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Are the "culture wars" over? When did they begin? What is their relationship to gender struggle and the dynamics of class? In her first full treatment of postcolonial studies, a field that she helped define, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the world's foremost literary theorists, poses these questions from within the postcolonial enclave.
"We cannot merely continue to act out the part of Caliban," Spivak writes; and her book is an attempt to understand and describe a more responsible role for the postcolonial critic. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason tracks the figure of the "native informant" through various cultural practices--philosophy, history, literature--to suggest that it emerges as the metropolitan hybrid. The book addresses feminists, philosophers, critics, and interventionist intellectuals, as they unite and divide. It ranges from Kant's analytic of the sublime to child labor in Bangladesh. Throughout, the notion of a Third World interloper as the pure victim of a colonialist oppressor emerges as sharply suspect: the mud we sling at certain seemingly overbearing ancestors such as Marx and Kant may be the very ground we stand on.
A major critical work, Spivak's book redefines and repositions the postcolonial critic, leading her through transnational cultural studies into considerations of globality.
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The following conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak took place on April 21, 2000 at Spivak's home in New York City. I arrived rain-soaked from my subway ride from another borough, daunted by the prospect of discussing the long book A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, which I had just finished, and certainly not aided by the inclement and dreary weather. The cheerful disarray of Spivak's study, its book-lined walls interrupted by the photograph of her mother, and the warmth of the cup of Earl Grey tea she quickly made for me, made the distant figure whose books I had pondered over and scribbled on seem suddenly no longer a name associated with abstract, theoretical concepts like deconstruction or postcoloniality, but a real person in whom scholarly, political, and activist concerns mingle with extraordinary complexity. As the conversation began to flow with surprising ease, I was struck by her gift of narrative, wry sense of humor, and lively engagement with the specific contours of my queries.
Lopamudra Basu: What is the role of revision in your work as a writer? What are the factors that influenced the revision of two of your most influential pieces, "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" and "Can the Subaltern Speak?"
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: I learn as I go, and therefore I have had to change my mind from time to time. Mine is not an old-fashioned scholarship. I am not a great scholar. I used to be unhappy about this, but as I have grown older and with the support of my students and colleagues, I have come to accept this. The way I write has something to do with the way the world is changing fast. I can't wait like an old-fashioned scholar to get all of the I's dotted and the T's crossed. I write something, I learn a little something on the go, and then five years later, maybe two months later, I see there is more to say, and that perhaps I was not completely right although full of sincerity and goodwill. Then I change, and I give my reasons for changing, and I think that's the role of revision. When people say that these are previously published things, they are not reading carefully. There's real difference between what came before and what came after.
You've asked me about two different pieces. "Three Women's Texts" was something that I actually wrote in the early 1980s. Most of my work comes out of my teaching. This essay, "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism," happened because I read Charlotte Brontë's book Jane Eyre, a famous book, to teach for the first time. I had read it in Calcutta when I was really almost a child, and I had certainly not ever felt what I felt now, perhaps as a result of being in the United States. There seemed to be something strange about the woman from Jamaica being up there in the attic. I was teaching then at the University of Texas at Austin, and I taught the book with those feelings worked in, and then I wrote it up as a piece. With "Can the Subaltern Speak?" it became one of my two most popular essays.
When I wrote it, there was nothing called "postcolonial studies." I was not aware that I was, as they say, setting a trend. When the trend had been nicely set, I began to realize that that piece was too black and white. The only thing that had really existed as something that might be called postcolonial studies was Chinua Achebe's essay on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness ("An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness"), delivered in 1975. I hadn't read that essay at the time. Anyway, later it seemed to me that my essay on Jane Eyre was too black and white, too "us" and "them." We are good because we were oppressed, and they are bad because they oppressed us, you know? I don't think history is like that. That is one piece I did not revise, because I felt it had some historical interest as the beginning of a trend.
Let me tell you how many times it has been reprinted. It is still being reprinted. It is being reprinted till 2001! (pointing to the entry on the computer screen) There goes the entry, the list of all the places that reprinted it, look at that! Six inches, single-space, run on. It's vastly popular, because "us and them-ing" is more interesting for most people. Why did I change "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Because that was an essay where I was full of anguish and rage. I had wanted to talk about a woman who had acted without any kind of authority given by an institution. I was looking at the fact that Hindu notions about widow burning, which are of course extremely reprehensible, gave some institutional authority to women. It is like inspiring soldiers to kill themselves for their country. When the British prohibited it and made it into a crime, they also gave some institutional authority to the widow not burning herself. When a certain young woman tried to act outside of either of these two kinds of institutional authority -- she was in an underground organization against the British, and she was not an orthodox Hindu; she acted all on her own -- it was a principled suicide. She made it clear why she was killing herself. Yet, for lack of institutional explanations, it was impossible for women in her own family to remember it in two generations. Therefore my real point was how, if we do not have infrastructural backup, it is no use resisting, because it is not going to be even recognized as resistance. The effort must be to build infrastructure.
Let me explain through a story. Our countryman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, said at the memorial service for Mahbub ul-Haq at the UN that, when the human development index had been devised by Professor Haq, Sen had asked him why it was that he had transformed something so complicated, diverse, and heterogeneous as human well-being into an index. Apparently, Mahbub ul-Haq had said to Amartya Sen: We need something as vulgar as the GNP in order to fight the insane religion of economic growth as a be all and end all, where human beings are considered human capital. That's the lesson of "Can the Subaltern Speak?" You need not just a weapon, but a recognizable weapon, an up-to-the-mark, effective weapon. If the "subaltern," which is a word for those who do not have infrastructural support, resists on her own, it will be useless. It will not be recognized by other women, even by other women in her own family. Therefore, I had said in a very enraged and passionate way: The subaltern cannot speak. This was picked up by a kind of narcissism in the academy, where anybody who feels that she has not had a good deal immediately decides that she is a subaltern, and so we hear "Spivak takes away the voice of resistance." I've even read in the Times Higher Education Supplement that Spivak thinks that "sati" (widow burning) is empowering. I have really heard some astounding remarks with reference to my enraged remark: The subaltern cannot speak! That was something like saying there is no justice in the world. So I decided that rather than confront this kind of nonsense, it was better to take the rage out of it and rewrite it in simpler language.
LB:I want to point to the comment made by the editors of one of your collections of essays, The Spivak Reader. Donna Landry and Gerald Maclean note a certain separation between Spivak the academic writer, who is difficult, and Spivak the powerful public speaker, whose ideas inspire and provoke audiences outside academic boundaries. Do you inhabit such a split, and how does the genre of the interview enter your work as a mode of expression?
GCS:The interview is a very interesting genre, because there the person betrays what he or she is doing. It depends a lot on what the questioner draws out. I quite often see on TV, even good interviewers -- because they cannot work in intellectual depth -- and talk show hosts, news program hosts, because they have done a quick job of today's interviewee, say "Uh huh" and pass on to ask the next question. That to me makes an uninteresting interview. Fifteen minutes of fame. The good interview depends on how much the interviewer has established a relationship with my work, how much care the interviewer brings. The best interview I believe I have ever done, judging from its popularity, was where I spoke about the strategic use of essentialism, a phrase that was widely picked up. The questions were magnificent. When you feel that someone draws out something from your humble work, more than you yourself had thought, the answers come forth. You betray something which perhaps you did not know you thought. That's the genre of interview.
As for the other stuff?
LB: The split?
GCS: Well, I think partly the difficulty in my writing is my intellectual insecurity. It is going away now. I have come to accept the limitations of the way I am. I have come to accept my strength, which is to make connections between things that are seemingly dissimilar. That strength is something like the definition of the metaphor: to see similarities in dissimilar things. My good friend Professor Jean Franco, whose opinion I esteem, empowered me by remarking that my style makes good use of the metaphor. This is hard for people to accept. In academic writing they only expect the clean, crisp, often dull language of reason. Working out metaphors is what we do when we do literature, not only creative writing. I break down the barriers between creative and critical writing. The fact that academic readers don't expect metaphors in a book of arguments doesn't make it a completely unworthy style.
But that intellectual insecurity, which sometimes hides behind vocabulary, also comes from my college days. In the late '50s, when I was an undergraduate, long before academic feminism, it was said to me again and again that I was not a serious intellectual because I was a good-looking young woman who loved life. People don't realize how much harm that kind of stuff does. Now that I am a middle-aged woman who is not easily threatened, this kind of bias is still around. That's where some of the difficulty in the language comes from. Intellectual insecurity.
Now, however, as the days go by and I accept my limitations and stand by my feelings, the language becomes simpler, but not therefore necessarily more understandable. I still have to invite my readers to imagine hard when they read my stuff. But I think it is worth doing. I don't write to sell. I write to engage my readers in a bit of a journey. It's like shooting the rapids. You don't go there because you want an easy time.
Therefore, yes. There is a difference in the difficulty of my writing. But when I speak I am not necessarily always clear. If it is a one-shot deal kind of a speech, then it may not be clear. I am a classroom teacher, and that is my best skill. When it comes to teaching, I think I am much easier to understand. But even then, I am not just a good-time teacher. Yesterday, when I was at a great university, one of the deans gently laughed and made fun of the school of thinking that I am associated with, which is loosely called postmodernism, and quoted the French critic Roland Barthes as having talked about the death of the author as I was talking about my teaching. I said to him, "Look, the death of the author is the birth of the reader. It's about questioning authority. I don't want my students to remember me as the author figure or the authority figure; 'Oh, how charismatic and how brilliant.' I want them to remember what I said, not to say, as they do about many humanities classes, 'I am blanking.'" My goal is, as with my writing, to teach in such a way that if it is taken in, it will be remembered. But you have to make a little bit of an effort. At the other end of the spectrum, I do rural literacy work. When I am talking on that level, much of the time I speak in Bengali, my mother tongue, I am accessible to the least educated person. That's a completely different arena. I don't reduce my thoughts, but I think I know how to talk so that I become accessible to those who have been denied institutional education. For those who can get institutional education, it is a good idea to work your head a little. It's not so bad -- it's like going to the gym not to be just 'You're okay, I'm okay.' Does that answer your question?
LB: It does, and I think it is an act of humility to admit to your sense of intellectual insecurity, but I want to ask you about a trait that I notice when you write about non-literary subjects. You constantly confess that you are not a historian, that you are not a philosopher, that you are not a film critic, but you still make the attempt to venture into those arenas. How do you negotiate the sense of a lack of training or disciplinary methodology, and the desire nevertheless to engage with those subjects?
GCS: Yes, I am a generalist. In this era of instant access to information, I am always amazed at how little general knowledge people have. This is an impoverishment. Sometimes I do myself harm by saying that I don't know anything. I look at work that is confidently produced, and it is not necessarily full of greater wisdom or scholarship. I think part of it is my mother's fault. She brought us up to be very aware of how much we knew and how little we knew. The Bengali New Year was two or three days ago, and my mother wrote me a letter, saying as she always does, "I am very proud of you." But that's where the pride comes from, that one has not gone into some kind of self-hype that constantly presents oneself as more than one is. I do believe this does harm to my reputation with people about whom I don't care that much. [laughs]
LB: You bring up your mother and the Bengali New Year, so I want to ask you how the two Bengals, West Bengal in India and Bangladesh, have had an impact on your work. Could you talk about your activism in grassroots rural literacy work in relation to the two Bengals?
GCS:Yes. I was, of course, born before the division of India at independence, before the Partition, as we call it. I was not that old at the time of partition, but once that division began, the repercussions continued for a long time. Its impact has not yet disappeared. Much less is said about the division on the eastern side of India, where I am from. These days, there is a lot of material coming out, but it's always on the western partition, into India and what is now Pakistan. The eastern partition into West Bengal and East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh, is more complicated, asks for a more flexible understanding. Just as the Irish partition is not like the two Indian partitions, the Korean partition is not like the Irish partition or the Indian partitions, so you cannot speak about Serbian-Croatian partitions or the two Germanys all as the same kind of thing. When East Pakistan became Bangladesh, I was in the United States, and I was much involved in that. I had been a fairly active student at home, and I had fallen into a kind of culture shock when I came here. This was really the first thing that allowed me to identify with some kind of a movement. In fact, I had not had any active contact with Bangladesh before then. I went first to Bangladesh when it came into being as a country.
But my involvement with activism there has been through my friendship with the poet Farhad Mazhar. I have known him since the '70s. He is not only a poet but also a considerable intellectual and an activist largely in ecological agriculture and cultural reform. Through my friendship with him and also through my friendship with Zafrullah Chowdhury, who has an extraordinary health center in Bangladesh and is interested in health education, I have made some attempt to engage myself with rural literacy.
My more extensive work is in India, among a small group of aboriginals. My goal there is to devise a philosophy of education that will foster the growth of habits of democratic culture in very young children. I give hands-on time and skill, but do not stay long to supervise. My intention is not to supervise too much. I follow the argument about the death of the author. If I supervise too much, I become the authority of the last resort. And when I disappear, there is less chance of the thing becoming more permanent. Also, I don't think leadership is a very good idea in the long run. I am somewhat skeptical of putting all our eggs in the role model basket. It is a good idea to have positive role models, but it is perhaps a better idea to foster responsibility toward others. So, that's the kind of work I do. I try to devise an educational philosophy that will be acceptable to ill-educated rural teachers who are stuck there because there isn't much else they can do. It is not correct to expect that when they have had centuries of bad education, they will suddenly find a way of thinking good education philosophy.
In fact, I was quite surprised yesterday at this great university to discover how quantitative an idea of education the dean had. If at the top we are losing our sense of what the qualitative texture of education should be, it is foolish to expect that it can be found at the bottom. So, my work is to foster this above and below. It has been very rewarding for me. I am not really ready to talk more about it, because if I try to speak of the details, it seems like fairy tales. Even my Indian friends, my sister who lives in India, have not been to these kinds of areas and stayed there. It is enough to say that it has really changed my thinking along the spectrum of all my intellectual activities. It can also be said that I teach at two ends of the spectrum, English at an Ivy League school in New York, and rural literacy among the aboriginals in India. It is not even the working class or villagers. These are people who are the least privileged group among the aboriginals. (As you know, India has 90 million aboriginals at last count.) It does give you a sense that having very complicated life-support systems, which we call civilization, doesn't necessarily mean that you are better-quality human material. When I deal with these children (I love my students wherever they are, whether they are in New York or in Manbhum) it does give one a sense of that particular confusion that we make. Children are not born smart or good because they are in rich societies.
LB: What is Red Thread about? Is that the new book that you are working on?
GCS: It's the new book, yes. Some of the questions that you have asked are in fact answered there in the form of the book. It is about how to be the kind of intellectual whom the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, many years ago, called a "permanent persuader." This is very different from our older idea of the objective critic, who sits in an ivory tower and for whom the essence of knowledge is knowledge about knowledge. That age has passed. What is it like to be a constantly moving person who works at both ends of the spectrum and has to speak all over the world in order to keep up the bottom-end work, because it's expensive. I am self-subsidized in my literacy work because I want to remain free in this experiment with new educational philosophy. I won't go for grants. I think that would take away from the seriousness of the enterprise. There's a lot of schools established by NGOs and immigrants sending money home, etc. On a certain level, therefore, if you look at quantity, the work goes on. I am not interested in doing the work except in this very trying "quality-focused" way. I have the same rules here in Columbia that I have there. It's not a question of doing the work by giving money or grading papers.
Many think that the solution lies in people moving to the metropolis, that there is a kind of manifest destiny, that all cultural rights can be had if you come to the metropolitan areas. I am old-fashioned enough to think that the whole world doesn't have to shrink that way. The rural poor is the largest electorate in most of the democracies. Unless education is made equitable in those areas with the patience and care that one gives to teaching at this end, it won't work. So Red Thread tries to express the voice of someone who moves in all of these areas, tries to look at globalization from a broader perspective than only this end, and also intervenes at the large-scale international conferences that are not academic conferences, and so on. It is deliberately a mixed bag, and I try to establish the context of all this so that the unevenness is not taken to be a fault, but rather a characteristic of our times.
LB: In an earlier essay, "Reading the Satanic Verses," you had explored the intimate intertwining of woman in discourses of religious fundamentalism. How did Hindu fundamentalism in India, particularly the events in Ayodhya, get played out in relation to women, both Hindu and Muslim?
GCS: Constant harping on the Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Christian, Hindu-Sikh divide at home is an alarmist trend of the radical subcontinental (South Asian) abroad, especially the majority secular "Hindu" abroad. By a 180 degree turn, this legitimizes a fake unity created because we are all hyphenated Americans. I am not a supporter of the Hindu nationalist party. But I do recognize that as a result of their alliances in order to sustain a coalition government, they are beginning to resemble the right wing of the Republican party. They no longer resemble the Ku Klux Klan. One has to make a distinction between the Hindu fundamentalist organizations and the Bharatiya Janata Party, although the alliances exist between these two groups as well, ready for mobilization if the national coalition fails. One of our internationally focused Indian intellectuals trashed an Australian activist who, in 1992, was talking about Tamil women's menstruation practices. She took her to task because she was speaking of 1992 without mentioning Ayodhya. Like May 1968 in France, we don't want to make Ayodhya a museum piece. Often, people who live abroad and want to establish a radical solidarity with great disasters that happened elsewhere become so fixated that the work of the country cannot go forward. One sees this in the sensationalism about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was supposed to have finished all its work by 1998. It is understandable that such a big thing cannot finish its work, but all of the victims had spoken by 1997. Now it's the perpetrators and the amnesty. People I know in South Africa are often impatient that the work of building the new nation cannot go on because of the international fixation on sensationalism. Much as I am completely opposed to any kind of Hindu nationalism, we don't want to go on about it without an active involvement in the polity at building compromises. It's the same caution that I was giving in another way to the disrupters of the big world economic events. We live abroad, we have put our confidence in justice under U.S. capitalism, civil rights in the U.S. As a result, we may want to somehow legitimate ourselves in our cultural fix by making of religious nationalism an issue in which we can somehow present our own credentials. It is not an answer to your question, but it's a caution.
LB: Would you say the same about partition studies, after the 50-year anniversary of India's independence? Do you see a similar nostalgia, or a fixation with a horrific moment in history?
GCS: I don't want to dismiss work. If it's good work, of course it should go on. I think Holocaust studies, for example, is a very serious area of work. No, I don't want to dismiss research. I am talking about something which is half way between research and on-the-street activism. It is a phantom radicalism away from the actual theater. That's a bit different from research or studies. The idea that the constant purveying of narratives of victim interviews, to come to the conclusion that one cannot say anything about the Partition, seems hardly to be research. At the end of the day, perhaps I am an old-fashioned academic, after all.
LB: As a concluding question, I would like to ask what your thoughts are about A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Is it not a year since it has been published?
GCS: Yes, it's about a year. In that book, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, the desire to be at both ends of the spectrum works at full force. Remember, you began the conversation by asking about revision. I think I have learned something from this big book: I have learnt to revise the next book, I have learned that it is perhaps not fair to the reader to go from one end of the spectrum to another. On the other hand, if the general reader wants to approach the book, Chapter 3, which is on history, might be the place to begin. The thing is not to be turned off too quickly. If it seems wordy at times, move right along. We skim passages when we read long books, don't we? Even in Chapter 1, which is a little daunting for many people because it's about philosophy, if one moves on deciding not to be turned off by the fact that I include German words because the translations are not always satisfactory, there is an argument which is not just for philosophers, but for the general reader, whose antennae are up, and who hasn't decided that where his or her understanding stops, elitism begins. I would really like to invite and challenge the general reader to move through this as if it were not a difficult book. Even though I say that I do go here perhaps too violently from one end to the other, and I've learned to temper myself a bit, I think the experiment is worth making.
LB: Are you saying that it is all right not to understand everything, just to go on, and not be bogged down in the difficulty? There is a sense that the general reader may feel that this is a lesser or an insufficient reading. How would the general reader overcome this feeling of self-doubt?
GCS: Often, it doesn't come as self-doubt, it comes as rejection. I don't think a little self-doubt is bad. That's how I read myself. When I read a complicated text or even popularized science, or when I read philosophy, even when I read Aristotle with my negligible classical Greek, it's not easy and I feel daunted. I do feel self-doubt. It's like going to the gym for me. Have you seen people who are really trying at those machines, groaning but pushing? "No pain, no gain," we know that in terms of the body -- why have we forgotten that in terms of the mind? A little bit of pain is not bad. Of course, one will never understand everything of anything.
My friend Terry Eagleton, the Oxford don who lives in Ireland, has accused me of being too American, of not having enough of an attention span, moving from one thing to another too quickly. So let the American reader prove that I am too American, and not just dismiss it as bad British judgment. It's a challenge and an invitation to the general reader not to be turned off. The argument is not hard. It's because of some of my intellectual insecurity, and my habit of inhabiting both ends of the spectrum, that it's an uneven book. It requires a little imaginative charity, but I believe there is something when you've finished all those pages. Thank you.
Copyright Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University
Posted May 19, 2004
Next to Edward Said, Spivak has been the leading proponent of the 'subaltern,' postcolonial methodology that has dominated post-modernism. Historiographies influenced by her include, though by no means limited to, 'Black London' and 'Women and Empire.'Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.