April 02, 2005

When is subalternism conciliatory?

If you were puzzled by all the in-jokes in the April Fool's CFP for the 1st Workshop on Unnatural Language Processing, I feel your pain. To demonstrate my empathy, I'm going to display my own ignorance. In particular, I'll track my painful attempts to understand a simple 22-word sentence in a newspaper article written for a general audience.

The context is a 3/30/2005 article by Jai Kasturi in the Columbia Spectator, dealing with a controversy centered on Columbia's department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC). In the ninth paragraph, Kasturi -- an 8th-year MEALAC grad student -- connects the department's current troubles to some earlier academic kerfuffles at Columbia:

[...] I would like to suggest that the situation in MEALAC is in fact an extension of the dual English and anthro crises that preceded it, and perhaps has as much or more to do with internal Columbia politics. To put it simply, there has always been an intense and sometimes hostile competition among (and within) these departments on the question of how to teach cultural studies and literary theory at Columbia, including the difficult legacies of post-colonial theory. [...] Both the English and anthro crises revolved around these issues. The English department, as described in the March 10 Spectator article, dealt with their stalemate in part by eliminating their most hostile players. Anthro under Dirks took the conciliatory approach of importing subalternist theory and burying questions of narrative representation under a flurry of microhistory. [link and emphaisis added]

That last sentence is almost completely opaque to me. I understand all of the words, or at least the morphemes out of which they're composed; I can parse the sentence; I can even tell you who it says did what to whom, at least if I'm allowed to repeat phrases like "questions of narrative representation" whose intended meaning I suspect I don't grasp. But in the end, I just don't get it. What is subalternist theory and why was importing it conciliatory? What questions of narrative representation are (or were) at issue? What is microhistory? Why was it conciliatory to bury the former under a flurry of the latter? Was the flurry-burial a consequence of the subalternist importation, or an independent development?

Now, I took a few anthro courses in college, and more recently I've co-taught a course (entitled "Biology, language and culture") with a biological anthropologist (Alan Mann) and a cultural anthropologist (Greg Urban). I read books and papers by anthropologists from time to time, I've been to a couple of meetings of the American Anthropological Association, and I go to several talks a year sponsored by Penn's anthropology department. So I thought that I knew a reasonable amount about that field, for an outsider.

However, reading this sentence makes me feel stupid. Here's a sentence about the recent history of a department in a discipline I thought I knew a little bit about, a sentence whose content is apparently supposed to be plain to the entire readership of Columbia University's student newspaper, and I can't make head or tail of it. It seems that I'm seriously out of the intellectual loop.

I take some comfort in the fact that I'm not the only one.

The term subalternism is not found in the OED, or other dictionaries I've consulted, nor is it in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism. The phrase "narrative representation" is found, but seems just to mean, literally, "the representation of narrative", which does not help me to understand what questions about it might be "[buried] under a flurry of microhistory". Subalternism is also not found in the Wikipedia, but microhistory is: it's defined there as "the study of the past on a very small scale", and the OED calls it "Historical study which addresses a specific or localized subject". That's more or less what I guessed on the basis of the meaning of micro and history, and I can see how you might have a flurry of that, but I'm still puzzled about how to bury questions of narrative representation under it. Much less do I see why such burial was concilatory.

I found a 2002 paper by H. Masuda on Narrative representation theory, whose abstract says that

The mission of Narrative Representation Theory is to provide insights into the general principles that operate in the formation of covert discourse structures in natural languages. Narrative representations, which function as part of the underlying language faculty, are direct projections of the discourse module in the mind/brain. They are realized as external levels of hierarchical units that include interpretation units, coherency units, episode units, juncture units, and apex units. Each of these levels may consist of a sequential unit of internal constituents that are realized by exposition, complication, and denouement.

I'm ashamed that I've never heard of this -- it's basically a form of discourse analysis, which is a branch of linguistics, and one that I'm interested in even if I'm far from being an expert. But over at Google Scholar, {"Discourse representation theory"} (which I do know about) gets 1,390 hits, while {"Narrative representation theory"} gets only 5, all to work by Masuda. So I guess that's a false trail -- it can't be the source of the "questions of narrative representation" that Dirks had to conciliate his anthropological colleagues by burying under a flurry of microhistory. I'll work with the hypothesis that "narrative representation" is not a term of art in the sentence under study, but instead has something like its normal English meaning -- though this could be "how things are represented in a story", or "how the structure of stories is represented", or several other things.

OK, what about "subalternist theory"? A modest amount of googling fails to turn up a definition. However, I did find a review by Horacio Legrás of The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader ( Ileana Rodríguez, ed. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), which says that

The Latin American Subaltern Studies Reader is the only book published by the Latin American subaltern studies group. Immediately after its publication the group dissolved along lines marked by political as well as disciplinary disagreements. The project of subalternity began in India as a political and epistemological criticism of history. Historical knowledge, subalternists contended, organized the past in line with the governmental efforts of the modern state. Opposition to state policy was deemed logical and political if carried out in a language that the state could contest and eventually incorporate. When protests were incommensurable with that logic they were deemed archaic, aberrant, unintelligible.

So I gather that subalternism examines the point of view of the subaltern or subordinated groups whose protests were previously "deemed archaic, aberrant, unintellible", and subalternist theory must be the theory of what such viewpoints are like, and how to study them. Fair enough -- but why was it "conciliatory" to import such theory?

Well, enough research, or self-directed socratic dialogue, or whatever is going on here. Let's take the plunge and guess what Kasturi probably meant by writing that

Anthro under Dirks took the conciliatory approach of importing subalternist theory and burying questions of narrative representation under a flurry of microhistory.

Apparently (Kasturi thinks that) the anthropologists at Columbia were split along political lines about how to tell the story of (current?) social and cultural development. These disagreements can be called "questions of narrative representation" (though surely the disagreement was really about substance and not about presentation?). In this context, importation of "subalternist theory" was conciliatory because its perspective is agreeable to those on the left, while its explicit self-identification as a study of the point of view of subordinated or suppressed groups avoids claims of universality or objectivity, and so doesn't force confrontation on those who disagree with the views it studies. And microhistory's obsession with uncontroversial detail was conciliatory, because it provided a useful distraction from the fraught political questions of how to tell the big-picture story (the "questions of narrative representation").

At least that construal makes sense of the words as written. If it's wrong, I'm sure that someone will correct me. My question next is, what fraction of the readership of the Columbia Spectator was able to puzzle out some explanation of this kind? I'd bet that 99% of the campus would have been entirely defeated by that sentence, if they had read it. Most readers or listeners pass over that sort of puzzle in silence, though, because such flourishes of trendy terminology dare the reader to display cluelessness by admitting failure to understand.

Perhaps Kasturi has been affected by 8 long years in MEALAC to the point of being unable to remember what it's like not to understand such stuff. Or maybe this is an example of the technique of assertion-by-presupposition that is often used to introduce concepts without critical examination. Either way, it's not a terrific advertisement for MEALAC's pedagogy.

[Update: a well-informed friend writes

I am not particularly knowledgeable about the history of Columbia's Anthropology program, but drawing on my knowledge of the discipline as a whole, I would read the sentence this way:

Anthro under Dirks took the conciliatory approach of shifting the department's emphasis from literary approaches which emphasized normative issues regarding the West's portrayal of "the other," to a more empirically grounded approach based on social history, thus emphasizing the historical agency of formerly colonized peoples.

This doesn't explain who this is supposed to "console" or why it might console them, but I hope it does clear up some of the other questions.

So this reading interprets "questions of narrative representation" in a different way. I took it to mean "disagreements about how to tell the story of social and cultural development". My well-informed friend sees it as "literary approaches which emphasized ... the West's portrayal of the 'the other'". W.I. F. also combines microhistory and subalternist theory into the concept of "a more empirically grounded approach based on social history, thus emphasizing the historical agency of formerly colonized peoples".

This all rings true to me. But W.I.F. misremembers K.'s account of the social impact -- it's supposed to conciliate [someone] , not console them. I don't think that clarifies who or why, though.

W.I.F. offers a link I wish I had found:

Subaltern.org has a nice definition of the term subaltern:

SUBALTERN---Originally a term for subordinates in military hierarchies, the term subaltern is elaborated in the work of Antonio Gramsci to refer to groups who are outside the established structures of political representation. In "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Gayatri Spivak suggests that the subaltern is denied access to both mimetic and political forms of representation.

Subaltern.org is not on the first three pages of Google hits for either {subalternism} or {subalternist}. But I should have known to try {subaltern}.

W.I.F. adds:

What this definition leaves out is that Spivak was part of a Calcutta based group of scholars who published a journal called "Subaltern Studies" and that her essay is in part a critique of their efforts to "give voice" to the Subaltern. I say this because it is otherwise confusing to read subaltern studies as a replacement for a more literary approach focused on normative issues of representation - as Spivak seems to be engaged in just such a normative critique. (It was Spivak who first translated Derrida into English.)

Ah. That clears up a lot. But it makes the "conciliatory" part all the more puzzling. W.I.F. provides a couple of other links:

http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Glossary.html (Scroll down to "subaltern.")

and explains further:

I think it [K.'s sentence] only makes sense if you look a the broader work of the subaltern studies collective, and not just at this particular essay by Spivak (although it is this essay which is most responsible for how the word is usually used in contemporary theoretical contexts).

I think I'm following this, sort of. Given a few more threads to unravel, I was able to find some other helpful links, such as the JHU GLT&C entries for Antonio Gramsci and Gayatri Spivak.

W.I.F. ends:

I hope this provided some clarification, despite my own obvious confusion.

Absolutely. But you're not the locus of confusion, friend.

Looking back over this post, I can't believe I've devoted so many words to trying to understand this one sentence. I guess that any fragment of in-group talk needs quite a bit of explication for outsiders. But it'd be nice for academic groupings to be less convoluted and more accessible to the rest of contemporary intellectual culture. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at April 2, 2005 08:52 AM