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In Conversation

Speaking to Spivak


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, considered by many to be the one of the world's leading ‘Marxist-feminist-deconstructionists', talks about notions of identity, her evolution as an intellectual and her present-day concerns. Excerpts from an exclusive interview…

“I am not a scholar. I often reinvent the wheel and then I console myself by saying that the wheel is not a bad thing to invent…”

Nothing but the truth: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

A s I wait for Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her brand new office at New York's ivy-league Columbia University where she is University Professor in the Humanities — the only woman of colour to be bestowed the University's highest honour in its 264-year history — I admit I am nervous.

At 68, Spivak is — and has long been — a celebrity academic, dubbed by The New York Times as ‘famously hard-to-understand'.

But as she enters — crewcut hair, haversack on shoulder, wearing a sari — her disarming smile puts me at ease and I ask her if her hallmark sari is a ‘statement of identity' and whether, despite having lived in the US for 49 years, she has ever felt awkward about ‘standing out'.

“I wear a sari....have always worn one. It's the most convenient thing for me…it never occurred to me that I should change. I am not an identitarian. I've always stood out! (laughs). I was incredibly tall and a very strange kind of person. I had come to do graduate work and, in four years, I was an Assistant Professor. I was not at all like a starry-eyed teenager. Also, at that time not many Indians came here. I felt I knew everything about the US. I was a Calcutta girl, I had read Time magazine etc. There were no novels talking about immigrants and so on and I didn't know that I was supposed to feel any kind of cultural this that. I just came and started going to class and never thought about the fact that wearing the sari was an odd thing. And that was also the way my Indian citizenship has remained intact.

I don't know how a person thinks an identity. It's probably something that came about from a process of national liberation. I think one manufactures a stereotype for oneself and I don't think that's a very interesting thing — one's own stereotype about oneself.

On coming to America…

I was very critical of the university. One of my professors told me I wouldn't get a 1st class. I was a fatherless person, had worked very hard to get a 1st class in my BA. I thought I would have difficulty getting a passport if I didn't get a first class and thought ‘this is the time for me to leave'. I was an adventurous kind of soul... I borrowed money. I didn't know the person who lent me the money, I just knew his name. Because I had no collateral to offer I signed a document which said that if I repay in five years, I would be obliged to accept any employment that this person would suggest. But I did give him the money back and he was kind enough to say that I had already repaid him and that was the start of my savings (laughs).

On her intellectual evolution…

I have never been able to think that I am anything but just a non-bluffing person. I was trained in Calcutta University during those years to think on my feet but because I am not a scholar I often reinvent the wheel and then I console myself by saying that the wheel is not a bad thing to invent… and that's why I can also be so bold. I go into other disciplines. Disciplinarians who are really good support me. People like Bimal Matilal or Peter Van der Veer would say “Good, someone outside is trying carefully, is trying hard and comes up sometimes with interesting things”. On the other hand, people who are less good are quite hostile towards me. In history, in Sanskrit, in political theory…some colleague actually said in print that I was juridically and theoretically unprepared for reading the Dharmashastra in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” I told him, ‘when feminists the world over read Oedipus they are not all classicists. I certainly can read texts that constitute of me in culture which I share even with the poorest woman within my culture. I have a right from within. I've learnt Sanskrit. Who are you to say I am not the appropriate reader?” I do as much homework as I can. I don't really see myself as a great thinker. I am always surprised when people say they have read something by me or know my name. My mother was once with me at an event where there were about a thousand people in the audience. I spoke and there was applause, questions etc. When my brother asked her “how was she?” and my mother quoted that old advertisement for Bankim Chandra in Star Theatre “ hei hei kando, rei rei bapar; astho pristhe gobindlal” . She said this with affection but it made me realise how stupid it would be for me to take these kinds of tokenised occasions as indication of any achievement on my part. I have never forgotten it and it protects me.

On translating Derrida's Grammatologie that shot her to fame…

As an Assistant Professor at Iowa I thought I must keep up my intellectual life…I would order books from catalogues and it was by chance that I ordered Grammatologie. I didn't know Derrida's name at all. If I hadn't ordered that book I would have been so totally different. Just the thought of that accident fills me with a certain terror: with so little French — it is a very complicated book — at the age of 25, I think that's the one intelligent thing I have done in my entire life. I read the book and I knew that this was a good book. I heard at a cocktail party that the University of Massachusetts was doing translations. So that gave me the idea. I wrote a query letter (saying) I am a wonderful translator — I had never translated anything before! — it's a wonderful book but I wouldn't translate if they didn't let me write a monograph-size introduction. It made me into middle-line star, didn't it? And I took a whole year off because I had never had a course in philosophy. I read all by myself and I wrote my introduction. When I think back upon it I think “My God, how did I manage all that?”

On how the idea of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?' came about....

In 1981 I got a request from Yale French Studies to write on French feminism and from Critical Inquiry to write on deconstruction. At that point the thought of identity did come in a little bit because it was in the air. And so I wrote French feminism in an international frame and translated Draupadi with an introduction for Critical Enquiry. Something in me was wanting not to be taken over completely by French theory...this is my stereotype of the narrative, ok? I was looking at this interview between Foucault and Deleuze — two people who have written such complicated theoretical material but when they are talking between themselves they are revealing very theoretical pre-critical presuppositions which they would question in their writing. So this is the kind of thing I was looking at: unacknowledged pre-suppositions. And that's what I needed to escape from, I felt at that point… So to escape where would I go? This woman who hanged herself in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was my grandmother's sister…so she was like a family person. I never mentioned that because I wanted people to react without the kind of benevolence that they give to a Patricia Williams or Saidiya Hartman because they talk about their own family connections to the past. It was extremely hard for me to write that piece and at a certain point I felt that I had used myself up because I did feel that in her gestures she had deeply questioned the idea of a woman belonging to one man and that women in the family had forgotten that she had tried to make this clear in the way in which she died. And so I laid out that ideology of belonging to a unique man in its extreme statement, in sati, although I was aware that it was an economic phenomenon etc. It was a realistic idea, ok… that's why I said she cannot speak. She could not speak because she did speak but was not heard. When the subaltern speaks there is not enough infrastructure for people to recognise it as resistant speech.

On the criticism that her style is dense and whether this is in response to the complex material she deals with…

I have more or less finished a huge book called An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalisation. I see myself as a classroom teacher rather than anything. I write these books because I can't not write. It's that kind of an obsession. I have read an awful lot of excellent books to think that my books will really make the grade in the long run but they are written with great seriousness and sincerity. I don't write well either. Many people have said this in print – that I don't write well and I am sorry about that. I try my best. My language has become much simpler but not therefore easier to understand.

I don't like the fact that I was so overwhelmed by the complexity of my subject. I am an intellectually insecure person. You will find this hard to believe and so I felt that I wanted to be taken seriously by people and I think that's not a good motive for writing. Over the years my language has become much simpler but the ‘density' has not disappeared. My current book begins with two simple sentences: “Only capital and data globalise, all the rest is damage control.” These are two very simple sentences but they are not easy. The first sentence might be easy but the second sentence is incredibly complicated and the trouble is that when you write in simple language people think they understand but what they think they understand is so far from what I am thinking. I am a very counter-intuitive person and that's a problem, but what to do?

On whether she would describe herself as a feminist…

I think that gendering is a bigger institution than anything in the world. Sexual difference is the only empirical difference that everyone can sense. Gendering is our first and most persistent instrument of abstraction. That's the most primitive theoretical tool. Both worker and employee are in it, coloniser and colonised are in it. Those kinds of distinctions disappear. Any kind of academic work is incorrect if not gendered. I don't know if that is supposed to be feminist. It's a thinking thing, right? On the other hand, working for good laws that would undo this gender difference is a different kind of work. I think it's quite crucial and should not become a single issue thing and cannot be taken as an end in itself because the establishment of laws does not mean that they will be implemented across the board. Now that I am older I can say this that we should not see this as the end of the struggle. It is, in fact, the beginning of the struggle.

On whether Marxism as a political system is dying...

I think it will probably happen again because I believe it is never exactly appropriate to the theory. The future is undecidable but, nonetheless, it seems to me the idea that capital should be used for social justice is not going to go away. I think that what we had – parties within a parliamentary democracy which is also Gramscian....democratic communism, that I think is probably going to come around again. At this point, with the break-up of Russia it's too soon to say anything but, on the other hand, the idea of socialism, which was based on the notion that if the agents of production knew that capital emerged out of the difference between how much they needed and how much they could make and that if they controlled that then they could build with that capital a just world — a welfare state, let's say, that was not a very practical idea. Anyone who has been in teaching knows that the line from freedom from oppression and freedom to build a just society simply does not exist. The only thing that can exist is freedom from oppression in claiming rights, which is also a certain kind of self interest. There was a huge education-shaped hole in the idea of socialism, so the kind of education that was encouraged was science and that kind of stuff and as everybody knows it became state capitalism of various sorts, unless it was within the mischief of party politics.

On where her thoughts are now…

Primo Levi was at Auswitz. He writes in his last book that when young people ask him “what were your torturers like in these concentration camps?”, he answers, “apart from the exceptional monsters, they were just average men like us, badly reared”. See that word ‘rearing'. Starting from child rearing through institutional humanities style and qualitative social sciences style education – that's rearing. That's more basic than this “idea of knowledge, knowledge about knowledge, I'm a great specialist, I've found the best theory” which is kind of Martha Nussbaum and my colleague Hamid Dubashi. Let's take that word ‘rearing'. Uncoercive rearing — that's very hard to do. Both at the top where the superpower is ready to ‘help the world', is very arrogant and, at the bottom, where rote education… I work way below the NGO radar. NGO folks are always there running their schools or taking the children away from their regular upbringing into a more kind of ‘bhadralok' arrangement. This is not what I am talking about. It's a very complicated thing. If I have any intellectual ambition anywhere it is this: Can it [uncoercive rearing] be done?

See for the complete version of the interview.

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