Reading Spivak with Said

I wanted to jot down some initial thoughts about Spivak’s famous piece “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Despite the obscurantism and the great attention required to really parse Spivak’s text, reading it is ultimately a deeply satisfying and rewarding experience. The question that pervades the essay is essentially identical to that posed by Edward Said in “Always on Top” (published in the London Review of Books): “What does one do about the representation of undocumented experiences — of slaves, servants, insurgents (such as those at Morant Bay) — for which we have to depend on socially elevated, literate witnesses who have access to official records?” Said’s answer to his own question can be gleaned from his article in Critical Inquiry entitled “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors”, and more indirectly through Orientalism. Like Foucault, Said is invested in rigorous empirical work that informs, interrogates, and integrates critical theory; hence why Said responds to the criticism that his “work is only negative polemic which does not advance a new epistemological approach or method” (210). Said concludes by advocating the work of “engaged historians” whose “instigatory force … is of startling relevance to all the humanities and social sciences as they continue to struggle with the formidable difficulties of empire” (225).

Spivak, on the other hand, writes passionately in defense of the literary mode — that is, the focus on narrative that “dislodged the primacy both of the real and of the ideal” (Said 1989: 221). This investment in representation is reflected first of all in her mode of writing. The diction and syntax are almost literary, and I am sure that this was intentionally imitative of work like Derrida’s. An even more potent example of Spivak’s method comes at the end of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak juxtaposes two hypothetical phrases regarding the practice of sati: the British understanding of “White men saving brown women from brown men” and “the Indian nativist argument, a parody of the nostalgia for lost origins: ‘The women actually wanted to die’” (93). Together, these “two sentences go a long way to legitimize each other.” Spivak’s response, and thus her method in exploring the historiography of sati, is that of “the postcolonial woman intellectual [who] asks the question of simple semiosis — What does this mean? — and begins to plot a history” (93). Spivak’s focus on semiosis — narrative, not the real or the ideal — is also evident in her reading of Derrida. It is worth noting that Spivak’s early fame came from translating Derrida’s Of Grammatology: quite literally the study of writing in its purest form. In this article, Spivak argues against the common conception that “Foucault deals with real history, real politics and real social problems; Derrida is inaccessible, esoteric and textualistic … with no commitment to exploration of social realities at all” (87). Spivak defends Derrida, arguing that “a nostalgia for lost origins [à la Foucault] can be detrimental to the exploration of social realities within the critique of imperialism” (87). Spivak isn’t just making a theoretical point or expressing personal preferences; instead, she explicitly argues that empirical work (like Said’s and Foucault’s) is harmful. This is best illustrated by a substantial quotation from the end of the article:

We should also welcome all the information retrieval in these silenced areas that is taking place in anthropology, political science, history and sociology. Yet the assumption and construction of a consciousness or subject sustains such work and will, in the long run, cohere with the work of imperialist subject-constitution, mingling epistemic violence with the advancement of learning and civilization. And the subaltern woman will be as mute as ever. (90)

For me, Spivak’s concerns resonate with a simple but profoundly important question: What, really, is the point of what we do? Said and Spivak articulate and respond to parts of this question in illuminating ways. My first reaction is to agree more with Said and less with Spivak: I don’t think that fetishizing text and representation (à la Derrida) is as meaningful or as important as empirical work. In fact, I would go even further than Said and suggest that normative/practical work is more important than academic empirical work. None of these kinds of work can exist in isolation, and I strongly believe that rigorous academic work, meaningful engagement, and critical theory are all necessary and mutually dependent. Yet in choosing what we focus on, it is worth reflecting on what is most meaningful and important, to us and to the world; for me, the answer is not to reinforce the realm of text and narrative. That being said, these are my first reactions. I don’t have a coherent argument in response to Spivak’s persuasive argument but am rather relying on instinct.

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