"Can the Subaltern Hear?": The Place of Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of Place in Postcolonial Theory

Colin Wright (Nottingham University, UK)

[Text of complete essay]

Post-colonial theory remains divided between those theorists who retain an unproblematized notion of the subaltern subject, whose 'voice' needs to be given expression, and those who, taking on the implications of poststructuralism, have deconstructed the essentialism (and univocality) necessarily at work within subaltern discourses. The former camp criticize the latter for inflicting a deeply Eurocentric intellectual tradition on non-European phenomena, while the arguments which travel in the opposite direction suggest the imposition of a reductive 'subaltern subjectivity' repeats the violence of representation characteristic of the very colonialism against which it is set.

Gayatri Spivak, who is certainly on the deconstructive side of the debate (yet with an inseparable Marxist commitment), has famously asked 'Can the subaltern speak?'. In the proposed paper, I will argue that the concept and doctrines of rhetoric may help to answer this seminal question, while respecting the specificity of the particular subaltern experience of a given instance. Not only does rhetoric offer an analytic tool for interpreting the discourses via which post-colonial identity is repeated, perpetuated, and also reinscribed (thereby assisting in their critical reception), it also articulates the mechanisms of effective speech through which the colonized might address the coloniser. In, for example, Protagoras' important formulation, that 'every argument has two sides', we find implicit a deconstructive impulse which safeguards the fluidity of debate by disavowing ultimate fixity. Furthermore, the topoi of classical rhetoric, which include 'difference', render a useful resource in what might be termed the agonistics of postcolonial identity. I shall concentrate particular attention on the notion of rhetorical 'stance', since the 'place' of argument incorporates the issues of geographic, cartographic, economic, political and socio-linguistic specificity and heterogeneity that mark the post-colonial problematic. However, in order to prevent this being offered as some kind of a 'solution' to the voiceless subaltern (this line of rhetorical reasoning would emphasise the situated, and therefore partial, nature of any 'solution'), I would also like to examine the tropes and conceits of the language of post-colonial theory, and ask -- after Terry Eagleton's critique of Spivak, which addresses the problem of jargon -- 'Can the subaltern hear?'. The emphasis on rhetoric would then switch to considerations of 'decorum' and the audience.

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Last modified: 7 May 2001