Thursday, April 7, 2016

the inherent classism of kyriarchy and subaltern theory

This is a followup to a post from 2013, kyriarchy: redundant word of the day. At the time, I quoted Fiorenza:
The theoretical adequacy of patriarchy has been challenged because, for instance, black men do not have control over white wo/men and some women (slave/mistresses) have power over subaltern women and men (slaves)."
But I completely failed to pay attention to the implications of that use of "subaltern."

And I didn't poke hard at a statement by Lisa at Accepting Kyriarchy, Not Apologies:
When you talk about power assertion of a White woman over a Brown man, that's kyriarchy. When you talk about a Black man dominating a Brown womyn, that's kyriarchy. It's about the human tendency for everyone trying to take the role of lord/master within a pyramid. At it best heights, studying kyriarchy displays that it's more than just rich, white Christian men at the tip top and, personally, they're not the ones I find most dangerous. There's a helluva lot more people a few levels down the pyramid who are more interested in keeping their place in the structure than to turning the pyramid upside down.
What finally struck me is what's hidden by the use of "subaltern". Here's the first definition that appears when you google it:

sub·al·tern
noun
noun: subaltern; plural noun: subalterns
səbˈôltərn/
  1. 1.
    an officer in the British army below the rank of captain, especially a second lieutenant.
adjective
adjective: subaltern
səbˈôltərn/
  1. 1.
    of lower status.
    "the private tutor was a recognized subaltern part of the bourgeois family"

The word comes from Latin roots that mean "below every other", yet these examples are not society's lowest. The second lieutenant is above the soldiers and non-commissioned officers; the tutor is above the servants.

"Subaltern" was popularized in Subaltern Studies, which used it to discuss imperialism—the metaphor seems to be that the imperialists are the hegemony (or major power), and those who serve the hegemony are the subalterns (or minor officers). That makes sense if you remember how the British Raj was administered: British officers were superior to Indian officers. Race and gender and culture were enormous factors in the ranking of privilege in the Empire.

But the theory only recognizes hegemons and subalterns. Where are the people who must obey both?

The answer is they're irrelevant. Kyriarchy theory is about creating a different pyramid—in Lisa's term, a pyramid turned upside down. To kyriarchy feminists, brown women are currently the lowest form of subaltern and white men, the highest form of hegemon, so their examples of kyriarchy don't include black women who have power over white men, even though every bourgeois black woman in the US must have had a white male waiter bring her brunch at some point in her life.

Historically, subalterns have always longed to join the hegemony. The common soldiers and civilians? They're simply too common to matter in the new hegemony that the subalterns desire.

Recommended: How Does the Subaltern Speak? is an interview with Vivek Chibber which has many insightful bits like
...changes in universities over the last thirty years or so, in which they’re no longer ivory towers like they used to be. They’re mass institutions, and these institutions have been opened up to groups that, historically, were kept outside: racial minorities, women, immigrants from developing countries. These are all people who experience various kinds of oppression, but not necessarily class exploitation. So there is, as it were, a mass base for what we might call oppression studies, which is a kind of radicalism — and it’s important, and it’s real. However, it’s not a base that’s very interested in questions of class struggle or class formation, the kinds of things that Marxists used to talk about.

Complementing this has been the trajectory of the intelligentsia. The generation of ’68 didn’t become mainstream as it aged. Some wanted to keep its moral and ethical commitments to radicalism. But like everyone else, it too steered away from class-oriented radicalism. So you had a movement from the bottom, which was a kind of demand for theories focusing on oppression, and a movement on top, which was among professors offering to supply theories focusing on oppression. What made them converge wasn’t just a focus on oppression, but the excision of class oppression and class exploitation from the story. And postcolonial theory, because of its own excision of capitalism and class — because it downplays the dynamics of exploitation — is a very healthy fit.
Possibly of interest: Life Inc. - China leads list of world's richest women