Voice of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Philippe MesnardUniversité Clermont Auvergne (UCA) / CELIS EA 4280, Institut Universitaire de France
Paru le : 30.07.2017
Mots-clés :

Interview by Philippe Mesnard (September 15th, Paris)

See the whole video of this interview on: http://memories-testimony.com/videos/

A Feminist critic and literary theorist, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is University Professor at Columbia University, where she is a founding member of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. She is a very influential postcolonial intellectual, best known for her essay Can the Subaltern Speak?, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Other Asias, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, and for her translation of and introduction to Jacques Derrida’s De la Grammatologie.


You were born in Kolkata (Calcutta), in Bengal, the Eastern part of India; how is this territory influential regarding your work?

Gayatri Spivak: It’s a very interesting part of India because the British came in through there. In 1757, they came through there, and they were a company, the East India Company. The real imperial presence was the Ottomans; so, these British merchants didn’t know how to be imperial. And so, the British treated Bengal —which is where Calcutta is— in the wrong way. They learnt Bengali, for example; they wrote Bengali grammars. They became much more Bengali, and they established the Hindu gentleman class, etc. Once Bengal was established in a certain way, in the rest of India they were much more imperial. So to an extent, we were different. (There’s been historical writing by Victor Kiernan, and so on, of this.) So one was this, and the other was that Bengal committed to the Second International, so the intellectual left was in fact, Bengali. Rajani Palme Dutt, for example —who had a Bengali father— was one of Marx’s translators. And so it’s that the whole Bengal scene is a little bit different, and whether I think so or not, I am no doubt influenced by the fact that I was born in Calcutta.

Could you explain the importance of Marx in your training and your thinking?

G. S.: In this Bengali context, yes, because it’s also true that until five years ago, West Bengal was run by a left-front government. The Communist Party-Marxist was the party in power, as opposed to the old Communist Party of India, which is more pro-Moscow. Therefore, my introduction to Marxism was in an actually existing socialist state, which had a very peculiar kind of situation because the government of the center in India was not socialist. And so, I just wrote about this man, Samar Sen influenced me very deeply. He ran a journal called Frontier, which still exists, to support secularism, socialism and democracy, and his point of view was how to be critical of the parliamentary left—as in West Bengal—when the center is not leftist. It’s like a left of the left critique of the parliamentary left. This is very, very different from my introduction to Western Marxism, which was much later, and really almost without connection to any of my earlier Marxist training. And I’ll tell you one thing: I was at Cornell as a graduate student in 1961, and there was at that time a whole kind of India thing—you know, the Beatniks before the hippies, even. This was completely unlike the India I knew, but I was a young thing, and I went into it: I sang with Allen Ginsberg on the harmonium, etc. And then, in 1962, Malcolm X came to Cornell to talk to James Brown, and as I was sitting in the audience —I remember so clearly— I thought, “My God! This is like Calcutta.” Because that other India that the Americans so loved was not really India; it was something that I played along with, as a young person. So that’s how Marx got into my blood, as it were.

But it’s not an orthodox vision of Marx

G. S.: Not at all. In fact, I was just in Shanghai giving a keynote at the International Biennial Association, and I said, “Marx is my brother.” I have no interest in establishing the correct Marx so that he can be followed. And I am very fond of quoting a passage, which says that the revolution of the 19th century is going to look toward the poetry of the future. This is Marx’s actual language! So, I’m for the poetry of the future.

How would you define the critical position you occupy in postcolonial studies in particular, and in the academic field in general?

G. S.: Postcolonial… It’s hard for me to think of myself as a postcolonial. I think, in France, I am perceived more as a postcolonial—or as we say affectionately, a ‘poco.’ Therefore, I’m opposed on grounds that do not exist for me. You know, I was asked by the Romanic Review to write on Postcolonialism in France. And I am quite in sympathy with the immigrant population here, and when they take up the word ‘postcolonial,’ I’m for them. But given that I was born in India (I’m an Indian citizen), when I say “postcolonial,” it’s a kind of ironic term. For me, national liberation is not a revolution. The failure of decolonization begins the day after a negotiated independence—and that position is really rather different. So when I was asked to write about Postcolonialism in France, I was told later that they thought that I would take a position correcting the critics in France who thought that I was a bad girl for being postcolonial. But since I don’t think of myself as postcolonial, I wrote, about Lumumba, Aimé Césaire, etc.—and I quite liked the piece. But later, I was asked with some disappointment by the editor, “why didn’t you confront the French critique of your Postcolonialism?” And I said, “because for me, it’s absurd, because I’m not [a postcolonial].” In fact, when I began what is called ‘postcolonial,’ I didn’t know I was doing anything postcolonial. And then when I saw how it was being used in the United States, I wrote a book called, Don’t Call Me Postcolonial! And then, Amartya Sen, who was, at that point, on the Syndics of Harvard University Press, called me and said: “Gayatri, this is a serious book. Do not give to it a trivial title. Since the first chapter is on Kant, you should call it A Critique of Postcolonial Reason.” And so that’s what the book is called; but basically, it is a critique of Postcolonialism. And the essay that I wrote called, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” —which is, for some reason, my best-known piece— is not a postcolonial piece. It’s a critique of Hinduism, and pre-colonial tradition. So, you know, it’s a little hard for me to think about. Most people don’t read; they think that I’m still doing postcolonial, and there are these emails that come, asking me to do this and that in a postcolonial way.

And about your critical position regarding the academic field in general? Because you stay in a very critical position.

G. S.: Absolutely. I think all over the world, on nearly all levels—from community schools, etc., to the elite schools—the distinction between public and private universities is almost indistinguishable. And the general tendency is corporatization—to different degrees, but nonetheless, that is a great misfortune. That’s one. And then, the second thing is the trivialization of the humanities in which we, ourselves, participate. We humanities teachers, we participate in this. And the ones who do teach humanities teach with a certain kind of sense that we are not really important in the contemporary world. And I think that’s one of the things that I very much question, and do what I can to oppose. And finally, I would say, look, in the ‘60s, we talked about revolution in the universities; but what we didn’t know then was that just doing revolution at elite universities and establishing these wonderful schools was not going to do anything. The education has to become holistic. In other words, we really have to see from the primary through the secondary, into the tertiary and post-tertiary. We have to have this sense, because otherwise, class apartheid in education is destroying the world. So this, briefly, is my position regarding universities.

You spoke about “death of the discipline” about mainly comparative literature, it is the title of one of your books (2005, Columbia University Press). What does this expression mean more deeply?

G. S.: Other people have asked me that question. They ask, what was I doing? I was writing an elegy. An elegy is when, at the end of the whole thing, you say, “it’s alive again.” When I actually gave those lectures, I called them “new comparative literature.” So, to an extent you can say that I was perhaps not really mourning, but even celebrating, the death of the old comparative literature, and hoping that there would be one which would bring together the social sciences and literature—which would recognize that every language in the world can be a first language, and therefore it can be learnt before reason, and bring alive the ethical semiosis. Because that’s what happens in the language that you learn before you can properly think, “first language.” So all of that I was hoping for, and I think, therefore, the idea of death, there, is to bury the old and to celebrate the new.

Do you not believe that this situation reflects a more general situation concerning the relationship between knowledge and the disciplines that order and control both the knowledge and experience of reality?

G. S.: Disciplinarization is not something that can be avoided. It’s a necessary evil. I wasn’t thinking of this, but you’ve asked a nice question. What I say about disciplines is that it forms your way of thinking. A discipline gives you a sense of what you are as a knower, and how to construct the object of knowing. It’s an epistemological preparation; and this quite often can be imprisoning, and this happens more often than one would like. On the other hand, it has been my good fortune to meet a few people who push the frontiers of the discipline, so that for them, the discipline—the poison—becomes medicine. Therefore, I would say it isn’t like there is a direct and unmediated experience of the real, which is destroyed by the discipline. I would say disciplinary preparation is an epistemological preparation. On the other hand, the way in which universities or institutions of any sort — constitute disciplines— has to be persistently questioned, because that is a little different from epistemological disciplinarization. I wouldn’t oppose some unmediated real-life to knowledge produced by disciplines.

Do you believe that academic intellectuals can still exhibit real critical thinking inside the system they belong?

G. S.: I hope so, if it is inside the system. Most people want to succeed within the system, even as a radical; so I want to believe that they can. On the other hand, I move around a great deal in the world of R & D [research and development], and I go to the World Economic Forum because I am associated with them as an expert. So, I have a good sense of how remote the world of policy is from the academy, today. So, if you think of the inside of the system as the system that runs the world, rather than just the academic institution, then I think the possibility of actual public intellectuals is getting less and less

My question includes the critics that you address to so-called French theory, Foucault, Deleuze and so forth

G. S.: Well, no. The one place where I was critical was that essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” And, you see, for most middle-class, upwardly class-mobile, metropolitan immigrants there is a certain kind of autobiographical moment. I remember Edward Saïd saying to me that there was a moment where he realized, “I was Orientalized.” So, this kind of thing comes; and I was in that moment thinking, “how is it that I have become a specialist in French theory, so that Yale French Studies wants me to write on French Theory, and Critical Inquiry wants me to write on deconstruction?” (This was in the early 1980s.) And so, I had that autobiographical moment, and I wanted to go away from it —and I think my way was to look at a conversation. I was not being negative about Foucault and Deleuze in terms of their theoretical production; in fact, I respect both of them greatly. But what I was seeing was that, when they just spoke to each other, they did not seem to use the generally counterintuitive theoretical positions that they had made accessible to thousands of readers in the world. They were talking like anyone else: romanticizing the working class, and so on and so forth. But that’s not the way they wrote. So that was the critique: the critique of a conversation, not their general theoretical positions. I have taught these people forever, and I think they are quite fine people. And, of course, I have been very close to Derrida over the years. And Lacan —I think Lacan is a poet. For me, poetry is not a bad word, I’ve lived with poetry all my life. I think Freud is a body-mind philosopher who uses narrative as ethical instantiation, which is a very long tradition, and I think Lacan has the gift of poetry—of being able to say that Hegel, for example, was a metonym for psychoanalysis —a very powerful insight. So, I do not at all only criticize these thinkers of the 1960s and the 1970s, no.

You have mentioned Jacques Derrida. What was, or what is the importance of him in your own thinking?

G. S.: I’m not quite sure, because it’s so internalized that I don’t say, “Ah! That’s you being a Derridian.” It’s not like that. In many ways, I’m haunted by him. It’s very much internalized. Of course, I’m capable of being critical, but that’s a very different thing; that’s where I’m like an academic intellectual standing outside. But basically what happened was that I was very taken by the way he thought.

But you don’t put him on the same side as Foucault and Deleuze?

G. S.: In some ways. I don’t quite know what the same side would be, but it is true that I don’t know Foucault and Deleuze as well as Derrida. When you translate someone, it’s the most intimate kind of reading; and then you get established in your own profession as someone who specializes on this one, so your obligation becomes a little different. On the other hand, I just gave the last talk on Foucault’s Collège de France lectures at Columbia, and I went very much into what Foucault was up to. I wrote a piece some years ago called, “Foucault and Najibullah.” Najibullah was the last communist president of Afghanistan who was hanged from a lamppost, and people were watching this, and of course that’s how Foucault’s Surveiller et punir, Discipline and Punish, opens: people watching an execution. So, once again, I got very much into Foucault’s material. There are many ways in which it is possible that that’s how I read and teach theory—that they become internalized. I don’t read or teach theory so that we can use theory as an instrument to describe what we are studying. I read theory as if the person who’s writing it —and this includes Marx— is creatively theorizing, just for its own sake. And then, the material becomes part of my mental world. Then, when I read, it comes out in many eclectic ways.

Now we can focus on specific concepts. Of course, we have to begin with the question of the Subaltern. Are you closed to the Gramsci meaning of this word? Originally, this term belonged to military language; can we discuss some of the consequences of that?

G. S.: First of all, I ask why it is that ‘subaltern’ is the word that I’m most associated with. It’s fine, I accept it, but I didn’t particularly think that that was what I was doing —establishing that word. Yes, I am quite closed to the Gramsci sense, and I think the military sense is also interesting, because in a general way, if you look at the whole army, the Subaltern is the one who only takes orders and doesn’t give orders. On the other hand, if you look at it from below the subaltern officers, they do, indeed, also give orders. So, it’s not like they are completely without any local hierarchization. So, the military metaphor is quite interesting.

You have introduced an important distinction between the terms “Subaltern” and “popular” (may be we might add another distinction with “people”), “class” and “poverty”, “race” and “colour”, “gender” and “sex”… could you explain these binomial concepts?

G. S.: In fact, we can also add things like ‘citizen and nationality.’ I would say that the second ones are more fuzzy. The first ones are more theoretical and structural. Now, mind you, the world ‘people’ is very big word; so I can’t just say, “look, it’s different from subaltern.” And this is true for most of those second words. But, in fact, Ranajit Guha —the South Asian historian who started the Subaltern Studies collective in Southern Asian regional history— identified the words ‘subaltern’ and ‘people’ in the first collection of that collective, and I’ve acknowledged this. He also said that the people were the space of difference from the whole social hierarchization. (He was writing about India, because this is a historian of Southern Asia.) That particular treatment of ‘subaltern’ by the Subaltern Studies Group of Southern Asian historians —which began in the early 1980s— is in a piece of mine called “Deconstructing Historiography,” which is not very well written at all, but I wrote it. Then, ‘poverty and class,’ that’s of course a very solid distinction established by other people, too —that a class can only come into being if there is class consciousness. So, to say that it’s just degrees of income that actually describe class would be to take away the active meaning of the word class, which is an abstract word. Then, the idea of ‘sex and gender’ is an interesting distinction, because it’s a bit fuzzy, in itself, as a distinction. Gender is about how the social division of labor is constructed in terms of a certain kind of physical difference, which can be perceived as difference before any other difference. That is very systematic. (The idea of a sex-gender system, that’s not mine.) But the idea of sex doesn’t have to be, in fact, systematized in terms of the whole of society; it can also have various kinds of personal use. It can be used simply to distinguish difference in genitals and secondary formations. It’s a more flexible word because it could be seen only as biological / physiological, whereas gender is undoubtedly like class: a more systematic thing. And so on with citizenship etc. The first ones are structural, mobile, and systemic, whereas the second ones —one should really say gender-sex rather than sex-gender— are more fuzzy, and can have private and physiological meanings.

Indeed. Nevertheless sex, it’s maybe closer than biopolitical meaning

G. S.: Well, that is not always true. Unfortunately, the bio-political can be disguised by speaking sex. That’s one of the things that one has to keep in mind.

To the question: “Can the Subaltern speak?”, you answered that the Subaltern cannot speak. Due to this negative response, do you think that the reception of it, which could be heard as a provocative as well as a negative response, is representative of the closure of occidental thinking regarding the Other?

G. S.: No. I’m not completely at home with all Western thinking. (I don’t know quite what the West is. I mean, is Australia the West?) But at any rate, I would say that some people have written about my perception of the Subaltern as the perception of radical alterity; they’re not thinking about the positive way in which philosophers like Levinas have thought about the Other, that whole ethical philosophy where the Other, and the tout autre —the absolute Other— are positive things. That’s a very different thing. They have thought of the Other in the sense of colored people. Colored people are colonized people: natives, African… and that kind of stuff. No. See, in order to go away from being a French theoretician, I fell on a family member: my grandmother’s sister, who was part of the anti-imperial, small groupuscules that existed at that time. She was 17 years old in 1926, and she was given an assassination detail. She could not kill, and therefore she killed herself. But she waited four days before she hanged herself in order to menstruate, so that she could speak with her body and oppose the traditional gendering that says a woman exists for a unique man. She wanted to take a position against this. So, even in that terrible time, when she has decided she’s going to die, she’s waiting until she menstruates, because she doesn’t want anybody to think it was because of an illicit pregnancy. And not only does she do that, she even writes a letter for her sister —my grandmother— to be opened 60 years later, because she didn’t know when India would become independent. She took all this trouble to speak —with her body and with her hand. And yet, two generations later —my generation— my first cousin, who has the exact same educational background as I (I came first-class first in English honors at the University of Calcutta, she came first-class first in philosophy with honors at the University of Calcutta), she said, “why are you working on this person who just killed herself because of an illicit pregnancy?” So, I said in rage, “the Subaltern cannot speak!” Even when she spoke with her whole body, and waited for four days in that terrible time, and wrote her letter —she tried so hard to speak— her speech-act could not be completed, therefore she could not speak. That does not mean that they cannot talk. It’s a speech-act —it can never be fully completed. It’s always going on, it continues forever, because language is such a movable thing— it doesn’t stay in one place. But nonetheless, it can be completed if there’s an infrastructure that can listen. Nobody could listen to her. That’s why the way in which I said that is the rhetoric of rage —like people will say, “there is no justice.” That doesn’t mean there is no justice. It means that, although there is law, law is not justice. That’s what that meant; but nobody read the essay carefully enough to see that story. My mother was very worried that I was writing about her, and I said, “Ma, nobody will pay any attention” —especially since I didn’t say she was my grandmother’s sister. (I didn’t want people to like me because my grandmother’s sister had been in that struggle.) Therefore, I took a good long time to explain this. There was a conference 20 years after I’d given the talk, and I wrote a piece where I explained everything. But that’s what I mean: it’s got nothing to do with the West shutting up colored people, no.

I wondered if, subaltern indicates not individuals, but part of the dominated group that remains incapable of using language, or more precisely, of using the discourse. Am I mistaken?

G. S.: No. When I first went away from just being a French specialist, as I said, I fell on my family and I spoke about an individual. But, in fact, in Gramsci, the definition is “marginal social groups who cannot be generalized.” I mean, the proletariat could be generalized through capital logic, but these people could not be. Therefore, yes, they are groups; but it isn’t as if they cannot use language. Of course they use language, but we do not have the infrastructure to hear what they’re saying, that’s the work that I’ve been doing for the last 30 years —to create infrastructure so that the elite, the government, can hear what they say.


If we play an encyclopedia game, what responses come to mind when I say… culture

G. S.: Bad faith.


G. S.: Fragile.


G. S.: Democracy.


G. S.: That’s a hard one. I can’t produce something quickly for that.


G. S.: Someone I oppose.


If I remember correctly, you said that your project is not to study the Subaltern, but to learn from them and devise a philosophy of education. More deeply, more accurately, are we sure that Subaltern is really an object or a topic of study?

G. S.: I think you’re right. On the other hand, I do believe that anything can be an object of study. There’s nothing wrong with studying something. If one studies a thing in such a way that it is nothing but an object of investigation, then it’s a problem. I’m a literary critic: our way of studying the singular and the unverifiable is, in fact, to want to be haunted by the text we are studying. In fact, good historians and good anthropologists are this way, as well. (That is to say, the more qualitative social sciences.) So, I have no problem with objects of study. But —you’re quite right— I have no anthropological curiosity or historical curiosity about the Subaltern. And although I am not following Gramsci, I found later that I’m very sympathetic with Gramsci, because Gramsci also talks quite a lot about producing subaltern intellectuals, and the traditional intellectual being in a master-disciple relationship, where the disciple is the traditional intellectual learning from the environment of the Subaltern. So, yes: I do believe that the work that I’ve been doing has been to learn how to actually work with these damaged mindsets —damaged by us, caste Hindus— in order to insert in the children the intuitions of democracy, because they’re going to vote. So, that’s really my project, in a nutshell.

As you know, mainly in the West, the memory issues, manifestations, and discourses about the past have increased for the last thirty decades in Occident. We have talked about the Jewish genocide as the paradigm of memory; and today memory is a varied topic concerning the Armenian genocide, Tutsi genocide, Cambodian genocide, WWI and so forth. How can this important part of Occidental contemporary culture fit into the subaltern perspective? How can be articulated with it?

G. S.: I think that memory may be, today, kind of theorized as opposed to official historiography in the West, but this emergence of memory, rather than access to… that’s the subaltern stuff. The Subaltern does not have access to. Whereas the Western elite theorists turn their back on official historiography, the Subaltern does not have access to official historiography. Therefore, there is a memory. I’m a little troubled by Western theories of memory, because it’s not a question of hierarchizing—especially with genocidal testimony. I don’t think that diagnosing something as a genocide should use something like testimony as evidence; and it inevitably goes in that direction. I think if one wants to respect memory, one will not make it into something that wins out over historiography. In this, I’m critical of certain kinds of memorizing disciplines. On the other hand, with the Subaltern, memory, which is not to be treated by educated theorists as anything but anthropological material, is what there is. So, I do not think of subaltern memory as just something you analyze and put in place, because in some ways there is no distinction between subaltern memory and elite memory. That’s how memory works—acknowledge that. And, in fact, quite often subaltern memory becomes accessible through religion. This is a very significant thing noticed, for example, by both Ranajit Guha in Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, which he wrote about 32 years ago, and W.E.B. Du Bois, talking about the slave joining of the Union army as general strike in his beautiful book, Black Reconstruction, written in 1935. Both recognize that the way in which the Subaltern—Du Bois is not using the word ‘subaltern,’ obviously—has access to the world historical—almost the only way—is through the discourse of religion. So, collective memory forms itself. Dubois, as he writes about this business, he has the black worker, the white worker, and then the chapter is, “The Coming of the Lord,” because that is how the slave-Christians were understanding how slavery was in religion, because that was their access to the world historical. That’s why it’s so delicate. So, when the elite actually uses this as a kind of post-theoretical practice, I remain quite critical of this. And so, that is how I would connect it with Subalternity.


Selected Bibliography

  • Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography (1985)
  • In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987)
  • “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Cary Nelson & Larry Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the interpretation of Culture (1988)
  • A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999)
  • Death of a Discipline (2003)
  • Other Asias (2011)
  • An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2012)

In French / en français

  • Les subalternes peuvent-elles parler ? , traduit de l’anglais par Jérôme Vidal, Paris, éditions Amsterdam, 2006.
  • L’État global (avec Judith Butler), traduit de l’anglais par Françoise Bouillot, Paris, Payot & Rivages, 2007.
  • En d’autres mondes, en d’autres mots. Essais de politique culturelle, traduit de l’anglais par Françoise Bouillot, Paris, Payot & Rivages, 2009.
  • Nationalisme et Imagination, traduit de l’anglais par Françoise Bouillot, Paris, Payot & Rivages, 2011.