Gayatri Spivak on “Situating Feminism”

In what follows, graduate student Marcelle Maese-Cohen gives a brief overview of a the talk, entitled “Situating Feminism,” that Columbia professor and world-famous critic Gayatri Spivak gave at Berkeley in February.


“I’m not going to say anything new. I’m quite serious about that,” began Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spviak’s 2010 keynote address for the Beatrice Bain Research Group. Her lecture, entitled “Situating Feminism,” was also part of the “Decolonizing the University: Fulfilling the Dream of the Third World College” conference commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Ethnic Studies. The co-sponsors of the event, which included the Department of English and numerous organizations and departments across the UC Berkeley campus, were as diverse as the fields of scholarship that Spivak’s signature brand of postcolonial, deconstructive, Marxist, and transnational feminism has influenced.

Spivak’s doctoral study of Yeats and first book, Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W. B. Yeats (1974) is often overshadowed by her translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1976) and “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), each of which have often been cited as foundational for their contributions to introducing and rethinking French deconstructive thought and Indian postcolonial and subaltern studies, respectively. It is the latter essay, however, which she referred to in “Situating Feminism” as the work that changed her life and which continues to shape her inquiries into the possibilities for democratic judgment and pedagogy.

“Situating Feminism” in many ways rewrote “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in order to clarify the often misread or unheard ethics of what Spivak explained as a belief in the importance of the humanities, that is, the importance of an aesthetic education for everyone. Placing herself directly in the sociopolitical tradition of W.E.B. Du Bois and Antonio Gramsci, Spivak’s circuitous route from the specificities of gender, enabled by feminist critique, to a humanities education for everyone, took many textual turns. This route traveled from the autobiographical  (she situated her own feminist politics by tracing her trajectory from the protofeminism of a middleclass Bengali home and literary milieu to her current challenges teaching at Columbia University and in India), to the abstract (she revised the continental philosophy of Immanuel Kant to advance her own conception of “the intuition of the transcendental,” a feminist intervention into the rational judgment presupposed by democracy), to institutionalized sites of feminism outside the university (she read statements from Margaux Wallstrom, the newly U.N. appointed Special Representative on Sexual Violence, Mary Ellen Iskdendarian, president of Women’s World Banking, and the National Council on Research for Women). Each of these seemingly unrelated spheres of textual evidence led to Spivak’s main thesis: the limits of legal rights – and its attendant sphere, economic rights – for empowering the subaltern in general, and women specifically.

In contrast to the legal and economic, an aesthetic education attends to subjectivity, or the formation of the subject. More specifically, Spivak defined an aesthetic education as an uncoercive means by which to train the imagination and rearrange desire. Without this attention to the imagination, all attempts to empower women reenact a harmful, self-congratulatory act of colonial benevolence emblematized by Spivak’s infamous sentence “White men saving brown women from brown men.” Spivak, however, made clear that this oft-quoted sentence from “Can the Subaltern Speak?” not only sensationalized a simplified version of transnational feminist politics, but also underestimates the current relevancy of what was explored in the 1988 essay.   Taking the laws passed against Indian widow self-immolation as her example, Spivak rearticulated her earlier critique of nineteenth century Indian nationalism to remind us that despite the good intentions of legal reform, neither a postcolonial, anti-capitalist, or pro-capitalist politics has been able to provide the governmental infrastructure necessary for democracy. Each of these views the needy, or those most in need of democracy’s promise of justice and equality, as subjects who do not exceed the categories of poor or woman. Spivak reminded us, then, that an aesthetic education, and its attention to subjectivity, places the imagination and desires of those with and without democracy in our purview. Given the recent budget cuts to public education in California, Spivak’s insistence on a humanities education for everyone resonated quite powerfully with the hundreds of us that packed into the Maude Fife room and third floor of Wheeler to hear how she would situate the trajectory of her work.