Comparative Subalternities: Socio-spatial Marginalization in the Global South


Friday 11th December 2015 – Monday 14th December 2015

Indiana University Gateway Office, Gurgaon, Haryana, India

Organised by Majed Akhter, Ishan Ashutosh, Olimpia Rosenthal and Ricardo Andrés Guzmán (Indiana University, USA) and Anu Sabhlok (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali, India)

“Comparative Subalternities: Socio-Spatial Marginalization in the Global South” – A report from an Antipode Foundation International Workshop

Majed Akhter (Indiana University Bloomington), Ishan Ashutosh (Indiana University Bloomington), Ricardo Andrés Guzmán (Indiana University Bloomington), Olimpia Rosenthal (Indiana University Bloomington) and Anu Sabhlok (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali)

This workshop brought together critical scholars from the humanities, area studies, and the social sciences in universities in the United States, South Africa, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and India. Radical geographic scholarship has long been driven to work at the fertile intersection of deep regional knowledge and critical theory. But the goal of fostering South-South conversations, and especially on the topic of social marginalization within national boundaries, has not received enough attention within geographic theory. This conference promised to advance radical geographic scholarship by provoking discussions about the geography of social marginalization, subordination, and domination. By putting different regionally based modes of inquiry in conversation, we also hoped to draw attention to the geography of critical social theory itself.

This workshop, held at Indiana University’s Gateway Center in Gurgaon, India, was a continuation of a symposium titled “Race, Place, and Capital” that was held at Indiana University in the spring of 2015. In total, 13 people, including prominent scholars, junior faculty, and graduate students, directly participated in the workshop in Gurgaon. The workshop’s objective was to catalyze conversations between researchers deeply rooted in their respective regional knowledges in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia. To meet the challenges of catalyzing intellectually stimulating conversations across a range of area expertise and disciplines, participants were selected because of their commitment to the concepts and politicized modes of inquiry found in postcolonial theory and Marxism.

The workshop was not based on individualized presentations followed by Q&A as is conventional at academic conferences. Rather, we asked each participant to make his/her paper available for circulation, and to provide comments on the other papers, well before the actual workshop took place. The workshop then consisted of an hour-long discussion on each paper. This format was extremely fruitful, and in fact one of the organizers will be following a similar format in an upcoming critical geographies of the Himalayas workshop. As we workshopped paper after paper, certain themes arose to the surface and allowed us to have critical comparative conversations drawing on a loosely shared vocabulary rooted in the critical theoretical traditions of Marxism and postcolonial studies.

One major methodological insight from the workshop was the political and analytical necessity of regional comparison. The organizers were aware of the importance of comparative analysis (hence the title of the workshop). But the workshop model we adopted encouraged scholars based in South Asian studies or African studies to engage in meaningful conversations with scholars coming from Latin American studies. Reflecting critically on these comparative cases helped us to identify commonalities and differences in the structures that enable eco-socio-spatial marginalization in the Global South. For example we discussed the dalit communities in Delhi, migration and urban development in the Himalayas, debates regarding the relationship (or lack thereof) between radical movements and the state, the Algerian Revolution and the ongoing relevance of Fanon’s writings, divergences and convergences between India and South Africa in the context of neoliberalism and resurgent nationalisms, the status of Indian women in the IT sector in the US and UK, and the politics of representation behind the use of forensic scientific methods to determine evidence of state violence during and after Argentina’s “dirty war”. We were also able to note the similarities and differences between regional traditions of representing subalternity for an academic audience. We discussed current formulations of the concepts of hegemony, posthegemony, and the integral state, recent turns to affect theory, critiques of the decolonial paradigm in Latin American studies, and the historical imbrication of racial theory and geography.

Certain theoretical directions also rose to the surface as a result of the conversations between participants. Two theorists in general were repeatedly mentioned as crucial to revisit in the contemporary political and intellectual moment. The first is Antonio Gramsci. In particular, Gramsci’s methodological insights for conjunctural and comparative analysis were highlighted. As a Marxist concerned with the nature of politics under conditions of uneven development, Gramsci was also a noted as a theorist with potentially very rich insights for many participants in the conference. The second theorist that came up repeatedly was Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s insights on race, colonialism, and the nation, particularly in the African context, resonated with many of the issues tackled by workshop participants. For thinking through the importance of colonialism, epistemologically as well as in the operations of capital, Fanon informed several of the workshop papers directly, as well as provoked further directions of inquiry. Both Fanon and Gramsci, as Marxist scholars engaged in questions regarding uneven development, nationalism, and colonialism as political aspects of the processes of capitalist expansion, present a very promising resource for scholars from diverse regional contexts and disciplines to engage with each other.

Finally, one of the potentially most promising outcomes of the workshop was in the area of internationalizing the networks of our respective institutions. The project produced international links with Ambedkar University (India) and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali, Indiana University Bloomington (USA), Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (Mexico), and the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). As we move forward with our respective research programs, and plan more workshops, research trips, conferences, and sessions at conferences, we now have a growing network of critically minded scholars to count as a resource. Two of the workshop participants are also currently collaborating on an edited volume, others have published some of the material they shared with the group, and others are working towards publications based on the extensive feedback they received at the workshop.

The value of the workshop was confirmed by all participants. Graduate students based in India who participated in the workshop remarked how influential the workshop was for the development of their own research projects through a collaborative, internationalized, and inter-disciplinary environment. A senior scholar based at UC Berkeley commented that the workshop offered a sustained intellectual engagement that is all too rare in many academic conferences and symposia. Many participants, from both the symposium in Bloomington, Indiana, and the workshop in Gurgaon, India, have expressed interest in any follow up we might be organizing. Our plans for the continued development of these conversations around Marxism, postcolonial theory, and critical regional comparison are outlined further below. A listing of the conference participants and their titles/abstracts follows.

The organizers have already taken several steps to continue the conversation started at the conference in Bloomington and the Workshop in Gurgaon. The Indiana-based researchers have formed a working group, called “Race, Place, Capital” or “RPC”, in collaboration with colleagues at The Ohio State University, The University of Michigan, University of Notre Dame, and The University of Chicago. Our interdisciplinary group will meet annually at a different university to workshop papers and foster writing collaborations. The next RPC workshop will be held at The Ohio State University in Fall 2016, and is being organized by our colleagues Pranav Jani (English) and Inés Valdez (Political Science).

The organizers are also organizing at least one paper session (and possibly more) along the themes of RCP and “Comparative Subalternities” for the Historical Materialism conference in Beirut, Lebanon, in Spring 2017. The goal is to continue to bring in new voices and new regional perspectives in our attempt to foster innovative and politicized encounters between the traditions of critical area studies, postcolonial theory, and Marxism.

Finally, we have begun to organize a reading group with colleagues at Indiana University around Marxism and internationalism. In particular, we would like to focus on Marxist/radical theorists whose work was influenced by their own (sometimes forced) migrations, and thus how their writings bring together insights from different, yet contemporaneous, historical process. A tentative list of authors may include: Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Emma Goldman, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Bolívar Echeverría, and M.N. Roy, among others.

Abraham Acosta, University of Arizona

“Latin America and the Crisis of Hegemony: Illiteracy, Affect, Posthegemony”

This paper will explore the recent turn in Latin Americanist debates away from the concept of hegemony and a move toward theorizing political power in its wake. It posits that the contemporary is marked by the increasing discordance between contemporary theories of state power and the intensified historical contradictions brought about by the neoliberal restructuration of the nation-state. It therefore bears witness to the critical debilitation of the nation-state as a culturally and politically binding model of social organization and the withering of once predominant categories which provided linguistic, ethnic, and cultural coherency. Given these conditions, the paper will reflect upon several, recently developed, theoretical accounts of power that aim to think beyond the critical and material assumptions of hegemony theory, including the notions of “posthegemony,” “infrapolitics,” “affect,” and my own concept of “illiteracy.” In particular, I will be considering the work from numerous critics, including Brian Massumi, Carlo Galli, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Gareth Williams, Alberto Moreiras, and Jon Beasley Murray in an attempt to reveal both the critical realities of the neoliberal nation-state in Latin America and the material limitations of contemporary political thought under global capital.

Ishan Ashutosh, Indiana University

“Mapping Terra Incognita: British and American Colonialisms and the Native Informant”

This paper looks at the role of the native informant in colonial India. In particular, it investigates the practices of native informants in the colonial mapping of India, a project that encompassed the surveying of land as well as translating culture for scholars and colonial administrators alike. Since native informants rendered society legible for colonial rule, they have all too often been treated as an appendage of British rule over India, tacitly complicit in the project of colonialism. Indeed, native informants played a central role in how South Asia came to be known as they filled the colonial archives with their content. Yet they were subjugated and often silenced over the authority of colonial power. This paper seeks to provide a reappraisal of the native informant by looking at how they were multiply positioned in British colonial and American accounts in the 19th and 20th centuries. I will focus on how they shaped a conception of the territory of British India as well as how they facilitated American trade in India that in many cases, conflicted with the desires of the East India Company. Beyond the South Asia focus, the overarching question I ask in this paper is: how can the reinsertion of the native informant into colonial histories reconfigure our understandings of subalternity and the application of science in the colonies?

Jyoti Atwal, JNU, New Delhi

“Dalit Subalternities in India: A Comparative View of the ‘Low’ Caste movements in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh”

Despite the fact that historically Western India has remained at the forefront of the Dalit (‘low’ caste) movement in India, last twenty years have witnessed strong activism from Dalit groups in Northern regions of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (UP). Both these regions have produced two different yet extremely interesting varieties of Dalit movements. In the Jat (rich peasant community) dominated Punjab, series of conversions of ‘low’ castes to Sikhism has helped them tide over their low status in the Hindu hierarchy (Mark Juergensmeyer:2009). As a consequence this has generated a hierarchy within them – at present Punjab Dalits are mainly divided into Ad Dharmis, Valmikis, Mazhabis and the Chamars. Despite the fact that Punjab has the highest proportion of Dalit population in India (28% of the total population of Punjab in 2001), scholars have claimed that over the years Dalits in Punjab have failed to consolidate themselves as a political group (Ronki Ram: 2008). Rather than politically confronting the ‘upper’ castes, recasting social identities through conversion, marriage and symbolism has emerged as the main source of Dalit transformation in contemporary Punjab. Alternatively, the Uttar Pradesh model of Dalit activism was historically based on Chamar stronghold in the organized workers’ unionism during the colonial period (Ramnarayan Rawat: 2010). Consequently, Dalits in Uttar Pradesh created a public sphere where a systematic political trajectory of Dalit empowerment could be argued for. The main source of their empowerment has been reservation in government jobs or quotas for admission in public and private institutions. Scholars argue that the Dalits in UP have gained from the complex process of Indian ‘democratization’ (Vivek Kumar: 2014) and this has led to a ‘silent revolution’ (Christopher Jaffrelot: 2003). In this paper I will be the using Dalit autobiography, Dr B.R.Ambedkar’s writings and a few personal experiences to reposition the alternative subalternities in Punjab and the UP.

Bruno Bosteels, Cornell University

“The State and Insurrection”

Everywhere in the world we are once again living in an age of riots, blockades, street protests, occupations and popular insurrections. Lenin’s famous book The State and Revolution, written in the months just prior to the October Revolution while the author was in hiding from the Provisional Government, would have to be renamed and reframed accordingly. Today what is on the agenda no longer fits Lenin’s general title but could be said to fall under the rubric The State and Insurrection.  This is because our age is not only marked by riots and insurrections all over the world, from the uprisings in December 2001 in Argentina to the movement of the squares inaugurated in 2011 in Egypt, but also by the emergence of various leftist, centrist or populist governments that successfully used electoral means to arrive at the power of the state: first in Latin America, from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Evo Morales in Bolivia; and now also in Europe, most notably here in Greece with SYRIZA and possibly later this year in Spain with PODEMOS. The result, however, is an increasing disconnect–confirmed in one case after another–between the hopeful expectation that change might come from within the existing parliamentary system and state apparatuses and the sudden realization, which can be either sobering or exhilarating, that the political moment properly speaking might be limited to the brief insurrectionary time of protests and riots in the streets.

Andrés Guzmán, Indiana University

“Between Crowd and Group: Badiou, Fanon, Lacan, and Revolutionary Nation”

The present paper theorizes the possibility of a non-identitarian political collective. Freud’s work on group psychology and Laclau’s theory of populism, for example, posit the self-conception of a group qua group and a subsequent libidinally constituted social bond as necessary sources of a group’s consistency. I argue that in both of their conceptions, these two factors are articulated in a manner homologous to Lacan’s formula for fantasy ($ ◊ a). Badiou, however, suggests that a “genuinely political organisation … is the least bound place of all” (2005: 76), thereby asserting the existence of a political collective that does not proceed on the basis of identitarian fantasy. This is what Badiou refers to as a “generic” collective: one to which anyone can belong through active participation in a post-evental politics, regardless of his/her particular identity. I find in Fanon’s formulation of revolutionary nation (as opposed to its chauvinistic identitarian counterpart) a similar conception, where anyone who fights for Algerian independence is “Algerian.” The Algerian nation is thus a category the consistency of which is not provided by identitarian definition, but rather by a political logic developed on the basis of anti-colonial struggle. Given that Badiou designates the generic set with the mark of ♀, I end by theorizing the ontological status of such a collective through Lacan’s graphs of sexuation.

Gillian Hart, University of California Berkeley

“Postcolonial Predicaments: Reflections on Questions of Subalternity and Comparison”

The Comparative Subalternities workshop meshes closely with my current interest in thinking about India and South Africa in relation to one another in terms of the coincidence since the early 1990s of three key sets processes: neoliberal forms of capitalism generating intense inequality and “surplus” populations; liberal and popular expressions of democracy; and amplifying nationalisms—all entangled with gender power, and shot through with race (South Africa), caste and communalism (India). My contribution to the workshop follows from an article entitled “Political Society and its Discontents: Translating Passive Revolution in India and South Africa Today”, that will shortly be published in Economic and Political Weekly. Drawing on my South African research as well as recent re-readings of Gramsci, the article encompasses (a) a critique of Partha Chatterjee’s influential deployment of concepts of political/civil society and passive revolution, and (b) a suggestion of how Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution might be stretched and translated to illuminate key dynamics in contemporary South Africa. In my paper for the workshop I plan to build on these arguments by (a) focusing on debates over “subalternity”, drawing in part on a Gramscian reading of Fanon; and (b) developing more fully the comparative dimensions of concepts of passive revolution and subalternity through extending a method that in my earlier work I called relational comparison. The idea is to bring key forces at play in India and South Africa into the same frame of analysis—neither as discrete “cases” nor as variants of some universal process—but as connected yet distinctively different nodes in globally interconnected historical geographies.

Christopher J. Lee, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

“Wretchedness and the Subaltern: Toward a Fanonian Interpretation of Subaltern Studies”

This paper examines the connections between Frantz Fanon’s arguments and worldview as captured in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) with the arguments and intellectual history of the Subaltern Studies collective. It consequently seeks to generate a more focused dialogue between the intellectual histories of decolonization, nationalism, and national consciousness in Africa and South Asia. Though the term “subaltern” and Subaltern Studies more generally have become frequent reference points in African studies, the uses of “subaltern” as an analytic category have become somewhat generic, signaling any condition that is perceived as marginal to centers of power. This paper aims to return to the original intentions of Subaltern Studies and the historical context from which it emerged. In doing so, it connects the problems of nationalism and elite discourse in India during the 1970s with the concerns of Fanon toward such matters during the late 1950s in Algeria. While both retain distinctions based on their respective formation in unique historical contexts, Fanon and Subaltern Studies also demonstrate the influence of Marxism and Maoism in different ways, as well as the need to “stretch” (to use Fanon’s word) such schools of thought when considering conditions of colonialism. This paper concludes by emphasizing Fanon’s distinction between nationalism and national consciousness—the latter reflecting the concerns of Subaltern Studies—as well as revisiting his utopian ideal of a new humanism that intended to eradicate colonial ontologies to achieve complete decolonization.

Rohit Negi, Ambedkar University Delhi

“The Materiality of Mobility: Urban Futures and Infrastructures in Banjar, Himachal Pradesh”

Even the remotest of areas in the Indian Himalayan region, especially in the state of Himachal Pradesh, have witnessed irreversible changes in the last two decades. Increased material flows have seen many rural households route the available surplus to nearby towns to gain speculative footholds. While these households retain links to agricultural production and their rural homes, many have come to view their future, in significant part, as an urban future. Consequently, construction and urban growth have been frenzied in small towns across the Himalayas: in one district (Kullu) alone, there are at least 15 such centres (Census and otherwise). Yet, these zones of intense activity are conspicuous blind spots in academic and policy literatures, in equal parts a result of the marginality of this particular region, and of non-metropolitan urban areas more generally, in urban theory. With the presence of a vibrant market, a degree college, handful of private and public schools, and a district hospital, the town of Banjar, Kullu has emerged as a significant node in a roughly 40-km radius. Our preliminary field surveys in the town suggest that there are now around 600 buildings, vast majority of which have been built in since the turn of the century. A handful of contractors take up construction projects on turnkey basis, while some families sub-contract different parts of the process to laborers and masons themselves. Labor is drawn from within and far beyond the region. This paper is interested in the varied stories of infrastructures—in particular, roads and the built environment–that connect households, contractors, workers and materials in Banjar. Through ethnography and mixed-methodologies it shows how even the ‘provincial’ is in reality produced through an intricate process of ‘worlding’, where possibilities of prosperity co-exist with multiple new susceptibilities, and where an unlikely and underappreciated set of agents drive urban change in the absence of formal planning.

Parvati Raghuram, Open University

“Producing the norm: modernity, technology and migrant women”

Both gender equity and technological expertise are, in contemporary society, often noted as markers of modernity. They are quintessential, if overdetermined, characteristics of being modern. Moreover, these characteristics also have particular place attachments. Categories such as modernity are often situated in the ‘West’ and in opposition to ‘traditional non-Western’ societies. These place attachments have been one of the inheritances of colonial and postcolonial figurations. In this paper I attempt to unsettle these affiliations by exploring the gender optimism around technology in India and contrasting that to the pessimism around women’s presence in the IT sector in some countries of the ‘West’. I then go on to explore the classed, gendered and racialised nature of the affiliations between modernity, technology and women in both the colonial and postcolonial period I conclude by arguing that migrant women from India working in the ICT sector are brought face-to-face with these histories and presents when they migrate to the UK and that the race/gender nexus that women inhabit in the moment of migration is replete with a range of normativities around who and what is ‘modern’. This paper will proceed to explore the challenges of comparativism and how they are produced through connected histories.

Marco Ramos, Yale University

“Can los desaparecidos speak? Violence and the Laboratory in Cold War Argentina”

Since the Cold War, knowledge networks have developed around violent “hot-spots” throughout the “crisis-prone” global South. Universities and global health NGOs today send researchers to Latin America, Asia, and Africa to generate knowledge on violence that secures markets, promotes health, and achieves justice for victims. This paper explores the constitution of these knowledge networks around state violence in Argentina during the Cold War. From 1976 to 1983, the Argentine military “disappeared” – to use the special syntax from the period – an estimated 30,000 of its own citizens, through secret imprisonment, murder, and torture, all in the name of stemming the tide of Communism. Based on critical work on humanitarianism and postcolonial studies, this paper explores how disappearance emerged as something more than a lived experience during the Cold War in the Southern Cone. Violence, I argue, became a precious epistemic resource whose reality could be interrogated, debated, and studied in the humanitarian laboratory. Building on Spivak’s seminal work on the subaltern and Das’ recent work on violence, I am particularly interested in the question of whether and how los desaparecidos [the disappeared] speak. In the absence of the disappeared as living and breathing humans, who “gave voice” to los desaparecidos and on what authority? How did scientists, physicians, and humanitarian researchers position the laboratory as a site where the “forever-absent” desaparecido could make themselves heard? Through the case of Amnesty International, I explore how Argentine bodies became embodied vessels of knowledge, whose physical traces spoke to the universal nature of terror.

Olimpia E. Rosenthal, Indiana University-Bloomington

“Guamán Poma on the Genealogy of Decolonial Thought”

Current formulations of the “decolonial turn” in Latin America purport to offer an analytical alternative to what is considered by critics to be the economic reductionism of world-systems theory, and the limitations of postcolonial studies. In spite of earlier collaborations between members of the Modernity/Coloniality/Decoloniaty (MCD) collective and Immanuel Wallerstein, there has been a progressive distancing that is evident in Ramón Grosfoguel’s call to “decolonize political-economy paradigms as well as world-system analysis and to propose an alternative decolonial conceptualization of the world-system” (13). Postcolonial studies are likewise found wanting by the group of Latin American decolonialists, who consistently articulate their critique around three main points: 1) the claim that Latin American contributions to the field are regularly ignored, partly due to a linguistic marginalization of Spanish and Portuguese, 2) the insistence that postcolonial studies have tended to privilege British colonialism at the expense of thinking about other colonial experiences, and 3) the charge that postcolonial critics, even when critiquing Eurocentrism, tend to draw from Western thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. As an alternative to the perceived problem, Walter D. Mignolo (one of the main figures associated with the MCD collective), suggests that the decolonial project must, on the hand, distance itself from postcolonial studies and what he considers their French poststructuralist foundation, and, on the other hand, propose a different genealogy as the basis for decolonial thought. This alternate genealogy, Mignolo argues, must begin by considering Latin America’s colonial experience. Specifically, he identifies Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala’s El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615/16) as a foundational text to help trace the genealogy of decolonial thought. While recognizing both the validity and importance of considering what Guamán Poma’s reflections on colonialism can contribute to present debates, this essay interrogates the limits of the decolonial option as a prevailing interpretative approach to his work. It begins with a brief overview of the way his work has been represented within the framework of the postcolonial debate in Latin American studies, and it points out some of the unresolved tensions that continue to be at stake. It further offers a historically contextualized reading of Guamán Poma’s unwavering embrace of Christianity as a means to destabilize any facile assumption that his work unequivocally challenges Western epistemology.

Anu Sabhlok, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali

“‘Walking with the Subalterns’: Imagining ways of dialogic interpretations and representations”

In this paper, I propose to investigate ways of engaging with the subalterns/marginal/peripheral. I argue that the contradictions within postcolonial studies lies not with its lack or excess of attention to margniality but to the direction and spaces of its dialogue. While postcolonial scholars engage with the idea of margniality there is no dialogue with those that constitute this category. All discursive engagement is within the confines of the academy, as most interpretations lie within predetermined theoretical narratives. I bring in notes from my ethnographic engagement with the migrant labour population to look at creative ways of interpreting and representing their journeys such that these are legible not just within the postcolonial/feminist/subaltern… framework but also within the discourses that circulate along with the migrant labour populations. Drawing on from Vinay Lal’s criticism of Subaltern Studies in his essay entitled ‘Walking with the Subalterns, Riding with the Academy (2014)’, I seek to develop  ways in which the subaltern constitute not just an object of inquiry as a mere academic exercise, but plays a role in determining the discourse about itself. In this dialogue the creative agency lies both with the academic and the subaltern.


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