February 24, 2017
Happy seventy-five, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak!
by Ian Dreiblatt
The world’s a mess, and it’s a fine time to be wishing a happy seventy-fifth birthday to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, writer, theorist, translator, activist, and noted rocker of saris and combat boots. Over a fabled career, Spivak has established herself as, according to some, the world’s preeminent literary scholar.
Spivak was born to a prominent family in Kolkata, then under British rule, and has said of her childhood:
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.
Spivak went on to graduate from the University of Calcutta before moving to the US to complete a PhD at Cornell University under the supervision of legendary critic (and, alas, Nazi sympathizer) Paul de Man. Her first book, like her graduate thesis, addressed the poetry of William Butler Yeats.
In 1976, Spivak put out her second book. It was an English translation of De la Grammatologie (“Of Grammatology”), the watershed work that had first been published nine years earlier by French academic, name-caller, and Melville House author Jacques Derrida. The book, the translation, and Spivak’s ninety-page introduction were instantly greeted as works of genius. Of Grammatology is famously difficult to characterize, but I think it’s fair to say that it advocates for the replacement of the then-prevailing view of writing as a mere technology for recording speech with a richer—and more unstable—understanding of it as a distinctive and autonomous form of language in constant, submerged tension with speech. Where primacy had been accorded to the oral, and presence equated with meaning, Derrida saw the active repression of a muddier truth he wanted to liberate. At one point in her preface, channeling Sigmund Freud’s description of the unknown nature of the unconscious mind, Spivak writes, “Something that carries within itself the trace of a perennial alterity: the structure of the psyche, the structure of the sign. To this structure Derrida gives the name ‘writing.’”
The other work for which Spivak is best known is her nourishing and disruptive 1983 essay Can the Subaltern Speak?. Addressing thinkers including Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and, of course, Derrida (whose approach it champions), and considering the south Asian practice of suttee, it develops the concept of the “subaltern” introduced in the work of Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, who uses it to describe groups more marginal than the traditional working class, cut off by multiple forces—cultural, economic, political—from the possibility of social mobility. By asking whether these populations at the margins (“one can just as well say the silent, silenced center”) can speak, Spivak suggests that European philosophical discourse may be built to exclude their very subjectivities — and thus to redouble their exclusion from participation in the politics, economic betterment, and self-narration that philosophical discourse promises.
The essay ends with a celebrated declaration:
The subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with “woman” as a pious item. Representation has not withered away. The female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disavow with a flourish.
Spivak has taught at a number of American universities, including the University of Iowa (where in 1974 she founded the MFA in Translation program), Emory, and Columbia, where she has taught since 1991, and in 2007 became the first woman of color to serve as University Professor in the Humanities.
Despite the jumpin’ jigawattage of her thinking and her influence over Western philosophy, Spivak remains famous for her no-bullshit style and lack of pretension. She has for years spent time educating poor populations in rural northeast India, and has encouraged activist movements all over the world, as well as the retention of the intellectual complexities underlying them. Speaking in 2012 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company, she said of the then-fresh Occupy Wall Street movement:
I do think it is a good thing… 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.
Spivak is the author of more than ten books, and has translated, besides Derrida, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, Bengali author and novelist Mahasweta Devi (who died last summer at the age of ninety), and others. In 2012, she received the Kyoto Prize in Thought and Ethics for “appl[ying] a sharp scalpel to intellectual colonialism which is being reproduced in our heavily globalized modern world.”
She has long been and today remains a force making the world a little fairer and a lot more interesting. If we knew what kind of cake she likes, we’d send one. Happy birthday, professor, and thank you.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.