Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

The Question of Representation of the Subaltern in the Context of Neo-colonalism & Globalization

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Structure of paper Page

1. Introduction: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
1.1 Definition: (Post-)colonialism and Postcolonial Theory
1.2 Spivak's Allocation in the Studies of Postcoloniality

2. Biography
2.1 Life and Activism
2.2 Spivak: A 'Practical Marxist- Feminist- Deconstructionist'
2.3 Work and Impact on Postcolonial Studies

3. Poststructuralism
3.1 Definition: Deconstruction
3.2 Deconstruction and Postcolonial Studies
3.3 Spivak's critical Position towards (Western) Intellectuals and Education
3.2.1 Critique on French Poststructualism and the Question of Representation:
3.2.2 Critique on Postcolonial Theory

4. Feminism
4.1 Strategic Essentialism
4.2 Critique on Western Feminism

5. Marxism: Critique andReception
5.1 Modern Capitalism and the (gendered) International Division of Labor
5.2 Imperalism, Globalisation andNeo-colonialism
5.3 Worlding- the Labeling of the World

6. Subalternity and the Question of Representation
6.1 The Subaltern: Genealogy of a Concept
6.2 The Subaltern Studies Group: A Postulation for a new Historiography
6.3 'Can the Subaltern Speak?'
6.4 The gendered Subaltern

7. Conclusion: Spivak's practical Approach and Critism
7.1 Spivak's Impact and Apprach: 'to learn to unlearn one's privileges'
7.2 A critical Re-readingof Spivak

8. List of References

1. Introduction: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is best known for her impact and contributions on contemporary cultural studies and critical theories. She permanently challenges key ideas in various fields including Marxism and Post-Marxism, Poststructuralism and Feminism. In her very ambitious work she focuses primarily - through her feminist perspective - on deconstruction, Marxism and the critique of capital, exploitation and the international division of labor. She is as well arguing critically with the terms of imperialism, representation in the (post-)colonial discourses in relations to nationality, ethnicity and the status of marginalized in the globalized world.[1]

In this paper I want to give an overview on a very challenging, eclectic and contradictory, but important figure in the field of postcolonial theory- using different examples of her work such as her essay 'Can the Subaltern Speak?' (1988), 'Gender and International Studies' (1988), 'The post­colonial critic'(1990), 'The Spivak Reader' (1996) and 'A critique of postcolonial reason' (2003) as the main texts of references, as well as a variety of secondary literature including interviews, films etc. that demonstrate her main examinations. The utilization of many resources is a necessity for trying to summarize and to get a better understanding on her key concepts of work.

Before demonstrating her main aspects in the field of Poststructuralism, Feminism and Marxism I want to give an overview of Spivak's allocation in the field of postcolonial theory as well as a short summarize ofher biography which is helpful to have a better understanding also ofher writings.

One of the main focuses of this paper is further the situation of the female subaltern, a term that runs throughout Spivak's work.

1.1 Definition: (Post-)colonialism and Postcolonial Theory

Postcolonialism - to which Spivak alludes to - focuses its attention on the continuance, consequences and power of colonial discourses, practices and mindsets on the presence.

The conception of postcolonialism is based on the Latin term 'colere' which means to crop, tiller, occupy and cultivate. For the Sociologist Encarnacion Gutierrez Rodriguez the prefix 'post' censures three sections of matters: The 'subject section' in which subjects - that live in the transition between colonialism and postcolonialism or in a postcolonial society - are situated, as well as the 'system', which describes the political, economic, social and historical conditions and circumstances, and thirdly, the 'geographical entity'- such as the classification 'the Western world', 'the North' and 'the South'.[2]

According to Rodriquez the prefix 'post' further implies inequalities between the factual achieved liberation and the continuance of cultural, psychical and social colonialization.[3]

At this part Spivak ties up:

“[...] colonialization [...] is about settling a place which was unsettled before, and that brings us to an issue [...]: the assumption that when the colonizers come to a world, they encounter it as uninscribed earth uponwhich theywrite theirinscriptions” (Spivak 1990: 129).

Postcolonial theory- originally based on literary and cultural studies- influenced and is influenced by many scientific fields including terms of Marxism, existentialism, the Foucaultian conception of power, new humanism, psychology and anti-racism. Within this study, social, political and economic structures - that were established during colonial rule and the continuity of these forms on cultural, economic, and political life in postcolonial nations, ranging from Algeria to South Africa, from India to China, from Brazil to Mexico, are critically observed.

1.2 Spivak's Allocation in the Studies of Postcoloniality

Most of the main thinkers of postcolonial studies look in a 'historical view' on the term of postcolonialism while Spivak actually neglects the use of this term.

Her approach towards this field can be applied as 'postcoloniality'[4] as she pays - in contrary to other representatives of postcolonial theory such as Edward Said[5] and Homi Bhabba[6] - more attention to the economic, cultural and political facts of the present postcolonial circumstances, the international division of labor and its cultural and political consequences[7] in which postcolonial nations are embedded. Within this, her focus is directed on the sustainability of educational and cultural imprints, affiliations, economic functions and social status between class, caste identities and disempowered groups in the 'Third World'.

Her critical view and her re-thinking of different terms and theories let her become one of the main figures in postcolonial studies. As a result she is widely acknowledged - besides Bhabba and Said­as a member of 'the holy triangle' in Postcolonial Theory.

Because of her origin, born in Bengal, India and having gained a post-colonial education, she is often seen as a spokesperson -asa 'native informant'[8] for the postcolonial world.

But Spivak is very careful with this 'label': “I will not marginalize myself in order to get sympathy from people who are truly marginalized” (Spivak 1996: 16).

As one can see, she does not like to situate herself, but she relegates: “The space I occupy might be explained by my history. It is a position into which I haven been written” (Spivak 1990: 68).

But there are similarities to other representatives, especially her location 'in between two worlds' - born and raised in India, but living and working in the United States - as she says herself:

“I have a mother and that's Calcutta, and I have a nurturing stepmother and that's the United States. Both are ugly” (Spivak 1990: 83)., but she follows in her further delineation - and this is very characteristic for her - “I feel I've earned the right to critique both two places” (ibd.).

2. Biography

In this passage I am giving an overlook on Spivak's biography which might be helpful to understand her writing and theoretical critiques.

2.1 Life and Activism

Spivak was born on the 24th of February 1942, five years before India became independent from Britain's colonial rule, into - as she said herself - a „solidly metropolitan middle class family“ (Kilburn quoting Spivak 1996: 48), belonging to the Hindu caste of Brahman. She visited - in contrary to other children of the same social origin - a mission school, led by Bengalian speaking Adavasi - 'tribals' - that belong to socially and economically underprivileged casts in India.[9]

Her primary education might have made her sensitive for social distinctions.[10] These experiences might also have marked the trajectory of Spivak's work.

In 1959 she received an undergraduate degree in English at the University of Calcutta. After this she borrowed money to complete her Master in English at the University of Cornwell and then pursued her PhD while teaching at the University of Iowa. Her dissertation was on W.B. Yeats[11], directed by Paul de Man[12], an advocate of deconstruction in North America who let her get in touch with the Derridian use of the concept of 'Deconstruction'[13]. Derrida became an influential taskmaster for her[14], she sees him being „[t]he most important philosopher of the 20th century (Spivak 2003a: 52). In the 1960s she was briefly married to Talbot Spivak, who's surname she kept.

Her reputation was finally made trough her translation and preface of Derrida's work 'De grammatologie' (1967) which was described as “setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces” (Landry/ MacLean, Introduction Spivak 1996: 4).

Today Spivak has achieved international eminence. She holds the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at the Columbia University of New York, University's highest rank, after teaching and giving lectures throughout the world, from UT-Austin/Texas, Universite P. Valery/Montpelier- France, Jawaharlal Nehru University/New Delhi-India, to Stanford/California, University of British Columbia/Canada, Goethe- Universität/Frankfurt- Germany, Riyadh University/Saudi Arabia and the University of Science and Technology/ Hong Kong- China.

Spivak is also involved in different activist works in India and the US. In 1997 she founded 'The Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty Memorial Literacy Project', a non-profit organization that provides a primary education of quality for children in rural areas of West Bengal, India.[15] As a teacher ofhumanities and a literary activist she also trains local teachers.

2.2 Spivak: A 'Practical Marxist- Feminist- Deconstructionist'

The radical approach of Spivak's work makes her interesting, but its complexity always trying to translate between and among gender, language, culture and politics makes her hardly accessible. The work is a range of different theoretical methodologies that seem to be antagonistic on the first sight, but as Stephen Morton stresses out, Spivak disrupts theses disciplines on purpose “in order to render the voices, histories and experience of the disempowered and the disenfranchised intelligible to her readers” (Morton 2007: 3).

In her work she breaks rules putting parts of different kinds of critical theory, that do not seem to match because of their antagonistic approaches and contradictions - including Marxism, Feminism and Deconstruction - in order to demonstrate their limits and incompatibilities without degenerating into relativism or phlegmatism[16] :

„Avoiding easy and intellectually undemanding pluralisms, she stresses the discontinuities and disagreements between practically deconstruction, feminism and Marxism while also stressing the need to continue to negotiate between these.“ (Jones 2005: 234).

She is constituted as a reactive 'Practical Marxist- Feminist- Deconstructivist'[17] „seeing each of these fields as necessary but insufficient by themselves, yet productive together“ (ibd.).

2.3 Work and impact on postcolonial studies

Spivak's persistently “prolific and changing work” (Jones 2005: 229) shows autobiographical tendencies and is marked by her cultural and social background being a Bengalian Indian educated in India and the US.

Her writings are clearly motivated by a political interest and desire. Spivak’s critical work includes numerous articles, books, interviews and translations on topics ranging from poststructuralist thoughts and literary criticism, continental philosophy, feminist theory and Marxism to the situation of marginalized peoples who are excluded from political representation in postcolonial nations, the international division of labor; the limitations of universal human rights and international development policies. As a member of the 'Subaltern Studies Group[18] ' she published a series of historical studies, literary critiques of imperialism and international feminism. She is best known for the article 'Can the Subaltern speak?' (1988) - an essay that is seen as one of the founding texts of postcolonial theory - but also gained her reputation because of her critique in literature ranging from 18th and 19th century English literature to postcolonial texts of e.g. Hanif Kureshi[19], Salman Rushdie[20] and the Indian writer Mahasweta Devi[21]. Spivak's work has been translated into all the major European and Asian languages. She also publishes and lectures in her native Bengali.

3. Poststructuralism

Spivak often uses poststructuralist conceptual apparatus to empower cultural and philosophical examinations of western imperialism. Also in this field she critically shows the limits especially of the French poststructuralist theories, namely Michel Foucault and his conception of power, Gilles Deleuze, Jaques Lacan and Felix Guattari. But also her 'colleagues' of postcolonial theory like Homi Bhabba, Edward Said and the 'South Asian Subaltern Studies Group' to which Spivak belonged to in its beginnings, are the centers of her attention. She always tries to overbear the limitation using the tool of Deconstruction.

3.1 Definition: Deconstruction

As Spivak permanently looks how verities are produced, she often uses deconstruction as a starting point of her writing. Deconstruction definitely can be counted as one of her most important 'theoretical columns'.[22] For Spivak deconstruction is “a corrective and a critical movement” (Spivak 1990: 104), that “teaches us to look at [...] limits and questions” (Spivak 1990: 104):

Many concepts are defined through naming antagonistic parts: For example “Truth is defined by falsity, presence by absence, knowledge by non-knowledge, and meaning by non-sense. What is more, the coherence of concepts such as truth, presence, knowledge and meaning are constituted by the exclusion of the opposite term” (Morton 2007: 46).

With the methodology of deconstruction Spivak tries to subvert the systems of binaries,[23] looking at its mechanics and excludes 'blind spots', that lay in-between the antagonistic opposition without denying subjectivity, history or truth:

“Deconstruction does not say there is no subject, there is no truth, there is no history. It simply questions the privileging of identity so that someone is believed to have the truth. It is not the exposure of error. It is constantly and persistently looking into how truths are produced. That's why deconstruction does not say logocentrism is a pathology, or metaphysical enclosures are something you can escape. Deconstruction, if one wants a formula, is, among other things, a persistent critique of what one cannot not want.” (Spivak 1996: 9).

Deconstruction is not - as often misunderstood - relativistic nor unpolitical. In contrary, it produces constructive and critical questions - an 'alert' that unsettles any form of hegemony[24] including dominant discourses, from the inside.

3.2 Deconstruction and Postcolonial Theory

Deconstruction is used by Spivak as a way of critically re-reading the phenomena of society. She also underlines its ethical importance.[25] In her work she is 'setting-to-work' deconstruction in the context of globalization and uses it as a political tool 'to cross borders'[26] and undermines hegemonic discourses and forms of representation. For Spivak deconstruction is a “radical interruption” (Spivak 1990: 19) that undermines, and de-hegemonize the common techniques of representation, de-constructs them in order to resolve them and to develop new and open spaces and create various possibilities - also in the altercation of terms in the field of postcolonialism and postcoloniality.

3.3 Spivak's critical position towards (Western) Intellectuals and Education

Even she sees herself belonging to the apparatus of 'Western' education and also combines its efforts with her own theories, she is very critical towards the (self-)positioning of many intellectuals: “The intellectual is not free to abdicate, he is imprisoned within an institutional discourse which says what is universal is universal without noticing that it is specific too” (Spivak 1990: 4). 'The Intellectual', according to Spivak, is ensnared in an educational system, that produces mostly 'Eurocentric' or 'Western' ideologies as well as serving the 'epistemic violence' of knowledge that often seems to belong to 'Europe' or other Western societies[27] which are in many ways “complicit with Western international economic interests“ (Spivak 1988b: 271).


[1] See Spivak 1996:3.

[2] See Rodriquez 2003: 20.

[3] Original version: “[...]Ungleichzeitigkeit zwischen der politisch faktisch erlangten Befreiung und der fortwährenden kulturellen, psychischen und sozialen Kolonialisierung” (Rodriquez 2003: 18).

[4] Nandi 2006.

[5] Edward Said (1935-2003), Palestinian-American literary theorist.

[6] Homi Bhabba, (born 1949), Indian-American postcolonial theorist.

[7] See, Moore-Gilbert 1997: 80.

[8] Mar Castro Valera/ Dhawan 2005:6.1.

[9] Adavisi are often grouped together with 'scheduled classes'. This communities are often considered as 'outcasts' (untouchables). In order to occupy a 'social space', many Adavasi converted to Christianity. See Morton 2007: 4.

[10] See Nandi 2006: 129.

[11] Titled: 'MyselfMust I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats'. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Irish poet and dramatist.

[12] Paul de Man (1919-1983), Belgian- born deconstructivist, literary critic and theorist.

[13] Jaques Derrida (1930-2004), Algerian-born French philosopher, known as the founder of deconstruction.

[14] See Nandi 2006: 129.

[15] Nandi 2006: 129.

[16] See Wikipedia 2007.

[17] See Spivak 1990: 69.

[18] Also see 6.2, page 14f.

[19] Hanif Kureishi (1954), Pakistani-British filmmaker and novelist.

[20] Salman Rushdie (1949), British- Indian novelist and essayist.

[21] Mahasweta Devi (born 1929) addresses the miseries of socially, economically and politically marginalized people in India in her fictional books and as ajournalist.

[22] See Mar Castro Varela/ Dhawan 2005: 57.

[23] See Moore- Gilbert 1997: 87.

[24] See Dreiholtkamp 1999: 159.

[25] See Morton 2007: 88 ff.

[26] See Jones 2005: 230.

[27] See Spivak Film 2004.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
The Question of Representation of the Subaltern in the Context of Neo-colonalism & Globalization
University of Münster  (Institut für Erziehungswissenschaften)
Basic Texts in Postcolonial Studies
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ISBN (Book)
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Postkoloniale Theorie, Spivak, Neokolonialismus, Dekonstruktion, Feminismus, Marxismus, Subalterne, Repräsentation, Globalisierung
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M.A. Constanze Lemmerich (Author), 2008, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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