Interventions, and the strategy they employ within their logic of temporality, belong to a peculiarly fungible politics. To intervene is to at once assuage a present predicament (in the manner of therapeutics), as well as to incite a redirection from an unwanted situation. One can see immediately both the limitations and the necessity of this form of critique: in one gesture, the predicament’s object is imagined and given intelligibility (even preserved), even while it is interrogated in order to be dissolved. This interventionist logic that has widest purchase at the present moment egregiously attempts to normalize pathologies or resolve social conflicts. From popular expressions in an array of television programming to a host of techniques in palliative care protocol, to intervene is to bring the once errant back into the arms of the sensible. But what project can be garnered from perceiving the conditions of intervention itself, and the effects of those conditions, to be the object of the predicament?
It is a credit to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak that in her work “the intervention” has maintained its exasperating and lacerating aim to walk into the most incisive and unapparent of crises. This aim has, in a work as contentious as A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, consolidated the seemingly disparate political interests of feminism, Derridian deconstruction, Marxism, and literary articulations of anti-colonialism, for the purposes of leading us away from the reactionary “sensible” into more troubling and provocative trajectories of what it is to teach, to think critically, and to intervene.
In an interview from 1987, Spivak explained how critique as intervention is inextricable from the pending difficulties of “being obliged to inhabit.the structures of violence and violation” it seeks to alter:
[a]s far as I can understand, in order to intervene one must negotiate. If there is anything I’ve learnt in and through.teaching, is that the more vulnerable your position, the more you have to negotiate. We are not talking about discursive negotiations, or negotiations between equals, not even a collective bargaining. It seems to me that if you in a position of where you are. being constituted by Western liberalism, you have to negotiate to see what positive role you can play from within the constraints [to break it open].
Intervention is thus striking for its ability to assign a parasitical role, as the critic or citizen is one that confers contagion within a given space of interpretation and intensive symbolization. In the present, however, it is evident that such spaces are not given, and if they do indeed exist they usually respond inhospitably to such “allergic agents.” Instead, what was once considered contagion could be considered as an inoculation for the nightmarish health once emphatically prophesized by Adorno in Minima Moralia. So then, what of interventionist critique? What can be learned from the genre and the politics of interventions?
Given that no two interventions are the same, what can we say about how this interventionist logic has become pervasive with the burgeoning predicament of globalizing capital? Much of this writing on globalization today amounts to little more than complaints spilling out of a fetid room of polemicists. Self-appointed officials of this discourse have rendered such a capacious moment of time merely topical, merely “of the present.” What the polemicists deploy, as they did in solidarity for the “Culture Wars” of 1980s in the US, is the discourse of renewed hope for inaugurating “the new” and “original thought” as it was linked to the integrity and rigor of exclusive disciplines. The battles fought over disciplinarity, then, are still with us now, and yet their quarrels have been rendered moot in the face of more urgent issues than knowledge production. For those who have used the tag of “globalization” to signal a new world order (and bring attention to their construction), we might read Spivak to be mindful of the way knowledge production is often at odds with having others learn about the institutional realities that naturalize what is to be learned.
Most importantly, then, what might be a pedagogical technique that makes the inheritors of this present aware of its absolute complexity and its necessary non-contemporaneity? The cost of an unsubstantiated principle of futurity implicitly cathects Spivak’s intervention entitled Death of a Discipline–for instance, in her insistence that the intensification of social strife has more to do with compounding predicaments from an un-interrogated past than from a lack of their precedence or their unacknowledged newness:
[p]art of this uncertain future is the growing virtualization of frontiers. What we are witnessing in the post-colonial and globalizing world is a return of the demographic, rather than territorial, frontiers that pre-date and are larger than capitalism. These demographic frontiers, responding to large scale migration, are now appropriating the contemporary version of virtual reality and creating the kind of parastate collectivities that belonged to the shifting multicultural empires that preceded monopoly capitalism. (15)
The residual effects from prior forms of sociality have not simply vanished with the restructuring of their means of organization. Rather, the emergent compounds one predicament with another only to further entrench the present’s irreversibility. Contrary to the polemicists of globalization, Spivak remarks that a better understanding of the present begins by considering how the forces of representational concision and humanism enabled an image of the planet that is bloodless, and presented in a timeless equipoise:
[t]he globe is on our computers. No one lives there. It allows us to think that we can aim to control it. The planet is a species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it, on loan. (72)
Traversing periodization, genre, and space is characteristic of the acute sensibility that Spivak deploys against concise and humanist philosophies. Yet what does this performed traversal employ other than, say, its own method? Does Spivak’s traversal not become pedagogically untenable due to its insistence to move and create movement “in my particular way”? Consider one of the ways in which Spivak attempts to catalyze the traversal that she has characterized as a “fantasy”: “an instrumental calculus recoding or instrumentalizing undecidability…a discipline always attempting to harness the power of fiction as it approaches Area Studies and the social science disciplines”(49). What are the educative prospects of such a specific ideal?
Spivak’s intervention is at its most incisive when it vies to enact the ideals it articulates. In this sense, her “teleopoetic imperative” is both presented within, and representative of, the work as a whole. This technique of play makes for interminable re-reading and fosters a feeling that laterality is the movement for reanimating disciplinarity. Moving between Cultural Studies, Area Studies and Comparative Literature (all of which are portrayed to be lacking and de-politicized, but nevertheless components of the vanguard “New Comparative Literature”), what becomes apparent as well is the need to extend and prolong the effects of teaching. Spivak’s valorization of the “educative power” she locates in Walter Benjamin’s “Essay on Violence” is indicative of her desire to incorporate the imperatives of impotentiality and non-decision into an array of pedagogical practices that assert only possibility, edification, development and productivity as their mandates.
If a particularly valuable disciplinarity has died, Spivak intones, it is due to the assumption that we know what a collectivity is, and how it should be taught or how it can revolt. She is, to no shock, litigious on the issue of education and its double-edged force to be prescriptive and empowering:
Given the irreducible curvature of social space–the heteronomic curvature of the relationship with
the other–the political must act in view of such a “perhaps.” Because we cannot decide it, it remains decisive, the unrestricted gamble of all claims to collectivity agonistic or otherwise. (29)
In addition, the situation of laceration/preservation that Spivak accepts on the grounds of her relation to alterity, puts into relief her pedagogical principle for the “New Comparative Literature”:
[t]his is preparation for a patient and provisional and forever deferred arrival into the performative of the other, in order not to transcode but to draw a response. In order to reclaim the role of teaching literature as training the imagination–the great inbuilt instrument of othering–we may, if we work as hard as old-fashioned Comparative Literature is known to be capable of doing, come close to the immediate work of translation, not from language to language but from body to ethical semiosis, that incessant shuttle that is a “life”. (13)
The size of Spivak’s lithe volume arises not merely from the necessity of brevity. We discern an attempt to hone-in on those imagined situations critical for imagining what possible forum can include both equitable and interminable learning. For example, much of Death of a Discipline interrogates issues of women and gender in order to foster a global demos that contests an “effortlessly generalized male scene” (67). Spivak argues that the space of politics is one uninhabitated by sisters. The sister-figure has yet to emerge in present political imaginings, because the perpetuation of what political culture imports into the milieu (via “fraternity,” or what Derridian thought has named a “logofratrocentrism”) has admitted her voice “only as an honorary brother” (32). A key indicator of Spivak’s intervention is such a gesture. With this substitution, the sister-figure populates the entire work, as Spivak cuts and pastes those texts that bear witness to how these voices were there all along. The voices of Virginia Woolf, Maryse Conde and Mahasweta Devi are both amplified and interrogated more than simply for the purpose of including their views (which is just the type of cultural politics Spivak detests). Rather, engagement with them initiates a different type of notion of a demos–one in which its impossibilities are as pertinent as its blueprints of policy for actually-existing democracy.
The demos of educative institutions are endlessly different than the general economy of a particularly present planetarity. Yet the entwining and dispersive effects challenge the suppositions of both spaces. This may be why Spivak’s intervention is not a call for wholesale critique by one space on the other. It’s not simply that the academy has the sole vantage point for which it can become the corrective additive for world injustices. Though it valorizes literary voices that no other space will prohibit-especially the non-assimilative symbolizations from subaltern situations-Spivak hastens to add that such voices are not the policy-to-come. “How far” she questions, “should literature be read as sociological evidence?”(17):
If you push literary criticism to its logical end it becomes either absolute creative freedom (slyly supported by some corporate entity, as in the case of the Saatchi Brothers in Britain) or maximum verifiability (as in the case of legalistic “demonstrate by textual reference” literary criticism). We must learn to let go, remember that it is the singular unverfiability of the literary from which we are attempting to discern collectivities. (34)
Despite the calls for an explicit pedagogy of interminable learning, the impossibilities of interpretations, and the traversing of space, genre and distinction, does Spivak articulate a politics of non-negotiables? What position of critique is not exchangeable for another position, under Spivak’s aegis of “letting go”?
Death of a Discipline is as much a terse provocation as it is an adamant and careful negotiation of the institutional politics of education. With the inconsequential declaration of the `death of theory’ being reiterated daily for the last ten years in North America, Spivak extends the lines of identification beyond those of proper names and schools of thought, to the problematics and the incongruities of organization that wish to eradicate the unknown promises of learning.
Tim Kaposy is a Ph.D. student at McMaster University.