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The Formation
of the Altern

2/28/2021

 

Dominant Hegemony and the Formation of the Altern in:

Season of Migration to the North

     Humans seem to want to conform. We hear the call, that invisible hail from nowhere and everywhere, morphing our behavior (and eventually our thoughts/emotions) to the dominant narrative of our society. Sometimes me, a communist non-binary Jew speaks with a practiced, rural Ohio drawl and convinces the local farmers that the Jew is one of them, if but for an instant. This effect, this minutia of our anthropological setting influences our patterns of speech, behavior, thought, emotion, and even spirituality.

     In Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih masterfully demonstrates this tendency in the context of two societies: a Sudanese town on the Nile and Intellectual Circles in England. Both have distinctive qualities and both are affected by the other. What Salih explores so beautifully in both settings is how the altern (and the subaltern) interact with and are enacted on by their respective societies. In this essay, I will be focusing on Mustafa Sa’eed’s life and his relationship to power. He is admitted into the upper echelons of his society whilst remaining of an identity that would normally place him in a less privileged situation. Through this lens, we can ask what power does for and to people in hegemony and the fragile position of the altern within that structure.

 

     What is an “altern”? Antonio Gramsci defines the subaltern as a person who does not have power, which is a surprisingly simple and confusing definition that raises more questions (Parker 316). What is power? How does one accumulate it? Is it physical? How does it affect those who have it or don’t? All of these questions are paramount and have been answered through a variety of lens over the course of history. I am interested not in power itself, but rather people’s connection to that power.

      The same can be said for Salih’s approach: Mustafa is never shown as power-hungry, but rather as a person who wants to get-ahead. There is an abstract nature to his grasping for power that is exemplified by his description of Cairo and London as increasingly larger mountains to climb (Salih 23). The process is seen before the goal. Mustafa does not ever directly state that he wants power. The subaltern may be refused power, but the altern is given a taste and told that the meal is up another flight of stairs. This is the tactic by which the subaltern is made into the altern. This is how my people were sucked into whiteness.

     The altern has a precarious position that is maintained through a strategic behavioral shift towards preferential treatment of the dominant hegemony only once that hegemony has recognized the subaltern. In the case of Sa’eed, his merit in English was the impetus for this shift via recognition by an Englishman (21). However, this impetus is rarely what the dominant hegemony expects of the altern. Once Mustafa made his way to Cairo and London, his behavior had markedly shifted. He was still an intellectual, but he didn’t devote himself to study in the same way. He describes himself as regularly partying, chasing sexual encounters, and lying about his identity (26, 33). Other than the third behavioral change, Mustafa is mirroring the masculine form of connection-building and power-accumulating that white men complete in England (and many ”””Western””” nations).

     But why lie? If Mustafa is being recognized for his merit and has access to a more powerful section of society, why jeopardize it by lying to upper class women and ultimately killing (at least) one of them? The answer is simple: the altern always lies [1]. The altern’s identity lies somewhere below in the subaltern while the altern’s behavior lies somewhere above in the powerful. This positionality yields few true statements that can be said by the altern and be understood by those around them. Mustafa can no longer speak about the Nile in anyway other than hyperbole, mystification, and stereotype (27, 34). This limits his relationship to the external world within the context of either hegemony or how that hegemony understands his home. Both subjects are limited; he may neither truly celebrate his experience of home nor may he reach the proverbial mountaintop of London. He is stuck in-between, eternally condemned to be seen both as too much of a foreigner and not enough of an Englishman.   

     Mustafa is a dynamic character however, and thus subverts the normal position of the altern through an act of desperation which he describes as “reaching the mountaintop” (35). If society doesn’t let Sa’eed reach a dominant position, then he will force it to under his own rules. Sa’eed develops a method by which he seduces white women and brings them into a space where the subaltern [2] is glorified. In these moments, Sa’eed relishes the way in which incense washes over Isabella Seymour; how she failed to see the lie of Amin Hassan before she entered Sa’eed’s home; and, ultimately, she disappears as memories of Sudan flood Sa’eed at the moment of climax (36, 37). Sa’eed succeeds in bringing the dominant hegemony of his birthplace into being within the context of England, but at a great cost. He sleeps with many women, reaching his own definition of “the mountaintop” in the process (30, 31).

     Sa’eed is punished for the deaths of these women, only one of which we are sure he killed purposefully. Thus, we come to Jean Morris and Wad Rayyes, two reflections of Sa’eed that demonstrate different sections of his identity.

     Wad Rayyes is a scoundrel, womanizer, and a person in a dominant position in Sudanese society. He represents Mustafa Sa’eed if he had stayed in his village, following the expected masculine path in Sudan. Mustafa had every ability to stay in his village, stay married to Hosna, and reach a dominant position in this hegemony. Mustafa, unlike Wad, could see beyond the structures around him. Mustafa recognized that his Sudanese village was a short mountain, unnamed, that was looked down upon by the frightful Everest of London. Hosna recognizes this as well [3], saying, “'After Mustafa Sa’eed… I shall go to no man’” (80). Hosna sees all men in Sudan as below Sa’eed. The global status of altern that is maintained by Sa’eed stands in contrast to the dominant status of Wad Rayyes in Sudan and subaltern status more globally.

     Jean Morris lies, has no known attachments other than her intellect, and is content to doom both herself and Sa’eed [4]. Her class is never defined, but her lack of profession seems to suggest that she is from the ruling class. Jean is a strong, domineering, violent woman. That classification allows her to rewrite Sa’eed’s script. She burns a prayer rug and regularly disregards the subaltern identity of Sa’eed (130). Jean brings Sa’eed out of the altern and into the dominant hegemony, but that prevents him from exercising any form of dominance over her, as he does not exist in the English hegemony.

     Alterns eventually realize that there are limits on both sides to their identity. Sa’eed cannot fully conquer the mountain of London nor may he return to his village by the Nile, whether literally or figuratively in his sex-capades [5]. The only option left is to continue as the altern or be transformed into the villain of the subaltern. This is accomplished via an obscuring inversion of historical trends within a microcosm [6]. Jean Morris and Sa’eed use a colonial lens to understand their relationship, inverting the historical trends with Sa’eed as colonizer of Morris’ shores (136). In an instant, Sa’eed’s merit is stripped from him, his economic work is put into jeopardy, and he becomes a villainous subaltern, unable to speak. He is unable to explain why he lied, why he was coerced to kill (28).

     These distinctions between the villainous subaltern, the subaltern, the altern, and the dominant hegemony may seem confusing, but they are present in almost every piece of our society. Every decision you make that increases your social status brings you closer to the dominant hegemony and farther from the subaltern (and vice versa). Let’s be clear though, this luxury of agency is only admitted to a select few that are designated as altern. Thus, the separation of subaltern and altern is both miniscule and massive. Sa’eed’s great moment in terms of English hegemony is not his proved merit, not really. It’s his recommendation from his English schoolteacher and the subsequent connections he made until Jean Morris disrupted his upward mobility by indulging his fantasy, creating a microcosm of English hegemony within their relationship. She abused him at every step, digging her nails into his face as he slapped her. She rewards him with cold stares and acerbic words for his obedience. Is this not the relationship of the subaltern to hegemony? The subaltern relies on the abuse of the state to maintain their survival and social status, despite the debilitating effects of that hegemony. They are rewarded with either nothing, more abuse, or the fantasy of reaching the top of the hierarchy. Jean Morris gives Sa’eed all of these, culminating in her assisted suicide (murder?) representing a complete inversion of the English hegemony, placing Sa’eed at the top of the mountain momentarily. He falls swiftly, tongue ripped from his body while the courtroom reels around him.

     The tragedy of Mustafa Sa’eed is the tragedy of the altern’s Sisyphean effort to reach a place within the dominant hegemony. The altern is placed finally in its true context, as the eternal struggler caught in a Foucauldian discourse containing both complete agency and none [7] (Parker 280). The altern is never powerless and never powerful, existing nebulously within the power structure as a blatant outsider, unable to rise beyond a certain status dependent upon their actions and the cultural zeitgeist concerning their identity.

     But where does this get us? What praxis may we find from such a theory? Imperialist power structures appease, coerce, and maintain a portion of the subaltern population as alterns to allow the illusion of social agency within their countries. The obsession with individual growth that capitalism and imperialism both proselytize stymies collective action, prevents largescale unrest, and provides a panopticon-like system that causes subaltern individuals to police their own behavior [8]. We must recognize the altern within ourselves and choose whether or not we climb the proverbial mountain...

     But, nobody’s up there. The mountaintop was gated off and three billionaires live there now in one big Mansion. They grow grapes and drink wine to excess. The mountainside has been “enhanced” with electrified barbed wire and imported cactuses with a multitude of thorns. One of the men has a gun locker that he opens on Sundays. He pulls out his AK-47, Smith & Wesson Revolver, and an old bugle. He screams that he’s shooting God while his butler hurriedly prepares his bubble bath. The man sometimes shoots down the mountain if he sees a body moving. He’ll yell and howl about his trek up the mountain, puncturing the now-dead corpse of our hero with a hail of bullets. Mustafa Sa’eed is a lie because he’s dead. He died the instant the English schoolteacher saw him and showed him a ticket to the base of the mountain. The mountaintop was never available; the journey was always destined for failure, either through never-ending climbing, or a precipitous fall.

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Parker, Robert D. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory

     for Literary and Cultural Studies. Oxford University Press, 2020.

Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North. New York Review Books, 1969.

 

Footnotes:

[1] This is not the fault of the Altern, but rather the accumulation of expectations from the dominant hegemony.

[2] Sudanese men and Orientalist depictions of Sudan/the Nile in this case.

[3] She was briefly educated by Mustafa Sa’eed before he left, after all.

[4] Jean Morris dies whereas Sa’eed is punished.

[5] I did just use this word in an essay.

[6] A real world example of this is the ur-fascist talking point known as “The Great Replacement” that positions all ”””non-Western””” foreigners as neo-colonizers of Europe/America that bring degradation and destroy the ”””white race”””. This is, of course, a racist conspiracy theory.

[7] This is similar to the discourse surrounding Usury and Jewish peoples in medieval Europe. Jews were used by the Catholic Church as intermediaries for European feudal lords/monarchs who wanted to borrow money. Despite the impetus for usury coming from the system of the Catholic Church, the church and surrounding nation-states regularly denounced, exiled, or killed Jews who practiced usury, which was one of the few things you were allowed to do if you were Jewish at that place and time. Jews are perhaps some of the best examples of the altern trope, as we have vacillated between altern and subaltern throughout history, losing and gaining power with the prevalence of anti-Semitism within the dominant hegemony’s zeitgeist.

[8] For fear of failure, survival, social ostracization, or other negative impacts of acting like oneself.

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