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?
Incomplete.
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.

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