Professor Spivak has shifted a critical theory of “deconstruction” into political and social dimensions, and applied a sharp scalpel to intellectual colonialism which is being reproduced in our heavily globalized modern world. She exemplifies what intellectuals today should be, through her theoretical work for the humanities based on comparative literature and her devotion to multifaceted educational activities.
Translator’s Preface, in Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (English translation), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, Methuen, 1987.
Can the Subaltern Speak?, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Nelson, C. and Grossberg, L. (eds.), University of Illinois Press, pp. 271-313, 1988.
A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Harvard University Press, 1999.
Death of a Discipline, Columbia University Press, 2003.
Nationalism and the Imagination, Seagull Books, 2010.
An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Harvard University Press, 2012.
Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is an Indian intellectual who has applied a sharp critical scalpel to intellectual colonialism, which is being reproduced afresh in our heavily globalized modern world in the form of geopolitical configurations between “power” and “knowledge,” through which different regions, classes, ethnic groups, religions, generations, genders and other factors are all complexly intertwined. Professor Spivak has shifted a literary critical theory of “deconstruction” into contemporary political, economic and cultural dimensions and, while exerting an influence on historical studies, political science and feminism, has presented her own cultural and critical theory for the humanities.
Her best-known work, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” discusses the “subalterns”—those who are economically dispossessed, forcibly marginalized and rendered without agency by their social status. In this article, she listens carefully to the subaltern voice which has been historically muted, and she sounds a pungent warning against its newly-formed identity made in the process of representation by others and against the structure of oppression that arises therein. Epitomizing her concept, the approach of “unlearning”—undermining one’s own privileged position and learning in the face of the geopolitical situation of knowledge—has strongly influenced the development of postcolonialism which criticizes the politics, economy and culture, which were once supposed to surmount the framework of nation states, have instead come to function as a form of renewed colonialism. Against this emerging colonialism, she denies the closed imagination of nationalism, and values the transnational imagination that comes into play in the plurality of different cultures deeply rooted in languages. Alongside her intensive engagement in the study of different languages, she has been speaking for the humanities by closely analyzing literary and historical texts in terms of their internal connections with the geopolitical situation and in the context of the global economy. Through this work, Professor Spivak has successfully demonstrated the possibility of the humanities, such as comparative literature, to criticize the contemporary international political situation.
Underlying Professor Spivak’s worldview is a philosophy of life that impels her to come down from the pulpit and forge a path through “academic activism.” Retaining her Indian nationality, she teaches in the U.S.A. and attends discussions and gatherings around the world. She also pays periodic visits to her home state of West Bengal and works for literacy education in rural villages and translation of local literature in India and Bangladesh. Professor Spivak is committed to fulfilling what she regards as a profound and ethical responsibility toward minorities who have been deprived of language and history through an invisible structure of oppression, and her social work in this regard has earned her considerable empathy and sincere respect around the world.
For these reasons, the Inamori Foundation is pleased to present the 2012 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy to Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
I must acknowledge the education that made me what I hope I am. My parents brought me up to think about other people. They made me sensitive of the difference of gender. They placed me under the influence of the early Ramakrishna movement and its revolution in the institutional thinking of all sectarianism: of class, race, and religion, today largely forgotten because an in-depth training of children is no longer practiced. Like the rest of the “rising” world, we have lost the desire for preparing the muscles of the mind for ethical reflexes. My early schooling, and my parents’ example, structured me firmly within Bengali, my mother-tongue, English, our imperial language, and Sanskrit, the classical language of North India. My teachers, at school, college, and University, and a monk at the Vedanta Society in New York, gave me rich gifts of spirit. Marx, Du Bois, and Gramsci taught me to think social justice. My accidental encounter with Jacques Derrida’s work gave philosophical shape to all these ingredients. In 1986, I found myself ready to learn from below. I began working on rural education and primary health care in Bangladesh, and, through a poet friend, came in close and sustained intimacy with the embracing counter-theology of Lalan Shah Fakir’s followers. My childhood habit of “teaching” illiterate children who were domestic servants was re-awakened by a request from a rural activist that I open some schools. Over the years, my teaching at the two ends of the spectrum—Columbia University and Birbhum district in West Bengal—have come together. My task is to learn from mistakes how to teach the practice of the intuitions of democracy—the tug of war between autonomy and the rights of others. For the top, the auto-critical habit in the intellectual produced by the presence of basic civil liberties: the freedom of speech; democracy constraining freedom of speech through constructive auto-critique. For the bottom, the hope that perhaps even one student will develop something like democratic judgment, quite different from justified self-interest against oppression from all sides, and from mere leadership. Some words of the poet Adrienne Rich can describe my response to the Kyoto Prize, as the necessary effort to “call . . . up the voices we need to hear within ourselves.”