Key Theories of Gayatri Spivak

A focus on Gayatri Spivak’s education and intellectual trajectory reveals a lifelong commitment to literary-critical studies alongside genuine political engagement. Spivak was born in Calcutta, India in 1942; she later attended Presidency College at the University of Calcutta. After graduating in English in 1959 she spent two more years in Calcutta as a graduate student, before moving to the US to complete her MA and Ph.D. in comparative literature at Cornell University, with the supervision of Paul de Man. Her first book was based on her doctoral thesis on W.B. Yeats’ poetry, a study that as noted appears in retrospect quite different from her later postcolonial research, but which adopts a critical stance of English rule in Ireland. Thus, even though in this biographical and critical book Spivak takes a quite descriptive approach to Yeats, she is already engaging with the effects of colonization and the imposition of alien values upon indigenous cultures.

The highly theoretical approach to postcolonial studies taken by Spivak can be traced to her second major publication, her translation in 1976 of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (originally published in French, 1967), which includes a substantial introduction or preface to Derrida’s work. This preface maps Spivak’s interest in Derrida and deconstruction, especially the concept of ‘writing under erasure’, that is to say, crossing out an ‘inaccurate’ or problematic word, but allowing it to remain readable because it is still needed to make sense of a particular system of thought (‘writing under erasure’ is linked below to Spivak’s use of the Lacanian term ‘foreclosure’). The preface is also a substantial self-contained essay on Derrida, the essay form being deliberately chosen as one that is both provisional and a potential simulacrum of the book that follows (leading Spivak to theorize, after Derrida, that the book form itself may be nothing but a simulacrum, rather than a stable originary point of meaning). Spivak adopts and substantially adapts the critical essay form with much of her initial postcolonial research, bringing deconstruction and postcolonial theory into conjunction, her first major set of essays being collected as the book In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987).

Why does Spivak use the critical essay as a strategic tool? One answer is that she continually attempts to resist the essentialist positioning of Third World subjects; in her work on Feminism, Marxism and Subaltern Studies, for example, Spivak is careful to articulate the perspective from which she writes in relation to the subjects she writes about. The Subaltern Studies historians in India addressed this primary question of subjectivity, arguing that colonial socio-political hierarchies are reproduced in the postcolonial era, and that subaltern subjects – those non-elite peoples denied access to power – had no genuine non-distorting representation or self-expressed voice. The recovery of subaltern voices is thus one of the primary aims of these historians. In ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ (1988) Spivak critiques the essentialist underpinnings of Subaltern Studies, where the marginalized subaltern subject is always defined via his or her difference from the elites. Spivak asserts that the subaltern subject is heterogeneous and, by examining the mechanisms of the supposed ‘recovery’ of their voice, instead an ongoing displacement and effacement is revealed.

The key subject position disentangled by Spivak is that of the female subaltern and the practice of sati or widow immolation. In sati the widow is burnt to death on her husband’s funeral pyre: she is defined solely through the identity of her husband, and is therefore considered to have no identity worth continuing after his death. Furthermore, two competing interpretive narratives intersect here, leading to what Spivak calls a ‘double displacement’: the Indian patriarchal customs in which the practice of sati is embedded, and British colonial law (i.e. law made in the absence of any Indian women) during the period of colonial rule. In both interpretive narratives, gender is constructed via fundamentally patriarchal law. Loomba argues that Spivak’s analysis needs to be supplemented ‘by concentrating not just on the widow who died but also on some of those widows who survived to tell the tale’. In her wider argument, Spivak points to an aporia or unresolvable contradiction in the process of analysing the subaltern subject: postcolonial critical discourse may, in itself, lead to an essentialist displacement of Third World women, while at the same time, it is still necessary to continue with the analysis of colonial oppression of the subaltern. This means that ‘interpretative violence’ is a necessity that can lead to a strategic methodology (i.e. one that produces results from what appears to be a problematic approach), even if all the critic produces are ‘necessary fictions’. There are other strategies that Spivak adopts in relation to this central essay: she has also translated short stories by the Bengali author Mahasweta Devi, and writes about her in ‘A Literary Representation of the Subaltern: A Woman’s Text from the Third World’ (see section three of In Other Worlds). Further translations by Spivak of Devi’s work are published as Imaginary Maps: Three Stories by Mahasweta Devi (1995). Close attention to feminist analyses of Third World women also contributes to Spivak’s strategic mode of writing. A key essay, originally published in 1981, is ‘French Feminism in an International Frame’ where Spivak attacks Kristeva’s portrayal from a Western perspective of Chinese women (see Kristeva’s About Chinese Women, 1977). At stake is the way in which a universal definition of the female subject is constructed via a Western Orientalist vision of the Other, in this case, Kristeva’s vision of the Chinese, and also the need for a recognition of the cultural specificity out of which Kristeva’s misreadings arose. That is to say, an awareness of the ‘French theory’ scene reveals the Orientalist assumptions underpinning otherwise apparently valuable feminist work; Spivak argues that the feminist work needs to continue by learning from Third World subjects, not by imposing false interpretive models upon them. A more literary approach is taken in ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’ (1985) – looking at Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea and Frankenstein – where feminist readings are re-examined by Spivak.

Spivak has a reputation for writing ferociously dense theoretical texts; her supporters argue that the provisional ‘unfinished’ qualities of her writing represent a strategic resistance to essentialism, closure and to totalizing thought (i.e. thought which claims to know the Other prior to any encounter with a different culture or individual). Spivak’s detractors argue that her writing style leads at times to confusion and error, and that this outweighs any strategic gain. It is undoubtedly true that Spivak draws on and develops in unique ways the works of many of the key theorists and philosophers of the twentieth century, nowhere more so than in her book A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999). The book is arranged into four main sections: (1) Philosophy, (2) Literature, (3) History, (4) Culture, with an essay on Deconstruction in the appendix (the third section also contains a revised version of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’). The ‘Philosophy’ section immediately provides an insight into Spivak’s development of theoretical concepts and tools in the service of political/postcolonial analysis, in this case with her adoption and adaptation of the Lacanian term ‘foreclosure’ in the context of the ‘native informant’. Rejecting the notion of ‘a fully self-present voiceconsciousness’ (see Spivak’s preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology), Spivak argues that the native informant is placed under erasure by Western thought, but, in the process is revealed to be the condition of possibility of the Western discursive field of articulation. How does this work, and what does this mean? The mechanism whereby this deconstructive act of erasure or crossing-out (but remaining legible) occurs is ‘foreclosure’, a term used in diverse ways by Sigmund Freud, but stabilized and redefined by Jacques Lacan. In a Lacanian sense, foreclosure is the ‘expulsion of a fundamental “signifier” . . . from the subject’s symbolic universe’. Lacan believed that this mechanism explained psychotic phenomena in a way distinctive from Freud’s notion of repression; Laplanche and Pontalis point out that foreclosed signifiers are not integrated in the subject’s unconscious and that they return not from some inner realm of subjectivity but emerge in (the Lacanian concept of) the Real. What is this Real? It is a synthesis of Freud’s notion of a simulacrum of reality (that is a reality composed of unconscious desire and fantasies) supplemented by Lacan’s borrowings from Bataille, whereby that Real is also regarded as a morbid, doomed or accursed part of subjectivity, an inaccessible ‘black shadow’. The fact that the Real is a simulacrum, i.e. it competes with or even replaces material reality, is central to Spivak’s reading: the Real accounts for actual processes (the expulsion or foreclosure/repudiation of the native informant) yet resists essentialist notions of subjectivity (the Real is a simulacrum). The native informant is not simply cast ‘outside’ of colonial networks of power-knowledge, but is foreclosed: expulsed, unintegrated, beyond reach but constitutive of the colonial Real; the native informant is thus simultaneously perceived by Spivak here as an oppressed and a powerful subject, repeatedly denied, but always haunting and through the mechanism sketched above, constitutive of the discursive reasoning of the West.

Resistance to homogenization has been a key aspect of Spivak’s approach to literary studies. The essay and interview are significant modes of delivery for her because of their provisional status and openness to revision: thus the multiple versions of her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ and the interview collection The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (1990). After working so thoroughly with Western theory and philosophy, Spivak has been working towards alternative non-Western conceptual frameworks, such as Hindu dharma as an alternative to Western notions of ideology, and new psychoanalytical perspectives developed via the concept of sati. In
Death of a Discipline
(2003), Spivak takes her project further as a modified manifestation of comparative literature, one that reorients the entire study of the humanities within a genuinely global perspective.

Source: FIFTY KEY LITERARY THEORISTS by Richard J. Lane, Routledge Publication.


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