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Gayatri Spivak

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Gayatri Spivak

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Born (1942-02-24) 24 February 1942 (age 72)
Calcutta, British India
Era 20th-century philosophy
School Post-colonial theory
Main interests History of ideas · Literature · Deconstruction · Feminism · Marxism
Notable ideas "subaltern", "strategic essentialism", "epistemological performance"

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (born 24 February 1942) is an Indian literary theorist, philosopher and University Professor at Columbia University, where she is a founding member of the school's Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.[1] She is best known for the essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" considered a founding text of postcolonialism; and for her translation of, and introduction to Jacques Derrida's De la grammatologie. In 2012 she was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for being "a critical theorist and educator speaking for the humanities against intellectual colonialism in relation to the globalized world".[2] She received the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award given by the Republic of India, in 2013.[3]

Spivak is best known for her contemporary cultural and critical theories to challenge the "legacy of colonialism" and the way readers engage with literature and culture. She often focuses on the cultural texts of those who are marginalized by dominant western culture: the new immigrant; the working class; women; and other positions of the subaltern.[4][5]


Spivak was born Gayatri Chakravorty, to parents Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty, in Calcutta, India, 24 February 1942.[6] After completing her school education from the St. John's Diocesan Girls' Higher Secondary School, she received an undergraduate degree in English at the Presidency College, Kolkata under the University of Calcutta (1959), graduating with first class honours and received gold medals for English and Bengali literature.[6] After this, she attended Cornell University where she completed her M.A. in English and pursued her Ph.D. in comparative literature, while teaching at the University of Iowa.[6]

Her dissertation was on W.B. Yeats, directed by Paul de Man at Cornell, titled Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats.[6] At Cornell, she was the second woman elected to membership in the Telluride Association. She was briefly married to Talbot Spivak in the 1960s. The Bride Wore the Traditional Gold by Talbot Spivak is an autobiographical novel that deals with the early years of this marriage.[7]

In March 2007 Spivak became the University Professor at Columbia University, making her the only woman of color to be bestowed the University's highest honor in its 264-year history.[8]

In June 2012, she was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy.[9]


In "Can The Subaltern Speak?" Spivak discusses the race and power dynamics involved in the banning of sati. Spivak writes that all we hear about sati are accounts by British colonizers or Hindu leaders of how self-immolation oppressed women, but we never hear from the sati-performing women themselves. This lack of an account leads Spivak to reflect on whether the subaltern can even speak.[4] Spivak recounts how Sati appears in colonial archives.[10] Spivak demonstrates that the Western academy has obscured subaltern experiences by assuming the transparency of its scholarship. Leftist intellectuals such as Foucault and Deleuze inaugurate the Western, Eurocentric Subject as they disavow the problem of representation; and by invoking the Subject of Europe, these intellectuals constitute the subaltern Other of Europe as anonymous and mute. Spivak also performs a deconstruction of representation as deployed by Foucault, Deleuze, and Marx. Spivak demonstrates Marx's use of two terms in the original German for representation: one in the sense of political proxy, and the other in the sense of figurative re-presenting.

Spivak's translation of Derrida's De la grammatologie, which included a translator's introduction that has since been described as "setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces,"[6] brought her to prominence. After this, she carried out a series of historical studies as a member of the "Subaltern Studies Collective" and literary critiques of imperialism and international feminism. She has often referred to herself as a "practical Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist."[8] Her overriding ethico-political concern has been for the site occupied by the subaltern, especially subaltern women, both in discursive practices and in institutions as much as Western cultures. Edward Said wrote that, "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."[11] In "Can the Subaltern Speak?"[12] Spivak highlights how Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault confine the decentering of the subject to the subject of the West, which problematizes the non-Western other as real and knowable. In concluding her essay, she rebuffs Deleuze and Foucault for making it impossible to confer with the subaltern in a discursive practice, and suggests the possibilities Jacques Derrida offers for thinking the subaltern insomuch as he appertains to a classically philosophical interpretation of the subject, rather than a socio-political, cultural or historical interpretation, which might assume that the subject is always already the subject of the West.

Her A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, published in 1999, explores how major works of European metaphysics (e.g., Kant, Hegel) not only tend to exclude the subaltern from their discussions, but actively prevent non-Europeans from occupying positions as fully human subjects.

Spivak coined the term "strategic essentialism," which refers to a sort of temporary solidarity for the purpose of social action. For example, the attitude that women's groups have many different agendas makes it difficult for feminists to work for common causes. "Strategic essentialism" is about the need to accept temporarily an "essentialist" position in order to be able to act. While others have built upon this idea of "strategic essentialism," Spivak has since retracted use of this term.

Spivak taught at several universities before arriving at Columbia in 1991. She has been a Guggenheim fellow, has received numerous academic honors including an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College,[13] and has been on the editorial board of academic journals such as boundary 2. On March 9, 2007, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger appointed Spivak University Professor, the institution's highest faculty rank. In a letter to the faculty, he wrote, Template:Cquote

Spivak's writing has been described by some as opaque.[14] It has also been suggested that her work puts style ahead of substance.[15]

In her defense, it has been argued that this sort of criticism reveals an unwillingness to substantively engage with her texts.[16] Judith Butler has noted that Spivak's supposedly inaccessible language has, in fact, resonated with, and profoundly changed the thinking of, "tens of thousands of activists and scholars." [17] And Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, who has called her writing "inaccessible," noted nevertheless that, "there can thus be few more important critics of our age than the likes of Spivak. [...] 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."[18]

In speeches given and published since 2002, Spivak has addressed the issue of terrorism. Clearly stating that her intention is to bring an end to suicide bombing, she has explored and, "tried to imagine what message [such acts] might contain."[19] These ruminations have included descriptions such as: "Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed in the body when no other means will get through."[19]

One critic has suggested that this sort of stylized language may serve to blur important moral issues relating to terrorism.[20] However, she stated in the text of the speech that, "Single coerced yet willed suicidal 'terror' is in excess of the destruction of dynastic temples and the violation of women, tenacious and powerfully residual. It has not the banality of evil. It is informed by the stupidity of belief taken to extreme."[19]


Spivak founded The Pares Chandra Chakravorty Memorial Literacy Project Inc., a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, in 1997, to provide a primary education of quality for children in some of the poorest regions of the globe, continuing work that Spivak had started doing in 1986. The Project currently operates schools in rural areas of West Bengal, India. By setting up schools and giving sustained training to local teachers who operate them with the help of local supervisors, the Project seeks to offer children in these areas the resources to enter the mainstream education system for high school and beyond.

The Project is committed to using the existing state curriculum and textbooks to train teachers, in the belief that by using these materials they can better enable their students to enter the national education system on equal terms with others. "Since India constantly brags about being the world's largest democracy, and this is a large sector of the electorate, what I'm trying to do is develop rituals of democratic habits," she said of the Project.[21]



  • Myself, I Must Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1974).
  • Of Grammatology (translation, with a critical introduction, of Derrida's text) (1976)
  • In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987).
  • Selected Subaltern Studies (edited with Ranajit Guha) (1988)
  • The Post-Colonial Critic - Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (1990)
  • Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993).
  • The Spivak Reader (1995).
  • A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present (1999).
  • Death of a Discipline (2003).
  • Other Asias (2005).
  • An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2012).


  • Imaginary Maps (translation with critical introduction of three stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1994)
  • Breast Stories (translation with critical introduction of three stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1997)
  • Old Women (translation with critical introduction of two stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1999)
  • Song for Kali: A Cycle (translation with introduction of story by Ramproshad Sen) (2000)
  • Chotti Munda and His Arrow (translation with critical introduction of the novel by Mahasweta Devi) (2002)
  • Red Thread (forthcoming)

See also


Further reading

  • Stephen Morton, Gayatri Spivak: Ethics, Subalternity and the Critique of Postcolonial Reason (Polity, 2007).
  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Donna Landry, and Gerald M. MacLean, The Spivak reader: Selected Works (Routledge, 1996).
  • Suzana Milevska, "Resistance That Cannot be Recognised as Such: Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak," n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal, Jan. 2005, vol. 15, pp. 6–12.

External links

  • "Righting Wrongs" (read full article)
  • Radical Philosophy
  • Full article: "Can the Subaltern Speak?"
  • London Review of Books, May 1999
  • Judith Butler and others
  • Glossary of Key Terms in the Work of Spivak
  • MLA Journals: PMLA, Vol. 123, No. 1, January 2008
  • MLA Journals: PMLA, Vol. 125, No. 4, October 2010
  • Harvard University Press
  • "Creating a Stir Wherever she goes" – The New York Times, February 2002

Template:Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy - Thought and Ethics

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