Discovering English: Žižek and subalternity — Umar Nizarudeen

English is the unacknowledged Creole of the world. Žižek as a philosopher uses the versatility and ecumenism of the English tongue to foster an audience for his thought as well as to give visibility to various struggles. Žižek defamiliarizes the everyday language to infuse it with estrangement effects. The subaltern Dalit communities in India are also discovering English poetry as a mode of emancipation. `Language is the house of being,’ for Heidegger. But for Dalit English language poets such as Chandramohan Sathyanathan, a more apt quip would be Slavoj Žižek’s infamous remark, `language is the torture house of being’.

Žižek had a major argument with the subaltern school thinkers during his celebrated visit to India, who raised the topic of decimation of vernacular Indian languages by the hegemony of the colonial English language. Žižek is said to have replied with vehemence, criticizing their lack of awareness of the fact that Žižek, himself a Slovenian speaker, was using English, so as to make the conversation possible. Thus the universalism of emancipation is entangled with the universalism of language. Žižek also cites Benjamin’s title `Language in General and Human Language in particular’. The `human’ as a category is what a lot of people in India, crushed under the yoke of caste, would aspire for.

The question is not `Can the Subaltern Speak?’ as formulated by Gayatri Spivak, or the counter query `Can the bourgeois listen?’, but rather as Gopal Guru observed `Can the subaltern articulate a universal position?’ Can the Dalit speak for everyone? He/she is seldom allowed in the vernacular Indian tongues. English today occupies a position analogous to that of Sanskrit in ancient India.

Chandramohan Sathyanathan’s poetry could thus be the harbinger of a subaltern renaissance in India. The universal position that English as a language affords the subaltern, and also its precipitation as such through poetry, is the unique contribution of Žižekian thought to Dalit writing.

In a poem titled `The Other’, the Dalit poet Chandramohan Sathyanathan says,

In the palette of his hieroglyphic expressions
I decipher a codebook of prejudice.
In the archive of exposed crimson veins in his cornea
I retrieve a manuscript of contempt.
In the superlative adjectives of his flattery
I discover a verb of deception.
In his effervescent smiles
I sense a tinge of alienation.
In his adoring synonyms of deification
I deduce the snobbery of denigration.

These adjectives of snobbery and alienation occur in the vernacular tongues such as Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu etc, and the erstwhile classical Sanskrit. But English, often accused of being a snobbish tongue, itself is free of that quality in this context. Here the poet achieves a homoeopathic strategy towards historical healing. The past is refilled with what was lacking in it, namely the agency of articulation. The wheel of history has meanwhile replaced Sanskrit with English. This is a profoundly Hegelian, and not to say, poetic, lesson.

Žižek opines in typical Hegelian fashion that it is the future that is fixed and unalterable, the past can always be changed. This involves absence. If substance `a’ was missing from my childhood, then I can always reimagine it as being missing in quantity/quality `b’. Thus the past can be made amenable to change. In the subaltern context, that substance `a’ was freedom, and the visibility, protection, voice, gesture, movement and everything else that it offered the free humans. But that very same past can be reimagined as lacking in `English’ as in universal linguistic articulation. This can be retrospectively remedied epistemologically. English is epistemologically open and available unlike Indic languages like Sanskrit, that were epistemologically closed. Thus an entire language, English, becomes a mode of emancipation for Dalit writers.

Umar Nizarudeen teaches at the Government College Madapally, University of Calicut in Kerala. He was a Ph.D scholar at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


Chandramohan, S. `Letters to Namdeo Dhasal’
Chandramohan, S.`Love After Babel’
Chandramohan, S , `Autobiography of the Letter X’
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravarty. `Can the Subaltern Speak?’
Žižek, Slavoj, `Tarrying with the Negative’
Žižek, Slavoj, `Less Than Nothing’.
Žižek, Slavoj. `Absolute Recoil’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s