Fusion of the edgy and the orthodox


'I find that people take to my concepts," says Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. "And I become very troubled by this." Belinda McKeon meets the thinker.

Holding court the previous evening, at the Institute of Choreography and Dance in Firkin Crane, Spivak had appeared anything but troubled as she accepted questions on Art and Democracy, the paper she had just presented to an audience of artists, critics and academics in the building which was once Cork's butter market.

Arriving with a mannish trenchcoat thrown over her traditional Indian costume, her silver hair in a sharp crewcut, the 63-year-old had caused the excited talk in the foyer to drop many decibels. But hardly just because of her striking appearance - that fusion of the edgy and the orthodox which has become such shorthand for Spivak. To comment on Spivak's style, after all, is to court a snubbing by the Calcutta-born thinker regarded as the mother of postcolonial theory. "Since they can't talk about my work," she has said of such misguided followers, "they talk about my style".

Spivak needn't have worried; nobody in Cork seemed overly interested in her sari. Rather, as a panel discussion following her paper made clear, they were interested in debating the intersection between the artist and society, in terms of the ideas she had just presented and the concepts which she has made her own over the past 20 years, since the publication of her ground-breaking essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in 1985.

These are concepts dealing with the gap between the underprivileged and the institution, concepts of enforced silence and misrepresentation, concepts of gender as a limit and geography as a weapon.

They are concepts of oppression, of government, of minorities and their voices, and of how those voices get lost along the way to Western ears.

They are all concepts central to Spivak's philosophy, no matter how far it may move from her original project of postcolonialism - the study of the cultural and political representation of people of the former colonies.

So why, then, does their use trouble her? Spivak laughs cautiously, as if she's not quite sure she should be saying this. "I don't know if it's such a good idea to give in to them, if you know what I mean." Not really. Does she mean that these concepts need to be interrogated constantly - updated to give them a relevance right in the moment? It seems not. "I mean that I tend to leave them behind, but my readers don't seem to. You see, I'm a person who learns from my mistakes. And I think people tend to forget that, because they're used to scholars who build on their success."

Spivak's own success, however, has been nothing if not formidable. Born in Calcutta to "very ecumenical, anti-castist, middle-class intellectual" parents, she grew up in the first generation of Indian intellectuals after the country gained independence. Her father, who became a doctor, died when she was a teenager, and her mother, although married at 14, gained an MA in Literature at 24 and went on to become a reader of all her daughter's work - no easy task. Spivak's bibliography of publications and papers is, in itself, a weighty read.

She has taught at universities across three continents and held almost a dozen fellowships, including the Kent and the Guggenheim; she is currently Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in New York. One of the most sought-after names on the lucrative lecture-tour circuit, she knows that she is regarded, like her friend Jacques Derrida was right up to his death late last year, as a "celebrity academic", but refuses to take the notion seriously.

What she does take seriously is the chorus of criticism directed toward her work by thinkers such as Terry Eagleton, who controversially pronounced her recent book, A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason, so "pretentiously opaque" as to be "wretched".

Laden with multiple clauses, peppered with neologistic juxtapositions, Spivak's writing will often demand a second reading, and a third, before meaning pushes its way below the befuddled surface of the mind - and by then many readers will have walked away in weariness, or frustration, or both.

"Well, you know, I always like to think that I should pay attention to criticism," says Spivak when asked about negative reactions to her complexity. "Sometimes people think that it's a more theoretical vocabulary that is difficult, but I think one is more open to misunderstanding when one is expressing unusual ideas in very simple language. And I think that my language has become more simple. But I don't think that it has become easier to understand. I think sometimes, in fact, of those lines of Yeats, that 'there is more enterprise in walking naked'."

The interest in Yeats goes back at least to Spivak's high school days in Calcutta, where she learned his poems, most memorably, The Lake Isle of Inisfree. As a graduate student at Cornell University, she wrote a dissertation on Yeats, with the theorist Paul de Man as her supervisor. Her attempts to publish the dissertation as her first book, however, brought her first taste of academic back-stabbing.

"Imagine how naïve I was in the matter of career-building at that stage," she says. "My father had died when I was 13; I had nobody to advise me. Instead of asking de Man to help me publish my dissertation, instead I asked the Yeats specialist at my place of work to take a look. And I now realise - I have realised for some time - that because he had just published a book on Yeats, he clearly was a bit threatened by my approach. And I think that he acted out of incredible uncollegiality in advising me against publishing."

Spivak did, nevertheless, publish a different book on Yeats soon afterwards, setting out to be comprehensible to her undergraduate students without compromising any of her critical positions.

The Yeats specialist who discouraged her first attempts she declines to name, but it hardly matters; a short time later, she got all the vengeance she could have wanted, when her 1976 translation of Derrida's De la grammatologie (On Grammatology) made her reputation on an international scale. Rendered accessible, both through Spivak's translation and her introduction to an English-speaking audience for the first time, the work sparked vigorous, and still-continuing, debate on the tension between the written and the spoken word.

It also introduced Spivak as a heavy-hitting newcomer with a radical post-colonial perspective which bound deconstruction, feminism and Marxism in a marriage to rock the establishment. Intellectualism's inner sanctum beckoned. But, says Spivak, that wasn't the plan.

"When I was in my first job, at the University of Iowa, I felt that I was away a little from the mainstream, and so I would order books from catalogues to keep up in my own mind. And I ordered De la grammatologie in that way - I did not know who Derrida was. And having read the book, I liked it very much, and since it was a work by - as far as I knew - an unknown writer, I offered to translate it."

The task, in that it involved not only difficult translation work but a self-taught crash course in Western philosophy, was arduous, but Spivak took it on eagerly.

What drew her to Derrida's work was its exploration on ethnocentrism, a notion which interested her hugely at the time but of which she could find very little discussion elsewhere.

"I didn't know at the time that Derrida was Algerian. But I felt that he was criticising European philosophy from inside, in the way in which I felt that I could criticise the British from inside."

Spivak was startled by the response to her work. "I realised, by the time I met Derrida, that I had stumbled upon a huge rising star. And yet I continued to be surprised by people in very remote areas of the world who would come up to me - in Korea, in Argentina and so on - and say, 'your introduction to Derrida really changed my way of thinking', and extravagant remarks of that sort. And I'm always surprised by that. It was a careful, schoolmarmish kind of work, and the fact that it could move to many people I accept as a kind of gift."

A kind of gift, also, was the warmth of Derrida's friendship. "He changed my life in many ways," she says. "What was very striking was that this man, of immense intelligence and considerable scholarship was simple in his personality, and also had a great deal of . . ." She pauses. "He was humble. He was also, there was a certain degree of, I wouldn't say intellectual insecurity, but a kind of worry about the quality of his work, and he was devoted to his students. I saw him at many conferences where he attended all the sessions, rather than behaving like a kind of prima donna, and this was very unusual and this was down to the end of his life. And what was very unusual about him was with what care he attended to questions from the audience. I saw him, on countless occasions, turn a careless question into something the answer to which was really profitable for the entire audience. This was a great gift."

When Derrida died last year, an obituary in the New York Times was deemed by many of his friends and supporters to be unbalanced and disrespectful, and an intense letter-writing campaign followed. Spivak was among the critics of a piece that she describes now as "absurd and distasteful".

While she protested in her professional capacity, her esteem for Derrida was clearly also touched by real personal fondness. He was, she says, "very gentle, and kind, and sweet" to her mother. "He would always send wishes to her . . . and I don't want to make a big deal out of it, but that shows something."

As she talks about her friend, Spivak's voice is softer, sadder; clearly, she misses his presence.

Like Derrida, Spivak is conscious of a deep responsibility to her students, both at Columbia and in Aboriginal India and Bangladesh, where she works to train uneducated young people in rural areas to become teachers. A sense of struggle, she says, is by no means limited to the second of these roles; she describes the recent controversy at Columbia, which saw charges of anti-Semitism levelled against professors in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures as a case of "problems with academic freedom; I think the person involved behaved with utmost dignity".

Whatever about internal politics, the larger political climate in the US at present poses a challenge for the teacher in the liberal arts, she agrees. "I am obliged to quote Gramsci: 'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will'. You understand, intellectually, every negative implication of the current situation, but within that understanding and that analysis, you continue to believe that there must be ways in which a teacher can help. Otherwise you can't carry on. Disillusionment, I think, is something teachers cannot afford."