Can subaltern speak in Chen Chieh-jen’s art? A singularity revealed by the possibility of failure in the dialogue

Can subaltern speak in Chen Chieh-jen’s art? A singularity revealed by the possibility of failure in the dialogue

Article by Lin Shih Chun.

Abstract: Taiwan-born Chen Chieh-Jen has become a very popular artist in recent years. He began to receive attention because of his works Revolt in the Soul & Body. In these works, the Genealogy of Self is the most special. Genealogy of Self is a picture of Chinese tortures. Unlike the anthropological archives in the colonial period, Chen Chieh-Jen interpreted the expression of the person in this photo as “laughing.” Such an interpretation marks the particularity and the intention in Chen Chieh-Jen’s works. According to my research, such particularity and intention can be expressed in one sentence, borrowed from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous article, Can Subaltern Speak? Chen Chieh-Jen always discusses the subaltern in his art and what the image of subaltern represent is undoubtedly a kind of historical pursuit, from the “modernity” in the early days of the colonization (Genealogy of Self) to the problems of modern labor and immigration (Imperial borders I, II, Realm of Reverberations). Such a huge historical analysis cannot be carried out here, and I don’t have the ability to complete it. What I want to discuss in this article is Chen Chieh-Jen’s expectation from his art and what kind of inspiration he can offer us.

Keywords: Subaltern, singularity, dialogue, the international division of labor.
Header image “Chen – Empire’s Borders” by Julian Stallabrass is licensed under CC BY
Subaltern: singularity showed by the possibility of failure in the dialogue.

In one of the interviews, Chen Chieh-Jen mentioned the problem of field research about self. According to his statement, “field research” becomes one of the popular methods for the artist when the dark side of globalization is more and more obvious However, Chen Chieh-Jen believes that most of the artists who enter the bottom of society or emergency areas come from the so-called “safe outside”. This means that they can go back to the safe outside at any time, and this problem can only be considered as the question about the spokesperson of safe outside, not the other. So, for the other person/subaltern, how do we start research? Chen Chieh-Jen does not refuse the so-called Western theory, but the basic research he cares more about is political economy. We can “reimagine” the relationship between the artist and the other by analyzing the political economy. So, what is mainly present in Chen Chieh-Jen’s work is a relation between artists, others, and the international division of labor. According to this perspective on subject position, Chen Chieh-Jen seems to have no interest in a traditional art commentary, that is, the opposition between reality and fake.

Indeed, in another interview, Chen Chieh-Jen mentions:

First, there are no objective observation. Second, we usually fall into the ethical logic of who is the “subject”…. However, if they continue to be fixed in some kind of “social identity” and “patient identity”, in some respects, we neglect their ability to have poetic thinking. Third… In addition to the “social identity” and “patient identity” of the subaltern which are identified by the society, everyone has multiple faces… The question is not which image is “real” or fictional. But can we adopt a “flexible” attitude and from the possibility we receive…form a “singularitiy” with another value of life and social imagination.

Thus, we know that Chen Chieh-Jen has no interest in the opposition between reality and fake. On the contrary, he thinks that such a dualism comes from a hypothesis about the position of the subject and such a subject position comes from the international division of labor. Contrary to this type of subject position, Chen Chieh-Jen believes that we should consider the subaltern as a “singularity.”

From the above two conversations, we can understand that for Chen Chieh-Jen, the question about subaltern must be discussed between the subject position under the international division of labor and the singularity. According to this point of view, I think that we can discuss what is “dialogue”.

On the issue of dialogue, Naoki Sakai and Spivak’s research can prove to be helpful. First, through research on the so-called national language, Naoki believes that the most important thing about dialogue is to recognize the possibility of failure in the dialogue. More detailed, in the perspective of context, the subject position as a “singularity”(in the terms of Chen Chieh-Jen) will be noticed only by acknowledging the possibility of failure in the dialogue. Conversely, the “successful dialogue” is usually a kind of default setting about the subject position. Unlike Sakai, Spivak’s reflection on communication is visible in her famous article: can the subaltern speak? To put it simply, this article is about the dialogue with the subaltern that has been incorporated in the international division of labor. This is also Spivak’s critique about Foucault and Deleuze and the problem of “representation”. Spivak believes that when Foucault and Deleuze pin their resistance on “desire” / “interests”, this is just Marx’s critique about the so-called “class”.

First, Spivak quote Deleuze’s definition of machines desirantes

“Desire does not lack anything; it does not lack its object. It is, rather, the subject that is lacking in desire, or desire that lacks a fixed subject; there is no fixed subject except by repression.

But, there is a blind spot in this definition for Spivak

The  failure  of Deleuze  and  Guattari  to  consider  the  relations between desire, power,  and  subjectivity  renders them  incapable  of articulating a theory of interests. In this context, their indifference to ideology (a theory of which  is  necessary  for  an understanding of interests)  is  striking but consistent.

This critique cans be explained by the following paragraph:

Full class agency (if there were such a thing) is not an ideological transformation of consciousness on the ground level, a desiring identity of the agents and their interest the identity whose absence troubles Foucault and Deleuze. It is a contestatory replacement as well as an appropriation (a supplementation) of some-thing that is “artificial” to begin with-“economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life. Marx’s formulations show a cautious respect for the nascent critique of individual and collective subjective agency. The projects of class consciousness and of the transformation of consciousness  are  discontinuous  issues  for  him.

So, if the “subject of labor” arising from capitalism has not been noticed, the international division of labor is completely ignored. The communication between French intellectuals and the subaltern is completely determined by the international division of labor. Grasping the problem of the subject position, we can understand Spivak’s analysis about “representation”.

First Spivak quote a paragraph from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life … they form a class.  In so far as … the identity of their  interests  fails  to  produce  a  feeling  of community … they  do  not  form a class.

Spivak’s explanation for this is:

The event of representation as Vertretung (in the constellation of rhetoric-as-persuasion)  behaves  like  a  Darstellung (or rhetoric-as-trope),  taking  its  place  in  the  gap  between  the  formation of a (descriptive) class and the nonformation of a (transformative) class.

That is to say, the distinction between “class position” and “class instinct”, or the “discontinuity” between the formation of a (descriptive) class and the non-formation of a (transformative) class which is repaired by the ambiguity between vertretung/darstellung. To put it simply, it is a question about the so-called “class instinct”, which is just the relation between the interests, desires, and capitalism mentioned above. For the discussion about communication with subaltern, Spivak analyzes sati, and Bhubaneswari Bhaduri’s “strategic suicide”. The former is a default setting in the communication, and the latter is a possibility of failure in the communication.

From the discussion above, the point of view of Sakai and Spivak on communication are similar. Both seek the possibility of failure in the communication. Sakai starts with an analysis of the national language. Spivak begins with a critique of Foucault and Deleuze. According to this view, we can understand that the subaltern in Chen Chieh-Jen’s art is actually a critique of the communication presupposed in the international division of labor. In order to resist this kind of communication, Chen Chieh-Jen proposes “singularity.” In fact, such a singularity can be also a rebellion that interrupts the knowledge, just like Bhubaneswari Bhaduri’s “strategic suicide “. In this way, Foucault’s attempt to replace the economy with power in a “geographical discontinuity” is not so useless:

This geographical discontinuity of which you speak might mean perhaps the following: as soon as we struggle against exploitation,  the proletariat not only leads the struggle but also defines its targets,  its methods, its places, and its instruments; and to ally oneself with the proletariat is to consolidate with its positions, its ideology, it is to take up again the motives for their combat. This means total immersion [in the Marxist project]. But if it is against the power that one struggles,

then all those who acknowledge it as intolerable can begin the struggle wherever they find themselves and in terms of their own activity (or passivity).  In engaging in this struggle that is their own, whose objectives they clearly understand and whose methods they can determine, they enter into the revolutionary process.

Such analysis about power will produce an “openness “. But it is worth noting that what accompanies this openness is a singularity that Chen Chieh-Jen mentions, not what Foucault talks about: They. For Spivak, their own just represent Focuault’s ignorance about the international division of labor:

In the face of the possibility that the intellectual is complicit in the persistent constitution of Other as the Self’s shadow, a possibility of political practice for the intellectual would be to put the economic “under erasure,” to see the economic factor as irreducible as it reinscribes the social text,  even as it is erased,  however imperfectly,  when it claims to be the final determinant or the transcendental signified.


This article is about the subaltern in Chen Chieh-Jen’s art. For him, for any discussion on subaltern, it is necessary to study a subject position incorporated in the international division of labor and singularity. The analysis of Sakai and Spivak on this issue gives us a lot of help. In fact, there is another scholar who can’t be ignored on this issue: Jacques Ranciere. His research on the night of proletarians is basically a critique of the so-called class. The aesthetic sense of workers is not fixed on the “class” because “class” is originally “artificial”. Once the “class” is recognized as “artificial”, the imagination of the “labor subject” will be lifted. In fact, Ranciere’s concern for “equality” was almost developed from the Proletarian Nights. However, he seems not to put the attention on “subject position” but “capabilities”. Anyway, I think there are more things that need to be studied in Chen Chieh-Jen’s art: the expansion of capitalism revealed by the subaltern. This requires a long-term study.


Spivak Gayatri C,“Can the Subaltern Speak? ”in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988, pp. 271-313.

張君玫,<女人的「地方」與「倫理」兼論全球女性主義的可能性>,近代中國婦女史研究,第15期, 2007年 12 月。


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