Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a name any student of postcolonial writing will often encounter. The Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English presents her as one of the three most important critics in this area. She is also well known for her translation of Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology. Overall, she has the reputation of being one of today's outstanding diasporic Bengali intellectuals.
But, as the editors of this selection of her essays observe, "in a certain way, Spivak's reception has been a curiously silent and oblique one". Donna Landry and Gerald Maclean go on to ask (rhetorically, one suspects): "Have her achievements seemed too formidable and complicated to be commented upon according to the usual forms?" The editors continually alert us to the sheer difficulty of reading Spivak while assuring us that her charismatic presence on the platform serves to allay any misgivings about so daunting an enterprise. Spivak herself confesses: "I write Bengali competently with the same sort of problem making myself clear as I have in English." Such a situation must surely prompt us to ask why an academic critic who uses language competently should have this problem when her readership consists, almost exclusively, of fellow academics?
In a footnote to one of these essays, Spivak remarks: "That the poststructuralists have developed a vocabulary that is on principle somewhat fluid, has offended three groups who have no interest in studying them carefully". Included in the first (and in Spivak's view, the least transgressive) group is the historian E. P. Thompson. To anyone who has read Thompson's "The poverty of theory", a 200-page closely reasoned defence of historical materialism against Althusser's charge that "the study of history is not only scientifically but also politically valueless", Spivak's judgement will seem a trifle harsh.
Many of the questions Thompson raises about the poststructuralist enterprise apply also to Derrida, Spivak's "deconstructivist" mentor. Thompson writes: "For what a philosopher, who has only a casual acquaintance with historical practice may glance at and then dismiss, with a ferocious scowl as empiricism, may in fact be the result of arduous confrontations pursued both in conceptual engagements, (the definition of appropriate questions, the elaboration of hypotheses and the exposure of ideological attributions in pre-existing historiography) and also in the interstices of historical method itself."
Following Thompson, we can question whether the deconstructivist's "on principle somewhat fluid vocabulary" eventually extends or inhibits critical enquiry? Does its ubiquitous impatience with empirical presentation disable the pursuit of knowledge or even political agency itself? Questions raised at this level of generality do not invite easy answers, but they do reflect the unease one experiences on reading The Spivak Reader.
Spivak is certainly one of the most persistent and energetic deconstructivists working in "postcolonial" studies. In speaking of postcoloniality we instinctively reach for knowing inverted commas and qualifying phrases with which to signify that we know that, even in the act of conceptualising "Third World" cultures, we are deploying the meanings produced from within the "First World" academy. This I take to be deconstruction, albeit operating at a very lethargic level.
An awareness of the global socioeconomic inequities that influence the cultural exchange between North and South, East and West, First and Third worlds leads us endlessly to problematise and rearrange nomenclature and euphemism. It is in this area that Spivak's interventions have been most numerous and influential. She characteristically mobilises insights drawn from Marxism, philosophy, psychoanalysis, feminism and Derridian deconstruction to build what she describes as "an alert pedagogy", always designed to question the conceptual basis on which one examines a particular text, but never adequately confronting the provenance of her own sources (Derrida, Marx and so on). For all Spivak's self-reflexiveness, the dichotomy between the "voiceless" subaltern ("First Nation" American, Indian tribals etc) and her own position as a tenured "First World" academic is only permitted to hover as a mildly troubling irritant. One senses in most of these essays a terrible unresolved disjuncture between the claims of political agency and the lure of salaried philosophical speculation.
Spivak's "raids on the inarticulate" are habitually launched in a periphrastic style, deploying arguments that turn back on themselves, sentences whose concluding phrases appear to disown their opening phrases and using a vocabulary that is invariably "somewhat fluid". In commenting on Spivak's essay "Subaltern studies", the historian Bill Schwarz notes the essay's "impossible mix of tangled abstraction and terrible prose". It appears virtually impossible to intervene in the essay's generalised stream of consciousness or to cite an individual passage without incurring the charge of decontextualisation, or without inviting the Prufrockian "That is not it at all, That is not what I meant at all".
Part of the editors' stated purpose in compiling The Spivak Reader is to introduce Spivak to a new and less specialised readership. How odd, therefore, their decision to include "Revolutions that as yet have no model: Derrida's 'Limited Inc.'", an essay of which the opacity must remain all but complete to any who have failed to read (and comprehend) Derrida's "Limited inc: abc", John Searle's "Reiterating the difference: a reply to Derrida" and Derrida's "Signature event context". The reward that beckons the diligent reader of Spivak's 30 pages of dense abstraction with its catena of references to names, texts and concepts drawn from low-circulation academic journals, is an ability to "call into question the complacent apathy of self-centralisation; undermine the bigoted elitism (theoretical or practical) conversely possible in collective practice; while disclosing in such gestures the condition of possibility of the positive". To reprint these words in a triumphantly self-centralising book replete with Festschrift-like editorial comment, large soft- focus portrait on its cover, two long obsequious interviews with the author is surely to lack a sense of the absurd. The editors' denials of "playing into the cult of personality" serve only to emphasise the fact that this is exactly what they have achieved.
The literary component of The Spivak Reader is surprisingly small when we consider her doctoral dissertation was on Yeats, that she has translated a leading Bengali writer, Mahasweta Devi, and that Spivak's influence is probably greatest among teachers and students of literature. The essay, "How to teach a culturally different book" illustrates her deconstructive method. It centres on R. K. Narayan's well-known novel, The Guide. Typically, the critic uncovers that which is "suppressed" by Narayan's text, namely Rosie/ Nalini's mother - who was a devadasi or temple dancer. This enables an extensive excursus into the exploitative patriarchal origins of the classical dance forms Bharata Natyam and Odissi, based on a plethora of historical and sociological texts. Virtually all we learn about Narayan's novel is its failure to address these issues. Thus the literary text becomes the mere "occasion" for a display of Spivak's theoretical virtuosity.
She prefaces her deconstruction with a very brief tour d'horizon of Indo-Anglian writing. It is a disgracefully inaccurate and misleading account, which, had it been written by an "establishment" literary critic, would (rightly) have been greeted with outpourings of postcolonial rage. The editors themselves are responsible for the fiction that The Guide was published in 1980 rather than in 1958, but Spivak herself seems to think that G. V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr (1948) was published in 1986. Misspellings of proper names include Raha for Raja Rao and Markandeya for Markandaya. We are told that "writers like R. K. Narayan (Nayantara Sahgal, Kamala Markandeya, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, Mulk Raj Anand, Raha Rao et al) predate [the] hyperreal scramble for identity on the move". The extreme syntactical compression of this sentence deters inquiry but if it means what I think it does, I would wish to except Kamala Markandaya's The Nowhere Man and Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope.
In the next manoeuvre, Spivak transforms this random assemblage of dissimilar novelists into a "group" about which she can conveniently generalise. This "group . . . started publishing well before Indian Independence in 1947" we are informed - but not very reliably, since Sahgal, Markandaya and Jhabwala were all first published in the 1950s. But the real point behind the formation of the "group" is that they can be collectively admonished for their failure to "deal with the problem of racism and exploitation" and for their preferred use of "religion as a cultural allegory . . . to produce an immediately accessible 'other' ". If by "dealing" with the problem of racism and exploitation, Spivak means writing about it, how can she have failed to have noticed the prominence given to these issues in Raja Rao's Kanthapura, or virtually all of Anand's novels, from Untouchable onwards? Where is "religion as a cultural allegory" to be found in Sahgal or Anand?
Of course, even to raise such questions is to place oneself in an elitist, even reactionary position, for is it not the case that only a relatively few have the unfair privilege of access to the novels themselves? Is not the important point to grasp that Indo-Anglian writers are elitist by virtue of their hyphenated status? Have they not linguistically disowned their own authentic cultural filiation to win "First World" celebrity? From which it naturally follows that their writing will avoid disturbing questions of racism and exploitation. To all of this Spivak would probably respond "that is not it at all". At other points in this collection, it is true, she disavows essentialist notions of "authenticity" or "nativism", but it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that such notions are used to support the line of argument discernible in "How to teach a culturally different book".
One senses that Spivak's academic itinerary (a favourite word) has taken her far from the "literary criticism establishment" in which it began. In "Feminism and critical theory" (1985), she deconstructs Margaret Drabble's novel, The Waterfall, only to break off abruptly from her self-appointed task with the following observation: "It is no doubt useful to decipher women's fiction in this way for feminist students and colleagues in American academia. I am less patient with literary texts today, even those produced by women." She then abruptly switches to telling us about the predicament of women factory workers in South Korea. While appreciating the juxtaposition, it is hard to imagine why, on this scale of values, we should concern ourselves with Drabble in the first place.
It seems that Spivak has reached the reductio ad absurdum of the whole theoretical foundation on which her career has been based. As she explains in one of the book's many extraordinarily self-revealing passages: "What I look for rather is a confrontational teaching of the humanities that would question the students' received disciplinary ideology (model of legitimate cultural explanations) even as it pushed into indefinativeness the most powerful ideology of the teaching of the humanities: the unquestioned explicating power of the theorising mind and class, the need for intelligibility and the rule of law."
What we might have taken to be an academic practice that sets out to dismantle the hegemonic structures broadly inherited from postenlightenment humanism, now displaces itself, denies the "theorising mind" and becomes quite simply unintelligible, leaving us with only "a tedious argument of insidious intent" and condemning us to an eternity of asking the same questions and forever receiving the same predictable answers. It is small wonder that E. P. Thompson, having sampled the limits of poststructural thought, should have wandered off to do more interesting things.
The proof-reading of this book is as wretched as its contents and in my copy it is necessary to read the closing section of the Arteaga interview in the following order: pages 21-25, 25-22, 23-24, 26-. But this may be a poststructuralist joke.
Ronald Warwick was for many years literature officer, the Commonwealth Institute, and now teaches postcolonial literature at Brunel University College.
The Spivak Reader: Selected Works of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Editor - Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean
ISBN - 0 415 910 005 and 013
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 334