Rockstar goddess of postcolonial studies. Leading feminist Marxist scholar of our time. Gadfly of subaltern studies: her seminal paper, “Can The Subaltern Speak?” seeded a thousand dissertations. Irreverent, iconoclastic, unfailingly taboo-busting, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a study in highwire intellectual risk-taking. As University Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, one of the world’s most elitist academic institutions, she trains upper-class graduate imaginations for epistemological performance. At the other end of the global spectrum, she has, for three decades, pursued the painstaking, backbreaking project of creating and sustaining schools for rural children in Western Bengal.
I want to understand something about bypassing the necessity of good rich people solving the world’s problems. Good rich people are dependent on bad people for the money they use to do this. And the good rich people’s money mostly goes to bad rich people. Beggars receive material goods to some degree and remain beggars. My desire is to produce problem solvers, rather than solve problems. In order to do this, I must continue to teach teachers, current and future, with devotion and concentration, at the schools that produce the good rich people – Columbia University – and the beggars, seven unnamed elementary schools in rural Birbhum, a district in West Bengal. This work cannot be done with an interpreter, and India is multilingual. I must understand their desires, not their needs, and with understanding and love try to shift them. That is education in the humanities. (Spivak, 2010)
What Spivak does in Bengal is the opposite of philanthropy, or uplift. At the 2008 inaugural World Authors And Literary Translators’ Conference, in Stockholm, she called for unflinching examination of the conference theme: “Literature And Human Rights”.
I take this idea extremely seriously, so I am obliged to critique it rigorously. We are self-appointed moral entrepreneurs, our mission predicated on the failure of state and revolution. We fetishize literacy, health, employability, without inquiring rigorously into what they have effected, or how we deploy them, in our own lives.
This consistently brilliant calling out of liberal gospels is one reason non-scholars flock to Spivak’s talks, though we may comprehend only every 5th or 10th sentence. But there is more. Spivak has a glamour, a draw, that defies the complex – some say intentionally over-difficult – nature of her work. As with all legends and icons, it is almost impossible to analyze the precise elements of her appeal. Her charisma is best described by its impact.
Consider. On February 2, 2010, Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka, speaks at UC Berkeley. I arrive ten minutes before the panel: “Rights and Relativity: The Interplay of Cultures”, begins. I have my choice of seats in an almost-empty front row. When the panel starts, the auditorium is 75% full, a respectable turnout.
Two weeks later, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak speaks, on “Situating Feminism”. I arrive thirty minutes early, score one of four remaining front row seats, in the same lecture hall where Soyinka spoke. Fifteen minutes before the talk starts, the hall is full. Professors and scholars sit shoulder to shoulder on the floor space below the stage, on the stage itself, pack all available standing room at back of the hall. Ten minutes before the talk starts, an organizer asks those seated on the floor at the front of the hall to clear a path from the door to the podium, so the speakers can enter.
A crowd around the door cannot get in, and overflows down the hallway. I am reminded of Italy’s Internazionale Festival, where talks were broadcast on large video screens outside the filled-to-capacity auditorium. I was stunned to see close to two hundred young Italians, a supposedly apolitical and alienated demographic, stand on cobbled streets, in biting cold, to watch Noam Chomsky speak – not even live, but on a webcast from the US.
Spivak’s talks generate electricity, that are only partly an outcome of what she says. The charge also comes from the transparency of self-discovery as she speaks. The absence of masks – and the accompanying risk of self-exposure and spectacular tumbles.
There’s really no way of locating desire. Please understand this. [ ] I love my students. I think one should love one’s students. Like marriage, it’s a contract, isn’t it? But it’s a very peculiar kind of love, because a student is not really a human being. A student – is a student! (Spivak, 2010)
And from the sheer physicality, the vigor of performance, she brings to the podium. What she describes as her “best skills of hamming”.
I’m better looking than Socrates, OK? I really do think so!
And most powerfully, from the laying open of her living experience, in the moment of answering, without defense or self-justification:
Love in education? I have to sing another song. (sings) Love is just a four letter word! (laughter) Because that’s what it is for me! I don’t know what it means. It describes an absence of the other affects. Avoiding coercion – that’s a real effort. Hanging suspended – that’s a real effort. So that you don’t actually go in thinking you know, but you try to see… I’m musclebound with education and qualifications. So I try to see what the hell I should do, the next step. Those are real nameable affects – learning from below….
But something happens – that’s that intuition of the transcendental. I cannot really produce an evidentiary thing about it. It’s a very irritating kind of thing. Not just this [teaching at rural schools in Birbhum] but also teaching at Columbia. I don’t like to teach. This is a thing which people don’t believe. But somehow, on the other hand, there is some sense that there must be something beyond evidentiarity, because it’s clearly not just earning a living.
And also, to be attached to people whom I often don’t like – students in other words! [eruption of laughter from audience]. And yet to be attached, to care – for all of that stuff, which is nothing else, I have this word. Which serves and pleases. [ ]
I mean, love didn’t work, whatever the hell that is, in my life. Alone I am. I’m not particularly into self-love either. I’m quite prepared to die. And all the objects of my love are slowly…(trails off).
So the named thing, I can’t describe. This is the name of a place where the named efforts and affects seem to find their limit. That’s why I was clowning……. (Spivak, 2010)
When I find myself unexpectedly seated next to Spivak, at the New York launch panel for The Letters Of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso, 2011), I try to convey to her what I find unique and compelling about her public talks. What distinguishes them from those of other theorists, public intellectuals, even activists. To my delight, the first Rosa Luxemburg letter, in Deborah Eisenberg’s reading selected from the book, captures it perfectly:
Do you know what gives me no peace nowadays? I am dissatisfied with the form and manner with which people in the Party, for the most part, write their articles. It’s all so conventional, so wooden, , so stereotyped. …these current songs from our tribe of scribblers… are no songs at all, but just a droning without color or tone, like the sound of a cogwheel spinning in a machine. I believe that the source of this lies in the fact that people, when they’re writing, forget for the most part to go deeper inside themselves and experience the full import and truth of what they’re writing. I believe that people need to live in the subject matter fully and really experience it every time, every day, with every article they write, and then words will be found that are fresh, that come from the heart and got to the heart, instead of [just repeating] the old familiar phrases. (“To Robert Seidel, Jun 23, 1898”, Luxemborg, 2011)
Particularly apt since before the talk, Spivak mentions that the New Left Review will never publish her. She describes a wager made with a colleague, who urged her to publish in NLR, that NLR would reject a submission from her. The prediction was fulfilled, when the editor of the NLR actually called her, acutely embarrassed, to apologize for rejecting her article.
Emboldened by learning that Luxemborg, one of my heroes, is on Spivak’s hero list too, I ask Spivak for an interview. She agrees, firm and courteous that she has only 45 minutes to offer. Two days later, we meet at the 92ND Street Y, where she is attending a concert. Spivak wears a thick herringbone coat, and a cap embroided with sequined elephants. The cap is a gift from a Parisian friend, who saw it and instantly thought of her. Her neck is wrapped in a handwoven geometric patterned scarf, from a Nepali student. On her wrist, a copper bangle from a South African colleague. Another bracelet from her third husband. And a watch, “from Spivak, bought with my money. And those are all the gifts I am wearing.” This is endearing, her pleasure in her outfit, the sharing of personal history in the items she wears.
We have time for thirteen questions, which suggests a play on Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird. Here then, are Thirteen Ways of Looking at Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
You give an extraordinary number of public talks, and your travel schedule is exhausting to even track. What is it you find worthwhile in the act of public speaking that justifies the prodigious effort it demands of you? What happens when you show up for a live audience, in Delhi, Stockholm, Berkeley, that can’t be transmitted through the written and published word?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
This is not, for me, for talking to people. It’s rather, my own work. I work up each talk right before the talk – I can’t recycle old talks. Right before the talk, my energies begin to concentrate toward the occasion. That’s because what I’m doing is fieldwork. It’s my own education, rather than just talking to these people. Although I have to think about the audience, that’s also part of the game – it’s directed speech. What their politics would be. For example, talking to Croatians about Marxism. You can’t say the same thing you do in the US, with the euphoria about Marxism on the so-called U.S. left! (I am never invited in the US by the complete red-baiters.)
So it’s directed talk, but that is the nature of the fieldwork. I was told by my first editor Bill Germano that I worked in cultural politics. That was the subtitle he gave to In Other Worlds. I always like to be told by other people what I’m doing. So I decided that that’s what I was doing. So when I answer this way, remember that the description of my work has been given by someone else.
I don’t really know what I do.
But I kind of know that that’s why I need to confront very very different kinds of audiences. You’ve given Delhi, Stockholm, Berkeley, as examples. But in fact, the examples would be much much broader. So I really have to twist myself into many different situations, and many different kinds of interlocutors. Even in interviews. I gave an interview to a young German man, who’s completely enthusiastic about saving the world…..that’s a very different kind of thing from talking elsewhere.
So that’s why I do all this talking, it’s my own education.
How do you sustain yourself for this level of travel and performance? How do you maintain your voice, your body, your energy, your enthusiasm?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
I don’t really sustain myself too well. I always ask when possible, for a full bed kind of ticket. But I don’t get it, obviously, and travelling in villages and so on, it’s not possible.
But I try to look after myself, where possible, and I’ve just entered my 70th year. My body is beginning to give notice. I have arthritis. I have bursitis, which developed because the folks in the village were saving me money. And, because I felt that was a total success on my part, I was allowing them to save me money. Because 25 years ago, when I entered the scene, I was perceived as an upper class, upper caste rich person who had come to do good. And slowly I have changed in their view, to someone whose money should be saved. So that’s a real passing an exam type thing. So my movement has become almost all on the back of old motor bikes, or in rural buses, etc. and that is not good for me. Walking even. And so I got bursitis and sciatica, aggravated. So my body’s telling me stuff.
And also I have heavy metal poisoning. I got tuberculosis from one village and now have post-tubercular bronchiectasis. I get pneumonia all the time, my bronchial tubes have shriveled, they don’t have any lining, the sinuses do their work. So this is not really sustaining, is it?
What I try to do is I try to be what the old definition of a nomad is. Which is wherever I pitch my tent, I try to go through the same routine. I’m exactly not a tourist, wanting to see new sights. No. I am everywhere in the same place. That’s how I sustain myself. I have not seen the Taj Mahal – can you imagine that? I go to Delhi many times in a year (laughing) but there it is.
The quality of being you bring to your public life evokes the image of an intellectual tightrope walker, or fire-eater, combined with the honesty and vulnerability of a great actor. You display a willingness to stand in the rivers of what you speak and think about, and be drenched. I believe this is what brings crowds out to hear you wherever you speak, although your subject matter is arcane, dense, often difficult for those of us not trained in academic languages – and even for those who are.
At the podium, you perform, repeatedly, a kind of self-revelation that is the opposite of exhibitionism; it is the most rigorous kind of self-examination. You have said, of aesthetic education, that: The important thing is to welcome the loss of control. (Carruth, 2010), but your loss of control in your public talks appears to be exquisitely disciplined and relentlessly directed towards discovering the truth.
Is this a practice you consciously cultivate? Is it learned, or the natural outcome of the unlearning required to “train the imagination for epistemological performance.”?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
That business of presenting myself is really a way of saying that these answers that I’m giving should be judged, contextualized. They are not formulas to be applied under all circumstances. I don’t even know if they’re correct. I just know that at this point in time, they seem to be correct. I will have to think about them more, also to situate them.
That’s why really I talk about myself. I don’t really talk about myself – it’s a stereotype; what do I know about myself? It’s a stereotype that, as far as I can tell, frames information so that I’m not taken to be giving ideas, pure ideas.
But how has this happened? Now people are commenting on it. Before people used to fault me for it, saying I was narcissistic, etc. But I think as the years have passed, people have seen that this has to be distinguished from academic or public narcissism, because we see so much of that , and this does not resemble that.
So how has it happened? It has happened as a kind of reflex. It kicks in because I simply do not want to claim the position of the sujet supposé savoir (subject – I – who is supposed to know).
I know that people would rather have quote, ‘the truth’ unquote, from the podium. And it’s not good to make oneself vulnerable to this kind of testing. So I found by kind of a happenstance that I do have this idea that the best player is a player who can deliberately play to lose. As you were asking the question, I’m thinking that perhaps it relates to that – playing to lose.
But playing to lose is a risky thing, when other people don’t know that’s what you’re doing. And of course, playing to lose, you become a victim of your own game, because, if you play to lose successfully, you’re not losing. So it’s like a labyrinth.
How do you define ‘loss’ here? What would it mean to lose?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
Simply, there is someone else playing with you, and that person wins. That’s all that it means. It’s not very complicated
I want to revisit your words at WALTIC about the “fetishization of literacy, health, employability”. They recall P. Sainath’s trenchant comments in Everybody Loves A Good Drought:
Literacy is a vital social tool. It is not an education. [Literacy’s] best moments have come when people  have shaped it to their own reality, their own needs. That usually frightens governments. Make women literate and they picket alcohol shops. It’s nice to have the girls read and write. Having them rock the basis of, say, Tamil Nadu politics, is not the idea.
You spoke at Berkeley about the point in your work in rural schools where the “benevolent” project of literacy became dangerous, because it gave people the tools to confront authority. And of the consequences, the state reprisal. I believe this conflict is still widely ignored, because it threatens the premises of so many forms of missionary intervention – from projects such as WALTIC to Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, or the current campaigns to address mass rapes in the Congo. So would you be willing to tell that story again?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
I very much like what Sainath says. But I will go a bit further.
I think literacy by itself is nothing but a skill. It has nothing particularly good within it. It allows you to do certain kinds of things. You can tell where a bus is going, etc.
But I have found, in the villages of West Bengal, where my experience is concentrated, because that’s my native language, you know these people who have been the victim of very bad education, they’re not only literate, but they’ve even graduated high school. But if the government issues a proclamation about the distribution of rice, etc. we have to go to these places and explain to them what the proclamation means. They’re not able to read the Bengali for understanding, for in school “reading” was for memorizing.
This both shows the class difference between the government and them and shows the horrible nature of bureaucratese in all languages, that it’s not close to common language. But it also shows that literacy and numeracy in themselves are artificial things.
I find, with the people I work with that the smart illiterate person, Nimai Lohar, and another one, Tulu Shabar, illiterate smart folks, they are much more into my ideas than people whose heads have been ruined by bad education.
So if literacy comes tied to rote education, it almost – paradoxically – I can never be against literacy – but paradoxically it harms you. These governments that decide that literacy is the be-all and end-all, statistics of literacy etc. and all that, this is just a convenience for them, because anything else would be too much, right?
I’ve written about this, in a way that I can’t recapture right now, so let this be a kind of an open reference.
It doesn’t mean anything to be able recognize letters. That’s why to make that an end in itself simply shows the laziness of governments and the statisticalization of education.
It wasn’t literacy that frightened the authorities [in the case of one set of my rural schools]. What frightened them was that one of the young men in my schools had learned – he was much more than literate, he was a very smart young man, literacy doesn’t bother the authorities – he had learned to distinguish between good education and bad education. In other words, he had learned to distinguish between just stuffing him with information, so a tribal boy could come first, and being educated.
So if the subaltern begins to get democratic judgment – now distinguish this, because it relates to your question about human rights – from the subaltern being interested by the benevolent feudal-type leaders in self-interest; like “Look, I’m really being oppressed, I must ask for my rights,” that’s fine. Self-interest is supposed to be a good thing for the subaltern, although not a good thing for the human rights worker. But if the subaltern gets what the human rights worker has, which is democratic judgment, then – very bad things may happen.
Democratic judgment, which has nothing to do with self-interest, or resisting oppression, or any such thing. That’s when the benevolent despot closed the schools. The next day. Closed the schools, evicted the male students, it was unbelievable that it was in response to the young boy wanting to go to another school, from the high school where he had been placed. Because he felt that what they wanted was to make him a ‘first boy.’ And he wanted real education. He wanted to be with other tribals rather than in a school with regular Hindu – Muslim students, where it would be something new, a first for a tribal boy to come first.
That’s what it was. Literacy is not frightening to the authorities. Because they know, literacy is a nothing by itself. It’s a first step to nothing. So judgment’s what scared them.
In the human development index, education is statisticalized. How many years? Whereas for your own child you will make a tour of all universities to see who’s giving the best education. Class apartheid. That’s what scared the guy.
You mentioned how in your Delhi talks you addressed the caste and gender ramifications of shitting – and how it didn’t go down well. I haven’t been able to find the text or video of that talk, but it sounds like a perfect example of what Rosa calls for: that people need to live in the subject matter fully and really experience it every time, every day,…… (Luxemburg, 2011)
Can you summarise what you said on this, and the responses?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
This is a few paragraphs from the talk I gave in Delhi, which will be published as a full text, so keep that in mind.
Gender difference. Two narratives, not yet evidence.
A man walks with a feminist leader down a path strewn with human waste and says with ill-concealed pride, “our toilets are free.” When his mother is affected with cholera, a male co-worker’s son with hepatitis, and since for lack of education, the man and the co-worker cannot use a free national health service, although the feminist leader can, it is possible for her to show, by explaining the difficult prose of the World Health Organization translated into the regional language, that they are paying the high price of their free toilets, and will continue to do so.
When a woman, a capable teacher who regularly teaches the books from the state curriculum outlining oral-fecal disease, is asked why she doesn’t use the toilet added to her dwelling, Rs. 2,800 paid for by the feminist leader for her own use, she remarks:
The men here are very courteous. They do not go near the fields that they know are being used by women for defecating.
Now this is a different kind of argument. Gender solidarity through acknowledgment of gendered division of bodily affect. This is not a question of obeying hygiene, of any principles. She knows them, she teaches them, she is one of the best teachers in the schools.
In the feminist leader’s case, this has been rearranged through the use of caste shame, by class mobilization, through relatively recent European colonization. Is she simply interested in creating a “middle class” through the use of caste obedience? Then let’s not accuse the elitists. This is not pre-modern to modern on the way to the post-modern. This is an acknowledgment of the relief map of modernity, calling for epistemological activism, leading toward slow, but real change, supplementing necessary feudal problem-solving. (In global contemporaneity everything is modern, was the general argument in the Delhi paper.)
I just heard a brilliant paper by a female colleague in Baroda, on the caste distribution of shame, in the context of the women’s Chara rebellion, and other related resistances in Kerala. And heard her lengthily lectured by a male Delhi university historian because she had dared to cite Foucault. She is an epistemological activist for the historiographers, and I hope I will learn more from her in the future, in the matter of gendered caste shame, who is allowed shame – Brahmins and caste-Hindus, not Dalits.
In the caste Hindu marriage, lajjaharan, or removal of shame, is one mark of being married. When the female leader strips in the Euro-US gym locker room, she is married to the rearrangement of caste shame, which is her access to modernity, sequentially and teleologically perceived, so that she can lead today. Yet that is still marked by a sexual difference that doesn’t acknowledge the plurality of genders. If there are unisex or gender-diversified locker rooms, the female leader doesn’t know it.
And we notice that when the problem gets relocated by caste to race and class drift, we are approaching a reduction to absurdity. It announces the rupture into post-feminism.
Could you say a little about how this passage was received in Delhi?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
They were completely nonplussed and flabbergasted. Nobody asked me a question about it. Because I believe – I may be wrong – but I believe they could not bring themselves to talk about shitting in the fields in the Vice-Regal lodge, where this talk was given.
And there were male professors sitting there, including the head of the English Department. I have a feeling that it just didn’t break through the barrier of academic shame. There was embarrassment (laughing). That’s what it was.
Please describe your experience of submitting work to the New Left Review, and why they won’t publish you.
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
This is about the fact that my work seems completely unacceptable by the NLR. Whenever this kind of thing happens, I always think that I’m not good enough. Because if I think that, it’s helpful for me. I have a pretty strong self-concept, so I’m not going to get blown away. And when I think that I’m not good enough, I don’t necessarily think that individual people are better than me – no. I find them, quite often, very funny.
But I would like to be able to write the kind of sober, well-documented prose that NLR publishes, and I’m incapable of writing it, I think partly because I’m not a good enough scholar. On the other hand, I also cannot write like the badly-treated minority, because I’m not that.
So it’s better for me to think that I don’t get published by NLR because I’m not good enough.
You cited Rosa Luxemburg as one of your heroes. Will you say more about why? Who else comes to mind in your pantheon of heroes as you think about Rosa?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
Since I’ve never been asked to account for why she is one of my heroes, I don’t know. I really have no idea. I would have to rationalize that answer. But I am going to teach her, in either the fall or the spring, and it will be on a few texts of the General Strike.
The course will be called: Some Texts From The General Strike: Reflections On The History Of An Idea. I will distinguish this from May 68, from Naxalbari, and Tahrir Square and all that stuff. I have written a little about the fact that the Tunisian example was a singular subaltern speaking – the guy who burned himself- and there was, paradoxically, a political will created by the predatory government.
I will go first into the pre-texts of the anarchists, but even before that, Chartism. Since I don’t do 19th century novels, 18th century novels, I will find out if there is a novel of Chartism, because I’m a literature teacher. And then I will teach Sorel and Benjamin’s Critique of Violence which leans on Sorel. Then I will teach Rosa Luxemburg and Gramsci, 1905 and Turin,
Luxemburg’s book on the mass strike, and this will be my center.
And then I will teach Du Bois, because people said that he made a mistake in calling the exodus of the slaves when the Civil War began a general strike. I don’t think so. He was very learned, he wasn’t making a mistake. I want to see why.
And then I will do Gandhi. Because I believe the Non-Cooperation movement is mistakenly thought of as only ahimsa, non-violence. Non-Cooperation was much more a recoding of general strike with the generalized Hindu text of ahimsa thing. So I’ll do Gandhi and maybe the Gandhi-Tagore letters as they relate to this issue.
And then I’ll do Tillie Olsen, because her novel Tell Me A Riddle, is certainly a story of the 1905 revolution, which is what Rosa Luxemburg’s 1906 essay is on.
So that’s my 7 weeks, and that’s how I’ll teach her.
But as to why she’s my hero – does anyone ever know? No I don’t know. But I did put down two things. Lack of fear – yeah, I suppose, but many people are fearless. I also put in her body warmth, but I’m just – I’m really rationalizing. I don’t even want to think about why she’s my hero. One must protect one’s heroes from these kinds of questions (laughter).
I watch and listen to your public talks as one performer watches another. What is your embodied experience when you speak? Are you physically tired afterwards, or high on adrenalin? Do you experience nerves or excitement before?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
I used to be terrified before public talks. But somehow it’s disappeared.
But these days, I am exceedingly careful about writing the whole talk. And I find that I can really write fast just before the talk.
I finished the Los Angeles talk this week – the woman was coming to get me at 4, and I finished at 12 minutes past 4. Luckily, she was late. And I finished the Tagore – Gandhi talk, maybe one minute before I went down to the lobby. And ……..I can give you many accounts.
I find it’s much better if I write them down. Something remains. I now realize that these talks are full of references, because I’ve been reading and thinking for many many years, so it’s not like I’m writing out of nothing. So that anxiety – I must finish writing – I get up at 4, I get up at 5.
Afterwards, it’s adrenalin. OK? I just want a – and I have to go back to the empty hotel room. The thing is, that when I was young and good-looking, men wanted to really, kind of, you know – have sex – because they want to control the woman of power. And of course, I knew that they weren’t controlling me, because I was a completely happy participant. I also used to drink, etc. – there was a different scene.
But now, first of all I don’t drink. Second of all, who the hell would come towards an old woman like me? So I’m exceedingly full of energy.
But while I’m talking, I’m feeling that I’m not good enough, I’m not good enough, and this is something that never goes away, I don’t know why
What is the next level of risk in your work? The next challenge you’re setting yourself?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
You see I don’t really feel that I am taking risks. It’s something that you have noticed, and I have welcomed the description, because it’s a nice heroic description.
My real intellectual ambition – I have many – as a writer, I want to write a New Left Review type book.
I want to teach a really scholarly course. In other words, I distrust my own demagogy, which you are praising.
But the real thing is supplementing vanguardism. These rural schools – will they be able to sustain themselves when I’m dead?
You see, I do not want to hang around. I want to teach so there’s change in the subaltern. That’s what I want, but will it happen? I can see that the board of my foundation, they’re not going to take such – to use your words – tremendous risks. The only one that I’m hoping against hope to convert – it’s a licensed lunacy – is this Ben Baer – an English person who has learned Bengali, and I hope he will do, but who knows.
That’s my thing. Because when I die the foundation will have a little money. Right now of course, it’s all my salary. Will it become just like other foundations, other education NGO-s? Then it’s no use really, the money should just be given away to someone. That’s my real worry. I don’t know if it’s a risk or anything.
Which of the performing arts speaks most powerfully to you? Will you share a performance you have seen recently that moved you, entered you deeply, and stayed with you?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
Music. I was myself trained to do North Indian classical vocal performance. I can’t do any more, because that kind of stuff takes a lot of time, 6 hours of practice every day, but it gives you a certain way of understanding what’s happening, which is wonderful. And in European music, I have a great deal of experience in listening, but no training.
But what I generally do with both kinds is the way I read, which is suspend myself. I just let the thing happen. I don’t know how to describe why. I’m not obliged to say to anyone why it moved me. I’m very careful – like your question about Rosa Luxemburg – not to constantly think about things that are happening – to me – except when I have to in terms of public speeches or writing something.
However, I mentioned this guy called Joe Diebes. I’ve been talking about him all over the place. I talked about him at the Whitney Independent Study Program, in LA, I’m going to talk about him in Stockholm.
A Princeton-Columbia coalition of graduate students, they were doing something about translating sound into visible stuff, etc. and there was this guy Joe Diebes. Who had done some stuff that seemed to me to be moved by the same kinds of questions that the early Derrida had in his head.
The early Derrida is a very rare kind of friend of mine. He changed completely, like most people do as they grow older – I have too – and he had become immensely famous, etc. etc. But those questions …. suddenly to see this young man who’s not a philosopher at all, he’s a composer – so I’ve gotten very moved by his stuff. But how much of it is Derrida, and how much of it is Joe?
That’s a little different from the way in which I hang out within music, remain suspended. Heidegger has this phrase, Mitwegsein. That word, to be with someone or something, away (mit-with, weg – away), that’s the way that I move in music. It’s not that I’m unmoved by visual art, by theatre, by opera, but generally it’s music that hits me most deeply, and I hang out in it. I don’t know why. I don’t want to know.
Is there a question you aren’t asked, that you wish you were asked, asked more often, or had been asked, in your long history of interviews?
GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK
No. I know there are questions I would like to be asked, but as to what they are, I don’t know.
But I’m never satisfied by the questions that are asked. I want to be surprised by a question. As a literary critic, that’s the way one is, isn’t it? I’m always looking for the unexpected. That business about their saving me money, that I said earlier? That’s an unexpected thing. I couldn’t have imagined that downward class mobility would be marked by that.
So I’ve not been surprised by a question that has seemed like a very apposite question. But maybe that question will never arrive, because the lost object has to remain lost, doesn’t it? To an extent, it could be that it’s just a kind of mode, like Godot. I’m always waiting for Godot, the unexpected question that…. but Godot doesn’t arrive except in Monty Python’s replaying. So that’s that. There we go!
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Situating Feminism”, Beryl Bainbridge Research Group Annual Keynote Talk, University of California, Berkeley, February 26, 2010
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in conversation, World Authors And Literary Translators Conference, Swedish Writers Union, Stockholm, 2008
The Letters Of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Annelies Laschitza, Georg Adler, and Peter Hudis (Verso, 2011)
Cathy Caruth, “Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Aesthetic Education and Globalization.” PMLA 125.4 (2010)
Everybody Loves A Good Drought, by P. Sainath (1996)