Friday, 12 October 2012

Excerpts from Professor Spivak's Plenary

Professor Gayatri Spivak giving the plenary
Questioning Identity
[Speech transcripted by this blogger]

Let me say two things which are really about me but not really good for academics. I was the first and only woman of colour to have been offered the University Professorship in its 258 years of history. I would like to emphasise here on the depravitude of a world-class university that it could find only one of us in so many years, and I am also the first Indian to be offered the Kyoto Prize. I want to make a case to the prize-giving organizations in the United States that, among the many who have received from the US, only Gayatri Spivak in India could be able to receive this prize. Now, that is incorrect. 

I begin with the understanding that the ethical is the unconditional call of all 'others’ and the democratic is a politics based on training in judgment. Education and democratic habits of mind, relate most importantly to primary education of the children of the largest sector of the electorate, which in the case of our country is the millions of children of the landless electorate.

The call of ‘the others’ asks the ethical subject to resist identity. Identity is not going to go away. We can be very sure about it. We can’t resist it because it is very strong. I love my identity because I am very firmly placed in Bengali. 

In 2000, When the University of Toronto was about to shut down its Comparative Literature program, I went to talk to the President and it got a lot of publicity on the internet also. I told him that it was “health care for a culture”. You can never think of doing moral metrics by indulging in knowledge management tecniques! The true aim of the Humanities is to train the soul! And yes! you've got to do it slow! Not fast!

What then constitutes a healthy culture?  The condition and... [couldnt follow Ms. Spivak here - sorry about it]… It’s a culture, not a philanthropy. It means, to suspend the interest of the self in the interest of the other. This morning, my old friend tells me, “they have to be told”. 

This is the exercise given to the imagination, where literary reading is taught in a robust way. And this cuts across schools of criticism and so, you need not be a structuralist to do it this way. As some of you might know, the great divide in literary criticism came to the United States in the critic Rene Wellek at the start of the II World War. This was the big divide in literary criticism in the United States. In college, we were given a good foregrounding in texts and in criticism. We were taught the historical approach, and when we did that, we were able to construct the original vision of the author. Later on, our imaginations were being trained to suspend our imaginations in the interest of the other. 

A healthy culture then is produced by the training of the imagination by the humanities. We should thus be taught to get into a text by suspending our interests. Here, we are talking about the institution. I have actively looked for a distracted theory of the double bind. In literary criticism, when you set out to look for something, you find it. Following this rule, I now feel that a double bind is rather more than the suggestion that having found it, you can play with it. The humanities should somehow learn to serve the double binds. 

Servants and women have been taught to fit into these coercive gender structures. This morning I chided a girl for bringing me a chair to sit on. That, I feel is coercive gender behavior. Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there. 

Looking homeward, I reminisce on my first professional presentation at an institution of tertiary education in India. The double bind here is between caste and class, necessarily also understood as race and class. There are certain contradictions here between the preserved performatives of indegeity and civilisationism which cannot even enter into the security of a double bind. 

Comparative literature perceived from a field of desires, that thinks of globalization, that thinks of the experiences shared by the first language learners among the overwhelming majority of infants, …

Rethinking Comparative Literature is a chapter in my next book: I am going to read out some passages from that book:

Comparative Literature at its best tries to learn language the child’s way – the impossible way, suspending its own self interests in the process. By so doing, it enlarges the scope and range of ethical practice. A model for this can also be found in global English. As a result of widespread colonialism in the 19th century, English became the lingua franca of a certain class in many countries of the world. When the descendants of this class write literary works in English, we have got ourselves an English literature. 

The abstract structures of the state serving and controlling the interests of the state are dependent upon a will to social justice and that’s where the humanities come in.

But we trivialize the humanities. Humanities is health care for social justice. In 1992, after the lifting of apartheid, I was invited to speak in Africa. I said that, tertiary education should be made to relate to primary education. The roots of ethical cleansing are laid in childhood education. It’s like writing on wet cement. 

So democracy for the sub-altern is yet another premise. But, again, democracy for the sub-altern is a fearful thing for the elite. Children’s habits are very pliable. We, on the other hand, are inculcating contradictory instructions into them. Students should be able to have pleasure in their school work. They should not be made obedient. 

I find the best model for democracy in Indian classical music: creative freedom with self-chosen structural roots. To create classical music you should be highly trained. 

The global always tramples on the local priorities. Ethnicity, identity and literature call for a dialogue – the implicit interlocutor is clearly behind the stage. But why is the implicit interlocutor invariably the US or Europe? Why has this enlightenment model of parliamentary democracy become the master-model for rejection of Diasporic work? Why has the imperative to imagine the other responsibly lifted? Today I locate the double bind as the uselessness of the human mind and the push to be useful – between planetarity and worldliness.

Ethnicity is a politically correct version of race. 

Many words belonging to Christianity were pressed into literature. With the advent of imperialism, the words became scientific. [to be contd...]


  1. Great Rufus Sir. Here I was thinking of transcribing and you have it ready-made here.
    You were a wonderful part of our sojourn in Assam.

    Joy always,

  2. thank you Susan :-)
    I really enjoyed every moment of my stay there, thanks to you and Ray, it was memorable, by all means.
    n am sure you owe us a little bit of an explanation on the orissa connections lol :-)