*New course offering:
Special Topics in Cultural Studies:
Can Subaltern Studies Speak? : A Critical Reading of Three Decades of Discourse on and of Subalternists and Subalternity
Arjuna Parakrama (Visiting Scholar)
Three (3) credits
This course seeks to examine the ways in which subaltern studies has perceived itself and has been understood by others during the past three decades, in order to better predict its future trajectory. Thus, subaltern theory will be subjected to a discourse study, the assumption being that its reception and reproduction, both complex discursive processes, are (mis)appropriations of power/knowledge in globalised space.
Since the public inauguration of Subaltern Studies in the early 1980s, and particularly with Ranajit Guha’s “manifesto” in Subaltern Studies I: Writings on South Asian History and Society (1982) this loosely-knit group of Indian historians and cultural theorists enjoyed a two-decade-long wave of popularity in Indian and Anglo-US academe. Many imitations and applications were spawned during this period, even the inner circle of the Subaltern Studies Collective grew to around 15 amidst much soul-searching [See Hardiman 1986], and included adherents in the most prestigious US and Australian universities. Caricature accounts had US graduate students looking for subalterns in every nook and cranny, and the crudest misunderstandings degenerated into celebrations of primitivism and the romanticizing of marginality.
To risk a generalization that this course will unpack, at a more serious level the British and US responses to Subaltern Studies have been markedly divergent because each sees different aspects as its core content. While the first response dealt almost exclusively with colonial historiography, this was quickly followed by a literary critical appropriation of Subaltern Studies which gradually became the one of the trendiest methodologies in US English Departments. Throughout this period the definition of the term “subaltern” came under constant scrutiny and regular revision, a discursive arena that will be meticulously mapped in our readings.
Subaltern Studies’ origins as a critical engagement with Marxism is well-known. Hence, serious opposition to Subaltern Studies has most consistently come from the traditional left which argues that revolutionary struggle is being diverted to over-nuanced abstractions and obscurantist theory. A related major strand of criticism exemplified by members of the Cambridge School held that the Subalternists have nothing new to offer which either (British) Marxists and/or Indian historians had not discussed earlier. A rising antagonism from within India, including by a few former members of the Collective such as Sumit Sarkar, has critiqued what it perceives as the post-structuralist turn of later subaltern work. However, the early excitement, both pro and con has diminished, and during the last five or so years the output and interest in Subalternity has reached a low ebb, prompting some critics to express the view that it was merely a fad whose heyday was irrevocably past. We will track these changes in terms of their over-arching conceptual ramifications in the context of the global financial crisis and the rise of ethno-nationalist conflict and reconstitution of new social movements.
This course seeks to map the trajectory of subaltern studies as well as critical responses to it over the past three decades, in the attempt to theorize future roles for this intellectual movement. Of particular interest in this regard will be the detailed examination of subaltern studies relationship to Marxism and postcolonial theories in the current conjuncture. The unabashedly elite status of subaltern scholars and the disciplinary privileging of India (even within South Asia) will also be scrutinized to identify how this gets played out in their analysis and presentation.
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