[Reader-list] For Spivak Watchers

shohini shohini at giasdl01.vsnl.net.in
Wed Feb 13 21:40:14 IST 2002

February 9, 2002, The New York Times
Creating a Stir Wherever She Goes

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak had been invited by a group of scholars on this chilly January evening to give a talk at the Penniman Library of the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. "They have read Gayatri's paper," said Ms. Spivak, a professor in the humanities at Columbia University who sometimes refers to herself in the third person. "And they said they couldn't understand it." 
Ms. Spivak, wearing a sari, with vivid pink highlights in her crewcut hair, looks a little like Grace Jones. She originally wrote the paper, called "Moving Devi," as a catalog essay for a 1999 museum exhibition of representations of Devi, the divine female principle in Hindu mythology. 
"People had some problem following her argument," Sanjay Krishnan, a professor of English who organized the talk, explained respectfully. Mr. Krishnan is a Spivak admirer. Like the other 17 members of the audience, he was looking forward to the lecture. After all, Ms. Spivak, 59, is a celebrity in academia. (Her résumé of publications, lectures and awards has now reached 41 pages.) She was one of the first translators of Jacques Derrida into English and one of the most famous practitioners of postcolonial studies, devoted to the culture of people of the former colonies.
Ms. Spivak began. "What does `Moving Devi' mean?" he asked.
"The answer," she said, "is a change in the relation of the subject who is writing from a place where Devi belongs as she slowly moves into the text of the museum. What I'm looking at here is that itinerary, not the nostalgic identatrianism of the metropolitan migrant." 
As she spoke, Ms. Spivak summoned a dazzling array of references: Marx, Hegel, Freud, Lacan, Rilke, Aristotle, and Hindu and Sufi mysticism. "The Sufi is not invaginated in the polytheistic universe," she said, "but the supernatural is invaginated in the natural." 
Got all that? Hard going for the layman as well as for some academics. 
"She certainly enjoys celebrity status in our profession," Michael Rosenthal, a colleague of Ms. Spivak's in Columbia's English department, said in an interview. "But I don't think I am alone sometimes in finding it difficult to understand what exactly she is saying."
Indeed, over the years Ms. Spivak has become almost as famous for her dense writing style as for her theories about colonial oppression. "Spivak is so bewilderingly eclectic, so prone to juxtapose diverse notions without synthesis, that ascribing a coherent position to her on any question is extremely difficult," Stephen Howe wrote in The New Statesman and Society, a British weekly. Fred Inglis, a professor at the University of Sheffield in England, derided Ms. Spivak's work in the Times Higher Education Supplement as "preposterous." 
And the Oxford scholar Terry Eagleton, in a much talked-about essay in The London Review of Books, called Ms. Spivak "pretentiously opaque."
He cited "a wretched sentence, like `the in-choate in-fans ab-original para- subject cannot be theorized as functionally completely frozen in a world where teleology is schematized into geo-graphy.' "
Still, Mr. Eagleton wrote, Ms. Spivak is "among the most coruscatingly intelligent of all contemporary theorists, whose insights can be idiosyncratic but rarely less than original."
"She has probably done more long- term political good, in pioneering feminist and post-colonial studies within global academia than almost any of her theoretical colleagues," he continued."
Edward Said, Ms. Spivak's colleague at Columbia, echoed the praise in an interview: "She pioneered the study in literary theory of non-Western women and produced one of the earliest and most coherent accounts of that role available to us."
Ms. Spivak, who was born in Calcutta, first made her reputation with her 1976 translation of Mr. Derrida's "Of Grammatology." Then, in 1985, she published her landmark essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?," about the inability of the powerless to express themselves. Subaltern originally meant a junior officer in the British Army, but it has been co- opted by academics studying groups particularly oppressed by colonial powers. Ms. Spivak argued that the experiences of such groups are inevitably distorted by the perspectives of the elite who are describing them - academics, for instance. 
In this essay Ms. Spivak also extended the meaning of subaltern to apply specifically to women in colonial countries. She examined the suicide of an Indian woman, Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, in 1926. The suicide was originally attributed to Bhaduri's distress over an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Ms. Spivak pointed out that Bhaduri was not, in fact, pregnant. She said Bhaduri killed herself because she could not bear to take part in a political assassination. This woman "was not heard," Ms. Spivak said, because she was defined only within the narrow limits of gender.
Such an approach has put Ms. Spivak on one side of a bitter divide. Like many college English departments around the country, Columbia's is split between cultural theorists like Ms. Spivak, who study the political, social and psychological forces that drive culture, and more traditionally minded scholars. 
And in a place where petty slights can take on gargantuan proportions, it doesn't help that Ms. Spivak, unlike most professors, has her own secretary. "I negotiated this when I came because I had a very busy office," she said. 
In 1986 she published another important essay in the journal Critical Inquiry. She disagreed with Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar - authors of "The Madwoman in the Attic" (Yale University Press), a feminist analysis of 19th-century women who were authors - who had depicted Bertha, Mr. Rochester's insane wife in Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre," as Jane's dark double. 
"I found it more interesting that she was a Creole from Jamaica," Ms. Spivak recalled. Brontë also used animal imagery to describe Bertha. "They thought it was O.K. to represent her in these animalistic terms," Ms. Spivak said. 
"It told us about the society when someone could present someone from the colonies as an animal," she observed. "We are also marked by our time as she was by hers." 
Ms. Spivak comes from the first generation of Indian intellectuals after the country's independence. Her father, Pares Chakravorty, was a doctor. "I am, unfortunately, a Brahmin," Ms. Spivak said, "but from an inferior sect of the Brahmin cast."
Her highly intellectual mother, Sivani, did charitable work and is an avid reader of her daughter's work. When she read Ms. Spivak's translation of Mr. Derrida, Ms. Spivak recalled, her mother said it reminded her of Madhyamika Buddhist sacred texts. "Then," Ms. Spivak remembered, "she said, `But dear, how are you going to reconcile your communism with this?' " 
Despite her sari and her frequent references to Indian culture, Ms. Spivak dislikes being identified as a scholar of India, a label she attributes to "benevolent racism."
"I am a Europeanist," she said. 
She attended a Christian missionary school and the University of Calcutta. Her graduate work was at Cornell, "on borrowed money, before multi-culti," she said, adding, "I was a brilliant student." When she wrote her dissertation on Yeats, her adviser was Paul de Man, who was later found to have written pro-Nazi newspaper articles in wartime Belgium. "I have seen all around me profound contradictions, colleagues who speak about Arabs in an unspeakable way," she said of de Man's anti- Semitism. "Hegel says unspeakable things about Africa, but I can still use Hegel." 
In 1964 Ms. Spivak married a fellow student, Talbot Spivak. They divorced in 1977. Then, while teaching at the University of Iowa, she began a 10-year relationship - which she calls "a second marriage," although it was not legally binding - with one of her students, who was nine years younger. "People wanted to see if he got an easy Ph.D.," she said. "I was incredibly hard on him." (Today many colleges prohibit professors from dating students.) She has been separated for 10 years from her second husband, Basudev Chatterji, a history professor at Delhi University. She has no children. 
Ms. Spivak is in demand around the world for talks and lectures, causing a stir wherever she goes. In the United States, she usually wears a sari, sometimes with combat boots; when in India, she often wears jeans, she says. She objects to comments about her exotic appearance.
"Since they can't talk about my work," she said, "I say they talk about my style." She admits, though, to sometimes being flattered by the attention. "At a gay costume party in Cairo, someone came dressed as Gayatri; this is an admiring thing," she said. 
Ms. Spivak also bristles at criticism of her writing. "When academics say I'm difficult to understand, I don't pay attention because I think they are saying, `This does not deserve to be understood,' " she said. "No student ever complained at the end of a course."
The scholars at the University of Pennsylvania weren't complaining, either; they were just trying to understand. 
Aditya Behl, an associate professor in the university's department of religious studies, asked Ms. Spivak about a particular passage: " `If multicultural mulch begins to affect museal practice,' " he read, " `it will have happened in the middle voice, neither active nor passive - an expressive instrument we have lost in modern grammars.' " 
Mr. Behl said he was "perplexed by this seeming that Devi is rendered inaccessible to the metropolitan migrant."
Ms. Spivak told him: "It's not that it can't enter the museum. You have to be able to recognize it without its cultural dress." 
Of course.

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