Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Subaltern and Commodity

In the second chapter of his book, “The Other Side of the Popular: Neoliberalism and Subalternity in Latin America,” Gareth Williams evaluates the emergence of the topic of subalternity in the United States as a topic of Latin American literary and cultural studies.  He explores this topic exhaustively throughout the text, from almost every angle.  In this chapter in particular, he begins to touch on the topic of knowledge and discourse as commodities.  For example, Williams describes how “we act as if Latin American subalternity were not, in the very practice of cultural exchange, inevitably subsumed by discursive commodification; as if the object actually realized itself as something other than a redemptive exchange-value within northern critical practices” (Loc 1174).  This link between knowledge and commodity is radical in many ways, implying that “northern” practices have some kind of calculable value to be gained by surmising information from the other.  For this exchange to take place, it is necessary that the knowledge commodity have value—which is where the topic of subalternity comes into a muddy interplay.  

The important question here is: what direct value does the study of the subaltern have on the “North”? If there is a commodity being accumulated and consumed here, how does that commodity function inside and outside the academic system?  Is there a world economy of knowledge? Williams describes the “subaltern’s increasing presence in the United States as a cultural studies growth industry, in which money and institutional resources are thrown at academic research and in which Latin American subaltern cultural production becomes increasingly intertwined in the North’s drive for information retrieval and knowledge dissemination on a global scale” (Loc 1136).  So if we are to view the “money and institutional resources” being pumped into the study of the subaltern as a kind of business investment, then what is the product that is being manufactured? What would be the pitch that the academy would use to attract investors, or customers for that matter?


  1. Maybe that's why Murdock walked away from his academic project. The secret of he other is being used as a commodity that yields no benefit to the subaltern subject.

  2. I think the relationship between knowledge production and commodity is very interesting. Carlos Castaneda's "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge" caught a lot of criticism for similar reasons: the sharing of the secret. Yet it is an important text in Chican@ and Native American studies. Where do we draw the lines? Is that line always blurred?