Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

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Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at Goldsmiths College.jpg
Born (1942-02-24) 24 February 1942 (age 73)
Calcutta, British India
Era 20th-century philosophy
School Post-colonial theory
Main interests
History of ideas · Literature · Deconstruction · Feminism · Marxism
Notable ideas
"subaltern", "strategic essentialism", "epistemological performance"

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (born February 24, 1942) is a University Professor at Columbia University, where she is a founding member of the school's Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.[1] She is best known for the essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?," considered a founding text of postcolonialism, and for her translation of and introduction to Jacques Derrida's De la grammatologie. In 2012, Spivak was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for being "a critical theorist and educator speaking for the humanities against intellectual colonialism in relation to the globalized world."[2] In 2013, she received the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award given by the Republic of India.[3]

Spivak is known for her cultural and critical theories that challenge the "legacy of colonialism" in the way readers engage with literature and culture. She often focuses on the texts of peoples who are typically marginalized by dominant western culture, including immigrant, working class, women and other subaltern populations.[4][5]


Spivak was born Gayatri Chakravorty in Calcutta, India, to Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty.[6] After completing her secondary education at St. John's Diocesan Girls' Higher Secondary School, Spivak attended Presidency College, Kolkata under the University of Calcutta, from which she graduated with honors, a degree in English, and gold medals for English and Bengali literature, in 1959.[6] Spivak attended Cornell University, where she completed her MA in English and continued to pursue her PhD in comparative literature while also teaching at the University of Iowa.[6]

Her dissertation, advised by Paul de Man, was on W.B. Yeats and titled Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats.[6] At Cornell, she was the second woman elected to membership in the Telluride Association. She was briefly married to Talbot Spivak in the 1960s, who wrote the autobiographical novel The Bride Wore the Traditional Gold which deals with the early years of this marriage.[7]

In March 2007, Spivak became a University Professor at Columbia University, making her the first woman of color to achieve the highest faculty rank in the University's 264-year history.[8]

In June 2012, she was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy.[9]

On December 21, 2014, Spivak was conferred an honorary D.Litt. by Presidency University, Kolkata.[10]


In "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Spivak discusses the lack of an account of the Sati practice, leading her to reflect on whether the subaltern can even speak.[4] Spivak recounts how Sati appears in colonial archives.[11] Spivak demonstrates that the Western academy has obscured subaltern experiences by assuming the transparency of its scholarship. Spivak writes about the process, the focus on the Eurocentric Subject as they disavow the problem of representation; and by invoking the Subject of Europe, these intellectuals constitute the subaltern Other of Europe as anonymous and mute.

Spivak rose to prominence with her translation of Derrida's De la grammatologie, which included a translator's introduction that has been described as "setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces."[6] After this, as a member of the "Subaltern Studies Collective," she carried out a series of historical studies and literary critiques of imperialism and international feminism. She has often referred to herself as a "practical Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist."[8] Her predominant ethico-political concern has been for the space occupied by the subaltern, especially subaltern women, both in discursive practices and in institutions of Western cultures. Edward Said wrote of Spivak's work, "She pioneered the study in literary theory of non-Western women and produced one of the earliest and most coherent accounts of that role available to us."[12] In "Can the Subaltern Speak?"[13] Spivak highlights how Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault confine the subject to the West, which problematizes the non-Western other as real and knowable. In concluding her essay, she rebuffs Deleuze and Foucault for making it impossible to confer with the subaltern in a discursive practice, and suggests the possibilities Jacques Derrida offers for thinking about the subaltern insomuch as he appertains to a classically philosophical interpretation of the subject, rather than a socio-political, cultural or historical interpretation, which might assume that the subject is always already the subject of the West.

Her A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, published in 1999, explores how major works of European metaphysics (e.g., Kant, Hegel) not only tend to exclude the subaltern from their discussions, but actively prevent non-Europeans from occupying positions as fully human subjects.

Spivak coined the term "strategic essentialism," which refers to a sort of temporary solidarity for the purpose of social action. For example, women's groups have many different agendas that potentially make it difficult for feminists to work together for common causes; "Strategic essentialism" allows for disparate groups to accept temporarily an "essentialist" position that enables them able to act cohesively. However, while others have built upon this idea of "strategic essentialism," Spivak has since retracted use of this term.

Spivak taught at several universities before arriving at Columbia in 1991. She has been a Guggenheim fellow, has received numerous academic honours including an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College,[14] and has been on the editorial board of academic journals such as boundary 2. In March 2007, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger appointed Spivak University Professor, the institution's highest faculty rank. In a letter to the faculty, he wrote,

Spivak's writing has received some criticism,[15] Including the suggestion that her work puts style ahead of substance.[16] It has been argued in her defense, however, that this sort of criticism reveals an unwillingness to substantively engage with her texts.[17] Judith Butler has noted that Spivak's supposedly complex language has, in fact, resonated with and profoundly changed the thinking of "tens of thousands of activists and scholars."[18] Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton noted that "there can thus be few more important critics of our age than the likes of Spivak. [...] She has probably done more long-term political good, in pioneering feminist and post-colonial studies within global academia than almost any of her theoretical colleagues."[19]

In speeches given and published since 2002, Spivak has addressed the issue of terrorism and suicide bombings. With the aim of bringing an end to suicide bombings, she has explored and "tried to imagine what message [such acts] might contain,"[20] ruminating that "suicidal resistance is a message inscribed in the body when no other means will get through."[20] One critic has suggested that this sort of stylised language may serve to blur important moral issues relating to terrorism.[21] However, Spivak stated in the same speech that "single coerced yet willed suicidal 'terror' is in excess of the destruction of dynastic temples and the violation of women, tenacious and powerfully residual. It has not the banality of evil. It is informed by the stupidity of belief taken to extreme."[20]



  • Myself, I Must Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1974).
  • Of Grammatology (translation, with a critical introduction, of Derrida's text) (1976)
  • In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987).
  • Selected Subaltern Studies (edited with Ranajit Guha) (1988)
  • The Post-Colonial Critic – Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (1990)
  • Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993).
  • The Spivak Reader (1995).
  • A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present (1999).
  • Death of a Discipline (2003).
  • Other Asias (2005).
  • An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2012).


  • Imaginary Maps (translation with critical introduction of three stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1994)
  • Breast Stories (translation with critical introduction of three stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1997)
  • Old Women (translation with critical introduction of two stories by Mahasweta Devi) (1999)
  • Song for Kali: A Cycle (translation with introduction of story by Ramproshad Sen) (2000)
  • Chotti Munda and His Arrow (translation with critical introduction of the novel by Mahasweta Devi) (2002)
  • Red Thread (forthcoming)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Columbia faculty profile
  2. ^ "The 2012 Kyoto Prize Laureate". Inamori Foundation. Retrieved 1 January 2013. 
  3. ^ January 2013 "List of Padma awardees" Check |url= scheme (help). 
  4. ^ a b Sharp, J. (2008). "Chapter 6, Can the Subaltern Speak?". Geographies of Postcolonialism. SAGE Publications. 
  5. ^ Spivak 1990, p. 62-63-.
  6. ^ a b c d e "Reading Spivak". The Spivak reader: selected works of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Routledge. 1996. pp. 1–4. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b LAHIRI, BULAN (6 February 2011). "Speaking to Spivak". The Hindu (Chennai, India). Retrieved 7 February 2011. 
  9. ^ "Kyoto Prize". The Times of India. Retrieved 22 June 2012. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ Spivak, Can the Sublatern, 214.
  12. ^ Dinitia Smith, "Creating a Stir Wherever She Goes," New York Times (9 February 2002) B7.
  13. ^ Spivak, Gayatri. "Can the subaltern speak?." Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988): 271–313.
  14. ^ Oberlin College Commencement 2011 – Oberlin College. Retrieved on 21 June 2011.
  15. ^ Clarity Is King – Eric Adler on Postmodernists' Limpid Bursts. New Partisan. Retrieved on 21 June 2011.
  16. ^ Death sentences. New Statesman. Retrieved on 21 June 2011.
  17. ^ "letters". London Review of Books 21 (12). 10 June 1999. 
  18. ^ "letters". London Review of Books 21 (13). 1 July 1999. 
  19. ^ Terry Eagleton, "In the Gaudy Supermarket," London Review of Books (13 May 1999).
  20. ^ a b c "Terror: A Speech After 9-11". boundary 2 (Duke University Press) 31 (2): 93. 2004. 
  21. ^ Alexander, Edward (10 January 2003). "Evil educators defend the indefensible". Jerusalem Post. 

Further reading[edit]

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