Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Lives of 'Others'

In recent weeks, I have given much thought to the construction of otherness in contemporary theory, and my own use of the figure of the ‘other’ (and to some extent the abject and the subaltern) as a means of grappling with the marginalization and effective de-subjectification of racialized minorities in the U.S. This reconsideration of my thinking on this topic was precipitated by a reading of the “Introduction” to Kelly Oliver’s book Witnessing: Beyond Recognition.[1] In contrast to theorist such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Axel Honneth and Jurgen Habermas, to name but a few, Oliver is insistent on distancing herself from an analysis of the ‘other’ that is based on the impulse to posit a state of otherness whose requisite impoverishment, silence and invisibility functions solely to enable and/or support its dichotomous opposite, the realm of vocal subjectivity. Calling for a contemplation of the subject position of those othered by discourses of subjectivity, Oliver asks if it is possible to “…develop a theory of subjectivity by starting from the position of those othered by dominant culture?”[2] Indeed, how can we begin to think about the ways in which an individual’s sense of subjectivity or agency is altered when s/he “…is objectified through discrimination, domination, oppression, enslavement or torture?”[3]
For her part, Oliver proposes the concept of witnessing, and the concomitant notions of “address-ablility” and “response-ability,” as a means of constructing a vision of subjectivity that recognizes the interdependent and dialogic nature of subject relations, and which attempts to circumvent a condition of being that is reliant on the tropes of oppression and subordination for its constitution. Moreover, she maintains that “…the need to demand recognition [ergo subjectivity] from the dominant culture or group is a symptom of the pathology of oppression,”[4] wherein this recognition “…merely repeats the dynamic of hierarchies, privilege and domination”[5] that already inform and construct human relationships. She goes on to argue against a positing of “…the social struggles manifested in critical race theory, queer theory, feminist theory and various social movements”[6] as struggles for recognition, but as movements and individuals that “…bear witness to a pathos beyond recognition…”[7] that can only be interrogated outside the dichotomy subject/object (other) and through inter-relationality.
I mention Oliver’s work because I believe that it brings to bear a number of issues that arise when we confront the notion of subalternity, and the extent to which the mechanisms of voice and agent witnessing/testimony are addressed in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s seminal piece, Can the Subaltern Speak?[8]. Critical of the “ventriloquism of the speaking subaltern” that she maintains is the stock-in trade of leftist theorists, Spivak wrestles with the construction of an ‘other’ who while remaining mute, is accorded a sense of agency vis-à-vis theories of liberation that continue to privilege the subjectivity of dominant groups; who, in turn, use socio-political ‘others’ as vehicles for their emancipation. If the subaltern is to be defined as “…a person without lines of social mobility,”[9] then the effort to (re-)constitute the subaltern’s subjective standing necessitates the (re-)introduction into an economy of being that is dependent on subject/other dichotomy that, as Oliver points out, continues to buttress long standing power imbalances and dynamics. Spivak, in asking with “[w]hat voice-consciousness can the subaltern speak?,”[10] further contests efforts to construct a subject regime that is reliant on precisely those “totalizing concepts of power and desire,” that fail to address the breadth and nuance of being and representation.
The failure of voice, the silence of otherness, in this instance is a failure to posit subalternity as the terra firma of subject construction, and the failure to take into account the ways in which the subaltern testify to their material conditions. Indeed, it is the hidden testimonies of women in the records of the East India Company in which Spivak identifies a locus of counter narratives of women’s consciousness and where an alternative economy of subjectivity can be considered. But I wonder to what extent this move continues to rely on dominance as the counterpoint and point of origin for the ‘other’, and to what extent the subaltern woman as located in the organizational narrative of the East India Company can fully wrest herself from her subjective dependence on a more agent, powerful figure. Is Spivak a party to the “pathology of oppression”? Or can we make case for this being a recognition of Oliver’s interrelational nature of subjectivity? Of a co-dependence that holds the promise of the unearthing of parallel histories that articulate more complicated narratives.

[1] Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (U of Minnesota Press, 2001).
[2] Ibid., 6.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 9.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 8.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” from The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1995), 28-38.
[9] Ibid., 28.
[10] Ibid., 32.

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