Essay on Subaltern Studies
I would like to begin this paper by closely considering the term ‘subaltern’ to preclude any naive or one-sided understanding of the same as a purely economic category, before I argue for its representation and construction by focusing on one major mode of construction and representation, as I move on to the specifics. I propose to understand and convey what exactly constitutes the subaltern subject as against an authority, that elicits the need for the former to represent and construct as well as reformulate it self. Authority, as Marx states in his Capital, is never a one-sided affair, but rests on a complementary and reciprocal acceptance of such authority by the dominated. The dominant and the dominated, the subaltern and the elite, and the disciplinary authority of capital over labour in Chakravarty’s essays, for instance, posit and reflect each other. I quote, “For instance, one man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They on the contrary imagine that they are subjects because he is king.” (0) Thus, one must consider ‘subaltern’ as a discursive concept that entertains complexity and many layers of meaning as we shall presently see.
The term was popularized by Antonio Gramsci an Italian Marxist, writing to counter Fascism in the 1920s and 1930s who substituted it for the ‘proletarian class’. In volume 1 of the subaltern series, Ranajit Guha defines subaltern as “ a name for the general attitude of subordination in South Asian society whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender, and office or in any other way.” (1) He further states that, “the social groups and elements included in this category represent the demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those whom we have described as elite”. (1) While this definition sounds very subjective and relative, Clarke’s moves away from a very homogenized understanding of the term subaltern. Gayatri Spivak, in her essay “Deconstructing Historiography” from Subaltern Studies Volume 4, warns against a very generalized understanding of the term subaltern as ‘a single underlying consciousness’. (2) Also, Subalternity is to be understood neither as a ‘negative’ nor as a ‘false’ consciousness.
Subalternity is not merely an oppositional or passive force but, ‘a collective consciousness that actualizes its subjectivity through a process of creative and calculating engagement with the material and symbolic order of the dominant communities within the restrictions of severe subjection.’ (3) Also, Subalternity is not a ‘false consciousness’ that is manufactured by the vested devices of the dominant classes but as Clarke states it is, ‘the locus for the reconfiguration of subaltern subjectivity.’ Subalternity is a collective consciousness that engages in creative and selective assimilation of the dominant order, as a guise of opposition in creating a constructed identity that derives an agency of its own. This selectivity constructs a dialogic community where the coexistence of the dominant and the subjugated, the constrictive and the disruptive, the resonant and the hushed is possible.
When within a dominant discourse, there is the presence of certain non-conformist and marginalized groups or communities, it becomes necessary for the latter to reassess and reformulate itself in the face of such domination. The reassessment and reformulation of a marginalized community like the subaltern, provides it with a congenial religious, geographical, political, cultural and social space; a space that through selective measures of resistance and assimilation, allows coexistence. Such a reassessment presents a constructed subaltern community or group that through selective measures, acquires a multifarious appearance that indirectly or directly defies authority and also preserves itself. This reformulation and reassessment is a reaction against the floating of an exclusive, normative and universal pattern, to a more inclusive and collective one. This can only be possible, when the subjugated individual comes to terms with his own identity and draws upon his indigenous symbols (for example, the drum and the goddess in Clarke’s book) without discarding them. The deployment of the symbolic is only one way of effecting such construction. The following study involves the study of symbols, not just as a self-assertive reaction against authority or domination but, also focuses on how these symbols through discursive sites like theology or capitalistic relations, are a response to ‘gaps’ or ‘silences’ in the dominant discourse as it excludes and suppresses the subaltern.
I shall begin with a close field study done by Sathianathan Clarke, a parish priest and social activist, of the Paraiyar community from Tamil Nadu, in his book, “Dalits and Christianity- Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology”. Here, I shall discuss the role the drum (in which is manifested Christ) and the goddess Ellaiyamman play as symbols of emancipation and resistance, by way of which this subaltern based oral community expresses and experiences its relationship with the Divine and theologizes its subalternity. I shall further illustrate my argument with two essays by Dipesh Chakravarty, contained in the second and third volumes of the Subaltern Studies series called, “Conditions For Knowledge Of Working Class Conditions: Employers, Government, and The Jute Workers Of Calcutta” 1890-1940 and 1940-1960 and another work by the same author namely, “Provincializing Europe: Post Colonial Thought And Historical Difference”, respectively. I shall be considering these essays in tandem in this paper with certain connecting references to be made in the process of argument. I shall conclude this paper by articulating the assumptions that arise as a consequence of such representation and construction.
The construction of the subaltern in the face of such an authoritarian and hegemonic force, in this case, Indian-Christian Theology, here assumes an identity that originates from an ‘inner’ reformulation or reassessment where, ‘inner’ denotes that indigenous body of subjugated knowledge that needs to be located, retrieved and interpreted. As Clarke states, “The norm of what constitutes acceptable or appropriate knowledge is re-inscribed in order to construct a collective subjectivity through religion-making among the subaltern.” The book, “Dalits and Christianity- Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology”, is an example of a persistent attempt made by a subaltern community, in trying to re-member and re-collect a subaltern subjectivity, that later assumes the form of a dialogic, inclusive, and liberative interaction. It is an artful and conscious attempt of reweaving, and re-imagining mythography, both as a contestation of an exclusionary and non-dialogical discourse of Indian-Christian theology, and as an affirmation of their own communal existence. This provides an alternative history that contests the hegemonic one; an alternative means of recovering an inaccessible, and impossible past in the construction of a corporate personality. Subaltern religion then, is a cautious, piecemeal borrowing of symbolic capital and methods from the dominant religion, while forging an alternative re-imagined history to ascertain one’s collective subjectivity. This is the only effective method of “systematically recalling” and “creatively remembering”, as Clarke says, silenced voices in a social discourse. Clarke also cautions us against a very naïve and one-sided understanding of the subaltern as a ‘single underlying consciousness’, while defining his own circumspect understanding of the term subaltern. While not denying that collectives held together by commonalities of age, sex, gender, class and office share the state of subalternity; he tries to flesh out the category of caste as a determining factor that positions the subaltern in this social assembly.
Theology concerns itself both with what is missing in the theological discourse as well as analyzing the manner in which religious discourse is attuned to the dominant caste’s symbols, themes and ideas. At this point two questions need to be asked. Do communities that have been marginalized and excluded from theological interaction require a preferential status in this dialogical discourse? Secondly, is this privilege born out of some special source of theological discourse where God is revealed uniquely to them in their pain and suffering? The answer to this can only be answered when we shall consider how and through what devices, this process of dialogue with the dominant religion and mediation with the divine takes place. One also has to examine the extent to which the oral traditions of the Dalit Christians feed upon, borrow and imbibe from written scriptures and the way in which tradition can feed upon the same iconic symbols of the Christ as manifested through the drum (or ‘Parai’) and the goddess Ellaiyaman.
Through this process, the community can be heard and understood as part of a larger programme of negotiating the community complementary to, and beyond the written word.
Before I shift to the specifics of the Paraiyar community and its symbols, I would like to sum up in a few steps all that has been said by way of constructing and representing the subaltern. Firstly, the Indian-Christian theology as laid down by the elite caste Hindus and Christians is exclusionary and draws upon its brahminic, cultural and religious traditions, or simply put the ‘sacred word’. Secondly, the ‘sacred word’ prevents interaction with the symbolic. It is a word that is univocal, by itself non-negotiable and monolithic, invites only a particular interpretation and approach, and is impervious to dialogue (even symbolic) of any sort. And thirdly, it forges a unitary, national movement and ideology to further encourage hegemonic propensities.
The counter proposal can also be enumerated in four corresponding steps. Firstly, the univocity of caste Hindu religious discourse has to be challenged. Secondly, the subaltern agency and instrumentality has to be put back into the main narrative (to form a meta narrative by drawing from it). Thirdly, other small and silenced voices have to be activated and made audible. And finally, the story line and plot of the dominant world-view has to be interrupted.
The Dalits in Tamil Nadu are divided into three major subcastes- the Paraiyar, Pallan and the Chakkili, of which the Paraiyar account for 59% of the total Dalit population, forming the largest and most typical representative of untouchables in Tamil Nadu. The Dalits form over sixty percent of Christians in Tamil Nadu. Clarke’s decision to study a non-Christian Dalit community is a deliberate one. The intention lies in reaching out to a “common fund of religiosity” that is at the core of the Dalits and the Christian Paraiyar. While Dalit ceremonies and customs are still practiced in their communities, they are reluctant to admit them openly before the stringent church. Thus the study of the Paraiyar community would be based on the assumption that its religion infiltrates into the practice of Christianity and thereby helps understand this surreptitious dual identity.
Though its historical origins are obscure and ancient Clarke presents three proposals that shed some light on it. The laws of Manu (c. 200 BCE to 200 CE) believe them to be to be descendents of a those persons or groups who ‘were expelled from the caste system for having transgressed caste rules and social regulations.’ Even those who married hypogamously- a lower caste man marrying a higher caste woman- produced offspring who eventually became Dalits. Outcastes and illegitimate children joined them too. Clarke makes an interesting observation here. The Paraiyars are not Dalit because of their low and menial occupation as drummers in funerals (this is discussed later in greater detail). But, they are condemned to those occupations for breaching established caste laws, enforced by caste communities. Mckim Marriott and Ronald Inden in their ‘dividual-particle’ theory, build on the native Hindu idea of caste, stating that every human is born with a coded-substance that denotes their sex, personality, and caste. These particles can leave one’s body to get annexed to another through sexual relations. Thus, in an inter-caste relationship, the unnatural exchange of dissimilar and disharmonious coded particles, through the mixing of sexual fluids, ruptures the symmetry of the Hindu body. This further corroborates the caste Hindu idea of maintaining caste or class purity.
Though drum-beating and their low social status do not share an a priori and rational relationship, a second proposal or hypothesis contends that, their occupation as drummers during funerals associates them with death and hence pollution. The potential of the polluting character of death is not difficult to discern, in the way it contaminates such a large group of people. Though all Paraiyars are not drummers, they are envisaged as sources of contamination by their very association with those who are in direct contact with the drum, which is a powerful representative symbol.
A third hypothesis states that, the Paraiyars were original inhabitants of the land; the original Tamilians and sons of the soil, who were referred to as Adi Dravidas, later subjugated by invading caste Hindus. Dharma Kumar in his book, “Land and Caste in South India”, demonstrates that though the relationship in between the Paraiyar and the caste communities was based on ownership and control of land, the pre-British South Indian agricultural economy required a large number of labourers, many of who were recruited from the Dalit classes, and could only be made serfs or slaves. The economic and caste class is therefore impossible to separate.
Though not very convincing, Clarke gives an etymological explanation. The Tamil word ‘paraiyar’ means on a very superficial level, the priest who plays the drum or ‘parai’. On a more speculative level, the letters ‘la’ and ‘ra’ in Tamil are interchangeable making the word paraiyar, palaiyar, which means ancient or original people. ‘Paar’ also means land or earth which probably denotes them as owners or rulers of the land. The Sanskrit word ‘Para’, means foreign which is again consonant with the caste Hindu’s conception of them as racially inferior beings, foreign to their Brahminic customs and manners. The idea of pollution and purity again comes in here to label a people who were ‘stubborn’ and ‘the least inclined to conform’ to the same.
The parai or drum is a circular, one-sided drum made out of calf leather and the face of the drum is tightly strung around a circular wooden frame carved from a tree trunk. It is strapped onto the waist of the drummer who plays with a stick in his right hand and the open palm of the left hand. The parai drum is played in unison with the four fellow drummers keeping a common rhythmic beat. The parai is used for the procession of the goddess during the annual festival (varasai melam), when animals are sacrificed to the goddess (bali melam), for wedding ceremonies (kalyaana melam), when a pregnant married woman is ready to leave for her parents home (seemandam melam), when a young girl comes of age, or when a young bride-to-be leaves her home for the first time to travel to another colony for her wedding (nalangu melam). And the saavu melam, which is a special drum played during a funeral. One notices here that the funeral is not the only occasion where the drum is played but also, for other auspicious occasions as well. Even during their own funerals, the drum is a symbol of exorcism, which exorcizes the spirit of the dead person from his family and dwelling place and guides it to the place of the dead. The drum, like the one used during the procession, is supposed to keep away all demons and malevolent spirits away from the dead person’s spirit. Hence, the drum is a circumcising force that through its sound preserves the physical space of the family and the colony.
The parai is an iconic symbol of the Paraiyars, and is the core of subaltern collective subjectivity. It is a symbol or resistance and emancipation, and a common religious symbol in communicating with the divine. Belying this character of the drum is the caste Hindu notion of the drum as an infectious pollutant (partly because it is made up of cow skin). By preserving this as a major symbol of divine mediation and communal identity, the Paraiyars have symbolically resisted the dominant religious rationale, and thus operates as a symbol or emancipatory theography and subaltern particularity. The drum is a physical symbol of the Divine, used for their own liberation, and communicates its uncomputability and undomesticatability by caste communities. By using it not just for caste Hindu funerals, but also for their own auspicious occasions like marriage, the drum is also a symbol of a process of selective resistance against, as well as, assimilation of the dominant religious discourse through a symbolic and dialogic interaction. The drum is then a subtle but effective line drawn in between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ lives of the Paraiyar, that does not allow the two spheres to oppose each other but just posits them side-by-side. The drum is a site, where the identity of the Paraiyar as a contaminating funeral drummer for the caste Hindus, and his identity as a drummer in his own right and capacity can co-exist, though the latter is an implicit undermining of the former.
The parai or drum is a totemic object, representing an entire community as a caste counter-image to the written word through its sound. It is an organizing symbol that represents orality, and also introduces other modalities of non-verbal thought that resists literacy and the written word. It’s a tussle in between the hegemonic written word that through writing and print acquires a three-dimensional space or physicality and, sound and orality, which is considered derivative and unreal. The very act of writing is a moment of freezing time and memory almost irreversibly. Unlike orality (or the colloquial word with its open-ended flexible nature, carrying a local significance), the written word is evidence of its own existence, is closed to examination and can be relied on only by virtue of its narrow close-ended definiteness. It is indeed an empirical object, which unlike sound maintains an objective distance. Sound emanating from the drum, or in this case, the spoken word or utterance establishes a common connection with the known. It incorporates and includes the limits of the known within its purview as it transcends all spatial constraints. The spoken word rests in the present and connects interiority with interiority, situating man in context-dependent actuality. Its object of study is the present moment, and thus “invokes participatory and eclectic patterns of community behavior.” (Clarke) Similarly, the physical closeness and responsiveness of the drum bears testimony to past memories, and is open-ended in creating subaltern solidarity. Unlike the drum, though literacy has a broad orientation that interacts with forms or orality, it takes writing and print as the norm through which all other media are evaluated and transformed. The spoken word on the other hand fights against such exclusionary measures; resists ideological cooption and deauthorizes the canonicity of the written word, (say detextualizing the Vedas) challenges the primacy given to sight, and focuses on the present moment.
The drum is also seen to represent divine power, which is fundamental to the Paraiyar. Through its very thudding sound and tangible presence, it almost warns away all threats posed to the Paraiyar by caste Hindus. It is never to be slighted at all Paraiyar ceremonies and the entire community is drum-centred or drum-oriented. The drum that aids divine mediation also, functions as a theological interpretant through expressions of communal suffering. It is a deviant symbol, through which Christ is manifested from the lines of purity and pollution, as a symbol of Dalit resistance against such accepted norms, and actualizes their human capacities of self-reflexivity with others. The drum-manifested symbol of Christ is ahistorical; transcending all space and time, and possesses pan-geographic dimensions. It consolidates subaltern religious experiences and acts as a mediator in between creator and creation. Indian-Christian theology creatively and constructively uses the drum as a symbolic and dialogic means of finding meaning in, and living collectively under God through the paradigm of Jesus Christ. However, as mentioned earlier, Indian-Christian theology, predominantly uses the religion of dominant -based literacy, making it exclusionary and non-dialogic, ideologically coopting and silencing the oral Dalit voice, in retelling the Christian story of Jesus.
Ellaiyamman the Dalit goddess of Malaipalliayam, is the Paraiyar’s iconic symbol of resistance against caste Hindu domination. Linked with Maraiyamman, they form the two principal Paraiyar deities that are not worshipped by caste Hindus in the neighboring villages of South India. According to an etymological explanation given, the Tamil word ‘ellai’ taken from Ellaiyamman, means ‘boundary’, and infact, the goddess’ temple is found on the boundary of the worshipping colony. She is supposed to be the guardian of a subaltern community of agricultural labourers that also faces constant threats by nature through floods and drought. One cannot but help note this moving dialectic from the goddess, of geographical locatedness and boundlessness, determinedness and openness, resistance and assimilation, fixity and fluidity. She is believed to be the universal mother and the eldest of all the manifestations of the Sakti. This distinctiveness of the goddess symbolizes both the collective resistance of the Paraiyars as well as, all those myths and alternative histories that have been recast and reimagined to construct their own corporate personality.
Ellaiyamman thus preserves and polices the cultural, political and geographical space of the Paraiyar, against the colonizing inclinations of the caste communities, in the form of the infiltrating and predatory ‘uur’ or city (the geographical and social-cultural space of the caste communities), over that of the ‘ceeri’ (the geographical and social-cultural space of the Paraiyar). Ellaiyamman is also a symbol of Paraiyar community’s undomesticability and uncooptability, as like her sister goddesses, she is said to be single, unmarried and independent of any male deity, unlike the Hindu trinity and its hierarchy. This is not to deny any borrowings and inter-religious transactions that have taken place from caste Hindu mythology (themes, characters and plots), though reinterpretations of the same myth borrowed, favoring the Paraiyar’s own sense of collective subjectivity and distinct assertiveness as indignant recipients of undeserved violence, is evident. Ellaiyamman herself is shown to have a caste Hindu’s woman body with a Paraiyar or Dalit head, which just works as a subversion or inversion of caste Hindu religion and its functionaries, while asserting its own subjectivity.
In his essays on the jute workers of Calcutta, Chakravarty bases his argument on two crucial premises, while producing a body of knowledge of the working class conditions of the jute workers of Calcutta, and relating it to a day-to-day running of capitalism. Firstly, ruling class documents are to be used, like the interactive site of the drum in Clarke, in reconstructing the working class conditions of these workers both, for what they say, and for their ‘silences’. These sites are double-edged swords as they can be commonly deployed both by the dominant to further its own authority, and by the marginalized or dominated to protest against such authority, based on such material proof. Secondly, these silences or gaps can only be understood through an understanding of working class economics and, more importantly, culture. This is because a particular form of authority implies a cultural formation that assumes certain bourgeois notions of equality that obliterates individual variation, where the worker (labour) is seen only as a moment or constituent of capital. Let us now consider the nature of this capitalistic authority that later provoked the need for the workers to construct and represent themselves as a democratic body.
Factory Acts were passed initially to improve the conditions of the working class and to give the worker a new ‘legal’ personality. The worker would henceforth be one eligible to receive welfare benefits, and legal assistance to set up trade unions. The Factory Acts had to be extended to all the factories as in the nineteenth century, as we shall see later, the English state’s interest in monitoring closely the conditions of labour, was to help develop English capitalism. They were further implemented by firstly, making the ‘conditions of competition’ uniform and secondly, structuring a worker’s day and enforcing the saving of time. This was to enhance the efficiency of the working class.
The working class conditions, however, remained for most of the period considered, undocumented which did not reflect the true conditions of the jute workers. The worker’s health was only expressed in terms of a negation of epidemics and not of hygienic conditions and nutrition, their standard of living was a matter of interest, and the origin of workers was only an occasion of future documentation, resulting in a ‘blinkered vision of capital’. Under a supposedly benevolent motive of ‘equal restraint on all exploitation of labour’ (4), the English state sought to exercise its ‘political will’ in trying to form a quantifiable ‘body of knowledge’ of its working class subjects, to further its own capitalist authority, thereby improving both direct control through policing and, indirect control through a betterment of their conditions making acts of violence less likely. At the same time too much ‘bettering’ of the conditions would make the task of controlling much harder. However, the ‘conditions of competition’ were more or less at par making the implementation of the standardization of wages and state intervention on this count superfluous as, though the wage position in the jute mills was inchoate, the average amount paid per unit of labour turned out just the same. Different managers had different ways of allocating their expenses under various heads, which when totaled and divided by the units produced, turned out to be much the same.
The first objective it achieved through two means, discipline and supervision. Discipline was ‘a technical subordination or the worker to the uniform motion of the instruments of labour’. Closer scrutiny reveals later in the essay that this subordination was not ‘technical’ as much as it was experiential. Though the production process required skilled labour that was specific to various capital-intensive processes, the organization did not invest the same in training the workers. Such crucial gaps in technical knowledge, was over time, filled by an undefined human quality called ‘experience’. The acquisition of skills was merely through trial and error that led to major accidents and mishaps in the factory. The structuring of the labour force was then merely a proposition of supply and not of skill, making the workers highly replaceable and their substitution arbitrary, should they be unable to work. The relationship of worker with machine was further, mediated not through technical knowledge, but through divine and magical qualities that were believed to exist in the tools. Supervision manifested itself in the form of the ‘sardar’, who worked below the ‘babu’ (who checked attendance registers and prepared wage sheets etc) as both supplier and supervisor of labour and handled documents (unreliable as they were), constituting the ‘disciplinary authority of capital’. The unreliability of these documents was an outcome of sardari corruption. Costs of production were minimized irrespective of the labour-intensive processes it involved. Wage sheets that were prepared by the babu, only provided for a minimal wage without any provisions for pensions, sick leave pay or insurance, that barely covered the worker’s basic needs. A portion of these wages was further pocketed by the sardar who mediated wage payment and distorted wage accounts. Migration of ‘cheaper’ labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh replaced Bengali workers, worsening the bargaining power of labour. Meager wages paid with the intention of keeping jute goods competitively cheaper than their synthetic substitutes did not allow for a permanently stable labour force.
Sardari corruption was a reflection of his authority that was largely based on fear, and also included receiving compulsory bribes from the coolie and workers in return for favors of employment and side-payments out of the commission they received. Sardari authority was also sheer physical force and instilled into the worker the fear of getting beaten up. But like all forms of domination, this authority had to rest easy on a fine balance, beyond which the worker could turn openly hostile. The sardar’s authority hence, needed legitimacy and acceptance. But what made sardari authority effective was the existence of pre-capitalistic and primordial relationships of community and kin. The sardar was known to even build temples and mosques for his workers. His authority was a contradictory one which did not rest merely rest in technical expertise. He was not like the European foreman and his authority was implied even before he assumed sardari-ship, making documents utterly irrelevant.
A decline in the worker’s bargaining power, sardari corruption and the dehumanizing effect of capitalism, reducing the worker to an abject ‘less than human’ state, led to the establishment of trade unions. Strikes became militant, though these strikes were disorganized as the worker was an ‘ignorant’ figure, not just illiterate, but politically ignorant of his rights and the injustices being perpetrated against him in the form of authority sponsored corruption and distorted documents. Lack of education resulted in the spasmodic nature of jute-mill unions, whose organizations suddenly rose and spastically disintegrated once the outburst was spent. State-sponsored bans on unions and the linguistic heterogeneity of the workers further enmeshed the worker in his ‘ignorance’. The efficacy of these unions lay in a democratic structure. The representation of the worker was only possible through a ‘contractual’ and ‘voluntary’ relationship between the worker and his representative who stood at par with each other. The trade union could only be created in a bourgeois culture of democratic representation, which only reflected the bourgeois state. This contractual relationship therefore, could not presuppose any relationship of privileged authority and subordination. Little realizing that such a complementary relationship could exist only in its mutual compliance; trade unions belied their purported democratic structure. The historian’s written word was an inadequate means of understanding the nature of this relationship as it actually presented only a fragment of reality. Babu-coolie relationships, for example, were visibly marked by differences in body language, clothing and bodily appearance. Such a marked difference came in the way of useful representation, something that the babu could overcome, for his own vested interests, only by way of sacrifices. The bhadralok could be the worker’s ‘real’ representative, and thus overcome all natural barriers of class and education, only if he at least made a pretence of sharing the latter’s suffering, thereby empowering himself, the renouncer. This idea of sacrifice could only arise out of inequality. Though ideologically, the Left was committed to developing trade unions that were contractual, democratic and voluntary, the culture of everyday life only revealed a hierarchy of status and power.
More importantly, it was using capital to enforce on the heterogeneous, differentiated and variegated nature of labour a sense of abstract homogeneity, by equalizing labour conditions between mills where, wage rates were not kept as secrets, strikes kept wage rates in line with one another and, workers too demanded the rate prevalent in the neighborhood. To further illustrate this point we must turn to another book by Dipesh Chakravarty called, “Provincializing Europe: Post Colonial Thought And Historical Difference”. He throws light on the statement, by referring to a crucial distinction Marx makes in between ‘real’ and ‘abstract’ labour. ‘Real’ labour refers to the labour power of the actual individual “as it exists in the personality of labour” or “immediate exclusive individuality of the labourer” (4). ‘Abstract’ labour on the other hand, refers to an idea of a uniform, homogenous labour that capital imposes on the heterogeneity of individual capacities, that makes labour measurable and quantifiable through a common exchange value (money), and allows the exchange of commodities. This uniformity of labour is ensured through the aforementioned means of supervision and discipline, making abstract labour a mere extension of the bourgeois notion of “equal rights”; of “abstract individuals” whose political rights are reflected in the ideals and practice of “citizenship”. Chakravarty further illustrates how, Bengali fraternity in the jute mills overcame European bourgeois assumptions of an autonomous universal personhood based on self-interest, contract and private property. Further, fraternity in the Lockean scheme was predicated on the emergence of private property and the political death of parental or paternal authority. The autonomous individual’s democratic powers as a citizen of the state or as a member of a union, and his contractual and voluntary relationship with a representative was only a myth. Subaltern historiography questions this assumption of capitalism, necessarily bringing in a position of hegemony in bourgeois relations of power.
European political thought labeled early peasant revolutions and nationalism, that manifested itself in the form of ‘mass democracy’ protests, as pre-political and hence, also pre-capitalist as the political sphere hardly ever divorced itself from the pre-capitalistic relations of kinship, gods and spirits, giving no room for the creation of an autonomous individual. This however, was fulfilled within the space of the ‘home’ away from the Europeans and colonial masculinity, with growing distinctions between the ‘private’ and ‘public’ spheres, where the Bengali male could exercise his own sense of autonomy; a place where education could be introduced with desired results for a compensatory eulogizing of the housewife. Sardari authority also arose from this sense of community and mutual dependency.
Let us at this point clarify the term ‘pre-capital’. Production relations were structured from within in the jute mills. Pre-capital, suggests Chakravarty, is not a term that is chronologically prior to capitalism but is “within the temporal horizon of capital and at the same time disrupts the continuity of time by suggesting another time that is not the same”. In other words, pre-capitalist relations suspend the universalizing move of capital and commodity in secularizing and homogenizing labour, within which the latter cannot be contained. ‘Real’ labour must have the capacity to contain what the sign ‘commodity’ cannot contain. The tension between ‘real’ and ‘abstract’ labour is kept alive by this analytical category that can never capture the true, subaltern voice. Subaltern histories subordinate themselves to the master code of secular history, but “can never grant its claim of being the only mode of thought that comes naturally to all.”
Governmentality only tries to subjugate and civilize these temporal differences of ‘real’ labour, the very signs from which abstract labour rises. Hence, ‘real’ labour can only be understood within the problematic of abstract labour, which subjugates the former, and dismisses it as it is found in the worker’s personal and collective histories. The disciplinary action of the global narrative of capital purges the worker of his bodily habits as well as his unselfconscious, collective practices with the rest in his environment. Mechanization further condenses both the subaltern subject’s personal, as well as, collective memory to requisite mechanical skills. This ruptures the personal or collective history and sheer consciousness or the will, resulting in objectified labour (commodities). The worker is ready to be posited by capital as its own condition and contradiction, by dismissing the memory and the past. The transition to capitalism, which was not a leisurely one, is analogous to the translation and transition from ‘real’ to ‘abstract’ labour, from history to non-history.
From the above discussion we note that Clarke’s book talks of an oral community that employed common confrontational sites like the drum as an aural representative symbol to indirectly question and defy dominant religious discourse. The jute workers of Calcutta however, failed to redress the injustices being meted out to them, as they could only resort to mediated representation in a culture of hierarchies. Though both the instances talk of representative symbols, namely the drum and working class documents, as common grounds of contention and interaction, the latter is ground in a culture that necessitates external intervention to construct and represent the subaltern self, denying it any independent agency. It is a culture that also requires a directly antagonistic form of representation that demands coexistence that can unfortunately work only in a hierarchy. It is also a culture where the site of contention is a material one, something that cannot be understood by the unlettered subaltern. We are considering the written word here in working class documents that justify capital’s or the sardar’s disciplinary authority, making the situation more complex in the face of material evidence, though, this can be used both for what it says and ‘silences’ only through literacy.
‘Minority’ histories are not just histories of the marginalized but “they refuse to represent autonomous subjectivity that is the ultimate aim of the majority narrative”. They are pasts that “do not prepare us for either democracy or citizenly practices because they are not based on the deployment of reason in public life”. It is the historian’s methods that construct ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ histories the way they are, making the former ‘irrational’ and ‘inferior’. From the above discussion one must note that subaltern historiography questions two assumptions made while constructing the subaltern. Firstly, the human exists within a single and secular historical time that envelops other kinds of time, while it is actually not integral and is out of joint. Secondly, that the human is ontologically singular and his gods and spirits are just “social facts” that exist a priori.
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