Thursday, January 28, 2010

Feminism, philosophy and fun with labels

When a friend mentioned in passing that she was attending a talk by Gayatri Spivak, my eyes almost popped out of my head. An Indian-American feminist, Spivak is a well-known professor and scholar whose article "Can the Subaltern Speak?" served as my introduction to postcolonial literary theory last year and inspired parts of my senior thesis. That evening found me trekking excitedly over to the Ecole Normale Superieure (France's version of an "Ivy") to see the woman in person and absorb whatever wisdom I could.

In a word, Spivak was spunky. She was surprisingly nonchalant as she sort of sauntered down the aisle and picked friends out of the sizable crowd to greet. This was her second speaking engagement after having arrived in Paris from India that very morning, but her intellectual acuity betrayed no sign of jet-lag. I had anticipated that she would speak in English (she teaches and writes pretty exclusively in English; in fact, this event was held in part to celebrate the much-delayed translation of one of her major works into French), but after offering a brief apology for grammatical mistakes she launched into better French than mine. She had a "translator"/moderator standing by when needed, but in general she ignored his suggestions for translations of critical terms that she preferred to keep in English, and flat out refused his request that she speak about one of her older articles. No, Spivak had her own cranky agenda and she was sticking to in.

She spoke frankly about her past, admitting that it was a personal identity crisis and family scandal that inspired "Can the Subaltern speak" and rejecting its famous line "white men are saving brown women from brown men" as overly rhetorical and sloganistic. In fact, she rejected most of her career, saying that everything she wrote before this most recent decade was in a period of disillusionment, and that she has recently experienced a reversal of perspective and moved into a more activist phase of her life. In particular she rallied against scholars' adaptation of the terminology she used in the article, particularly the idea of the subaltern, to apply to any mute population outside of its original context of postcolonial India. "That's not what I's not that the subaltern can't speak. They speak, but in a language that the hegemony can not hear or understand." In particular, she didn't like the application to Islamic societies, where she argues that postcolonialism is passé and the issue is more of class (im)mobility or oppression than stratification or colonial legacy. She also had some rabble-rousing commentary on terrorism and 9/11, although she (unfortunately) didn't really have the opportunity to elaborate much on those.

Her talk sparked some predictably indignant comments during question/answer from scholars who, like me, have done exactly what she denounced concerning her terminology. I don't really agree what she said, other than her concession that she doesn't have a copyright on "subaltern"--regardless of the original context, the terms she coined have since been evolved and been incorporated into a dynamic postcolonial vocabulary. It did make me think twice, though, about my use of the word. And in any case, I think she's a brave and inspiring woman to continue raging so strongly against the man and to admit that her past "masterpieces" are full of imperfections. Whenever I look back on something I've written, be it fiction or academic, I'm always able to find a huge handful of things I now disagree with or regret writing. It's nice to know you're allowed to change your mind even after publishing and fame (notoriety?) have set in.

I also find the hubbub over terminology in the liberal arts fascinating. It's pretty much impossible to write anything in my (intended) field without first decrying the very words you will afterward submit to using for being pejorative, noninclusive or overly simplistic. It's a given that the introduction of any critical book will address the terminology applied therein and defend its reasons for doing so. I suppose this attests to the continual conundrum of life as a literary analyst--language is too imperfect and limited to aptly express complex abstract ideas, but seeing as how it's all we have, it'll have to do.

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