Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

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Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Born (1942-02-24) 24 February 1942 (age 73)
Calcutta, British India
Era 20th-century philosophy

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a University Professor at Columbia University, where she is a founding member of the school's Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.[1]


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born in Ballygunge, Kolkata on February 24, 1942. She graduated from St. John’s Diocese and Girls High School in 1955. She received a Sangeet Visharad degree in North Indian Classical Music in Bhatkhande Academy in 1953. She graduated from Lady Brabourne College in Intermediate Science from the University of Calcutta in 1957, with a First Class degree, coming first in English among all students at the university. She graduated from Presidency College, University of Calcutta, in 1959 with a first class first BA in English Honors. She also came first in Bengali literature among all the students at the university. In 1959 she was the National Debating champion of India; she had already been placed as an honorary member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly by Justice Ajit Nath Ray in 1956 for her debating skills, equal in English and Bengali. She lost her father in 1955, and in 1959, upon graduation, secured employment as an English tutor for forty hours a week, in addition to working for her MA at the university. In 1961, she joined the graduate program in English at Cornell University, travelling on money borrowed on a so-called “life mortgage.” In 1962, unable to secure financial aid from the department of English, she transferred to Comparative Literature, a new program at Cornell, under the guidance of its first Director, Paul de Man, with insufficient preparation in French and German. It is interesting to note that it did not occur to her to declare her mother tongue as a foreign language.

At Cornell, she wrote her MA thesis on the representation of innocence in Wordsworth with M.H. Abrams. In 1963-64, she attended Girton College, Cambridge, as a research student under the supervision of Professor T.R. Henn, writing on the representation of the stages of development of the lyric subject in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. She presented a course in the summer of 1963 on “Yeats and the Theme of Death” at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Ireland. (She returned there in 1987 to present Yeats’ position within post-coloniality.)

In the Fall of 1965, Spivak became an assistant professor in the department of English, University of Iowa. She received tenure in 1970. She did not publish her doctoral dissertation, but decided to write a critical book on Yeats that would be accessible to her undergraduate students without compromising her intellectual positions. The result is her first book, written for young adults, Myself I Must Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats.

In 1967, on her regular attempts at self-improvement, Spivak purchased a book, by an author unknown to her, entitled De la grammatologie. She decided to translate this brilliant book by an unknown author, insisting on writing a long translator’s preface. This publication was immediately a success, and the Translator’s Preface became popular across the world as an introduction to the philosophy of deconstruction launched by the author, Jacques Derrida; whom Spivak met in 1971.

In 1975, Spivak became the Director of the Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa and was promoted to full professorship. In 1978, she was National Humanities Professor at the University of Chicago. She received many subsequent residential visiting professorships and fellowships, among them; from, for example, Wesleyan University, University of California, Santa Cruz, Stanford University, Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier, France, University of Mainz, Germany, Frankfurt University, Germany, Shelby Cullom Davis Center at Princeton University, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in Vadodara (as Tagore Professor), Women’s Section of University of Riyadh, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Center for the Study of Social Science, Kolkata, Brown University, Cornell University, University of Pennsylvania, University College, Galway, Ireland, University of California, Irvine, and the Guggenheim.

In 1978, she moved to the University of Texas-Austin as professor of English and Comparative Literature. In 1982, she was appointed as the Longstreet Professor in English and Comparative Literature at Emory University. In 1986, she was invited to the University of Pittsburgh as the first Mellon Professor of English. Here she established the Cultural Studies program. In 1991, she was invited to Columbia University as Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities. In 2007, she was made University Professor in the Humanities, the first woman of color ever to be awarded this highly prestigious position in Columbia’s 260 years history. She remains the only University Professor in the Humanities.

Spivak has received 11 honorary doctorates: University of Toronto, University of London, Oberlin College, Universitat Rovira Virgili, Rabindra Bharati University, Universidad Nacional de San Martín, University of St. Andrews, Université de Vincennes à Saint-Denis, Presidency University, Yale University, University of Ghana-Legon. In 2012, she became the only Indian recipient of the Kyoto Prize, for Thought and Ethics in the category of Arts and Philosophy. (This prize is considered by some to be equivalent to the Nobel Prize in fields unrecognized by the Nobel.) In 2013, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the government of India.

Apart from Derrida, Spivak has also translated a good deal of the fiction of the Bengali author, Mahasweta Devi: the poetry of the 18-century Bengali poet Ram Prashad Sen; and most recently A Season in the Congo by Aime Cesaire, the famed radical poet and essayist and statesman from Martinique – with an introduction by Souleymane Bachir Diagne. In 1997 she received a prize for translation into English from the Sahitya Akadami – the National Academy of Literature in India.

“Can the Subaltern Speak?” an essay first delivered in 1983, has established Spivak among the ranks of feminists who consider history, geography, and class in thinking woman. In all her work, Spivak’s main effort has been to try to find ways of accessing the subjectivity of those who are being investigated. She is hailed as a critic who has feminized and globalized the philosophy of deconstruction, considering the position of the “subaltern,” a word used by Antonio Gramsci as describing ungeneralizable fringe groups of society who lack access to citizenship. In the early 80s, she was also hailed as a co-founder of postcolonial theory, which she refused to accept fully, as has been demonstrated in her book Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present (1999), which suggests that so-called postcolonial theory should be considered from the point of view of who uses it in what interest. Spivak’s other works are: In Other Worlds (1987), Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993), Death of a Discipline (2003), Other Asias (2008), and An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization (2012). She is currently at work on an annotated translation of the correspondence between Antonio Gramsci, and the Schucht sisters – his wife and sister-in-law- - while he was in prison; and a book on the great historian-sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois.

Since 1986, Spivak has been engaged in teaching and training adults and children among the landless illiterates on the border of West Bengal and Bihar/Jharkhand. This sustained attempt to access the epistemologies damaged by the millennial oppression of the caste-system has allowed her to understand the situation of globality as well as the limits of high theory more clearly. In 1997, her dear friend Professor Lore Metzger, a survivor of the Third Reich, who was also firm in her criticism of the politics of the state of Israel, left Spivak $10,000 in her will, to help with the work of rural education. With this, Spivak established the Pares Chandra and Sivani Chakravorty Memorial Foundation for Rural Education; to which she contributed the majority of her Kyoto Prize. The group, on their own initiative, is now attempting to bring about a farmers’ cooperative based on natural fertilizers and natural seeds – a mind-changing project against the exploitation of the poor that they have undertaken themselves, moved by Spivak’s repeated descriptions of the effects of chemical fertilizers and hybrid seeds upon the health of the community.

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Further reading[edit]

  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Donna Landry, and Gerald M. MacLean, The Spivak reader: Selected Works (Routledge, 1996).
  • Suzana Milevska, "Resistance That Cannot be Recognised as Such: Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak," n.paradoxa: international feminist art journal, Jan. 2005, vol. 15, pp. 6–12.
  • Fiorenzo Iuliano, Altri mondi, altre parole. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak tra decostruzione e impegno militante, OmbreCorte 2012. ISBN 978-88-97522-36-2 (in Italian)

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