Happy New Semester!: A Year (Later) of Spivak

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Lehigh Culture & Community

During the fall semester of 2013, critical theorist Gayatri Spivak visited Lehigh University as part of our Humanities Center’s “Home” lecture series. Of course, when such a renowned scholar as Dr. Spivak is scheduled to visit, rumors will abound. Whispers of “She’s very tall”, “She doesn’t eat bagels”, “She doesn’t take questions”, and “She has excellent fashion sense” circulated, as department members read her work in class, in reading groups, and in the library alone while anxiously awaiting her arrival. But why so much preparation?
Dr. Spivak was not only going to give the Lehigh “standard” 4:10 pm lecture, but she also agreed to two days of seminars focused on readings from her epic 624-page book, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. For those who had encountered Spivak’s writing before (likely through her well-known piece, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”), she was preceded by her reputation. For those that had not, she was preceded by those aforementioned 624 pages , about which Spivak has confessed “I don’t write well and I am sorry about that” (a great interview from The Hindu). Thus, when faced with the very real possibility of- *gulp*- speaking to the author of “Can the Subaltern Speak?”- one might feel the need to read the equivalent of a few degrees, learn another language or two, and re-assess their professional wardrobe choices, or, perhaps more honestly speaking, all their professional choices. Ever.
Constrained by reality however, a few excerpts from AAEITEOG  (even the abbreviation is long!) needed to suffice.
Once the formidable Dr. Spivak arrived, the difficulty of her writing seemed quite possibly the only thing that she will ever be sorry about. But of course, to use her own words, she is “not interested in being nice to anyone.” And beginning with this confession, the delightfully candid ‘un-niceness’ of Spivak week began, and long after the week was over- even a year later- her words continue to resonate throughout the wings of Drown Hall. Or, at least- as my floor-mates can verify- my 3rd-floor dungeon-like office and the east-facing stairwell.

Though Spivak’s writing has been famously criticized by Terry Eagleton and many others as long-winded, dense, and “pretentiously opaque”, the Gayatri Spivak who spoke to us, though perhaps all those adjectives, was also a teacher. And this is where I believe the value of her work lies. Inside her discursive style, lengthy digressions, and esoteric formulations, Spivak is a pedagogical aphorist akin to the likes of Emerson. This Spivak, the philosopher I fondly refer to as “Gayatri” in my fandom (meaning no disrespect), is a scholar worth reading.
So- feeling the urge to preach the gospel of Spivak this holiday season (Praise Gayatri!), I share with any interested parties the following transcriptions from her Lehigh visit. For brevity’s sake, the collection is more of a ‘Greatest Hits’ list than a comprehensive representation of her visit. Nonetheless, I feel the following words represent Spivak at her best. For those interested in reading more, the full collection of transcribed aphorisms is available here .

As I say ‘Goodbye to 2014’, I offer up a present of Spivakian sayings, and wish a happy new year to you all!

The Selected Greatest Hits of Gayatri Spivak’s 2013 Lehigh Visit

General cultural criticism:
“Culture is always on the run.”
“Once you can say ‘this is my culture,’ you are separate from that culture.”
“Every declared rupture is also a repetition.”

On literature and fiction:
“All the plays you go to see are a lie from the moment a character says, ‘I’.”
“Literature cannot be taught as evidentiary.”

On language:
“Learning language is NOT a way to learn culture.”
“Look for the ‘trace.’ The ‘trace’ is something that suggests something was there before.”
“Languages are never dead. They are grammatized to death.”
“Changing language across registers of the same language IS translation.”

On Psychoanalysis:
“Read Freud like he’s an ethical philosopher. Read Lacan like he’s a poet.”
“We are programmed to turn fantasy into something we can control.”

On “things academics/instructors should do”:
“What we need to be doing in the humanities is not solving problems, but producing problem solvers.”
“Complicity but not conspiracy.”
“Persistent resistance.”
“Complicit resistance”
“The task of the intellectual is to ask questions.”
“Don’t say ‘imaginative training for epistemological purposes.’ Say, ‘make a difference’.”

On diaspora:
“The feeling of the significance of home becomes more significant if you share it.”
“Not everyone in a diaspora knows the word ‘diaspora’.”

On Feminism , Women, and Gender:
“Forget gender at your peril!”
“Race is nestled in gender.”
“I choose ‘feminist’ because it is an unpopular term.”

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