Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak - Biography
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Ph.D., is a world renowned critical theorist whose work has been particularly influential to the field of post-colonialism, for which she is often referred to as having been a pioneer. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born on February 24, 1942. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's research interests focus on feminism, Marxism, deconstruction and globalization. She is most known for her political use of a wide array of critical theories to question colonialism and the way we have been conditioned to think about literature. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak challenges ideas such as that the West is more democratic, civilized and so ultimately more developed than the rest of the world, or that the current post-colonial time is more progressive than earlier historical periods. She points out how by still being bourgeois anti-colonial nationalism was actually seen as reproducing the very inequalities they said they were against. She is a founding member of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University where she is also a professor. Since 1986 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has also been an active supporter of rural education as well as socio-ecological movements, both through her theoretical research but also by being a philanthropist. She was born in Calcutta, India, in 1942.
After studying English in India Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak went to Cornell University in the United States where she studied comparative literature. In 1974 she would write her doctorate dissertation on William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939) under the supervision of the famous deconstruction theorist Paul de Man (1919 - 1983) entitled Myself, I Must Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats. Importantly, she would be the one to translate into English from French Jacques Derrida’s (1930 - 2004) seminal work Of Grammatology, which is essentially the first text that introduced deconstruction theory to the United States. It would be published in 1976 by John Hopkins University Press and it is noteworthy that it included a critical introduction to Jacques Derrida’s work. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak would also translate many stories of the Indian writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi (1926 - ). Additionally, together with the South Asia historian Ranajit Guha (1923 - ) Spivak would direct an anthology of texts by the Subaltern Studies Group (SSG), titled Selected Subaltern Studies (1988), which would be prefaced by the famous theorist and Palestinian activist Edward Said(1935 - 2003).
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously gives the example of English classes in colonial India as having actually played a subtle but powerful role in perpetuating an imperialist civilizing mission. She adds:
“It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English.”
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak points out the failure of Indian socialism to take into account women with their stories and struggles. In order to explore such issues and more Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak would be the author of many influential works such as In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987), Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993), A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present (1999), Death of a Discipline (2003), Other Asias (2005). In 2008 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak would publish Who Sings the Nation-State? a book co-written Judith Butler (1956 - ), another critical theorist of our time. The theorists go into the meaning of the nation-state in the present era and suggest that the nation-state seems to become a transitional and temporary place, making its citizens increasingly stateless. They ask questions about what if anything can contemporary philosophers tell us about such phenomenon for both say Palestinians but also for members of the European Union? How can we still have the feeling of belonging to a nation? In a time of globalization, what is the future of the nation-state? Who exercises power today? Do we still have the right to have rights? And what is the meaning, for example, of singing the American national anthem in Spanish?
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak most important work would be her Can the Subaltern Speak? (1985), because it is widely considered to be a foundational text of post-colonial studies but also because it is still today a highly discussed, debated, and criticized text. In its field the work can find such equal enthusiasm in the writings of few writers like Edward Said and Homi K. Bhabba. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak finds the term “subaltern” more helpful, because of its flexibility, than terms such as “woman” or “colonized”, because it is not as easily reductive. As she puts it in an interview:
“I like the word ‘subaltern’ for one reason. It is truly situational. ‘Subaltern’ began as a description of a certain rank in the military. The word was used under censorship by Gramsci: he called Marxism ‘monism,’ and was obliged to call the proletarian ‘subaltern.’ That word, used under duress, has been transformed into the description of everything that doesn’t fall under strict class analysis. I like that, because it has no theoretical rigor.”
When the popular understanding of deconstruction as apolitical was spreading widely, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak would show that it is not only a powerful theoretical tool but political one too. She would do this, for example, by showing how deconstruction brings to light dangerous blind spots in rhetorical notions of truth and reality at work in both political narratives and practices. Indeed, in a similar way as both Jacques Derrida and Edward Said, she would engage with the ways in which the world of so-called reality is in fact constituted by networks of texts.
As other critical theorists such as Jacques Derrida or Judith Butler, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has also been criticized for her dense writing. Like other prominent theorists such as the famous Theodor Adorno (1903 - 1969), she challenges the assumption that transparent, clear language is in fact the best way to represent the oppressed. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues that what is traditionally deemed as clear representations are also ridden by the very systems used to dominate the populations. It is for this reason that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's critical thought seeks to point out the linguistic limitations of philosophical, social and political representation. In an interview, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak playfully points out:
“[W]hen I’m pushed these days with the old criticism – ‘Oh! Spivak is too hard to understand!’ – I laugh, and I say okay. I will give you, just for your sake, a monosyllabic sentence, and you’ll see that you can’t rest with it. My monosyllabic sentence is: We know plain prose cheats.”
Several intellectuals have also come out in defense of the attacks against Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak style of writing. Judith Butler has pointed out that Spivak’s so-called unapproachable prose has actually touched and deeply altered the thinking of “thousands of activists and scholars.” The critical scholar Terry Eagleton who had referred to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s writing as “inaccessible”, would also come to point out that there are “few more important critics of our age than the likes of Spivak. ... She has probably done more long-term political good, in pioneering feminist and post-colonial studies within global academia than almost any of her theoretical colleagues.”
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her turn points out the ethical risks associated with what she describes as privileged intellectuals making political claims for oppressed groups. For example, she takes western feminism to task and argues that it tends to think in a reductive way when it claims to speak for all women, failing therefore to differentiate between nationality, class, religion, culture or language. Additionally, in Can the Subaltern Speak? (1985) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak considers critically the notion of representation in the work of two of the most French critical theorists, Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) and Gilles Deleuze (1925 - 1995). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wants to point out that in spite of all of the energy they spend demonstrating that subjects are constructed through discourse and representation, when the discussion turns to less theoretical and more historical examples, they resort to a model of representation that is actually transparent fails to do justice to the constructed nature of the subject. She points out the contradiction that in such works the “oppressed subjects speak, act, and know”. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's point is that the so-called benevolent intellectual can in fact silence the subaltern by asserting to be able to speak for them.
In 2007 the Columbia University President would appoint Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak to the institution’s highest faculty rank of University Professor, and she became the only woman of color to be given such honor in the history of the institution. The President wrote the following telling statement to the faculty:
“Not only does her world-renowned scholarship—grounded in deconstructivist literary theory—range widely from critiques of post-colonial discourse to feminism, Marxism, and globalization; her lifelong search for fresh insights and understanding has transcended the traditional boundaries of discipline while retaining the fire for new knowledge that is the hallmark of a great intellect.”
The critical theorist from Harvard University Homi K. Bhabha describes Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s work as follows:
“Spivak's is a unique voice of courage and conceptual ambition that addresses public life from the perspective of psychic reality, encouraging us to acknowledge the solidarity and the suffering through which we emerge as subjects of freedom.”
Today Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak continues to enlighten the world of critical theory. Some of her more recent works include Nationalism and the Imagination (2010) and An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2012).