Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty

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Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2007/CC Licensed

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2007/CC Licensed

While she is best known as a postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak describes herself as a “para-disciplinary, ethical philosopher”– though her early career would have included “applied deconstruction.” Her reputation was first made for her translation and preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1976) and she has since applied deconstructive strategies to various theoretical engagements and textual analyses including feminism, Marxism, literary criticism and postcolonialism.

My position is generally a reactive one. I am viewed by Marxists as too codic, by feminists as too male-identified, by indigenous theorists as too committed to Western Theory. I am uneasily pleased about this. (Post-Colonial Critic)

Despite her outsider status — or partly, perhaps, because of it — Spivak is widely cited in a range of disciplines. Her work is nearly evenly split between dense theoretical writing peppered with flashes of compelling insight, and published interviews in which she wrestles with many of the same issues in a more personable and immediate manner. What Edward Said calls a “contrapuntal” reading strategy is recommended as her ideas are continually evolving and resist, in true deconstructive fashion, a straight textual analysis. She has said that she prefers the teaching environment where ideas are continually in motion and development. Nonetheless, the glossary of key terms and motifs that is available below may serve as a kind of legend to a map of her work. It is not intended as a “bluffer’s guide to Spivakism” (The Spivak Reader) but rather blazes on a trail into this difficult and important body of work.


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born in Calcutta, West Bengal, 24 February 1942 to “solidly metropolitan middle class” parents (PCC). She thus belonged to the “first generation of Indian intellectuals after independence,” a more interesting perspective she claims, than that of the Midnight’s Children, who were “born free by chronological accident” (Arteaga interview). She did her undergraduate work in English at the University of Calcutta (1959), graduating with first class honours. She borrowed money to go to the US in the early 1960s to do graduate work at Cornell, which she chose because she “knew the names of Harvard, Yale and Cornell, and thought half of them were too good for me. (I’m intellectually a very insecure person … to an extent I still feel that way)” (de Kock interview 33). She “fell into comparative literature” because it was the only department that offered her money (Ibid.). She received her MA in English from Cornell and taught at the University of Iowa while working on her Ph.D. Her dissertation was on Yeats (published as Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats [1974)]) and was directed by Paul de Man (See Yeats and Postcolonialism). Of her work with de Man she says, “I wasn’t groomed for anything. I learnt from him. I took good notes and slowly sort of understood” (de Kock interview). “When I was de Man’s student,” she adds, “he had not read Derrida yet.  I went to teach at Iowa in 1965 and did not know about the famous Hopkins conference on the Structuralists Controversy in 1966″ (E-mail communication).  She ordered _de la grammatologie_ out of a catalogue in 1967 and began working on the translation some time after that (E-mail communication).  During this time she married and divorced an American, Talbot Spivak. Her translator’s introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology has been variously described as “setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces” (editor’s introduction to The Spivak Reader) and “absolutely unreadable, its only virtue being that it makes Derrida that much more enjoyable.” Her subsequent work consists in post-structuralist literary criticism, deconstructivist readings of Marxism, Feminism and Postcolonialism (including work with the Subaltern Studies group and a critical reading of American cultural studies in Outside in the Teaching Machine [1993]), and translations of the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. She is currently a University Professor at Columbia. (See Transnationalism and Globalism, Gender and Nation, Essentialism, Representation, Partition of India)

Glossary of Key Terms in Spivak’s Work

Ethical responsibility/Ethical singularity

Spivak’s usage of “responsibility” (like her dialogic understanding of “speaking,” noted above) is akin to Bakhtin’s “answerability” (otvetstvennost: sometimes also translated as “responsibility”). It signifies not only the act of response which completes the transaction of speaker and listener, but also the ethical stance of making discursive room for the Other to exist. In other words, “ethics are not just a problem of knowledge but a call to a relationship” (Introduction to The Spivak Reader). The ideal relationship is individual and intimate. This is what she means by “ethical singularity,” the engagement of the Other in non-essential, non-crisis terms.

We all know that when we engage profoundly with one person, the responses come from both sides: this is responsibility and accountability… The object of ethical action is not an object of benevolence, for here responses flow from both sides. (SR 269-270)

The ideal relation to the Other, then, is an “embrace, an act of love” (ibid.). Such an embrace may be unrequited, as the differences and distances are too great, but if we are ever to get beyond the vicious cycle of abuse, it is essential to remain open-hearted; not to attempt to recreate the Other narcissistically, in one’s own image, but generously, with care and attention. (See Orientalism)


Spivak’s work explores “the margins at which disciplinary discourses break down and enter the world of political agency” (SR). She interrogates the politics of culture from a marginal perspective (“outside”) while maintaining the prerogatives of a professional position within the hegemony (See Hegemony in Gramsci). Through deconstruction she turns hegemonic narratives inside out, and as a third world woman in a position of privilege in the American academy, she brings the outside in. Hence Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993). These contradictory positions have led her to develop the notion that the center is also a margin, more like the center line on a road than the center of town. “This is the classic deconstructive position, in the middle, but not on either side” (de Kock interview). This reconfiguring of the “center” (or re-centering, perhaps) also changes the position and status of the margins: no longer outside looking in, but an integral, if minor, language. (See Mimicry, Ambivalence and Hybridity)

Strategic Essentialism

In the Boundary 2 interview, Spivak wistfully pronounces that, of the two things she is best known for, both are often misunderstood. The first was her answer to the question “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and the second is the notion of strategic essentialism.

Essentialism is bad, not in its essence — which would be a tautology — but only in its application. The goal of essentialist critique is not the exposure of error, but the interrogation of the essentialist terms. Uncritical deployment is dangerous. Critique is simply reading the instructions for use. Essentialism is like dynamite, or a powerful drug: judiciously applied, it can be effective in dismantling unwanted structures or alleviating suffering; uncritically employed, however, it is destructive and addictive.

Spivak’s strategy is deconstructivist, like that of a good lawyer: when on defense, prod the prosecution’s narrative until the cracks begin to appear and when prosecuting, piece together a case by understanding the criminal’s motivation. “Strategic essentialism” is like role-playing, briefly inhabiting the criminal mind in order to understand what makes it tick (See Postcolonial Performance and Installation Art). The Subaltern Studies group, for example, succeeds in unraveling official Indian history by particularizing its narrative: “a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” (The Spivak Reader 214). This is also the way Spivak uses deconstruction, for example, without fully subscribing to it as a viable philosophic system or practice, much less a political program. Or, as she puts it, “[Deconstruction] is not the exposure of error. It is constantly and persistently looking into how truths are produced.” (Arteaga interview) “Although I make specific use of deconstruction, I’m not a Deconstructivist” (Post-Colonial Critic).

The misuse of the concept of “strategic essentialism” is that less “scrupulous” practitioners ignore the element of strategy, and treat it as simply “a union ticket for essentialism. As to what is meant by strategy , no-one wondered about that.” She claims to have given up on the phrase, though not the concept (Danius and Jonsson interview).


Spivak achieved a certain degree of misplaced notoriety for her 1985 article “Can the Subaltern Speak?: Speculations on Widow Sacrifice” (Wedge 7/8 [Winter/Spring 1985]: 120-130). In it, she describes the circumstances surrounding the suicide of a young Bengali woman that indicates a failed attempt at self-representation. Because her attempt at “speaking” outside normal patriarchal channels was not understood or supported, Spivak concluded that “the subaltern cannot speak.” Her extremely nuanced argument, admittedly confounded by her sometimes opaque style, led some incautious readers to accuse her of phallocentric complicity, of not recognizing or even not letting the subaltern speak. Some critics, missing the point, buttressed their arguments with anecdotal evidence of messages cried out by burning widows. Her point was not that the subaltern does not cry out in various ways, but that speaking is “a transaction between speaker and listener” (Landry and MacLean interview). Subaltern talk, in other words, does not achieve the dialogic level of utterance.

Beyond this specific misunderstanding (proof perhaps that Gayatri Spivak cannot speak?) Spivak also objects to the sloppy use of the term and its appropriation by other marginalized, but not specifically “subaltern” groups. “Subaltern,” Spivak insists, is not “just a classy word for oppressed, for Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie.” She points out that in Gramsci‘s original covert usage (being obliged to encrypt his writing to get it past prison censors), it signified “proletarian,” whose voice could not be heard, being structurally written out of the capitalist bourgeois narrative. In postcolonial terms, “everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern — a space of difference. Now who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern” (de Kock interview).

Another misreading of the concept is that, since the subaltern cannot speak, she needs an advocate to speak for her, affirmative action or special regulatory protection. Spivak objects, “Who the hell wants to protect subalternity? Only extremely reactionary, dubious anthropologistic museumizers . No activist wants to keep the subaltern in the space of difference … You don’t give the subaltern voice. You work for the bloody subaltern, you work against subalternity” (ibid) (See Museums and Colonial Exhibitions, Myths of the Native). She cites the work of the Subaltern Studies group as an example of how this critical work can be practiced, not to give the subaltern voice, but to clear the space to allow it to speak.

Spivak is particularly leery of the misappropriation of the term by those who simply want to claim disenfranchisement within the system of hegemonic discourse, i.e. those who can speak, but feel they are not being given their turn. “Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus, they don’t need the word ‘subaltern’ … They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They’re within the hegemonic discourse wanting a piece of the pie and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern” (ibid).

Unlearning one’s privilege as one’s loss

Privilege is also a kind of insularity which cuts off the privileged from certain kinds of “other” knowledge. One should strive to recognize these limitations and overcome them, not as a magnanimous gesture of inclusion, but simply for the increase of knowledge. The way to do this is by working critically through one’s beliefs, prejudices and assumptions and understanding how they arose and became naturalized. Any Zen master, chiropractor, or guitar teacher will tell you that real learning can only begin once years of mental habit, bad posture, and learning riffs the wrong way are undone, or unlearned.

What we are asking is that the holders of the hegemonic discourse should de-hegemonize their position and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other rather than simply say, “OK, sorry, we are just very good white people, therefore we do not speak for the blacks” (Intervention interview).

Major Publications

  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Translation of and introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John’s Hopkins, 1976.
  • A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
  • “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the interpretation of Culture. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988: 271-313.
  • Death of a Discipline. New York, Columbia University Press, 2003.
  • “Displacement and the Discourse of Woman” in Mark Krupnik, ed. Displacement: Derrida and After. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983: 169-95.
  • In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics.London: Methuen, 1987.
  • Outside In the Teaching Machine. London: Routledge, 1993.
  • Selected Subaltern Studies. Ed. with Ranajit Guha. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.
  • The Spivak Reader. Ed. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean. New York and London: Routledge, 1996. This book includes an extensive list of publications, including many interviews.
  • The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. London: Routledge, 1990.

Interviews cited

  • “The Intervention Interview.” Southern Humanities Review 22:4 (Fall 1988): 323-342
  • Leon de Kock. “New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 23:3 (July 1992): 29-47
  • Sara Danius and Stefan Jonsson. Boundary 2 20:2 (1993): 24-50
  • Alfred Arteaga. “Bonding in Difference.” The Spivak Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 1996.
  • Landry and MacLean. “Subaltern Talk.” The Spivak Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 1996.

Author: Michael Kilburn, Spring 1996
Last edited: June 2012

6 Responses to "Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty"
  1. I have been supervising an A.M. thesis, on Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” for three years. As much as I enjoyed the philosophical notions of Spivak’ s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, I suffer a lot with my student whose Arabic translation of this essay was the most difficult challenge I ever encountered. Having finished my editorial work of the Arabic translation of this dense philosophical work, I wonder how this very long work is classified as an essay. Its wide and profound arguments are worth to be published as a book. I wonder if Spivak, or any publishers thought of having this essay published as a book, if so when was that , and who was the publisher? Please answer my question urgently because I do need to buy this book.
    with regards

    • Caroline Lee Schwenz says:

      Dear Hana,

      To my knowledge “Can the Subaltern Speak?” has not been published in book form on its own. However, it has been included in many postcolonial and subaltern studies readers. It should also be available online. If you are looking for a good supplement to reading her material, I would recommend The Spivak Reader. http://www.amazon.com/The-Spivak-Reader-Selected-Chakravorty/dp/0415910013

      Best of luck!

    • Dr Hana Al-Bayyati says:

      Thanks a lot Caroline for replying. I have got this book online. It is very useful. I wonder if Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” was translated, or not. If so, to what languages?

      with regards

      • Caroline Lee Schwenz says:

        I am glad the book helped. I am not sure what languages Spivak’s essay has been translated into. However, I would not be surprised if it had been translated into multiple languages given the essay’s influence.

    • Kathleen Dixon says:

      In English, Stephen Morton’s book is a big help in reading Spivak.

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