Subalternity and crisis

New from Sharad Chari:

Not this freedom, insists Lindela Figlan, security guard and office-holder of Abahlali baseMjondolo (ABM), the shack-dweller’s movement that has challenged many facets of suffering in South Africa’s informal settlements. Abahlali has organized against routine eviction, harassment, neglect, and organized violence, and has invested in virtual space to formulate critique in the face of multifaceted crisis. Despite a series of attacks on shack settlements in the city of Durban in 2009, ABM members have debated and discussed what they call a “living politics,” a collective will to struggle for life-affirming social change, in Ruth Gilmore’s terms (Figlan et al. 2009). I begin with the constitution of a collective will because it is central to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of subalternity not as a pregiven thing but as an activation of critique that might be directive in re-shaping the terrain of struggle. The activist-intellectuals I begin with intersect in a powerful call to think of crises of livelihood as also crises of rationality, representation, and spatial (dis)connection. Contemporary studies of “subalternity” have focused largely on problems of reason and representation, drawing on the insight of postcolonial studies that we live in a world of multiple coeval rationalities. Indeed, it may appear curious that none of the statements I begin with are drawn from scholars who use the concept “subalternity” explicitly. As should become clear, a subaltern perspective does not hinge on using the term as a label but on a far more ambitious way of using theory. My key arguments are that subalternity and crisis ought to be considered relational concepts whose content is bound to vary considerably. I suggest that “subaltern” be considered a meta-concept that tells us how to use concepts while building solidarities through, rather than despite, social and spatial difference. Finally, systemic irrationality becomes apparent in times of crisis (pace Harvey), and if this should prompt people to “scale” struggles to wider arenas (pace Gilmore), we need to understand spatially connective processes of critique in a differentiated world. Such a connective approach to subalternity is resolutely un-parochial, ontologically multiple, and ripe for critical geographical enquiry. The next section, “What’s in a word?” detours through the postcolonial revision of Gramsci’s concept, focusing on key works in geography. Postcolonial scholars who use the concept best, in my view, call for intellectual forbearance in imputing subaltern consciousness and agency, as well as attentiveness to the ways in which subjects evade interpellation by broader social processes. These are vital concerns that ought to alter how economic geographers, broadly conceived, attempt to think beyond an intersectionality of class / gender / “race”/ caste / etc., to a reminder that all universal categories are historical and contradictory. I conclude that scholars who use the term subalternity to express radical doubt within the dynamics of capital and empire ought to situate this doubt in concrete, contradictory landscapes in our crisis-ridden present. In the subsequent “Subaltern Solidarities in the Face of Crisis,” I argue that geographers might and indeed do draw on postcolonial theory without using the concept “subalternity” explicitly, as subalternity is more properly a meta-concept that tells us how to use concepts. I review the work of some geographers whose work provides insights on thinking of subaltern rationalities in the face of crisis. For economic geography, such an understanding might fruitfully extend the question of how people actually contend with situations of prolonged uncertainty that some heterodox political economists call the “precarity” endemic to contemporary societies. Finally, in “Subalternity and Space” I turn to the question of how attention to spatial dialectics and multiple rationalities leads us to a practice of building solidarities through ongoing comparison and connection. There can be no question of romanticizing autonomous subaltern space or authentic voice in this project. Rather, in the ruins of dominant forms of valuation, and without the false comfort of teleological thinking, we are forced to confront subalternity in real and imagined practices of social and spatial solidarity. Figlan’s epigraph to this chapter sets out in counterpoint a dominant notion of freedom built on privilege against an emergent conception borne of popular struggle. He calls attention to the praxis of solidarity across geographical difference as a resource for poor people to maintain the will to fight. What is at work here, I will attempt to demonstrate, is precisely the meta-concept of subalternity as emerging from a situation of multifaceted crisis in one of many places that refuse to be forgotten.