Gayatri Spivak: ‘The Subaltern Speaks Through Dying’

Gayatri Spivak: ‘The Subaltern Speaks Through Dying’

Gayatri Spivak: ‘The Subaltern Speaks Through Dying’

A conversation on the educational empowerment of rural poor in India, and the evolution of Spivak’s thinking about state and citizen.


Since the mid-1980s, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has split much of her working time between Columbia University—where she holds the post of University Professor in the Humanities—and a cluster of villages in the Indian state of West Bengal. There, about a day’s travel by train and motorbike from Kolkata, she runs four elementary schools where teachers of primary school children, whose standard mode of instruction has traditionally been rote learning and memorization, develop critical thinking abilities.

Spivak’s scholarly work has been wide-ranging and influential—encompassing Marxism, deconstruction, feminism, and post-colonialism. She was born in Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1942, and moved to the US in 1961 to do graduate work at Cornell. In 1976, she translated into English Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology), including within it a lengthy translator’s preface that itself soon became the subject of extensive inquiry and debate. Her 1988 essay Can the Subaltern Speak? examined feminist suicide and its misunderstanding within the family. First presented as a conference paper in 1983, it went on to become a formative text within postcolonial studies, and helped to popularize and develop the concept of the “subaltern,” first coined by Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks to describe “social groups on the margins of history.”

I spoke to Spivak shortly after her return from a trip to West Bengal in April. At the time of her visit, preparations were underway for state assembly elections. We spoke about the elementary schools and her past writings on education, as well as how young children and their teachers can develop an understanding that it is they, as citizens, who own the state. Since we spoke, West Bengal has become the site of violence between supporters of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP], led by Narendra Modi, and the opposition All India Trinamool Congress. On April 30, Trinamool won a resounding victory.

—Francis Wade

Francis Wade: In the villages in West Bengal you are, as you’ve put it previously, instructing primary school children in “rituals of democratic habits.” What do you mean by that?

Gayatri Spivak: The intellectual problem I work through in the villages is how minds that for thousands of years have been denied the right to think independently can be taught a mode of intellectual thinking modeled on imaginative activism. I’m not lecturing students on democracy; I’m teaching them English, Bengali, arithmetic, geography—the West Bengali state curriculum. But it’s the way in which we teach these subjects that matters. One of the things I do is try to make them feel that people who are really smart don’t always answer the questions the teacher asks. If one looks at Fanon, he knows that one of the real problems in a post-colonial situation is the existence of leaders, and the aspiration to be a leader. What he’s talking about, what I’m talking about, what Gramsci was talking about, is that in the usual, everyday structure of government, like that in the United States, there is this kind of leadership complex, and that’s very harmful—it’s totally undemocratic.

Down in the villages, the kind of bad leadership where leaders are almost always crooks—that’s a part of the politics down there. So how do you mold the supple minds of children without lecturing them? How do you make them fall into the habits of knowing when to not fight to win? I try to make the students feel that it’s only if you’re a little stupid that you want to lead the class and answer the questions all the time. I do that by making them see that I’m not answering the questions, even though I know the answers. So that’s a democratic habit—you get into the habit with me of not wanting to lead, or knowing that that wanting to lead is stupid.

FW: Are the students generally responsive to this style of teaching—and, even, your presence there? You are, after all, a Brahmin, working among very poor, marginalized communities, so there’s a great disparity in terms of where you’ve “come from” and where they have.

GS: What I’m doing there is hands-on work where I want to learn if it’s possible to undo a historical crime performed by my own caste, that of the creation of untouchability and the creation of a whole area of what upper caste communities perceive as inferior people. We [Brahmins] don’t touch these people; we don’t drink water with these people, even in the hottest weather; we deny even the smallest of children the ability to drink from the ponds that are supposed to be our ponds. These things are relaxing, but the internal feeling is not gone, and caste prejudice is active. If one takes the caste system seriously, as one should, then one realizes that the real problem is that they think it’s normal that they are held down, because the caste system was made by God, not by human beings. As for concepts, such as “democracy,” we’re talking about ideas that have been around for a long time, but not for these people, who are the victims of the caste system and who think that the good ideas are held by us [higher castes].

FW: It often feels as if, under Modi, violence as a political instrument is more freely wielded than before. How do the children you interact with understand this linkage between violence and politics?

GS: I always start the classes by choosing a recent event. This time around it was the elections there, and the oldest ones in the class, who are about 10, will be voting in eight years. So I asked them what they think about the elections, and one of my smartest students, Ram Bhandari Lohar, aged 9, replied—in English, because I always begin by speaking to them in English—“Election is game.” I said, “Okay good. Explain to me in Bengali what you mean by ‘Election is game’—what sort of game?” I’m speaking to him very slowly. He says to me, in Bengali: “Fighting.” You see there is so much violence there, and so on that level, not to know about party politics would be impossible. These kids don’t remain kids as they do in the United States.

But this is one of the examples of our success in the villages. He was able to talk about something that has a much broader implication, one that we understand here [in the US]. Certain lawmakers and people in power are protecting themselves against a truth that this little boy was accessing, which is that the presence of violence in electoral politics is a global reality. It’s not confined to those villages. We saw that on January 6 [the attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters]. We learn more from the boy’s answer than to diagnose that there is violence only in Indian villages.

FW: In your 2004 essay “Righting Wrongs,” you stake your position in the long-running debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois more than a century ago over how subaltern communities ought to go about attaining social and economic enfranchisement. You wrote: “I go with W.E.B. Du Bois rather than Booker T. Washington: it is more important to develop a critical intelligence than to assure immediate material comfort.” Can you explain your investment in that position?

GS: I have done a lot of work in China, and two years ago I was talking to women’s groups in various provinces around Yunnan. All the provincial reforms they were telling me about were geared toward income production. What I was trying to say in “Righting Wrongs” is that Du Bois was making the point that rather than only emphasize education as a means to income production, it would be better to produce in the person an intelligence with which they can make a decision about whether they’re going to go for income production rather than, for instance, for producing a will for doing good. The sentence which precedes that in “Righting Wrongs” is where I’m criticizing the United States: “The bounty of some US benefactor would be the sharp end of the wedge which produces a general will for exploitation in the subaltern.” So when Paolo Freire says that without the pedagogy of the oppressed, the oppressed will want to become sub-oppressors, you know that the guy knows what he’s talking about. He’s not romanticizing the oppressed. That’s what I’m also trying to say. And that was the opposition between Booker T. Washington and Du Bois.

FW: In the same essay, after a passage in which you detail failed attempts to get a tube well for a village from a local administration—and where you reject any would-be offer of the same equipment from a “remote international philanthropic source”—you write: “We want the children to learn about the heartlessness of administrations, without short-term resistance talk.” Why is it necessary for them to learn this?

GS: Well, I was wrong in that essay. The evidence I got from [the villages where I worked that were featured in the essay] was sentimental. Once I moved to the area where my schools are now, which is much more like modern poor India than the anthropologically preserved “tribal” enclaves where they were being protected by a feudal former landowner, the nature of my evidence moved completely. My developed approach to this question is to point to the Rosa Luxembourg style of social democracy, where you actually use the state, rather than just thinking of the state as heartless, and telling the children that it’s heartless. I think that was a mistake. And when I cross into the practical world, that’s my basic method: learning from mistakes. So here, my most profound mistake was to think that we should just say, “Ah yes, the state is an enemy.” Luxembourg, Gramsci—they considered the state both medicine and poison. You learn to use it so that it doesn’t become a poison, even if the follow-up can be punishment. You become a citizen and confront the risks.

But I do teach the fact that the state still does things for them because of me, since I know people in the state of West Bengal. But what I tell the supervisors [at the schools] is that [state officials] should work for just you, because you are citizens. I say to them: “I’m your enemy. I am good, my parents were good, but two generations don’t undo thousands of years of oppression. You have to be able to do without me.” And that’s claiming the state. Of course, again and again, it doesn’t work; but I hammer it in constantly, and I must say, my two supervisors, with whom I’ve worked the longest, do try to confront the state on their own.

FW: Is government underfunding of education in India, or anywhere else, for that matter, merely a product of state indifference to whether or not poor students progress, or do you sense that it’s something more purposeful: that the state actively seeks to maintain a class apartheid?

GS: The desire to keep the ruling class ruling is true for all social formations. I can’t give a definite reason for the gap in the quality of education, each situation has individual factors involved, but one can argue that it is to keep the largest sector of the electorate without the kind of critical judgment that would allow them to actually understand voting and to understand that the state is not their enemy, but rather something they make. That a citizen actually owns the state is something that must be kept a secret from them. The state is not their enemy; it’s their instrument that must be kept clean so that it can work.

The thinking might go like this: It’s best to give the largest sector of the electorate material benefits from the top down. They’ll become happy with this feudal benevolence from the top, and they’ll elect tyrants. I tell my supervisors at the schools that they’ll be given football fellowships, but the state will never do anything that will allow them to think independently. They can’t think independently because they’ve been denied that by the upper castes for thousands of years and now of course by the current rulers. This is a useful thing to discuss with them: how to think independently, how to devise problem solutions, and so on, because that’s all I’m trying to teach.

FW: Have the villagers been abandoned by the state? It’s easy to assume that, given such levels of neglect, the state is altogether absent.

GS: These subalterns are not at all kept away from the state. The state needs them; the state uses them. The state is everywhere—always on their case. In the villages, in order for them to not vote BJP, Trinamool [the opposition All India Trinamool Congress] has vaccinated all the villagers. The vaccination program isn’t so good in Kolkata, but I was amazed to see that even the poorest of the poor have had their vaccines. So the state is everywhere. The poor can’t access the privileges of citizenship, but they are constantly accessed.

FW: You’ve spoken forcefully on mass violence in Myanmar over the years. There is now a nationwide movement agitating against the military that seems to be continually pushing the limits of defiance. What does that evoke for you?

GS: What is happening in Myanmar is what Rosa Luxembourg called “spontaneity.” It’s not a psychological spontaneity; it’s a social motivation produced by the weight and length of unmitigated oppression. There has been so much violence, so much exploitation, so much oppression for so long. These people have grown up in it, and they’ve lost the fear of death. They’re really not afraid to die. This is a very peculiar thing. Fanon said as a psychiatrist that when you come to a place where the equality of lives is denied—that basic equality that makes us human—then it produces violence in extremis. But it also produces a condition whereby you’re no longer afraid of death. And the subaltern speaks through dying, like [Mohamed] Bouazizi [Tunisian vendor whose killing sparked the Arab Spring], and like [George] Floyd.

But it won’t last. David Roediger has a very good idea, what he calls “revolutionary time.” He suggests that, during a time of great political urgency, as today in Myanmar, people do many urgent things, perhaps even lose the fear of death. Yet while “revolutionary time” is very intense, it has no capacity to last; nor can you base a permanent political structure of change on this enhanced time. And as Gramsci said, you can’t use incandescent political passion to produce permanent political structures. So while something unusual has happened in Myanmar, we cannot necessarily think it’s going to last. Remember that Tunisia couldn’t keep it, and Egypt couldn’t keep it. We shouldn’t hope too soon, but it’s a powerful thing. Our role is not to just watch it, but to join if we can as an international voice.

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