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Gayatri Spivak, Interviwed by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera: At this point in your life, in your career, how would you cast yourself?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: I have always had great difficulty casting myself, surely it is others who cast me. I think what I really do is teach. I don’t ever have a sense that I do anything other than teach. I think it’s very important to teach, to try to change minds. Rearrangement of desires, as I say, you know, at the two ends of the spectrum. At one end, it’s a very hard thing, trying to develop habits and rituals of democracy, in the largest sector of the electorate, which is the poorest of the rural poor, whose votes are bought, in what is called the world’s largest democracy, India. So I’m a teacher there, and I’m a teacher at the other end of the spectrum, in the most powerful university in the most powerful city in the world. And there I think it’s extremely necessary to dislodge, again rearrangement of desires, you don’t change minds so easily, to dislodge the conviction that one can help, to dislodge the conviction that lasting help is so easy. The American habit of helping which leads only to a reputation of generosity on the part of the helper, you know this is a scary thing. The help involves political and economic transformations of kinds which are not very salutary. And in Columbia University students do not always know this. They are eager to step into the “International Civil Society”. I’m just going to Bangalore to talk about Law and Social movements, and I see, like you, a very good person who has prepared some questions for me, and I’m interested. This is an Indian city, I’ve written about this city in a piece called Megacity. Bangalore is one of the software capitals of India, it’s hardly India anymore, its face is turned towards elsewhere. So I’m interested in saying something there. As it is, I’m amused that they brought me, because I’m a “non-resident Indian”, which is the Indian shortening for people of my sort. Why have they asked me to come I can’t take myself seriously there. But on the other hand, what I was thinking was, these social movements, they are out of touch, because these social movements that began wonderfully, you know the “new social movements” from the end of the sixties, really in the seventies, they were taken over, they have become the “International Civil Society”, a completely different kind of thing. And you know social movements were in the old days defined as extra-state collective actions. What is called “terrorism” is armed social movements, extra state collective action. So I’m going to tackle the question of “social movements” which is a totally absurd expression today given the “International Civil Society”. Given the definition of social movements, I’m going to tackle the question of the War on Terror. Now how would you cast me? One does what one can. I don’t know how I would cast myself.

OGR: Well let me try two possible representations of you in that context. Some people say that you are just a provocateur, that you are trying to provoke a certain reaction. Much in the same way in which people think about philosophers like Nietzsche or others …

GS: That’s not bad is it? To be compared to Nietzsche

Both laugh…

OGR: But then others would say that the intellectual is acceptable only as a provocateur. These argue that whenever the intellectual succeeds, when her words are taken seriously and become, so to speak, a guideline for practice, then there is trouble because if the intellectual succeeds in her call to action she would be bringing catastrophe and/or tyranny, and if not is just another frustration. So there are nowadays these two ideas about the public intellectual, either she is too out of touch, too theoretical, too playful, or else, if taken seriously she is the underlabourer of tyranny…

GS: As I said I’m a teacher. What I try to do, my work, is long term. But in the field of ecological agriculture, trafficking women, living with HIV/Aids, there I’m a short term activist. I join in changing laws and I move people from one place to another so they can now learn not to use chemical fertilisers. So there is a large part of what I do which would not fall into what you are talking about, but in the arena of thinking, my work is long term. I use the shorthand “change minds”. But I prefer the phrase “rearranging desires” because “changing minds”, my god, I haven’t seen anyone who has changed anyone’s mind, and so, there what I want is that these people wouldn’t follow. My activities in the classroom would not follow some guidelines given by me, I agree there, I’m like Kant writing to the Jacobins, saying you don’t follow… I mean this is some of the problem with international communism, you don’t take Marx and bring it in as a system of government, so to an extent, my role as I said in the case of the young Indians, the children, is to produce a different kind of mind. I think that is a very important thing to do. I said, didn’t I, that I’m not a leader: you said don’t they want you to become a political leader and I explained why not, and I remain… I get the results in unexpected ways and I feel if change really takes hold, then there will be change in general practice. It’s a very different kind of work from giving formulas, giving Leninist Universalisms like my friend Zizek, that’s not my way.

OGR: Let us move onto your work as a theorist, as an intellectual. Your work seems to move between European-oriented theory (you’re well-known as a translator of Jacques Derrida, indeed as a deconstructivist of sorts, but also because of your interest in the work of Karl Marx) and the sort of non-Eurocentric position that some identify with the stance of, say, the South-East Asian Subalternist Group, Latin American Subalternists or Post-colonial Critique in general. People in both camps find this ‘trans-cultural’ position disorienting, even untenable. They say you either take the side of European (or Euro-American) thinking or else, you denounce it from the position of the global southern subaltern. How does your work relate to this sort of criticism?

GS: You see the thing is I like European stuff. I find Europe interesting, and I chose Europe as an object of investigation. My mother had a masters degree in Bengali literature, I chose to study English. You know, I don’t see what the problem is with having Europe as an object of investigation, as you were saying before, why are we, non-Europeans, not allowed to do that? I found that in the 80s, and everybody has forgotten this statement of mine, I found in the very early eighties that in order to study Europe, since I’m basically a modernist, one must also study Europe’s colonial adventures very carefully. So I’m just being a good Europeanist in looking at all this colonial stuff.

OGR: But in that sense, if you allow me to intervene, I would say you have been a better European than most Europe-based theorists …

GS: I would hope so.

OGR: Because the case is that actually very few European theorists, you just mentioned Slavoj Zizek who many of us consider a friend, very few of them actually engage with this other point/countepoint of European history.

GS: No, they don’t, except colonial historians. I was once and I won’t mention names, but… because I have friends all over the world, but I was somewhere at a very famous centre and I had been invited as a fellow and there were colonial historians. Now, they know everything about colonialism, that’s not a problem. The problem with me was that although they know all about colonial history, they really, in spite of the fact that they had many friends in many of those colonies, they could not imagine those folks as really subjects of knowledge, they had some colleagues who were almost as good, indistinguishable from the whites, you know at Oxford and all that, that’s a very different thing, but in terms of and if I started naming names I would name names who have become quite famous in anti-colonial war, you know they are close friends, and this is a problem. So you know they were the colonial historians and so I would at once stand for high theory and I would say: “look, think of these people as producers of knowledge and not just as objects of study”. In my case Europe is my object of study but I certainly do think of them as subjects of knowledge as well. I don’t see that as a huge problem, that doesn’t make me Eurocentric, what I don’t particularly want to do is sort of anthropologise myself, you know, give little, I mean I could if I wanted to be in bad faith. I could very easily, You don’t need an awful lot of learning to persuade a group of European foreigners who want me to be really culturally authentic, to persuade them that I’m culturally authentic, because they are not specialists in the material of India. I talk, or give talks in Bengali on Indian material in India where I can be and I am questioned and judged, where I can be rejected, so that it doesn’t just become a union ticket to authenticity. To say in front of whites, “look, look no hands, I’m an Indian!” that’s disgraceful. And then I come to Karl Marx. Who told you Karl Marx is a European? I come from West Bengal, so I should know. It is amusing, I once refused to go to a German meeting, they were doing some kind of “What is communism in the future?” type thing and they had all the usual suspects: Axel Honneth, Nancy Fraser, you name it, Balibar, they are all in the central section, with nobody from Cuba or China, I would have been the only person from an actually existing left-front government, right, but I was put in a session with one of my former students, an immigrant in Germany of Spanish origin who is in fact doing work interviewing migrant women. I have nothing against her, I like her very much but I really minded that they didn’t think I was good enough to be with the big people talking about new communisms.

OGR: Why do you think that is the case?

GS: Because they didn’t think I would have anything to say except like you have asked me, about immigrant experience. I’m not an immigrant, as I said before, my postcolonial work is not about that, although I think its good to look at issues like non-access to citizenship, this business about undocumented immigrants, domestic violence … these are issues that I’m very interested in, but I myself don’t identify as a minority in the metropolis. They were actually defining me as only that, and so I thought I’m not going to go, because they don’t have anybody there. They forget about knowing about Marxist theory, where it actually comes from. Bengali communism is actually pre-Bolshevik, you know in fact it was a Bengali communist who established the first communist party of Mexico, so in what way would this be considered? And of course there is Mao who is a different thing, and of course Mao has influenced the… and Michael Hardt thinks I must be a Maoist because I am interested in the rural area. Nonetheless, you know, it is important to see that the various traditions, despite what Benedict Anderson has written, and it is a fine book, in Imagined Communities, for instance the tradition of Asian communism has worked very hard at wrenching Marx from his European provenance. I grew up in this place with a very strong intellectual left tradition, so am I supposed to think I am being Eurocentric if I apply Marxist analysis?

OGR: I can think of similar experiences, obviously being Latin American and being brought up at the time when liberation theology and sociology were at their peak, of course, one becomes very familiar with a certain leftist tradition. But then, when one comes here, here being Britain, Europe, America, it’s as if that experience of Marxism, of leftism or emancipatory thought never actually existed. If one tries to find a good book on it, that would be very difficult, here in Britain perhaps Young’s Postcolonialism: A Historical Introduction or Aricó and Lowith and that’s that. There is no consideration that this practice and thought of Marxism and Leftism is part of the tradition of worldwide struggle, much less that it could have something to teach to the mainstream tradition of liberatory struggle, why is that?

GS: Well, Why, because Europe has always been in power. In the detritus of the Soviet experiment, the entire Balkan area wants to be European. I moderated a session called ‘Are We Postcolonial?’ set up by the teachers of Slavic and East-European literatures and so on, and I was just in Bulgaria: post communism and post colonialism, post socialism and post colonialism so that particular stuff is actually a longing. I on the other hand have never been taken seriously within the tradition of western Marxism, the only person who has at all taken me seriously is Antonio Negri, but Negri’s own work is very different from mine, so in fact I speak as a certain kind of Marxist , I come from that intellectual left tradition. It’s an old tradition. I was first handed Das Kapital by my mother’s brother, a member of the legislative assembly from the old Communist Party of India. So, I speak as a Marxist. I’ll tell you a funny story which many people have heard but never gotten into print. When I published the translation of De La Grammatologie, my mother read the introduction because I had written it, and although she was an MA in Bengali, and obviously found it difficult to read, she never complained of the fact that it was difficult, she tried to understand as much as she could. But then she asks me a very difficult question: “but dear, how are you going to reconcile your communism with this?” and of course the word in our part of the world is not Marxism but communism, and so I told Derrida this story and Derrida says to me, “Gayatri, you should listen to your mother”.

Both Laugh…

GS: To an extent this exchange between mother and daughter tells you something about how we think we are being Eurocentric or doing European theory, when we actually are within communism. I’m not a kind of romantically bedazzled person from the communist party at home, that’s not what I’m talking about, that’s another story which I’ll tell another day. On the other hand, you have the feminist impulse. I have learnt that it has to interrupt Marxism not because of these sterile fights between men and women on both the British and the US New Left. That has left me quite cold, because it’s really true that in spite of all their victories, the Euro-US is not the whole world, even New York is not the whole world! (laughter…)

OGR: The ethical common sense these days seems to be a thinking of relation as embrace, an act of love in which one learns from the other. But, as you have pointed out, that is not at all the same thing as wanting to speak for an oppressed community. Ethics is not a problem of knowledge but something like a call of relationship without relationship. This means that the goal of ethics is not to step into the other’s shoes, to become the spokesperson for the oppressed, nor worse yet, to pretend to let them speak for themselves. Rather, the goal of ethics and politics is that the subaltern, the universal exception as such, might cease to exist. This entails a revolutionary change, but apparently not the kind of change that will be brought about by traditional means. If so, what kind of revolution are we talking about? Does it make any sense at all to keep talking about revolution in this context?

GS: Ethics is a big word. I have learned to think that ethics is not just the name of doing the right thing, or being good to others. Now, there is one kind of ethical thinking which actually thinks that, I mean very developed theories, which think that’s what ethics is: doing the correct thing, telling the truth, thinking of the greatest good for the greatest number, all of this kind of stuff. Then you get into “virtue”, which has an idea of the mental theatre which is uncomplicated, so that’s certainly a good way of thinking, and that’s certainly the stronger way of thinking. Folks who think like that sometimes take the pedagogical part of ethical training for granted, they believe that what they have as a result of their liberal educational gains, is more or less what everybody has, so they are obliged to cut corners. Especially today. In the old days you could always talk about “savages” and “raw men” but today, you know that’s not politically correct, so you have to cut corners, you have to talk about political liberalism rather than philosophical liberalism. Take Charles Taylor; in a horrifying essay called “Rationality” he in fact gives Europe “rationality” and says everyone else has “consistency”. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Another way of thinking would say that what we call the ethical, that is to say, being slanted toward the other, is just a description of being human. In that area if one says that, that is just the “event of the ethical”. “Event” is perhaps not the best word but I haven’t thought of another one so let’s just use it as a bad word that’s filling in the place for some word. So lets just say that I am using this stop-gap word. If we think of this as event, there is no guarantee that it will be directed towards doing right doing the good thing, etc, some kind of result. It can even be, that you know, literature sometimes gives us a sense, and remember I’m a literary critic, it can be the relationship between Capt. Ahab and Moby Dick, to kill the other person, to the extent that you can completely identify with it/her/him… Carl Schmitt… but you know I would rather go to Herman Melville … it can be all kinds of relationships, not necessarily vectored towards truth telling, good doing, like virtuous, utilitarian or consequentialist versions of the ethical situation. In that situation, in that event, there is a second step which is ethics as task, so that, in fact, you can only think the ethical because the other thing is almost like, its not ontological but its almost like, what happens. You can only think the ethical in terms of accountability, responsibility, task. Let me explain that in relation to the work I do with some schools in India. That’s an intellectual challenge, because after reading a good deal of Rawls I said to myself one day, will I be able to, because I was disaffected from that kind of stuff, and I mean although Levinas has deep political problems, and very poor gender politics, but nonetheless that’s the stuff that appealed to me, so with all of these provisos, but they were so confined to their own community, I mean, in terms of Levinas’ support of Israel on the one hand, and this Eros… whatever its called, the chapter which I know very well… it is clear that I am not saying anything insulting by saying that Levinas’ sexual experience was probably confined to a very affectionate and fine exercise of sexuality called the missionary position, I can’t learn anything about sexuality from such a persons’ lucubrations about the role of woman in the household.

I found myself in these tribal areas, it wasn’t so clear, but I’m just narrativising it. A thought came: would I recognise the ethical subject if indeed they were shitting under the trees, if they were killing people, because the parents and elder brothers of my students are murderers, bus looters? I’m with them. If I started telling you these grizzly stories you would be appalled, so they have so little confidence in the whole vote business or even education, So what happens is that they are Nietzscheans in a sense. Remember Nietzsche’s description of academic freedom: a whole room where everyone is moving their right hands mostly, and one person is doing the talking, and that is called academic freedom, they are like pre-critical Nietzscheans. What the hell happens: they say let’s loot a bus, there’s at least some money in that. So I asked myself: will I be able to recognise the ethical subject if it didn’t come dressed like you and me? So from that point of view I would say ethics as task is a very different kind of thing because what happens is, you know this, this is why you have formed this question in such a way, like who killed who at what battle, you know and what century is part of which war, but your question is exactly that, its very nice, because I can see you know exactly what it is and so you are just turning it into questions, so I will give you back your question in answer form.

What happens here is that you prepare, like I was saying, habits and rituals of democracy, you prepare the subject to respond to the reflex which is the interruption of the ethical in a situation where knowing and knowing about the problem is not going to lead necessarily to the ethical decision. It may lead you to the correct decision, the sustainable decision, the prudent decision, even the decision that maximises the possibilities of peace, but those are very different kinds of things, they don’t lead to a lastingly just situation, nothing lasts, but nonetheless some things last longer than others. Changes have taken place, I mean the fact that you and I are sitting here talking to each other is the result of extraordinary changes, and not just technological changes. I quite often think of my village grandmother who was quite a managerial person, she could read a little but not write, or write a little, but not read, or whichever, I often think, what she would think of her granddaughter, dressed in these kinds of foreign clothes, speaking to a foreign man to whom she is not married, with everything in view (gesturing to her head and neck), what kind of sinful situation this would be coded as. Changes have taken place, we have to have this in our heads, some changes do take place and those are the kind of changes one thinks of and prepares for in response to the reflex, that’s the ethical interruption. Ethical things are not like the proposition “how are we going to solve the problem of Iraq?” That’s not the ethical situation. The ethical problems are “what trouble shall we take in order for us to be able to enter the space of those who produce the reflex?” If the reflex is not produced, then its not really worth doing. You know, I’m just going to my schools in India and there is someone going with me who is a white Englishman, who, he is still not going to go to the actual schools but some of these children have graduated and they are in high-school where this guy is, the former landlord, and so they need to be coached constantly, now how did this happen? He came to study at Columbia and he didn’t tell me anything about his plans, that was also part of the project, he had taken seriously what I had written about needing to learn the language if you want, to study the colonial adventure, so he had decided, OK I want to do 19th century Britain, I need to learn Bengali, this is very unusual, because the British came in through Bengal, so he was learning Bengali, so he got fellowships in Bengali as the historians or anthropologists sometimes do, but literature critics hardly ever do. He went to the American Academy of Indian Studies and got fellowships, and did very well, etc, etc, etc, and since I won’t direct a dissertation if a person is not reading the texts in the original, I’m in comparative literature, right, he wrote one chapter on a Bengali novel, interesting stuff, communism and the agrarian problem, so I know the ways in which the reflex came to him although we had not discussed it, I picked up the signs, OK, the Bengali which is good enough to write a chapter is not good enough to teach these Bengali children who are completely disenfranchised, alright, but I’m taking a chance. I said you are going to have to insert yourself into that normality. There is no way you are going to come, and this is not like American students being taken and having a good experience, there is no way they are going to think of you as someone who is constantly going to talk about his home country, that’s not why you are going there. No gadgets, no nothing, either you insert yourself into that normality and become just a teacher, or it won’t work, and you know we were talking, and I had earned the right to become a little racist, see because they have never seen white people these kids and not necessarily going to like many of the teachers. And I said to him, later I thought this was a racist remark, its good that you’re not blonde because it would have created a very bad kind of distance situation. He has to be completely not noticeable to succeed there because its not like international civil society with interpreters and…

OGR: And Flags…

GS: …and smilingly wearing hijabs because you need to cover your head if you go to Afghanistan, and the next week they are going to Kosovo. It’s not like that. It’s that long term change for the ethical reflex and while they are a student, they may be Indian tribals it’s a different kind of thing, so that’s how much trouble you have to take in order to enter that sort of space. I’m not talking about the political, the juridical, the economic, those are crucially important, and we are involved in that, that’s why I talked about the agriculture stuff and trafficking in women stuff, but without this one no change will last. That’s what Can the subaltern speak was about: that neither the British nor the Hindus involved themselves with the actual subjectship of the women, though the British were unquestionably good in criminalising the widow burning, it became class dependant, so a certain class of women became colonial subjects.

OGR: So, what you are saying is that ethics has a lot to do with unlearning one’s own privilege?

GS: Not only that “Unlearning one’s own privilege” was a phrase I used before I knew any of this. Unlearning ones own privilege is a narcissistic undertaking. I would now say, “learning to learn from below”. Forget about the other one. I mean, you can’t unlearn privilege. Back then I had an inadequate concept of the mental theatre. You know this privilege has become millenary, how am I going to unlearn it? On the other hand, I am so different from these other Indian citizens, these tribals, for me to be able to enter into the space where I can, as a teacher, not as a psychoanalyst, that’s a very different thing, I’m not talking about transference, I don’t know how to do such a thing, and there your friend Zizek should halt a little before he talks so much about psychoanalysis. You can see he hasn’t a clue about the extraordinary struggle of transference. We all think that transference is like an analyst/analysand, but in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the way Freud describes transference is like wrestling with an angel. I’m not talking about psychoanalysis, I’m talking about rough and ready, not in the area of the psyche or the metapsychological but in the classroom. In a general way, in order to teach, becoming acquainted with the mental furniture which I am calling desires in the folks you are teaching, that is an excruciating labour, when the cultural class and historical difference and even religious difference (remember they are animists) although I’m an atheist it doesn’t matter, produced culture in a certain way. So that is a much harder labour than remaining focused on oneself and unlearning privilege, that was before I knew anything, The tempo of ethics is extremely slow. Remember how much importance I assign to politics, to law, to ecology, all of these I want to be involved in as much as a contentious citizen is, I join in things as much as I can, but this project, and moving towards a relatively lasting just world, that tempo is excruciatingly slow. I mean I’m as practical as I can be. If I want anything that’s what I want, you see.

OGR: That’s beautiful.

GS: Let me say about deconstruction one thing. See you quoted before The post-colonial Critic which came out in ’87 or ’90 or something. And those are interviews, and you know what I have said about interviews at the beginning of Can the Subaltern Speak? and also you know that most of those interviews are given after lectures and things like that when people have found me in various kinds of places, and after lectures is a moment of incredible excitement. I mean you must have given enough lectures to know, incredible lowering of tension, so I wouldn’t actually take the statements uttered in Postcolonial Critic as those which describe what I think of deconstruction. Deconstruction can’t found a programme, that’s what I said in there. I think what is more interesting is this, which I found out much later. I’m talking about the book Voyous a much later work of Derrida’s. I have the picture of the page in front of me, but I certainly don’t have the page number, its in the second section, where he is talking about how you can do constative definitions of democracy, because he is interested in democracy. I am interested in socialism. His interest, since he was not interested in Marxist analysis of industrial capitalism but rather commercial capital and communism as messianic and so on, his interest was more in democracy, my interest is more in a welfare state model of socialism, in other words when I was talking about ethics, the way you plug in this stuff is the generation of the redistributive impulse. I was talking about other kinds of things, the habits and rituals of democracy but if you shift the focus and you think about generating a redistributive impulse, the impulse to change the politics of one’s economics: Everybody talks about immigration, but if you change the politics of the economics of globalisation just slightly so many people wouldn’t leave, think of that. Who would think of that, first of all, its too complicated for those interviewers’ brains to think, and, in order for such a change to take place, a change in desires has to take place, and that’s not happening. And I remain at work to make that change through the ethical; I’m not uninterested in democracy but I’m more interested in socialism.

On that page, Derrida is talking about the way you can make constative definitions of democracy, where you would look at all the different theories that have come forth and see what would apply or what would not apply, and then he comments, and I know this page well, and he comments, ‘as I have been doing in this book. Or, he says you can give the definition and say ‘Hey you must really do this, you must really sign up, I’m going to really do this, etc’ In other words, and he is not going to say performative, because this is not performative. This one is given in this way, like “sign up!”. It’s all ‘We’, there, in the second statement. And then he says “and also have the patience to”, and his word is “messianic”: have the patience for a messianic waiting. So first of all short term, must do the: sign up!, join!, do it!. I didn’t come to what I just told you before by reading this, but I’m influenced by him, I don’t know how these things happen, but you can see the similarity there, so then the idea of doing the double bind of the short term and the long term, the waiting, the unexpected, as well as “sign up!, join up!, we must do this!”, that’s much more the model, the double bind of the short term juridical- political, and the long term waiting.

Oxford, June 2006

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