The Subaltern and the Popular
March 8 and 9, 2004
University of California, Santa Barbara
The objective of the two-day symposium is to address the
“subaltern” and the “popular” as subjects
and modes of enquiry into culture and history. We begin with
the proposition that the precise relation between the subaltern
and the popular remains untheorized. Often, no analytic distinction
is made between the two terms: phrases such as “history
of the people” and “politics of the people”
are used indiscriminately and interchangeably with “history
of the subaltern classes,” all presumably identified
by their resistance to or difference from “elite”
politics, culture and history. What disturbs this conflation
is the variegated passage of the term “popular”
from its medieval European origins as a political concept
to its use as a cultural concept since the late 18th century.
Moreover, the term is evoked both in a positive sense (e.g.
popular will as democratic will) and in a derogatory sense
(e.g. popular opinion as uninformed opinion).
The need to conceptualize the distinction as well as the
overlap between the two terms is made imperative by the theoretical
and methodological impasse faced by historians of South Asia
in the face of recent political developments, the most pressing
of which is religious nationalism. While the idea of subaltern
studies as a study of the politics of the people has been
instigated throughout the career of the Subaltern Studies
collective, the subaltern and the popular reside awkwardly
even within the changing horizons of this scholarly endeavor.
A new “analytic of the popular” must address the
troubled relation of the popular to the subaltern-as-disenfranchised.
These are some of the questions we would invite the participants
- Is the “subaltern” primarily a political
- If we engage the problematic of the popular, how does
that extend the frames of the discipline of history?
- What constitutes evidence in this renewed framework?
- What are the roles of popular cultural forms, such as
popular art, film and music, in addressing and configuring
- How does one frame the question of faith and religiosity
given the collusion of the popular with the state apparatus?
- What would be the theoretical impact of relaxing the Gramscian
assumption that the subaltern is defined by insufficient
access to modes of representation?