Does the Subaltern Have a Theory of Mind?

In the past 24 hours, I’ve read (in between teaching, Date Night, and assorted appointments) Gayatri Chakravorty Spviak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?“, Melanie Yergeau’s “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind” and Barbara Johnson’s translator’s introduction to Derrida’s Dissemination.

I’m reading all this in the service of my current paper deconstructing uses of the work “speak” in discussions of autism.  But, as you do, my mind is also working several papers ahead.  Not for the first time, I’m grappling with “theory of mind” and its place in my work (in my work and in my work), especially since “theory of mind” is, as Melanie Yergeau points out, so indissoluble from the question of autistic people’s very humanity.

So this line by Johnson caught my eye in particular:

In its elaboration of a critique of the metaphysical forces that structure and smother differance in every text, a deconstructive reading thus assumes . . . that an inquiry that attempts to study an object by means of that very object is open to certain analyzable aberrations (this pertains to virtually all important investigations: the self analyzing itself, man studying man, thought thinking about thought, language speaking about language, etc. ).


This line implies to me that “theory of mind” also belongs among the examples listed in Johnson’s parentheses, and that a deconstruction of it should also produce “certain analyzable aberrations.”  Just as my current paper argues that positing autistics as “arhetorical” by pointing to an inability to “speak” puts the positer in the “arhetorical” position of refusing to listen, claiming that one human mind can know that another human mind doesn’t know about “other minds” is, itself, a form of mindblindness.  Simon Baron-Cohen once revealed this very fact in far fewer words when he wrote “it is probably impossible to imagine what it is like to be mindblind.”

As it turns out, some work on deconstructing “theory of mind” has already been done, which helps me know I’m not alone in my intuitions.  But since I’m also rereading Spivak and taking a class in postcolonial literature and theory, I also have this question:

Does the subaltern have a theory of mind?

Put another way, is “subalternity” created, constructed, and/or reinforced by the same “these people have no theory of mind” propaganda that strips autistic people of their humanity?  And if not – if either the propaganda doesn’t exist or it exists but it is not the same as the charges leveled against the autistic nonexistent – what’s different, and why?

Put another way, is “the subaltern” subaltern because they (are constructed as if they) have no theory of mind?

In before either brainscience or cognitive-approaches-to-stuff-in-your-English-department types crawl out of the woodwork to tell me that “theory of mind” is an empirical reality, not a theoretical construct:  1.  You’re wrong.  2.  Even if you are not wrong, so-called “empirical realities” can have hella oppressive political results when rhetoricized in certain ways – and those are the things in which I am primarily interested.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled hedgehog having a bath.


About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is a freelance writer with a decade of experience and a passion for creating new things. As Verity Reynolds, Dani is the author of the Non-Compliant Space series Buy her a coffee:
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