“I have never been able to think that I am anything but just a non-bluffing person”


Nele Brönner

From The Hindu:

Could you tell us a little bit about your intellectual evolution. You are considered among one of the foremost thinkers in the world today. Did you have any sense of how far you would go?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: No, frankly, no (laughs). I have never been able to think that I am anything but just a non-bluffing person. I am not a scholar. I was trained in Calcutta University during those years to think on my feet but because I am not a scholar I often reinvent the wheel and then I console myself by saying that the wheel is not a bad thing to invent… and that’s why I can also be so bold. I go into other disciplines and I can always tell that the disciplinarians who are really good and wonderful they support me. They see that here is a person from the outside the discipline who is trying and so they support me and when there is some kind of mistake they take me in hand. I think of people like Bimal Krishna Matilal. I have solid high school Sanskrit. I can read historical narrative things like Rajatarangini and Mahabharata without a dictionary. I can’t read philosophical or linguistic Sanskrit and that needs to be explained to me. And with this Sanskrit in hand I have offered readings here and there and people like Bimal or Peter van Der Veer would say “Good, someone outside of the discipline is trying carefully, is trying hard and comes up sometimes with interesting things”. And Bimal would also say affectionately,” tell them this is a new reading” and he knew that people wouldn’t question his authority. On the other hand, people who are less good, who are kind of bound by their discipline are quite hostile towards me. In history, in Sanskrit, in political theory…some colleague whose name I will not divulge has actually said in print that I was juridically and theoretically unprepared for reading the Dharmashastra in “Can the subaltern Speak?”. What I told him was “now when feminists the world over read Oedipus, they are not all classicists. I certainly can read texts that constitute of me in culture which I share even with the poorest woman within Hinduism. I have a right from within and I know some Sanskrit. Who are you to say I am not the appropriate reader”? So that’s what I can say to myself. That I try very hard, I don’t bluff, I am not a scholarly type but I do as much homework as I can and I look for support from those scholars and friends who are strong enough in their fields to appreciate that I try. That’s how I see myself. I don’t really see myself as a great thinker. I am always surprised when people say they have read something by me or know my name. I can even say something else…this is one of my touchstones in a Mathew Arnold kind of way. My mother was once with me at an event where there were many many people in the audience maybe about a thousand and I spoke and came back and there was lots of applause, questions etc. I came home with ma and my brother asked her “well, how was she?” and my mother loved me with all her heart but she also knew that the kind of unquestioning pride in oneself (vanity) is a very bad idea it really stops the intelligence from operating so she, with a smile, quoted that old advertisement for Bankim Chandra from Star Theatre. I remember when Gobindalal came onto the stage on horseback with Bengal lights on the horses. So my mother looks at my brother and says “hei hei kando, rei rei bapar; astho pristhe gobindlal” . She said this with affection but it immediately made me realise how stupid it would be for me to take these kinds of tokenised occasions as any indication of any achievement on my part. I have never forgotten it and it protects me.

There are so many languages that you have worked in….

There is another story…quite an amazing story. I borrowed money, right? I couldn’t get a fellowship the next year because I was not a native speaker. These things have changed now but to an extent they have changed because of our work, you know. I had no working permit, and I was thinking ‘what on earth am I going to do next year?’ and so I gave a paper in Paul de Man’s seminar. He had just become the new chair in the new Comparative Literature department. My paper was respectable and he had filled all his financial aid slots for students and there was one left and this has come out in conversation much later when I was myself directing a programme in Comp Lit. At that time I thought it was because I was so dazzlingly brilliant but when Mr. de Man asked me if I would like a fellowship in Comp Lit I said ‘of course’. Because those slots …if you don’t fill them they disappear, so he said ‘ well, what is your foreign language?’ I said,’ English’. I must say that even at that stage it did not occur to me to declare my mother tongue as a foreign language which people do all the time these days to get into Comp Lit and I think that the politics of that gesture is deeply suspect. In a foreign country to get money you call your mother tongue a foreign language? So I said ‘English’. So he said, ‘Well, that won’t do. What else?’ I said,’ nothing’. I had had six months of French at the Alliance Francaise in Calcutta and three months of German with Mrs. Bhaduri who was the German widow of a Bengali freedom fighter in Ballygunge where I lived. So I asked ‘will the readings be in that language?’ He said,’ yes’. ‘Will the lectures be in that language?’ and he said, ‘sometimes’. And I said ,’will I have to write my papers in the language?’ He said, ’no, not necessarily’. I said, ‘ok, then I am in’ because I had no money. He said, ‘you can’t take language courses. If you are doing a PhD in Comparative Literature at an Ivy League school, you are supposed to know the languages’. I said, ‘well, I’ll give it a try’. That’s all the French and German I ever had had and so I sailed forth. I was a very brave person. I can say something very boastful: a couple of years ago, when it was the 40th anniversary of the Comp Lit programme at Cornell, they invited me – so sweet – as the best student that Comp Lit had produced.…and I was thinking to myself, ‘gosh, and I went in knowing no language really at all’! That was amazing. And how I went ahead to translate Derrida and that too in French, I have no idea, but I did.

Do you think Marxism as a political system is dying?

I think it will probably happen again because I believe it is never exactly appropriate to the theory. It seems to me one cannot tell the future, the future is undecidable but, nonetheless, it seems to me that the idea that capital should be used for social justice is not an idea that’s going to go away. I think that what we had – parties within a parliamentary democracy which is also Gramscian you know, democratic communism, that I think is probably going to come around again. At this point ,with the break-up of Russia, it’s too soon to say anything but, on the other hand, the idea of socialism which was based on the notion that if the agents of production knew that capital emerged out of the difference between how much they needed and how much they could make and that if they controlled that then they could build with that capital a just world – a welfare state, let’s say, that was not a very practical idea. Anyone who has been in teaching knows that the line from freedom from oppression and freedom to a build a just society simply does not exist. The only thing that can exist is freedom from oppression in claiming rights, which is also a certain kind of self interest. There was a huge education-shaped hole in the idea of socialism, so the kind of education that was encouraged was science and all that kind of stuff and as everybody knows it became state capitalism of various sorts unless it was within the mischief of party politics. But, nonetheless, as I say, you know, within a parliamentary systems things do happen. Goon politics was always there. Excuse me, I am not an idealist here but having been in those villages and having actually heard the stories of what the party did and how they were before, it’s not something you can immediately forget. I am not a party person and it took me years to break into these conversations. But it seems to me that it will come around but that will have to be taken into account that supposedly it’s about everyone’s changing of desires. I don’t think that changing the state formation is the end of it. In fact, it’s the beginning of it, as it were, so it will have to look very different. It’s also true that the factory floor has been pulverised under this globalisation thing etc so we will have to think of a model that is a little different from industrial proletariat as the kind of measure of socialism. And finally, but not less importantly, is the fact that it has to be gendered. There is a beautiful book by a woman — I think Dai Jinhuai is her name – who is a film professor at Peking University and she has written about the fantastic change in women’s conditions under Mao. That is something that no one can deny. It completely changed what Chinese women were and men and women became the same but then, she says, just that kind of rational egalitarianism does not undo internalised gendering which has turned, for example, organised labour everywhere into an enemy of women. Permanent casuals: that’s what the women are, right? The idea of free love, for example, at the upper end – that’s also a ridiculous idea. So, to an extent, it will have to become gendered in complex ways. As to how this can happen, who can tell because it’s not really a question of just a change. And the last thing I will say, and where Gandhi was very prescient, the model that Marx really dealt with – perhaps it was never clearly set out was not necessarily the model of what is called ‘revolution’ – the violent overthrow of a previous dispensation . That’s why when he wrote he said that he could only write in Britain because Britain had come to a certain place in the development of capitalism, and he said Germany can’t produce anything right now. Before the idea of the general strike later, that was more the model for change because at that point it was the industrial proletariat. I have already said that cannot be the centre but that would be – and I am now thinking about Rosa Luxemburg – a place where the intellectuals would just give tactical ideologues, just give tactical advice because the agent would be…. since in a general strike it’s not the intellectuals who are employed by the factories. In a general strike if there is violence it is epiphenomenol, it is not part of the definition.. This idea in Marxism which, in fact, Gandhi’s non-cooperation etc is related to – one can see that also in his Hind Swaraj and so on – that is not necessarily connected with violence. I am not suggesting that Marxism was a non-violent theory but it’s not crucial to this change in the agent of production. As Gramsci saw, and I am quoting, that Marxist project was ‘not just moral and psychological but epistemological’. This idea, that it needed a rearrangement of desires, not individualistic but collective if you like, because there are also Marxist fundamentalists who will approach any idea on education and dismiss it with the word individualistic. This is a great great shame. They have to be able to think that the singular is always universalisable. It’s not this collective and individualist kind of thing. These changes which makes a reality check on the assumption that freedom from oppression or exploitation leads directly to the impulse to build a just society or that Marxism is about self-interest… you know, which is about the human rights folks, the universal rights folks and the job creation folks …these will have to change and it will have to be gendered and we have to know that the model cannot be just industrial proletariat anymore because of where the mode of production has moved in the current conjuncture. The last thing is that the mode of production has not gone away. In our recent crisis, which we are still within, what really kept happening was that insurance for credit kept failing, right? One after the other after the other because there was a whole system of insuring for credit protection that had been built up totally imaginary, as it were. It fell and fell and fell and right at the end was, in fact, the old model working class. That’s the funny thing. All this stuff about service economy and so on and so forth…it hasn’t disappeared, the industrial model. I said a great deal because I think about these things but once again, I am not a political theorist and spoke totally as a citizen of the world rather than someone who knows it.

“In Conversation: Speaking to Spivak”, Bulan Lahiri, The Hindu