Priyanka Mukherjee
In Praise Of Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

 I have all the right reasons for not doing this write up. To list those: As a kid I was sent to the same school where Spivak went. I have walked through the same proud portals of Presidency College as Spivak once did and thus must brag about her by default. If any of my friends ever chance upon this silly piece of writing, there is a strong likelihood that I shall be booed to death. They won’t ever accept their deity being dethroned. You see friendship is nothing when compared to one’s passion for the best in intelligentsia. Who am I, a twenty five year old odd numskull to challenge the sanctity of this high priestess, who makes her offering at the shrine of scholarship? I do aspire to take up research as my vocation in the next few months and if any of my prospective guides ever reads this, my academic career might be doomed forever.

Not being reverent about Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak is often equated to heresy in the realm of academia. And last but not the least; I am a Bangalee, a fact that entitles me the right to call this lady Gayatri di with affection and behave as if she has been a next door neighbor to me all her life before she left for phoren. On the whole this is blasphemy that I am set to commit. But since I must avenge myself of those sleepless nights I spent trying to decipher what this lady speaks before my M.A finals, here I commence to write my Satanic Verses.

A Monday morning in September 2007. The sky was a bright blue except for some clumsy autumnal clouds scattered here and there. Still in utter dismay over how someone as stupid as I am could acquire an entry into the hallowed heaven of enlightenment, with wobbling knees I reached Presidency College for my orientation (little did I know that in the days to come I shall meet people here, who would so badly defy my supremacy in the field of stupidity). I entered my classroom. With even the crow at the window pane giving me an intimidating erudite stare, I took a seat, feigning a smart face as I was trying to shoo off the butterflies in my tummy all the while. The orientation started. The HOD began to speak.

“This is the same room where Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak once had her classes, you are now a part of a tradition, a legacy…” said my professor. Intrigued I went to the library to read up about this great lady with whom I was destined to share a ‘legacy’. But alas! After spending a considerable amount of my time and energy and gray cells over flipping through the pages of the rather lengthy essays by her, I was still clueless about what she meant to say. I gave up. I succumbed to the torpor of ignorance but the Spivakian specter, however, kept hovering hither and thither.

Some eight months after this, my professor found a scapegoat in me and against all my will I was forced to present a paper at a seminar on the First Nation writers of Canada. With no idea about what to write on, I at last produced a paper comparing the works of Emily Pauline Johnson and Mahasweta Devi. But whala! My rather badly written paper got praised and that too for my ‘intelligent use of Spivak’s ideas’! A bespectacled guy who actually wasted more sheets on jotting down points from my paper than I did in writing it, went on to point out how I have been ‘super perceptive’ to accommodate the Spivakian notion of the “fourth world reality”.

I had read Mahasweta Devi’s works in Bangla and was completely ignorant till then that the translations in English for some of her stories were done by Spivak neither did I know anything about “fourth world reality”. Not knowing whether to confess my ignorance or to bask in this uncalled for glory, completely befuddled I returned home. But how that trash of a paper, written in a hurry, nights before the seminar could have any hint of Spivak’s Ideas? I am not a genius for certain so is it that Spivak too speaks gibberish? Well, the question loomed large for long.

I maintained a deliberate distance from Spivak till I could afford that, which is till the point I confronted my existential dilemma: To pass or not to pass my M.A exams. Barely months before my exams, I was compelled to get back to her. With all my might I took a dive, determined to delve deep into Spivak’s theories. And ouch! I struck the ground headlong. What I had assumed to be a fathomless sea was just a puddle!

This great lady takes pleasure in being recondite. She deliberately makes her writing obscure and inaccessible and this is supposedly her method of challenging her readers and stimulating them to some sort of renewed intellectual alacrity. Thus instead of stating things simply she would rather go for the most turgid expressions ever and by the time a reader moves from the introductory paragraphs of any of her essays, he is already half battered. Now this might be just the kick that intellectuals of a superior caliber require, but for mere mortals like me this is an agonizing ‘turn off’.

Spivak’s claim to fame is as a post-colonial critic who is Marxist–Feminist-Deconstructivist. But unlike most from the Marxian cult, Spivak hates being accused for collectivism. She makes it clear right at the onset that instead of dealing with colonialism as a monolithic, homogeneous issue, she would rather engage in a discourse about how the colonial subjects are subtly different from one another, the often overlooked inconsistencies shall be addressed by her. Now this might sound refreshingly promising. But just as when you start getting interested, Spivak clarifies that despite the differences, the group identity needs being prioritized over the individual identity strategically for larger benefits and this is what she calls ‘strategic essentialism’. Now if you call this a gross contradiction, you are as stupid as I am. Come to your senses, Spivak can never be wrong!

Such anomalies (I wish I had brains enough to see them not as anomalies but alas!) are abundant in Spivak. She takes up the Gramscian notion of the subaltern and broadens its signification further to make it inclusive of the ‘further denigrated ones’. And who are these? Tribals, untouchables and of course women. She has this rather curious of way of accommodating smaller groups into another larger group. This sure has earned her a position of enviable importance in the academia and a bag full of dollars but only defeats her initial claim of an analysis of the differences amongst the colonized subjects. Her own generalizing, homogenizing tendencies are thus exposed.

Spivak points out in French Feminism in an International Frame that when western feminists try speaking up for the deprived women of the third world, they are essentially speaking from a position of superiority and thus they further muffle the voice of the subaltern by trying to replace it by their own collectivist voice. So far so good. But I wonder what this great feminist is doing herself when she speaks on behalf of the tribal women. Isn’t that too an imposition of the voice of the ‘elitist’ western academia? But behold! Spivak sure knows how to create an alibi to safeguard her own interest.

Even before the accusation was made, she had calculated the charges and has prepared her rejoinder. She explains that her own method is deconstructivist and hence not conclusive but rather one that would only point out an ‘infinite regression’! Now if you are puzzled over this as I am, it’s your own lack of perception. How dare you say Spivak is wrong?

Her essay Feminism and Critical Theory is a typical case in incongruencies. Here she states how Marxism and Freudian Psychoanalysis are antagonistic to Feminism and then goes on to deconstruct them to further her cause of radical feminism.

She starts off by defining the term ‘woman’ as one that stems from the word ‘man’. Having done this she goes on to elucidate that she should not be called a reactionary however for coming up with this constricted definition as there cannot be any definition for anything whatsoever and her attempt to define woman was only a polemical one!  On this she writes lengthy tiring paragraphs, which strains and challenges one’s intelligence till the point he almost decides to give up. And if this is seeming like some strange piece of riddle to you as it did to me, you are an ignoramus who could not decipher the concealed connotations. You surely cannot hold Spivak responsible for your own intellectual incapability!

In the first part of this essay Spivak shows the inadequacies of the notion of alienation as explained in Marxism, when seen from a feminist perspective. She explicates that when Marx explains the rift between labor and his produce under ‘exploitative’ capitalism (she must loathe capitalism even if it is the very system that sponsors her projects) the analysis is not full proof as human sexual reproduction is being overlooked.

Marx, she says he has ignored the womb as a ‘tangible place of production’. But in her attempt to ‘interpret reproduction within a Marxian problematic’ she completely obliterates issues related to a woman’s libido, her emotional and physical urges and above all her independent decision to conceive and reduces her to a machine at the factory. Thus Spivak the feminist manages to exceed even the crudest forms of chauvinism. Now this is my inference and I must have gone wrong somewhere. Spivak, the champion of emancipation must be right!

Spivak’s Freud bashing has nothing new to offer. She mostly reiterates what has already been said an umpteen number of times. Like her predecessors she too points out the limitations of the Freudian notion of infantile penis-envy and proposes a parallel discourse of womb-envy.

There isn’t much to be said in response to this except for the fact that Freud rooted his psychoanalysis in sociological observations and not physiology as has been pointed out earlier by Juliet Mitchell. Spivak only takes a small step further in pointing out that Freud is not only a chauvinist but a racist too, who tries to explain human psychology from a western hegemonic perspective.

To support this view she says that in his analysis of the oedipal stage Freud has taken the nuclear family consisting only of the child and its parents as his model and thus his ideas are irrelevant when applied to a joint family structure. Spivak perhaps disregards the fact that even in a joint family the different relatives that a child has are either mother figures or father figures to it thus Freud’s ideas, which are primarily based upon a child’s relationship with its parents will hold true even here.

 Having pointed out the flaws inherent in Freud towards the end of the essay, she reverts back to Marx and points out that instead of Jamaican slaves, women’s household works, which is done without wage should have been seen as an example of zero-work. Such an insightful analysis as this must be wowed and applauded by any woman.

 Those like me, who refuse to see themselves as eternal victims, however, cannot but ponder how this great revolutionary shall look at works done by a friend for another or by a child for his/her parents or for that matter by a husband for his wife. Aren’t these also outside wage-work relationship and thus examples of ‘zero-work’? Such fissures as these are abundant in Spivak’s profound pieces of erudition. But I have bored myself quite a lot to write any more and if you are yawning by now blame it on Spivak; I tried my best to make you laugh instead.

This post was originally written for Krishnavatar. Reproduced with permission.