20: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
postcolonial theorist

photos by Elena Mudd

Gayatri and I spoke about menstruation, her immigration story, womanhood in the academy, her mother's feminism, "Third World" women, attending to borders, and becoming useful.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is an Indian scholar, literary theorist, and feminist critic. She is University Professor at Columbia University, where she is a founding member of Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, and the first woman of color to achieve the highest faculty rank in the University's 264-year history. Considered "one of the most influential postcolonial intellectuals", Spivak is best known for her essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?," and for her translation of and introduction to Jacques Derrida's De la grammatologie.

Elena Mudd is a New York based visual artist, specializing in photography and video.

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on December 11, 2016, in Gayatri's Manhattan apartment. Elena Mudd photographed the conversation.


SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.


GAYATRI: First of all at the age of nine, in 1951, I began reading mystery stories, which has stayed with me until now. And also, I told my dad, it's a very Freudian story, "Dad, next year I'm going to have a double-digit birthday. And you have never given me a toy! You've always given me books! You gotta give me a toy!" So [laughs] he gave me a pink life-size doll! How Freudian can it get?


[both laugh]


GAYATRI: So that was my entry into girlhood! In 1953, in November, I menstruated. And then you become a young woman, eh? I was eleven-something, but you become reproductive. I had a broken cycle the first time, and I was completely unable to cope with it, and so was my mother. My dad was a doctor. An extremely gentle, wonderful man. And my parents had a very fine relationship. My father really respected my mother as an intellectual, which was a good way to grow up. So my mother then said to my dad, "You take care of this. I can't handle this anymore." And so my father put a bucket of water, about six pounds, and a little glass, and he sat me down and said “Look, this is the amount of blood you have in your body, and that's the amount you're going to lose. It's nothing. No big deal. But I want to tell you something. Men can only hear one thing from inside, which is the stomach twisting. And they interpret it as hunger.” I mean of course he was talking to an eleven-year-old, so this is not like advanced science. “Women can feel it, too. One of them is, of course, hunger, and the other one is the uterus twisting and you get cramps. Now the thing is, when you get hungry, you don't take an aspirin and lie down. So when you get a cramp and your uterus is talking to you, get up, run walk, and the pain will go away.” And really this was such a fantastic way of managing the exit from girlhood into young womanhood. These are the two things, and the first one relates to my dad and the second one to both my parents. These are landmarks for me.


SOPHIA: Did you apply that lesson yourself?


GAYATRI: Absolutely! Right to the end! Right to menopause. Any time any kind of problem happened, I went out, I ran, I walked, I did as much exercise as I could and it went away.


SOPHIA: You've said that the story of how you managed to borrow the money to come to the United States is "extremely entertaining and also interesting." Would you be willing to tell that story?


GAYATRI: I think I was really innocent. So it could've gone wrong. My dad died when I was thirteen, and at seventeen I was doing a lot of coaching. English coaching was the only thing in the 1950s for a young woman to make money quickly.  In 1959, I was seventeen. I had just gotten my B.A. I was a very young student. And I was very critical of the university. I was an English honors student, so at some point I had wanted to go abroad, and you would not be able to go, because for a humanities graduate, you couldn't even get a passport if you didn't get a first-class. I realized that I would have to leave, and so I heard the name of a person in conversation as a “philanthropist,” the English word.  He was the managing director of the Metropolitan Insurance Company. And so I went to his office. I didn't know him, I'd never seen him. Nothing. And I went to his office day after day, and the rule was you send in a chit saying what your appointment was, etc. etc. and of course I had no appointment, so I would just put in "education" and my name. And then since I came every day, in a couple of weeks he thought "Well, I should talk to her." And so I talked to him, and I really hit, I mean this guy later went to jail for embezzlement...


SOPHIA: [laughs]

When you get a cramp and your uterus is talking to you, get up, run walk, and the pain will go away.


GAYATRI: But he was perfect with me. I mean, I was only eighteen years old and he could've done anything. But he asked me what I wanted, and I said what I just told you. And so he said, "Well, you go and get admitted and then you come to me." I was very young. I mean, I didn't know anything. And so I just thought to myself that I knew only three names: Harvard, Yale, and Cornell, and I thought Harvard and Yale were too good for me. And so I called Cornell. I think I was directed to the Director of Graduate Studies, who at that time was Anthony Caputi, who taught drama. Later, he would laugh and laugh and say, "We never have ever received an application in this way." I called up and I asked for the English department, and I said that I wanted to be admitted. I did not need financial aid, because of course that's the biggest thing that stands in the way, and that I was a very good student, as I was. I was first in first-class in my B.A. I was the best student! And so I got in! 

So when the material came, I took it and told my future benefactor that I had received admission. So he then said, "Well, you've got to get a visa." So it was very difficult to get a passport without telling my mother, and because my mother was a widow and she was by then forty-seven, she would have been appalled that her eighteen year old daughter was buzzing off to the U.S. on borrowed money! And so I actually managed to get a passport through the father of a friend. I mean, now I don't even remember how it was that he was able to be my guardian, but somehow he agreed to be my guardian. And I got a passport! So at that point, he gave me money, and he said to me that he was not going to give me all the money. He was going to give me enough for one month. Five-hundred and something, because remember in 1960 everything was cheaper. He gave me the money and a little bit more, and he said "I will only give you the money each month if you get a letter from a teacher saying you're doing well." I mean really how I fell on this guy, I don't know.


SOPHIA: [laughs]


GAYATRI: So I said, "Ok." So he then gave me a one-way ticket to New York City, and he gave me a Greyhound bus ticket from New York City. And he said to me, "What is your collateral?" And of course I didn't even know what "collateral" meant.


[both laugh]


GAYATRI: I didn't know the concept. So I said, "I don't know. I don't have anything." So he made me sign a document which I think he was probably just pulling my leg.


SOPHIA: [laughs]


GAYATRI: I told my mother a lie that I had gotten a scholarship, and then I told her almost as soon as I got to the United States that it wasn't a scholarship because I didn't like to lie but I thought she would never let me go if she realized her eighteen-year-old daughter had borrowed all the money to go. So I didn't know anybody in the United States at all, and the amount of money that I was allowed to carry with me was eighteen dollars. And so there I went. That's the story of my arrival. [laughs]

The self-concept that we were given was one of thinking bodies.

SOPHIA: You started college in India when you were thirteen and then came to Cornell and stayed there for the remainder of your adolescence. Because of this, you were forced to develop an understanding of your own gender in an educational context that, at that time, was at least on the surface much more male-dominated than it is now, and in which you were quite vulnerable because you were very young, foreign, and a woman. Can you discuss the development of the relationship to your own gender in the context of your secondary education?


GAYATRI: This is the thing that just amazes me and amazes other people, as well. Because we're talking about 40s and 50s, right? Because of the unusualness of my parents...my mother was very active. When the refugees from the newly created state of East Pakistan came in the millions into Calcutta at Independence at 5:00am in the morning she was in the railway station helping with rehabilitation. She helped establish a nunnery particularly for educated middle-class women who really wanted to get out of their lives, etc. She ran the first working women's hostel in Calcutta so well that even the state asked her, "Mrs. Chakravorty, how do you do it? We failed!" 

[My family] thought that the thing to do was to be educated. Around us, in the larger family, they thought we were being brought up badly. We were not being brought up to marry some good man, etc. And so there was no problem [with my gender-perception] there. The self-concept that we were given was one of thinking bodies, you know what I mean? Not a problem. I was quite good-looking, [but] my mother never told me I was good-looking. No one ever told me anything about that, which was extremely useful because, in young women, outer appearance is often everything.

I went to a fantastic girl's school. And my first two years were also women's college because we were not allowed to enter the big college until the third year at that point. It has changed now. But once I went to Presidency College, I had to come face to face with an absolute kind of...I now understand it was hostility, I then didn't understand it was hostility. I was very young. It was a kind of doubting of my intelligence. Which was really like, "Oh, well she gets good marks because she's good-looking." I heard this nonstop. And that was undermining in a very solid way. I recuperated some of that by being very good at debating. I was the national debating champion of India for three years running to the extent that a guy who later became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India was hinting that I should become articled to him and become a lawyer. He made me an honorary member of the Legislative Assembly of the government of West Bengal. So there at fourteen I was sitting on the Legislative Assembly. And, in fact, once my mother sent me to the local grocers to buy some sugar, and I bought the sugar, and they were generally in newspaper bags because all middle-class women recycled newspapers by selling them. And so I bring it back and I give the bag to my mother and my mother puts it in the pantry in the big jar of sugar or whatever, and she looks at it, and says "Ah, Gayatri, there's a photo of you on this bag!" And that was my first newspaper photo!


[both laugh]


GAYATRI: So all in all, in spite of the hostility of the students, I was ok in terms of gendering and education. But once I came to Cornell, it was really awful because there was a lot of sexual harassment, and some more than just verbal. My own advisor was wonderful. Paul de Man was just unbelievable. I mean, the idea of him even remotely relating to me as a sex-object was unthinkable. He simply acknowledged that I was a smart young person. But otherwise, yes, it was traumatic, but the thing was what was more traumatic was that the guy I was with was so incredibly jealous that I never had a good graduate school experience. I remember a male friend gave me some Beckett, and this guy, Spivak, tore up the Beckett books. Why I fell in with such a person...He was tremendously promiscuous. I mean, by the rules of the game. Last year [my coworker] told the digital humanities person who was mentoring him, "You know, I have girlfriends, but if my wife slept with someone I would kill her." And I thought, "Well, nothing has changed." Spivak was extremely prejudiced against Arabs. And of course this guy from Nigeria was mostly African Muslim, and I thought to myself that if Spivak had been alive, he would have been absolutely undone that this guy and he had the same gender philosophy. And so that was really, I think, my misfortune. I suffered so much because of being aligned with this kind of extremely possessive, promiscuous man, that it was difficult. Especially since I was very successful at studies, and he wasn't. 

And then, of course when I became an assistant professor at Iowa, I was the only woman of any color in a sixty-five member white male department. There was one other woman who was an extremely well-known Renaissance scholar, much much older, and she did not have such a tremendously good time, either. She killed herself two or three years later. I don't know why, I didn't know her. But she wasn't a happy person in the department. I'm a resilient, optimistic kind of person. And there wasn't a great deal of on-the-ground feminism around. So I did not know that I should be crushed. So I wasn't crushed. I just went straight ahead and did my stuff. So when academic feminism began to stir, I joined in fully, Our Bodies, Ourselves, an extraordinary time. Pre-AIDS academic feminism. But my mother, of course, was a proto-feminist. I mean, she worked with the war-raped women in Bangladesh. I went along with her in 1973. The stuff that she did before I have spoken of already, but I didn't know that all of that had a name, and in English it was “feminism,” you know what I mean? And anyway, we didn't speak in English. My Indian boyfriend's mother was a little different from my mother, who was very well-educated, beautiful, intellectual curiosity all over the place, but we were not very Westernized, you know? But my boyfriend's mother was Westernized. So she asked me if I had read The Second Sex.


SOPHIA: [laughs] You spoke to DAWN about "not being much of a solidarity tourist" in response to a question about whether you locate yourself within the women's movement in South Asia. Could you speak more about what you believe a solidarity tourist can look like in a feminist context?


GAYATRI: You know, people who go to all kinds of places and kind of identify with groups of people who are feminists, etc. It's not a bad thing, but it's just not my way of working.

SOPHIA: You've spent many years in West Bengal teaching in schools that you've established for the rural poor. As an educator, can you speak about any gender-specific educational obstacles faced by Third World women?


GAYATRI: I don't know about Third World women. The so-called Third World is a very large place, first of all, beginning in Indonesia, and what do I know about Indonesia? The Third World was the world of the Non-Aligned Movement. 29 nation-states. It started when I graduated from high school in '55. But it failed almost immediately on grounds of nationalism. That was the Third World. And then the phrase was picked up by visible minorities in the United States to identify with. So as a political person, which I was from a very young age at home, I found that phrase boring. So I, in fact, never use it. 

I think Global South is another one of those reverse-racist phrases, which means elite teachers from non Euro-U.S. countries, who are continuous with us, will come forward to say "Yes, we are the other," and then offer alternative epistemologies, etc. I've always been deeply suspicious of this. I know nothing about Third World women. It's a broad category which ignores the question of class. You know, the person I was describing as a child, we are solid metropolitan middle class. Well-educated. Anti-casteist, plain-living, high-thinking, despise the rich, etc. It's not at all like the upwardly mobile, upper-middle-class kissing ass with the west, or very poor rural folks, etc. So “Third World women,” for me, do not exist. You have to ignore the question of class completely. Upper-caste women in that area of South Asia, they've been prime ministers, they've been everything. To an extent, they are what Derrida would call "honorary males," although within their own group, they have the problem that women have. They're taken to be child-bearers and family-servers up to a point. They have female servants who are treated like slaves. So who is this Third World woman? 

To an extent, I have no idea about anything there. And especially since '89, at least, the electronification of the stock exchanges, it also ignores what we call the North-in-the-South. What Clinton's labor secretary had called the "secessionist class." The dollar-income private sector in so-called Third World countries. Who are they? Are their wives and daughters, who talk culture a great deal, are they Third World women? Sorry, they're moving all the time. We call them DIPSos —dollar income private sector. 

I mean, do you think the situation is good here, in the First World, in terms of gendering? It is disgraceful. One has to think about gendering as such, and how it's disguised in the first-world sometimes. But I go to Scandanavia a great deal, and how proud they are. These are the best places for women to live. They're not thinking about the Somalis and the women in Rwanda and so on who are living in the suburbs. So it's a non-question, as far as I'm concerned.


I mean, do you think the situation is good here, in the First World, in terms of gendering? It is disgraceful.

SOPHIA: You've written that "Gender was thus our first instrument of abstraction. At the base of the formation of every society is the system of internalized rules." And, as I understand, you argue for an effort toward creating borderlessness in gender while also insisting that in order to make the world more just, we must reform and rearrange our desires —to possibly desire the law that gender has helped shape at the deepest level. Can you talk about the coexistence of those things?


GAYATRI: I didn't in fact say that there should be borderlessness. There is no such thing. What I had said is that we should learn to attend to borders. See, the question of borders goes from the absolutely private to the absolutely public. After all, nationalism is about borders, and therefore war is about borders. And of course, one has to take into account that there are laws, and enforcement doesn't really work. If you enforce laws, people find ways of getting around them. So by and large, the reward of conquest is rape. So [that’s what’s happening] on the most public front. And to an extent, this even goes inside armies where women fight. And what is rape? Rape is violating the borders of the female body. But on the other hand, those permeable borders of the female and the male body are also sources of pleasure. So you can't have a plus or minus injunction, you must simply attend to borders. And once you get in there, it becomes very hard to make laws because violence can be desired. So you begin to enter into the area of the incalculable. So we have to keep that in mind as we attend to borders, that ultimately we don't have sanctions for everything we are doing. We're acting in a way that has its limits. It's in the legal world, which is not the world of the mind and body. It's a very different thing. 

So in terms of borders, we must remember that before we are made into particular people, there are drives in us that are programmed to act in a certain way. Women find this to be more understandable because, the reproductive clock, clearly, is programmed. It starts. It ends. So we have a better understanding of the fact that, indeed, things to make a bodied subject can be programmed. And it brings so much psychological stuff with it when it comes and goes. At any rate, these programmed drives, which are pre-subjective, before even the linguistic begins to emerge, fasten on all the holes in the body. Eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, armpits, obviously vagina, anus, the penile hole, etc. Because of this, before reason, our sense of self is in terms of permeable borders. The idea is that the self as it develops takes [the body] over, takes it away from the drives. So therefore, it's very dangerous that something so private, pre-private really, and certainly before the division into private and public —should be taken up as something that can lead to such a public devastation as war. Borderlessness is neither possible nor desirable. But what kinds of borders is the question.

Those permeable borders of the female and the male body are also sources of pleasure. So you can’t have a plus or minus injunction, you must simply attend to borders

SOPHIA: You've said that you've found identity-themed writing boring, and then when you employ anecdotes, it's in order to make a point about a text or a theory rather than about yourself. But you also admit that you have been and continue to be influenced by U.S. academic feminism of the personal being political, our bodies our selves, etc. —all of this going to say, how has your self-identification as a woman shifted in location or purpose within your model of self throughout your life?


GAYATRI: My real problem is that I'm not very focused on myself, if you know what I mean. I mean, for example, I have this contract withVerso for this memoir, which I got in 2003.


SOPHIA: [laughs]


GAYATRI: It is so boring to even think about writing "I did this and I did that." So therefore it's hard for me to actually give you a rationalized story about how my self-identification has changed. I think that it changed somewhat in 1986, thirty years ago, because I went through these three truly miasmatic marriages. They were just truly gross. And so I kind of emerged into a space, [after which] I thought that what I want to do or be is useful. As a result...I have found that all of the assumptions about human beings in general that I had were based on my own sense of myself. That happens also with people who are subaltern. They also have the same problem: that they think that all human beings are based on the model of what they are, what they want, what they like, etc. And so my self-concept has taken a battering and come to acknowledge that you have to try to enter the self-concept, gender- and generation-divided, below a class apartheid, in order to be useful.  It's both men and women, because otherwise the police take rape culture and bribe cultural as natural and you can't blame them because of the education that they receive. So you can't just educate girls. So that's a self-concept which is very different from [my] youthful one. That was for me the big change in self-concept. Call it the education of Gayatri Spivak.  


[both laugh]


GAYATRI: The more I do this, the happier I become. That's a very peculiar thing. I'll be dead soon, so why should I be happy? [laughs] But that's how my self-concept has changed. The task is [aspiring to usefulness] and being able to make mistakes.


SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?


GAYATRI: What I was saying. Think about another woman. This is the main problem: women think that what they are is women. And that's just no. Not at all. I’m so identified with dominant feminism and high theory, I mean, my goodness, she's at the top, that I know so well that this is a huge problem. [As though] what I am is what women are. [We ought to] think about other women as holding the secret to being-women.

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politics, bodies, classSophia Richards