Book review: Subaltern Geographies

reviewed by Claudia Seldin

5 Apr 2022, 12:59 p.m.
Claudia Seldin

Subaltern Geographies book cover

Subaltern Geographies

Edited by Tariq Jazeel & Stephen Legg and reviewed by Claudia Seldin

Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2019; 238 pp.: ISBN 9-780-8203-5488-0, US$32.95 (pbk), ISBN 9-780-8203-5459-0, US$99.95 (hbk)


Subaltern Geographies, edited by British geographers Tariq Jazeel and Stephen Legg, is part of the ‘Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation’ series of the University of Georgia Press. This volume arose from the 2014 conference of the Royal Geographical Society, as an attempt to further what was then perceived as neglected discussions of non-hegemonic understandings of space and subaltern forms (p. vii). It contains 10 original chapters, ranging from more historiographical essays on subaltern, postcolonial and decolonial theory to the presentation of empirical case studies.

The first chapter, ‘Subaltern Studies, Space and the Geographical Imagination’, consists of an introduction by the editors, who efficiently contextualise the subject with a brief bibliographical and historical overview of South Asian Subaltern Studies. As expected, their standpoint is focused on India, which could be perceived as a challenge for achieving their goal to reflect a complex and broader overview of the diverse meanings of ‘subaltern geographies’. Jazeel and Legg opt to depict the trajectory of the Subaltern Studies Collective to illustrate the argument that disciplinary Geography should rethink/reframe its approach to subalternity. With a critical focus on Ranajit Guha and the Collective’s work, they echo the 1980s’ quest to ‘critique the limits of Western thought and representation’ (p. 2), and the inherently spatial character of such. They wish to go beyond the usual approach commonly found in the 1990s works of postcolonial geographers (i.e. Derek Gregory and David Slater) and their traditional emphasis on the ‘abject spaces of colonialism’ (p. 3). By tackling issues of space, vertical and horizontal ontology, territoriality, scale, sovereignty of subjects, representation and hegemony to governmentality, they claim for an ‘epistemological disruption’ (p. 4) and a ‘sensitization to subalternity’ (p. 5). Overall, this carefully crafted chapter presents only two downsides. The first is the aforementioned absence of a more diversified overview of subaltern geographies in favour of several chapters drawing on Guha and the Collective’s already highly publicised body of work. The second is the editors’ repeated arguments on the need to frame Subaltern Studies as part of disciplinary Geography, which could initially be confused for reducing this school of thought to one discipline, when most contemporary postcolonial works tend to make a case for their inherent transdisciplinary character. It seems necessary, then, to highlight the value of this book to other spatial disciplines and to the social sciences as well. With their defence of disciplinary Geography, the editors successfully prove the porosity of scientific fields, which is necessary for a better understanding of non-hegemonic realities and a tool to break the Eurocentric/enlightened tradition they criticise in the first place.

Moving on to the subsequent chapters, we are presented with two other takes on the Collective’s work. David Arnold’s ‘Subaltern Streets: India, 1870–1947’ stresses the socio-political character of streets in urban India under British rule. Backed by extensive archival work, it exposes the fluid and motley composition of the period, posing the street as an essential component to understand Indian mobility, in-migration and economies. A similar approach is followed by Mukul Kumar and Ananya Roy’s ‘Before Subaltern Studies: The Epistemology of Property’. Drawing from not only Guha’s ‘A Rule of Property for Bengal’, but also Partha Chatterjee, they centre on the notion of ‘property’ and policymaking dilemmas in the context of the British Empire to prove the link between political economy and colonial rule and knowledge formation. This chapter is interesting for those seeking to understand ‘the land question in contemporary cities’ (p. 61).

The fourth chapter, ‘Practicing Subalternity?’ by Jo Sharp, comes as a refreshing move away into Africa. It provocatively questions the notion of ‘subaltern geopolitics’ through a historical view into Tanzania’s independence process and the role of its former-president Julius Nyerere in creating a postcolonial (and pedagogical-led) vision for it. This book’s single look into Africa’s extremely diverse realities may represent Academia’s continued neglect of this continent’s utter importance in the quest for a true decolonisation of knowledge.

Subsequently, David Featherstone returns to Guha in ‘Reading Subaltern Studies Politically’, reflecting on the connection between the Collective and their intellectual exchanges as a means to explore the entangled roots that shaped Subaltern Studies from below and as part of a transnational political movement of the left.

Subalternity as a political category is highlighted once again in the sixth chapter, ‘Pachamama, Subaltern Geographies and Decolonial Projects in Andean Ecuador’ by Sarah A Radcliffe. This welcomed shift to the South American context discusses the meaning of possible ‘subalternity geographies’, dealing more directly and effectively with the provocation proposed by the book title. Radcliffe’s more personal writing style introduces us to a rich contemporary ethnographic work, which deals with issues of decolonial thinking, Indigenous theory, autonomy, ethnic territorialisation of space, territorial dispossession, uneven development, marginalisation and ‘imaginative geographies’ (p. 119). Here, she focuses on the production of knowledges by Indigenous actors, situated outside of academia and of the Eurocentric ‘ontological split between nature and culture’ (p. 121).

The book follows up with another refreshing ethnographic account, albeit once again shifting back to India, in ‘Time, Space, and the Subaltern’ by Vinay Gidwani and Sunil Kumar. In it, they analyse Delhi’s waste economies in settlements, such as Madanpur Khadar, to expose the injustice of the contemporary city by focusing on the issue of devalourised labour and poverty.

The book then circles back to South America in ‘Subaltern Geographies in the Plurinational State of Bolivia’ by Anna F Laing, who addresses the remaining logic of coloniality within the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) and the domestication of indigenous Bolivians by clarifying the conflicts in the biologically diverse region known as the TIPNIS. Laing efficaciously articulates a relational understanding of subalternity while borrowing from the modernity-coloniality-decoloniality project, which marks the decolonial/delinking approach of the Latin American school led by Walter Mignolo and Arturo Escobar, among others. She consistently follows their call to activism and engagement in opposition to postcolonial theorists, who still ground their work excessively on Eurocentric academic knowledge production, something very clear in other chapters.

The ninth chapter, ‘Subaltern Sea?’ by Sharad Chari, brings the intriguing experimental provocation of thinking beyond ‘terracentrism’ (p. 193) and into oceanic studies and maritime infrastructure to question if the Indian Ocean itself can be perceived as subaltern. Chari cleverly challenges the limits of the ‘groundling fields of vision’ (p. 195) behind geographical knowledge, while providing the book’s most transnational and transcultural approach by borrowing from Caribbean scholars.

The closing chapter, ‘Urban Fragments’ by Colin MacFarlane, provides the most direct and valuable theoretical contribution to the field of this journal by ‘exploring the broad influence of subaltern studies on urban studies’ (p. 210). The author defends the notion of the ‘fragment’ as a valuable resource for urban research while stressing three fundamental issues of the subaltern: its relation to political struggle, the challenge of its representation and its connection with the limits of urban theory. He also manages to provide the reader with a more diversified, complex and complete view of the contemporary patchwork that is the ‘subaltern studies imagination’ (p. 221), as well as its struggles over time.

Following McFarlane’s defence of the ‘fragment’, Sharp’s, Radcliffe’s, Laing’s and Gidwani and Kumar’s pieces could be singled out as the most essential ones to the field of contemporary Urban Studies. This is because they result from ethnographical work, which engages and attempts to present lesser-known realities to an international audience.

Overall, the book is an excellent source for those seeking to be introduced to different perspectives on the topic of subalternity, although most of its contributions ironically come from scholars based in the so-called ‘Global North’, a fact which could be examined by contemporary thinkers claiming for the decolonisation of knowledge production. The absence of local scholars from Africa and Latin America, who are highly regarded in their own non-English-speaking (and non-British-bound) milieus, might be a sign that we still have a long way to go when it comes to reshaping academic production. As captivating as it is, the fact that this book hailing from a conference of the British Royal Society is presented with aspirations to be a landmark in subaltern geographies might also be, in itself, something to be reflected upon by all of us. Still, it is a highly recommended reading to tease the need for collaboration, shared learning and situated knowledge.


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