Tag Archive: spivak


The Subaltern Disguise

Thoughts on “The creature leaves the subaltern hierarchy”
https://foundationsofliterarystudies.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/the-creature-breaks-the-subaltern/

A deep thought has surfaced after reading this post. So far we have talked about why the creature is the representation of the subaltern and have used evidence to prove that. What if the creature is not subaltern however and is actually the failed representation of the subaltern? During his last line the blogger states, “While Safie remains silent, the monster is able to relate his tale to his creator and, in turn, to Walton, removing his status as a voiceless other.” The creature cannot represent the subaltern because in speaking, he is no longer voiceless.

I agree with the points that the blogger has made to show that the creature is not a member of the subaltern and I would like to add one more important point to that. When the blogger mentions that the creature has accepted a higher rule set my mind jumped to an interesting observation. Of all the people in the story, the creature is the only one that transcends the frame narrative of the story. Walton, Victor and Felix/Safie stay in their respective frame narratives for the most part. The creature plays by a different set of rules however.The creature does stay in his frame when he is retelling his story but when he talks to old De Lacey, he has jumped into the Felix/Safie frame. When he visits Frankenstein on several occasions and talks to Victor he jumps into that frame. Even in the frame that is farthest removed from him, the creature ends up speaking to Walton himself meaning he jumps into that frame as well. According to Spivak, the creature even has the ability to jump completely out of the frames of the book. She states that, “The frame is thus simultaneously not a frame, and the monster can step “beyond the text” and be “lost in darkness” (Spivak 851). The monster is not subaltern. He is portrayed that way but I think that could be deliberate in an attempt to hide the real power that he seems to posses over everyone else in the novel.

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If not for Frankenstein I probably never would’ve heard of Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney, let alone his seminal work, Ruins of Empires.

It’s not a widely read book these days, but remember, it’s the exact one from which the creation “obtained a cursory knowledge of history” (Shelley 108). Listing the “different nations of the earth” (108), he talks about Asiatics, Grecians, Romans, Christian kings and even Native Americans — but never explicitly the British.

I never noticed this, but the student gfeldtx did, and in “Powerful Omission,” claims, “Through omission, Shelley has rendered the most powerful nation on earth voiceless. This is the same voicelessness that categorizes [Gayatri Chakravorty] Spivak’s idea of the subaltern.”

A commenter added: “Felix is French, and Volney is French, yet there is no mention of anything regarding Napoleon and his French empire, or honestly just anything regarding France in general.”

No mention of Britain. No mention of France. What’s up that?

I contend that this omission of the British and French empires does not render these empires voiceless. In fact, I think the omission calls more attention to these nations, which cannot be confined within a “cursory knowledge of history” but are at large within the novel through the manifestation of the creation as the revolutionary working class.

Based on the despairingly great lengths I took to actually understand what Volney’s 1791 book is about (you can find a pretty decent summary here), I wish I could articulate it better. Here’s my attempt: Volney highlights the constant dispute between the higher and lower class as the source of all social conflict, and he proposes that through the progress of science, all people will become enlightened and will then work for one another’s interests. Now, I know, we’ve commented at length about the creation as proletariat, but lend me your ear real quick.

I hesitate to paint broad strokes, but the creation embodies the mob. He is the lower class, the French revolutionaries, the British revolutionaries. He cannot be contained in Felix’s teachings because he is present history, the people who “possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property” (109) and have the collective capacity to

Throughout Frankenstein lies this tension. While there may be no mention of France and Britain in relation to Ruins, remember Elizabeth’s letter to Victor: “The republican institutions of our country have produced simpler and happier manners than those which prevail in the great monarchies that surround it. […] A servant in Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England” (66). But what happens to Justine?

If I had more time, I’d go further than this. Remember the very first words of the novel? “To Mrs. Saville, England” (28). And when the novel closes, where is Walton returning? “I am returning to England” (183). Everything we’ve read has come through the lens of the English. They’re on the outside of this confined text. And so is the monster.

Blog Post: “The creature leaves the subaltern hierarchy” at https://foundationsofliterarystudies.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/the-creature-breaks-the-subaltern/

Real talk: I picked this post because it was shortest. To summarize the poster’s argument, the creature disrupts the relationship between the colonizer (Felix) and the “subaltern” (Safie) because the creature sympathizes both with and against Safie, and because the creature gains a voice.

The connection between the title and the post doesn’t seem very clear. Therefore, we’ll start by defining the “subaltern hierarchy.” I’m going to take a wild stab and say that in the “subaltern hierarchy,” the colonizer is above the subaltern. Where does the creature fall on this hierarchy? The colonizer? Maybe. The creature does eventually desire to “go to the vast wilds of South America,” with a mate, and I suppose that would be a colony of sorts (129). How about the subaltern, the people with less power? The creature seems to lack power, as he is powerless to change people’s rejection of him. However, if Safie, a Muslim-Christan woman, is one of the subaltern, can the creature really be on the same level as her? She has the power to reject him as well. The creature doesn’t lie below the subaltern. He has some power over nature, and he has superhuman attributes, as seen when he bounds over the ice. He doesn’t go above the colonizers either. Victor still has more power than him in denying him a female creature. Therefore, I propose that the creature was never a part of this “subaltern hierarchy” in the first place. He has always been the other.

But what of the connection between the creature and Safie? The creature once again mirrors a woman, just as Justine mirrored his monstrosity during her trial (“I almost began to think I was the monster that he said I was” [83]). This adds to more ambiguity of the creatures status. He is referred to as male, but more parallels appear between him and the women of the story than any of the men besides Victor. The creature’s ambiguity is what shatters the relationship between Felix as the colonizer and Safie as the subaltern. The balance of power is uncertain.

In the final point about the creature removing his status as a voiceless other, I’d argue that that isn’t quite true. Just because the creature’s story is in first person doesn’t mean it isn’t as indirect as Safie’s story. Victor tells the creature’s story. By doing so, he removes the creature’s voice and replaces it with his own. Although the creature’s story is told through his perspective, Victor’s unreliable narrative makes it questionable how much of the story was Victor and how much of the story was the creature.

Reflecting on “The Power of Ambiguity” https://foundationsofliterarystudies.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/the-power-of-ambiguity/

I was struck by the student’s potent question, “Does the monster know himself where his sympathy lies?” It is easy to assume that the monster belongs to the “colonized” group due to his existence as the outcast creation, yet this question alludes to the possibility of the monster’s representation as one of the colonizers. Does the monster sympathize for the conquering of the native American races or with the decline of the once great and virtuous Roman empire? I agree with the student’s conjecture that the monster’s position as the subaltern is “necessarily ambiguous” to reflect that quality of imperialism in which the cultures interact and blend, thus obstructing their individual identities. The monster responds appropriately to the conflicts, or ambiguities, present in the history of human empires, by his own “strange feelings” (109). He questions the contradictory nature of human history— “at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base” (109)— and in doing so begins to question his own identity: “And what was I?” (109).

The uncertainty in the monster’s response to the histories Felix narrates reflects the narrative ambiguity, which, according to Spivak, creates “this great flawed text” (851). Spivak observes that in the end of Shelley’s novel “distinctions of human individuality themselves seem to fall away from the novel” (850), as if each of the players in her story are capable of exiting the text on their own. For example, in refusing to describe the monster’s death and close the framed narrative with Margaret Saville’s perspective, Shelley indicates that each “cannot be contained by the text” (850). This interpretation provides that the narrative itself is the colonizer and its characters the colonized, because they are kept within the world of the narrative, and we realize their colonized position only when they are allowed to escape it. Spivak summarizes this point in her essay: “the discursive field of imperialism does not produce unquestioned ideological correlatives for the narrative structuring” (847). In other words, Shelley does not directly address imperialist theory, but embeds it within the framed structure of her novel. The frame structure inevitably creates a binary structure of one individual subjected to the narrative power of another.

The student alludes briefly, but leaves room for expansion, to the layered imperialism in the novel: Felix is subjected to the imperialist commands of the society that exiled him, Safie is colonized by both her father and Felix.This layered, ambiguous reflection on imperialism also parallels the framing structure of the narrative and could be given further attention.

For the blog post this Thursday (4/2), students will write a post that builds on a student’s previous post on the blog prompt below (choose only one).  Try to improve the student’s close reading of the assigned passage or, if you prefer, include other related passages in the novel that help expand the argument.  Students could also respond to a previous student comment on one of these posts.  Whatever students choose to do, they should write their own post and include a link within it to the previous student’s post (or comment).  Please categorize it under “The Subaltern Monster Speaks” and don’t forget to create specific tags.

 

Past blog prompt: do a close reading of the last paragraph on page 108-109 based on Spivak’s postcolonial perspective.  What are the ideologies instilled through Felix’s western education, and why did the creature weep with Safie over the demise of the Native American population?  Does this strong identification between the creature and Safie imply that he is like a foreign colonized woman?  Take the time to introduce, explain, and contextualize the quoted passage, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, always alert to images, themes, and motifs that seem slightly odd or out-of-place and to significant omissions.

See student responses to this post under this link:

https://foundationsofliterarystudies.wordpress.com/category/the-subaltern-monster-speaks-48/

 

In the colonial perspective Spivak criticizes, the feminine subaltern is the voiceless other that is distinct from the colonizer, yet dependent on him. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein seems to support the colonial perspective at first glance, since Felix educates the foreigner Safie to lift her up from her culture’s role for her. One might suggest that their relationship actually weakens the distinct barrier between the colonizer and subaltern by having the colonizer mimic the subaltern: “He had chosen the work, he said, because the declamatory style was framed in imitation of eastern authors,” (108). However, this mimicry is only for appearance. The clarifier “he said” is unnecessary since his dialogue is already known as the source of the creature’s knowledge. Instead, the clause brings attention to how both Safie and the creature are receiving their information through Felix, a formerly upper-class European male. The education is only “framed” in the perspective and not actually entrenched in it, a fact supported by the subjects covered. The education speaks of ancient Greece, Rome, and kings, but there is no material on the current Europe that surrounds the characters. The only current issue, the genocide of the Americans, is inherently detached by both geographic distance and the cultural distinction between Spanish and British. This lack of relevance keeps focus off of the relationship between subaltern and colonist, hiding it and protecting it from scrutiny.

Despite the attempt to reinforce the colonist-subaltern relationship, the monster presents a flaw. He manages to assimilate the experience of Safie, both informational and emotional like when he “wept with Safie,”  (109). Despite their synonymous experience, the wording implies the creature does not belong. Instead of simply saying he would not have been able to analyze the literature, the monster says  “I should not,” implying some sort of higher rules set the creature has accepted (108). With his male identity that is still other, the colonial perspective suggested by Spivak identifies him more with the Turkish culture that oppresses Safie and justifies Felix’s education. The creature knows the colonial perspective demands that he not break the simple picture of the colonizer teacher and the subaltern student, yet he defies the convention by associating himself, a male figure, with the sympathies given to the feminine subaltern. The colonial perspective becomes a post-colonial one because the subaltern is no longer confined to the role the colonizer gives it. While Safie remains silent, the monster is able to relate his tale to his creator and, in turn, to Walton, removing his status as a voiceless other.

The last paragraph in page 108 of Frankenstein depicts the creature’s close observance of the de Lacey family, specifically concerning patriarch Felix’s warm treatment of an Arabian woman, who Felix referred to as “his sweet Arabian” (107). This woman, Safie, was an adopted daughter of the de Lacey family, and Felix takes the initiative of teaching her the native French language, which she struggled with as she “understood very little [and] conversed in broken accents” (108). He noted that while he “improved in speech, [he] also learned the science of letters, as it was taught to the stranger” (108), with one such “letter” being an actual book, Volney’s “Ruins of Empires.” This book enabled him to gain a strong amount of mastery of French, as he himself states that “he should not have understood the purport of this book, had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations” (108). Even though Spivak states that the book is an “attempt at an enlightened universal secular, rather than a Eurocentric Christian, history” (CP), its perspective is still tinged with Eurocentrism, with “plenty of incidental imperialist sentiment” (CP) natural of that era, like the rest of Frankenstein. Such Eurocentrism illustrates and defines the creature and Safie’s similar positions as outsiders in society through certain indicators such as their grief over the “original inhabitants” (109) of the Americas.

One of those indicators was why the book was chosen by Felix to instruct Safie in the first place. It is apparently “because [its] declamatory style was framed in imitation of the eastern authors” (108). Since the word “declamatory” means “bombastic,” Felix’s reasoning as to why chose this book is rooted in his preconceived notions of eastern peoples as a “bombastic” kind of people in speech and mannerisms. To Felix, they have a uniquely different way of expressing themselves and he felt that this book was demonstrative of such differences. In this sense, we already get the sense that the book will discuss eastern peoples and their empires in a different light than Europeans and their empires, and this is the case. The creature states that he “obtained a cursory knowledge of history, and a view of the several empires at present” (108). Well, this knowledge was definitely “cursory” and definitely offered a certain “view” of the world’s empires, based on the book’s simple and biting characterizations of non-Europeans like Asiatics being “slothful” (108) in comparison to its glowing description of the Grecians as possessing “stupendous genius and mental activity” (108) and the early Romans’ “wonderful virtue” (108). This strong distinction in qualities between Europeans and eastern peoples is an example of how even though, as previously mentioned, Volney set out to write the book in an enlightened, secular viewpoint, it still had classic indicators of a perspective and worldview shaped by traditional Eurocentric colonialist attitudes. Sweeping generalizations of an entire people as “slothful” makes that unmistakably clear. Spivak also made a point that ” nineteenth century British literature [saw] imperialism… as England’s social mission [and] a critical part of the cultural representation of England to be British” (CP), which can confirm the evident Eurocentrism in Volney’s words and the underlying Eurocentrism of Felix in his decision-making regarding the selection of Volney’s book to teach Safie.

The point where the creature and Safie weep over “the hapless fate” (109) of the Native Americans is the point where the similarities between the two shine stronger than ever. This is because both of them are outsiders in the society they currently inhabit, to a significant extent. The creature is an outsider because of his non-human and grotesque appearance, while Safie is an outsider because of her origin, culture and gender. As a non-European and easterner, she is of the same people who Volney, as a person trying to write in an enlightened and secular style, still characterized as slothful. In a society where Eurocentrism was so ingrained that it was still evident even with efforts to the contrary, of course Safie and people like her were not going to be fully accepted. Her gender factors in here as well because of women’s default second-class status in society, thus as a “foreign colonized (by Eurocentrism) woman” she is that much more disadvantaged as an outsider. The creature and Safie both feel empathy with the Native Americans because of how they were subjugated, overpowered and forcibly turned into second-class citizens in a land formerly theirs. The word “hapless” is very apt here because it specifically means “unfortunate,” which perfectly describes their fate as well as the fate of the creature (being homeless and unloved by anyone) and Safie (being an outsider as a non-European in a Eurocentric society). The creature definitely shares, to a fair degree, Safie’s unfortunate “foreign colonized woman” status, just as Safie shares the creature’s unfortunate societal perception of being an outsider and subhuman to many, as evidenced by the small yet significant term “slothful.”

Through the use of Spivak’s methods of critical analysis, the Frankenstein passage on pages 108-109 may be more fully understood. Within the textual sample, Safie and the creature are constructed as parallel iterations of the feminine subaltern, which expose the instability of cultural and colonial discourse.

The passage begins immediately with the creation of a hierarchal relationship, describing a “book from which Felix instructed Safie.” There is a distinct sense of separateness and value, in which an ignorant eastern woman eagerly accepts the teachings of the learned western man. This concept of social striation is also translated to intellectual incongruity, as Safie and the creature “should not have understood the purport of this book, had not Felix, in reading it, given very minute explanations.” Not only is one social position dominant over the other, but also one symbolic or linguistic discourse is championed. This is expressed by the fact that important knowledge is disseminated mostly through a style that appears foreign to those who receive it.

However, within the post-colonial world, the abjection of a colonized people is not always explicit or obvious. Felix “had chosen this work, he said, because the declamatory style was framed in imitation of the eastern authors.” This statement re-emphasizes the idea of linguistic slavery. Not only are the colonized forced to adhere to the physical or economic forces of their captors; their very language is subjugated and co-opted. This expresses how lost a people may become, as colonial discourse may be masked within their native symbolism.

The exact contents of the book also have a unique character. “Through this work [the creature] obtained a cursory knowledge of history, “ a statement marked with a feeling of amorphous wholeness or generality, largely centered on the word “cursory.” What is described is not a listing of hard historical events, facts or figures; rather, its is a sort of summed narrative. This concept is maintained through a lesson including “a view of the several empires at present existing in the world; it gave [the creature] an insight into the manners, governments, and religions of the different nations of the earth.” This sentence solidifies the thread previously presented. The lessons of the colonial discourse seek to marry each culture with a sense of essence, inherent meaning or soul, a feat accomplished through the use of highly variable, general, and emotional terms like “manners, governments, and religions.”

The passage proceeds to offer specific examples, from a notably western European perspective. Obvious appreciation for the “stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians,” the “wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans,” and the era of  “chivalry, Christianity and kings,” is contrasted with a banal disgust towards the “slothful asiatics.” Cultures are again granted an overall feeling of inherent essence.

Finally, the passage ends with the “discovery of the American hemisphere,” as the creature “wept with Safie over the hapless fate of the original inhabitants.” The concept of wholeness is expanded, and the true scope of the colonial discourse can be understood. It needs to have all elements of the colonial world, meaning that both the colonizer and the colonized are crucial components of the cultural discourse. The feminine subaltern here has accepted the colonial forms of linguistic subjugation and cultural essence. This means that the manifestations of the subaltern do not weep for the crime of the brutal slaughter of a culture. They weep because they identify with a subjugated people and unfortunate events, but they also maintain an idea of destiny in “hapless fate.” Even the colonized peoples willfully join in with the colonial discourse, gladly accepting their role within the whole of a macroscopic society.

The parallelism between the creature and Safie is used to expose the conflicting wholeness and incongruity of the colonial discourse. The subaltern is superficially identified as whole, within a specific debased native culture. This is idea is manifested in the bodily and personal wholeness of Safie. However, beneath the surface, the subaltern is swirling maelstrom of ideology, with native and foreign entities mixed. This concept is shown in the bodily and personal incongruity of the creature.

The Subaltern Speaks

The crux of Spivak’s argument is that customs, traditions, and events of a society are filtered through the perspective of those at the apex of that society. For example, the daily life in colonial America as we know it is filtered through a white, male, land-owning, Puritan perspective. However, we are losing out on enormous layers of subtext that Spivak describes as the “subaltern”: the perspectives of the poor/working class, women, slaves etc. The subtext can still be detected on a superficial level by understanding and contextualizing the filter itself. In this passage the filters are clearly illustrated and by highlighting these filters we can detect and superficially examine the subaltern within Frankenstein, the creature.

The first to examine is the multiple filters through which the monster and Safie perceive history. Working backwards, we see that the first filter is the book itself. It is written in a “declamatory style” that is “framed in imitation of eastern authors”. The style it is written in indicates that it is perhaps not a factually stringent text, but rather one driven by emotion and rhetoric. The text being framed in an eastern or foreign structure indicates a departure from the proper standard for examining history. Overall, the creature seems to criticize the text and indeed Felix’s reasons for choosing it, and in effect, we see the perspective of the creature, or the subaltern. The ultimate filter, however, is Felix or rather Felix’s perception of the Volney’s “Ruins of Empires”. The monster admits that he would not have understood the book and the history would be lost on him had not Felix “given very minute explanations”. The use of the word “minute” indicates that the explanations were in depth and very careful, as opposed to the bombastic nature of the actual text. The act of explaining itself directly influences and changes the intent of the original author’s since the information expressed by Volney is filtered through Felix’s ideals, and thus we would see the information “tainted” with Felix’s own sentiments. Thus, by understanding and contextualizing Felix’s own ideology, we can separate it from the creature and examine what’s left as the subaltern.

Firstly, the creature admits that he has a “cursory knowledge of history” and a “view” of governments, view here used comparable to that of a glimpse, but not an in-depth, intensive study of history. Yet in the next sentence, the creature claims that it gains insight into “manners, governments, and religions” of various nations, indicating a deeper and wider knowledge of history than previously expressed. Here, we have a fundamental inconsistency with the extent of the creature’s knowledge. This inconsistency fleshes itself out when the creature to makes sweeping generalizations of a society. By prefacing each society with a descriptive word or phrase, i.e., the “slothful” Asiatics or the “stupendous genius and mental activity” of the Grecians, or the “hapless” Native Americans, he ascribes qualities or flaws that are not physical, but rather indicative of character. For example, by describing the Asiatics as slothful, there is an innate anthropomorphization of a society, and by giving it innately human characteristics, it allows for ranking of societies, based on perceived flaws. This perspective is indicative of Felix’s ideology, and when we separate it, we are left with one perspective unique to Frankenstein: his sympathizing with the fate of the Native Americans. Since the word weeping indicates a deep emotional state brought on by personal tragedy, and since the tragedy occurs to someone else the creature has never met, it emphasizes the profound empathy the creature has for the inhabitants. This empathy reveals another characteristic of the creature, or the subaltern, that is not indicative of the overall perspective of the novel.

Although Shelley could have been just being modest in her omission of her home country in the description of the great empires of the world, I seriously doubt it. The British were some of the most famous and powerful colonizers the world has ever seen.In the 19th and 20th centuries especially it could be said that indeed “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”

However in this excerpt that chronicles the world’s greatest civilizations there is no mention of the mighty British Empire. Though the novel was written before the British reached their pinnacle of world power, the nation was still an extremely powerful one.  Through omission, Shelley has rendered the most powerful nation on earth voiceless. This is the same voicelessness that categorizes Spivak’s idea of the subaltern. Here Shelley has turned the binaries of weak/strong, feminine/masculine, colonized/colonizer, and turned it on its head. She has made the strong voiceless and therefore subaltern through her failure to mention the British Empire. This omission ultimately contributes an argument that runs throughout the novel and that is that ideology, no matter what is is is not a solution to any problems the world faces.

Another textual clue that points toward Shelley’s argument about ideology is the word “cursory.” This use of “cursory” to describe the creature’s knowledge of the world suggests a hasty and superficial learning experience. However the culpable party goes unspecified  Was it Felix’s teaching or the creatures attentiveness that failed in the situation? This ambiguity in the blameworthiness suggests that no matter where this spoon-fed knowledge comes from, whether the powerful instruct or the powerless observe, ultimately the whole ideological construction fails.