This is in the context of deconstructionist Marxist Gayatri Spivak's reply to Foucualt and Deleuze and defense of Marx in her famous work Can The Subaltern Speak ?

Are the subaltern just uneducated and landless along with being oppressed as opposed to say other oppressed groups like educated members of a minority ? Are they just oppressed people who don't know they are oppressed ?

An example that is given is that black people in America enacted the civil rights movement, therefore they have a way to access orthodoxy whereas the uneducated don't. So while african americans are oppressed they're not subaltern


2 Answers 2


You should read Spivak's actual essay, 'Can the subaltern speak?' because it makes the case about how voices are excluded, even now, in our supposedly 'enlightened times'. I can only assume you haven't read it, from the way you ask this question.

In Postcolonial Theory subaltern means

'colonial populations who are socially, politically, and geographically excluded from the hierarchy of power of an imperial colony and from the metropolitan homeland of an empire' (see Wikipedia).

That is, originating in a specific power and cultural dynamic. India had a bigger ship-building industry than the UK before the arrival of the British Empire, seeing them as all uneducated and landless is exactly the problem.

Spivak's point is not that there's a Stockholm-syndrome for the oppressed built in to their absorbing oppressor culture, although that is in the mix. It's about continuing incomprehension that sati, widow-burning, could be a free and volitional act of rebellion exactly against a primary excuse the British used for invasion. That is, they could speak, but the meaning they imparted to their actions could not transfer between cultures - silencing them.

Obviously changing power dynamics, new methodologies of imperialism, and of cultural colonialism, mean this is a shifting debate - and one it has to be said philosophy has been unusually and dynamically important in shaping. You might like to look at this discussion of Epistemic Justice for modern applications of the idea of subaltern: Need help with this paper on epistemic justice

A better example than Civil Rights I think, is Haiti and it's national religion being Voudou. There is still a kind of horror and confusion among former colonial powers about this different mode of religious discourse.

I would say that it is when, people are denied art and music and culture as modes of cultivating community self-awareness and dynamic change, that they become subaltern. When people are denied community-awareness and collective-creation-reform, often through external imposition of a cultural hegemony, they become subaltern just as much as when a colonial power invades and tells people how to live.

  • it's a hard one to get !! esp. if Im an engineering student doing mostly math and coding and reading in my 30 mins of free time
    – Ash Rivers
    Apr 6, 2022 at 0:23
  • It's interesting to me that someone downvoted this answer, without giving feedback.
    – CriglCragl
    Apr 6, 2022 at 2:54
  • 1
    neutralized the downvote dw
    – Ash Rivers
    Apr 6, 2022 at 13:15

Have you tried looking at the relevant Wikipedia article where Gayatri Spivak is quoted from an interview in the New Nations Writers Conference in 2011 where she says:

Subaltern is not a classy name for the oppressed, for the other, for somebody who is not getting a piece of the pie ... in post-colonial terms everythimg that has limited or no access to the Cultural Imperialism is subaltern ... the working class is oppressed, it is not subaltern ... They're within the hegemonic discourse, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern.

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