Feminist Theorist Thursdays: Gayatri Spivak

Image courtesy of Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung via Flickr

A self-proclaimed “practical deconstructionist feminist Marxist,” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is an Indian scholar who continues to add to many academic disciplines. She is known mainly for her work in post-colonial studies, but has also influenced Marxist, feminist, postmodern, and globalization studies.

Spivak is the first woman of color to be bestowed the title of “University Professor of Humanities” at Columbia. She has taught at several distinguished universities and has eleven honorary doctorates. She made a name for herself in academia at the age of 25 when she became the first person to translate Jacques Derrida’s dense and complex post-structuralist work, “Of Grammatology.” She is also known for her theories of alterity and strategic essentialism.

Her most famous piece, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, looks at the way certain classes of people are treated in India and critiques how intellectuals like Foucault and Deleuze view these people. Like much of her academic work, she uses the concept of deconstruction in this piece to examine the truth behind intellectual positions such as post-colonialism and post-structuralism. In other words, she considers and “deconstructs” specific theories related to schools of thought and how they affect discourse in order to understand the way in which they intersect with each other.

Specifically, in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak deconstructs the concept of silencing or giving a voice to “the Other.” Spivak argues that the inherent goal of post-colonial studies — to help create a platform for the Other — is problematic for several reasons.

In order to understand what she is deconstructing, readers must first know the meaning of “the Other” and the “subaltern.” The first phrase began as a psychological distinction between “self” and “other.” Then, Edward Said used it to refer to the binary relationship between the “West” and “non-West”. In this definition, the non-West is seen as “the Other.” In post-colonial studies, this concept of the Other specifies a sub-group called the “subaltern native” which has been specifically oppressed by colonizers.

Historically, the “subaltern” refers to a junior officer in the British army that is subordinate to their superiors. Antonio Gramsci redefined the word by writing it in context of cultural hegemony rather than military rank. His use of the word catapulted the “subaltern” into its current academic use. Spivak considers all the implications of this phrase and the history of the subaltern in India who were inherently outside of the hegemonic power structure that the colonizers created. This class of Indians could not actively stand in the way of British actions because of their compromising position. Due to this, she defines the subaltern as populations in colonized nations which do not have access to social, political, or geographic power.

In her critique of this perspective of the subaltern, she first introduces Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze’s notions of human consciousness and individual autonomy. These post-structuralist philosophers believe that no individual can possess true consciousness, or be a “sovereign subject,” because they are merely living on the outskirts of dozens of social hierarchies all at once. Foucault would claim we are all subjects of discourses of power which define our very existence.

Spivak finds irony in these perspectives because the philosophers themselves admit that there is an inherent consciousness within everyone that is tainted by this discourse. By acknowledging this original sovereignty, these intellectuals are actually restoring consciousness to the subjects. Additionally, they assume that academics like themselves can speak for marginalized groups by acting as a voice above the discourse which defines the subjects in the first place.

She questions this positioning of intellectuals as mediators of oppression for two reasons. First, she doesn’t believe that discourses can be truly obliterated by the writings of philosophers. More importantly, she thinks that viewing the Other as a single unit that must rise up against their oppressors forgoes the complexity of the situation. Spivak argues that the Other is, by definition, part of a relationship; therefore, there can be no pure, single Other.

Knowing this, she argues that the post-structuralist definition of the Other is inherently essentialist. Essentialism is the collective grouping of an oppressed group, as if they all share similar qualities and experiences that intellectuals can then write about. She argues for the alternative of “strategic essentialism” which suggests that there can be some benefit to a collective identity as long as it is temporary and has a positive influence on political or cultural change.

Furthermore, she believes that the practice of creating a collective speech for the Other establishes a cultural solidarity among the subaltern that can never truly exist. Every individual experiences colonization in a unique way and should not be defined by a cultural identity they only partially identify with. Additionally, this collective speech positions Euro-American intellectuals, who are predominantly men, to speak for non-Euro-Americans rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.

As an alternative to this intellectual position, she interacts with Sigmund Freud’s theory of scapegoating. He warns his readers of creating “saviors” and “scapegoats.” Spivak points out a common stereotype that “white men are saving brown women from brown men.” In this example, white men are saviors from brown men who are scapegoats. Alternatively, in post-colonial theory, brown men or women might be viewed as saviors from scapegoated white men.

She disagrees with both of these types of scapegoating and thinks that Freud is correct in warning people of looking for a relationship between saviors and scapegoats. These relationships not only fall into the essentialist trap again, but also ignore the fluid relationship between the subaltern and people in positions of power. She does not think that Freud is an answer for intellectuals seeking to write about the subaltern, but rather, he warns of another way of interpreting this relationship.

The final irony that she points out is that she herself, although a woman from a former colony, is not silent. The subaltern will never have the privilege she has to speak for herself as an intellectual. She concludes, then, that “the subaltern cannot speak.”

She is not referring to literal speech or the ability to write, but rather is commenting on the fact that the subaltern have never been viewed as a legitimate class or been given full representation through institutions, politics or society. Her final example in the essay is of a woman named Bhubaneswari Bhaduri who commits suicide. Most scholars misunderstand her death as an example of how Indian women have not been given a platform in Euro-American discourse, but Spivak argues that Indian discourse itself does not give a platform for the subaltern because of its colonial history. In this way, the subaltern are not merely an oppressed group of people; they are a distinct category of individuals who are marginalized by colonizers specifically, never able to speak for themselves.

Though her most famous work is post-colonial, she is widely considered a prominent feminist. She believes that “gendering is a bigger institution than anything in the world.” To her, policies and lawmaking are important but they are not the end of the feminist struggle. In fact, they are only the beginning, but we must first have a serious reconsideration of the entire concept of gendering to make lasting change.

Gayatri Spivak is likely to continue influencing feminist thought and the academic world at large. In her own words, “If I have any intellectual ambition anywhere, it’s this – can it be done?”

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