Episode 9 – Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

It’s a long episode this week, but it’s the last of the series! The panel (with a bonus member) discuss post-colonial history and subalternity, focusing on the work of Spivak. Plus there’s a bumper “events” section discussing diverse topics such as spacedogs, the first resident of the White House and the deformed penis of the last king of France.

As always, drop us an e-mail on podcast@pgfhom.org, find us on Twitter @PGHistMed and subscribe to us on iTunes.

Points of discussion include…

Tipping cows in space.

Nikita Khrushchev and The Testicle of the West.


Martin Luther, the life and soul of the party.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1942 – )

Born in Calcutta on 24 February 1942, Gayatri Chakravorty is a leading literary critic and philosopher. Like many of the writers in this series, she is not a trained historian. Indeed she has claimed that she is not. However, her work, particularly on non-Western cultures, has influenced a number of historians in the field of “subaltern studies”.

Chakravorty graduated from the University of Calcutta in 1959 before studying for a Masters degree at Cornell and a PhD at Iowa. In the 1960s she married Talbot Spivak and, like our previous profile on Natalie Zemon, gained a third name.

She is most famous for two works – one the first translations of Derrida’s Of Grammatology and the other Can the Subaltern Speak. It is the latter which has received the most attention from historians and the one we shall focus on here.

First of all, what is a subaltern? Well, it’s complicated. Generally it has arisen from Marxist and post-colonial work on “the other”. Gramsci used the term in his Prison Notebooks to describe the proletariat, although many believe this was simply a way of avoiding prison censorship. Subalterns are a group, such as Indians under the British Empire, who are unable to express themselves and their culture due to domination. However, their “otherness” helps dominant cultures to define themselves – that is, the British defined themselves as not Indian, placing themselves in opposition to their own construction of what “an Indian” and what “Indian culture” was. For Spivak, the subaltern is one who is denied access to methods of upward social mobility.

Spivak has been critical of the way the term has been appropriated by certain groups. She argues:

“Subaltern is not just a classy word for oppressed, for Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie….In postcolonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern-—a space of difference. Now who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern….Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus, they don’t need the word ‘subaltern’.”

In Can the Subaltern Speak she criticises previous attempts to conceptualise power and oppression. Foucault, for her, was part of the very bourgeois establishment that he chose to criticise. His work, centred as it was on Europe and the West, did not engage fully with other cultures. In her view, the subaltern can only be seen when it adopts Western behaviour; otherwise it remains “other”, reified and objectified by Western systems of thought.

Spivak is very heavy going (and I’ll leave the link to Can the Subaltern Speak so you can see what I mean), and she has been criticised for also being part of the European intellectual tradition which, she argues, has oppressed the subaltern. One criticism says that “Spivak wouldn’t recognise a subaltern if she saw one”. Yet, she herself acknowledges that “nobody can say ‘I am a subaltern’”, likening that sentence to a distinguished academic with “a greying ponytail and cuts in their jeans” describing their working class roots. The roots are irrelevant. One can say they were a subaltern – but not that they are.

Spivak is currently a professor at Columbia University where she continues to publish. She has created much controversy, with many admirers and many ardent critics. But her work has been very influential – even if only to spark debates refuting her position. In history she is part of a movement to explore non-Western cultures on their own terms rather than through the lens of Western preconceptions of the “other”.

So we will end, as always, on a quotation:

‘In spite of… the anti-intellectual tendencies of U.S. culture, Spivak has relentlessly challenged the high ground of established philosophical discourse…The range of this challenge has made her work seem remote and difficult to some readers, and she has been controversially received by academic philosophers, historians [and] literary scholars… Yet it would be a serious mistake to assume that Spivak’s work is so esoteric that she has no audience outside the academy.

Today, Spivak is among the foremost feminist critics who have acheived international eminence, and one of the few who can claim to have influenced intellectual production on a truly global scale.’ [Landry and MacLean, The Spivak Reader, pp.2-3.]

Further reading…

You might like to check out this YouTube video of a lecture given by Spivak in 2004:

The comments at the bottom are well worth reading – if only to wade through the hilarious insults offered by unimpressed viewers!

Then there’s the full text of Can the Subaltern Speak.

And also:

Columbia faculty profiles
Wikipedia entry
Wikipedia on “Postcolonialism”

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