The fifth Oecumene Symposium opened with Zaki Nahaboo
’s paper ‘Can Subalterns Enact Citizenship’, which takes Gayatri Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ as its initial starting point in its deconstruction of the speech/silence binary and makes communication the basis for political engagement. Drawing on Spivak and Engin’s ‘acts of citizenship’ it explores a possible avenue through which to observe how subalterns are produced by citizenship. He also argues, conversely, that subalterns form an essential aspect of political moments that disrupt the colonial project. The paper goes on to illustrate these assertions with two examples of petitions advocating for the citizenship and rights of colonised people in context of colonial Mauritius. Further, Zaki argues that these petitions can offer insights into how particular acts of citizenship depend upon being subaltern.
In response, Humeira Iqtadar (Kings College London) suggests that there are rather distinct arguments being brought together here which might need further exploration. She highlights that while the signing of the petitions was not a speech act an silent in that it was not vocal, it was however an assertive act of resistance, so it would be beneficial to expand/explore the use of the speech/silence binary. Or, as Wendy Brown’s work on the politics of silence asserts, it cannot be assumed that silence is an apolitical response to domination- thus Humeira calls for further exploration of the specificities of Mauritian resistance at this time and an interrogation of the use of this binary.
Humeira goes on to state that the paper renders indentured labourers sound more invisible than it actually was. She questions, why were these relevant political acts? What are the wider political/resistant acts/movements that need to be considered? And what was the context in which the petition resonates? And what other acts by the subaltern are relevant that fall outside the framework of the speech/silence binary? It is therefore relevant to consider, Humeira suggests, the many different ways in which the indentured labourers ‘speak’ and makes themselves heard.
Her response also suggests taking a broader consideration of subaltern studies rather than a specific focus on Spivak’s subaltern, as the thrust of it was in many ways very different to her appropriation of subaltern studies as she is known for being very neat with her inversions and for making polemical assertions.
Further, Humeira suggested that the precarious nature of rights of the indentured labourers be considered, especially given this context where they made claims to being both subjects and citizens, and look at the work of Fred Cooper whose work has a similar focus, and to consider how conceptions of citizenship are distinct from people under different colonial rule.
In her response, Ammara Maqsood (Kings Collage London) uses the example of Shakespeare’s Caliban from The Tempest, who has been forced to learn the language of his captors- to illustrate the appropriation and internalisation of a discourse of rights that the Mauritian people have used against the colonial authorities to assert their rights. Expanding on questions raised in the paper regarding whether a strategy can be interpreted in this silence, is the point of departure from Spivak. If subalterns can no longer be subalterns because they have spoken, or because of their political demands, if their silence is strategic can they still be thought of as subalterns?
Further Ammara proposes delving deeper into the significance of narrativisation in this context, to examine what the significance of silences in the narrative, and work towards creating a broader archaeology by considering the possible meanings of silences more closely and context specific.
Reiterating Humeira’s point about different notions of citizenship, what citizenship mean in this specific context? And what does it mean to be political if you are a subaltern? She also warns of becoming too preoccupied with the subaltern as a term and reconsider and reconstruct these categories.
The discussion that followed, among many other points made, Ammara question where agency lies in the acts discussed in the paper? And similarly, Tara Atluri (Open University) raised a point regarding what recognition political acts must have to be valued as such, so, in order for something to be regarded as a political act, does it have to be recognised by the state? Catherine (UCL) expanded on the role of commissions as political sites/events, often giving people the opportunity to produce evidence that present different ways of thinking about a problem. Further, they are a space for negotiation and can highlight ways in which colonial authorities were being challenged.
Report by Anna Weedon