A clear riposte to her critics and enemies

December 19, 2003

As the Modern Language Association prepares for its annual convention in San Diego, December -30, The THES looks at key themes and contributors

Stung by the attacks on her notoriously difficult writing style, Gayatri Spivak (pictured) decided to learn from her attackers and to strive for clarity. The result, says John Higgins, is undiminished intellectual depth made accessible

Didn't you think Death of a Discipline was written in cleaner prose?" asks Gayatri Spivak, as we discuss her new book over a slightly garbled telephone line between Cape Town and New York. I agree, curious to find out why and how that change in style - like a shift to a smoother intellectual gearing - had occurred.

For Spivak's various writings - including In Other Worlds (1987), Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993) and A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999) - have been the topic of much, often heated, dispute in the halls of academe. Indeed, of all the academics likely to figure on any cool graduate student's list of must-reads - Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, the late Edward Said, Slavoj  Zizek, Judith Butler - Spivak is, perhaps, the most controversial in terms of style, expression and readability. While some praise Spivak for the intensity and commitment of her thinking, others condemn her writing as the epitome of postmodern jargon, a great deal of sound and fury, but signifying nothing much.

At the core of the new book is an impassioned plea for the relevance of the humanities in a political and intellectual climate largely inimical to them. In conversation, Spivak, a key speaker at this year's Modern Language Association convention, is urgent and forthright about the "trivialisation of the humanities" evident in most higher education policy attitudes and in broader currents of public opinion. This negative attitude is due largely, she suggests, to the fact that "the humanities don't really lead to economic growth immediately, and they don't show ascertainable results immediately. It's just as vulgar as that."

It is in this general context that Death of a Discipline strikingly announces itself as "the last gasp of a dying discipline". She is speaking specifically about comparative literature, but her comments embrace literary studies as a whole. For all the energy of its particular arguments and engagements, the book as a whole is pervaded by a deep sense of melancholy at the prospect of losing the social and political insights that the skills of literary analysis alone can provide. "We have forgotten how to read with care," she suggests; and the book argues a powerful counter-case for the renewal of comparative literary studies through an alignment with the social sciences, which, she says, have tended to ignore literature almost entirely.

Spivak argues that in the media and politics the demand is for "immediate comprehensibility" rather than true clarity, and she cites the fact that in the aftermath of the US war in Iraq it was never going to be easy for the 101st Airborne Division to just "present themselves to Iraqis as friends and not as enemies".

Against this culture of almost wilful ignorance, she stresses the need for the precise, detailed attentiveness to the reality of the other that literature can yield, one where the reader makes the imaginative effort necessary to see the other's point of view rather than adopting the stance of the so-called objective (but usually western) observer, whose whole attitude contains and conveys an automatic assumption of dominance and superiority. So it is that Death of a Discipline calls for "an inclusive comparative literature", one "whose hallmark remains a care for language and idiom".

In much of this, Spivak sounds - somewhat against the grain of orthodox expectation - very much like a traditional humanist scholar. Her new study emphasises the possibilities of imaginative and ethical identification with the other that can come through careful reading with just as much force as an F. R. Leavis; it insists on the importance of reading with all the skill, care, ingenuity, attention and preparation that is possible, with all the insistence of a Frank Kermode.

Where then lies the difference in Spivak's writing that can generate the kind of controversy that tends to accompany her? Responses to this question are likely to be divided sharply between critics and advocates, with each side focusing, with very different emphases, on the question of style.

Contra Spivak, the main complaint is that, for all the claims to depth of thinking and analysis, the difficulty of her writing - in describing "the proper study of literature", for example, she says it "may give us entry to the performativity of cultures" - merely testifies to haste in expression and articulation. The first impression is the correct one, and that is less of achieved composition than of someone thinking aloud. In this perspective, her writing resembles a kind of shorthand in which thoughts are referred to rather than fully articulated; it does not enable the arrest of thought that more careful prose can achieve.

Pro Spivak, the emphasis falls on the difficulty of style as a conscious alienation, deliberately achieved. It is her way of responding to the challenge of received ideas in a society where thought itself is commodified. The paradox is then Flaubert's paradox: that of someone trying to challenge received ideas when there can, by definition, be no shared vocabulary to challenge them with. The writer is then driven to tactics of frequent neologism (as with Derrida), the straining of syntax (as in Tom Raworth's poetry of defamiliarisation), or deliberate obscurity (as in Adorno's negative dialectics).

I ask what she makes of attacks on her style of writing and expression, and how these have affected her book. "One should learn from one's enemies," she responds. "It seems to me that the objections that were made to my obtuse and turgid style were not made in good faith." But she soon moves on from this initial and unsurprisingly defensive posture. Simply rejecting the accusations, and "showing up how meretricious they are" would have meant she'd "learnt nothing from them". Instead, and more interestingly, she "took the objections seriously" and accepted the offer of friend and admirer Henry Staten to "make my prose more reader-friendly" by acting as her first reader (he is duly credited in Death of a Discipline ).

This led to a reworking at the surface, but one that left the depth of thinking intact and, she found, just as challenging as before. "Henry said that my writing had become 'mysterious in ways that are not tied to the difficulty of the prose'," she says, finding that, in the end, "so-called simplicity of vocabulary does not assure the possibility of being understood easily". At the same time, accepting and internalising some of the criticisms meant losing some intellectual insecurity: "I began to accept my shortcomings, and accept to work within them."

"I am a generalist," she continues, "not a specialist, so I don't have the kind of profound scholarship that you find in good specialists. But I began to find that this was a strength rather than a weakness."

John Higgins is professor of English and a fellow of the University of Cape Town. Death of a Discipline is published by Columbia University Press, £12.90.

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