There's a good chance you already have a good handle on what the term subaltern means - you just might not know that you do. Originally a British military term meaning “of inferior rank,” it was co-opted by the Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci to describe intellectuals on the fringe of society who were kept down by the ruling class or the government.
The term subaltern rose to prominence as a term to describe intellectuals, theorists and philosophical writers whose works and ideologies at the time were silenced or otherwise disregarded by the powers that be. At its core, the term subaltern is used to represent those who are marginalized due to class, caste, age, gender or political beliefs.
Gramsci himself was imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime for his theory of the subaltern, or “cultural hegemony,” which describes how states use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. Recently, many authors and prominent figures in history that would be classified as subaltern writers or philosophers have been integrated into the curriculum in various liberal arts courses.
What Can We Learn From Them?
The most important part of a liberal arts degree is breaking the mold, coloring outside the lines and getting in-depth knowledge from authors, concepts and ideas that are outside of the established norms. The voices who are marginalized in one way or another by society are often the ones with the most to say, and their viewpoint is always a unique and challenging one.
It is impossible to properly inform yourself on anything with just one viewpoint, which is why the reading of these so-called subaltern thinkers is so important, as a way to contrast and compare with the other writers and ideologists of the time and to see the bigger picture. Many subaltern writers were pushed to the fringe of society because of their beliefs, or even just their gender, which is the case of a majority of early feminist writers. Surveying accounts of history as seen through the many multifaceted documentarians is the best way to develop a richer understanding of the beautifully interwoven tapestry of times gone by.
Liberal Arts and the Subaltern
Because of our commitment to hearing the voices of the marginalized and the overlooked in a liberal arts college setting, Shimer is proud to offer courses that take from the works of many celebrated subaltern figures – from early feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft or Lucretia Mott and contemporary feminist writers such as Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray to radical political figures like African American social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass.
Just because these authors and historical figures are not often included in curriculums, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be – in fact, it is all the more reason to bring their contributions to light. We believe that every voice deserves to be heard, and all beliefs respected. Even to this day, there are figures in society who could be considered as part of the subaltern identity. Only by continuing to include as wide a range of voices as possible, can we grow to appreciate and nurture the ideas and beliefs of those who are marginalized. Thus, we remain - as always - dangerously optimistic about the future.