European Culture Congres:
Fascination is not
My Way of Being

Talk with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

We caught up with renowned intellectual and cultural critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at the European Culture Congress in Wrocław (8–11 September 2011) to talk about art, language, ethics, and philosophy

3 minutes reading left

ZOFIA MARIA CIELĄTKOWSKA: One of the main issues or concepts behind the European Culture Congress is “art for social change”. Do you think that intellectuals or art can do something for social change?


You really think that there is nothing artist and intellectuals can do in favour of social change?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

I think that if one has it as a goal, it is immediately counterproductive.

So can change can only occur within society alone? There’s no place for the agency of art?

First of all art is an abstract word. Every art effort cannot be put into a general abstract program for something as abstract as society — and to work change. I think the entire sentiment is couched in impractical abstractions. I can’t ask society to change itself nor art to change society. I can’t work with these statements. I’m sure there are people who can, but I can’t.

As they are too abstract?

They are not too abstract. They are abstract. Abstractions are wonderful. I love philosophy, but not to change society. Abstract for me is not a negative word. I’m just saying that this kind of statement, which has also this tremendously abstract word “change” in it, is not something I can work with. I was invited for the little panel entitled “Alien Europe”, I don’t know what the entire congress is about. I don’t have the time to look at what the whole congress is doing, when I’m put in a specific slot.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born in 1942, Calcutta (India). She is a world-renowned intellectual and cultural critic, focused on 19th and 20th century literature and globalisation. Her biggest influences are Marxism and post-structuralism. Spivak is one of the biggest names in postcolonial and feminist thought.

In her research she focuses on marginalized social groups. Her famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, published in 1985, criticised Western feminism for excluding these marginalised people from its discussions, and claimed that women of the Third World don’t really fit Western feminist theories. Spivak claimed that language, when used in defence of minorities and in good faith, becomes in fact a language of violence, pushing minorities towards further oppression.

After graduating from the University of Calcutta in 1959, she left for the United States, where she continued her studies at Cornell University, among others. A professor at Columbia University since 2007, she is also the head of the University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. Spivak is an activist, and is engaged in feminist and ecological movements. In 1997, she established a foundation for fostering education in the poorest regions of the world. She works as a trainer of elementary school teachers in West Bengal.

Spivak is the author of a wide variety of publications, including books such as The Post-Colonial Critic (1988), Righting Wrongs (2003), Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee and Certain Scenes of Teaching (2004) and the recent Rethinking Comparativism, about the role of languages in the era of globalisation.

Over the past twenty years, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has experienced a radical reorientation in her thinking. Finding the neat polarities of tradition and modernity, colonial and postcolonial, no longer sufficient for interpreting the globalised present, she turns elsewhere to make her central argument: that aesthetic education is the last available instrument for implementing global justice and democracy. The related concerns are addressed in her newest book of essays, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization which will be published in 2012 by Harvard University Press.

I can understand that…

I’m interested in practical work; I’m not going to do anything when I’m not asked to do so.

In your most famous text “Can the Subaltern Speak?” you wrote that the “Ideological constitution of gender keeps male dominant.” Is there anything culture can do to change that situation?


So what should happen to solve this problem? To make “her” or “them” speak?

They always speak, the statement “the subaltern cannot speak” was written in the rhetoric of disappointment that the non-subaltern don’t listen or don’t know how to listen.

Does it mean that the discourse needs to be changed?

We can’t force anyone to listen and who is we? What discourse?

This already is a question that involves discourse. You are known as a professor of postcolonial studies, but you always emphasise that you are, first and foremost, a professor of ethics. Can you elaborate on this?

Do you think that there is no connection?

Obviously there is, but I’m just interested in your explanation. According to the original meaning of ethics as a place, it means that you are conscious about the place where you are, so you know from where and to whom you are speaking. So maybe I should ask how you understand ethics?

That’s a different question from linking postcolonial studies and ethics. I’m not an etymologist. The word ethics has become creolized into many, many languages of the world and is accessible to many many classes: we have medical ethics, business ethics, and so on. I wouldn’t have been thinking of any Greek original, unless one can move in a direct historical line from the so-called original. The Greece that is negotiating the Eurozone may have some kind of hold on the word ethics, but in order to make us understand that vastly creolized international contemporaneity, do we have to put our nose in classical Greek? I don’t think so.

Staying in language and in ethics, in “Translation as Culture” — a text mostly connected with Melanie Klein — you say: “translation in this general sense is not under the control of the subject who is translating. Indeed the human subject is something that will have happened as this shuttling translation, from inside to outside, from violence to conscience: the production of ethical subject”. This is a somewhat naïve question, but what would be that ethical subject?

The one who responds (or not) to the call of the other. If you look at Lacan’s essay “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious” (tr. Bruce Fink in Écrits, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2006), which is influenced by Melanie Klein — although he doesn’t acknowledge it — there is no answer to the onto-phenomenological question “what is the ethical subject?” What we are looking at is a process which brings into being something that may or may not respond to the call of the other. Teaching literature, I can say that if one pays a great deal of attention to material produced by someone else, in some other time and place, then one perhaps trains reflexes that can move out from the “we do the right thing” version of ethics. For me, the ethical is that moment which might or might not be encountered by the subject, and may produce the reflex for which it is or it is not trained. That is a use-related description not a definition. If you want a definition go to Alain Badiou…

No, but I would like to go back to language. You quite often use the word “catachresis”…

Not any more, but go ahead…

… to describe the process by which certain concepts or words change their denotation. What is the reason for catachresis?

It is a term in classical rhetoric describing the abuse of a metaphor, not change in denotation. Derrida uses it to describe a situation in which a word is needed, but nothing will quite suffice. I think I have explained that problem again and again. You don’t find a literal example of a catachresis. I think that in “Translation as Culture”, where I discuss my friend the neurobiologist who must use affective words for genes, because no other word will do, I give an example of catachresis-use, because genes don’t have minds.

You mentioned Derrida. In “Touched by Deconstruction” you ask the rhetorical question, “I think I make mistakes in deconstruction right and left although I try not to, of course. But what is it to be correct about deconstruction?”

That was a highly rhetorical question like “Can the Subaltern Speak?” So it was rhetorical which means that those who think that there is a correct deconstruction have missed the point.

Would you say you are fascinated by deconstruction?

I’m not fascinated by deconstruction, but it has influenced me. I’m not fascinated by anythingF. It’s not my way of being.

You differentiate between representations; in the first sense representation means “to speak for” and in the second context it is representation in art or philosophy (reference, description denotation, imitation). I would like to ask about the second meaning, as I think that representation (in particular) in art is quite often a place of epistemic violence. Do you think that art can be violent in this sense?

I think people who are really affected by art are a very small group and class specific, race specific, gender specific and so on… If you move around the world you don’t find a lot of people who think of art as anything but shows, to which they never go, or as investment. They don’t even understand what is going on, so I think only artists — some, not all — themselves think that art has a great deal of influence in general. I think it survives in a field of repressive tolerance. The best way to defeminate something is to simply tolerate it and put a frame around it. What I was thinking about in the passage that you refer to is that when people read in translation they don’t think about the fact that the language in which the text is written has a different kind of meaning situation. I was saying that when Deleuze and Foucault were saying “representation”, they were not aware that they could not talk about Marx with that one word because in German Marx was using two words; vertreten — representation in a parliamentary sense, not political but parliamentary sense — and darstellen which is a representation in a sense of the portraits. I was not talking about art — it was a very small lesson for French intellectuals. I was talking there as a teacher of language.

On a somewhat related note, what is the greatest challenge that comes with translation?

That you have to kill the sound. That is the first violence of translation — kill the sound in which the word is played.

What are you currently working on?

I’m trying to read the proofs in time for Harvard University Press… I’ve been reading Rosa Luxemburg and it is interesting to be in Poland, because I don’t think there is much enthusiasm for her here. When I have time, I’m also trying to revise lectures on W.E.B. Du Bois which I gave at Harvard in 2009.

Since you are a professor of literature, I’m not going to ask you about literature, but about art. Do you have any favorite artist?

No. I like Joe Diebes right now. I was invited by graduate students in Princeton and Columbia to give a talk about the relationship between sound and the visual. In that connection, I saw stuff by Joe Diebes. Recently I was asked by Paul Rogers to write something on Simon Hantaï, a Hungarian artist who worked with the poststructuralist scene in France. William Kentridge, Chittrovanu Mazumdar, Aneesh Kapoor, Jamelie Hassan.