Subalternity and Byzantine Studies: Critically Imagining the Masses in History

This second webinar, led by Nicholas Matheou, sought to explore the concept of subalternity in particular, and the historical role of non-elites in general, that vast mass consisting of the overwhelming majority of humanity. The webinar focused on subalternity because this concept, and the corollary category of subaltern, have become the predominant modes of expressing social, political and cultural subordination across the humanities, as a result of their adoption and development in postcolonial studies. A balance was maintained, however, between this concept and category, and the general issue of how to critically imagine the masses in our understanding of history.

 

Our readings included 'primary' readings from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks,where “subaltern” is first found, alongside key texts in the reception and development of his concept and category by postcolonial scholars, in particular the Indian Subaltern Studies school. At the start of the event Nicholas introduced these two strands ofmaterial, first outlining subaltern’s broad application in Gramsci’s notebooks, and then its specific development in Subaltern Studies, evolving into a historically- and culturally specific application in the emergence of postcolonialism. Nicholas ended by arguing fora general usage that demands then the kind of historical and cultural concretisation carried out by the Subaltern Studies school, rather than viewing their usage as the final word on the category and its content.

 

The introduction ended by throwing out some thoughts towards a concretisation of subalternity in the medieval empire of New Rome (“Byzantium”), and the open discussion began on these points, contrasting the relatively scattered collection of terms employed by Byzantinists to address the same or similar concerns, on the one hand the producer,the peasant, the commoner and so on, and, on the other hand, the Other, the foreigner,the outsider, and the stranger. Comparing “subaltern” to these and other categories that attempt to capture general or specific states of social, political-economic and cultural domination. Finally, the discussion ended in a fruitful debate revolving around the political use of adopting a term by now so associated with Subaltern Studies, the methodological limits of asserting the role of the masses in history, and alternative ways of approaching our material with a similar ethic, but a different critical understanding.

 

Additional Bibliography:

 

Massimo Modonesi, Subalternity, Antagonism, Autonomy: Constructing the Political Subject (Pluto, 2014).

Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Haymarket, 2011).

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