American Culture

For Women’s History Month, meet Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Spivak’s introduction in Wikipedia:

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (born 24 February 1942) is an Indian literary theorist, philosopher and University Professor atColumbia University, where she is a founding member of the school’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. She is best known for the essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” considered a founding text of postcolonialism; and for her translation of, and introduction to Jacques Derrida‘s De la grammatologie. In 2012 she was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for being “a critical theorist and educator speaking for the humanities against intellectual colonialism in relation to the globalized world”. She received the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award given by the Republic of India, in 2013.

Spivak is best known for her contemporary cultural and critical theories to challenge the “legacy of colonialism” and the way readers engage with literature and culture. She often focuses on the cultural texts of those who are marginalised by dominant western culture: the new immigrant, the working class, women, and other positions of the subaltern.

If you’re not familiar with the term “subaltern,” I definitely encourage you to click on the link. The term refers to people on the margins of society, especially within post-colonialism.

Wiki also describes Spivak’s work:

In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak discusses the lack of an account of the Sati practice, leading her to reflect on whether the subaltern can even speak. Spivak recounts how Sati appears in colonial archives. Spivak demonstrates that the Western academy has obscured subaltern experiences by assuming the transparency of its scholarship. Spivak writes about the process, the focus on the Eurocentric Subject as they disavow the problem of representation; and by invoking the Subject of Europe, these intellectuals constitute the subaltern Other of Europe as anonymous and mute.

Spivak’s translation of Derrida‘s De la grammatologie, which included a translator’s introduction that has since been described as “setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces,” brought her to prominence. After this, she carried out a series of historical studies as a member of the “Subaltern Studies Collective” and literary critiques of imperialism and international feminism. She has often referred to herself as a “practical Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist.” Her over-riding ethico-political concern has been for the site occupied by the subaltern, especially subaltern women, both in discursive practices and in institutions as much as Western cultures. Edward Said wrote that, “She pioneered the study in literary theory of non-Western women and produced one of the earliest and most coherent accounts of that role available to us.” In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak highlights how Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault confine the subject to the West, which problematizes the non-Western other as real and knowable. In concluding her essay, she rebuffs Deleuze and Foucault for making it impossible to confer with the subaltern in a discursive practice, and suggests the possibilities Jacques Derrida offers for thinking the subaltern insomuch as he appertains to a classically philosophical interpretation of the subject, rather than a socio-political, cultural or historical interpretation, which might assume that the subject is always already the subject of the West.

Her A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, published in 1999, explores how major works of European metaphysics (e.g., Kant, Hegel) not only tend to exclude the subaltern from their discussions, but actively prevent non-Europeans from occupying positions as fully human subjects.

Spivak coined the term “strategic essentialism,” which refers to a sort of temporary solidarity for the purpose of social action. For example, the attitude that women’s groups have many different agendas makes it difficult for feminists to work for common causes. “Strategic essentialism” is about the need to accept temporarily an “essentialist” position to be able to act. While others have built upon this idea of “strategic essentialism,” Spivak has since retracted use of this term.

Spivak taught at several universities before arriving at Columbia in 1991. She has been a Guggenheim fellow, has received numerous academic honours including an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College, and has been on the editorial board of academic journals such as boundary 2. On 9 March 2007, Columbia University President Lee Bollingerappointed Spivak University Professor, the institution’s highest faculty rank. In a letter to the faculty, he wrote,

Not only does her world-renowned scholarship—grounded in deconstructivist literary theory—range widely from critiques of post-colonial discourse to feminism, Marxism, and globalization; her lifelong search for fresh insights and understanding has transcended the traditional boundaries of discipline while retaining the fire for new knowledge that is the hallmark of a great intellect.

Spivak’s writing have received some criticism. It has also been suggested that her work puts style ahead of substance.

In her defence, it has been argued that this sort of criticism reveals an unwillingness to substantively engage with her texts. Judith Butler has noted that Spivak’s supposedly complex language has, in fact, resonated with, and profoundly changed the thinking of, “tens of thousands of activists and scholars.” And Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, noted that “there can thus be few more important critics of our age than the likes of Spivak. […] She has probably done more long-term political good, in pioneering feminist and post-colonial studies within global academia than almost any of her theoretical colleagues.”

In speeches given and published since 2002, Spivak has addressed the issue of terrorism. Clearly stating that her intention is to bring an end to suicide bombing, she has explored and, “tried to imagine what message [such acts] might contain.” These ruminations have included descriptions such as: “Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed in the body when no other means will get through.”

One critic has suggested that this sort of stylised language may serve to blur important moral issues relating to terrorism. However, she stated in the text of the speech that, “Single coerced yet willed suicidal ‘terror’ is in excess of the destruction of dynastic temples and the violation of women, tenacious and powerfully residual. It has not the banality of evil. It is informed by the stupidity of belief taken to extreme.”

You know, I really like that quote: “Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed in the body when no other means will get through.”

Another quote for which she is famous is, “We have white men saving brown women from brown men.”

You can read a 20 page free PDF of her best known piece of writing, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” here. Spoiler alert: her ultimate answer is that no, she can not. I was glad to discover Spivek because I have just been rereading Mary Daly. Daly talks a lot about the problem of finding woman’s voice within existing language. Throughout “Gyn/Ecology” she looks words up in the dictionary, finds multiple or archaic definitions, then expertly plays with words (like Gyn/Ecology) throughout. So Daly has attempted to speak despite the limitations of language on those at the margins, while Spivak examines the issue and decides that it can’t actually be done.

I also really like Spivak’s idea of “strategic essentialism.” I can see applications for that, especially for feminism. That will definitely be a future post.

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