Gayatri Spivak: Ethics, Subalterity and the Critique of Postcolonial Reason by Stephen Morton
(Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007)
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Live Theory by Mark Sanders
(Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, 2006)
Born in Calcutta in 1942, Spivak, through her article, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, solidified her reputation as one of the seminal postcolonial thinkers. Her translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology solidified her reputation as a deconstructionist. Her subsequent writings and her tenured professorship at Columbia University and world lecturer solidified her reputation as one of the leading thinkers of postmodernism. Discussed here are two recent books that attempt to capture something of the breadth of her thought.
In his ‘Introduction’ to Gayatri Spivak, the more accessible of the two books, Morton attempts to give some idea of the scope of her influence:
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is best known for her formative contribution to and ongoing critique of what is generally known as postcolonial studies. Although there is some truth to this popular characterization of Spivak’s intellectual enterprise, this description is also rather reductive. Spivak’s critical corpus is certainly informed by the philosophical, cultural, political and economic legacies of European colonialism in former colonial societies; however, the scope and influence of her work is by no means restricted to the effects of colonialism. Her critical work also includes numerous articles, books, interviews and translations on a wide range of topics: from poststructuralist thought and literary criticism; continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, feminist theory, Marxism and post-Marxism; through the position of disempowered ‘subaltern’ peoples who are excluded from political representation in postcolonial nation-states such as India and Bangladesh, the international division of labour, the limitations of universal human rights discourses and international development policies; to readings and translations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. What is more, Spivak’s intellectual activity is informed and supplemented by her work in rural teacher-training schools in Bangladesh and India.(1)
Morton describes his book as:
This study builds on the insights of my introductory textbook on Spivak’s work to offer a more advanced and sustained analysis of Spivak’s thought. In particular, it traces the ethical dimension manifest in her persistent critique of Marxism, feminism, deconstruction and postcolonial studies. The book thus seeks to argue that what underpins Spivak’s essays and interventions is a political commitment to achieve what she calls a relation of ethical singularity with the subaltern.(11)
Each of the chapters in Gayatri Spivak focuses on one of the many areas of her intellectual explorations. Chapter 1 is titled ‘Postcolonial Criticism and Beyond’. In line with her adherence to deconstructionism as one of the isms that influenced her writing, she “constantly revises her arguments in order to effectively refuse identification by any single category or label”.(15) In discussing the two books The Postcolonial Critic (1990) and Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1991), Morton says that “if the first signifies an affiliation to postcolonial studies, the second indicates a clear critical distancing from the ‘postcolonial’ label. Such a shift in focus is not merely a symptom of changing intellectual trends, but a political commitment to re-thinking and revising theoretical concepts and approaches in response to social, economic and political changes in the contemporary world order.”(15) He addresses her critique of nineteenth-century English literature as a furtherance of British imperialism in that it carried along the idea that the subordinated class of native inhabitants was culturally and intellectually inferior to the British. He indicates the similarity between Edward Said’s and her thought but then shows how she disagreed with Said when it came to applying a Foucaultian analysis to Postcolonialism. Morton explains Spivak’s concept of the ‘ideology of imperialist axiomatics’ by first referring to Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative following which he arrives at this statement:
Put differently the civilizing mission of colonialism is presented as a progressive and modernizing programme to ‘the native ‘subject’’; however this rhetoric effaces the violence of colonial power and knowledge, which treat ‘the native ‘subject’’ as an object to be controlled. Spivak describes the civilizing mission within a transcendent moral law. Such terrorism is foregrounded in Spivak’s rephrasing of the categorical imperative...It is this violent act of making the heathen into a human through the civilizing mission of colonialism that Spivak calls terroristic. In so doing, Spivak defines the ideology of imperialist axiomatic as the use of transcendent concepts like morality and culture to justify colonialism as a civilizing mission and to conceal colonialism’s economic imperative and its violent methods.(20)
Spivak’s criticism goes beyond merely critiquing Postcolonialism; it critiques nationalism as well. Focusing on her translations of Mahasweta Devi which “persistently addressed the plight of socially and politically marginalized groups in India in her fiction and journalism,”(36) Morton states:
Yet her general point that elite nationalism has failed to change the social and economic circumstances of subaltern constituencies such as women, the rural peasantry and tribal communities is also relevant...By carefully distinguishing between the histories and practices of subaltern groups on the one hand and the history of elite nationalism and its complicity with neo-colonialism on the other, Spivak refutes Devi’s authorial interpretation...as a parable of the postcolonial nation on the grounds that this reproduces the gendered terms of dominant nationalist rhetoric.”(ibid)
In addition to her work in Postcolonialism, Spivak is, as has already been expressed, justly famed for her translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology and her lengthy introduction to it. In the chapter ‘Deconstruction’, Morton sets out this accomplishment stating, at p. 43-4, that “many reviewers at the time of publication praised Spivak’s preface for making the complexity and subtlety of Derrida’s thought accessible to Anglophone readers.” The extent of this accomplishment must be viewed in light of the fact that “Spivak admits that ‘no one taught [her] deconstruction’...and that her encounter with Derrida’s thought was not informed by a formal philosophical training.”(44) Morton goes on to discuss the basis of Derrida’s thought as it relates to the stream of Western philosophical thought stretching from Husserl through Heidegger and Nietzsche to Derrida as explicated by Spivak. As this is a review of Gayatri Spivak and not of Jacques Derrida or of Paul de Man, the excellent discussion of these theorists will not be further elaborated but left to the reader to discover. What are relevant are Morton’s comments on how deconstruction influenced Spivak’s thought. Beginning at p. 52, Morton states that “it is Derrida’s reading of Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss in Of Grammatology that provided Spivak with the conceptual tools to criticize the cultural and philosophical authority of the West. In her preface to Of Grammatology, Spivak notes a ‘geographical pattern’ in Derrida’s argument, whereby a relationship between logocentrism and ethnocentrism is ‘indirectly invoked.’” Morton sets out the critique that emerged from others in the postcolonial movement, particularly that of Homi Bhabha. This is then followed by a discussion of ‘deconstruction and postcolonial theory’ His analysis of the introduction to Of Grammatology as well as subsequent essays by Spivak leads Morton to state that “What these examples suggest is that Spivak’s persistent engagement with deconstructive thought is part of a broader attempt to articulate theoretical rigour with an ethico-political commitment to the singularity of the subaltern. For these reasons the difference between the theoretical positions of thinkers such as Derrida and de Man often seems secondary to the ethico-political agenda of Spivak’s theoretical interventions.”(54) As both deconstruction and Marxism underlie Spivak’s thought and as it has been considered that these two philosophies are inherently antithetical, somehow this must be reconciled and, at p. 58, Morton does just that: “Spivak does not simply jettison socialism as a political and economic idea. Rather, by invoking Derrida’s concept of différance, Spivak reconceptualises socialism as ‘a constant pushing away – a differing and a deferral – of the capitalist harnessing of the social productivity of capital’. Spivak thus complicates the evolutionary narrative that underpins socialism as it is classically understood in Marx’s theory of historical materialism (as a progression from feudalism to capitalism to socialism), and points towards a different way of understanding the temporal relationship between capitalism and socialism.” The section on anthropology and ethics is particularly interesting in its application by Spivak: “The anthropological context in which Derrida elaborates this relationship between violence and ethics is significant also because it demonstrates the affinities between deconstruction and Spivak’s thought.”(61) The denial of writing or culture in Derrida’s critique of Rousseau, leads Spivak to think that this “representation is violent because it denies the complex system of writing that already exists in non-western societies”(ibid) - the importance of this to Spivak being that “it helps to situate Derrida’s reflections on ethics and violence in terms of the history of European colonialism, of which the discipline of anthropology is a part.” In responding to the critique that deconstruction and, hence, Spivak’s thought are akin to negative theology, Morton states, at p. 66, that “while the subaltern cannot be defined as a positive category of thought, the subaltern’s withdrawal from dominant systems of knowledge and representation is nonetheless marked by the trace of her social, cultural and historical being. It is this trace that distinguishes Spivak’s discussion of Subalterity from negative theology.”
Morton begins his discussion of ‘Marxism and Post-Marxism’ by setting out that “the distinctive achievement of Spivak’s critical engagement with Marx’s thought lies in the rethinking of his labour theory of value and the Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP). Spivak’s readings of Marx are informed by deconstructive concepts such as différance, aporia and the pharmakon.”(70) He then sets out the differences between deconstruction and Marxian analysis that should make the two incompatible: “For deconstruction’s emphasis on indeterminacy, deferral, the suspension of the referent and ethical responsibility might appear to be opposed to the concerns with material reality, the demystification of bourgeois ideology, the capitalist exploitation of labour power, and direct political action that many intellectuals and activists associate with Marxist thought.”(ibid) Morton refers to Spivak’s rescue of Marx’s conception of the AMP from the charge of Eurocentrism as levelled by Said and others, stating on p. 75, that “Spivak reads Marx’s ‘largely unsatisfactory formulation’ of the Asiatic mode of production against the grain of the European narrative of colonial modernity. This latter reading strategy approaches the AMP as a sign of difference at the origin of colonial modernity, which cannot be simply foreclosed on the grounds that it is precapitalist or primitive. Instead, the AMP provides Spivak with a productive critical problem for tracing the foreclosure of the subaltern woman from contemporary critical thought.” Morton, as p. 79, turns to Marx’s labour theory of value, and says that “Spivak often emphasizes that subaltern women in the global South are the agents of production for contemporary global capitalism. Yet this is not to suggest that her readings of Marx’s labour theory of value simply represent the productive body of the subaltern woman as the source of value under contemporary capitalism. For to do so would be to repeat the act of ethical violence against the subaltern that Spivak attributes to western intellectuals such as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze in ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ Instead, Spivak traces the ambivalence of Marx’s labour theory of value in order to articulate the singular, embodied knowledge of the subaltern woman, which cannot be accounted for in the economic terms of capitalism...”Summarizing, Morton states that “Spivak’s deconstructive reading of Marx’s account of the Asiatic mode of production has challenged the Eurocentric notion that the Third world exists in a primitive, pre-modern space outside the sphere of capitalism...Spivak’s deconstructive reading of Marx’s labour theory of value is precisely concerned with how the labour power of the female proletariat of the global South has been incorporated into the global economy...Spivak has expanded this focus on economic theories of value and labour to include an analysis of how the lives and bodies of different subaltern constituencies are subjected to the value coding of western development agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations.”(89-90) He then considers Spivak in relation to Deleuze and Guattari and her concept of transnational literacy.
Having analyzed Spivak’s adherence to deconstructionism and Marxism and, tangentially, feminism and psychoanalysis, Morton turns to what could be considered the foundation of Spivak’s interests which is the analysis of the position of the subaltern, the disenfranchised groups resulting from the yoke of imperialism being lifted. But she does so realizing that, as a middle-class intellectual working at a Western university, she must walk a narrow tightrope. As Morton says, at p. 95, “Spivak’s work is marked by a tension between a commitment to social and political change for disenfranchised constituencies and an ethical responsibility to produce a critical vocabulary that is appropriate to engage with the particular social, historical and economic circumstances of subaltern subjects.” After tracing the evolution of the term ‘subaltern’ through the works of Marx, Gramsci, and the Subaltern Studies group, Morton shows how Spivak’s thought disagrees with that of the latter saying, at p. 100, that it “focuses on a discrepancy that she identifies between practice and methodology. More specifically, Spivak notes a tension between the claims of some of the early Subaltern Studies historians to offer a structuralist account of insurgency which examines how subaltern insurgency was coded in the dominant colonial archives, and a positivist desire to recover the will and consciousness of the subaltern insurgent.” This is further elaborated at p. 106: “Spivak is broadly in agreement with the group’s political aims to recover the histories and historians’ practice of subaltern insurgency. However she specifically questions whether the historians’ positivist model of subjectivity and consciousness is adequate to account for the histories and practices of subaltern women.” This then leads to a discussion of sati, or widow sacrifice, in India and how, initially, the East India Company had developed a code of law centred on Muslim and Hindu law which upheld the teachings of the Vedas and Upanishads but which the British abolished in 1829 bringing in their own legal system leading to one of the pillars by which the British justified their domination of the native inhabitants which is best captured in the phrase ‘white men are saving brown women from brown men.’
The remaining chapters – ‘Transnational Feminism’, ‘From a Postcolonial Critique of Reason to a Critique of Postcolonial Reason’, and ‘Conclusion: Transnational Literacy, Subaltern Rights and the Future of Comparative Literature’ – are intended to fill in and extend discussions that arose in prior chapters but as tangents to the main subject of those discussions. This includes such things as the distortion of subaltern reproductive rights, prescription dumping, a Kantian critique of postcolonial thought from the perspective of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, whether comparative literature is possible, etc. Morton does an excellent job of setting out Spivak’s thought in, for the most part, a clear manner. However, with the many structuralist, poststructuralist and postmodernist thinkers to which he refers and compares Spivak’s thoughts, this is not a book to be tackled by the novice to literary theory.
Live Theory begins where Gayatri Spivak ends – with a chapter titled ‘Literature, Reading and Transnational Literacy’. Sanders describes the subject matter of the book as “signs of Spivak’s singular contribution to a thinking of responsibility, of her opening of the study of literature in the narrow sense to an audacious crossing of disciplines, these questions are, accordingly, also the ones that will inform this book.”(1) He defines ‘transnational literacy’ as “the ability to read the world in its differences even when received categories such as ‘literature’ or ‘decolonization’ impose a uniformity – and, before long, an evaluation of what is less and what is more, what worse and what better.”(2) He expands this definition to include that which Morton, at p. 161,cites: “literacy is not simply expertise in another language, but rather ‘the skill to differentiate between letters, so that an articulated script can be read, reread, written, rewritten...More importantly, ‘literacy allows us to sense that the other is not just a ‘voice’, but that others produce articulated texts, even as they, like us, are written in and by a text not of our own making.”
After an excellent, concise biography of Spivak, Sanders undertakes to shed some light on the meaning behind A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. He says of this text that it “has given its reader more to work out than an agenda, an itinerary of agency in complicity. It has also blazed an intricate trajectory on what it means to read the present global conjuncture, and to be a reader within it. To interdisciplinary ‘transnational literacy’ as contemplated in ‘Teaching for the Times’ is joined a specifically literary theory of reading.”(8) To arrive at this ‘literary theory of reading’, he follows Spivak’s critique of Kant applying a deconstructive analysis of what would otherwise be considered a minor moment in Kant’s Critique of Judgment where he mentions the New Hollander or the man from Tierra del Fuego to whom she applies the appellative ‘Native Informant’ leading to the following statement, on p. 16: “This account of reading scrupulously drawn from engaging the text of postcoloniality and its philosophical precursors, adds both to an older notion of reading as a process of imaginative projection, and to a more recent idiom which attends to a process of dispropriative ‘invention’, as instantiation of the ethical, in writing and reading.” Sanders sets out his agenda for the balance of his book as analyzing Spivak from the perspective of “the articulation of a reading of the world in which transnational literacy and literary reading have gone hand in hand in adumbrating a theory of ethics and responsibility specific theoretically to the literary and tied closely, in historical terms, to the conditions of postcoloniality and globalization. Her articulation is also fundamentally interdisciplinary.”(27)
While Spivak’s momentous achievement of translating Derrida’s Of Grammatology and of her introduction to it led Morton to a detailed, intense discussion of French literary theory and the various theorists involved, it leads Sanders along a much different axis predicated on Jane Gallop’s ‘The Translation of Deconstruction’ and her preference for reading the translation “as a text by Spivak rather than as a text by Derrida.”(30) In support of this line of reasoning, Sanders quotes Spivak’s conclusion to her Translator’s Preface in which she discusses the ideal reader: “And all said and done, that is the sort of reader I would hope for. A reader who would fasten upon my mistranslations, and with that leverage deconstruct Derrida’s text beyond what Derrida as controlling subject has directed in it.”(31) It is this that leads Gallop to say: “The reader would follow Spivak in the displacement of the text, rather than try to bring it back home to Derrida. The last paragraph of Spivak’s ‘Translator’s Preface’ is a stunning articulation of active or abusive translation. At this moment she speaks not only as a translator of deconstruction but as a deconstructive translator.”(ibid) This is an exciting tack to take as it has authorized many writers to apply ‘mistranslation’ techniques to other situations – Steve McCaffrey with his ‘mistranslation’ of Gertrude Stein (‘Every Way Oakly’) and Basho (‘The Basho Variations’), Erin Moure with her translations from the Gallician particularly in O Codoira where she purports to ‘translate’ “poems of the medieval Iberian songbooks written in Galician-Portuguese.” Discussion then turns to the publication Diacritics and the new genre of the extended review essay which Spivak turned to in translating, generally from a feminist perspective, several of Derrida’s other works. She is careful to not privilege feminism against deconstructionism and has spoken out against her feminist colleagues doing so. Discussion of Spivak’s translations of the Bangladeshi novelist Mahasweta Devi (part of her agenda to get the subaltern to speak) begins with Devi’s story Stanadāyini (1980) which Spivak translates as ‘Breast-Giver’, rather than ‘The Wet-nurse’ which is the title of an alternative translation, arguing that that title “neutralizes the author’s irony in constructing an uncanny word; enough like ‘wet-nurse’ to make that sense, and enough unlike to shock...The theme of treating the breast as organ of labor-power-as-commodity and the breast as metonymic part-object standing in for other-as-object...the way in which the story plays with Marx and Freud on the occasion of the woman’s body...is lost even before you enter the story.”(39) We can see the interplay of Spivak’s pet themes – Marxism and feminism – neither privileging the other – at work here as in all of her work. The following quote from Spivak’s ‘The Politics of Translation’ is extremely important to the modern theory of translation:
At first I translate at speed. If I stop to think about what is happening to the English, if I assume an audience, if I take the intending subject as more than a springboard, I cannot jump in, I cannot surrender...Surrendering to the text in this way means, most of the time, being literal. When I have produced a version this way, I revise. I revise not in terms of a possible audience, but by the protocols of the thing in front of me, in a sort of English. And I keep hoping that the student in the classroom will not be able to think that the text is just a purveyor of social realism if it is translated with an eye toward the dynamic staging of language mimed in the revision by the rules of the in-between discourse produced by a literalist surrender.(44)
Whereas Morton left Spivak’s Death of a Discipline to the end of his work, Sanders moves it right up front into this second chapter summarizing Spivak’s criticism of translation of current world literature and its translators: “Blind to local literary history and an author’s difference within it, the international translation industry homogenizes, producing the literature of the Third World as a simplified literature.”(48) Spivak has adopted as her task the attempt to change this approach establishing at Columbia University in 1998 a Centre for Comparative Literature and Society.
Sanders begins his chapter on ‘Marx after Derrida’ by examining the disagreement between Spivak and Derrida based upon the difference between use-value v. exchange-value which Sanders does an excellent job of explaining. Both Derrida and Spivak focus their attention on an early Marxian piece The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) and its treatment of ‘representation.’ What is hardly ever noticed is how this reading is linked to Spivak’s reading of Marx through Derrida - namely, to the exposure of the same word being used to conflate different concepts in order to make an argument succeed when it otherwise could not. What is usually missed, in effect, is how Marxism, for Spivak, becomes a setting-to-work of deconstruction.”(61-2) In examining ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in light of the preceding statement, Sanders (and Spivak) make it clear what word is in question: “Two senses of representation are being run together: representation as ‘speaking for,’ as in politics, and representation as ‘re-presentation,’ as in art or philosophy.”(62) But note that the same German word is not used, rather “the play of vertreten (‘represent’ in the first sense) and darstellen (‘re-present’ in the second sense)...where Marx touches on ‘class’ as a description and transformative concept.”(ibid) This leads us through a discussion of Paul de Man’s concept of ‘permanent parabasis’ rendering the two German terms as one being constative, the other performative. As stated on p. 64: “Described in terms of de Man’s definition of irony, this deconstruction without reserve is ‘permanent parabasis or sustained interruption from a source relating ‘otherwise’ (allegorein = speaking otherwise) to the continuous unfolding of the main system of meaning – both the formalization of deconstruction and, on another level of abstraction, the logic of global development...This parabasis is dramatized as the shifting place for a ‘reader’, and for ‘reading otherwise’, which increasingly characterizes the book in the ‘Culture’ chapter, as its writer ‘circulates’, cutting rapidly from one occasion to the next.” The balance of the chapter takes us through the application of these concepts to the concept of the subaltern paving the way for the next chapter on feminism.
Sanders titles this chapter ‘Feminism Internationalized.’ In the opening paragraph, he traces the evolution of Spivak’s thought:
After some initial forays into literary criticism and literary theory – in quest of ‘feminist readings’ of Dante, Yeats, and other writers..., - a clearer, more definitive tendency establishes itself. One notices a series of departures, as Spivak, whose early feminist criticism follows the patterns of the subdiscipline as it evolved among deconstructionist and psychoanalytic critics in the United States, begins to define herself against metropolitan feminism and its unquestioned assumptions and agendas. Producing a rupture between Western and Third World feminism, between French and international feminism, this questioning has not ceased.(76)
This questioning has led Spivak into some unexpected areas and given rise to critiques that attack Northern attitudes on unexpected fronts, for example a critique of microcredit given to Bangladeshi women and ‘gender training’:
At a time when the mainstream media in the North uncritically celebrate Grameen Bank [the Bangladeshi institution established by Professor Mohammad Yunus as the microcredit lending institute which, along with Professor Yunus, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006], which lends to women in Bangladesh, Spivak places such initiatives in context. They are, first of all, linked to transnational agencies – hence, subaltern rural women are led directly into the global economy, without the protections of the state. Second of all, they do not bring about infrastructural change.
Spivak is particularly critical of ‘gender training’ – the name given by international agencies to their efforts to raise consciousness about gender inequality. Implicit in Spivak’s criticisms is the sense that gender training is an endeavour to foster possessive individualism among women of the South...’Gender trainers’ offering to manufacture ‘free choice,’ try to center culturally different subjects into decisionmaking without adequately preparing themselves...’Gender training,’ touching subject production with superficial gestures of respect, visits the greatest violation of cultural integrity, in the interest of capital, by means of women upon women.(91-2)
Sanders concludes this chapter by indicating Spivak’s complicity, as a Northern teacher trying to teach literacy to the South, in this offence to Southern cultural sensibilities – something which Spivak herself recognizes and attempts to guard against.
The final chapter, ‘Thoughts on War and Suicide’ prefaces the Hindu concept of sati, or widow self-immolation, in terms of 9-11 and the war on terror as well as the concept of suicide bombers in the middle-east – something which Spivak would probably find not in keeping with her overarching thesis and her feminist stance. If the book were to end here, it would be a disappointment. Fortunately, it doesn’t. Instead, the book ends with a highly informative interview between Sanders and Spivak. Of particular interest are Spivak’s comments regarding translation and about Melanie Klein. Thus, we end this excellent analysis with Spivak’s own words.
In Gayatri Spivak and Live Theory, we have two ways of approaching Spivak’s thoughts and writings. Through its analysis of Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, etc., the former establishes Spivak within postmodernist thought. The latter explores Spivak’s contribution to literature and literary theory. Both perspectives are valid. Both necessary. Both excellent in their own way. And both are must reads if one wishes to understand not just postcolonial theory but the entirety of literary theory as it exists at the beginning of this new century.
John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.