Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
While she is best known as a postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak describes herself as a “para-disciplinary, ethical philosopher” though her shingle could just as well read: “Applied Deconstruction.” Her reputation was first made for her translation and preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1976) and she has since applied deconstructive strategies to various theoretical engagements and textual analyses: from Feminism, Marxism, and Literary Criticism to, most recently, Postcolonialism.
My position is generally a reactive one. I am viewed by Marxists as too codic, by feminists as too male-identified, by indigenous theorists as too committed to Western Theory. I am uneasily pleased about this. (Post-Colonial Critic).
Despite her outsider status — or partly, perhaps, because of it — Spivak is widely cited in a range of disciplines. Her work is nearly evenly split between dense theoretical writing peppered with flashes of compelling insight and published interviews in which she wrestles with many of the same issues in a more personable and immediate manner. What Edward Said calls a “contrapuntal” reading strategy is recommended as her ideas are continually evolving and resist, in true deconstructive fashion, a straight textual analysis. She has said that she prefers the teaching environment where ideas are continually in motion and development. Nonetheless, the glossary of key terms and motifs that is available on this site may serve as a kind of legend to a map of her work. It is not intended as a “bluffer’s guide to Spivakism” (to cite the introduction to The Spivak Reader) but rather blazes on a trail into this difficult and important body of work.
Gayatri Chakravorty was born in Calcutta, West Bengal, 24 February 1942 to “solidly metropolitan middle class” parents (PCC). She thus belonged to the “first generation of Indian intellectuals after independence,” a more interesting perspective she claims, than that of the Midnight’s Children, who were “born free by chronological accident” (Arteaga interview). She did her undergraduate in English at the University of Calcutta (1959), graduating with first class honours. She borrowed money to go to the US in the early 1960’s to do graduate work at Cornell, which she chose because she “knew the names of Harvard, Yale and Cornell, and thought half of them were too good for me. (I’m intellectually a very insecure person . . . to an extent I still feel that way)” (de Kock interview 33). She “fell into comparative literature” because it was the only department that offered her money (Ibid.). She received her MA in English from Cornell and taught at the University of Iowa while working on her Ph.D. Her dissertation was on Yeats (published as Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats [1974)]) and was directed by Paul de Man. Of her work with de Man she says, “I wasn’t groomed for anything. I learnt from him. I took good notes and slowly sort of understood” (de Kock interview). “When I
was de Man’s student,” she adds, “he had not read Derrida yet. I went to teach at Iowa in 1965 and did not know about the famous Hopkins conference on the Structuralists Controversy in 1966” (E-mail communication). She ordered _de la grammatologie_ out of a catalogue in 1967 and began working on the translation some time after that (E-mail communication). During this time she married and divorced an American, Talbot Spivak. Her translator’s introduction to Derrida’s Of Grammatology has been variously described as “setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces” (editor’s introduction to The Spivak Reader) and “absolutely unreadable, its only virtue being that it makes Derrida that much more enjoyable.” Her subsequent work consists in post-structuralist literary criticism, deconstructivist readings of Marxism, Feminism and Postcolonialism (including work with the Subaltern Studies group and a critical reading of American cultural studies in Outside in the Teaching Machine ), and translations of the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. She is currently an Avalon Foundation professor at Columbia.