25 04 07

Can the Subaltern Speak German? And Other Risky Questions

Migrant Hybridism versus Subalternity

Nikita Dhawan

The German-speaking discourse distanced itself from postcolonial theory for a long time with the argument that neither Germany nor Austria nor Switzerland were major colonial powers. Only recently, postcolonial theory has received academic attention in the German speaking context through focus on issues like migration, racism, interculturality, and globalisation. Consequently, there is an emerging discussion regarding the consequences of colonialism and postcolonial critique for the German-speaking context. This has given rise to a range of questions like: “Is postcolonial theory relevant and applicable to the German context?”, “Who is the subaltern in Germany and are there subalterns, who speak German?”[1] It has been proposed that migrants in the postcolonial German-speaking context can be understood to be subalterns, who cannot be heard by the hegemonic dominant culture[2]. Migrants are thereby ‘subalternized’ and strategies are explored for bringing to articulation of ‘silenced’ minority voices[3]. Here, the intellectual migrants from ‘subaltern groups’ become the spokesperson for the ‘margins’[4].

The colonial continuity of the politics of migration in the European context or the experiences of racism and discrimination that are part and parcel of a migrant’s everyday life are urgent issues that need to be scandalized. Against this background, the link between postcolonial critique and migration studies is extremely significant. Particularly Edward Said and Homi Bhabha's works focus on these issues. Interestingly Gayatri Spivak takes a different view, whereby she explicitly and repeatedly warns against reducing the question of postcoloniality in general and subalternity in particular to metropolitan spaces. Spivak’s focus on the tricky relation between metropolitan postcolonialism and rural and indigenous subalterns brings to light the risks of an unquestioned celebration of postcolonial critique, especially for those who do not 'directly' benefit from it. Spivak emphasises that she finds migrant activism in the north important and worth supporting, but simultaneously warns that if contemporary neo-colonialism is seen only from the undoubtedly complex and important, but restrictive, perspective or explanatory context of metropolitan internal colonization of the postcolonial migrant, then this risks overshadowing the question of international division of labour. This unfolds a conflict of interest, whereby there is no self-evident 'natural' alliance between migrant activism in the North and the rural and indigenous subaltern in the global south. In my paper, I seek to briefly explore this 'internal critique' within metropolitan postcolonialism, to unfold the dangers of 'discursive colonization' of the subaltern by migrant activism and expose the tricky position of the postcolonial feminist in the face of international division of labour.

As argued elsewhere[5], I propose that the very question of the relevance of postcolonial theory in the German speaking context is redundant in that it overlooks one of the most fundamental premises of postcolonial theory, namely, that not only are countries like Bangladesh and Brazil postcolonial, but even countries like Thailand and Iran, which were never 'formally' colonised, are also deeply informed by processes of colonialism. By virtue of our, what Shalini Randeria calls “entangled histories”, it is impossible to reduce postcolonial analysis to national boundaries, for these boundaries are itself a product of colonial discourses. Thus the mere question, for example, "Can the Subaltern speak German?"[6] neglects the functioning of international division of labour by trying to locate and thereby reduce the question of postcolonial critique in the global north even as the framing of this question once again reinforces methodological nationalism and thereby national boundaries.

Moreover, there is a fatal ‘paradox’ in the notion of ‘migrant-as-subaltern’. Spivak observes that the very definition of the subaltern entails ‘immobility’, whereby the cultural space of subalternity is cut off from the lines of mobility producing the class- and gender-differentiated colonial subject:

"Subalternity is the name I borrow for the space out of any serious touch with the logic of capitalism or socialism. Please do not confuse it with unorganised labour, women as such, the proletarian, the colonized, […] migrant labour, political refugees etc. Nothing useful comes out of this confusion." (Spivak 1995: 115)

Now that is a pretty unambiguous statement by Spivakian standards. She sees the new-immigration-in-capitalism or Eurocentric economic migration as a critical mass that is based on hope for justice under capitalism. Thus the mainstream migrant to the north is very much inside capitalist structures, as an agent and not just simply as a victim.

It is also important to bear in mind that even as migration activism is an important political movement in the global north, according to the latest figures provided by UNFPA “despite perceptions to the contrary, the proportion of international migrants worldwide has remained relatively low, growing only from 2.5 per cent of the total global population in 1960 to 2.9 per cent in 2000 (UNFPA 2006: 6). Thus when we focus on the situation of migrants in the global north, we also need to focus on those who are cut off from the lines to mobility. As Spivak reminds us:

"One of the points that I have made repeatedly is that because the moment of epistemic violence of imperialism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is not really considered, the international division of labour today is allegorised into the situation of the ‘guest workers’ or the Third World people in First World arenas, which has very little to do with the larger problem". (Spivak 1990: 14)

Spivak tells us that the story of capital logic is the story of the West, whereby imperialism establishes the universality of the mode of production narrative, so that to ignore the rural and indigenous subaltern today is, willy-nilly, to continue the imperialist project. The word 'transnational' now bears the weight of the untrammelled financialisation of the globe, whereby capitalism is being re-territorialized as 'democracy'. Spivak explains contemporary international division of labour to be a displacement of 19th century territorial imperialism. With the so-called decolonisation and growth of multinational capital, instead of transferring of raw material to the metropolis, maintaining international division of labour serves to keep the supply of inexpensive labour in the periphery. International subcontracting and minimal subsistence requirements for the worker ensures that labour is kept cheap in the third world. Unorganised or permanently casual female labour is the mainstay of world trade, whereby the gendered subaltern in the global south form the base of contemporary globalisation. Moreover, this structure of super-exploitation is compounded by patriarchal social relations.

In a discussion on the ‘new subaltern’ in the age of Globalisation, Spivak focuses on how the rural and indigenous subalterns are increasingly the target of Multinational Corporations as source of trade-related intellectual property, which forms the basis of exploitation in the arenas of bio piracy and human genome engineering. The intersection between colonialism and capitalism is once again pursued in the name of 'development' with the grand design to bring the world's rural poor under one rule of finance, one global capital, again run by the internationally divided dominant. The unorganised landless female labour is one of the targets of super-exploitation where local, national and international capital intersects through credit baiting, even as the gendered subaltern is the worst victim of the play of the multinational pharmaceutical dumping in the name of population control. The role of transnational corporations from the EU in these 'new' forms of Neo-colonialism and Eco-colonialism is no secret! Thus, one does not need to go to great lengths to justify the 'application' of postcolonial theory to German speaking contexts.

Hybridity as “migrant race-mobility”

In the face of international capitalism, Spivak cautions us against the privileging of metropolitan spaces, whereby in our enthusiasm for migrant hybridity and First World marginality, the gendered subaltern is once again silent for us. She warns that with global re-territorializing in the New World Order, migrant reality and globality are taking all the attention of the radical cultural worker in the metropolis. According to her, the trajectories of the Eurocentric migrant poor and the postcolonial rural poor are not only discontinuous but may be, through the chain-linkage that we are encouraged to ignore, opposed. According to her, migrant hybrid identity is an upper class migrant concept and provocatively calls 'hybridity-talk' as "migrant race-mobility" (Spivak 1993: 250), whereby she explains that the questions of race and postcoloniality are not necessarily identical. Thus, she emphatically distances herself from migrant hybridism. In an interview she remarks:

“Hybrid identity is upper class migrant concept. You know to assume that you have ‘irreducible cultural translation’ in your identity. I have written about it elsewhere. Translation is not that easy. It is quite precise if you look where hybridity is described. In an interview of Homi K. Bhabha it is said that there is always an irreducible translated other culture in the consciousness of the ID and that is not just philosophically and theoretically but also practically and politically not at all an interesting concept and Homi and I are allies and very good friends and therefore based on that friendship we can also be critical and in this respect I am deeply critical of the political implication of it. If you look at it you would see it is quite precise. And in its precision it is, I think, indulgent towards a class subject. Subalternity has nothing to do with cultural translation of any kind. In is much more practical idea of not having access.” (Spivak 2002)

Spivak’s critics have taken her statement “the subaltern cannot speak” to be a categorical assertion rather than an interrogation of the academic effort to give the gendered subaltern a voice in history (Spivak 2002b). Spivak returns to the problem of speaking about the gendered subaltern that she first introduced in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in her book, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, where she characterizes her “passionate lament: the subaltern cannot speak” as “an inadvisable remark” (Spivak 1999: 308). She also regrets that subalternity is often equated with elite women in the third world or ethnic minorities in the West, a conflation that her essay was intended, in part, to critique. Indeed, one of the concerns of her recent work is to show the complicity of diasporic South Asians with a corporate globalisation that maintains subaltern women in a position of subalternity (Spivak 2002b). Spivak laments that she has been talking about this for some time, but it does not seem to register. She explains that the culture of the rich and that of the poor in third world countries are marked by a cultural difference that is larger than the cultural difference self-consciously invoked when the diasporics speak to the ‘metropolitan white folks’. She thereby emphasises the need to attend to “intranational” cultural differences between an elite South Asian bourgeoisie and the rural poor who have been bypassed by decolonisation (ibid). Jenny Sharpe points out that Spivak has been most vocal against the tendency of academics to equate globalisation with migrancy and diaspora. Spivak insists that the rural is the new front of globalisation, for instance, through seed and fertilizer control, population control, micro loans to women (ibid).

“When we are talking about subaltern isolation we are not talking some fuzzy hegemonic identity, we are talking about the abstract structures of civil society to which the subaltern has no access. The subaltern is not one of those whishy - washy weepy, whimsy hybrid identities type concept at all.” (Spivak 2003)

In her essay "Achtung: Postkolonialismus!" Spivak narrates her experience at a conference on postcolonialism in Germany, where she was attacked by Indo-German women participants because the message of her lecture was not "liebe mich, liebe mich, ich bin eine indische Hybride" (“love me, love me, I am an Indian hybrid!”) (Spivak 1997: 120). She declares that we, the new immigrants, must rethink the battle lines. Being reactive to the dominant is no longer the only issue. Our self-representation as marginal in the north might involve a disavowed dominant status vis-à-vis the rural and indigenous subaltern in the south. Not surprisingly, members of indigenous elite find the language of alliance politics attractive. Belief in the plausibility of global alliance politics is increasingly prevalent among women of dominant social groups interested in “international feminism” in the ‘developing’ nations as well as among well-placed Southern diasporics in the North. According to Spivak, the Third World can enter the resistance program of an alliance politics directed against a “unified repression” only when it is confined to the third-world groups that are directly accessible to the First World. She warns explicitly that this South-in-the-North confined to migrant struggles in First world countries can work against global social justice. She unfolds socio- and geopolitical situatedness as complicity and asks her implied readers, the economic and political migrants to the North, to rethink themselves as possible agents of exploitation, not as victims. In another interview Suzana Milevska asked Spivak:

“Can you try to answer why identifying with the position of ‘subaltern’ is so seductive but the profound attempt to hear and understand is not? Or more precisely, why the academics and intellectuals from various ‘marginalised’ cultural backgrounds so easily identify with the ‘subaltern’ although coming from the most elitist classes of academics and other technocratic, cultural or ethnic power positions? Is there a kind of cry for compassion hidden behind such aspiration, a kind of deliberately taking the position of victim, or wanting to become its ventriloquist claiming that it cannot speak, instead of admitting that there is nobody to hear?”

Spivak responded:

“Well, you have answered the question yourself. It is always more interesting to be seemingly a victim or there is another variation of this: seemingly completely sympathetic to you as a victim. That is also a claim of common subalternity. I re-quote Theodore Roosevelt […]: “Speak softly but carry a big stick”. So the big stick carriers would like not to acknowledge that they are carrying big sticks. Here comes forth the ‘speak softly’ part because, paradoxically, no subaltern claims subalternity. The subaltern thinks either that this is normal to have no access to lines of mobility (I see enough of them feeling that), it is really frightening, or they want to get the hell out of subalternity. Whenever you hear someone claiming subalternity you know that this is all that it is, that they are speaking softly because somewhere they are carrying a big stick […]. That is the challenge to what the so called international civil society does, which is take advantage of the big stick, some of them are even calling themselves subaltern which is incredibly meretricious and really criminally wrong […]. But I would be very distant from such sympathy; I would rather see that behind their ‘speaking softly’ is a big stick. I don't find it very interesting when academic from somewhere tells me that he or she is from marginalised cultural background” (Spivak 2003).

Spivak has been strongly critiqued for her ambiguous use of the notion of subaltern, but she has been quite consistent in defining who is not a subaltern for her. She states clearly that simply by being postcolonial or the member of an ethnic minority, we are not subaltern (Spivak 1999: 310). Now this raises the question of whether one can speak of ‘subaltern spaces’ within the ‘First World’. In her remarks on the “New Subaltern” Spivak comments: “With the breakup of the welfare state, the earlier definition of the subaltern as one cut off from lines of social mobility increasingly applies to the metropolitan homeless, although the cultural argument is subsumed under a class-argument there” (Spivak 2002a: 323). Elsewhere she speaks of people without papers as subalterns. Those who equate ‘subaltern spaces’ with ‘marginalized spaces’ in general risk taking away the very force of the specificity of the notion.

The opportunistic collapsing of the native elites in the north and the ‘other’ woman, who does not speak from the first world stage is a result of ‘firstworlding’ of third world perspectives in favour of the postcolonial migrant intellectual. Rey Chow describes this self-subalternization of the postcolonial migrant as robbing the terms of oppression of their critical and oppositional import, and thus depriving the oppressed of even the vocabulary of protest and rightful demand (Chow 1993: 13). This is not to construct a hierarchy of victimization between those located in the ‘Third World’ against those in ‘First World’. Rather, the purpose here is to alert one to the dangers of self-subalternization, which has increasingly become the assured means to authority and power (ibid). It should be noted here that the term subaltern is not a self-representation. The illiterate, unorganised female labour in the south does not speak of itself as “we the subalterns!”. Against the sloppy use of the term by other marginalized, but not specifically subaltern groups, Spivak insists subaltern, is not just a classy word for oppressed, for the Other. She remarks: “Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous”.

It is crucial to note here, that the self-subalternization of the postcolonial migrant brings its own conveniences for the metropolitan majority. With the migrant as token subaltern close at home, they do not have to deal with the ‘Third World’ subaltern space. Through the migrant representative, the ‘liberal’ sections of the elite can be in touch with the “speaking subaltern” and feel good about their ‘benevolent’ politics. The immunization from critique of the postcolonial intellectual is part of the tokenism that spells convenience for both the metropolitan majority, whereby through the postcolonial migrant, the elite can prove their ‘radical’ politics and “salve their conscience”.

According to Spivak, the primary task of postcolonial discourses is the ‘undoing’ of the subaltern space. As she explains:

“Who the hell wants to protect subalternity? Only extremely reactionary, dubious anthropologistic museumizers. No activist wants to keep the subaltern in the space of difference. […] You don’t give the subaltern voice. You work for the bloody subaltern, you work against subalternity” (Spivak 1992: 46)

To this end it is not enough to scandalize the ‘race’ privileges of white male or even female intellectual elites and question the adequacy of ‘white’ or ‘western’ (feminist) theories for third world women. Instead of celebrating our postcoloniality, we must focus on the “sanctioned ignorance” of postcolonial feminists and acknowledge our complicity and accountability in the failure of processes of decolonisation. Subaltern silence is not simply at the level of the micro-political, but results from structural effects of the international division of labour, super-exploitation of Third world female labour, caste and class hierarchies in which the voice of the subaltern woman is ‘buried’. With the focus on metropolitan spaces and subjects, there is a real danger of neglecting how neo-colonial discourses are now targeting those who were previously outside the scope of finance capitalism. Against the reduction of globalisation to the question of migration and “migrant hybridism”, Spivak demonstrates how the rural and indigenous subalterns are the ‘most’ globalised through the gendered subaltern body becoming the target of Multinational Corporations. Thus, the focus of analysis should not be limited to the postcolonial “mimic men and women” who unfortunately tend to universalise their own experiences and positions. As Spivak remarks, the mainstream postcolonial discourse is as distant from aboriginal subalterns as is Aristotle (Spivak 2002a: 333).

The moment one focuses on the position of these indigenous subaltern women, the question of postcolonial politics and resistance to neo-colonial power becomes more challenging. For Spivak, the subaltern woman is located ‘outside’ organized resistance that remains caught within capital logic, for the gendered subaltern is simultaneously excluded from the dominant as well as the resisting counter-discourses. Spivak reminds us: “If we are discussing solidarity as a theoretical position, we must also remember that not all the world’s women are literate. There are traditions and situations that remain obscure because we cannot share their linguistic constitution” (Spivak 1993: 192). The subaltern women are neither part of any unified “third world women’s resistance” nor any global alliance politics. This leaves open the difficult question of the relationship of metropolitan spaces to the indigenous subalterns.

Let there be no misunderstanding. Being a postcolonial migrant myself, I in no way wish to downplay the everyday experiences of discrimination and exploitation of migrants, refugees, people living in exile that are sometimes a matter of life and death. This essay should not in anyway be read as a call for an ‘end’ to metropolitan postcolonialism; rather the effort here is to rethink and radicalise migrant activism, so that it is not limited to ‘domestic politics’ in respective countries. With an eye on transnational alliance politics, I endorse Spivak’s warning that the process of decolonisation is incomplete unless the metropolitan migrants reflect on their complicity in the international division of labour. I ask with Spivak “What might the postcolonial feminist do to watch out for the continuing construction of the subaltern?” and I answer with Spivak: We, the non-subalterns, have to unlearn our privilege as our loss.


Castro Varela, María do Mar/Dhawan, Nikita (2005): Postkoloniale Theorie. Eine kritische Einführung. Bielefeld: transcript.

Chow, Rey (1993): Writing Diaspora. Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies, Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Dhawan, Nikita (2005): “Die verzwickte Position der Postkolonialen Feministin: Gegen eine Subalternisierung der intellektuellen Migrantin”. In: Wolfgang Müller-Funk/Birgit Wagner (Hg.): Eigene und Andere Fremde: Postkoloniale Kulturkonflikte im europäischen Kontext. Wien: Turia+Kant, S. 77-89.

Gutiérrez Rodríguez, Encarnación (2000): “"My traditional clothes are sweat-shirts and jeans". Über die Schwierigkeit, nicht different zu sein oder Gegen-Kultur als Zurichtung. Für eine antirassistisch-feministisch-queere Internationale”. URL:

Gutiérrez Rodríguez, Encarnación (2003): “Repräsentation, Subalternität und postkoloniale Kritik”. In: Hito Steyerl/ Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez(2003) (eds.): Spricht die Subalterne Deutsch? Migration und postkoloniale Kritik, Münster: Unrast: 17-37.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1990): The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, Sarah Harasym (ed.), New York/London: Routledge.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1992): “Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa” (Interviewer Leon de Kock). Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, 23 (3): 29-47.

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[1] In the introduction to their edited book ‘Spricht die Subalterne Deutsch?’, Hito Steyerl & Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez state: “Für uns hat die Frage mindestens zwei Teile: Wer ist in der Bundesrepublik überhaupt der oder die Subalterne? Gibt oder gab es insbesondere in der Bundesrepublik koloniale Verhältnisse, die die Herausbildung von dem rechtfertigen würden, was Spivak als das Subalterne bezeichnet? Gibt es also Subalterne, die deutsch sprechen? Und zum Zweiten: Können wir die Fragestellung der Postkolonialität überhaupt in den deutschen Kontext übertragen? Macht sie hier Sinn und wenn wie? Wie ist die Rezeption, aber auch die Produktion postkolonialer Theorie im deutschen Kontext beschaffen?” (Steyerl/Gutiérrez Rodríguez 2003: 7). (“For us the question has at least two parts: Who is the subaltern in Germany? Are there or were there particular colonial relations in Germany that would justify the construction of what Spivak calls the subaltern? Are there then subalterns that speak German? And secondly, Can one carry over the question of postcoloniality to the German context? Does it make sense here and how? How is the reception as well as production of postcolonial theory in Germany?”) (Translation ND).

[2] “Vor allem versucht der Band aber auch, die Auswirkungen zu beleuchten, die postkoloniale Konzepte für das Verständnis und die Transformation der Realität von MigrantInnen und Angehörigen von Minderheiten im Post-Wiedervereinigungs-Deutschland haben” (ibid: 10). (“Above all, this volume attempts to illuminate the consequences of postcolonial concepts for understanding and transforming the realities of migrants and members of minoritised groups in post-reunified Germany”) (Translation ND).

[3] In the sub-section titled "Subalternität und deutscher Kontext" of her contribution, Gutiérrez Rodríguez focuses on length on migrant activism in the German context equating migrants with subalterns: “Der Arbeitskreis Wi(e)dersprache macht sich zur Aufgabe, die Verobjektivierungstechniken von öffentlichen Institutionen gegenüber Mitgliedern aus subalternen Gruppen aufzudecken” (Gutiérrez Rodríguez 2003: 32). (“The working group Wi(e)dersprache [Forum for migrant, black and jewish women] attempts to uncover the techniques of objectification of members of subaltern groups by public institutions”) (Translation ND).

[4] “In Anlehnung an Antonio Gramsci bezeichne ich intellektuell und politisch-organisierend arbeitende Menschen im Kontext von Diaspora, Exil und Migration als Intellektuelle aus subalternen Gruppen“ (Gutiérrez Rodríguez: 2000). (“With reference to Antonio Gramsci, I call intellectually and politically active people in context of diaspora, exile and migration as intellectuals from subaltern groups”) (Translation ND).

[5] Refer to the last sub-section “Interessenkonflikte: Migrantischer Aktivismus versus Internationale Arbeitsteilung” in Castro Varela/Dhawan (2005).

[6] “In reference to the transfer of postcolonial approaches to the German context, in this sense we must not only ask with Spivak's words: Can the subaltern speak? or even: Can the subaltern speak German? Instead the question must be: But even if he or she has been talking on for centuries - why didn't anybody listen?” (Steyerl 2002).

Nikita Dhawan