Reflections on the "non-narrativisibility" of the subaltern and the CCA

Upon reading Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak" and Mohan Dutta and Ambar Basu's "Negotiating our Postcolonial Selves", I noted the point made that work involving the subaltern comes "with no guarantees" because the subaltern is heterogeneous and hence, "non-narrativisible".

The understanding I derive from this is that the researcher, with all his or her privileges, cannot ever fully be in the shoes or fully understand the subaltern participant because he or she can never have the same lived experiences of that person. We need to come to terms with the other's difference and accept the impossibility of ever knowing it because it exceeds our understanding or expectations.

Here, I am reminded of the time when I began my study into the benzene poisoning of factory migrant workers in southern China in 2013. At a meeting with four collaborators, three of whom were themselves subaltern victims of occupational illnesses, I presented my interview questions. Very soon however the discussion turned into strong critique of my questions.

"Your questions are too superficial", "you are not getting into, or digging deep enough into the heart of the matter", "there are areas you have totally missed out."

I was at first shocked, and then injured and wounded. I could feel my ears and face getting hot -- and probably red too if I had been able to see myself. I was at first defensive and as I battled internally wondering how I should respond, a small niggling thought emerged: Why do I need to fight this? Should I not listen? I have never had an occupational disease, nor have I ever worked in a factory, so why am I pretending so hard that I know better than these people?

Fast forward two years, and I now attempt to juxtapose that event, that post-dinner discussion in a hotel room, to the concept that the subaltern is "non-narrativisible", and that subaltern studies come "with no guarantees" because the lived experience of the subaltern is outside, entirely removed from my own lived experiences. I can only, in the words of Spivak, "suspend as far as possible the clamour of his (my) own consciousness" as I continue in my work of documenting the topic of my study, an activity that I consider to be one of being in solidarity with my participants.

But here, as I get more conscious of my reflexivity, I ask the question: is it possible to "suspend my own consciousness"? Is that even humanly possible? For in walking and talking and trying to understand my participants, am I not deploying my entire being and consciousness to make sense of their experiences? Here, my positionality is not something I can turn my back on, but it is something that is very much a part of me - my identity which I carry with me as I figure out my questions, my probes as I make sense of the lived experiences of my subaltern friends and how they came to be in the state that they are now. This same identity, with all its naivety and feebleness, which will attempt to co-construct the journey ahead with my subaltern friends.


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