by lewis levenberg

This essay tries to make ‘subalternity’ sensible for what Gramsci called our “special American conditions.” It traces the shifting referents of the concept for theory over the past eighty years. It tries to take the idea seriously, framing subalternity as an abstraction, an outcome of material conditions, and a mode of subjectivity. It details some of the embodied and environmental conditions of subalternity here today. Attending to the problems of constructing a working definition of the concept, it introduces two concepts that often disappear from explicit discussion of such topics. In conclusion and looking forward to further exploration, it raises some questions on the subject.

We begin, then, with some concepts and cognates of subalternity. Antonio Gramsci’s use of the term referred primarily to peasantry, and others excluded from early capitalist formations. When Gayatri Spivak took it up, she shifted its referent to subjects excluded from industrial society/late-capitalist formations, particularly in formerly colonized, currently globalized areas, more particularly women. Giorgio Agamben’s ‘bare life’ provides a cognate of subalternity, an extreme consequence of the same conditions (a state of exception in and as sovereign normalcy) as those of subalternity. The reduction of life to its animal, biological, non-sovereign basest inscribes an end-point (and therefore an origin) from which to think the material conditions of humanity relegated to subalternity. If subalternity constitutes society’s excluded subjectivity, an embedded exception, then it might mediate between sovereignty and bare life.

As an excess and supplement of the logic of sovereignty, subalternity grounds another intervention beyond the consideration of exception, law, and sovereignty in abstraction. Consider, for example, the corporeal consequences of the marriage of law with prisons, police, and poverty. In these cases, aggregated subalternity confronts violence sanctioned and even sanctified by legal strategies to maintain a certain order outside of its chaotic function, but which relies on that very chaos and violence in order to regulate itself. In the process, legal systems that compound penalties for minor infractions based on inability to pay one’s way out of temporary imprisonment or to hire competent counsel, no less than police enforcing certain laws only in affluent or impoverished neighborhoods, or along racial or other lines, all designate subaltern subjects as nominally equal under the law, but far less likely to receive equal treatment under that same law. In this context, recognizing collective subalternity and fomenting subaltern consciousness strikes at the root of such systemic disenfranchisement in a more immediate and concrete way than does the revelation of systemic hypocrisy as such.

Agamben’s insistence on the conflation between ‘exception’ and ‘rule’ in sovereignty certainly attends to problems with the maintenance of the rule of law at the expense of the grounds of legality. But subalternity, deployed along Spivak’s understanding, shows how social exclusion does not operate in the abstract alone, and that it does not just attack any given sovereign subject willy-nilly. Agamben assumes and implies that law can be considered a disembodied, abstracted, decontextualized, and universal figure. Even aside from systemic legal discrimination, the materiality of the law, as mediated by textuality, grounds its epistemological reach. Law can be decontextualized, but not made immaterial.

Theory holds the same problematic relationship to its codification (to say nothing of its commodification). Textual challenges to legality or sovereignty, such as procedurally implemented reforms, or theoretical exposés, can therefore take place in terms that sovereignty and ‘the law’ would understand. But bare life as such, and even subalternity as such, constitute supplements to sovereignty only in so far as they cannot be understood by the latter. Consequently, a massive, territorially focused, violent, subaltern uprising against the State could constitute the determinant of this supplement to sovereignty. In the meantime, subalternity makes explicit the stakes of a state of exception; it can thus be thought as an intermediate phase between sovereign subjectivity and bare life.

If theory can be held responsible to the world it seeks to describe or predict, then we must ask what material interventions might be wrought by theory on the conditions of subalternity and exception. Without such a politics, theory approaches phatic signification. In short, the conditions of theory’s production cannot disappear from its pronouncements. The specific systems that make possible a theory of American subalternity – universities, publishers, academic and community venues, and so on – also contribute to subalternity’s conditions of possibilities. That contradiction cannot be ignored, but it need not bankrupt such theory. Even those institutions, organizations, and systems that make subalternity real can work to alleviate its conditions.

What then, constitute contemporary American conditions of subalternity? They do coincide, to a great degree, with those of subject-formation. Race and ethnicity code non-white American bodies; whiteness correlates with privilege, not to say ‘Americanness’. Similarly, cissexuality, heterosexuality, and masculinity do not guarantee, but certainly correlate with, social comforts. The many characteristics of gender and race that mark otherness also index subalternity. These embodied elements do not, however, suffice to explain the phenomenon.

Instead, other environmental factors must be taken into account. Geographically, the simultaneous impoverishment of both inner cities and rural communities helps drive the increasing expansion of suburban wealth. Over one third of the country’s population still has no access to broadband communication networks, and fully one-quarter do not have Internet access. Many of these issues of a technological ‘digital divide’ fail to find representation by media outlets, whose information-gathering rarely extends to the rural and inner-urban disenfranchised, except in cases of tragedy, when ‘human-interest’ stories of victimhood in those areas abound. Most troubling, these environmental factors often overlap with the embodied markers of alterity from privilege noted above. Their confluence brings us to the question of ‘class’ in America.

The American version of ‘class’ – that is, socioeconomic rank, organized occupationally – has inhibited the development of a revolutionary class. Debates over a professional-managerial class, the question of a liberal elite as a reactionary ruling class, whether intellectuals constitute a class, and the surprising turn to the Right of the majority of laborers under neoliberalism all highlight an insufficiency in Marxist doctrines to explain how class operates here and now. Despite capitalism’s fomentation and acceleration of the accumulation of wealth in this country, its potential to alleviate the problems of those without wealth remains frustratingly unfulfilled – and those most in need of such alleviation have not often or lately raised a concerted protest.

In the absence of a revolutionary class consciousness, subalternity clings to particular class-like phenomena. Lower socioeconomic strata and more exploited laborers certainly raise the question of subalternity, as does contemporary struggle over collective bargaining ability for State employees, and the long-term social effects of a shift towards an informational capitalism to follow industrial capitalism. Most saliently here, poverty in capitalism accompanies unemployment as well as exploitation. Both these conditions tend to coextend, in the aggregate, along racial, gendered, geographical, and sexual lines. Together with religious, linguistic, and national divisions, these political claims on identity mark, loosely, the territory of subalternity.

Enumerating subaltern conditions in this way risks reifying some fixed, multiply marginal, disenfranchised individual as a caricature of ‘the’ subaltern subject. The familiar politics of authenticity would subtend questions of who is the least privileged in any given situation. That subaltern subjects stand more at risk of the reduction to bare life remains incontrovertible. But, if it is even possible that any sovereign subject can be reduced to bare life, then embodied and environmental factors of subject-formation do not suffice to explain conditions of subalternity. A more productive working definition remains in question.

Here’s my suggestion: “being beneath all others.”

This definition maintains the etymological roots of the term, as well as a productive double-meaning in the prefix ‘sub.’ That is, in the context of society, subalternity means that although a subject may claim no power or privilege, they still exist in relation to any other sovereign subject. The least, perhaps, but at least one part, not apart from all others. This in contrast to the fully and doubly represented sovereign subject, and also in contrast to the body of bare life, who cannot even exist in relation to society, only in their mutual absences. Subalternity here stands on that brink.

So, contemporary American subalternity and its significance are fraught with contradiction. They must be represented by a certain ineffability. As the excess and supplement of the logic of sovereignty, subalternity can refer to a social subject excluded from society (in contrast to the body of bare life, an asocial subject excluded from society). Ontological destitution haunts subalternity, yet its alterity from sovereign being must be thought in relation to being. For example, subalternity can reference extreme poverty, but such poverty exists primarily as a construct of capitalism. Similarly, subalternity can refer to an unrepresentable mediation between sovereignty and bare life, admitted to by neither. Sovereignty’s pretensions to democracy, and bare life’s refusal of sovereignty, make subalternity (on their terms) appear by allegory or allusion, unrecoverable in language or text. American subalternity mediates between power and survival.

This framework risks foreclosing on subaltern consciousness, self-recognition, or subjectivity through the media of sovereignty or the subsistence of bare life. In order to keep that possibility open, the thought of violence might re-enter the logic of subalternity. This can be shown in three ways. First, subaltern consciousness, such as it is, must be learned and reinforced through direct and sublimated violence. Second, the possibility of collective subaltern subjectivity assumes violent opposition to violent subjugation. Third, the potentially radical realization of subaltern consciousness, whether reactionary or revolutionary, depends upon an acceptance of violent activity as the necessary precondition of organization. The marriage of violence with subalternity thus reflects the violent constitution of American conditions of sovereignty and power. But violence, however manifested, cannot form the programmatic basis of subaltern politics.

Instead, another term must re-enter the equation: poetics. A logic of subalternity that favors constructive, reconstructive, deconstructive, and destructive activity in kind posits a politics that subsumes both poetics and ethics. Political potential does not fully circumscribe the bases of sovereign thought; meanwhile the exclusion from language or society do not fully circumscribe bare life. Subalternity limns this opposition; therefore an approach that subsumes poiesis into neither politics nor power would confront the problem of liminality in precisely a creative way. Between violence and poetics, as between subjectivity and environment, subalternity makes possible the the nuanced exploration of exceptionalism’s excluded.

We are daily confronted with problems that can be pursued and explored through subalternity. Three questions, finally, arise in addition to those raised so far. First, what is the status of ‘organic intellectuals’ in these conditions? Second, what is the referent for the subaltern – a locus of identity, an origin of struggle, a condition in itself that ought to be alleviated? Finally, most generally and most particularly, what is to be done? The textuality and inheritance of language must emerge once more. If the subaltern cannot speak, then what separates them from the animal in bare life? If the subaltern can speak, then their utterance translates into sovereignty. Thus caught between non-representation in sovereignty and unrepresentability in bare life, subalternity tirelessly confronts a tireless intractability. On the same basis, it gives us a viable framework for political interventions in these special American conditions.

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