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Gayatri Spivak

(b. 1942)


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(1942–)

Indian-born postcolonial, post-structuralist, Marxistliterary critic and theorist. The daughter of middle-class parents, she was born in Calcutta at a time when India was still part of the British Empire. Borrowing money, she moved to the US to attend graduate school at Cornell, where she did comparative literature because that was the only school to offer her a scholarship. She wrote her PhD on William Butler Yeats, under the direction of Paul de Man. Her first job was at the University of Iowa, which she started a full two years before her dissertation was defended in 1967.

Around the same time she happened to read about a certain book by Jacques Derrida, whom she had not at that time heard of, and was so struck by it she decided to translate it. That book was De la grammatologie (1967); her translation of it as Of Grammatology (1974) literally changed her life. She was suddenly propelled into the spotlight right at the moment when deconstruction was the height of intellectual fashion. Although she uses deconstructive ideas and motifs in her work, Spivak is not a Derridean. Her work is diverse in its outlook but concentrates on a handful of key problematics underpinning what, in her magnum opus A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), she terms postcolonial reason, particularly agency, identity, and subjectivity.

These three themes are brought together to stunning effect in what is undoubtedly Spivak's best-known work, the 1988 essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ (incorporated into A Critique of Postcolonial Reason), which offers a powerful meditation on and theorization of the practice of sati (the ritual immolation of widows). Spivak's answer to this vexed question is quite straightforward: the subaltern cannot speak insofar as he/she remains a subaltern—by definition the subaltern is politically mute, unable to voice their perspective on the way things are and expect to be heard. But in true deconstructive fashion, she also questions the possibility of the ‘pure’ voice of the subaltern. It is in this context that she has argued that it is sometimes necessary to adopt a stance she calls strategic essentialism, as a means of finding a speaking voice. In later works, she has admitted that this essay is largely autobiographical; she has also amended her position with regard to Deleuze and Foucault and softened her often misdirected critiques of their work.

Not one to pull punches, Spivak has also written blistering critiques of so-called French feminism, especially of Julia Kristeva, for the blithe way it treats non-European others, placing it in a long line of western appropriations of the East (the honourable exception in her view is Hélène Cixous). Mindful of her comparatively privileged position and the necessary complicity with the global capitalist system it entails, Spivak has used status to set up foundations in India to support literacy campaigns for indigenous women. She has also translated a series of works by Indian novelist Mahasweta Devi.

Further Reading:

B. Moore-Gilbert Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (1997).M. Sanders Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Live Theory (2006).

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Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


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