On a sweaty evening on 24th May in Kolkata, iconic and iconoclast academic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak said she was tired of being asked about the subaltern. She was there in the city of joy to celebrate the release of the famous twentieth century philosopher, Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology in a newly revised translation. Spivak, who as a 25-year-old academic living in the US, translated it from French to English for the first time in 1967. This book introduced Derrida in the western world and brought a new concept of ‘deconstruction’, which took everyone by storm. ‘Deconstruction’ as they called it referred to a very specific kind of ‘reading which analyses the specificity of a text’s critical difference from itself’.
At the the Satyajit Ray Auditorium of the Rabindranath Tagore Centre on the Ho Chi Minh Sarani of Kolkata, a street teeming with some last colonial structures of India, the academic giant of postcolonial studies Spivak was hosted by Seagull Books and the French Embassy in India. The event was moderated by publisher of Zubaan Books Urvashi Butalia and Princeton University academic, Benjamin Conisbee Baer who kept the conversation going; ranging from her translation works, views on feminism, subaltern studies to her memories of riot-torn Calcutta on the eve of partition.
In Kolkata, Spivak became Gayatridi for everyone in the auditorium, which is essentially a Bengali norm. She also invokes Bengali phrases and adages in her lectures throughout the world to invoke and explain complex topics. Spivak was born in Kolkata in 1942 and did her schooling and bachelor’s degree from the city’s best institutions before setting her foot on the American continent to do her PhD on W.B.Yeats at the Cornell University. After living in US for most of her life and on facing questions about whether she identifies herself as a Bengali, Indian or an American, she answers that she doesn’t know what her identity is and is not very much concerned about questioning herself on this issue. She says “one manufactures a stereotype for oneself and I don’t think that’s a very interesting thing”.
And yet, in her black cotton saree with wide gold border, she moved around in the auditorium with a sense of belonging and familiarity to talk to her friends and former classmates who came to listen to her. Today, she may be the first woman of colour to become a Professor at Columbia University but in her conversations, she alludes that her past belongs to this city. Her academic career is full of achievements. In addition to founding Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, she has taught at Brown University, Stanford University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California, Santa Cruz and Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Apart from writing 11 books, Spivak is more known for writing and developing complex theories that immediately entered global academic discourse and resulted in thousands of papers and dissertations.
She is most famous for her controversial essay ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ written in 1986 where she explored and challenged the way ‘other’ cultures are understood. The essay offered a critique on the outside attempts to speak for the marginalised by using the case of widow suicide (Spivak in the lecture revealed that the widow was her grandmother’s sister) and how knowledge is often appropriated to express the interest of its producers. Here she borrowed the term ‘subaltern’ or economically dispossessed from Italian communist leader Gramsci which was earlier being reappropriated by another academic Ranajit Guha to start a project on ‘subaltern studies’. Although Spivak recognizes the “epistemic violence” committed against the Indian subalterns, she suggests that any attempt from the outside to better their condition by granting them collective speech invariably will encounter the problem of dependence upon western intellectuals to “speak for” the subaltern condition rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. But her essay also evoked fierce criticism from many academics and activists on the ground that Spivak should not think of any marginalised group as a ‘voiceless’ entity.
In this event on Derrida’s Of Grammatology, conversation easily led to this point on how she viewed these criticisms. “I wish that word would go away” she quipped in a moment of wry humour and said that maybe this word is not appropriate. She gave the example of Gramsci often using the term ‘de subalterno’ or subordinate to describe Frederick Engels in relation to Marx which does not fit other case, she said. She argued that she never said subalterns cannot speak but her point is that they are not heard due to the lack of an institutional and structural apparatus. She sarcastically remarked, “if you use the word ‘subaltern’, you are not subaltern”. Her remedy is that “we must build the infrastructure so that subalterns can speak”.
On being asked by Urvashi Butalia on her work on feminism and her criticism of international civil society and gender activists, Spivak resolutely answered, “ I am a feminist, a feminist to the bone”. She felt that problem of gender is not just making it good for women, “it is also doing something with men that will be constructive”. The real problem according to her is education and not just law and enforcement. She quoted Derrida again to say ‘law is not justice. She thinks that those men who are the enforcers of law at the bottom, “are taught in such a way that in no way can they think anything abnormal about rape”. She referred to the main rapist in the banned documentary India’s daughter by saying that he is just a “good hearted guy who thinks he is saying something normal” to the filmmaker and that’s “really frightening”. Therefore she believes that her own work on gender is not for women but for “human beings” in general because “it works in both ways”. She called the attempts by international civil society to make everyone “well gendered” by following a standardised norm as a “desperate mistake” and “quick fix corporate feminism”. She emphasized that platforms for actions are important but her job as humanities teacher is in “long term rearrangement of human desires”.
Princeton academic Benjamin Baer then prodded her further on her ideas on retranslation and deconstruction vis-à-vis Derrida and specially her conceptualisation of ‘critical intimacy’, a term even Derrida did not use. On the revised edition of the book, she said “translation is an ongoing and shared practice” and this book is the result of that exercise. She credited her teachers at Presidency college for teaching her at an early stage to “get oneself into the skin of the text and not oppose but unfold and criticise”. ‘Critical intimacy’ she argued results from relating to a text when someone “enters as carefully as possible into that text” so that he or she can locate the moment when the text betrays itself. She compared it with the relationship between Marx and Hegel. “Critical intimacy” with text she points out can challenge the “critical distance” that we have developed today while reading a text.
Apart from occasional inconsistencies, Spivak’s writing and lectures are often criticised for being hard to understand for normal readers. Terry Eagleton, professor of English Literature at University of Oxford in his review of Spivak’s book “A critique of Postcolonial Reason” made a scathing attack on her writing and called her “pretentiously opaque” which shows little sensitivity towards her readers. Eagleton’s criticism of her that she leaps from topic to topic with bewildering eclecticism can be invoked of her talk in Kolkata as well. Spivak responds to such criticisms by saying that people quote her out of context to shame her and to simplify language is to simplify thoughts.
She just does not love the text ‘intimately’ but can take joy from small things in life. In one such instance after the talk, when someone handed her over a Orpat table clock she looked very happy and went on to explain to the people around her how she had been using it for alarm purposes since long time. Others were busy then to get their signed copy of Derrida’s book from the woman who introduced it to the world. As for the talk, Trinomool MP and Harvard Professor Sugata Bose went up to the podium from the audience side and said in the quintessential Bengali way, “Gayatridi, that was a masterclass”.