Invisible Histories- A review on articles , “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and “Predicaments of Secular Histories”

History, we may simply claim, is a flawed discipline since it is very prejudiced. It is a set of multiple narratives, unlike other disciplines, there are no paradigms or fixed notions in a discipline like this, since, more or less, from what I could gather, it has been written in a certain way and different perspectives and notions, saying that it is pure art rather than a perfectly rational discipline and analyzing the events from the past with narratives or stories, even with those with evidence, is more like coming to your own conclusions, as if drawing your own assumptions from a painting. We must be aware that history is political and has always been distorted because of the way it has been written. I am certain that the history we have been studying in schools has undergone extensive modification and has been produced from a biased viewpoint. History is political in the sense that elites and the state have largely shaped it. And to understand this, the historians of the times attempted to reinterpret and critique these prejudices in order to better understand how these texts are created through certain erasures and aspects, addressing the evolution of history writing and how it is developed as well as the ways in which intellectual and scholarly viewpoints have changed through the past.

I’ll be reviewing and elaborating on the two articles, “Can the subaltern speak?”, in the essay by Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak and “Predicaments of Secular History” by Neeladari Bhattarcharya, who exposed these biases in historical writing and historiographies and criticized them, they helped us understand that history is much more than just a simple one-to-one reading process and enjoyable narratives and stories of the past. That there are many valid interpretations of the events, and that we should at least strive to recognise and examine the inherent biases and the effect of power on human behavior and the making of history. These articles give a basic understanding of that.

Can the subaltern speak is an occasional essay where Spivak is responding to an interview between Deluze and Foucault i.e the Intellectuals and Power.

Several western scholars, like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Derrida, began emphasizing human subjectivity, arguing that it is not like a machine that can produce objective reality as a result of the experiences of colonialism and world wars. Humans, according to Foucault, are discursive products. The idea of subjectivity is to attempt to understand the world from your own perspectives on history, society, and politics. These intellectuals made an effort to get at this understanding: if humans are capable of creating reality, then we should place less attention on the scientific truth that they are describing and more emphasis on how their thought processes function. According to Foucault, society essentially creates discourses in the modern era to favor one field over another, such as clinics, asylums, or prisons, and these fields function in the name of modernity. He claims that although they are perceived as if they are humanitarian domains, they are just as oppressive. Modernity is able to invent these processes because its worldview hides the chaos of subjective processes. The entire modernity discourse leads us to assume that because people are subjected to industries, technology and urban centers and so have access to a “perfect lifestyle,” saying that modernity is a rule of careful experts and they have determined that the modern approach is the best way for people to progress. Hence, scholars like Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault work to expose these forms of hidden violence, arguing that if people were made aware of them, they would come up with alternatives.

In the beginning of the interview Deleuze marks by saying that representation is not needed anymore as people can speak for themselves and the role of intellectuals is not to speak on their behalf but to learn from their experiences and to this assumption Spivak is questioning then, “Can the subaltern speak?”

Gayatri Spivak, in the article, is responding to and opposing these academics. “As she mentioned in the very first line “ Some of the most radical criticism coming out of the West today is the result of an interested desire to conserve the subject of the West, or West as a Subject.”

Throughout this course of the interview, Spivak is figuring out and claiming how these privileged European intellectuals, who initially discuss Maoism (the Eurocentric French version of Maoism), are unaware of the global division of labor because they believe that their own experiences are universal. She argues that since they don’t understand ideology or the division of labour. They don’t seem to understand that people’s experiences around the world can vary and cannot be compared to the topic of Europe.The most crucial thing she is saying is that if the person gives up the duty to speak for others, she is asking the same question: Can the subaltern speak? This may provide us with a glimpse of how western academics mistakenly preserve the subject of the West while being ignorant of the developing and colonial worlds. And as Spivak notes in the interview, their ideology is fairly obvious. She is criticizing the idea that whatever is going on in Europe is universal and that they frequently neglect this “other” as a subject.

She discusses the subalterns in the article; who are they? She then draws attention to issues like migrant workers, women, different types of repression, immigration limitations, the global division of labour, etc. She briefly touches on the global division of work, which I found interesting and would like to expand on. She said that the first world countries typically are at the position of investment where they invest in the third world countries field provided to them by the local capitalists and their unprotected labor and shifting force. She then divided first world countries and third world countries into two parts.With these processes, local industries are destroyed, the allocation of the land is changed, and raw materials are given to colonising forces in order to uphold capitalist interests. The rise of multinational corporations and administrative relief coincide with the so-called decolonization. She points out that the development of advanced capitalist economies and modern telecommunications has made it possible for cheap labour to continue to be available in developed nations, as was the case with

Punjabis moving to Canada to work in labor-intensive jobs. Because the “labour provided is cheap,” immigrants from third-world nations perform the labor-intensive duties. She further points out that since 1979, the global recession has slowed down the investment and commerce, while the international subcontractor industry has flourished. Similar to Covid 19, when the majority of people were unemployed and dying from hunger rather than illness, the so-called Elites were becoming affluent than ever.

Moreover, Spivak notes that the subaltern on itself can be represented differently and a group that is subaltern in one region can be dominant in the other. She discusses reading the silences of the text, not what the text refuses to say but what they have taken for granted through Pierre Macherey’s formula of interpretation. She says the silence of these intellectuals are what they do not say about imperialism and current regimes of imperialism. She concludes by saying that the only time the global ‘other’ enters the imagination is when they are already in the frame of metropolitan and have entered the West. The topic of the colonial peoples, who still fall under the category of “other,” is unspoken since they only see European workers, prisoners, etc. as the absolute subaltern subject. The question of subaltern leads the historians to put more effort to give them the voice in history. Spivak further talks about epistemic violence and how it is deeply embedded in our knowledge systems. The codification of law was another method used by colonial epistemic violence to construct the colonized another, in addition to educational systems. She describes this violence as being used “to establish the colonial subject as others” in order to maintain their own identities, and she explains how the British used Hindu Law to codify their presence in India. Hindu Law is divided into four levels, on which Hindu sacred writings were read and interpreted. The British merely codified this law according to their own interests and ways of understanding the world. Any codification of law, particularly that of SATI, was wiped out, and people in Britain could only say, “Look at those people, they’re backward, and it’s us who lifted them up.”.

It also gave rise to the notion that in the Indian context, this codification allowed Indians to portray the concept as being written about in Hindu scriptures and widespread everywhere, but Spivak also tends to explain to us that SATI was not practiced that widely and that it was mostly upper class women. She also criticizes Indian nationalists who advocated for this act of Sati as a courageous act or of native cultures that claim that “women want to kill themselves.” She claims that there is ambivalence present in these works as well as textual misinterpretations, pointing out that the British people are also guilty of this.

Additionally, she says that “White men save brown women from brown men.” Again, it shows that men are still directing and imposing their will on women in colonial culture. It is made quite clear that women’s voices are never heard as subordinate groups, and it is never asked if women wanted to practice this Culture or not. Men are once again forcing their choices on women. This shows that the oppressive systems like patriarchy were still very much there in colonial times and rather than contributing to better women’s conditions they made some of them worse in specific ways as this served their personal and political interests in a foreign nation in addition to their concern for women. Also, towards the end of her discussion, she provided the example of Bhuvaneswari, a young Indian woman who had been given the responsibility of killing someone. She hanged herself as a result of not willing to do it. Even though it is important to remember that she killed herself while menstruating, ensuring that no one would interpret her death as the result of illicit love and ensuring that everyone knew she had another motivation for killing herself. Even the women’s family were deceived, according to Spivak, who also believes that it was an instance of illegal love. She adds in the text that the Subaltern cannot talk at this point, and her point is that it is necessary to And this is where in the article she mentions that the Subaltern can not speak and what she is trying to say is that there is a need to represent these subaltern groups and we cannot simply assume that people can speak for themselves.

The article, “Predicaments of Secular History” begins by discussing how numerous occasions and situations, such as Partition and Independence, and how it had an effect on intellectuals’ works at the time and how historians started to criticize the communal representations and stereotyped histories in India. Secular historians hold the belief that history must be both neutral and scientific in order to give a genuine account of the past. And this is where secular historians came into play, fighting against these stories and notions that had become naturalized. These histories attempted to go back in time to create a just, secular, and egalitarian present by challenging these assumptions and stereotypes. Secular historians, on the other hand, try to bring up more tolerance and acceptance to these boundaries and look for homogeneity, in contrast to communal historians who only discuss and offer us a sense of diversity.

In the first section, he begins by stating that communal histories, particularly those of India, are based on the core assumption that India as a country is split into these two major religious groups—the Hindus and Muslims, of course. Furthermore, these communities are incompatible with one another in terms of their culture, values, traditions, etc. Because the histories of the two communities are so distinct and the boundaries between them are clearly defined, there is hatred and hostility amongst them. And to further discuss this, he uses Muzzafar Alam’s book, The Languages of Political Islam as an example. In it, Alam discusses the history of Islam and how the Hindu community perceives Islam as a restricted, orthodox religion. Alam is emphasizing how the local beliefs and ideals helped to build this kind of faith in itself. The culture absorbed itself. For instance, the Sufi culture, which strongly reflected syncretic concepts, and how language of politics changed on its own. Moreover, these interconnected traditions helped to create Hindavi, a language spoken by both the royal court and the wider population.

He goes on to suggest that each historical story creates its own heroes and villains, and that we must study this process to understand secular histories. He argues that historical figures like Akbar undermined the idea that Hindu communalists hold that the Medieval Ages were a terrible period, and that secular historians have kept quiet about figures like Aurangzeb, who ruled for forty years but is only acknowledged as having had a brief period of power. Separating the religious and the political is something that the secularization of history attempts to do. He continues by discussing how our perception of the past is shaped by how stories are told, what we choose to include and exclude from the past, how it is built on plot structures, how the events we choose to emphasize become significant, and how this is done through specific erasures and attributes.

He also discusses how popular tracts, rather than just what historians wrote, shape people’s perceptions of the past because, at the end of the day, not everyone reads and studies history textbooks but instead turns to locally produced accounts and narratives. He gives the example of Pratap Narain Mishra’s Kya Kahati Hai Saryu Dhara, which was widely distributed and read on the streets of Ayodhya. It primarily discussed the oppression of Muslims and Hindus. Now, in these writings, the historical narrative is accepted because it has been witnessed, and the events are taken as true because they have truly happened. Here is where knowledge becomes more limited to tradition, which has always been valued since it has been cherished for decades and somehow shaped the stories and narratives of those generations. As these books are distributed to the groups, they unquestionably have an impact on their beliefs and historical conceptions. Consider the current situation in India, where right wing sectarian organisations are creating and propagating fake histories using so-called WhatsApp media. This kind of individual tends to build their own histories, believe in these open narratives, and develop hatred against minority groups. Also, when these open narratives are questioned and challenged, they become extremely uneasy. The author is now stating that historians need to consider how these narratives are produced and how history enters the popular imagination, stating that the “realm of popular” needs to be considered seriously. Then, he draws attention to the discrepancy between “academic” and “popular” history, asserting that secular historians must take this into account if they claim to be public intellectuals.

This shows the darker side of secular histories, which look to the past for instances of openness, assimilation, peace, and syncretism. Nevertheless it is clear and easy to say that history is not a collection of perfect examples of harmony and peace. The history of the communist riots, public violence, and crimes that we frequently see around us needs to be examined.

We know that writing about history and history is much more than just a collection of amusing tales and anecdotes. Infact, I feel history can be both comic and tragic as it clearly exhibits both the very best and worst of human nature. We must consider histories that are not immediately in front of us since history is not entirely one-sided. In a sense, we may argue that there are two sides to history: one that is here right now, and another that is concealed from view or invisible to us if we don’t examine it and critique the histories that have already occurred. Therefore, it is important that we examine the development of these processes across time, as well as the representation of individuals who have no voice in history. These articles highlight some of the key historical writing techniques, which are crucial in my opinion if you want to convey History, more than just a list of facts. In conclusion, I gave the essay the title “Invisible histories” since the articles discussed aspects of history that are either not now in our line of sight or are not frequently discussed.


Can the Subaltern Speak?- Gayatri Chakarvarty Spivak Predicaments of Secular histories – Neeldhari Bhattacharya

Navpreet Kaur, an undergraduate majoring in Sociology with a minor in History, submitted her entry to the social science writing competition organized by the Sociology group.

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