Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1942–) is a foundational thinker in social and cultural theory. Her scholarly work trespasses disciplinary boundaries and is located at the crossroads between deconstruction, Marxism, postcolonialism and literary criticism. Her work moves between literature, philosophy, history, and pedagogy, shifting from social theory to storytelling and from criticism of Western philosophy to the exploration of indigenous and minoritized groups’ knowledge frames.
Born in Calcutta, India, on February 24, 1942, Spivak received a BA at the University of Calcutta in 1959 and graduated with a PhD from Cornell University in 1967. She was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh until 1991. She was appointed the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in 2007. She is the founding member of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and a member of the Subaltern Studies Collective.
Among her many distinguished faculty fellowships is the Tagore Fellowship at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (India), D. Litt, University of London, 2003; D. Hum, Oberlin College, 2008. She also received the D. Honoris Causa, Universitat Roveri I Virgili, 2011; D. Honoris Causa, Rabindra Bharati, 2012; Kyoto Prize in Thought and Ethics, 2012; Padma Bhushan 2013; D.Honoris Causa, Univeridad Nacional de San Martin, 2013; D. Litt, University of St. Andrews, 2014; D. Honoris Causa, Paris VIII, 2014, D. Honoris Causa, Universidad de Chile, 201. She was also distinguished with a Lifetime Scholarly Achievement from the Modern Language Association of America in 2018. She is on the editorial Board of many journals, among them Cultural Critique, boundary 2, New Formations, Diaspora, ARIEL, Re-thinking Marxism, Public Culture, Parallax, and Interventions. Spivak has been active in educational reform and teacher training in rural India and is an active participant in both feminist and ecological movements.
This entry briefly maps her work and examines the strength of her contribution.
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. The role of literature in the production of cultural representation should not be ignored. These two obvious “facts” continue to be disregarded in the reading of nineteenth-century British literature. This itself attests to the continuing success of the imperialist project, displaced and dispersed into more modern forms. (Spivak, 1985a, p. 243)
Spivak’s contributions have radically transformed cultural theory and Western philosophy and, at the same time, developed ways of thinking committed to the support and inspiration of transnational struggles for social justice. Her scholarly work on deconstruction has informed literary studies of 19th- and 20th-century literature by including other genres, transformed feminist theory toward a critical understanding of colonialism and racism, and further developed postcolonial scholarship through her exploration of the relationship between gender and colonialism.
Although her initial training was in literary studies, Spivak successfully navigates the diverse fields of philosophy, political economy, cultural studies, and pedagogy. She moves productively between Marxism, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction at the crossroads between feminist and postcolonial theory, providing incisive readings of feminist theory. This deconstructive practice of restless process of self-criticism and revision, a practice she argues is vital for privileged intellectuals in the efforts to unlearn privilege, explains the author´s de-identification with the term postcolonial, that risks locating colonialism in the past (Sanders, 2009).
The 1976 preface to her translation of the work of Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie into English (Of Grammatology, 1976) marked Spivak’s arrival as a prominent figure in philosophy and literary studies and made Derridian deconstruction a fundamental topic in Anglican academia. The preface provides a pathbreaking interpretation of the deconstructive approach, always present in the author’s scholarly work as a theoretical (and political) tool. The understanding of the meaning of texts as unstable with ambiguous signifiers and open for diverse reading is at the core of the deconstructivist tradition. Spivak ends the preface by inviting the reader to deconstruct her own preface and that of Derrida’s book, noting that any translation offer “mistranslations as an effective deconstructive lever” (Spivak, 1976, p. xxxvii). Deconstruction is an essential literary tool as well as thinking process for Spivak and shapes her writings. Her use of deconstruction is considered innovative and valuable precisely due to the fact that she acknowledges its theoretical and political limits.
Her deconstructive rereading of the canon of (feminist) literary theory is one of the most pathbreaking methodological interventions in the exploration of the relationship between the production of texts and the political economy of gender and imperialism (Chrisman, 2003). Spivakian feminist epistemology—her reflective, cautious, and stringent criticism of French feminism—provides a space through which to rethink Western notions of gendered individualism and subjectivity vis-à-vis the experience and the labor of Third World women.
Fundamental to Spivak’s theoretical and political project is to preserve, explore, and challenge the discontinuities and fractures of both feminism and Marxism, a critical interruption as she herself defines it. Spivak’s translating practice is shaped by this agenda. In her 1993 translation into English of Bengali author/activist Mahasweta Devi’s fiction work, Imaginary Maps, she has added another dimension to postcolonial debates about the native informant, challenging the binary opposition that lies between translation and the doing of “theory.” For Spivak, the politics of reading, writing, theory, and praxis not only are deeply entwined but also formalize her commitments to the emancipatory potential of social theory.
With “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Spivak (1988) became a foundational thinker in postcolonial theory, by maneuvering and writing in between the intersections of Marxism, feminism and postcolonial studies and by shifting the topic of gender from the margins to the center of the postcolonial tradition. Spivak’s international reputation as a postcolonial critic was sealed by the publication in 1990 of The Post-Colonial Critic, a collection of 12 interviews and dialogues with Spivak, edited by Sarah Harasym.
Deconstruction, in Spivak’s understanding, provides the analytical tools to identify the global colonial structures at the core of Western philosophical tradition and to dismantle binaries historically created as neutral but embodying social and political power. Her close readings of verbal, visual, and written texts, through the equalization of fiction with Western philosophy, challenges binary oppositions and fixed notions of both the core of Western philosophical tradition and authentic forms of national, ethnic, and cultural belonging. According to Rosalind C. Morris (2010), the global impact of “Can the Subaltern Speak” must be understood in Spivak’s challenge of Western fantasies of transparency and authenticity that are in denial of the complexity of the lives and struggles of minoritized groups.
Spivak’s intricate writing style, molded by deconstruction, allows her to play with and maneuver the space in between presumed binaries such as critiquing the dominance of Western universalism and arguing for emancipatory political ends as well as strategies for social justice. A vital methodological frame in Spivak’s project is a writing style that resists transparency, a transparency Spivak understands as embedded in the epistemological violence of conquest and colonialism. Her complex writing style is also a reminder that textuality need not fit within and can resist the marketability of corporatized publishing and university structures.
Spivak has challenged disciplinary conventions by focusing on the cultural texts of those historically excluded.
The concept of the subaltern, or rather the representation of the subaltern, is a central topic in Spivak’s work. This concept inspired the constitution of the Subaltern Studies Collective, which addresses forms of resistance and insurgency in colonial and postcolonial South Asia by conceptualizing subordinated groups as those outside national historiography silenced as subjects of their own history.
Published in 1988, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” further develops Spivak’s contribution to the Subaltern Studies Collective. It showcases how Spivak utilizes deconstruction to highlight multiple lacunas in the task of philosophical subject-making. At one level, in this text Spivak questions the geographical location of the revolutionary subject in the works of Karl Marx, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. On another level, she challenges the lack of situatedness and materiality of the Western epistemological subject. Spivak then deconstructs the postcolonial writings and subaltern studies for overlooking the gendered connotations of the subaltern subject. In this classical text, Spivak reshapes Marxism, feminism, and deconstruction to challenge colonial and dominant modes of knowledge production.
“Can the Subaltern Speak” is an intervention into this debate, identifying the fantasies and desires of creating what does not exist: an essentialist subaltern subject talking back to colonialism. Spivak argues that the essentialist subaltern subject’s inability of voice is embedded in imperialism, more than that the subaltern cannot speak, and that the voices of those overexploited cannot be heard in dominant discourse and language (Guha & Spivak, 1988). Gender is of a vital importance in the exploration of this concept, as Spivak argues that women are excluded within the category of the subaltern. The inseparability of gender and subalternity is explained by the roles that imperialism and patriarchy have in silencing women. Taking the practice of sati, the Hindu-inspired practice of burning to death a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre as an illustration, she argues that the voices of the gendered subaltern have been excluded both by colonialism that liberated women from the practice in the name of civilization and the patriarchal notion of heroic act. Feminist scholar Lata Mani (1999) further develops this argument by identifying the practice of sati through processes of “invention of tradition” taking place under colonial rule.
While Spivak (1999) invokes the subaltern to deconstruct works by Marx, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Ranajit Guha and subaltern studies, she tracks the native informant in the works of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx to highlight the inherent contradictions of Western philosophy and the process of academic writing. With the growth of information technology, knowledge systems of the native informant can be easily accessed and in the process be appropriated in the university machinery.
Spivak’s rereading of Kant, Hegel, and Marx not only is a deconstruction of the authors’ works but also carefully traces the complexity of representation. Kant, for instance, by negating the possibility of the Aborigine ever being the subject of continental philosophy, forecloses the humanity of indigenous people. In another instance, woman lays outside the “master subject” of philosophy not by foreclosure but by dismissal (Spivak, 1999, pp. 25–30). Here, Spivak intricately shows the heterogeneity of epistemic violence, shifting and inscribing upon racialized and sexed bodies. The trace of the native informant in Hegel’s writings is not foreclosed, instead appears to be evaluated vis-à-vis a scale whereby Hegel’s philosophical writings are considered more nuanced and aesthetic than the Bhagwat Gita, which Hegel regards as “monotonous and empty” (Spivak, 1999, pp. 44–52). According to Spivak, this scale of evaluation reflects the racist and sexist coding deeply embedded in the colonialism of philosophy. In Marx’s writings, Spivak uses “value-form of sex/gender system,” drawing upon Gayle Rubin’s work, to deconstruct Marxist analysis of value (Spivak, 1999, pp. 110–111).
Both figurations of the subaltern and the native informant are radical interventions into reading, writing, and teaching. The task of representation is not only to open up texts and seek their silences and inner contradictions but is also a complexly “muddy” endeavor that disrupts the neat disciplinary divisions. Therefore, Spivak’s deconstructive approach further develops the role of representation as well as the role of privileged scholars, with a stringent self-criticism of class privileges enjoyed by diasporic intellectuals in othering processes.
By the last decade of the 20th century, postcolonial studies as a theoretical and transdisciplinary field established itself as a significant epistemological turn in Western social theory. Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999) is a reminder that the political project is crucial for the postcolonial episteme. Her postcolonial theory has always included a critique of the postcolonial reason. While deconstructing the colonial enclosures of the philosophical subject, Spivak (1999) warns that if the critique of colonial discourses were to only focus on the “representation of the colonized or the matter of the colonies,” the critique then becomes a tool of essentializing the colonized (p. 1) and maintaining a distance between imperialism and the neocolonial knowledge production mechanisms.
The concept of strategic essentialism, present in Spivak’s (1985b) essay, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography” develops within Spivak’s capacity of moving creatively between and among the tensions between academic knowledge production and the field of the political. The term strategic essentialism reflects the contextual need of claiming a specific identity (e.g., the category of woman) toward a political goal, acknowledging that identities never capture true essence but are always contextual. Strategic essentialism argues for a (provisionally) acting upon essentialist foundations for identity categories as a political strategy for collective representation among underprivileged groups. The term grasps the tension and paradox between her deconstructionist agenda that challenges monolithic notions of belonging and her political agenda that acknowledges the need to (under specific historical circumstances) call into specific identities aiming toward social justice.
Spivak’s work can be understood as a critical deconstruction of Western philosophy and knowledge claims exploring the rational (European) subject, and of the global social relations with the power to define who is human. Her work is inspired by a systematic challenge to notions of fixed, authentic, and transparent identities—but also a systematic exploration of the fractures and ambiguities of the social. Working through the contradictory character of the social is a fundamental part of her methodological vision. Therefore, Spivak’s critique is never from critical distance but from a space of critical intimacy.
Strategic essentialism as a political tool to carve out space for the subaltern and Spivak’s disruption of the philosophical subject continuum has inspired a generation of feminist thinkers and philosophers. A number of feminist scholars (Mohanty, 2003) have been inspired by her seminal argument on Western feminism construction of the category of Third World women, providing ways of thinking beyond Eurocentric notions of global sisterhood, framing Spivak’s legacy and thought, and demanding a rethinking the category of woman. Spivak has also inspired feminist philosophers in exploring the tension between power and agency.
Value and Labor
The work of Marx and the tradition of Marxism are very present in Spivak’s theoretical universum, not only in her fundamental contribution to a rereading of Marx’s theory of value but also in her efforts to inscribe the global division of labor in the ways literary production is known and represented. Spivak’s “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value” (1987) argues that Marx’s theoretical formulations on exploitation and value need to be defended both from old-fashioned Marxism and its reductionistic readings and the up-to-date theories that reject the theory for its (supposedly) essentialist character. Spivak conceptualizes as nonidentity the basis on which the extraction of surplus value is possible. Thus, she argues for the incommensurability of identity (defined through exchange value) and transformation of the use value of the workers’ labor power.
Value appears implicitly and explicitly in Spivak’s work. She is meticulous in explaining that the burden of privileged classes and the production of knowledge are deeply structured upon the labor of the subaltern or the native informant (especially in academic writing). This value in terms of labor, knowledge, and gendered hierarchies is appropriated through the spread of globalization and advancement of information technology.
In the theorization of value, Spivak carefully deconstructs Marx’s writings on the formation, transformation, and representation of value. For Spivak (1987), Marx’s analysis on labor theory of value, though criticized by many feminist and critical scholars, cannot be dismissed primarily due to the centrality of the Marx’s focus on exploitation of the labor in the creation of value (p. 168).
Spivak’s rereading of Marx is not only minute and detailed but is taken from a stance of deconstructive critical intimacy. What Spivak adds to Marx’s analysis is the rethinking of the proletarian vantage point and position (classically assumed by White, European, working-class males) by focusing on the exploitation of the subaltern woman’s labor in the Third World. With the decentralization of industries, rapid globalization and the decline of unionization, which results in the super-exploitation of women, becomes the marker of the international division of labor of the 20th century. Spivak (1987, 1999) not only shifts the subject of proletarian revolution but also deconstructs the notion of value in Marx’s Capital.
Writing against the backdrop of the fall of Soviet Union and the collapse of Communist ideology, in “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value,” Spivak continues to explore the political, philosophical, and emancipatory potential of Marx’s writings to understand 20th-century global capitalism. While Marx turns Hegel’s idealistic understanding of value (consciousness) on its head by situating it in the materialist labor power of the worker, Spivak deconstructs Marx’s binary of use value and exchange value. By doing so, Spivak not only questions and rethinks the primacy set on the exchange factor of value but also reemphasizes the presence of labor in value, more explicitly the use value of labor power of the subaltern woman.
By theorizing not just the formation and transformation of value but also the representation of value, Spivak enmeshes the Third World feminist and Marxist episteme In her later text A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), Spivak revisits this theorization of value and draws on Rubin’s discussion of value and desire to relook at value from a Marxist psychoanalytical frame. Writing at the end of 20th century, Spivak is already able to contextualize a Marxist theorization of the new “reproductive engineering” of the 21st century, including issues of reformulations of reproductive rights of the women’s bodies, “post-fordist homeworking”—new care chains and outsourced social reproduction done by racialized, sexed bodies. Spivak’s (1999) rereading of Marxian value enables her to refocus the question of exploitation and labor of the sexed body.
Planetarity and Worlding
While Spivak’s international reputation as a postcolonial critic was sealed by the1990 publication The Post-Colonial Critic, her postcolonial stringent criticism is already present in her critique of Julia Kristeva’s book on Chinese women and her challenge to the narrow individualism of French feminism. Spivak has been persistently critical of the universalist claims of Western feminist thoughts, as in her reading of the French feminist tradition that not only challenges the conceptual construction of the individual and the politics of representation but also addresses the women at the other side of the international division of labor. In her “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Spivak (1987), while acknowledging the feminist agenda in Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, illuminates the labor of the character of Bertha Rochester’s creole bride, her physical containment and pathologization mirroring the epistemic violence targeting the colonized.
Spivak speaks about imperialism as a practice of “worlding” process that attempts to disguise its own workings so as to naturalize and legitimate Western dominance. She uses the word worlding to grasp the fantasies of the colonizers that they encounter a world that is unwritten where they can inscribe themselves (Spivak, 1990). Textuality of the cartographies of literary writings and overwritings of culture have been salient ways in which imperialism writes upon the world. This worlding, and the epistemic violence at its core, creates the Third Word as a signifier, which allows one to “forget” that worlding can be read through Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism or as the power of (British) imperialism to force a simple relation between the world and the text.
Conceptualized and written more than a decade apart, the concepts “worlding” and “planetarity” meet on the crossroads of tracing the production chain of disciplines and theory-making. While the former aims at capturing the textuality imposed upon the world assumed to be “uninscribed territory” by the imperialists, the latter, planetarity, seeks for an alternative mobilization of radical potential to deepen and challenge the dominant textuality (Spivak, 1990, 2003).
The concept of planetarity is present in the Death of a Discipline (2003) and aims to name an ethical alternative to globalization. Spivak challenges the fields of comparative literature, area studies, ethnic studies, and postcolonial studies to create agendas of deep learning, cross-cultural instruction, and transnational practices for a changing world.
For Spivak, planetarity is a way to continuously engage with comparative literature in a politicized manner as well as ground the discipline in politics. It is also a path to paradisciplinarity, which would enable disciplines to transcend the constant reproduction of one’s self (Spivak, 2003). Although Spivak (2003) conjures planetarity from an epistemic position of precapitalist spaces, it does not deny globalization but invokes the pedagogical responsibility to the collective and a commitment to carve out locations of alterity.
Spivak argues for the urgent need of comparative literature (the discipline in question) to end its complicity with neoliberal globalization, challenge narrow and parochial readings, and name itself as planetarity. The concept has inspired a number of scholarly works that argue for the notion of the planet as a conceptual, political, as the interaction of all human life is increasing, and the location through which 21st-century writers and artists name themselves and their work (Elias & Moraru, 2013). Spivak (2003) introduces the term planetarity as a “limiting idea to counter act the global reach of capital and the computerized globe” (p. 84). Against a neoliberal agenda that creates a notion of an earth measured, known and controlled, planetarity conjures new modes of collectivity, internationalism, and (e)co-habitation grounded in radical alterity.
Unlearn Privilege and Learning to Learn
For Spivak, deconstruction is about recognizing one’s own complicity in the structures and the acknowledgment of one’s material and cultural privileges (Chakraborty, 2010). Therefore, deconstruction is not simply destruction or reconstruction of dominant discourses or initiation of alternatives of capitalist production but is, “a persistent critique of what we cannot not want” (Spivak, 1999, p. 110). Spivak (1999) here is not suggesting reflexivity that leads to a “self-righteous shaming of fully intending subjects” but instead is highlighting that the structures of knowledge production facilitates the global reproduction of elites by the production of gendered subalternity of value (p. 1). And the unlearning of privilege includes the recognition of the epistemic violence ingrained in the process of knowledge production.
In other words, Spivak invites intellectuals to engage in unlearning processes, with the knowing that they will fail but need to do so in order to continue unlearning and learning from others. Spivak’s pedagogy is also shaped by deconstruction and its political potential—both learning and unlearning entail the messiness of the social and the difficult task of listening.
Unlearning of privilege refers to a self-reflection of the privilege position of diasporic intellectuals but also to a possibility of learning to learn. Unlearning, hence, assumes that though one might inhabit the position of the dominant discourse (whether native or diaspora) one has the possibility to shift from a center perspective to the margins. However, it is crucial to note that this shifting is not simply to appropriate the position of the marginalized but instead, “unlearning of one’s own privilege as a loss” (Spivak, 1990, p. 14). In that sense, unlearning is deeply grounded in the ethical question of social justice.
Spivak’s role as a teacher at both elite universities in the United States and in rural India is grounded in a theoretical belief in the fundamental role learning has in the human ability of imagining other futures. Teaching and learning, thus the pedagogical praxis, is at the core of Spivak’s contribution to critical and social theory. While her ideas are not operationalized in any pedagogical manifest, it is nearly impossible to read her work and not encounter words such as responsibility, humility, and learning from below. She argues for the need to develop forms of transnational literacy that the habit and the skills of reading would provide. Similar to philosopher and educator Paulo Freire, Spivak argues for the need to learn from the learner. With the method of a specifically literary training, a slow mind may open the imagination toward other futures.
Spivak is a foundational thinker for the 21st century due to her interventions and disruptions in contemporary social theory, rooted in her commitment to engaging and reengaging with texts and authors while noting the potential for political change in theory and praxis. While many critics of postcolonial theory claim that there is a tendency to recenter Western episteme by constantly reinterpreting and critiquing the West, Spivak is an example to highlight that one can reread the supposed classics as well as draw upon a multitude of writings from across the globe and shift the center of theory. This determination is reflected through her role as a translator that enables her to translate literature which lies outside the Anglophone core to alter the scope of social theory and literature. Authors whose works have been translated by Spivak include Devi and Derrida, among others.
Spivak’s style of writing, though it requires hard work to access and challenges the reader, showcases a humility. This humility is shaped through her use of deconstruction, which enables her to credit the writers and thinkers that came before her. Although Spivak is highly critical of these writers, her style engages with the text and remains an illustration of the process of learning and unlearning.
Spivak’s texts are rich in illustrations and generous in the presence of the diverse number of authors from which she finds inspiration and who she challenges. Her writing strategy allows for simultaneous readings and diverse interpretation. To read her work demands work, but to a certain extent, Spivak demands from the reader what she herself does: a commitment to self-reflection, a passion for knowledge, a humility for one’s own ignorance, and a commitment to social justice.
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