‘‘Can The Subaltern Speak?’’

Interview in Santiago, Chile

by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Frontier | Vol. 49, No.30, Jan 29 – Feb 4, 2017

[Alejandra Alvear from the journal called Cátedra Indígena spoke with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at the University of Chile on August 25, 2016. The larger event within which this interview was conducted was organized by the Center for Gender Studies at the University and the specific topic was ethic violence in the context of gender. Excerpts :]

Q.  How do postcolonial studies change the situation of the subaltern either from a symbolic or from a practical point of view?
A.  Well, I do not know about the different countries in the world, but my own sense is that it is a question of class again. Since we are talking about cultural and postcolonial studies, we are talking about the university. I believe that today the connection between what used to be called public intellectuals—they do no really exist anymore—but today, at least, the connection between the university and policy, which is really big in today’s world, is weakened to the point of non-existence. I support Cultural Studies, but I am critical as a person from within. Anthropology was a colonial discipline and it reported on oppressed and dominated cultures, and now, in Cultural Studies, we speak of our cultures as people from within the culture. What we have to watch out for is the idea of a subject, an intending subject presenting a culture and offering a correct view. It may be useful in confrontational politics, and I am all in favor. It may be useful in the critique of the discipline as it used to be, and I am very much in favor. But when it comes to the person being able to report his or her culture, I am deeply skeptical. There is no autocritique, there is no possibility of a recognition of the role played by upward class-mobility, leaving the subaltern in subalternity, there is no possibility of ideology critique. 

It is a precritical theory of the subject—I can speak my culture. Culture alive is (mis)taken for human nature for those who are within it, that is how culture works. Therefore, cultural explanation from within generally represents a certain kind of separation that was clear in old-fashioned anthropology, when it was actually doing ethnography. So, if there is an effect of the disciplinary epistemology of Cultural Studies, in the general situation. I think it has not always been for the good in terms of parliamentary democracy. Postcolonial studies—no, I do not think so, because the actual post-colonial nations are neopatrimonial states, where the so-called structures of democracy are used to preserve a one-party state. So, postcolonial nations are often problems rather than solutions. The idea of postcolonial being used by minorities or immigrant groups within metropolitan societies is a different situation. The actual postcolonial nations in Africa and Asia are disappointing in terms of what is happening. I speak as a person from one of them active and on call within a corporatizing higher education situation that uses the ambition of elite as well as non-elite academic/managerial work force in the North as well as the South to endorse the cosmetic face of the economically globalizing North-in-the-South of the neo-patrimonial state pretending social inclusion.

Generally, first-world postcolonial thinkers, engaged in what might as well be called Northern Studies, have ignored the South’s reflected production. Therefore, they do not represent subalternity, as they often announce.

In general, of course, I am in agreement wiith your position. But first of all, as I was explaining yesterday, I do not think that the subalterns’ reflective productions are necessarily invaluable as such for the consideration of thinkers anywhere, at the same time not romanticizing the South’s reflexive production. In my discussion of the two women’s work in Nepal, I have tried to outline how to approach the reflective production of a formerly colonized, currently patrimonial and sub-colonial, nation-state’s sensitive work with subalternity; foiled by a benevolent nativist Northerner whose support comes from academic ambition in the South. I am, myself, a little skeptical about the distinction between the North and South today, because that may make us ignore the North-in-the-South as well as the South-in-the-North, well-concealed behind the reverse racism of the eager visitor from the Northern higher education field tour-guided by the equally eager identitarian elite academic geographically “from the global South”. Identitarian origin-mongering. I would rather not have this kind of spatial division complicit with body-count democracy. In fact, reflective productions of the South, when offered by the class-ignoring folks from the global South as alternative epistemologies, they are generally Darstellung (rather than Vertretung-style, my failed and inadequate attempt to “represent” the women’s work, learn from the teaching-work, in Nepal and Birbhum respectively) representations of an orientalized grass-roots rather than even a Darstellung of what is actually going on at the bottom. That problem is not within whether we are reading, ignoring, etc. More than ignoring, I think, what also happens is, as I keep repeating, that so-called South reflective productions are complicit with the idea of whatever is happening in the North, although I do not really go with this kind of division.

Complicit, meaning folded together, as I said this morning, rather than conspiratorial. What they are doing is that they are reproducing this kind of “love us, we are southern” self-regionalization; not taking responsibility as educators in their participation, even in this self-regionalization, in the communicative control offered by globalization to a class above class-apartheid. It becomes a sort of foregone conclusion—the South is good; the North is bad, but harbors some good, especially the visible minorities. I think, as we enter the field of intellectual production, we should confuse these distinctions and not take them as presuppositions. It can lead to a degrading reverse racism on the part of the benevolent North, that is my feeling. As a teacher myself, what I try to do is protect young thinkers from being swamped with a dominant theorization too quickly so that they can actually make their own mistakes and be ready at a certain point, but that is slightly different from your question.

Q.  In the era of globalized capitalism and ethnicities…, where diversity is complemented seamlessly with the market, how do we raise equality and differences?
A.  How does one raise equality and difference? There is, of course, a great difference in how one raises it as an outsider of how one raises it as an equal (but different) person. These details change in terms of what theater you are speaking in. I think it is important to insist on this, on the “raiser’-“s assigned (not claimed) subject-position. I am thinking now of a J M Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, which is exemplary in this respect. Diversity is not just body count, not just a physical characteristic, visible minorities, physical markers of gender and so on. Diversity comes with a set of attitude and makes it possible for the dominant groups to have a good set of attitudes as well. What can I say? I am for diversity. But I think that it can also lead to a bad politics in the academy, because we do not go for quality. We just go for completely effacing differences of the other kind. I do not know, I am probably giving an unsatisfactory answer, but that is my only way. I am very quality-focused.

Q.  The next question is about India. Are cynicism and pragmatism priorities as claimed ideology? What alternatives are there in policies?
A.  I do not think very many in policies. This may well be, because I myself confront the world of policy in the World Economic Forum, and also when I am attempting to intervene in the Research and Development (R&D) arenas. And I see how little our movements affect policy. We have spent so much effort over the years, in the case of Israel and Palestine, for example, boycotting, promoting public awareness, giving courses, demonstrations, protest across the board—yet it does not affect policy. So, my feeling now is that our task now is really—keep on engaging in the short term with movements that want to make the situation at universities more equitable. I certainly engage in cleansing the institution, as it were. But I do believe that they are temporary measures and they get overcome, subsumed in already existing structures, and policy remains distant. So my work, and that is something that relates to work I can do, the only thing I can do is classroom teaching, as it were. So, my work is long-term production of problem-solvers who learn from mistakes, leaders who know how to follow, etc. And, of course, down below the intuition of democracy which is not just promoting even justified rights, but the understanding that democracy is also other people. All in all, I was quoting Marx the other day, maybe yesterday and saying that Marx’s description of the revolution of the 19th century is that its content will come from the poetry of the future. That is, I think, a very important perception, because all through Marx’s writings he is talking about capital, labor, land, everything being phenomenological and, therefore, appearing as Erscheinungs-formen, forms of appearance, in many different ways, and therefore to resist we must learn, not to hold on to them as real, and stable. Yet, when it comes to the revolution of the 19th century, he insists not on contentless forms, the phenomeno-logical approach, where they slip from one appearance to another—you see this most strongly in Capital II—but rather content. Content. According to Marx, with past revolutions, the phrase went beyond the content, the form—are you being correctly dialectical, are you following the party line, etc was often paramount. He was talking about the French Revolution. But in the 19th century the content will go beyond the form, he says. Most English translations use the wrong word—”transcendence”, that makes it Hegelian. He is not Hegelian here at all. He is talking about not necessarily following the correct party line. So, it is poetry, poetry of the future. To an extent, we teach in that way. We put Nietzsche, who wrote for the philosophers of the future, ahead of us. The results may not show in our lifetime. So our focus must be broad. The problems are so enormous, that although one must engage in short-term struggles, there is no excuse for remaining distant and skeptical and saying—oh, poetry of the future—nice phrase. No. In my estimation, one has to teach, this vision of something that is not possible now, so that the establishment of conditions of possibility become the specific material task. Shortening of the working day is the immediate task for welcoming the realm of freedom which lies beyond social engineering, writes Marx.

Q.  How can one comprehend in the contemporary situation where human rights of women have gained strength all through the 20th century this systematic and always increasing violence against women. How do we comprehend that?
A.  Well, the theaters where the violence against women is strongest, war and rape, few perhaps no one, thinks about human rights of women. We have to be aware that the places, the theaters where the human rights of women have gained strength are restricted. If we look at the world at large, then, it seems to me that within the places where the human rights of women have supposedly increased there is backlash, as now in the United States. There is, also, post-feminism which then forgets all about women, so that the different kind of violence is desired. I was talking about the desiring of violence. But the increasing violence against women and LGBTQ in the broad frame, that must take into account that the human rights of women gaining strength is class—and race-specific, I mean, even region-specific. It is not something that is noticeable all over the world. And when the rights of women are equated with financial independence a real problem arises. My first activist work began in Bangladesh, and, thanks to the textile industry, the Export Processing Zones, and microcredit without subject formation, the young women who were corning into the cities were unprepared for the use of resources for a just life. Nobody worried about the subject formation, about engaging with them, etc. It did not do them any good. This is also the experience in rural-urban interfaces in Africa. I was just in China, in Sichuan province, I was speaking to the state-sponsored women’s organization. The officeholders were all from the social sciences. They are really trying to improve the condition of women. But each question brought forth the same answer—income production. It is not a good idea just to produce income. I have supported myself since I was seventeen years old, I know that it gives you a certain something, but it is not the only thing. (I had the moral luck of extraordinary parents.) And, to quote W E B Du Bois, I would say that women, as they receive financial independence, must at the same time learn to communicate with the stars. He is talking about the emancipated slaves; that, they need food, clothing and shelter, but at the same time—to communicate with the stars. Otherwise, the lesson that economic growth does not necessarily lead to social inclusion is simply repeated in the case of women as they start to play within a world inimical to them.

Q.  The last question about the seminar. I know your time in Chile was very short and you were running around a lot, but you have got to see a little about what is going on here, what some indigenous groups also have to say.
A.  Yes, a lot in a little time, and very powerful. It was not just an intellectual situation where one can engage in judgment more easily, right? I was myself very emotionally involved all three days. Of course, at my age you do not get, with all the skepticism, emotionally involved so easily. So, that speaks for itself. But it also brings with it a responsibility of letting it settle a little. I have to let the sediments fall a little. But if you ask me now, it has been a very strong, very powerful experience. And I thank you for it!

Q.  Thank you for coming here!
Paula asks if you can say anything about your appreciation of what you saw of Mapuche?
A.  I liked very much the presentation of Ana Llao. Because she was giving an account of the history of Mapuche. It was not something that I was unaware of, but it was very powerful to have it presented quite that way and from someone involved from the inside. This is why I said twice during my talk that these are not subalterns. These are people who have brought subalternity to crisis and, therefore, can struggle with it, generally, in a different state and oppose subalternisation. That is a judgment on a small group of very powerful people, and powerful within the struggle. I very much liked the dance event yesterday, the artistic presentation, because I felt, what I was saying this morning, the fact that the Mapuche are not just a traditional group in the past was so clear with that presentation that I thought—I am, generally, critical, of conceptual art of any kind, but this was so clearly saying—pay attention to me, that I thought, it really was a good thing. This morning my conversation was also with a group of Mapuche activists who were already very coherent about the struggle. I was really able to engage with them very clearly and they agreed with my point of view, as I agreed with theirs. The people I work with in India are, unfortunately, classwise, are completely away from social movements that they do not know the word “dalit.” Those folks, as a result of the epistemic violence done to them by us the caste Hindus, not so much by colonialism, which in India is less than three hundred years old, the caste system being thousands of years old. Generally speaking, the British have treated the so-called “untouchables” and the so-called “aboriginals” better than we did. The situation is complicated. The task is to see how epistemological machines damaged by people who have not suffered that particular damage can be repaired. It is an arena of mistakes, because intellectual labor cannot be taught. It is something that happens. So, teaching at the top in the United States, a very rich, private university, English, French and German, European theory at the top with the Ph.D. students, and teaching at the very bottom where people have nothing at all and being a visible minority in the United States while the millennial ruling caste in India, so there is constantly an attempt to de-skill people like me. Just talk about India, nothing else, you cannot teach Freud, Marx, Hegel, Heidegger, Plato, no! Talk about India!—de-skilling, on top there. To be interpellated as a minority. And at the bottom, in my own country, to be the oppressive majority, it is a wonderful schizophrenia, using it self-consciously can be productive, and give you a sense of the world. I am speaking in terms of the seventies, you know, the idea of schizanalyse which is now gone, the idea of not trying to connect and not to look at cause and effect, but move one step after another, guided by the weird logic for which the only name we can have is schizophrenia. And then, and then, and then, like a schizophrenic. I had been actually asked to translate stuff by Mapuche already two years ago, but Luis Carcamo-Huechante, whom I thanked when I began giving these speeches, so it is a very limited set of responses, with a little group whom I admired greatly and an invitation to know a little bit more.

Postscript : War, Gender, and the Silent Victims of the Syrian Conflict.
In a new Right Views article, Philip Belau of the grassroots refugee organization Connecter examines how sexual violence and rape is used as a weapon in the Syrian conflict against women, but also men and boys.

Belua argues that there are no simple solutions to address the problem of sexual violence and rape against men and boys, but that the first step begins with questioning the simplistic and stereotyped gender binary norms which prevent men from coming forward with their stories.

– See more at: http://www.frontierweekly.com/articles/vol-49/49-30/49-30-Interview%20in%20Santiago.html#sthash.X9H6ncqL.dpuf

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