‘Can the subaltern speak?’ and representing autism

In 1988 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote an article entitled “Can the subaltern Speak?” (1994). This essay has become one of the standard texts of post-colonial studies due to its nuanced analysis of well-meaning western intellectuals inadvertently perpetuating the remnant structures of colonialism through their efforts to speak for the marginalised (Riach, 2017: 12). Spivak makes use of Antonio Gramsci’s term subaltern, which had been used in post-colonial discourse to refer to the manual labour force and peasantry of the developing world serving globalized neo-colonial capitalism (Spivak 1998, 78). Spivak goes further by focusing in on the subaltern woman, those whose subject position intersect numerous forms of globalised and localised oppression (ibid.)

Spivak’s central argument is that the leftist intellectual of the west – for example Michel Foucault and Gille Deleuze – who, through good intentions, speak for the oppressed of the world, are essentially filling a space that could be occupied by the speech of the subaltern. Their Eurocentric position remains transparent to them as they try to express their compassion. They are inescapably drawing upon and adding to the neo-colonial mechanisms of knowledge, which effectively maintains the silence of the subaltern voice. This is what Spivak refers to as epistemic violence (1994: 76).

Spivak provides an example from India’s colonial past in which well-meaning white male western authority figures intervein for the benefit of oppressed women without their consultation. Sati is the Sanskrit word for good wife and had come to refer to widows who ritualistically self-immolate on the fourth day of their husband’s funeral rights. The British colonial force outlawed this Hindu ritual, rightly or wrongly, due to their perception of it as pagan barbarism (1994: 94).  Clearly the practice was problematic, and Spivak goes to great lengths to avoid defending the religious encouragement of female suicide, however, her point is that the dominant outsider’s demonstrated shallow understanding of the native culture and specifically fail to faithfully speak for those who are most marginalised. This was evidenced by the fact that the act was not addressed in terms of religious superstition that paved the way for a favourable afterlife, but rather a crime and a matter of social justice, positioning the sati as criminal. Western values of freedom were imposed upon a culture without the consultation of those who it intended to protect (1994: 97).

Spivak concludes that “the subaltern cannot speak’ when they are spoken for by those in positions of power, specifically people who lack the access to listen to the ones they are speaking for. The domination of emancipatory platforms by those who are in power, results in missed opportunities for the marginalised to self-advocate. An even more insidious problem is that if the subaltern does speak, they are unlikely to be heard due to the structures of knowledge dissemination (Riach, 2017: 12).  If subalterns could both speak and have a forum to be heard, Spivak hopes these people will be able to form their own political voice (Riach, 2017, 11).

Spivak’s essay prompts readers to analyse the common-sense logic that guides their thinking. This is not a neutral process and is culturally informed by one’s background. As such, these factors must be kept in mind when addressing other cultures (Riach, 2017: 13).

Spivak, in a later interview, emphasised that it is not enough to step back from emancipatory discourses. After all, given the structures of power, the subaltern’s voice will not be easily herd. We must instead work to dismantle the power structures that prop up a world where the subaltern position exists. We must work to actively dismantle oppression (Riach, 2017: 13). 

This is distinct from speaking about oppression as the representative of the subaltern, and prompts a more collaborative, positional and reflexive approach to emancipatory alliance.

Should the neurotypical speak?

When reading Spivak’s text my focus was on drawing parallels between the subject position of subaltern/subaltern woman and the neurodivergent community/the non-verbal autistic. The neurodivergent community are engaged in a political project to have their difference embraced and their status as valid human beings recognised.  The worst incarnations of the opposing medical narrative present the autistic as an aberration whose difference is perceived as a disorder that requires curing. 

The neurodiversity movement has achieved a great deal in the last ten years, raising public awareness about the socially constructed nature of so-called cognitive disabilities. Much of this work has been achieved through self-advocacy, neurodivergent individuals taking to the internet, engaging with public and academic discourses. In many ways this cohort has achieved the ideals suggested by Spivak. They have found their political voice. The Neurodivergent community have a adopted the aphorism ‘nothing about us without us’, along with the hashtags #ActuallyAutistic and #AskAutistics, to emphasise their desire to be involved or consulted with regards to all representational practices, be it neuroscience research, charitable enterprises or mass media coverage. However, the neurodiversity movement and socially constructed model of disability are not without controversy.

The antagonists to the neurodiversity movement are embodied by the Autism Speaks organisation, a charity dedicated to finding a cure for autism, which in practice amounts to supressing autistic difference. Many autism researchers express a moderate position with regards to the neurodiversity movement, while also suggesting it’s practical limits. Uta Frith, a leading British autism researcher, characterised the neurodiversity ideology as reasonably applicable for those without complex needs, but considers it ‘perverse’ when accounting for the suffering caused by severe autism (2008: 38). While this language is inflammatory, Frith is addressing a crucial dilemma; in what way are notions of the socially constructed nature of disability relevant when someone is physically blocked from engagement with society. The Autism Speaks movement would argue this shows the flawed logic of the neurodiversity movement, however, as a faithful advocate of this ideology, I believe that this form of difference is a legitimate version of human existence.  However, the subject position of a person who physically cannot speak raises further ethical considerations regarding Spivak’s essay; if an autistic person with complex needs does not use conventional language to communicate, and no clear inference can be drawn from their non-verbal communication, in what way can their needs be advocated for?

Here Spivak’s reference to the Sati become more acutely relevant.  A woman is not a Sati unless she self immolates. Therefore this community definitively has no voice. In order to be a member, one must have committed suicide. Spivak resists the temptation to designate who should speak for the Sati. What is made clear is that westerners, with limited insight into Hindu customs and no lived experience of the circumstances where these events were taking place, were not well positioned to intervein. Moreover, the act of intervening blocked the possibility of this community to reconcile these issues in their own terms.

Returning to the prospect of creating a representation of an autistic person who does not communicate in a manner that I can perceive, is it ethical to persist in my attempts to raise public awareness about the diverse experience of those on the autism spectrum?

The answer might be no, it would be unethical to represent someone without the ability to seek their full consent or engage in collaborative acts of cocreation; moreover it may even be unethical to seek the consent of their relatives and community as those individuals cannot share the lived experience that allows them to truly speak for that person.

If it is truly unethical to attempt to represent someone in these circumstances, then we are presented with a new dilemma. How can this group ever achieve any form of representation? What circumstance would allow for their political voice to be spoken, let alone herd? 

Amanda Baggs’ ‘In My Language’ (2007) is an example of someone with a-typical communication methods creating a film with a powerful political message. It highlights the hypocrisy and condescension of a common neurotypical perspective regarding her own modes of interaction. Despite the insight this film provides into a life of someone with a radically different perspective from that of the neurotypical, it could be argued that the use of text to speech software allowed Baggs to speak for her-self and thus she is removed from the portion of the neurodivergent community whose representation I am contemplating. This community is by definition unable to speak for themselves.

Hypothetically, if there is such a thing as this truly voiceless community, incapable of self-advocacy, should anyone speak for them?

Is someone on the autism spectrum, by dint of their diagnosis, more qualified to provide insights into the life and experience of someone else in a very different position on the same spectrum?  I infer from Spivak’s approach that a greater sense of shared lived experience would clearly be an advantage. The Eurocentric hegemony to which Spivak refers could be substituted by neurotypical hegemony. Those who’s subject position roots them outside of this hegemony are better positioned to render the discourses of power and knowledge as a visible force that effects our understanding of autism. However, with reference to Spivak’s essay, there is a potential parallel between those on the spectrum who are capable of self-advocacy and the local elites who become indirect collaborators with the colonial forces in India. This group occupied an in-between position with ties both to the local peoples and hegemonic forces of power. This group were not necessarily totally corrupted by colonialism, but they were elevated to a position that differentiated them in terms of class from the subaltern. Perhaps the neurodivergent individuals capable of self-advocacy could be considered a distinct group from those for whom this is not a possibility. There is nothing that disqualifies the self-advocates from advocating for those who cannot speak, but Spivak’s model may suggest the subtle differences in these groups may deserve closer analysis when decoding such acts of ‘speaking for’. 

The final dilemma to address is that I have come across several neurodivergent self-advocate filmmakers, speaking for themselves, but not many examples of neurodivergent advocates speaking for those without a voice. If this work is not being produced, then does that result in an ethical justification for me to use my privilege and training to create advocating films for those without a voice? I believe the answer is yes but only if I proceed with extreme caution. Spivak after all was not dismissive of all western liberal intellectuals, she aligned her perspective with Jacques Derrida for his aptitude for deconstructing the global power dynamics at stake when speaking for others.

Ania Loomba, in her reading of Spivak, emphasises the closing statement:

The subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with ‘woman’ as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish.

(Spivak, 1995: 104)

Loomba expands on Spivak’s concluding points by drawing upon the Gramscian aphorism  – ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ – to suggest that intellectuals should combine a ‘philosophical scepticism’ about the possibility of erecting the subaltern agency, combined with a ‘political commitment to making visible the position of the marginalised’ (2005: 195).

Here Loomba privileges the intellectual’s responsibility to represent the subaltern for the purpose of illuminating how their marginalisation is in part a consequence of social power structures. Loomba proposes this while maintaining a critical perspective on the risk of ‘romanticising and homogenising the subaltern subject’.

Drawing upon Loomba’s insights on Spivak, I could conclude that as a filmmaker I have a commitment to attempt to represent at least one silent autistic. I must treat them as an individual who can account simply for their own lived experience, while remaining critically reflexive about my position and role in the socially constructed form of disability this participant would experience. By this I mean I must bracket my expectations of what counts as communication, collaboration and self-advocacy, and remain conscious of how these expectations have contributed to this participant being marginalised in the past.

To conclude, I would suggest that speaking for someone who literally cannot speak has significant ethical considerations to be accounted for but in principle is not the same circumstance as speaking for someone who could be speaking for themselves. I would argue there is an urgent need to be present with this silent cohort within the neurodivergent community in order to forge an emancipatory alliance that can match some of the broader achievements of the neurodiversity movement. It is my aim to create representations of individuals that occupy different positions on the autism spectrum through collaborative, positional and reflexive animated documentary practice. Working with someone who cannot speak for themselves will make it harder to be collaborative, however it is possible this is because I have not developed a more nuanced insight into a-typical modes of expression. Whether this expectation turns out to be true or not, I feel ethically bound to persist in my attempts at such an alliance.

FRITH, U. 2008. Autism: A very short introduction, Oxford University Press.

LOOMBA, A. 2005. Colonialism/postcolonialism, 2nd ed., Routledge.

RIACH, G. 2017. An Analysis of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?, CRC Press.

SPIVAK, G. C. 1994. Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. A Reader, edited by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. Columbia University Press.

Author: Alex Widdowson

Animated Documentary Director and Researcher

3 thoughts on “‘Can the subaltern speak?’ and representing autism”

  1. This is such a great article. I’m teaching it to my freshmen students today. Thank you for being so thoughtful and sharing your insights with all of us!


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