Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” questions the notion of the colonial (and Western) “subject” and provides an example of the limits of the ability of Western discourse, even postcolonial discourse, to interact with disparate cultures. This article suggests that these limits can be (partially) overcome. Where much commentary on Spivak focuses on her reading of Marx through the prism of Derrida, and on her contention that the “native informant” is simultaneously created and destroyed, I contends that Spivak's terms of engagement always imply a liberal-independent subject that is actively speaking. Moreover, given the limits of understanding implied by Spivak's essay, I advocate a reading of culture(s) based on the assumption that all actions offer a communicative role, and that one can understand cultures by translating the various conducts of their culture. On this basis I argue that the title of Spivak's essay might be more accurately stated as “Can the Subaltern Be Heard?”
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (born 24 February 1942) is an Indian scholar, literary theorist, and feminist critic. She is University Professor at Columbia University, where she is a founding member of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.
Considered one of the most influential postcolonial intellectuals, Spivak is best known for her essay Can the Subaltern Speak? and for her translation of and introduction to Jacques Derrida's De la grammatologie. She also translated such works of Mahasweta Devi as Imaginary Maps and Breast Stories into English and with separate critical appreciation on the texts and Devi's life and writing style in general.
Spivak was awarded the 2012 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." In 2013, she received the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award given by the Republic of India.
Spivak was born Gayatri Chakravorty in Calcutta, India, to Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty. Spivak's great grandfather Pratap Chandra Majumdar had been Sri Ramakrishna’s doctor. Her father Paresh Chandra Chakrabarti was "initiated (given diksha)" by Sri Sarada Devi, and her mother Sivani Chakrabarti, by Swami Shivananda. After completing her secondary education at St. John's Diocesan Girls' Higher Secondary School, Spivak attended Presidency College, Kolkata under the University of Calcutta, from which she graduated in 1959.
In 1961, Spivak joined the graduate program in English at Cornell University, travelling on money borrowed on a so-called “life mortgage.” In 1962, unable to secure financial aid from the department of English, she transferred to Comparative Literature, a new program at Cornell, under the guidance of its first Director, Paul de Man, with insufficient preparation in French and German. Her dissertation, advised by Paul de Man, was on W.B. Yeats and titled Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats. In 1959, upon graduation, she secured employment as an English tutor for forty hours a week. Her MA thesis was on the representation of innocence in Wordsworth with M.H. Abrams. In 1963-64, she attended Girton College, Cambridge, as a research student under the supervision of Professor T.R. Henn, writing on the representation of the stages of development of the lyric subject in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. She presented a course in the summer of 1963 on “Yeats and the Theme of Death” at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Ireland. (She returned there in 1987 to present Yeats’ position within post-coloniality.)
In the Fall of 1965, Spivak became an assistant professor in the department of English, University of Iowa. She received tenure in 1970. She did not publish her doctoral dissertation, but decided to write a critical book on Yeats that would be accessible to her undergraduate students without compromising her intellectual positions. The result is her first book, written for young adults, Myself I Must Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats.
In 1967, on her regular attempts at self-improvement, Spivak purchased a book, by an author unknown to her, entitled De la grammatologie. She decided to translate the book by an unknown author, and wrote a long translator’s preface. This publication was immediately a success, and the Translator’s Preface became popular across the world as an introduction to the philosophy of deconstruction launched by the author, Jacques Derrida; whom Spivak met in 1971.
In 1974, at the University of Iowa, Spivak founded the MFA in Translation in the department of Comparative Literature . The following year, she became the Director of the Program in Comparative Literature and was promoted to full professorship. In 1978, she was National Humanities Professor at the University of Chicago. She received many subsequent residential visiting professorships and fellowships.
In 1978, she moved to the University of Texas at Austin as professor of English and Comparative Literature. In 1982, she was appointed as the Longstreet Professor in English and Comparative Literature at Emory University. In 1986, she went to the University of Pittsburgh as the first Mellon Professor of English. Here she established the Cultural Studies program. In 1991, she joined Columbia University as Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities, where, in 2007, she was made University Professor in the Humanities.
Spivak has received 11 honorary doctorates: University of Toronto, University of London, Oberlin College, Universitat Rovira Virgili, Rabindra Bharati University, Universidad Nacional de San Martín, University of St Andrews, Université de Vincennes à Saint-Denis, Presidency University, Yale University, University of Ghana-Legon. In 2012, she became the only Indian recipient of the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy in the category of Arts and Philosophy.
Spivak has served on the advisory board of numerous academic journals, including differences, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies.
Apart from Derrida, Spivak has also translated the fiction of the Bengali author, Mahasweta Devi; the poetry of the 18-century Bengali poet Ram Prashad Sen; and most recently A Season in the Congo by Aimé Césaire, poet, essayist and statesman from Martinique. In 1997 she received a prize for translation into English from the Sahitya Akadami—the National Academy of Literature in India.
Her essay, Can the Subaltern Speak?, (1983) established Spivak among the ranks of feminists who consider history, geography, and class when thinking about women. In all her work, Spivak’s main effort has been to try to find ways of accessing the subjectivity of those who are being investigated. She is hailed as a critic who has feminized and globalized the philosophy of deconstruction, considering the position of the subaltern, a word used by Antonio Gramsci as describing ungeneralizable fringe groups of society who lack access to citizenship. In the early 80s, she was also hailed as a co-founder of postcolonial theory, which she refused to accept fully, as has been demonstrated in her book Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present (1999), which suggests that so-called postcolonial theory should be considered from the point of view of who uses it in what interest. Spivak’s other works are: In Other Worlds (1987), Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993), Death of a Discipline (2003), Other Asias (2008), and An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization (2012).
Since 1986, Spivak has been engaged in teaching and training adults and children among the landless illiterates on the border of West Bengal and Bihar/Jharkhand. This sustained attempt to access the epistemologies damaged by the millennial oppression of the caste system has allowed her to understand the situation of globality as well as the limits of high theory more clearly. In 1997, her friend Lore Metzger, a survivor of the Third Reich, left her $10,000 in her will, to help with the work of rural education. With this, Spivak established the Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty Memorial Foundation for Rural Education; to which she contributed the majority of her Kyoto Prize.
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 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 rose to prominence with her translation of Derrida's De la grammatologie, which included a translator's introduction that has been described as "setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces." After this, as a member of the "Subaltern Studies Collective," she carried out a series of historical studies and literary critiques of imperialism and international feminism. She has often referred to herself as a "practical Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist." Her predominant ethico-political concern has been for the space occupied by the subaltern, especially subaltern women, both in discursive practices and in institutions of Western cultures. Edward Said wrote of Spivak's work, "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."
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, women's groups have many different agendas that potentially make it difficult for feminists to work together for common causes; "Strategic essentialism" allows for disparate groups to accept temporarily an "essentialist" position that enables them able to act cohesively.
However, while others have built upon this idea of "strategic essentialism," Spivak has been unhappy with the ways the concept has been taken up and used. In interviews, she has disavowed the term, although she has not completely deserted the concept itself.
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. In March 2007, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger appointed 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 has received some criticism, including the suggestion that her work puts style ahead of substance. It has been argued in her defense, however, 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." On the other hand, Terry Eagleton has lamented that "If colonial societies endure what Spivak calls ‘a series of interruptions, a repeated tearing of time that cannot be sutured’, much the same is true of her own overstuffed, excessively elliptical prose. She herself, unsurprisingly, reads the book’s broken-backed structure in just this way, as an iconoclastic departure from ‘accepted scholarly or critical practice’. But the ellipses, the heavy-handed jargon, the cavalier assumption that you know what she means, or that if you don’t she doesn’t much care, are as much the overcodings of an academic coterie as a smack in the face for conventional scholarship."
In speeches given and published since 2002, Spivak has addressed the issue of terrorism and suicide bombings. With the aim of bringing an end to suicide bombings, she has explored and "tried to imagine what message [such acts] might contain," ruminating that "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, Spivak stated in the same 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."
- Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1974).
- Of Grammatology (translation, with a critical introduction, of Derrida's text) (1976)
- In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987).
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1988). Can the subaltern speak?. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
- Selected Subaltern Studies (edited with Ranajit Guha) (1988)
- The Post-Colonial Critic – Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (1990)
- Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993).
- The Spivak Reader (1995).
- A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999).
- Death of a Discipline (2003).
- Other Asias (2008).
- An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2012).
- Readings (2014).
- Imaginary Maps (translation with critical introduction of three stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1994)
- Breast Stories (translation with critical introduction of three stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1997)
- Old Women (translation with critical introduction of two stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1999)
- Song for Kali: A Cycle (translation with introduction of story by Ramproshad Sen) (2000)
- Chotti Munda and His Arrow (translation with critical introduction of the novel by Mahasweta Devi) (2002)
- Red Thread (forthcoming)
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- Spivak, Gayatri (1997). ""In a Word": interview". In Nicholson, Linda. The Second Wave: a Reader in Feminist Theory. Ellen Rooney. New York: Routledge. pp. 356–378. ISBN 9780415917612.
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- Iuliano, Fiorenzo (2012). Altri mondi, altre parole. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak tra decostruzione e impegno militante (in Italian). OmbreCorte. ISBN 9788897522362.
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