WEB ONLY: Interview Transcript With Gayatri Spivak / By Alissa Romanow
Alissa Romanow: Some of your students would describe you as maternal in the classroom. What do you think of that? Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: If that is how I am perceived, I have to acknowledge the perception. I would certainly not want to be maternal, I don’t know what it is to be maternal. I myself should have thought that I was too harsh to be quite a mother figure, but on the other hand there is the bad mother.
AR: How does harshness function in your pedagogy?
GCS: I’m not particularly happy with that. I am somewhat harsh. I think it may be a reaction against the gradual trivialization of the humanities, though, that there are very smart students coming less well-equipped. I shouldn’t be harsh with them but it’s a measure of my deep dissatisfaction as a result. I think it may also be a reaction to the idea that good group dynamics make a good class. Neither of these is a good excuse for harshness, but if I am harsh in class, it would probably be for either of those reasons.
AR: What do you mean “good group dynamics make a good class”?
GCS: The idea that the essence of a class is not necessarily how much is taught, but did folks have a good time.
AR: I spoke with your former student, Marco Roth, and he recalled a quote of Nietzsche’s that you used to say in class: “Pain is the best aid to mnemotechnics.”
GCS: Marco is supplying his own memory with the appropriate quotations, as we often do ... The Nietzschean sentiment that is my watchword is the distaste for disciples. I have extreme caution about discipleship.
AR. What makes you cautious about discipleship?
GCS: I don’t think it’s a good idea, I think people should think for themselves while they are learning rather than overwhelm themselves by a teacher whom they follow regardless and they become unable to use judgment. Life is short. I think people should start thinking early. I learn from my students. You lose that if you cultivate disciples.
AR: It seems like this kind of education requires a certain amount of docility in the student being trained. Do you think discipleship is docility gone awry?
GCS: Well, you know docile means “teachable,” right? So there’s a kind of precarious balance there. The other day in a class here, there was a young man who was so clearly eager to show off his knowledge that the entire class suffered as a result. Now, there, I would say that you have to be able to think of the others who are present in order to make a class a real class. On the other hand, if one means by “docile” unable to express one’s own point of view or question the teacher intellectually or to offer constructive criticism, then I want to find uncoercive ways of breaking that docility. What troubles me is infantilization, when graduate students—or even undergraduates, you know—think of themselves as young in the sense of dependent upon the teacher. A university student should not be infantilized. I don’t like referring to my students as “kids,” it brings with it a whole package of attitudes. This is all a balancing act, of course. This is the contract that has to be implicitly negotiated between teacher and student. I will learn from you but will not expect to be led by the hand every step of the way. I’m not myself a moderate person. I have had to train myself, again and again, all through my teaching career I’ve had to train myself to work against my own grain in this respect. That’s one of the reasons why I sometimes say I’m not a good teacher—because I’m not moderate enough to balance. In a classroom you have to have some kind of balance in a collective situation, when you’re trying—especially in the humanities—trying to train the mind to think without oneself as the invariable example and touchstone. That’s the thing that I’m really talking about. Too docile, not docile enough. It’s the infantilization of the student within the humanities I’m talking about.
AR: Are you saying that you are not moderate in terms of your harshness?
GCS: In terms of my passion for my subject. It’s not correct to expect that every student will share that passion. You remember the day I was teaching “Plato’s Pharmacy.” By the end of that I almost felt like I was somewhere else, that I wasn’t even in that classroom. But I couldn’t share this with my students, they had not read Plato from the inside in their training. There was for me that kind of ecstatic experience at the end of that class as I was talking about the death of Socrates, and the psychoanalytic moment so skillfully introduced into Plato’s reverie. I didn’t share this passion with the class. But if I had, I would have thought of that as a moment of bad teaching, because for the students it would have been unearned passion coming out of the admiration for their teacher rather than an education that had given them Plato.
GCS: Well, because it’s not enthusiasm that you’re teaching. That produces disciples. What you are conveying is empty enthusiasm. There are teachers, especially male teachers but not invariably so, who think this is a good thing. But I don’t think it’s a good thing to teach that—that enthusiasm for the subject rather than the subject itself. I think it’s much better, especially with students who don’t yet know the material very well, not to emote too much. Paradoxically, that sort of enthusiasm closes doors because the student is not in a position to judge. And quite often I find that when I am teaching material like Derrida, which is not popular here, that students’ minds have been closed the other way. You don’t convey either your enthusiasm or your contempt for something to the student. It should be difficult for the student to tell where you fall in terms of your estimation.
AR: Is that in part why you talk about having a different relationship to the subject you are teaching when you are teaching Derrida?
GCS: Indeed, the very first day I said to the students that I had a different relationship with the subject I was teaching and they should remember it. It wasn’t perhaps necessary. But I thought that it was.
AR: So, passion itself is a good thing but it’s not something for the teacher to inculcate in the student?
GCS: It’s not a good idea. I mean, for me, it’s a mature passion that has stood all kinds of tests of time. I think of [Wordsworth’s] “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.” It’s a bit of a specious argument he’s making for meter and rhyme. When he was asked why he put in meter and rhyme when he was supposedly offering the reader the real language of man, he said it was because his imagination was so strong that that kind of going out of oneself which the strong imagination can perform and still come back to itself, if he just gave that undiluted to the reader, they might have a delusional experience. Obviously I’m quoting from memory so it may be like Marco Roth’s memory of the Nietzsche quote. But it seems to me that that’s the kind of point that I’m trying to make. You know the passion of a mature scholar for a subject is something that should develop. It is not enthusiasm that you teach. What you teach is a method that can be practiced in calm of mind. You know what I mean? Then, if the passion develops for the person who is working at this, that is a wonderful thing. But one must allow for that to develop in the student, rather than swaddle them with thinking that one author or another deserves passion because the teacher is passionately enthusiastic. Passion, passion for learning, should come as a result of dispassionate teaching, I think. Otherwise there seems to be a bit of fascism there.
AR: Terry Eagleton, whom you cited as your friend during your University Lecture—
GCS: I said “friend and critic.” To call him only my friend would be wrong. I think sometimes he is irresponsibly critical. But anyway ask your question.
AR: He has described your prose as “obscurantist,” which the Oxford English Dictionary interestingly described as “opposed to enlightenment.” Are you “opposed to enlightenment”?
GCS: Well, it depends on whether you are putting it as the European movement with a capital E. The genesis of the welfare state, which is in the global north getting dismantled and in the global south not getting a chance to come together—many of those benefits historically emerged from a certain vision of the European Enlightenment. From a certain vision. Unfortunately, it is also from that vision that colonialism emerged, so we have to make, again, a considered judgment rather than simply “be opposed.” See, my way of thinking and doing and living is not to be opposed to the thing. I think it’s always too soon to be opposed to anything. Really, something you are not interested in drops off from your teaching. You know what I mean? That doesn’t mean necessarily that they are bad. It means that you’re not interested in them. So, that’s just my way. I’m an intellectual. I have to have a life which doesn’t always create pluses and minuses in terms of my own experience. This is especially the case for a person who is somewhat… somewhat—I’m not really a marginal person at all—but in some senses I belong to groups that can be called marginal. And if I decided to represent myself rather than be a representative of—in one of my very early, much-translated essays I tried to point at these two meanings of “represent”—one as in a portrait, and the other as in a proxy ... We have two different ways of representing. If I tried to represent myself as a portrait of the marginal, then I think I would be unfaithful to the calling of a teacher. I’m an atheist, but in a very general sense if there is something sacred, then it is teaching. And it seems to me that one is unfaithful to one’s calling as a teacher if one decides to oppose things rather than to judge things. There is a difference between opposing and judging. So what I try to teach is a method of judging, rather than close or open doors in terms of my own passion. In that essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” I didn’t mention that the woman who hanged herself was my grandmother’s sister. This relates to what I was just talking about. The fact that my ancestor was something or the other is not a good way of actually bringing people into thinking right and wrong in certain ways. I lose the possibility of teaching if right from the start I establish myself in that position of having to be supported because of that representation as in a portrait—a representation of marginality as in a portrait. Representing the other way—speaking for women of color until they can speak, and working for that speech to become possible in a classed situation is a very different thing.
AR: Your texts are obviously open to misinterpretation. When do you decide to correct people’s readings, and on what basis?
GCS: Almost never. I have almost never—unless you can think of an example—I have almost never corrected people’s readings of what I do. One thing I do say, because as I speak I am reminded of it, because I couldn’t stand it frankly: there have been people—I don’t say this just to justify it—but readers in my support as well as readings opposing me have suggested that I have said that the practice of widow-burning was an act of resistance against the British. I find that so disgusting that I couldn’t not correct these readers both benevolent and malevolent. [laughs] Otherwise, I have never really corrected. I think when you put a piece of writing in the public domain, it is a good thing that people are reading it at all. If you are running after everyone to tell them what it was that you thought exactly—there are people who actually make a career out of this—I think that’s very bad news. A monk I knew had only one joke and he laughed so inordinately at this joke that I have laughed at the joke myself many, many times. There was a guy who wrote letters for the illiterate in the village. One day when the people came for him to write letters, he said that he couldn’t because he had broken his leg. So they asked, “Why? You don’t write with your foot. Why can you not write?” Then he confessed that his handwriting was so bad that he had to actually go to all of these places to explain what he had written. Now this joke, which is not really very funny at all—although this aged monk so laughed that we all laughed—when people spend their lives correcting people’s readings of their work, I’m reminded of this joke. Of going to the villages, explaining to people what it was you wrote. Mind you: I don’t hold this for everyone. There’s always an exception. One of the most enlightening works of Marx is the “Critique of the Gotha Program,” where he actually—I really wish people, the self-styled, mechanical Marxists, would read that piece—where Marx irately corrects a group, a bunch of basically Marxists who had written this program for the communist future development. “Critique of the Gotha Program”—a solid piece of writing. So therefore I’m not making of this an example, but I don’t—I mean, who am I? Also, you know, I’m trying to improve my writing. In that kind of situation, you don’t go and tell people, “You read me wrong!” I wrote wrong. That’s how I like to think of it.
AR: Is there something lost in “transparent” prose?
GCS: No. I think it’s very hard to write transparent prose. I’ll quote Yeats here: “There is more enterprise in walking naked.” I’m trying to write more and more simply, but I’m not therefore becoming more and more understandable.
AR: In your University Lecture you were saying that the humanities are relevant and even instrumental to the world that we live in right now. Is that correct?
GCS: Well, they can be. A humanities education can be used in a certain way, yes.
AR: There seems to be an ambivalence among people in the humanities, where on the one hand, they want to make a case for the humanities on the basis that it is useful, and on the other hand, want to say that the humanities does not have to justify itself according to a utilitarian logic. Would you talk about that?
GCS: Both positions are correct. And it seems to me that we fluctuate between the two. And given that I’m speaking to a general audience, I felt that—I don’t believe that education should justify itself at all—but given the situation that we’re in, I swung to the other end of the pendulum. I have gone out and talked to people and I heard again and again that the humanities were irrelevant. And there were two ways that I could have gone: I could have said, “Yes, and that’s rather nice.” Or, I could have said, “If you knew what the humanities did, which is to say, train the imagination, then you wouldn’t say that the humanities are irrelevant. But your imagination is so atrophied that you can’t even see this.” That’s what I was saying. As I say, both positions are correct. I do see, on the other hand, I myself, having been brought up by very solid, progressive, bourgeois parents, would find it difficult to be paid for something that wasn’t useful. I mean, for me it is rather difficult to say, I’m getting paid for something doing something useless. What happens beyond the assessments and the payments is something that no one can value or measure. But that’s a secret between me and my students. Nobody can touch us there. But that’s not what I was talking about in the University Lecture—no one can.
AR: On the one hand you have called yourself a “para-disciplinary, ethical philosopher”—
GCS: Erase that.
GCS: No, I don’t mean erase it from the interview, but I mean I’m not happy with those words that I used. Okay, but carry on.
AR: Well, perhaps you could comment on that. It seems that lately what I’ve heard you saying is that your training is limited, that you are only familiar with modern, Western European texts. Could you explain that? GCS: Yes, well, I’m not a philosopher. I think I said that “para-disciplinary, ethical philosopher” at a time when I really wasn’t thinking about what I was saying. And people have picked up on it. It’s in an early interview I think. Those interviews—I’m sorry that that book was ever published. I did it because the editor, the woman who edited it, she was in a position where she was a young academic and needed a publication and our society tends to push people into publishing too fast. And so that she could have some time to herself to produce a good book, when she asked me, I allowed her to edit that book of interviews. And I’ve never enjoyed it. It sells well because it has those very racy interviews, but I would rather—I mean, many people when they introduce me use that phrase—I wish that phrase would be given a decent burial.
As for the other thing you’re talking about, I think I protest too much. I think—this afternoon, for example, there was an interdisciplinary conversation organized by the Center for Comparative Literature and Society where professor Bernard Faure gave an excellent paper on Buddhism, polytheism, and violence. From our discussion, between him and me, that is to say, I don’t think people would have said that I was completely ignorant of the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. But the reason why I say this is there is a tendency now to sell oneself through a kind of self-anthropologizing as identical with where one was born, without training, and I think that is a meretricious thing. I’ve been told by a former student of mine, now two or three times, that young South Asian intellectuals are saying, “Spivak is for the West and by the West. She is not a South Asian scholar.” That is the kind of nonsense against which I say that my training has been in English, French, and German. In fact, I think I could say that my sphere is a little bit broader. I have high standards for myself. At the end of the hall is professor Thapar, who is one of the world’s greatest authorities on ancient Indian history and archaeology. Now, I can, when I’m sitting with her, have a conversation. But I certainly don’t know that material in the way that she does. So therefore, I, having these standards for myself, point out to people that I am a Europeanist. But I think I protest too much because there are persons in the profession who would lay claim to a greater expertise with less preparation, arguing from accident of birth and limited experience.
AR: Incidentally, Terry Eagleton has also described you as “coruscatingly intelligent.” And you have described yourself as an “intellectually insecure person ... and to an extent I still feel that way.” How does that insecurity persist amidst such admiration?
GCS: I don’t believe that I am greatly admired. That’s just a fact. I’m intellectually insecure partly because of very bad sexism in my early college education. I’m talking about a very well-known college, where I went in Calcutta—Presidency College, for my third year, fourth year, fifth year, and sixth year and then I came here. And in fact, the way I’m discussed by alumni of that place still reveals a great deal of sexism. This doesn’t make for intellectual confidence. It’s also because my stereotype of myself that I’m not a great scholar. Insecurity comes from there as well. My field of intellectual activity has broadened ... on the other hand, I wasn’t trained for it. There also is the fact that I learned French and German in an ad hoc way—I didn’t follow courses because there were no courses at my university in French and German and I couldn’t take them at Cornell because, for lack of financial aid in English, I was obliged to shift into comparative literature—and language courses were not allowed. You were supposed to know the languages. So therefore I’m not confident, although I do give lectures in French, I’m not confident at all. I tell myself a story to generate confidence. I heard once in the law school here professor Kolakowski, who was at Oxford, giving a talk in English making many, many mistakes in grammar. And I told myself, Gayatri, of course you’re not as good as Kolakowski, but nonetheless, you should think: Nobody in this room is listening to Kolakowski’s mistakes in English. They are actually listening to his ideas. And you should think the same way when you speak French—don’t be turned off by the people who mock you because you didn’t take courses! So all of these things—lack of learning, lack of trained command over languages where I’m otherwise at creative ease, sexism in early education—not in the family, in the family there was always solid support. But people, peer groups, have more influence on you after a certain point than parenting does, alas. All of these things, then, contribute to my intellectual insecurity and I’m rather happy about that because now, it’s not an impediment any more. I think it would be a great loss for me if I began to believe that people admired me greatly and, worse still, that I deserved their admiration.
Professor Spivak certified this transcript, marking: ©Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
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