Sunday, January 8, 2012, at Elliot Bay Bookstore, Seattle, WA
Interviewed by Rahul K. Gairola, Seattle University and University of Washington
In January 2012, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak visited Seattle for a number of reasons: to deliver the keynote address of the annual conference of the South Asian Literary Association (SALA), participate on a distinguished panel on the future of postcolonial studies at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association of America (MLA), and, among many other things, meet with local scholars, teacher, and students for an informal coffee date at Elliot Bay Bookstore. Spivak’s many engagements prefaced the recent publication of An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Harvard UP, 2012), a collection of meditations that together explore the many instances of what she has called “the double bind,” which can be read as the elliptical shuttling between two subject positions where at least one, but more often both, are sites of the other. A double bind, in other words, involves a binary in which two subject positions can simultaneously oppose yet construct one another. Spivak also describes the double bind as “learning to live with contradictory instructions.” We can think of this important concept as a function of many other concepts that Spivak has influenced throughout her substantive career: for example, she has famously argued that one can no longer claim subalternity one comes into representation. This presents a double bind in the sense that we need representation to “know” what it means to be “subaltern,” but that representation itself is precisely that – a re-presentation whose meaning is overdetermined and distorted once it is mediated through a semiotic system of meaning production. Another example is Spivak’s famous notion of “strategic essentialism,” which presents a double bind since it, on the one hand, recognizes that essentialism of identity is at play, but on the other hand acquiesces that the flattening of identificatory differences is necessary to secure political agency and bind subjects together for resistance tactics.
In this manifesto for teachers, Spivak asserts her staunch support of the humanities and liberal studies by referring to Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) and its insistence on art’s potential to benefit the people. Spivak urges us not to overdetermine the impact of globalization such that we foreclose on “the sensory equipment of the experiencing being.” This mediation is perhaps most urgent as we continue the worst loss of tenure track lines in history along with soaring higher education costs, diminishing state support, the conversation of academia into a market of exploitative contract work, and the rise of youth suicides. Despite her multiple contributions to myriad, divergent elements of higher education, Spivak has been no stranger to accusations of “obscurism” that trivialize the gravity of her work. In an infamously high profile case of this in June 1999, literary critic Terry Eagleton criticized Spivak for producing work that belongs to “a politically directionless Left.” Indeed, if it was simply Spivak’s work which he intended to rebuke, his overall assault on the field of postcolonial studies was thinly veiled. Woven throughout his review is the degradation of an entire field of studies that surfaces in statements like this: “Post-colonial theorists are often to be found agonising about the gap between their own intellectual discourse and the natives of whom they speak; but the gap might look rather less awesome if they did not speak a discourse which most intellectuals, too, find unintelligible…Post-colonial theory makes heavy weather of a respect for the Other, but its most immediate Other, the reader, is apparently dispensed from this sensitivity.” Eagleton goes on to say, “For Spivak to impose a coherent narrative on her materials, even if her title spuriously suggests one, would be the sin of teleology, which banishes certain topics just as imperialism sidelines certain peoples.” Eagleton’s remarks, which seem to deploy Spivak as an alibi for his disregard for the serious and vital anti-racist, anti-classist, and anti-sexist work of postcolonial studies, understandably upset a number of those who have worked with Spivak intimately in teaching, scholarly, and service environments around the world.
In a short and direct response to Eagleton, queer theorist Judith Butler asserts that Spivak’s “influence on Third World feminism, Continental feminist theory, Marxist theory, subaltern studies and the philosophy of alterity is unparalleled by any living scholar, and that she has changed the academic terrain of each of these fields by her acute and brilliant contributions…we all know that her critical interrogation of the political status quo in its global dimensions has reached tens of thousands of activists and scholars.” Given the thunderous reception she received at all of the venues in which she spoke, where the dialect of Seattle is based on popular movements and democratic spaces that reflect the same stakes in anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia, it would be fatally short-sighted not to acknowledge Spivak’s grassroots efforts to change the shape of education, at all of its levels, in subaltern communities worldwide. A cursory glance back at some of Spivak’s work testifies to her investment in being a dedicated teacher who is also what Antonio Gramsci describes as an “organic intellectual,” or, in her case, a scribe, agent, and teacher working against the widespread violence of class, race, and gender warfare. Her work has consistently engaged with the hegemony of English, its cultures, and its impact on indigenous communities. Spivak has been engaged in a critical self-reflexivity on effective pedagogy long before Eagleton’s criticism. For example, to return to “Outside in the Teaching Machine,” (1993) she has publicly explored strategic essentialism’s utility for “the political need to embody a recognized identity, and institutional agency.”
In Death of a Discipline (2003), which would follow less than a decade later, Spivak deepens her stakes for an aesthetic education in which the field of comparative literature rigorously examines its canonization as a field of literary studies. She clearly states that intellectual creativity and innovation is essential in reclaiming “the role of teaching literature as training the imagination.” In a review of Discipline that demonstrates an understanding of Spivak’s pedagogical stakes, Matt Waggoner writes, “Spivak’s purpose, in short, is to suggest the literary practices of reading and translation as counter-measures, instruments for dissimulating and disfiguring the self rather than assimilating the other.” As such, it is rather clear and contrary to Eagleton and others’ criticisms that Spivak’s impact on her students, fields of research, global communities, and the ways we think about transnational pedagogy is unforgettable. Indeed, even as she used feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial critiques to interrogate the past, she nonetheless acknowledges the importance of historical study, especially in the digital age: “I know that the iPod generation lives in the moment, that students inclined toward social benevolence feel that history ended to produce them…We often think our times are special because of the silicon chip.”
Spivak’s investments in learning and teaching meld into a decades-long continuum that is characterized by a dedication to public learning at all of its sites that is further extended by An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization and the essay, “Why Study the Past?” (2012) Indeed, even as universities turn to online classes and a subaltern class of educators without job security, Spivak works on the grounds supporting the Ivory Tower with teachers and students who live in abject poverty as a means of bridging the work of college teachers/ academics with the “real world” rather than further alienating us from it. Spivak has extended the activism she engages in the classroom as University Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University through her non-profit organization, the Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty Memorial Education Project. The Project provides quality primary school education to children in some of the poorest regions in the world, including rural West Bengal, India. This dedication of the pedagogy of the poor clearly evinces Spivak’s investment in teaching as a discourse that can transform local communities through grassroots work that reciprocally empowers higher education, as well as the continued oppression of those who are institutionally othered by categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, (dis)ability, etc. Spivak’s willingness to interface pedagogy and praxis for the poor beyond the armchair in her University Professor office at Columbia is perhaps why the Inamori Foundation announced at the end of June 2012 that she had been selected to receive the 2012 Kyoto Prize, often regarded as the “Nobel of the Arts.” In appointing her this year’s Laureate of Arts & Philosophy, the Foundation’s press release announces, “Professor Spivak has shifted a critical theory of “deconstruction” into political and social dimensions, and applied a sharp scalpel to intellectual colonialism which is being reproduced in our heavily globalized modern world. She exemplifies what intellectuals today should be, through her theoretical work for the humanities based on comparative literature and her devotion to multifaceted educational activities.” Moreover, Spivak’s virtuosic influence in and on South Asia was recently recognized by a unanimous vote of the Executive Board of the South Asian Literary Association to award her the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual SALA/ MLA 2013 event in Boston.
Indeed, Spivak’s lifelong preoccupation with training students, on the one hand, and her deft ability to consistently learn lessons from her own past, on the other hand, demonstrate her investments in global education at the most visceral level. In Nationalism and the Imagination, she writes, “In 1946, I entered kindergarten. In October, school closed. We lived right on the border of a Muslim quarter, on the edge of Syed Amir Ali Avenue. Those areas were among the cruelest cites of the Hindu-Muslim violence…There was blood on the streets, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. These are my earliest memories: famine and blood on the streets.” This brief selection says much, in plain terms, what the implications between education, livelihood, and violence are: the artificial binaries, the persistence of double binds, led to the demise of public education, the rise of non-secular violence, and is compounded by a lack of food – these are the material conditions that threaten to make aesthetic education impossible while producing double binds in their rawest and most traumatic forms. This account compels us to recognize how deeply education, race, gender, religion, epistemic violence, language, and geography have shaped Spivak since her childhood; if anyone can talk about the need to play the double bind by virtue of attaining higher education – or simply staying alive – it is indeed Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
Considering postcolonial studies’ ongoing occupation with resisting the continued hegemony of English as a language of elitism and the printed document as the privileged sign of learning, on the macro level, and the recent, unilateral ousting then subsequent reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan as the President of the University of Virginia on the micro level, we wanted to herein stem accusations of academic elitism and the anti-intellectual fantasy that quality education is meaningless. In this global climate of constricting resources and rights, what can we do with the notion of agency? What are the parameters of the subaltern today? The goal of this introduction has been to briefly situate Spivak’s past and present work on pedagogy alongside an interview that engages the political implications of her ideas in ways that speak to a general public. It does so by asking deceptively simple questions that required Spivak to give fairly abbreviated response to. This is the context in which these questions and answers should be read rather than products of the assembly line of “obscurism” that Eagleton may imagine Spivak and other postcolonial scholars to be part of. In keeping with her investment in the pedagogical training of young people, Spivak specifically agreed to field questions of critical importance to local youth activists and junior scholars who often feel that they are the subaltern of academia. To those who would continue to accuse Spivak of “obscurism,” and thus miss the gravity of her work – this dialogue is our response to you.
Rahul K. Gairola: Let me first say thanks for this opportunity and welcome you to Seattle. Alright, so are you ready?
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Ahh, yes.
RKG: I am just going to record this and transcribe it later. These are some questions that some junior scholars, many graduate students and adjuncts from the area, wanted me to present to you. They are more like discussion topics, so I don’t want to frame them all as questions with clear answers.
RKG: So here are some topics that some junior scholars and graduate students following your work are interested in. The first is that some wanted to hear your ruminations on Marxism and the notion of “subaltern” – the ways your understandings of them might have shifted over the years.
GCS: My understanding of Marxism has not shifted, but it changes with each reading of Marx. It is a rich text! So, the reading is in the same place, getting richer. With subalternity, when I began, my study was focused on a single person. I was thinking of resistance that could not be recognized as resistance because there was no infrastructure for recognition. Now, I am more interested in groups and classes rather than single people, and I am more interested in providing or constructing an infrastructure, and also in the development of the subaltern intellectual. There is the change.
RKG: Something I noticed during “Questions of Performance,” your keynote talk for the SALA 2012 (South Asian Literary Association) conference, and then again in the “Postcolonial Literary History: Concepts and Permutations” roundtable for MLA 2012, was that you gave audiences a number of personal anecdotes. I wonder if you have thoughts on the ways in which the personal is political, how the personal can be informative, even transformative, in thinking about social and political work.
GCS: I don’t think of them as anecdotes. If you look at them, you will see that they are not actually little stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. I use myself – my stereotypes of myself – as examples so that I invite the listener or reader to look at it as a text for reading. I don’t quite think of the personal as the political, because in my time I have seen a situation where only the personal becomes political, and I think that’s a problem. And I also find that it is better for me to be concerned with more abstract structures and also people other than myself. So, I am not exercised on behalf of myself – you will notice that I mostly, whenever I speak about someone who might be myself, it is a stereotype which is an illustration of an idea that must be read or listened to as a text.
RKG: Yes, I see.
GCS: When I was speaking yesterday, I offered this situation with professor Taraknath Sen, who, after all, treated all first sessions this way – there was nothing particular about me. I gave that as an understanding that our generation was evidence, a part of the evidence of what Professor [Ankhi] Mukherjee was writing about. That was not really an anecdote, it was the example of an idea.
RKG: The next two topics up for discussion are the MLA and SALA talks that you gave this past weekend. The MLA keynote explored the current status of postcolonialism and was celebrating the two volume Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature that shall soon be published. Can you briefly summarize, give those who weren’t there a sense of what you spoke about?
GCS: I first spoke about those memories of the mid-‘50s, offering that situation for evidence for what is being considered in one of the Cambridge articles. Then I went on to take up the suggestion by [Ato] Quayson, the editor that postcolonial literary history –what the volumes are about – should continue as a way of thinking rather than just simply be definitively established by the two books that he has edited. As such, I pointed at the difference between the immigrant and diasporic, and the international, pan-African postcolonial; as it happened, I chose France as my example. And then I went on to talk about how any decision to establish an authoritative account is political, and this I took from [Antonio] Gramsci’s argument in his Notebook 29 when Sardinian was being grammatized. Then I went on to suggest two ways in which postcolonialism as such was changing: one of them was in terms of regionalism, in response to globalization I may add, and the other was in terms of looking at the pre-colonial forces and tendencies as residuals that were coming into dominance in globalization as they had been transformed by the colonial encounter. This is the summary of that talk.
RKG: Wonderful. I also wanted to ask about your SALA 2012 talk. It was very interesting to me how you seemed to be performing deconstruction of the questions, at least that is what many junior scholars and graduate scholars who I know were speaking about afterwards. How would you summarize your thoughts on that keynote?
GCS: In looking at “performance,” I first, very briefly, gave some pointers towards answers in terms of the questions. I said that we could not do subaltern performatives because we are not subaltern. I have suggested that pedagogic performance is not deliberately fictive for me. And I also suggested that the definition of “performativity” you offered seems very close to “purposive without purpose” which is [Immanuel] Kant’s famous definition of the aesthetic, but for me did not suggest a deliberate way of performing. That, for Kant, is a description of what happens in the aesthetic, not what we “do.” Before I picked up [J.L.] Austin’s definition [of the “performative”], I suggested that, colloquially understood, it could be a useful thing for undermining mere identitarianism, but then I suggested that when we forgot that it was the idea of “South Asia” either through area studies or through the way in which Vijay Prasad has suggested it was picked up, they are quite solidly based in the United States and so the idea of identitarianism that comes from changing civil society, which is involved in immigration and then as the generations go on – that cannot really combat identitarianism altogether because a sense of being something other is there in being in another civil society. This is an idea that I have been talking about for a very long time in terms of the difference between “ethnos” and “ethnikos.” Then I picked up J.L.Austin’s definition of the performative, which is words that do things rather than describe things. I took this into consideration in the way my thinking has developed, and I talked about shifting the performative into performance taking, as my example, the Warlpiris of Western Australia and then the rhetoric of the epigraphs in “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois, connecting it with his larger project as outlined in the Black Reconstruction and in his life. Finally, I ended with the definition of the classical author as performer in Roland Barthes’ S/Z and suggested the concept-metaphor of the conductor of a musical performance, as in European musical performance, as a good description of our task, responsibility towards another’s text – almost constructing ourselves physically, as do conductors – as representing the rhetoric of that other’s text so we can become a conduit for its performance through another group of performers, for another changeable group which makes up the audience. And that is where I ended. I should mention that this was based on a deliberate mistranslation – an intended mistake, part of my methodology. In French, a musical conductor is a chef d’orchèstre.
RKG: You had mentioned the importance of comparative and language studies in that talk. Why would you say this is important for graduate students, and how might this help them in their professional lives and their lives outside of the classroom?
GCS: I have actually laid this out carefully in my article “Re-thinking Comparativism” which appeared in New Literary History but which is also now a somewhat revised chapter in my new book. The way in which an infant acquires language is before reason. In order for this language to be acquired by the infant, the circuits inside the infant that are used – rather than reason, memorizing as it happens when we learn a foreign language – are the same circuits that construct a system that becomes ethical. So the idea in comparativism, not just language-learning but comparativist language-learning which goes towards literary study – that way of learning-language tries to construct as close as possible a simulacrum to that first language learning remembering that any language can be, in this sense, a first language. In other words, it is a setting to action of the metapsychological so that the ethical system can be established. Literary study can actually help construct this simulacrum. This, after all, is the reason why human beings exist, so I cannot imagine a greater functionality for human beings than this. You enrich your ability to become ethically active, if the occasion arises, through the exercise of language learning. That is how I would say it would help, not just students but anyone. Let me say a word about “humanism” here: I do not say “human” with any sense of teleology. I say “human” because, try as I might to touch that in the animate or, for that matter, inanimate that is not human, I am constrained by my programming as human. Those parts of me that are otherwise defined can also and only be imagined in the “human” way. Value strapped by method.
RKG: You mentioned An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, your new book, which has caused a huge buzz throughout the SALA and MLA conventions. I was asked to bring flyers here from the SALA conference, but they were all gone because there is so much anticipation and excitement about it. What contribution do you think this book advances in the oeuvre of all your work and thinking?
GCS: That, I must say, is for readers to say. I never imagine anything that my work can do (laughing). I like to be surprised by whatever happens that is so different from anything I might have imagined. That is just not my way of thinking, so I do not know.
RKG: A large cohort of current graduate students and adjunct instructors are deeply concerned about the state of the profession and the job market. A number of them have asked me to ask you for any advice you might have for students currently in doctoral programs.
GCS: I think it is a good idea to think about other kinds of jobs. I find it hard to think of justifying this kind of work in terms of getting jobs. For me, employability is not necessarily the final definition of human dignity. It so happens that I got a job during the Vietnam War boom; I cannot give advice to students to change this two-war economy. So, I have a feeling that in order for this to be really systemically answered, the connection between banks and states have to be shifted, and that is really not something you can do from within a job in the teaching of literature. So I cannot give a direct answer to improve the condition of this profession in terms of jobs. That is the change that has to take place, and that is so not directly connected to the profession that one really has to think about doing other kinds of things, you know what I mean?
RKG: Yes. So you have been engaged in philanthropic work since 1997, and I wondered what your hopes and/ or goals of The Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty Memorial Education Project are?
GCS: As I said during my talk, it is not philanthropic work unless you want to suggest that my teaching in the United States is also philanthropic. I quite resolutely do not make a distinction between the two kinds of teaching; my goals in the two kinds of teaching are the same – to develop the intuitions of democracy. And that is what I think a humanities teacher does, that is what my goal is. In the United States it also involves situating “Manifest Destiny,” which leads to philanthropy-empowerment talk.
RKG: There are a few more topics that I was asked to ask you about – what your thoughts might on this being an election year in the United States, and what your thoughts are on the Occupy movement since the epicenter is where you live, in New York City.
GCS: Well, I don’t know what you mean by what are my thoughts about this being an election year. Could you clarify that?
RKG: Some of the junior scholars I have spoken to have mixed feelings on the candidates who are running, including Obama as President. They have expressed deep ambivalence in terms of this country’s economic future, and are also wary of Obama’s co-optation with neoliberal agendas. A few of them are curious about what your thoughts might be about him being re-elected, or possibly not-elected, and more specifically what other options there might be, if any.
GCS: You mean options other than electing someone?
RKG: Or electing him.
GCS: I think out of the candidates, in comparison, he is the best. I don’t vote in this country, so it is hard for me to really think about it seriously (laughing). I do think that in spite of all the constraints, we would be very much better than all the others who are assembled. So I guess those are my thoughts.
RKG: You do vote in India?
GCS: I vote in India, yes.
RKG: On the Occupy movement – do you have any words of wisdom or an opinion on that?
GCS: Well, I do think it is a good thing. I think it is too soon to tell what will be the result of their work. I do not follow every detail of what they are up to, but the questions that they have posed to me have been interesting, first about the general strike and now about how precisely to undo the connection between Washington and Wall Street. I am going to have to write an answer to that second question very soon, which is why I am so anxious about getting all the little bits of work done that are on my plate (laughing). It is an example of citizens who have been subalternized – that is to say access to the structures of the state have been removed: health, education, welfare, housing, all of that stuff. And so they are behaving as citizens through civil disobedience taking the form of a general strike and deciding not to move until the connection between politics, which is Washington, and economy, which is Wall Street, is changed and shifted. This is a very hard task, much bigger than New York City, and as to whether they will be able to do anything, I can only wish them good luck. In my estimation, this is better than demonstrations. Demonstrations are good things – I have always joined demonstrations. I certainly am in their favor but they don’t achieve anything because actual things happen in terms of systemic laws, laws of capital that are not affected by demonstrations. These people are actually trying to see if those laws can be changed – as to whether they can do so, I have no idea.
RKG: Do you think the movement is problematic at all because it was mobilized through Facebook and other technological mediums that are owned by corporations?
RKG: How do you think that subaltern studies has shaped queer studies since the publication of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Do you see any helpful fusions between these two fields?
GCS: “Queer” is a category which is susceptible to classing and racing. Thus “subalternity” — lack of access to social mobility — is nested here. On the other hand, “queer” intersects with “subalternity” in so far as queerness is identified as reason for lack of access.
RKG: A local musician who identifies as queer specifically wondered how you would deal with a scenario in which a gay, white man who is clearly troubled articulates his frustrations by making racist remarks to queer men of color on public forums like Facebook.
GCS: As I deal with any expression of racism. Reason on the social medium—and reason face-to-face if I felt I had any hope here. I do not intervene for the sake of intervening. Witnessing, yes.
RKG: A very large pool of adjunct instructors serve the institutions of higher education in Seattle, and throughout the U.S. in general. Many of those working here wondered if you thought this is the mainstay, and if so, where or not a national or global union of adjunct professors could be formed to further mediate against their continued subalternization?
GCS: National, not global. I don’t hold out much hope. We have been working to improve the situation of adjuncts since the 1967 MLA but with the corporatization of the universities, it is worsening, if anything.
RKG: Finally, your life is an amazing tapestry of moments and thoughts whose articulations have shaped generations of teachers and scholars. Are there particular teachers and/ or learning moments that were of particular inspiration to you, that were so profoundly formative that you would like to share them with us?
GCS: My parents, Taraknath Sen, Swami Pavitrananda, Paul de Man, the rural schools, Q&A sessions—where to stop? I learn as I live.
RKG: Well, that is all we have time for, for now. Thank you for your time.
GCS: Good. Thank you for your questions.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 3.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 3.
 Ibid, 2.
 Terry Eagleton, “In the Gaudy Supermarket.” London Review of Books 21.10 (13 May 1999), p. 3-6.
 Judith Butler, “Letter to the Editor.” London Review of Books 21.13 (1 July 1999).
 Antonio Gramsci, “The Intellectuals.” Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), p.15.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “Outside in the Teaching Machine.” Discourse 16.3 (January 1994), p.185.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), p.13.
 Matt Waggoner. “A Review of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Death of a Discipline.” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 6.2 (Spring 2005), p.130.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “Why Study the Past?” MLQ: Modern Language Quaterly 73.1 (March 2012), p.2.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Nationalism and the Imagination (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010). p.7-8.
I must first thank Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak for generosity with her time, thought, and kindness over the many years I have come to know her. I also thank Marshall Brown, S. Charusheela, and Nalini Iyer for editorial counsel, and to Rick Simonson for kindly arranging interview space and the informal coffee date between Professor Spivak and local students, activists, and faculty including Cassandra Hodge, Sonal Khullar, Mario Lemafa, Evan Rodd, Kristina Rose, Anand Yang, and many others who suggested questions. Finally, thanks to my colleagues who helped make the SALA 2012 conference a success, namely Robin Field, Raje Kaur, Moumin Quazi, and Amritjit Singh