Subaltern Studies and Indigenous Critical Theory

May 1-2, 2008
9:30 am – 5:30 pm - Levis Faculty Center
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
919 W. Illinois St., Urbana, IL

[ conference description | conference schedule ]


Decolonizations, a two-day symposium organized by the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory and the American Indian Studies Program, brings together leading scholars from postcolonial/subaltern studies and American Indian/indigenous studies. Decolonizations will seek to interrogate the critical purchase of the categories "subaltern" and "indigenous" for urgent issues involving colonialism, decolonization, and globalization. It will cast a comparative and transnational eye on critical movements that have emerged out of different historical and intellectual traditions but offer many opportunities for dialogue.

The conference is, in part, inspired by the twenty-fifth anniversary of Gayatri Spivak's talk "Can the Subaltern Speak?" at a 1983 Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory conference, and the twentieth anniversary of its publication as an essay in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (University of Illinois Press, 1988). “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is arguably the most influential academic essay of recent decades and its influence has spread well beyond postcolonial studies (which it helped to inaugurate) to indigenous studies and cultural studies more generally. Our plan is to mark the anniversary of the essay, but, more importantly, to investigate its continuing implications for a range of contemporary intellectual and political problems. As categories of critical analysis, "subalternity" and "indigeneity" throw into question hegemonic narratives of nation and empire, but also trouble many counter-hegemonic projects premised on meta-narratives of class, progress, and anticolonial nationalism. Engaging critically with indigeneity and subalternity as sites of intellectual inquiry will allow scholars interested in decolonization as well as theories of empire and social justice to address discourses that continue to underpin colonial and neo-colonial institutions in a world increasingly dominated by transnational capitalism and new forms of imperialism.

We are grateful to the following cosponsors: Center for Advanced Study, Center for Global Studies, Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, the LAS State-of-the-Art Conference Fund, and the Student Cultural Programming Fees.


Conference Schedule
Thursday, May 1, 2008

Note: Background readings by the speakers are available on e-reserves under Unit 2008.

10:00 - 10:30 am: Coffee and pastries.

10:30 - 12:30 pm: Panel 1

Marilyn Booth, Chair, Comparative and World Literature & CSAMES
Gyan Pandey, Emory, History: "The Subaltern as Subaltern Citizen."
Audra Simpson, Cornell, Anthropology: "The Luxury of Precariousness: Indigeneity, Strategy and the Certainties of Narration."

12:30 - 1:30 pm: Lunch

1:30 - 3:00 pm: Keynote Lecture.

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, NYU, English: “Death and the Subaltern”

Abstract: In the context of the pervasive connections made between death and being in contemporary theory, I propose to go back in this paper to an earlier theoretical intervention that named the subject in terms of consciousness/speech/agency: the project of subaltern historiography, specifically Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ Spivak’s historical example of the colonial subject who was subaltern (that is, not elite) was the sati, the Hindu woman who died on her husband’s funeral pyre. It is this subject, dead and female, who gives rise to the speculations that constitute the essay. My paper will focus on Spivak's discussion of the suicide of Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, which is offered as an illustrative anecdote at the essay’s very end. The questions that frame my paper are: How is a woman’s gendered subalternity connected to her dying, and her death to her gendered (and) subaltern condition?

3:15 - 5:00 pm: Roundtable- “Can the Subaltern Speak? Twenty-Five Years Later”

Jodi Byrd, Chair, American Indian Studies & English
Anustup Basu, English & Cinema Studies
Antoinette Burton, History
Susan Koshy, Asian American Studies & English
Fiona Ngo, Asian American Studies & Gender and Women's Studies

Friday, May 2, 2008

9:00 - 9:30 am: Coffee and pastries.

9:30 - 11:00 am: Keynote Lecture.

Elizabeth Povinelli, Columbia, Anthropology: "Economies of Abandonment"

Abstract: This talk critically reflects on the controversial "emergency intervention" in Aboriginal governance in the Northern Territory of Australia. It reflects on this controversial policy through Agamben's concept of abandonment and on Agamben's concept of abandonment through the survival of this policy in the new federal Labor Party.

11:15 - 1:00 pm: Panel 2

Robert Dale Parker, Chair, American Indian Studies & English
Josefina Saldaña, NYU, Latino Studies: "Romancing the Indian: Spanish Colonization in the Southwest."
Dale Turner, Dartmouth, Government: "On Indigenous Intellectuals"

1:00 - 2:00 pm: Lunch

2:00 - 3:45 pm: Panel 3

William J. Maxwell, Chair, English
Gaurav Desai, Tulane, English: "Between Indigeneity and Diaspora: Some Questions for Postcolonial Theory."
Robert Warrior, Oklahoma, English: "The Subaltern Can Dance, and So Sometimes Can the Intellectual."

4:00 - 5:30 pm: Closing Roundtable - “The Futures of Indigenous Critical Theory”

Michael Rothberg, Chair, English & Unit for Criticism
Jodi Byrd, American Indian Studies & English
D. Anthony Tyeeme Clark, American Indian Studies
Frederick Hoxie, American Indian Studies & History
LeAnne Howe, American Indian Studies & English



For more information, email Michael Rothberg ( ) or call the Unit for Criticism office (217-333-2581).