Winter 1998, Volume 15.1
Postcolonial Action: Hannah Arendt, Public/Private, Sati, and the Recuperation of Subaltern Agency
J. Chapin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His interests include postcolonial theory, women's literature, gay and lesbian literature, and literary theory.
The debate over the issue of sati1, or "widow-burning," in India is illustrative of a more general crisis in postcolonial studies. Postcolonial and poststructuralist theorists are largely elite, Western or Western-educated intellectuals, a privileged few, who generally propose to speak for "Third World" inhabitants and against colonialism or imperialism. But, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak suggests in "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in the course of their critique of imperialist discourse these theorists effectively elide the subjectivity and the agency of the subaltern,2 either by subtly re-establishing a unified, European Subject (which is Spivak's critique of Foucault and Deleuze in the essay), by simply ignoring the subaltern altogether, or by projecting (under the guise of "discovering") motivation onto the place of the subaltern. Spivak compellingly argues that subaltern subjectivity is irrecoverable, that the subaltern "cannot speak" and that we should instead turn our attention to ideological analysis of imperialist discourse—we should explore the reasons for the subaltern's silence. But merely assuming that a subaltern exists and ignoring her subjectivity and agency, focusing elsewhere, perpetuates subaltern silence. Recent theorists, including Rajeswari Sunder Rajan and Lata Mani, while accepting Spivak's line of reasoning, have rightly insisted that we must maintain a space for the subaltern in our theorization and guarantee her agency; failing this we become complicit in the silencing of the subaltern.
In the case of sati, Spivak points to the paternalistic, protectionist implications of condemnations of the practice (represented by a sentence she constructs: "White men are saving brown women from brown men" [Spivak 92]). Opposition to sati erases the agency of the women involved. But positing the agency of the subaltern sati tends to endorse the practice on that basis; as Rajan argues, "if one subscribes to a liberal ideology of the freedom of choice one must sometimes grant sati the dubious status of existential suicide" (19). Sati brings the general postcolonial crisis of the subaltern and the activist intellectual's relation to "Third World" culture to its logical extreme: an impasse between intervention at the cost of subaltern agency and non-intervention at the cost of imperialist oppression. Negotiating a way through this impasse is crucial for politically involved postcolonial theorists.
Taking sati as a representative example of this crisis, I would argue that the strategic use of Hannah Arendt's conception of a public/private distinction offers a way to insist on subaltern subjectivity and agency while condemning the practice of sati. Arendt's conception of subjectivity, which accords with Homi Bhabha's and Donna Haraway's understanding of the postmodern world as comprised of hybrid cultures bereft of foundational origins, suggests the possibility for a critique of sati that maintains subaltern agency. The sati as action is an over determined location in which the recuperation of subaltern agency free of ideology seems impossible. But Arendt's theories, by positing a public realm defined by action that is not bound to foundational structures and by locating subjectivity solely in that realm, insist on subaltern agency even if it cannot be apprehended (or theorized) in the act of sati. The use of Arendt also makes possible a critique of sati on the grounds of its status as a "private" phenomenon, determined by Hindu, governmental/legal, and patriarchal ideological stricturesits rigidity paralyzes political, and thus subjective, action.
Using Arendt, postcolonial theorists can maintain and insist upon a subaltern agent while intervening in colonial and imperialist discourses. Arendt allows theorists to "speak" without erasing the subaltern.
I will begin with an exploration of Arendt's philosophy of the public/private distinction, revising it through the work of Honig (as well as Bhabha and Haraway) to more fully realize its implications. An explanation of sati will follow, where I will briefly examine the work of Rajan, Mani, and Spivak and analyze sati in terms of the public/private division. Finally, I will draw together the implications of locating subjectivity in the public realm, its potential as a model for resistance to imperialism.
Drawing heavily on classical philosophy and influenced by Heidegger and Jaspers, Hannah Arendt developed a political philosophy designed to justify resistance to, and indeed condemn, the kind of totalitarian regimes that existed during her life. (She was born into a German Jewish family in the early 1900s and moved to Paris and ultimately the United States to avoid Hitler's regime.) Arendt conceived of the human condition as being defined by three categories: labor (animal laborans), work (homo faber), and action (vita activa) (Dossa 45-59, and Arendt's The Human Condition).
Labor comprises those activities that function solely to sustain life, to cater to the immediate needs of the body. Producing food, for example, is driven by biological necessity. Animal laborans is "incapable of ever transcending the cycle of necessity and its satisfaction …[it] is a fixed type, not subject to change, and necessity is a natural, a historical fact of life" (Dossa 60-61).
Work is also related to the body but is less restricted to it: it includes activities intended to modify the world to provide a lasting monument to humanity's presence on the earth. Work involves the production of things in private for the public realm"Instrumentality is the characteristic element of this mentality, in that homo faber makes things for use. The 'means-end category' is intrinsic to homo faber's conception of all things" (Dossa 62). From cities to cultural institutions, the products of work are offered to the public but derive initially from the private, from impulses of self-interest. Arendt thoroughly critiques utilitarianism as an extension of the labor mentality, suggesting that real meaning exists beyond the notion of things as means to further uses. The deterministic philosophy underlying homo faber taken to the extreme and allowed to dominate the world would erase "intrinsic and independent value" (Human Condition 137).
Vita activa, Arendt's third category of existence, suggests a purely public realm, freed from the self-interested and tyrannical drives of the body. Action, as distinct from labor and work, springs from social consciousness; the public (political) realm is undetermined, a space of infinite possibility, of total freedom. "Politics is the practice of civic life tempered by an elegant sensibility to the claims of imagination and meaning. Without the fact of freedom neither politics nor human meaning is conceivable" (Dossa 18); humanity, subjectivity, agency are all located in the public. Subjectivity is defined by the absence of self-interest and rigidly determinant influences.
Arendt maintains a strict separation between public and private, between the social and the body (the personal), because she sees the body as "a master signifier of necessity, irresistibility, imitability, and the determination of pure process. The body is a univocal instance of complete closure" (Honig 217). She argues that the body is despotic in its drive to fulfill its needs. The social and political realm, on the other hand, is a place of free action, where citizens can move beyond their bodies to make decisions and act politically—politics is characterized by "resistibility, openness, creativity, and incompleteness" (Honig 217).
Much recent feminist theory has sought to disrupt the public/private binary distinction, to make the personal political in order to problematize a patriarchal discourse that delegitimizes female experience. Arendt's reliance on that distinction would seem at first to make her work incompatible with feminist ideals. But, as Honig demonstrates, Arendt's theories are actually quite amenable to feminist recuperation. The distinction between public and private, for Arendt, is premised on the notion of the body's despotic influence on human actions and the need to separate this influence from political action in order to insure freedom. As the discussion of labor above suggests, a "despotic influence" is the focus of this opposition, rather than merely body/mind. Rigidity is what Arendt seeks to avoid, whether it be in the form of biologically-determined self-interest or institutional control or the positing of "essential," "natural" realities or the insistence on the value of tradition. The opposition becomes freedom/restrictions on freedom, whatever their form. For feminists, making the personal political is intended to disrupt patriarchally-motivated imposition of binary conceptions which delegitimize women's experience and control women. The sort of binaristic essentialism practiced by the patriarchy could be seen in Arendtian terms as a paralyzing of political power through "privatization." The patriarchy restricts the free actions of women by instituting structures of understanding which determine their behavior and which justify oppression.
Honig points to Arendt's reading of the Declaration of Independence for justification of this interpretation of her philosophy. In it, Arendt divides the statement "We hold these truths to be self-evident" into the performative "we hold" and the constative "self-evident truths." The former is the foundation for political power, the "we" constituting a collective identity that acts, while the "self-evident truths" are rigid and compulsive, paralyzing the activity of power and determining, rather than freeing, action. An extension of the performative/constative distinction allows Honig to argue along feminist lines that the body is constructed in performance and thus can be political (in that our conception of the body is a construction). The body is constantly being redefined through action. Only when the body is seen as essential does it become a constative impediment to freedom. Labor, work, and action can be seen as sensibilities rather than as absolutes, as representative of particular approaches to the world which either help or hinder the movement of political power.
This focus on the breakdown of Arendt's own boundaries between labor, work and action, between the public and the private, links her work to that of postmodern theorist Donna Haraway. "Revising" Arendt by way of Haraway makes her theories more compatible with postmodern/poststructuralist conceptions of the self and reality. Haraway posits the notion of the cyborg as a metaphor for postmodern subjectivity. She argues that the breakdown of divisions between human and animal, between animal/human (organism) and machine, and between physical and non-physical create a space for a subjectivity free of originary myths, free of humanist discourses of wholeness, of totalizing theories. "By the late twentieth-century," she says, "our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism: in short, we are cyborgs" (568). Our hybrid nature means that we constantly construct ourselves anew; rather than looking to some scripted notion of our historical, psychological, or mythical past for self-definition, we are in Arendt's sense free. Haraway's description of the cyborg as "resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity…oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence" (569), could be a description of Arendt's vita activa. She proposes "pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and responsibility in their construction," suggesting a "strategic essentialism" of the sort endorsed by Spivak (Postcolonial Critic 10-12).
Combining Arendt and Haraway with Bhabha's work in the location of culture, then, opens the way for an insistence on the eternal possibility of political action. Bhabha argues that colonial discourse, and by extension all imperialist discourse, must constantly re-iterate itself in an attempt to maintain consistent hegemonic power; in the difference that arises through this repetition (as Derrida argues, iteration never produces identical utterances), in the "liminal spaces," the colonized agent finds the break in hegemonic discourse through which to produce hybrid understandings, to disrupt and change that discourse. Hybridity is the result of a necessary ambivalence at the root of authoritative discourse:
Hybridity is the sign of the productivity of colonial power, its shifting forces and fixities; it is the name for the strategic reversal of the process of domination through disavowal (that is, the production of discriminatory identities that secure the 'pure' and original identity of authority). (Bhabha 112)
Authority is never stable; it must constantly re-assert itself, interacting with its subjects to re-enforce its dominance. This repetition insures the possibility for change—authority can never identically reproduce itself. Authority thus produces hybridity, and
If the effect of colonial power is seen to be the production of hybridization rather than the noisy command of colonialist authority or the silent repression of native traditions, then an important change of perspective occurs. The ambivalence at the source of traditional discourses on authority enables a form of subversion, founded on the undecidability that turns the discursive conditions of dominance into the grounds of intervention. (Bhabha 112)
The discursive nature of authority opens the possibility for hybridity and within that hybridity exists the possibility for resistance and intervention. The subject of authoritative discourse is involved in the process of the production of that discourse and its hybridity. Thus, colonial power is not absolute; colonized peoples have openings for resistance. Bhabha's focus on the interstitial and liminal spaces that inevitably occur in discourse-as-iteration (the only kind) posits the ever-present breaks in hegemonic authority within which action is possible. As no discourse is absolutely hegemonic, there is always room for resistant, free action.
Bhabha's argument that authoritative discourse is never entirely stable, then, opens a space for the subaltern subject within the myriad of discourses surrounding her. It is in this space, a space of possibility, that a conception of the subject-as-possibility, derived from Arendt and Haraway, can exist.
Arendt's public/private distinction combined with theories developed by Bhabha and Haraway locates subjectivity in a public realm defined by the absence of rigidified, determinant influence. Human agency means freedom, freedom depends on possibility, and possibility exists in even the most totalizing discourses.
The religious practice of sati, the subject of many recent debates between Indian feminists and postcolonial theorists in India and abroad, is a valuable site for exploring the implications of locating subjectivity in the public realm. Theorists such as Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Lata Mani, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak problematize the issue, suggesting the danger of complicity with imperialist discourses inherent in condemnations of the practice while at the same time implicitly desiring to condemn it as an extreme example of the oppression of women. A paradox arisesthat by condemning the practice of sati a theorist erases the subjectivity of the woman involved, thus assisting the oppressive discourses which provoked the condemnation in the first place—which Arendt's theories can help to avoid.
Sati derives from ancient Hindu tradition; the religious interpretation of the practice reinforces patriarchal social structures in positing that wives are absolutely subordinate to their husbands, that their devotion and chastity is of primary value. Upon the death of her husband, a wife can "choose" to immolate herself on his funeral pyre, honoring his death and "proving" her chaste devotion. The wife gains prestige in the afterlife, transcending her female body (van de Veer 256-7; Spivak 96).
Peter van de Veer argues that the contemporary Hindu religion in India is characterized by a privileging of written texts. This valuation derives from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century search for Ur- texts of the religion at the behest of colonial authorities who sought a means of establishing an authoritative legal power structure for the control of India. European tradition privileges written over oral records; when colonial authorities sought to establish and clarify a religious code of law with which to regulate the colony they conveyed this privileging to Brahman scriptural authorities. Van de Veer draws on the work of Mani to explore sati in this context; Mani argues that
the notion of tradition in [nineteenth-century debates on sati] is specifically 'colonial'. Her argument is that 'woman' is neither subject nor object of that debate but that it became the site of the formulation of tradition. In her view Brahmanical scripture only became a privileged source of tradition because the colonial authorities established it as such in their need for an indigenous legal basis for their rule over Indian society. (van de Veer 256)
Prior to colonization, van de Veer argues, Hindu tradition was based on orality and performance. The colonially-motivated collection and privileging of written authority was an attempt to institutionalize and rigidify religious law; what was once fluid is now carefully determined by reference to absolutes. Religious authorities and the colonial discourse that guided them instituted the distinction between writing and speech deconstructed by Derrida in Limited, Inc. Derrida argues that this distinction is an illusory one, that speech depends on the same structures of iteration as writing and that both are susceptible to co-optation because of the difference inherently produced by that iteration. By trying to distinguish between the two, colonial discourse creates an artificial opposition as a mechanism for social control. Insistence on a rigid hierarchy of textual authority (determined by colonial actors and privileging written texts) was an attempt to stabilize the domination and oppression of the indigenous populace.
In "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak critiques Western poststructuralist theory as represented by Foucault and Deleuze and its tendency to reinstitute the notion of a Western sovereign subject in the act of deconstructing it. She goes on to posit the irretrievable heterogeneity of the subaltern subject, effaced by the orientalizing construction of sovereign subjectivity defined by power and desire. Foucault and Deleuze, she argues, inadvertently impose a Western Subject on the place of the subaltern.
Spivak's article culminates in a consideration of sati. She argues that sati cannot be read from the perspective of the subaltern since
Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the 'third world woman' caught between tradition and modernization. (Spivak 102)
Ideological forces subsume the sati, and a reading of her necessarily appropriates her. The sati is on one hand represented as an emblem of "true" and traditional Indian womanhood by traditionalist Hindu discourses and on the other as a sovereign, Western Subject by imperialist, modernized discourses. Both discourses ignore the sati herself, who, Spivak argues, has no means of speaking outside of these discourses. She cannot speak for herself, and attempts to "record" her voice inevitably produce that voice, merely projecting a discourse onto the place of the subaltern.
Furthermore, attempts to engage the debate over sati cannot recover subaltern subjectivity. Sympathy for the sati manifests itself as protectionist discourse ("white men are saving brown women from brown men"), while a lack of interventionist sympathy condemns her to the patriarchal forces that define her as "voluntary." Ultimately, Spivak concludes that the subaltern cannot speak, that any attempt to record her voice is inevitably an appropriation. She argues instead that it is this very silence that must be analyzed—we should focus on the mechanisms by which discourse effaces the voices of an entire group of people. Spivak insists on the futility of attempts by intellectuals to recover subaltern subjectivity or to provide the subaltern with a platform from which to speak, suggesting rather that we shift the level of our analysis to focus on the discursive structures which foreclose on the voices of subalterns.
Rajeswari Sunder Rajan refuses to concede Spivak's notion of subaltern subjectivity as irrecoverable (in her essay, "The Subject of Sati"). Rajan implicitly argues that insisting on the subjectivity and agency of the subaltern is crucial to any meaningful critique of the practice of sati and the ideological structures which construct and surround it. She posits a dilemma that arises out of a concern for maintaining the meaningful subjectivity of the sati: "if one subscribes to a liberal ideology of the freedom of choice one must sometimes grant sati the dubious status of existential suicide. To refuse to do so is to find oneself, as feminists have done, in another bind, that of viewing the sati as inexorably a victim and thereby emptying her subjectivity of any function or agency" (Rajan 19). Granting sati as the "choice" of suicide, however, comes close to the pro- sati rhetoric which insists on the voluntary nature of sati; by allowing the agency of the sati one can inadvertently endorse the practice. Rajan is not willing to do this.
Instead, she suggests a way out of the bind by using Elaine Scarry's theoretical work on pain. Pro-sati arguments often derive from the suggestion that in the act of sati a woman "transcends pain"—the religious significance of the ritual hinges on a moment of ascendance whereby the fire of the funeral pyre becomes to the sati "as cool as water" (Kane, cited in Spivak 100). Rajan argues for the necessity of shifting a conception of subjectivity from a focus on consciousness to a focus on embodied subjectivity and personification—"In the case of sati, this involves shifting the emphasis from sati-as-death (murder or suicide, authentic or inauthentic) to sati-as-burning, and investigating both the subjective pain and the objective spectacle that this shift reveals" (Rajan 19). She argues that pain can define subjectivity in certain contexts, that the pain of the sati demands recognition of her subjectivity. In response to the pro-sati contention that the sati feels no pain, Rajan insists on the universality of pain and that resistance to pain impels one to freedom.
But deriving subjectivity from the physical process of pain seems ultimately reductive and deterministic; Arendt would argue that pain is a universal biological process and that grounding subjectivity in pain actually restricts and makes freedom impossible. The suffering subject is one absolutely determined by forces out of its controlRajan's "transit to a state of no-pain" (22) is inevitable; a subject confronted by pain has no choice but to resist it. While Rajan's suggestion that sympathy for the subject-in-pain is important in formulating intervention, her contention that this subject is acting/reacting emphasizes the reaction to the exclusion of free actionsubaltern subjectivity becomes not only universalized (through the emphasis on a common experience of pain) but also unified, invoking the specter of the European humanistic Subject critiqued by Spivak. Rajan's arguments suggest that the subaltern subject is "like everyone else" in her painand while recognizing varieties of pain, she posits a "universal" understanding of pain, collapsing subaltern subjectivity into a universal Subject. She ultimately forecloses on the heterogeneity of subalternity proposed by Spivak.
Lata Mani, mentioned briefly above, acknowledges Spivak's insight that the subaltern cannot speak and accepts that subalternity is heterogeneous, but, like Rajan, seeks nonetheless to establish the subaltern's subjectivity. She analyzes nineteenth-century colonial discourses on sati, tracing protectionist arguments and noting the absence of discussions of the sati as subject and of the sati's pain in colonial texts. She does uncover, however, instances of resistance on the part of satis, exploring descriptions of incidents in which satis would leap from the flames before being burned to death.
Mani attempts "to reconstruct woman as subject and to restore to the center elements that are marginalized and elided by [colonial] accounts: the violence of sati, the active suffering of widows, and women's resistance to, and coercion in, widow burning" (403). She recognizes, though, the limits of her investigations: "While there is sufficient evidence here to unsettle the image of the widow as passive, willing, or silent, these descriptions of widow burning do not yield elaborate representations of women's subjectivity" (403). She insists, though, on the necessity of trying to recover or insure the sati's subjectivity. In opposition to Rajan, Mani contends that a subjectivity defined merely by pain is inadequate, that although sati can be further explored and the place of the sati elaborated upon, it is likely that ultimately Spivak is correct in positing the silence of the subaltern. But, as argued before, merely positing this silence and looking elsewhere perpetuates the effacement of the subaltern agent. Mani cannot entirely reconstruct the subjectivity of the subaltern from accounts of sati; Rajan's attempt to recuperate the subject-in-pain inevitably universalizes and unifies that subjectivity, and Spivak concedes that subaltern subjectivity is irrecoverable. All of these discourses fall short of insuring a unique and non-reductive subaltern subjectivity while insisting on the necessity of that subjectivity. A closer look at the ideological discourses surrounding the space of sati will help to demonstrate the value of Arendt's theories in this situation.
Sati in the Context of Public/Private
The variety of discourses intersecting in sati locate it in a paradoxical combination of public and private realms. The discourses of spiritual individualism, religious patriarchy, governmental authority, and critical paternalism all conflict, producing an overdetermined ideological space.
Sati is founded on a religious understanding of the private relationship between wife and husband. The wife is associated with home, subordinate to the dominant husband—she functions as his Arendtian private realm, tending to the needs of the body. As was noted before, chastity and devotion are privileged characteristics; according to Dorothy Stein, women are traditionally seen as having too much energy and thus need to be harnessed to a man, the man is understood as restraining the wife and restricting her to the private (468). Peter van de Veer explains the relationship as that of the wife to her god (the man); Spivak, in tracing the implications of various forms of suicide in Hindu belief, notes the structure of domination of the relationship that produces sati (van de Veer 256; Spivak 95).
The space of performance of sati, however, is a public onethe wife immolates herself on the husband's pyre at a public funeral. Recent instances of sati have drawn large crowds to witness the act, emphasizing its role as a public spectacle (Hawley 4). A privately-driven act is performed and validated in the public realm.
The legal relationship to sati further complicates its status in relation to public/private distinctions. First the colonial and then the Indian nationalist government deemed sati subject to public regulation—a prohibition of it implies that it is a public act legitimately engaged by common law. Indian law typically distinguishes between private religious law and public common law, the former regulating the personal and the latter regulating the social (Pathak and Rajan 258). By extending common law to cover cases of sati, the government suggests that sati is a social act with social implications.
But government prohibition of sati drives actual occurrences of it "underground." Since participants in sati are subject to prosecution, performance of it is hidden, made private. Reports of sati are never presented firsthand, which would suggest complicity and liability. Rather, a complex web of barriers between society at large and the actual sati are erected.
Further, the law seeks to prosecute satis themselves, arguing that they are voluntarily participating (van de Veer 257). Voluntary action suggests, in terms of Arendt, free political action. At the same time, the fact of regulation intimates the need to "rescue" satis, positing the co-option of their agency. Legal arguments against sati implicitly insist that satis are the coerced product of religious ideology. Satis are both privately determined and publicly free.
Hindu discourse institutionalizes sati, scripting the performance in the form of written ritual practices and elevating its significance to a reification of the religious tradition as a whole. Pro-sati reactions to incidents, recorded in Hawley and elsewhere, read sati as an affirmation of Hindu understandings of both the personal and the social. Sati becomes a profession of faith, metonymically extended to all believers. Through this large-scale valorization, the individual sati's agency is further elided, her personal significance being co-opted by her representation as a religious symbol or icon. Spivak also notes that
The leap of suttee from private to public has a clear and complex relationship with the changeover from a mercantile and commercial to a territorial and administrative British presence…[and quoting Ashis Nandy] 'To many [colonized groups] sati became an important proof of their conformity to older norms at a time when these norms had become shaky within.'" (Spivak 94)
Sati is a way for Hindus to assert their culture in the face of colonial authority; as such it is both a resistant action and a reproduction of the colonization against which it is intended to protest.
The variety of ideological forces which combine to influence the space of the sati overdetermine that space. Sati becomes, in Arendt's terms, a "private" location, in that it is rigidly determined by essentializing forces. Free political action can come neither from the perspective of the government nor that of the Hindu religious structures.
Lata Mani's examination of colonialist discourse on sati does suggest a Bhabhean moment of resistance to the imperializing, totalizing discourses by which it is circumscribed. Mani recounts incidents in which satis would mount the funeral pyre and at the last moment, before burning to death, would leap free of the flames. In the Arendtian framework developed above, these actions could be read as the insistent assertion of political, public action in the face of a dehumanizingly rigid social structure. In a moment of crisis, these satis rewrite, reiterate, those discourses enveloping them, producing a hybrid understanding and fully realizing their potential meaning through free action.
In the discursively overdetermined location of sati, then, there is a space opened by Bhabha's theories in which to posit the existence of an Arendtian subject-in-possibility. The subaltern subject's agency is assured, as is its heterogeneity—locating subjectivity in possibility insists on the infinite difference of subjectivity. One can also condemn, without erasing that subjectivity, the discourses which intersect in and overdetermine the location of sati as attempts to restrict and determine, to rigidify, subaltern subjectivity. One can endorse the dismantling of the space of sati from all sides, positing its dissolution as a movement towards subaltern possibility.
A reinterpretation of Hannah Arendt's political philosophy allows one to assert subaltern subjectivity through an insistence on public sentiment as the location of human meaning. Applied to sati, this approach suggests the possibility for transcending the paralyzing opposition between protectionist complicity and elision of subaltern agency. Using Bhabha's deconstruction of colonial discourse, one can posit the possibility of agency even in radically overdetermined spaces such as that of sati. Beyond this, one may insist on the existence of subjective agency without specifically apprehending it. The public is not limited to what society can hear, and the critic/intellectual's ear is not a privileged determinant of subjectivity. The subaltern can speak whether or not we can hear her.
Locating subjectivity in the public realm ensures the possibility of heterogeneous agency while allowing a political critique of rigidifying social structures. Rather than condemning sati in order to "save brown women from brown men," one can critique it as a scripted moment of hegemonic discourse, as a privatizing and paralyzing of what should remain performative and politically free—that is, the action and agency of the subaltern subject. All of the discourses surrounding sati can be condemned in that they are ultimately attempts to determine, rigidify, or privatize the actions of the subaltern woman.
Using a feminist interpretation of Arendt in combination with Bhabha's theory of hybridity and resistance and Haraway's conception of postmodern subjectivity allows the postcolonial theorist to locate subaltern subjectivity in possibility. Not necessarily a unified subject, the subaltern agent nevertheless exists and speaks. Theoretical intervention turns on a condemnation of rigidity: rigidifying motions, whether on the part of religious institutions, indigenous governments or imperialist powers, threaten to foreclose on the agency of the subaltern. Though the subaltern can never be entirely erased, movement should be away from rigidifying authoritative discourse and towards a "free" space of public possibility.
1Sati will be explained more fully in a later section of this paper; oversimplifying, it is the practice whereby a widow "voluntarily" immolates herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. I follow the practice of Rajeswari Sunder Rajan in my use of the term "sati": "I have used 'sati' to refer, as in Hindi (and as recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary), both to 'the Hindu widow who immolates herself on the funeral pile with her husband's body', and to 'the immolation of a Hindu widow in this way'" (Rajan 35).
2Spivak suggests that the term "subaltern" refers to"the margins (one can just as well say the silent, silenced center) of the circuit marked out by this epistemic violence [of imperialist/colonialist law and education], men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariaton the other side of the international division of labor form socialized capital (Spivak, "Can the Subaltern" 78).
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