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Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

How much do you know about postcolonial theory? One key theorist in the field is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1942-). She founded key concepts in the field, particularly highlighting the plights of oppressed women of colour. Spivak has written multiple influential critical texts, along with two important essays, 'Feminism and Critical Theory' (1987) and 'Can the Subaltern Speak?' (1988).

Postcolonialism explores the cultural, social, and economic legacies left behind in a formerly colonised country. The impacts of colonisation can haunt nations for decades and centuries to come. The theory rose to prevalence in the twentieth century as many countries that had once been occupied and colonised by powerful Western nations, like Britain and France, began to gain independence. Postcolonial novels explore these concepts through fictional characters, typically tying in real events. Famous postcolonial novels include Midnight's Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie (1947-) and Chinua Achebe's (1930-2013) Things Fall Apart (1958).

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Spivak holding a microphone and speaking, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Spivak speaking at a conference.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Education

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born in Kolkata, India, on 24th February 1942. She completed her secondary and university education in Kolkata. Spivak received her bachelor's degree in English from the University of Calcutta in 1959.

Spivak then moved to America to continue her studies. She attended the University of Cornell, where she achieved both her masters and her PhD. Spivak's doctoral dissertation was an exploration of the works of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). Spivak also spent time as a research student at Cambridge University.

After completing her PhD, Spivak remained in academia, working as a professor of English Literature in various universities. These include the University of Iowa, Emory University, and Columbia University.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a large white building in Kolkata seen from across a body of water, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Kolkata, where Spivak was born and educated.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Books

Today, Spivak is considered a widely influential critical theorist. She has published numerous academic books and has been featured in many essay collections showcasing her work and theories.

Of Grammatology (1976)

Spivak's first notable academic publication was an English translation of Jacques Derrida's (1930-2004) text Of Grammatology (1976). Spivak's deep understanding of the work made the translation a foundational text in the study of deconstruction theory.

Deconstruction is a critical theory stemming from the work of theorist Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction theory can be hard to define as the very nature of the theory delineates that no definition is ever fully certain or universal. Simply put, deconstruction argues that the meaning of everything is constantly changing and altering. Hidden meanings can always be found within texts, yet everyone will interpret things differently. This means there are no fixed meanings behind anything, only individual interpretations. In deconstruction theory, meanings are always unstable. The theory is often used to deconstruct and analyse accepted societal norms and ideas.

Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1974)

Spivak also published her doctoral dissertation on W.B. Yeats as a book entitled Myself Must I Remake: The Life and Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1974). In some ways, this foreshadowed her work in the area of postcolonialism. Many critics today consider Yeats a postcolonial poet, writing during and just after Ireland's struggle for independence during the 1920s.

Other Asias (2003)

Another important theoretical text of Spivak's is Other Asias (2003). It is a postcolonial book that challenges perceptions and stereotypes that have been perpetuated about Asia. Spivak addresses the fact that many of these stereotypes are based upon warped European perceptions of Asia from the perspective of those who do not truly understand the continent. Asia can only truly be defined by its inhabitants. Other Asias sets about to disprove these perceptions, portraying a more accurate version of Asia and its people, particularly its women.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: 'Feminism and Critical Theory'

Spivak has done a great deal of work on feminism through various critical lenses. One example of this is found in her essay 'Feminism and Critical Theory', first published in the collection In Other Worlds (1987).

Feminism is the belief that society promotes an inherent inequality between the two sexes which must be challenged. Feminists fight for their rights in many spheres, including political, academic, and through the power of organised protest.

Spivak uses the theory of deconstruction for a large portion of her essay. She predominantly utilises deconstruction theory to break down binaries and traditional ideas around the concept of gender hierarchies. Spivak deconstructs the idea that, in a patriarchal society, men are dominant and privileged, pointing out the flaws in this system.

She also uses deconstruction to critique and analyse the mistreatment of postcolonial or Third World countries by more dominant nations. Deconstruction theory typically resists strict definitions, but Spivak acknowledges that these are sometimes necessary in order to challenge patriarchal conditions.

A patriarchy is a type of society in which there is an unequal balance of power between two sexes. Men are privileged and hold the majority of the influence, whereas women are subordinated and oppressed.

Additionally, as a prominent postcolonial theorist, Spivak also explores the place of women in both a postcolonial and international context. She criticises the exclusion of many women from the feminist movement. The movement has tended to focus on women in Europe and America, largely ignoring the rest of the world, particularly women in Third World countries.

Spivak believes this ignorance merely builds on the oppression that Third World women face on a daily basis. She argues that only further awareness of discrimination, coupled with the challenging of it, can aid postcolonial women in improving their conditions.

'Can the Subaltern Speak?' by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

'Can the Subaltern Speak' is another essay by Spivak, found in the collection Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988). It is a key instance of Spivak making a direct connection between feminism and postcolonial studies. The concept of the subaltern is central to Spivak's essay.

The subaltern is an important term in postcolonial theory. The concept is attributed to ideas formulated by the Italian philosopher and theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). The subaltern refers to people that are subordinated in a given society, be it due to their class, gender, race, or sexuality. In a specific postcolonial context, a subaltern is often an indigenous person in a colonised country who has no agency in their society. Subalterns are typically othered and discriminated against.

In her essay, Spivak identifies non-Western women as a particularly subordinated group. They are subaltern and othered. She argues that they lack a voice, both in their own society and as part of the broader feminist movement.

Furthermore, academia is centred on the Western world, excluding considerations of those beyond these limited boundaries. When the subaltern is discussed, it is usually from a place of ignorance and stereotypes. Subordinated groups do not have a platform, and therefore, they do not have a voice.

The example of a subaltern group Spivak gives in her essay is that of the 'Sati' women in India. Sati is a practice done by some Hindu groups in which a widowed woman allows herself to be burned alive during her husband's cremation. This was seen as an honourable thing for these women to do.

British colonial powers banned this practice, which Spivak questions. She does not necessarily defend the Sati practice, which is viewed by some as a way in which Indian women are subordinated by their society. However, she raises the fact that the British banning of the practice perpetuates the stereotype that Indian women need to be saved from Indian men by white colonisers. Once again, the women involved are given no say or voice.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Quotes

Below is a table of key quotes from some of Spivak's influential works.

QuoteLocationExplanation
'That any reader will waste the time to parse the desires (not the needs) of collective examples of subalternity is my false hope.'An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (2012), Introduction. In this critical text, Spivak addresses the subaltern once again. She hopes that people will think deeply about the subaltern and truly listen to them. More specifically, to their desires. Subaltern people are often only thought of in the context of their needs, but Spivak points out they are also people with desires just like everyone else, and only they know what these desires are. They must be given a voice.
'Some of the most radical criticism coming out of the West today is the result of an interested desire to conserve the subject of the West, or the West as Subject.''Can the Subaltern Speak?'Spivak directly addresses Western academia and its occupation with itself. There is an effort being made to preserve the idea of the West, but the fact is that these academics have the voice to do this, unlike the subaltern.
'The subaltern cannot speak.''Can the Subaltern Speak?'This simple sentence is found in Spivak's concluding paragraph of her essay. She does not give a conclusive answer to how the subaltern may gain a voice, but she does shed light on their multitude of struggles. This may aid in amplifying their needs and wants.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak - Key takeaways

  • Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1942-) is a highly influential Indian postcolonial theorist.
  • She has spent her life working in academia.
  • Spivak has published many important theoretical texts, including Other Asias (2003), a book that challenges Western stereotypes of Asia.
  • Two other key texts by Spivak are her essays 'Feminism and Critical Theory' (1987) and 'Can the Subaltern Speak?' (1988).
  • 'Can the Subaltern Speak?' has become a defining postcolonial work, exploring the lack of voice and agency that women in the Third World have.

Frequently Asked Questions about Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Spivak's theory of the subaltern explores the conditions of the most subordinated in society, particularly focusing on women of colour in postcolonial countries.

Subaltern refers to those who live on the edge of society and have no voice or agency.

Spivak is arguing that Third World women in postcolonial nations are given no voice and cannot represent themselves because of this.

Spivak was born in Kolkata, India.

'Can the Subaltern Speak?' is a seminal postcolonial essay published in 1988.

Final Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Quiz

Question

When was Spivak born?

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Answer

1942.

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Where was Spivak born?

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Answer

Kolkata, India.

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Question

At which university did Spivak receive her masters and PhD?

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Answer

The University of Cornell.

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Question

Which poet did Spivak write her doctoral dissertation about?

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Answer

W.B. Yeats.

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Question

Why is Spivak's interest in Yeats particularly relevant?

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Answer

Because, today, he too is considered an important postcolonial figure.

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Question

What are two important essays by Spivak?

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Answer

'Feminism and Critical Theory' and 'Can the Subaltern Speak?'.

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Question

Whose work is Of Grammatology a translation of?

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Answer

Jacques Derrida.

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Question

What theory is Derrida thought to have founded?

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Answer

Deconstruction theory.

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Question

What is deconstruction theory often used for?

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Answer

To deconstruct and analyse social norms.

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Why does Spivak often criticise the feminist movement?

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Answer

For excluding women who are not from the Western world.

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What is the subaltern?

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Answer

The subaltern are the group subordinated in a particular society who lack a voice as a result. Spivak focuses on women in Third World countries.

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Question

What group does Spivak give as an example of the subaltern?

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Answer

The Sati women in India.

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Question

Why did the British occupiers ban Sati?

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Answer

They saw it as their duty to save Indian women from Indian men.

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What is the text Other Asias about?

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Answer

It challenges Western perceptions and stereotypes about Asia.

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Question

Which theorist does the idea of subalternity stem from?

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Answer

Antonio Gramsci.

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