Mirela Ivanova, Can the Subaltern Write? The Politics of Langauge and Early Slavonic Literacy

The study of the postcolonial subaltern was completely transformed by the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Although her work does not remain unchallenged, it provides a set of illuminating conceptual tools for the study of the interaction between hegemonic imperialist power and its subaltern subject. This study aims to expand Spivak’s proposal regarding the ability of the subaltern to speak. Without seeking to suggest that Spivak’s ideas, grounded in the modern postcolonial condition, are directly applicable to the relationship between the early medieval Byzantine Empire and its Slav neighbours, I will tentatively attempt to apply them to this early medieval context, to illustrate both the wide-ranging utility of the structures Spivak identifies and the possibility for some modification in her conclusions. In her seminal 1988 paper ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, Spivak problematized the Western narrative of the subaltern subject. The history of Europe, she insisted, is ‘narrativized by the law, political economy and ideology of the West’.1 It has become commonplace for ‘leftist intellectuals’ to reveal ‘lists of self-knowing, politically canny subalterns’.2 The study of the agency of this colonial subaltern, found in the peripheral structures of the hegemonic empire, has been dominated by those seeking to subvert the Western narrative, but simultaneously incapable of escaping it.

In discussing the subaltern, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze ‘represent themselves as transparent’ via a deconstruction of representation.3 Deleuze’s claim is simple: ‘there is no more representation; there’s nothing but action’.4 His concept of representation, however, might be product of a fundamental verbal slippage, one which Spivak contends makes their inquiry intellectually dishonest. What Spivak clarifies is the confusion between ‘representation’ as speaking-for in a political sense, and ‘re-presentation’ as an essential mode of art and philosophy. Deleuze deconstructs the latter, asserting that the representation of reality is an action even if it is formulated as an ‘idea’. The former, however, he leaves untouched. Thus, he speaks on behalf of the subaltern even when attempting to deconstruct the possibility of doing so. So, Spivak asks,

How can we touch the consciousness of the people, even as we investigate their politics? With what voice-consciousness can the subaltern speak? Their project after all is to rewrite the development of the consciousness of the Indian nation.5

That is to say, the Indian subaltern seeks this rewriting, but their consciousness was shaped by the hegemonic law, political economy and ideology of the West. Spivak takes her lead from Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, and although she applies it exclusively to the colonial Other, it can be applied more broadly. Hegemony, as Harvey J. Kaye defines it, is the ‘spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group’, which is granted largely due to that group’s historical prestige and dominance, and its ‘position and function in the world of production’.6 That is to say, the question of whether ‘speaking for’ an oppressed subject is possible in the political sense is one which goes beyond the bounds of postcolonial studies. It pertains to all hierarchical oppositions, where a prestigious, dominant group seeks to control and determine the culture of those in its periphery.

Speaking ‘on behalf of’ the oppressed has also long been at the heart of the project of social history. Recognising the same fact that the history of Europe has been ‘narrativized by the law, political economy and ideology of the West’, social historians like E. P. Thompson sought to ‘rescue’ the oppressed voices on the Western hegemony’s native soil – ‘the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan […] from the enormous condescension of posterity’.7 The very same criticism that Spivak directs at literary critics and philosophers can be re-directed at Thompson himself: he too, as a ‘leftist intellectual’, presents us with a list of ‘politically canny subalterns’ on whose behalf he is speaking (accepting, as above, that the subaltern need not necessarily be confined to a colonial Other). Thus the question stands for the historian as much as for the literary critic: can the subaltern speak?

Questions about representation and re-presentation of the oppressed have rightly become central to the study postcolonial and colonial power dynamics. Even prior to Spivak’s critique, these issues were rooted in enunciation and expression. As Sartre noted in his 1961 preface to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth:

[The colonial era] came to an end; the mouths opened by themselves; the yellow and black voices still spoke of our humanism but only to reproach us with our inhumanity.8

For Sartre, the most fundamental concern of postcolonial studies was the ability of the oppressed to speak for themselves. What Spivak’s critique if applied to this particular sentence would rightly point to, however, is that the voices which ‘still spoke of our humanism’ are voices which are produced by Western cultural hegemony. The standard for speech is set by the West, and rather than speaking, the subaltern are being spoken for by a Western system of signification. They are only speaking and being heard because they are using Western words, inhabiting a Western humanism.

It is neither the purpose of this study nor is it within the capabilities of its author to expound the multiple examples of speech and power in modern postcolonialism. Rather, it is to accept Deleuze’s claim that ‘theory is like a box of tools’ without accepting the consequence Spivak identifies, namely that it has ‘nothing to do with the signifier’.9

Accepting therefore Spivak’s own model, to question the narrative representation of the oppressed Subject, I intend to try to apply some of her conceptual tools to another project altogether. This project is still concerned with whether or not those under the direct influence of cultural domination, on the periphery of a hegemonic power, can represent themselves. It is still concerned with whether, if at all, this Subject, or Other, can speak. The context, however, is entirely different – the focus will be the dynamic between the highly literary ninth-century Byzantine Empire and its illiterate neighbours, the Bulgars and Slavs. Admittedly, ‘theory’ is about its signifier: the limits of the symbol are the limits of the author. Spivak is clear on her own position as an Indian scholar, and eager to assert that the case she is presenting ‘cannot be taken as representative of all countries, nations, cultures and the like’.10 So too this study must admit its limitations. Rather than insist that postcolonial theory can be applied ubiquitously, I seek to suggest that the components of power/language analysis which Spivak proposes can serve as equally illuminating categories of analysis for other hegemonic scenarios.

The ninth-century Byzantine Empire has been hailed as a bastion of cultural and intellectual leadership in Eastern Europe. Dimitri Obolensky’s seminal The Byzantine Commonwealth asserted, clearly and convincingly, that the empire created a cultural commonwealth in which its neighbours participated.11 Although this participation was given willingly, the empire also had the financial and military means to maintain this sphere of influence. Thus, the marginalised people of the Balkans, Bulgarian leaders included, were ‘convinced of the innate superiority of all things Byzantine’ and when given the opportunity, sought to ‘imitate’ Greek culture.12 This is not at all dissimilar to the aforementioned definition of hegemony by Kaye: ‘spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group’ due to its historical prestige and dominance.13 The formation of states on Byzantium’s peripheries, and former territory, was (for Obolensky) defined by the presence and historical dominance of the empire.

In addition to its military and economic hegemony, Byzantium’s dominance came most adamantly through culture. This culture was transmitted by the written word. Byzantium stood on millennia of Greek-written culture it perpetuated as its own, and exported (if not enforced) onto others. The lead seals of Bulgarian rulers asserted their political legitimacy with the Greek alphabet and Greek word archon and not the Slavonic word knyaz.14 Such is the model of hegemony as Obolensky presents it, and it largely remains accepted by Western historiography on the matter.15

Written culture was at the heart of Byzantine self-representation. Given the nature of surviving historical evidence, it is also the only way in which a society’s self-representation can be interpreted. It is only through writing that medieval people (subaltern or not) can speak. In 886 AD, the Bulgarian knyaz Boris welcomed the disciples of Cyril and Methodius and with them a Slavonic alphabet which to create a native written culture.16 The mouths of Slav-speaking Bulgarians could open ‘by themselves’, to speak through a literary culture in their own vernacular. Prior to this, our written sources about the Bulgarian people are all representations, in the political sense. They arereferences in Greek and Latin chronicles: often crude or stereotypical, at times apocryphal or simply incorrect.17

The Bulgarians’ opportunity to use their own language and their own alphabet was quickly taken up at the courts of Boris and his son Symeon: this was the so-called ‘Golden Age of Bulgarian literature’. Byzantine influence, however, remained prominent. The rulers sponsored a multitude of translations of Byzantine theological and liturgical literature, including homilies by John Chrysostom and Athanasius of Alexandria, commentaries on Genesis by Basil of Caesarea, alongside work by Nilus of Sinai, Anastasius Sinaita, John Climacus, and George Choiroboskos’ treatise on poetry.18 In the system of hegemonic cultural dominance, therefore, although the Bulgarian mouths now opened by themselves, in that they stopped being spoken on-behalf-of, they still used the Byzantine cultural and philosophical structures; for instance, to legitimise Slavonic liturgy, they translated Byzantine homilies. For Obolensky, this was imitation; for Spivak it is still an act of political representation produced by a set of ‘elite’ literati abiding by the hegemonic structure. The Bulgarian translators, as per Foucault and Deleuze, may have intended to be creators of a new model culture and opponents of imperial dominance. By the Spivakian model, however, they perpetuated the system of domination they sought to subvert. So where does this leave us? Is it that the Subaltern cannot speak even if they can write? I would suggest otherwise. That is not to say that the intention is to undermine the true power of cultural and political hegemony imposed by an imperialistic dominator. Rather, it is to suggest that the deconstruction of the oppressed agent, and the reduction of their agency to a series of political and economic forces they cannot control, as in Spivak’s model, is internally contradictory.

Spivak’s conclusion is simple, although her argument is by no means simplistic: ‘the subaltern cannot speak. […] Representation has not withered away.’ Her argument hinges on the example of the Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, Indian women who opt to commit suicide, a practice only permissible in the sustaining scriptures of Hinduism in very particular circumstances. Their suicide, therefore, is a ‘subaltern rewriting’ of suicide norms imposed by British meddling with Indian custom.19 The key matter however is that she still ‘cannot be heard or read’.20 Although Spivak opens with the limitation of the inquiry’s Indian focus, she closes with a statement of general fact. The specificity of the Bulgarian instance noted above, however, suggests that those on the receiving end of cultural hegemony are not always tacitly consenting, nor are they necessarily always ‘unheard’. The new literary culture, offering the opportunity for the Bulgarian oppressed to write (and speak) was not merely imitation of the dominating culture. Although a translation of Basil of Caesarea’s commentary on Genesis is based on the Greek original, for instance, that does not mean that it perpetuates the system of cultural hegemony it emerges from. To focus on this case briefly, the translation, carried out by John Exarch (a court theologian and preacher) falls in the tradition of Hexameral literature. Basil’s original relied on a nuanced, but nevertheless literal interpretation of the Bible:21 the words of Moses revealed divine truth, and had to act as the ‘standard against which all things must be judged’.22 In the very act of translation, John is no longer true to the system of religious legitimation Byzantium was promoting – the sanctity of the three languages Greek, Latin and Hebrew. The translation of the same words means their transition into a new cultural schema; the words of Moses are no longer an immovable standard, but a flexible, translatable set of ideas. John’s Slavonic text is also full of new additions and untranslated sections.23 The same can be said of multiple other translations of the period.

This is to say that cultures dominated by hegemonic imperial powers did not necessarily find themselves ‘represented’ in the political fashion in which Foucault and Deleuze accidentally represented them. The second matter is the contradictory nature of Spivak’s claims. Surely her rejection of the possibility for subaltern self-expression constitutes the very act of representation of the subaltern which is fundamental to the power structures that inform their continued inability to speak. In denying them the agency of speech, Spivak speaks on their behalf in the very same way she accuses Foucault and Deleuze. Thus, although her claims can inspire a useful level of caution, they, too, must be measured more carefully for what she considers ‘verbal slippage’. Spivak’s critique of the imperialistic project, embedded in dominant narratives of politics, history and ideology in the postcolonial West, is not unhelpful in looking at the medieval imperial East. Nor are the components of her study – language and representation – inapplicable beyond the context of postcolonial relations. Nevertheless, the model Spivak proposes, in seeking to protect the subaltern Other from misrepresentation by Western intellectuals, she deems the subaltern Other completely and entirely un-representable. Albeit briefly, the Bulgarian case study begins to demonstrate that the subaltern need not be unable to speak. Before they can be heard, their agency must be restored and sensitivity must be employed when considering their adoption and adaptation of the cultural hegemony of the imperial project.

Mirela Ivanova is a third year undergraduate reading history at Wadham College, Oxford. She is particularly interested in the history of literacy, its impact on religion, and the power-relationships between dominant and peripheral peoples in the early medieval period.

1 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), p. 271.

2 Ibid., p.275.

3 Quoted in ibid. See also Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, ‘Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation’ <https://libcom.org/library/intellectuals-power-a-conversation-between-michel-foucault-and-gilles-deleuze&gt; [accessed 20 March, 2015]; also in Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977).

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., p.283.

6 Harvey J. Kaye, ‘Political Theory and History: Gramsci and the British Marxist Historians’, in The Education of Desire: Marxists and the Writing of History (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 13.

7 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 3rd edition (London: V. Gollancz, 1980), p. 11.

8 John-Paul Sartre, ‘Preface’, in Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farringdon (New York: Grove Press, 1963), p. vii.

9 Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, ‘Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation’ <http://libcom.org/library/intellectuals-power-a-conversation-between-michel-foucault-and-gilles-deleuze&gt; [accessed 20 March, 2015]; also in Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977).

10 Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, p. 280.

11 Dimitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (London: Cardinal, 1974).

12 Ibid., p. 144.

13 See n.6

14 See Bulgarski Srednovekovni Pechati I Moneti, ed. Iordanka Iurkova (Sofia: Izd-vo “Bulgarski khudozhnik”, 1990), pp. 24-5.

15 With a few exceptions: for instance, Jonathan Shepard, ‘Byzantine Relations with the Outside World in the Ninth Century: an Introduction’, in Byzantium in the Ninth Century: Dead or Alive?, ed. Leslie Brubaker (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998).

16 George C. Soulis, ‘The Legacy of Cyril and Methodius to the Southern Slavs’, Dumbarton Oak Papers, 19 (1965), 19-43, p. 21.

17 A selection of such contemporary chronicles: in Latin, see Regino of Prum’s Chronicle in History and Politics in Late Carolingian and Ottonian Europe: The Chronicle of Regino of Prum and Adalbert of Magdeburg, Simon MacLean (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009); in Greek, John Skylitzes, A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057, trans. J. Wortley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Joseph Genesios, On the Reign of Emperors, trans. Anthony Kaldellis (Canberra: Australian Association of Byzantine Studies, 1998).

18 The homilies are Constantine of Preslav, ‘Uchitelnoto Evangelie’ in Turzhestvo na Slovoto. Zlantiyat Vek na Bulgarskata Literatura, ed. K. Ivanova, S. Nikolova (Sofia, 1967); on Genesis, John Exarch, Shestodnev, trans. Nikolai Kochev (Sofia: Nauka i izkustvo, 1981); for Nilus, Anastasius, Climacus and Choiroboskos, see Izbornik 1076 Goda, trans. Vera Semenovna Golyshenko, I. S. Kotkov (Moscow: Nauka, 1965).

19 Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, pp. 307-8.

20 Ibid.

21 Richard Lim, ‘The Politics of Interpretation in Basil of Caesarea’s “Hexaemeron”’, Vigilae Christianae, 44.4 (1990), 351-70, p. 352.

22 Ibid., p.352, p.358

23 Kochev, ‘Epilogue by the Translator’, in Shestodnev, pp. 296-7.

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