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Herald exclusive: In conversation with Gayatri Spivak

Updated December 23, 2014

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is an academic giant. A literary theorist and philosopher, she is the first woman of colour to have become a professor at Columbia University. In addition to founding Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, she has taught at Brown University, Stanford University, University of Texas at Austin, University of California, Santa Cruz and Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

She has authored 11 academic books and several literary publications. Spivak has the distinction of having developed and captured complex theories into short phrases that have entered the global academic vernacular and spawned countless dissertations.

But Spivak defies the stereotype of an ivory tower-bound professor. She has established schools for children in West Bengal where she regularly teaches herself. She has translated books, ranging from the works of French philosopher Jacques Derrida – founder of deconstruction theory whom she introduced to the English-speaking world through her book On Grammatology – to those of Mahasweta Devi, an activist and Bengali writer.

Spivak’s first degree was in music. “I ran away from dance because the instructor used to hit me with the tabla hammer,” she reveals, “but I am a trained singer.”

Spivak’s reception in the academic world is equally varied. She is called the “rock star goddess of postcolonial studies”, is regularly introduced as the “celebrity Marxist feminist scholar” and “the world’s pre-eminent thinker”. Her critics, on the other hand, say she is hard to understand, even “pretentiously opaque” and, in instances, “authoritarian”.

Spivak is dismissive of both sets of descriptions. She calls the fawning reverence she receives as a manifestation of the habit of ancestor worship — “Imitatio Christi” or the “Imitation of Christ and all that”. And when people demand simpler language, they often are demanding simpler thoughts, is how she responds when asked about her potent, dense writings.

For someone charged with complicating words, she calls me out on using the word ‘semantic’ in a question. “Why did you say ‘semantic difference’ instead of saying ‘difference of words’? You are like people who say texts instead of books.”

Spivak is hard to peg, and not just in the range of her subjects. She is an atheist who insists on the “slow cooking of the soul”. She is hard-hitting and provocative but then insists on seeing the transcript of this interview before it goes into print in case she regrets what she said. She stomps across campuses in a sari and combat boots with her short, cropped hair. “The villagers [in West Bengal] think it’s a widow’s haircut, so it’s fine,” she says.

But, in spite of this sartorial shrug, when I met her she was irked by what she was wearing. She was in a T-shirt with the image of an orientalised Mona Lisa sporting an Indian maatha patti and a nose ring. “This (shirt) is horrible. Someone gifted it to me on the way here. I don’t have anything else to wear to the gym. It’s all wrong. Its politics is all wrong,” she fretted.

As she munched deep-fried prawns in a hotel lobby and stressed over needing to get to the gym, Spivak spoke candidly and eloquently about a range of issues, the conversation peppered by her fierce brilliance, wry humour, charm, occasional inconsistencies and frequent outrage. Here are the excerpts:

Nazish Brohi. General interest readers in Pakistan may not know much about your academic work. Should they first encounter your personal side or the political one?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. There’s not much of a difference. My activism is through my teaching and writing. It shapes my life, and my life is shaped from it.

Brohi. Can you walk us through your formative experiences?

Spivak. My formation isn’t over yet, even though I’m in my seventies. I learn all the time. My earliest memories are of the Great Bengal Famine. It was specifically meaningful for me as a child. Even the rationed food we were given was of terrible quality. I remember skeletal figures crawling up to our backdoor and begging for the starch water of rice that people throw away. There were people dying everywhere.

In California, half a century later, I got a stress fracture while running. The doctor looked at the X-ray and asked when and where I was born. When I told him, he searched his World Health Organization handbook, and said, simply, “bad bones”. That’s how long the effects linger. The famine was so bad that even middle-class children suffered malnutrition.

Then there was Partition. In 1946, I was in school and the school was closed — our house in Calcutta was on the cusp of where one of the Muslim neighbourhoods started.

I remember the cries of ‘Haribol Hari’ and ‘Allahu-Akbar’ echoing through the night. My father, who was against any kind of discrimination, would shelter Muslims in our home. His Muslim students would come to warn him when to go away, when not to attend the phone. He was a pacifist, unlike my mother, who believed in armed struggle in the manner of young women of her generation, although she was herself altogether non-violent.

I saw the insane division between Hindus and Muslims. This is what makes the idea of including religion in politics and faith-based activism so inconceivable for me.

After my bachelor’s, I borrowed money to go to the United States while I was studying for my master’s because I had been critical of the teaching of English at the University. I was confident I could do whatever I wanted, and I look back in some amazement at myself. When, as an assistant professor, I undertook to translate Derrida from French to English in 1967, I thought he was as unknown as me. I didn’t know much French and I didn’t know Derrida.

Brohi: Was moving abroad culturally jarring? You’ve spoken about the sexual harassment you faced.

Spivak: Sexual harassment is an important phrase for us to reflect on. For instance, I don’t want a phrase like child abuse used for every disciplinary action taken by a parent. That’s a statistical absurdity. What I faced in Calcutta was prurient attention that is common in a middle-class culture that is sexually deprived.

That is not harassment. I never got it from teachers or figures of authority, but I faced it in the US, from some of my professors.

Brohi. Did identity become a dilemma for you? South Asian diasporic literature now dwells extensively on the angst of the immigrant. Is this something you faced?

Spivak. I’m completely uninterested in this theme of writing. Not only uninterested but I am also contemptuous that this has such currency. It’s boring... The complete[ly] narcissistic focus on My Immigrant Problem is parochial.

Brohi. But you also draw heavily from personal experiences and anecdotes.

Spivak. My writing style is obsessive. Sometimes an anecdote offers an illustration so I use it. Also, while being critical of the US academic feminism, I am also influenced by it. That feminism holds that ‘the personal is political’. So part of narrating the experiential comes from that.

Brohi. I’m intrigued by this mantra because often it short circuits. For instance, in new wave writings, it seems that the personal is the only thing left that is political, everything else has fallen aside. Also, my vantage point is Pakistan and here the religious right wing is the one insisting that the personal is political. On the other hand, the women’s movement is saying no, the personal is not political: get out of our bedrooms, get out of our closets; our personal decisions are not open to your political commentary. Is ‘personal is political’ then predicated on a secular context?

Spivak. It is grotesque when only the personal is political. Everything is both medicine and poison in itself. I cannot endorse anything as single-dimensionally correct. This is why I took back the concept of strategic essentialism. It was meant to signal that while huge intragroup differences may exist, it is important to strategically bring forward a simplified ‘essentialised’ group identity.

I took it back because it becomes a formula to follow and justify everything and anything. I agree with you, the context is important. It depends very much on who is using [a concept], for whom and for what. These questions must be asked.

Brohi. Decades ago, you asked another question in a paper titled 'Can the Subaltern Speak?' that changed the field of postcolonial theory.

[In that paper, Spivak challenged the manner through which 'Other' cultures are investigated. The paper critiques attempts to speak for the marginalised Using poginant analysis of a case of sati/widow suicide, it holds that knowledge is not innocent and expresses interest of its producers. So, all external attempts to address the conditions of the oppressed by speaking for them are fraught with 'epistemic violence'. The oppressed, subaltern, therefore, cannot speak through another and cannot articulate on their own.]

Spivak. It has been 30 years now – 31 if you want to be accurate – [since the paper was first presented]. I have revisited it many times. It has been published in a revised form in 'A Critique of Postcolonial Reason' (1999). On its 20th anniversary, my colleague, Rosalind Morris organised a conference on it, attended by giants such as Toni Morrison. The conference resulted in an anthology in which I was able to write the concluding response where I spoke about what led to the [original paper]. Resultant thoughts still occupy me.

Brohi. You say resistance could not be recognised as resistance in the case of the sati because there was no infrastructure for recognising it as such. What would such infrastructure look like?

Spivak. You don’t work to give the subaltern a voice. You work against subalternity itself. The word subaltern, of course, is a military thing, used by Antonio Gramsci [an Italian Marxist theoretician and politician] as he was trying to work beyond his prison censorship. I took up the word because it is truly situational. It is not meant for just anyone experiencing discrimination. You have to relate it to the context. In my paper, for instance, the context is the desperation when suicide becomes a way of sending out a message.

Brohi. That brings us to the notion of agency. Can all action by a free agent be celebrated as liberating? Can it exist inside an apolitical, value-free void? Women entering fundamentalist religio-political parties, for instance.

Spivak. I don’t think there is any such thing as a free agent. The idea of freedom of agency itself is existentially impoverished. We must use that idea when we are casting our votes because the vote is an arithmetical reduction of the notion and everybody has one vote.

Therefore, except for voting, we must exceedingly carefully consider this impoverished notion of freedom of choice and freedom of agency. To say you can join any institution and that way you are an agent, I think it’s a very knavish or foolish thing to say. Agency is institutionally validated action and, therefore, it is necessary to develop the criticism of institutions that offer validation, and this is the role of the intellectual.

Brohi. What happened to the class question? Even the question itself seems to have been eclipsed.

Spivak. It has always been ignored — even when people were talking about class. That’s the biggest thing that is always ignored. Sustainable development has actually sustained underdevelopment. That is how the world runs, with low-grade racism and low-grade sexism. The Left suggested the vanguard will bring ‘class consciousness to the masses’ — that’s already a classist remark.

Brohi. How then does one utilise what you call affirmative sabotage? Can you explain it? Is it specifically imperialist discourse that it can subvert or all hegemonic discourses — which in the case of Pakistan, would be the religious. Does it depend on the strength of the arsonist or is it a weapon of the weak?

Spivak. I used the term sabotage because it referred to the deliberate ruining of the master’s machine from the inside. The idea is of entering the discourse that you are criticising fully, so that you can turn it around from inside because the only way you can sabotage something is when you are working intimately with it.

It was the factory workers who used to do it first. I have taken the idea from them. It is not destruction of the machines but using the machines to do something else. I saw this among the Algerian women in 1991 when the FLS [Islamic Salvation Front] came in. It is very under-reported that a great deal of resistance was done to this possibility by the chadar-wearing women who worked in the offices to clean the premises.

These cleaner women went and used the mimeograph machines. You can only deconstruct that which you know intimately. It is not a weapon of the weak; it can only be done from a position of strength because the weak do not have the social ability to enter those discourses.

Brohi. But it is also a little precarious because entering a hegemonic discourse leaves you open to being co-opted by it. It has been one of the longstanding debates in the women’s movements here whether to invoke religion or not.

Spivak. That’s no argument. This is the criticism of the resentful. Of course, [anything] can be co-opted. That’s no reason not to invoke it. But recall that I said it must be made from a position of strength. If you don’t already have that position of strength, then you cannot do it.

Brohi. Is your work read differently in South Asia, in India in specific, from how it is read in the West?

Spivak. No, I don’t think so. Most of the elite universities [in India] are just like those in the West, except maybe for some unexamined culturalism which is also benevolent; of course diasporic groups share in this unexamined culturalism, with different values for different classes. I don’t think there is much of a difference, except there is a localised resentment. That’s quite usual. I worked in Algeria, where Derrida was born and they would say Derrida is not really anyone so significant and wondered why he was considered a big deal. When someone makes it big abroad, there is resentment, even more so for a woman.

Brohi. Do you locate yourself in the women’s movement across South Asia? Do you find any traction in the concept of international civil society?

Spivak. I am not much of a solidarity tourist. I have no interest in international civil society. I think India has a very strong urban, radical women’s movement and I am very happy about that, but that’s basically not something that I am an intimate part of. Of course, I support them, but it is Hindi-based [and I am a Bengali speaker].

Language is a big thing in terms of being in a movement. I do not have that much experience of the West Bengal-based women’s movement either. Part of the reason is that within the old Communist Party of India-Marxist, women who were my friends were also apologists for the party.

In Bangladesh, where I am also involved — basically because it is Bengali-based, Farida Akhter, is a very powerful voice. She is a very close friend of mine. I have given advice to women who worked with her when they first went to the United Nations.

That’s a much smaller operation and it’s all Bengali. So, it is easier for me to hang around there, but not easy in the final analysis because I am not a citizen of Bangladesh.

Brohi. What about grassroots women’s organisations then? You say you are also an activist — that’s why I am asking.

Spivak. I’m a teacher. I teach. That’s my activism, both in the United States and in West Bengal. That’s also my profession, the same in both places. I can give you an example to illustrate the problem. I was visiting NGOs [non-government organisations] in West Bengal and asked for feminist cohorts. In one place I saw a video where women had gone to a village and demonstrated against dowry and sung and danced together [with local women].

They made a song and the lyrics translated into “We will not give dowry and we will not receive dowry”.

After seeing the video, my next stop was that village the women had been to. I went there and chatted with them, asking a mother-in-law who clearly had a new daughter-in-law, in a gossipy way over a cup of tea, how much she got [in dowry] and she said 40,000 rupees. They did not translate performance into rational action, because they had been denied the right to intellectual labour for thousands of years.

The elite civil society activists think everyone is just like them and mistake it for egalitarianism. The villagers enjoyed dancing and singing and thought it was wonderful that some middle-class people had come to talk with them and have fun with them.I do the work of nurturing intellectual labour. You have to work to rearrange people’s desires. What they want has to change. What they do will follow.

That’s what I have been working on for 30 years — to produce in them the habit of democracy, including the movement from performance to action which middle-class children and parents take for granted.

Brohi. You run a literacy project in rural Bengal. Is literacy the answer?

Spivak. I think literacy by itself is nothing but a skill. It allows you to do certain things like reading road signs. Literacy is not frightening to the authorities because they know that literacy is nothing by itself. There is a difference between education and being stuffed with information you cannot process. Education has to develop democratic judgment and train the imagination.

I went to the government education ministry in Calcutta to talk about the fact that we were not getting textbooks in schools and said I knew school teaching posts were being sold and I knew who were buying those jobs.

The minister said to me, “Give me the names and I will arrest them right now.” I told him that I was not interested in their arrests. I am not interested in getting the law only enforced; I am interested in getting the change willed by the people and this happens by rearranging desires.

Brohi. Do you see that rearrangement of desires unfolding?

Spivak. It may or may not work. People listen to gentlewomen coming in and giving advice, but they are not idiots. I have passed many tests they set up for me because 28 years ago, when I entered the scene, I was perceived as an upper-class, upper-caste, rich person who had come to do good. Slowly, I have changed in their view to someone whose money should be saved. I laugh with them and at myself. They say things to me, such as, ‘We were more united before you came and you divided us by giving us money.’ They can say that to me.

I’m not some semi-divine person that comes down to help them. There is no distance. Yet, I am not part of them. This they also know. I say to them I am your enemy. I am here to repay my ancestors’ debts. I started in 1986 and hardly ever used to talk about it because the process was so fragile but I talk about it a lot more now. That is because, for one, I’m about to die and, secondly, the process is much more stable.

Brohi. Is the need of an incubation period something that other NGOs can learn from this?

Spivak. I have no respect for education NGOs, quite frankly. They don’t know the nature of the job. If you think about the crimes against oppressed people, they’ve been through those crimes for centuries. How will you rectify those crimes within your project’s life cycle?

You have to have some sense of history. This stuff about impact assessment, quick evaluations, NGO tool kits, knowledge management is crap that these educated people come up with. They think they know how to “produce” large-scale education. And they think about top-down material change, clean water, HIV-AIDS, important, but short-term problem solvings. Then they say ridiculous things like poor people choose cell phones over latrines or, we will give them latrines and newspaper editorials celebrate it.

There have been latrines for many years next to government primary schools, kept under lock and key and no one goes to them. I’ll tell you an anecdote. At two o’clock in the morning I had to go to the toilet. So my cohort and I had to walk across the village in the middle of the night and all the dogs were barking their heads off and the whole village was peering out and saying “oh, sister is going to take a shit”.

What you produce is a slow connection between actual instances of disease and outdoor defecation. There is an altered desire for preventive healthy life, coming through concrete example — sick relatives — rather than in closed rooms with a potty. Can millenial cognitive crime be overcome? That is my huge and ambitious question, and you cannot ask it in the hope of a quick fix.