Presidential Lecture Series
spacer Gayatri Spivak


"I am not erudite enough to be interdisciplinary, but I can break rules."
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,
A Critique of Postcolonial Reason

Breaking rules of the academy and trespassing disciplinary boundaries have been central to the intellectual projects of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the leading literary theorists and cultural critics of our times. Professor Spivak was born in India and received a B.A. at the University of Calcutta. She came to the United States in 1961 and in 1967 she graduated with a Ph.D. from Cornell University. She was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh till 1991, and is currently the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. In addition she has taught at Université Paul Valéry, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, University of British Columbia, Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Riyadh University, and Stanford University among others. She has been a Fellow of the National Humanities Institute, the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan, the Humanities Research Center at the Australian National University, the Center for the Study of Social Sciences (Calcutta), the Davis Center for Historical Studies (Princeton), the Rockefeller Foundation (Bellagio). She has been a Kent Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow. Among her many Distinguished Faculty Fellowships is the Tagore Fellowship at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (India). She has been a member of the Subaltern Studies Collective. She is on the editorial Board of many journals, among them Cultural Critique, boundary 2, New Formations, and Diaspora. Professor Spivak has been active in hands-on educational reform and teacher training in aboriginal India for about a decade, and is active in other social movements.

Professor Spivak is a scholar of deconstructive approaches to verbal, visual and social texts. By translating Jacques Derrida's De la grammatologie into English (published as Of Grammatology, with a critical introduction) she initiated a debate on deconstruction in the Anglo-American academy. She defines deconstruction as "...a constant critique of what you cannot not want," and admits that what she continues " learn from deconstruction is perhaps idiosyncratic, but it remains my rein." Her most important contribution to the field of literary studies is helping to define, elaborate on, and then complicate the field of postcolonial studies. About two decades ago she raised the question "Can the Subaltern Speak?" whereby she took issue with Western intellectuals' almost confessional account of their inability to mediate the historical experience of the working classes and the underprivileged of society. In rendering visible the complexities of the "Native Informant" in her publications In Other Worlds, The Post-Colonial Critic, and Outside in the Teaching Machine, Professor Spivak has followed up on this question. Furthermore, through her translations of the Bengali author/activist Mahasweta Devi's fiction work into English, published in Imaginary Maps, she has added another dimension to postcolonial debates about the native informant. Her forthcoming publications include Red Thread and Other Asias.

A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999) is "...a practitioner's progress from colonial discourse studies to postcolonial studies." ".... This book "...belongs on the same shelf as bell hooks, Deniz Kandiyoti, Trinh-ti Minh-ha. Chandra Talpade Mohanti and Sara Suleri..." and is Spivak's "...attempt to look around the corner, to see herself [oursleves] as others would see her [us]." As footnotes become the foundation stones of the main text, Spivak addresses feminists, philosophers, critics and activists as they converge and diverge in the game of global political economy. Spivak ends her book with a profound observation: "Marx could hold The Science of Logic and the Blue Books together; but that was still only Europe, and in the doing it came undone." As we try to learn about the history of the vanishing present from this global feminist Marxist scholar, it would be safe to say, "Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak can hold the Bhagwad Gita and UNESCO's Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems together, but it is still only the post-industrial information-age global village, and look how in the doing it comes undone!"

Text by B. Venkat Mani
Department of German Studies,
Stanford University


(c)2000, Stanford University


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