Study Guide

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Influences

Jane Eyre

Who can resist this story of an orphan-turned-governess-turned-wife, with all its thrills and literal chills on the moor? What self-respecting feminist can find the chutzpah to critique this longtime feminist classic?

Well, I can. For me, the novel is about "soul-making," which I define as a project related to "civil-society-through-social-mission." What's that, you say? Well, soul-making is what some women, like Jane Eyre, do when they take part in civic life; they work to advance a broader social agenda that aims to save others' literal or metaphorical souls.

Still not clear on what I mean? Let me take a step closer to the text, then. I put particular pressure on the character St. John Rivers, whose proposal Jane rejects and whose missionary passage to India concludes the novel.

I think this guy's inclusion in Jane Eyre is crucial. How so? St. John Rivers, the "high master-spirit," marks the distance between emerging European feminism and the concurrent project of imperialism, and in the process it shows us the limits of the European feminist tradition.

Since this tradition, as Jane Eyre teaches us, is cut off from the realities of colonialism and helpless to intervene in empire, First World feminists must acknowledge their complicity in all the world's problems. Listen up, First World feminists: you have to consider all the ways in which you've benefitted from, ignored, and even unknowingly sustained oppressive institutions. (See the section, "A Few of My Least Favorite Things," for more on how I feel about this.)

Frankenstein

Surely you remember Victor Frankenstein's monster? Abandoned by his creator, the poor creature decides to get revenge, and the rest is, well, history.

And history is exactly what I try to put back into this story in my reading of Mary Shelley's text. Which history? Drum roll, please… The history of empire.

To my mind, the creature represents the "uncivilized" others whose histories were obscured and denied by European colonialism. You know, "others" like me.

As I argue in "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism," later incorporated into my magnum opus, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Shelley's novel shows an uncanny awareness of colonialism's devastating impact on those it tries to "create" anew, as civilized, First World-acceptable beings. These beings haunt their former masters, in the real world as in Shelley's awful parable. You can't escape those spooky subalterns.

Beloved 

Based on a true story, this novel recounts a mother's murder of her newborn, meant to spare the child a horrible life as a slave. I discuss Beloved in Death of a Discipline, emphasizing an aspect of the text that's easily overlooked.

The story captures everyone's attention because of how it engages with history, memory, trauma, and many other human dramas. For my part, I'm interested in Morrison's sensitivity to what's not human. Her novel actually pays attention to ecology, and so reading Beloved can teach us about living on the "planet" in ecological harmony, rather than just on the civilized "globe." (See "Buzzwords," please, for more on this distinction and why I am pro-planetarity.)

Disgrace

Post-apartheid South Africa is one scary place, as this novel shows. The story focuses on David Lurie, a lonely and sometimes creepy literature professor who learns to live and love again after being disgraced. (Yeah, the title is pretty transparent like that.)

In my reading of the novel, which appears in "Ethics and Politics in Coetzee, Tagore, and Certain Scenes of Teaching," I pay particular attention to David's daughter, Lucy.

Lucy doesn't take up much space in the novel, but she does get some unforgettable lines. For example, after she's traumatized (spoiler alert!), she says she wants to start again "with nothing. Not with nothing but."

I suggest that some of us today might want to follow in her footsteps, risking radical loss as we try to live more ethical lives. We need to do less damage to others, even if, like Lucy, we feel damaged ourselves. Ouch.

The Work of Mahasweta Devi

For many years now, I've been translating stories from the Bengali by this key figure on the Indian literary scene. Check her out: Mahasweta's writing is vivid and visceral, rendering both the brutality and the beauty of impoverished Indian life.

I often accompany my translations with readings of Mahasweta's texts, as in the story collections Imaginary Maps and Breast Stories. I do this not only to show all that we can learn from Mahasweta, but also to blur the line between creative work (translation) and critical work (theorizing). You know me, I'm a boundary-blurring fiend.

The Life of Bhubaneswari Bhaduri

I know what you're thinking: the life of who? Well, let me break it down for you. My most important essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" ends with a reading of a "text" that's not a text at all. Actually, it's the life and death of Bhubaneswari Bhaduri, who hanged herself rather than go through with an assassination that she had been assigned to commit.

What's important isn't so much the suicide itself, though. What's important is the way Bhaduri's suicide was misunderstood by those around her. The political nature of her act was denied because her suicide was assumed to be the outcome of a love gone bad. No one around her could conceive of what her suicide really was: a protest against an assassination that Bhaduri disagreed with.

So her suicide, a small but crucial act of political resistance on her part, was actually rewritten in history as a petty personal slight. This rewriting of the woman's actual intent exemplifies the subaltern's inability to speak for herself. So often, political speech is withheld from those who most need for their speech to be recognized as political. And the rest, as we say, is history.

Of Grammatology 

My other major claim to fame is having translated this deconstructionist Bible by Jacques Derrida. (Don't try this one at home, folks.) There's no way to even begin do justice to the book's arguments here. You'll have to read it for yourself… if you can.

In the meantime, let's just say that Of Grammatology critiques the whole European philosophical tradition. Derrida's beef is with those who think speech comes first, and writing second. By doing so, these philosophers elevate "nature" above human culture, the country above the city, face-to-face communication above mediated communication, and so on. And y'all know how much I hate imbalanced power relations.

Derrida shows why binaries like "nature/culture" matter to politics, as well as to philosophy. These binaries imply value judgments that affect how we imagine and administer social life—value judgments that Of Grammatology sets out to systematically dismantle. In my own work, I follow Derrida's lead on the badness of binaries.