The days of the public intellectual may be mostly behind us, but there a rare few academics who are simultaneously invested in their fields and well known to the world at large. In amassing her large and devoted readership, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak sidestepped the normal route of taking abstruse scholarly discussions and dumbing them down for a general audience. Instead, she has allowed her contributions to literary criticism, feminist theory, and postcolonial studies stand on their own, in all their complexity and nuance. For this, she has attracted acolytes, not just at Columbia, where she holds the rank of University Professor, but among those devoted to literature everywhere.
Born in Calcutta, in 1942, Spivak came to the United States in 1961 for graduate school. Her ascent was swift. Following early work on W. B. Yeats, she had a breakthrough, in 1967, when she translated Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie, which was then unknown to the English-speaking world. Ever since, she’s been on the leading edge of the comparative-literature discipline, publishing such influential works as “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988) and Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present (1999). She has also translated several works of fiction by the Bengali short-story writer Mahasweta Devi. We met on a recent Sunday evening at her office in the Interchurch Center, a blocky building overlooking Riverside Drive near the Columbia campus in uptown Manhattan.
Nico Muhly: I’m not sure where to begin, which I think is the way to frame most good conversations.
Gayatri Spivak: Yes, the problem begins when you think you know what’s going on.
NM: Maybe we can start with the idea that literature can be an entry point for a kind of sympathetic cultural knowledge. Do you find that literature shapes your thinking about other cultures?
GS: I’m more interested in learning other languages. To learn a foreign language so well that when you are speaking it, you actually forget the language that was rooted in you. Knowing a foreign language very, very well is like revolutionary consciousness. Today, it is quite possible for people, especially in the diaspora, to lose their first languages, the language learned at the mother’s knee. There has to be a supplanting, because even the so-called first language is not natural, because no language is natural.
NM: Were your parents avid readers?
GS: My parents thought education was everything and the only thing. I knew when I was fifteen that I was an “intellectual” (that was the English word I uttered to myself at that time).
NM: I should say for the record that we’re surrounded by books.
GS: Books are at our feet. Hegel is at our feet. And there is I think Nietzsche, no? That red there is Nietzsche?
NM: This is Benjamin.
GS: Benjamin, okay, well, that’s a good mistake. And that’s Gramsci’s facsimile of Gramsci’s Notebooks, by the way. The dark blue.
NM: One of the things I read about a year ago is how difficult it is to translate the words of the Trump Administration into other languages.
GS: Isn’t that a wonderful point. Anyway, carry on.
NM: I read Le Monde three or four times a week, when I have time to deal with it, and it is hysterical, the deciphering act that has to happen.
GS: Absolutely, but you see ... the world is not the United States. Although the United States has a strong controlling power in the world still, since I am really someone who lives in the world, in however minor a way, my horror is restrained. Because this kind of tyrannical behavior or stupid behavior is not unknown elsewhere.
NM: Is your reading practiced primarily in English?
GS: The large part of it is necessarily in English, but a good bit of it is in German. And of course a lot of it is in French. Bengali also, Bengali I read a good deal and I produce in Bengali. Which is, of course, something that people who know me only through my English material cannot really know. I give these huge talks. Like the Mystery of Democracy or the Poverty of Thinking. Also, sometimes to the left of the left. I also read a little bit in Hindi, very little, unfortunately. And of course my Greek and Latin are not good. Since I am a Europeanist I read a great deal, but I really hit my head against classical Greek and Latin. I read Sanskrit more easily. Narrative Sanskrit I can read without a dictionary. Philosophical Sanskrit I’m fine but I do find difficult: I in fact need someone to tell me. A dictionary is not enough. I have been studying Chinese for seventeen years. I speak and read simply and badly. For some years I had tutors. For the past decade or so I have taken a class.
NM: There’s a formality in language learning, in modern language teaching, that calls to mind one of the things we’re struggling with now in classical music—I’m using scare-quotes here—being the tyranny of notation. And this relates to a sense of literacy.
GS: Hang on a little. Can you give me what you think is really a superior account of this controversy?
NM: A great example is the Pulitzer Prize for Music that this last year went to Kendrick Lamar, who’s a rapper, basically. There’s no form of notation of the music. The lyrics are written out, but it’s not like the drum part is written down on a piece of paper that is then published, which then goes to the archive. Or anytime a jazz musician wins an award that the classical musician could also win, that controversy comes out again, right, because people say, “Oh, some jazz is notated, but the stuff that everyone loves is actually improvised.”
GS: Today there is a great deal of interest in online resources, in going behind the nineteenth- and twentieth-century linguistics where in order to establish a language as language, we have to box it in a box, and give it a name. Give it a grammar. Give it a vocabulary. Give it a thing. Give it a script. And a boundary. Cut it off from other languages. It’s absurd having to teach algebra, for example, in Bengali. Because these days they make up these very Sanskritic Bengali words for ‘equation’ and ‘formula.’
NM: What’s your daily practice with the news? How do you consume the news of the day?
GS: I’m not that interested in news; I have made myself read the New York Times and look at various channels on TV, etc. “I must be interested in the news,” I tell myself. It’s irresponsible not to be interested in the news, and so I make myself keep up.
NM: What does your year look like? How do you big-picture construct?
GS: Less and less successfully. Because I love teaching, but that does mean a bit of a restriction. I teach in the summer at the University of California, Irvine. I hope it’ll be renewed. They renew me yearly, because although this is supposedly a distinguished professorship, the humanities have become so trivialized that every year I have to tell them what I have done in order for them to renew my appointment. It’s so insulting, but I need the money. So I spend a great deal of time on teaching. I’ve been teaching full time for fifty-two years. I have relieved myself a little bit of that seasonality. I’m not as seasonal now at all as one would expect of a full-time professor at a university.
NM: What do you mean when you say the humanities have become trivialized?
GS: The humanities have become useless. A corporatized educational system must trivialize the humanities because they are not a cash cow. It happens at the lower end as stopping deep language learning, including of English; and at the upper end as cutting dissertation topics according to market demands and the Modern Language Association being obliged to have sessions on how to sell your image. Good students at great colonial universities in Africa are taking the English major to become CEOs and managing directors. I am often called upon to “defend” the humanities generally. I say that the humanities at their best provide health care for a culture and can produce a general will for social justice.
NM: In your life as an educator, have you perceived a change in the access your students have to texts, access they wouldn’t have had twenty years ago?
GS: I have, and it’s mostly a wonderful thing, but every act of civilization is also an act of barbarism, right? Having that access makes the person feel, “Oh, I have easy access to it,” and they will not make the mind squeeze, grind.
NM: Right, it used to be the case that if you wanted to study Messiaen, in New York City there were probably two copies of his opera. And so there was intellectual labor and also the physical labor of taking the train to go to wherever it was. Now that’s kind of gone.
GS: And I’m not even making that wonderful point, having to go somewhere to get something. I’m not even making that point because I don’t want to be old-fashioned. You can afford it because you are much younger than I am. At seventy-six I always have to appear young in my thinking. Even if I’m not.
NM: How does the act of reading govern the day for you?
GS: I certainly have rituals. The morning ritual of reading a book unconnected with—apparently unconnected with—anything that I’m obliged to read, that is a very important moment. People always ask in these really rather expendable New York Times interviews, “What book is on your nightstand?”
NM: I know. “Nightstand”? What do you think my apartment looks like?
GS: The bedroom book which is the first thing in the morning ritual reading, that doesn’t move so much. But then what came there was Nelson Mandela’s quotes—a book that I was given, not the kind of book I buy. These days I almost don’t buy books. So many books remain unread, but I did buy—can you imagine at this point I gave up the Studentenausgabe and I bought the actual Gesammelte Werke Freud. But I do have another station of reading, beside the toilet bowl. And that book changes. It was recently Plato’s Republic, Book 6, and I was seeing new things—obviously one always does—but then I had to make a note and so the book left. The book went into the study. The bedroom book, which is the first-thing-in-the-morning ritual reading, that doesn’t move so much. I think Freud is there now, along with three mysteries and Colored Cosmopolitanism, by Nico Slate. I call reading “a prayer to be haunted”—a prayer to be haunted by the text.
NM: That’s a great way to think about it. I would say that Disgrace is one such text.
GS: And Beloved.
NM: And Beloved, right. “Haunting” is a perfect way to describe it, because a haunting is so individual for each person.
GS: And also you can’t plan to be haunted. It’s not something you can anticipate. For people like me, reading is a very mysterious thing. A very solitary thing. In German there is this wonderful word—well, there isn’t actually; I made it up. It means, to an extent, “the task of just hanging out in the book.” I mentioned only my toilet bowl and my bed, but there are many, many, different, different ways of punctuating the day with reading.
Portrait of Gayatri Spivak, New York, November 2018.
Photograph by Rachelle Mozman
Nico Muhly is a composer whose most recent works include Register, a concerto for organ and orchestra for James McVinnie and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Rough Notes, for the Tallis Scholars; and Marnie, for the Metropolitan Opera. He is based in New York.
"Viewed up close, history can sometimes look so very small. On TV you watch the big drama that may have taken place two streets away and which you didn’t even notice."
The man whose method, “consisted in demonstrating all the forms and varieties of the originary complexity of semiotics, and their multiple consequences in many fields,” appears to have been something of a skimmer.