What Subalterns Know
This chapter returns to Spivak’s question: Can the subaltern speak? It brings together the three concepts of subalternity, intellectuals and common sense, arguing that together they provide a flexible yet structured approach to the problem of the relationship between the experience of inequality and the political narratives that emerge from it. Subaltern conceptions of the world and their collective common sense are inherently fragmentary and incoherent, leaving little trace in the official record. Nonetheless, traces can be found in folklore, serial novels and other forms of popular culture, and in language itself. The notebooks urge progressive activists to search this archive of subaltern conceptions of the world. I map this archive and explore the radical epistemological claim underpinning Gramsci’s insistence that progressive activists pay attention to subaltern common sense. Not only should activists pay attention to common sense because persuasive political narratives need to resonate with existing common sense, but more important, because the political narrative produced by any subaltern class in its ascent to hegemony has its roots in the good sense embedded within the confusion of that class’s common sense. Organic intellectuals, defined not by their individual class origins, but by the degree to which, as intellectuals, they are part of the process by which the hegemony of a given class is achieved. Their role is to translate the inchoate, but powerfully felt, conceptions of the world linked to the specific conditions of existence into coherent, potentially hegemonic political narratives.