Muffling the voice of the Other

A Critique of Postcolonial Reason

August 6, 1999

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the grand-daughter of a landowner, was born and raised in India and is now the Avalon Foundation professor in the humanities at Columbia University. She describes herself as a "metropolitan feminist" who is part of an "academic diaspora".

Not being a specialist in either of the fields in which Spivak has distinguished herself - feminism and post-colonialism - my experience of her work, until I read this book, was confined to her preface to her translation of Jacques Derrida's influential Of Grammatology. Her debt to Derrida, particularly his conception of deconstruction, is evident throughout A Critique of Post-colonial Reason .

In an appendix to the book, Spivak identifies two phases of deconstruction. The first focuses on how ideas are defined in terms of their opposites. The problem with this is that one term is always privileged over another. According to Spivak, the initial differentiation of the privileged term from its Other is subsequently reinforced by deferring any consideration of the second term.

Derrida coined the word différance to describe this dual process of differing and deferring. Purists might want to take issue with Spivak's glossing of what Derrida means by differance, especially her understanding of deferral, which Derrida sees as a temporisation - the unfolding of meaning through time - rather than, in Spivak's words, a "pushing away". However, since differance is "neither a word nor a concept" it is impossible to be precise about the meaning of a term whose value is, in any case, primarily "strategic". Certainly it appears useful to feminists and post-colonialists since it provides a tool for exposing how women and ethnic groups have suffered discrimination and persecution by being defined negatively in relation to white European males. The second phase of deconstruction is less concerned with the formal problems of definitions than with establishing an affirmative relation with "the wholly other".

Both stages have their problems. Derrida's early work on deconstruction is heavily involved with Heidegger's notion of being and so carries traces of a repellent racial philosophy. Similarly, the appeal to the Other can result, paradoxically, in the erasure of what is distinctly different about him or her. Spivak is particularly dismissive of this manoeuvre, which she sees as a characteristic gesture of present-day post-colonial studies, in which deconstruction has been simplified to the point where it has become an uncritical celebration of the Other. In its place she advocates a more informed understanding of deconstruction, which will prevent us from descending into an either/

or position in our encounter with the representations of other cultures. To this end she argues that deconstruction is always to some extent complicit with the order it challenges and, as a result, it can only ever displace oppositions, never replace them.

This conception of deconstruction is not always evident in Spivak's reading of philosophy, fiction, historical archives and "culture". She begins with Kant, arguing that his notion of the sublime, whereby reason resolves the raw and terrifying experience of nature into knowable laws, is predicated on an assumed distinction between "civilised" and "primitive": only the former is able to effect this transformation. Spivak's case turns, in typical deconstructive fashion, on a stray remark Kant makes regarding the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego who, unlike Europeans, cannot understand the complex relations between "man's" cognitive, ethical and affective faculties, a true appreciation of which reveals that "man" is a moral rather than a desiring being.

Having established that European philosophy hinges on casual comparison in Kant, Spivak then turns her attention to Hegel's conception of art as a stage in the spirit's journey to self-knowledge. The arts of Persia, India and Egypt are relegated to a minor role in this quest, but Spivak shows, in her reading of the Bhagavad Gita , that such art contains, in miniature, the trajectory described by Hegel. Spivak's point is less to show affinities between western and eastern art than to show that the latter is a means of manipulating history in the interests of certain castes, which will later facilitate a relation with British imperialism.

In the next section, Spivak concentrates on the role of literature in the exclusion of the Other. She begins by chastising feminists who praise the incipient feminism of writers such as Charlotte Bronte, since by doing so they endorse the imperialist element in novels such as Jane Eyre . The Jamaican wife of Mr Rochester, Bertha Mason, must die "so Jane can become the feminist, individualist heroine of British fiction". Spivak's analysis of Frankenstein is that the novel is only able to imagine the Other as monster but, in a neat twist, she shows that this monstrosity challenges our conventional categories of representation. By the time she gets to Baudelaire's poem "Le Cygne", Spivak shows how the presence of the Other, in this case an unnamed negress, acts as the means by which signification is enabled. Attending carefully to those who are silenced shows them to be the very condition of speech. It is through such readings that we may begin to hear the Other's voice. Spivak insists on the strangeness of this voice to prevent it being recuperated into the same.

Spivak then considers what was repressed in the British construction of India. What became known as India, she argues, was the result of the perceptions of soldiers, administrators and officials of the East India Company. The diversity of sources that composed the representation of India means that the country cannot be seen in any essentialist way, though that is how some post-colonialists are tempted to view it.

Moreover, this representation is rendered opaque by what it occludes. One such occlusion is the fate of the rani of Sirmur, a widow of the raja of that region who was deposed by the British in the 19th century. Her intention to become a sati - immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre - provoked a crisis since she was needed to ensure the stability of the British presence in the province. The significance of the episode for Spivak is that it makes visible the "native informant", but it also shows the opposing pressures brought to bear on women in colonised countries: on the one hand they had to conform to patriarchal traditions, on the other they had to be a force for modernisation. Between these two extremes they disappear from history, like the rani whose name we do not know.

Spivak's consideration of sati brings her to the question of culture. Her argument, in brief, is that the British abolition of the practice of widow burning in 1829 was an instance of the standard justification of imperialism, namely that it replaced barbarism with civilisation for which "the natives" would be ultimately grateful. Spivak's interest, however, is in how sati , wrongly transcribed by the British as suttee , offered women a choice that was elsewhere denied them. It was, she argues, a form of empowerment for a widow to choose to burn herself to death. My objection to this, apart from its grotesque logic, is that Spivak is doing the very thing she accuses post-colonialists of doing, that is, speaking for the Other rather than allowing them to speak for, in this case, herself. Spivak is similarly equivocal on the issue of child labour, since to outlaw it is to deprive the children and parents of part or even the whole of their livelihood.

There is a lot I agree with in this book, particularly Spivak's restoration of the economic as an indispensable factor in the analysis of culture and her remarks about the conservative nature of "high theory". Where I part company is over her attachment to deconstruction. While I do not deny it can be a powerful critique, it is also another example of how the experience of the colonised has to submit to the conceptual authority of the West. Spivak's deference to Derrida makes even her own brand of deconstruction relentlessly Eurocentric, a fact that emerges starkly in her encounter with the inhabitants of Sirmur, whom she describes as "ordinary rural folk" - by the standards of a metropolitan feminist, presumably.

Spivak's perception of people is the opposite of her analysis of texts, where her idiom is uncompromisingly theoretical. Here she is on Kant: "This access to the rational will is structured like the programmed supplementation of a structurally necessary lack." And she gets carried away when discussing her colleagues' dress sense: "The informed goodwill of the well-dressed radical sutures the asymptote in an aporetic crossing, an impossible chiasmus."

The mismatch between academic and conventional expression means Spivak is unable to convey any real sense of the experiences about which she theorises. Her book dwindles in comparison with E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963), for example. Both may "seek to rescue from the enormous condescension of posterity", but it is Thompson who allows the voice of the Other to come through. Spivak, for all her virtues, muffles it with theory.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of a Vanishing Present

Author - Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
ISBN - 0 674 17763 0 and 17764 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £30.95 and £15.50
Pages - 449

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