Deconstructing Gayatri

July 30, 1999

Can Gayatri Spivak's 'pretentiously opaque' writing make a difference in the real world? Jennifer Wallace talks to an academic who has eaten mice and snakes in rural India

It is High Noon this summer in the academic world of literary and cultural theory. The big thinkers of our day are battling it out in the pages of the London Review of Books. Each week produces another ideological gunshot from one side or the other in the periodical's letters page. The direction of postcolonialism and literary criticism and even the very status of theory itself are at stake.

The dispute was sparked by a recent LRB review by Terry Eagleton of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, the latest book by the postcolonial critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In a searing attack, Eagleton, professor of English literature at the University of Oxford, condemned Spivak for exhibiting all the traits of postcolonial or postmodern writing that he hates most. She writes in a "pretentiously opaque" way with little sensitivity for her struggling readers. She leaps from topic to topic in a bewildering eclecticism. "As feminist, deconstructionist, post-Marxist and postcolonialist together, Spivak seems reluctant to be left out of any theoretical game in town," Eagleton quipped.

But what most animated Eagleton, a self-confessed Marxist, was the thought that Spivak was abandoning politics, that for her, representation of the "other" and working out "one's subject position" were more important than the activist struggle of universal socialism.

"Like most US feminism, postcolonialism is a way of being politically radical without being necessarily anti-capitalist and so is a peculiarly hospitable form of leftism for a 'postpolitical' world," Eagleton wrote. "Spivak is more audacious about epistemology than she is about social reconstruction."

The article was music to the ears of some academics who have long felt that literary theory is too abstract and unrelated to the politics of the real world and who have been bamboozled by the number of trendy books published with "race", "class" or "gender" in the title. But it also inflamed supporters of modern theory, who felt that Eagleton was over-simplifying and old-fashioned and who rushed to defend Spivak. Judith Butler, American professor of rhetoric and author of Gender Trouble, is one of Spivak's backers. "Spivak's book gives us the political landscape of culture in its obscurity and proximity, staying, temporarily, the death of thought Eagleton prescribes and taking the kind of risks that make her so provocative and indisputably important," Butler declares.

But what does Spivak think of this debate? No stranger to controversy since she introduced the writings of French thinker Jacques Derrida to the United States in 1976 with a translation of Of Grammatology, has she had any moments of doubt since Eagleton's attack? We met in Spivak's cramped office in Columbia University, New York. Piled high on every available surface with books from a vast range of subjects, from literary criticism to economics, Spivak's working environment is a concrete image of her writing. And in the middle of the mess, Spivak, tall, elegant, pretty, sits at her computer firing off emails.

"Eagleton's model is an older notion of socialist politics," she says, defiantly. "My politics are only directionless to the extent that global capitalism is directionless. In this situation, when there is a constantly active and impersonal loop of finance capital, the only way resistance operates is through critique on small fronts that are immediately global. You have constantly to foil the localised efforts - patenting of DNA, population control, pharmaceutical dumping etc."

A Critique of Postcolonial Reason ranges widely, from an analysis of the philosophy of Kant, Hegel and Marx, through a reading of the novels of Mary Shelley, Jean Rhys and the Indian radical feminist Mahasweta Devi, to a discussion of the economics of child labour in Bangladesh. What Spivak tries to show is that these apparently disparate subjects are all related, that a literary imagination is crucial for activist politics and vice versa. A book like Shelley's Frankenstein can teach this. "Politics is other people, not just me, me, me. In Frankenstein, the monster marks the place of otherness, so that it is not turned into my kind. A literary reading can teach students to exercise their imagination, as one exercises one's body, into these roots of ethical behaviour." When Spivak engages in her activist work - advising the gender and development division of the World Bank, for example - she tries to keep in mind what she has learned in her academic study.

It is difficult sometimes to understand how the different areas of Spivak's intellectual range relate. What is the difference between colonialism and postcolonialism, for example? "Colonial studies looked at the way in which territorial imperialisms, by establishing systems of education, produced ways of thinking in the people who were colonised. Postcolonialism or globalisation studies looks at how our thinking is conditioned by the fact that our world is now electronically connected and governed by transnational organisations such as the World Bank and the United Nations," she explains. Sensitive to the way in which colonialism produced powerful stereotypes of the people it colonised, the postcolonialist critic is continually attentive to the way anyone is characterised, aware that fixed definitions can produce distorting blind spots, which carry a cost in the real world.

And how does Spivak reconcile deconstruction (the philosophy of Derrida, which rejects the notion of transcendent truth) and Marxism, which foresees and advocates a positive political utopia? "Deconstruction continues to show me the limits of the power of the individual. It also shows ways of thinking outside the European context that were discredited when capitalism became the most powerful imperialist force.

"Marx was an intellectual of the European enlightenment; the working class will use reason. That is not enough. What Marx needs is a robust idea of responsibility, otherwise there is no reason why the person in the socialist polity would want to give something up without state coercion. The Marxist project needs something that can come from ideas that lost out because they were defective for capitalism. Deconstruction allows me to go in that direction."

Spivak is more apologetic in her response to Eagleton's criticism of her language as pretentious and opaque. He quotes her out of context, she says, and adds that to simplify language is often to simplify thought. The popular conception of Marx, for example, reduces and distorts the complexity of his ideas in Das Kapital. "I do not think there should be a rule against writing a learned book," she says. "An academic intellectual should not just abdicate and not do the kind of work he or she is supposed to be doing."

But while Spivak defends herself against Eagleton's criticisms, she does not make her case as strongly as she might. While, as Avalon professor in the humanities, she is frighteningly clever and formidable, she is also disarmingly modest and unsure. For one thing, her new book criticises postcolonialism for losing its radical edge, although she does not quite come out and say so. Her argument is that academics produce articles about being "open to the Other" without seriously considering the practical implications. "Many years ago, Raymond Williams pointed out that the dominant appropriates the emergent," she observes. "In globalisation, multicultural enthusiasms can be extremely powerful for a new type of colonial production. We must look out for this."

Moreover, unlike many postcolonial critics, Spivak has first-hand experience of living and working both in the third world and in the first. Born in Calcutta in 1942, she took her first degree there in English at Presidency College and then moved to the US to write a doctorate on W. B. Yeats. Within a year, she married an American and acquired his surname, Spivak (they later divorced). Besides Eagleton, some of Spivak's main critics are Indians. Last year, Chicago-based Dipesh Chakrabarty attacked her in Public Culture for being inauthentic. But Spivak's first language is Bengali and she lectures and publishes in India as well as in the US.

"I am critical of the Indian middle class," Spivak explains. "I do not think that just being in India is a union ticket to authenticity. People there are more mortgaged to global capitalism than I am."

But the best riposte to Eagleton is the one that Spivak is most reluctant to talk about. Each summer, she abandons everything and goes off to the most inaccessible parts of India, helping to train people to teach reading and writing and living on whatever is available to eat, be it mice or snakes. While others, including Eagleton, might be content to debate the relationship between theory and politics in London magazines, she gets quietly stuck into activism on the ground.

But she does not want to make any metaphorical capital out of this. Back in her office, she sets out her task in characteristically elusive and poetic terms. "Intellectual work is like a garden; it is not a wilderness. Unless some of us keep sweeping our house, dust builds. I am not a revolutionary. I am just someone who cleans the house of radical intellectual production from within."

Jennifer Wallace is lecturer in English, University of Cambridge.

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