An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization

A reminder of pedagogy's power to reach beyond the logic of capital enthuses Shahidha Bari

April 5, 2012

For the many teachers engaged in the business of higher education who find themselves struggling through a wearying semester, shuffling transcripts on trains and juggling admin with assessments, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's latest collection of essays offers a timely reminder of what the real and powerful ends of education might be beyond such banalities. The 25 essays gathered in this not insignificantly weighty book span a period of 23 years and cover the breadth of an extraordinary intellectual career. Of all the labels one might seek to attach to Spivak - literary scholar, continental philosopher, translator, post-colonial critic, Marxist thinker, feminist activist - the one that she most readily reaches for in this book is "teacher".

The book's title sets out the high stakes of its project: the shoring up of the place of the arts and humanities in the face of the challenges posed by global capital. And if this high ambition often finds expression in the form of Spivak's characteristically difficult and dense prose, it is also married to moments of unusual candour. There's a willingness in the book to discuss the practice of pedagogy (as Spivak does it), and the accounts of her teaching of language and literature in rural India are affecting and persuasive. More persuasive still are the small and simple statements of intent offered periodically in the essays, often noted in retrospective edits, asserted with incontestable sureness: "I feel that as a literary intellectual, I am here to use my imagination ..." The essays, for all their diversity, have the quality of a cumulative, long retrospection, a slow-burning consideration of what it means to teach, how faultily we do it and how we might do better by those who most want to learn and have least opportunity.

The title of the collection, of course, invokes Friedrich Schiller's 1794 series of letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man, and Spivak's meditations on public education, culture and pedagogy are clearly keyed into that German Romantic and idealist conception of art as an instrument for the moral enlightenment of a mass public in a post-revolutionary age. It is Schiller who sees in the arts the possibility of cultivating the kind of judgement, empathy and sociability that could make for sympathetic moral and political unity. But if Schiller remains only a cursory presence here, it is because Spivak's tenacious sense of the inequality of contemporary global life and the failures of a leftist, Marxist response cannot sit so easily with such idealism. What Schiller imagines as the happy "play" of the ethical and the aesthetic forms for Spivak a "double bind" or an irreconcilable dilemma.

It is, though, Spivak's assertion, after Schiller, that an aesthetic education remains the strongest resource available for the cause of global justice and democracy. The homogenising and pacifying effects of globalisation, which Spivak so routinely lambasts, here, she argues, can never extend "to the sensory equipment of the experiencing being". And here she has never sounded more persuasive, identifying in arts education the evocation of a phenomenology of feeling and the engendering of critical thinking that are posited beyond the logic of capital.

The old preoccupations are here, too - the collection includes essays revisiting how to hear the subaltern speak, returning to the question of the impossibility of just translation, and rewardingly renewing old conversations about Karl Marx, J.M. Coetzee and Rabindranath Tagore. Alongside the familiar Spivak of old is a contemporary Spivak who offers a pressing sense of an ongoing dilemma that has only grown increasingly urgent and which she cannot quite resolve even as she articulates it: the double bind that marks the difference between the writing of books to be published for the academy and the teaching of a global citizenry who take their learning beyond the classroom. The abstraction of philosophy is always, for Spivak, as pragmatic an activity as protesting the intellectual property rights of the indigenous, but it is only in thinking about the idea of teaching itself that one reconciles that which has its "place in an essay prepared for the impatience of publisher's deadlines" and that which takes "its place outside my classroom here". For Spivak, ethics has never been found in knowledge, but formed through relationships, since "to be born human is to be born angled toward an other and others". And, lest we forget, teaching remains a space in which we might address one another, carefully, uncoercively and with every hope of understanding.

An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization

By Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Harvard University Press, 624pp, £25.95

ISBN 9780674051836

Published 24 February 2012

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