Monday, June 11, 2012

A Conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

I was first introduced to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak as an eighteen year old in college while 'critically' reading Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The book our teacher had asked us to refer to, contained essays by Elaine Showalter and Kate Millet, and ended with Spivak's 'Three Women Texts and a Critique of Imperialism'. The essay prompted me to buy and read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and unravel the hidden imperialist subtext at the heart of Jane Eyre's narrative of bourgeoisie female individualism. At the university four years later, I would revisit her demand for a geography of female sexuality in her writings, and her critique of western  models of class-consciousness and subjectivity ('Can the Subaltern Speak?'). Five years later from the time I read my first Spivak essay, did I get to meet the professor in person. On an immensely hot and humid morning in June, we were waiting at the Seagull Bookstore, which, as minutes unfolded, looked increasingly like a Foucauldian panopticon, but with the upper floors cut off. I was wondering at the possible tragic, or sardonic, or innocently humorous architectural implications, when Professor Spivak walked in.

After a brief tete-a-tete with Samik da (we were informed that we went back to 1956, having first met at a debating competition. Professor Spivak was adjudged the best speaker, but Samik da's team had won overall) she begins her talk, first noting down the questions from the audience, and then addressing them.

In a talk titled ‘Nationalism and the Imagination’ addressed at the University of Sofia at Bulgaria in 2010, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak proposes “a multilingual Comparative Literature of the former empires which will arrest the tide of creolization of native literatures.” On being asked to elaborate on the concept of creolization of native Indian languages, Professor Spivak narrates an anecdote. She says that when she gave a talk at the Conference of Commonwealth Languages and Literatures at Hyderabad with Meenakshi Mukherjee, the talk meant nothing to the mostly-foreign audience. This only reflects how difficult it has always been to generalize concepts like ‘nationalism’, ‘borderlessness’ and ‘feminism’. She insists that rather than drawing on the affinities between pure generalization, comparative literature should be performed epistemologically, as a study of ‘creolization’; and the initiative of change should come from the academic circuit.

Édouard Glissant’s approach to the concept of Antillanité serves as an illuminating example of ‘creolization’. Glissant had questioned the concepts of language, identity, and history; and had rooted Caribbean identity as a multiplicity of ethnic and cultural elements, located also within the “Other America” – thus paralleling the history and culture of the Creole Caribbean and Latin America, and the plantation culture of the American South. The concept of the creolization of languages thus comes out of Africa. The idea that creolity brings in a kind of force because of the insertion of older powers, forms the crux of Glissant’s argument. The concept of ‘creolization’ in the Indian context however, is different from Martinique and the African languages. For example, at the other end of the spectrum lies the instance of Chandannagore. Formerly a French colony, Chandannagore is interested in keeping alive only a French of the France, rather than adopting the rich variety of French from its several former colonies. It is the principle of comparative equivalence that is being overlooked here. It is in fact necessary to acknowledge that other things can also occupy the unique place of one’s first language. If Chandannagore promotes a mere nationalism of the French of France, comparativism based on equivalence attempts to undermine this selfsame possessiveness, exclusivity, and isolated expansionism.

Professor Spivak cites an unusual example of ‘creolization’ as early as the 14th century, in Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia. It is written in Latin because it is about Latin creoles. Through this book, Dante tries to do what the missionaries did in Africa; he does not Latinize Italian, but recognizes Creole, and suggests “high vulgar languages”. Professor Spivak insists that although critics look up to this book as the beginnings of nationalism, it is much more about creolity.

She eventually offers Prakrit as an example of an alternate theory of creolity. If Sanskrit is the refinement of the natural language, Prakrit, then creole automatically comes first. One must not forget that the many mother tongues of Africa as well as India are not grammatised (Sabar is in fact, pre-refined Prakrit). When two people from one such community sharing the same language interact, they often do not completely follow each other. Unbound by grammar, each person brings in his own repository of vocabulary. Professor Spivak is interested in making a database where all these varieties can be documented.

On being asked about her opinions on ‘critical regionalism’, Professor Spivak cites the example of Kenneth Frampton (whose book "Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six points for an architecture of resistance" employs the term first coined by Alexander Tzonis and Liliane Lefaivre with certain differences), and calls him an “uncritical, idealistic, Heideggerean architect”. Nation-state boundaries are like polyptotons – Heidegger made a philosophy out of it – and often disputed. The Nepal-India border, for instance, has been addressed by the two nations by their politely refusing to talk about it. Professor Spivak insists that it is better to look at regions, rather than nation-states. Hannah Arendt has likewise suggested that the putting together of nationalism with the abstract structure of the state was an experiment having limited history and a limited future. If we accede to Jürgen Habermas’s insistence that we live in a post-national world, certain problems could be responded to with better insight. Organisations like SAARC and ASEAN, for example, could occupy themselves with questions of economics, rather than thinking about regional jurisdiction. In this way, they could introduce better policies relating to the prevention of rape, and awareness related to HIV-AIDS.

When asked about her idea of “home”, Professor Spivak located the idea of a “house” within a socio-economic background. She traced the evolving of the housing industry, especially after the distinction between investment and commercial banks broke down. Housing industry is in fact the biggest index showing the government’s progress because it is the biggest amount an individual releases into the capital. She ended the talk with a quote from Ulysses,
“What is home without
Plumtree’s Potted Meat?
With it an abode of bliss.” 

In ‘The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach’ (1845), Karl Marx says that, “The philosophers have only ever interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.” She teaches at Columbia University at New York City, and she teaches people in the interiors of rural Bengal and the Yunan province in China. Through her work, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak proves an exception to Marx’s assertion.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Magic Mountain

I have been up here for a long time, Mynheer Peeperkorn, for years and years - I don't precisely know how long, but they are years of my life, which was why I spoke just now of 'life' - and I shall return to the matter of 'fate' at the appropriate moment. My cousin, whom I came here to visit, was a military man, an honest and good fellow, but that did not help him - he died here, leaving me behind, and here I am still. I was not a military man myself, I had chosen  a civilian profession, as you have perhaps heard, a sturdy, reasonable profession, of which it is even said that it may bring nations closer together, but of which I was never particularly fond, I must admit. As to the reasons, I can only say that they lie in darkness, lie there together with the origins of my sentiments towards your travelling companion - and I expressly call her that to make clear that it would never occur to me to try to alter a legitimate state of affairs - with the origins of my sentiments with Clavdia Chauchat and of my addressing her with only informal pronouns, a relationship that is never denied from the moment her eyes first met mine and fascinated me - fascinated me in the most irrational sense of the word, you understand. For the sake of her love, and in spite of Herr Settembrini, I subordinated myself to the principle of irrationality, to the principle behind the genius of illness, to which, admittedly, I had long since, perhaps from the very start, submitted myself and to which I have remained true up here - for how long now, I no longer know, I have forgotten everything, broken off with every thing, with my relatives, and my profession in the flatlands, with all my prospects. And when Clavdia departed, I waited for her, just went on waiting up here, so that the flatlands is entirely lost to me now, and in its eyes I am as good as dead. That is what I meant when I spoke of 'fate', and went so far as to suggest that I might possibly have cause to complain about my present situation. I once read a story - no, I saw it in the theatre - about how a good-hearted young fellow, a military man like my cousin, by the way, gets involved with an enchanting Gypsy - and she was enchanting, with a flower behind her ear, a savage, mischievous creature, and he was so fascinated with her, that he got completely off-track, sacrificed everything for her, deserted the colours, ran off with her to join a band of smugglers and disgraced himself in every way. And after he had done all that, she had enough of him, and came along with a matador, a compelling personality with a splendid baritone. It ended outside the bullring, with the little soldier, his face chalky white, his shirt unbuttoned, stabbing her with a knife, though you might say she as good as planned the whole thing herself. A rather pointless story, really, now that I think of it. But then, why did it occur to me?

Like Count Almasy's Heredotus, if there would be only one book which I would be allowed to carry with me for the rest of my life, and die with, it would possibly be The Magic Mountain. It's been a year since I read John E. Woods's brilliant translation for Alfred A. Knopf. I remember my AC was whirring that afternoon when I opened the book and read about Hans Castorp beginning his journey - just as it is whirring now. It's only ironic that I still do not possess the single most important book of my life. On a sad, humid summer afternoon, while thinking of creoles and southern plantations, and dreams and races, someone writes to you about a man scribbling on the walls of Saint Petersburg because he had a story to tell, and he didn't have paper to write it on. For no apparent rhyme or reason, you move west, and are suddenly reminded of the rarefied Swiss air, of a humanist professor and a young, inexperienced man. Now you'll know that every time you think of Margarita, a completely different story will also come to your mind, vying for remembrance. Of that sad, humid, summer afternoon, and of letters written.

The passage quoted above is one of my favourites from the book. I'd copied it down in my diary while reading, and have revisited it innumerable times.

Friday, June 8, 2012

"Kiss me and you will see how important I am."

Friday, June 1, 2012

Reading List: May

1. When we were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro
2. The Two Sisters - H. E. Bates
3.Collected Stories - Beryl Bainbridge
4.The Awakening - Kate Chopin
5.Nocturnes - Kazuo Ishiguro
6.The Visit - Friedrich Duerrenmatt
7. Come and Go - Samuel Beckett
8.Arthur and George - Julian Barnes