Complicity and Social Construction


Shelly Jarrett Bromberg

Miami University of Ohio, Miami OH

Copyright © 2002 by Shelly Jarrett Bromberg, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Beverley, John. Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory. Durham NC: Duke UP, 1999.

  1. John Beverley's Subalternity and Representation (1999) is an important and timely work that calls into question the role of the academy in reading and representing the subaltern. Beverley, professor of Latin American Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, has long been involved with studying underrepresented and extraliterary expressions. He is, perhaps, best known for his work on testimonio in general and on Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú in particular. More recently, in 1992, Beverley, along with several of his colleagues interested in Latin American Studies, founded the Latin American Subaltern Studies group, inspired by the work of Ranajit Guha and others in South Asian Subaltern Studies. In many respects, Subalternity and Representation can be understood as an integral feature of this move toward a "new paradigm" for Latin America Studies (5).

  2. If such an in-depth study can be reduced to a single question, it would be this: Can academia remain self-critical enough to subvert actively and tirelessly its discourses of power in order to acknowledge but not contain subaltern expressions? Moving from Spivak's question, "Can the subaltern speak?" Beverley is asking, "Are we really hearing the subaltern in academia?" This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of the problem and of Beverley's study. Yet, as is clear from his reading of several Latin American texts and major theories of contemporary Latin American cultural studies, as well as his ongoing self-critique, for Beverley, any hope of a more representative space for subaltern and cultural studies begins by creating a constructive dialogue in and among these various agents.

  3. The creation of such a dialogue begins with what Beverley describes as a "new kind of state" that will lead to a nationalism that goes beyond the confines of the traditional nation-state (23). Without giving away too much of the story, for Beverley does tell a story through this work, he is most concerned with how to sustain a "politics of difference" in a world where the new order of globalization threatens to further homogenize diversity in the name of economic progress and stability. And unchecked globalization is a problem, for as multinational corporations continue to establish ever tighter control over diverse countries in diverse sectors of these nations, many of the old class divisions at work in a single nation are reinforced and reinstitutionalized now on a global scale. What we get is a MacWorld where individual expressions are sublimated to the interests of the corporations. How, then, can individual voices, particularly of subaltern groups, be sustained, be heard? Beverley's hope is that these voices can somehow be gathered together to create a power base that still attends to their individual expressions without becoming institutionalized or antagonistic.

  4. To this end, Beverley explores several possibilities in Subalternity which range from a re-reading of the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz's concept of transculturation to Nestor García Canclini's work on popular culture in Latin America, most notably in Cultural Hybridity (1990). His analyses also include extra-literary sources, such as the Túpac Amaru Rebellion of 1780-83 in which he discusses how the "dual idiom" produced two distinct versions of the rebellion: one textual and European in focus and one audiovisual and in Quechua (52-53). Alongside these Latin American sources, Beverley also critically engages a number of Marxists theories, most notably Antonio Gramsci's work on the organic intellectual and Ranajit Guha's study of subalternity. In each of these approaches he finds much to praise; Beverley always has been a generous critic. But there are problems, he notes, for as dedicated and well-meaning as many of these theorists are to the cause of the poor and the working classes, they often, unknowingly, repeat the same hierarchical, hegemonic systems. Beverley sees the root of this problem as the inability to abandon traditional models of the civil-state and of the nation (141). Unable or unwilling to break completely with these old categories of order, no matter what the new hegemonic articulation may be, these past, underrepresented groups simply repeat the old hierarchical structure that eventually leads to the reproduction of the same class antagonisms, and new subaltern classes. Without a continual deconstruction of even these power relations, Beverley warns, no matter how well-intended an identity-based politics may be, it can lead to "a genocidal politics of ethnic cleansing" (142).

  5. What kind of alternative order is possible, then? How do we get around this old system of haves and have-nots? How do we move beyond the dialectics of traditional Marxism? By way of exploring these questions, Beverley enters into one of the most contentious debates in contemporary cultural theory: hybridity versus subalternity. On the side of hybridity, he discusses Homi Bhabha's understanding of the concept. Beverley agrees with Bhabha that one of the central problems with subaltern studies is the suggestion of a binary relation in which the subaltern becomes what the mainstream "is not." Bhabha attempts to get around this negative construction through his understanding of hybridity in which the subaltern knows that "power is an effect of the signifier" and uses it to his or her purposes (99). Yet, Beverley notes, although hybridity does suggest some kind of dialectical transcendence, it is still a process that goes on within specific ideological boundaries, most commonly of culture or of the nation-state. In the end, what looks to be a wholly new, hybrid expression may, in fact, be simply a question of "recontainment or reterritorialization of the subaltern within" (100). He is no less critical of subaltern studies. Spivak, he explains, tries to get around the problem of negative definition by proposing that what is reproduced by subaltern studies is not, in fact, the subaltern, but a "subaltern-subject effect" (Spivak quoted on 100). In the end, however, this "subject effect" too is the product of an ongoing process of "displacement/deconstruction that subverts the constitutive binaries colonial/native, subaltern/dominant, inside/outside, modern/traditional" (102). Once again, then, despite the move to deconstruct categories of nation or culture, the tensions created by these binaries are played out within the existing dominant discourses. Beverley calls this deconstructive/reconstructive process the "double urgency" of subaltern studies. where the need to break down the hegemonic categories of "people" and the "nation" leads to the creation of "new forms of collective political and cultural agency" that must still invoke the old categories (103).

  6. So, what is Beverley's solution? Well, this is where Subalternity gets really interesting. He has no problem with keeping many of the terms and approaches of cultural studies; he just wants us to be aware of the fact that in the process of privileging one position, be it subaltern, hybrid or otherwise, we necessarily negate the claims of others (115). At least we do, that is, if we remain tied to traditional ideas regarding the relationships between individuals, societies and identities. To counter these old ideological constructs and the growing popularity of globalization, Beverley proposes a "counter-hegemonic politics of people" created out of a "cultural politics of difference" (158).

  7. Beverley's journey to these conclusions as well as his articulation of what constitutes this "cultural politics of difference" and how it is best undertaken are not, however, self-evident. The ideal reader will need a fairly substantial background in contemporary cultural and literary theory including a good working knowledge of Marxist theory throughout the twentieth century from Gramsci through Althusser to Spivak. Indeed, the depth and breadth of Beverley's knowledge could be overwhelming were it not for the conversational style of his writing, for he treats his readers as equals and often anticipates possible criticisms and concerns through an ongoing critique of his own ideas and perspectives.

  8. In the end, Subalternity and Representation is an important work on many levels. It is, unquestionably, an invaluable addition to the field of cultural studies particularly for academic institutions interested in creating and/or maintaining dynamic programs capable of responding to the ever-changing landscapes of culture and identity. So too, for Latin American Studies, Subalternity offers the opportunity to engage more fully and more critically the myriad of experiences and expressions that make up this New World. Ultimately, however, Beverley's call that we, as academicians, should "begin to think strategically about the possibilities of our location in higher education" is a positive evocation of our future potential that asks us to extend our work throughout and beyond the academic community (167).

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