonial society and nationalist mobilization.

Theoretical influences on the Subaltern Studies collective have been multiple and varied, spanning Foucault and Gramsci to Heidegger. South Asia (especially India) became visible in the U.S. academy as a vibrant and contested field of study largely due to the collectives’ concerns with colonial history and historiography, however, not merely their distinct theoretical orientation. The project began with the intention of challenging reigning forms of historicism and struggled to mark the discontinuities and ruptures between the past and present.

Why, we might ask, was history the privileged place from which the Subaltern Studies collective unleashed their critiques of the tyranny of colonialist and nationalist thinking? What has happened to disciplinary history in the aftermath of Subaltern Studies?

A significant intellectual break occurred in 1985, when the collective began to engage with issues of representation and subjectivity influenced by poststructuralist and deconstructive trends in literary criticism. Ludden argues that the mid-late 1980s were a crossroads, when "the cultural perspectives of two prominent US-based scholars, Bernard S. Cohn and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who explored the language and textuality of discursive power" (p. 17) became prominent. Ludden argues that a sustained opposition between indigenous and colonial culture, articulated by Ranajit Guha in particular, and an attempt to recuperate subaltern subjectivity from the clutches of colonial subjection and modernity, were defining features of the Subaltern Studies project during the late 1980s.

The 1988 Select Subaltern Studies reader edited by Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak, with a foreword by Edward Said, gave the collective global visibility, and distinguished the theoretical and methodological contributions of the project. In 1993, a Latin American Subaltern Studies group was formed in excited response to the work of the Subaltern Studies collective, and in 1994, the American Historical Review devoted a special section to the relevance of the subalternist paradigm for comparative work in other colonial societies, especially Latin America and Africa. Reviews, debates, and critique accompanied the expanding influence of the collective. Reading Subaltern Studies addresses the contentious debates over politics and categories generated in the wake of the collective’s expanding global influence.

The collection is divided into three sections: "Early Critiques in India" contains four reviews that were published in India before 1986, with debates amongst Marxist scholars and within existing paradigms of national history being prominent; "Critical Incorporation in the Global Academy" contains five essays by scholars working outside India (especially the now-famous 1988 article by Rosalind O’Hanlon), and the final section, "Later Critiques in India," carries three reviews, including an important critique of the subalternist project by Sumit Sarkar, an early contributor to the Subaltern Studies volumes. Even though many -- if not most -- of these critiques are familiar to South Asianists, the significance of this collection is in contextualizing the critiques, so that they reveal as much about the changing intellectual agendas and interests of South Asian studies as they do about the distinctiveness of the Subaltern Studies project.

Ludden frames the broader historiographical context within which the collective emerged in the context of British social history, especially the post-Thompsonian interest in "history from below." He also gestures at debates within Marxism, especially debates about the relationship between economy and society, structure and superstructure, which took an important turn through the "discovery" of Gramsci’s writings by English-language readers in the early 1980s. Particularly important were Gramsci’s conceptions of "hegemony," the "national-popular," and "negative," or "contradictory" consciousness in shifting extant paradigms of analysis. In addition, as Ludden notes, within South Asian historiography, there was the familiar antagonism to the Cambridge School,especially the latter’s focus on elite interest and competition, which drew on a mechanical, instrumental conception of political action. Ludden argues that the Cambridge School sparked controversy over two questions "What is the role of culture in nationalism? and: What is the relationship between states and popular politics?" (p. 7) [1]

In the context of decolonization movements in Africa and Asia, an alternative to the social scientific paradigm of modernization had emerged in the form of "peasant studies," a direct response to the rise of insurgent and revolutionary movements in various regions of the non-West. Many of the early debates within politics, and Indian historiography, especially Ranajit Guha’s famous claim that nationalist mobilization could be written as a failure of the Indian nation "to come into its own" because it could not extend beyond elitist conceptions of consciousness and agency, were also political responses to the 1970s.

If the Hegelian adage about history as a history of the state -- or in its postcolonial variant, history as the biography of the nation -- was no longer an available conceit, "[d]iscursively deconstructing cultural power and recu[perating everyday resistance became compelling projects for scholars who discovered the failures of modernity, positivism, and the Enlightenment." (p. 13)

Ludden is occasionally ambivalent about the Subaltern Studies project, but in large part his introduction attempts to frame a phenomenon. Ludden questions the collectives’ claims to originality, and argues that their relationship to Marxism was unclear; that "subalternity thus became a novelty, invented de novo by Subaltern Studies, which gave old terms new meanings and marked a new beginning for historical studies. Domination, subordination, hegemony, resistance, revolt and other old concepts could now be subalternised." (p. 16) Certainly these are enduring debates for the first section of reviews in this reader, and one wishes- especially because these debates are so deeply embedded in the Indian contexts of intellectual formation and institutional location- that Ludden had contextualized the first and the third set of essays a little more. Due to constraints of space, I will not address individual essays, but broad commonalities between the reviews in each section.

The first section contains two essays from Social Scientist, and two essays from the Indian Historical Review. These essays criticized the perceived "autonomy" of subaltern mentality in leading to a simplistic binarism in the conception of politics. Javed Alam argued in Social Scientist that the focus on episodic instances of subaltern insurgency was inadequate for a rigorous exploration of subaltern consciousness, as was the central role that "community" and "religiosity" played in defining that consciousness. In their essays in the Indian Historical Review, Ranajit Das Gupta and Binay Bhushan Chakarvarti appreciated the collectives’ success in bringing new histories to light. But they too posed the issue of subaltern autonomy as a problem of theory and method for Marxist historiography.

The second set of essays -- by O’Hanlon, Jim Masselos, K. Sivaramakrishnan, the Africanist, Fred Cooper, and Henry Schwartz -- is more dispersed in its grounds of critique, though all of them address issues of theory and method beyond Marxist historiography. O’Hanlon’s essay takes up, to some extent, from the Indian critiques. She proposes a generous reading of the difficulties inherent in the collective’s project, which she interprets as an attempt to recuperate the integrity of subaltern consciousness while maintaining its alterity. Though the Subaltern Studies collective drew upon the Althusser who questioned the primacy of the subject, and the Foucault who wrote about the processes of subjectification, there was also a contradictory attempt to mark the visibility of the subaltern as a virile, resistant subject. O’Hanlon drew on feminist history as an analogy for the arguments she was making about the necessity of addressing everyday resistance in addition to spectacular insurgency. Spivak, too, had a powerful critique of the absence of gender in the collective’s intellectual vision. (In fact one wonders why her critique is absent from this section, especially when Spivak drew upon feminist critiques of the same structuralist and post-structuralist paradigms that the subalternists were drawing upon.) The essay by Masselos notes the power of the subaltern as representation, and the disappearance of flesh-and-blood subalterns from the later volumes of Subaltern Studies, as does the essay by Sivaramakrishnan.

Sivaramakrishnan traces the place of culture, and what the collective referred to as "anthropological history." He argues that an unreconstructed and static notion of symbolic action in fact prohibited the collective from exploring the relationship between past and present, between the structuring structures of thought, action, and belief, on the one hand, and their inflection by material forces and historical contexts, on the other.

Fred Cooper’s essay in this section is important. It points to the reception of the collective’s work by one of the foremost labor historians of Africa, who explores how the Subaltern Studies project resonates with extant African critiques of colonialism and exploitation. In the process, it also illuminates important differences between South Asian and African historiography. Cooper mentions the significance of wage regulation, of labor stabilization, and Africa’s insertion into the world economy as burning issues for a continent that experienced decolonization much after India did. Rather than British social history, this historiography drew on the Latin American dependencia school for inspiration. At the same time, there were significant points of comparison- the attempt to write African histories of Africa, the turn towards oral history pioneered by scholars like Jan Vansina, and the focus on resistance and popular struggle. [2]

Additionally, pan-Africanism and negritude had already pointed to the extensive connections between Africa and the New World, drawing connections between "Africa" and its diaspora, and making it difficult to fetishize the nation-state. Especially important for South Asianists, it seems to me, is Cooper’s invocation of Fanon, whose writings on, and struggles for, revolutionary transformation stand in such stark contrast to the discourse of South Asian nationalists, especially Gandhi. One wishes there were more essays such as this one, that revealed the constellation of theoretical concerns and methodological issues that have animated the politics of writing non-Western histories, undoing the sense of South Asian exceptionalism produced by the Subaltern Studies project together with the bulk of the reviews.

In the final section, Sumit Sarkar’s essay is the reflection of an "insider" who is now an "outsider" to the project (Ludden, p.3). Sarkar mourns the demise of the collective’s commitment to social histories, especially attention to the drama and detail of "small" histories. His criticism centers, for the most part, on the centrality of unreconstructed notions of "community" as sites of authentic indigenous culture, and the collective’s critique of modernity tout court. Sarkar reads in this a dangerous tendency towards a wholesale condemnation of secularism as well, positioning these critiques dangerously close to similar arguments by Hindu nationalists. Sarkar’s essay powerfully raises the issue of the changed political landscape within which South Asian historiography is situated today. It is certainly true, for instance, that Hindu nationalism has mobilized conceptions of the (Hindu) community in powerful ways.

However, it is by no means clear to this reviewer that the Subaltern Studies collective’s theorization of community as the space from which to conceptualize alternative forms of sociality -- howsoever problematic a concept it may be -- is identical to the Hindu nationalists’ idea of community or their critiques of secularism.

Where is the Subaltern Studies project now? Recent volumes of Subaltern Studies have increasingly drawn on the work of feminist scholars and theorists of caste. There has however, been no programmatic statement about how sustained attention to issues of caste, gender, or so-called Muslim "separatism" would reconfigure the initial framing of the Subaltern Studies project. [3]

Since each of these issues troubled the consolidation of national unity right from the very start, one might go so far as to suggest that being mindful of these strains of criticism, debate, and political activism would trouble many of the analytic categories currently in use, and provide new languages of analysis.

Reading Subaltern Studies points to the contentious and lively politics of South Asian history. It is only by reading these critiques against the grain however, that one understands the collective’s intellectual significance. Clearly, this is one reason why the necessity for a critical reader such as this exists.

The Subaltern Studies collective unsettled the naïve empiricism based on a fetish of the archive, focused attention on experience and meaning, i.e., the semiotics of subalternity, and conceptualized "politics" and political action in more expansive terms. These are signal contributions that have revitalized debate and discussion about South Asia. David Ludden's introduction and the essays he has included in this reader illustrate this wonderfully well.


[1] I would argue that it is the question of the region as a unit of analysis, and the forms of articulation between institutions of state, that the Cambridge School posed powerfully, rather than the issue of culture, per se, which seems to posess no autonomous agency in their analyses.
[2] Though the collective’s claims about resistance and the subaltern are far more critical of postcolonial nationalist projects, there is an alternative genealogy to the interest in resistance amongst historians of non-Western societies. For instance, two major schools of African historiography emerged, one based at the University of Ibadan and one based at the University of Dar es Salaam. The one in Ibadan was heavily institutional, its ideological importance based in looking for the legitimacy of postcolonial African states in the nature of precolonial kingdoms and empires. Dar, probably in part because it was in socialist Tanzania, focused much more heavily on African resistance to colonization. (Personal e-communication with Prof. Steven Pierce, Tulane University, August 18, 2003.)
[3] Equally important would be to break the stranglehold of north Indian and Bengal-centric studies, revealing the radically different forms of colonial society and subaltern politics which areas such as southern and western India experienced.

Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses contact the Reviews editorial staff: [MAILTO][/MAILTO].