Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak / from Wikipedia

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Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (born February 24, 1942) is an Indian literary critic and theorist. She is best known for the article "Can the Subaltern Speak?", considered a founding text of postcolonialism, and for her translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Spivak teaches at Columbia University, where she was tenured as University Professor—Columbia’s highest rank—in March 2007. A prolific scholar, she travels widely and gives lectures around the world. She is also a visiting faculty member at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

Life and Work

Spivak was born Gayatri Chakravorty, in Calcutta, India, 24 February 1942, to a middle class family. She received an undergraduate degree in English at the University of Calcutta (1959), graduating with first class honours. After this, she completed her Master’s in English from Cornell University, and then pursued her Ph.D. while teaching at University of Iowa. Her dissertation was on W.B. Yeats, directed by Paul de Man, titled Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats. At Cornell, she was the second woman elected to membership in the Telluride Association. She was briefly married to Talbot Spivak in the 1960s. The Bride Wore the Traditional Gold by Talbot Spivak is an autobiographical novel that deals with the early years of this marriage.

It was her subsequent translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology that brought her to prominence. She included a translator’s introduction which has since been described as "setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces." After this, she carried out a series of historical studies (as a member of the "Subaltern Studies Collective") and literary critiques of imperialism and international feminism. She has often referred to herself as a "Practical Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist," seeing each of these fields as necessary but insufficient by themselves, yet productive together. Her overriding ethico-political concern has been the tendency of institutional and cultural discourses/practices to exclude and marginalize the subaltern, especially subaltern women. Edward Said has noted that "She pioneered the study in literary theory of non-Western women and produced one of the earliest and most coherent accounts of that role available to us."[1]

Her recent work, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, published in 1999, explores how major works of European metaphysics (e.g., Kant, Hegel) not only tend to exclude the subaltern from their discussions, but actively prevent non-Europeans from occupying positions as fully human subjects.

Spivak coined the term "strategic essentialism," which refers to a sort of temporary solidarity for the purpose of social action. For example, the attitude that women’s groups have many different agendas makes it difficult for feminists to work for common causes. "Strategic essentialism" is about the need to accept temporarily an "essentialist" position in order to be able to act.

Spivak had taught at several universities before arriving at Columbia in 1991. She has been a Guggenheim fellow, received numerous academic honors including an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College[1], and has been on the editorial board of academic journals such as boundary 2. On March 9, 2007, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger appointed Spivak University Professor, the institution’s highest faculty rank. In a letter to the faculty, he wrote,

“ Not only does her world-renowned scholarship—grounded in deconstructivist [sic] literary theory—range widely from critiques of post-colonial discourse to feminism, Marxism, and globalization; her lifelong search for fresh insights and understanding has transcended the traditional boundaries of discipline while retaining the fire for new knowledge that is the hallmark of a great intellect. ”

Spivak’s writing has been described by some as opaque.[2] It has also been suggested that her work puts style ahead of substance.[3]

In her defense, it has been argued that this sort of criticism reveals an unwillingness to substantively engage with her texts.[4] Judith Butler has noted that Spivak’s supposedly inaccessible language has, in fact, resonated with, and profoundly changed the thinking of, "tens of thousands of activists and scholars." [5] And Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, who has called her writing "inaccessible," noted nevertheless that "there can thus be few more important critics of our age than the likes of Spivak.... She has probably done more long-term political good, in pioneering feminist and post-colonial studies within global academia than almost any of her theoretical colleagues."[2]

In speeches given and published since 2002, Spivak has addressed the issue of terrorism. Clearly stating that her intention is to bring an end to suicide bombing, she has explored and, "tried to imagine what message [such acts] might contain." [6][p 93]. These ruminations have included descriptions such as: "suicide bombing is an act inscribed on the body when no other means will get through."

One critic has suggested that this sort of stylized language may serve to blur important moral issues relating to terrorism. [7] However, she stated in the text of the speech that "Single coerced yet willed suicidal ’terror’ is in excess of the destruction of dynastic temples and the violation of women, tenacious and powerfully residual. It has not the banality of evil. It is informed by the stupidity of belief taken to extreme."[3]


Spivak founded The Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty Memorial Literacy Project, a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization, in 1997, to provide a primary education of quality for children in some of the poorest regions of the globe. The Project currently operates schools in rural areas of West Bengal, India. By setting up schools and giving sustained training to local teachers who operate them with the help of local supervisors, the Project seeks to offer children in these areas the resources to enter the mainstream education system for high school and beyond. The Project is committed to using the existing state curriculum and textbooks to train teachers, in the belief that by using these materials they can better enable their students to enter the national education system on equal terms with others. "Since India constantly brags about being the world’s largest democracy, and this is a large sector of the electorate, what I’m trying to do is develop rituals of democratic habits," she said of the Project.[4]



* Myself, I Must Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1974). * Of Grammatology (translation, with critical introduction, of Derrida’s text) (1976) * In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987). * Selected Subaltern Studies (edited with Ranajit Guha) (1988) * The Post-Colonial Critic (1990) * Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993). * The Spivak Reader (1995). * A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present (1999). * Death of a Discipline (2003). * Other Asias (2007).


* Imaginary Maps (translation with critical introduction of three stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1994) * Breast Stories (translation with critical introduction of three stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1997) * Old Women (translation with critical introduction of two stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1999) * Song for Kali: A Cycle (translation with introduction of story by Ramproshad Sen) (2000) * Chotti Munda and His Arrow (translation with critical introduction of the novel by Mahasweta Devi) (2002) * Red Thread (forthcoming)

1. ^ Dinitia Smith, "Creating a Stir Wherever She Goes," New York Times (9 February 2002) B7. 2. ^ Terry Eagleton, "In the Gaudy Supermarket," London Review of Books (13 May 1999). 3. ^ Gayatri Spivak, "Terror: A Speech After 9-11," boundary 2 31.2 (2004). 4. ^ Quoted in Liz McMillen, "The Education of Gayatri Spivak," Chronicle of Higher Education (14 September 2007) B16.

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