Biography 27.1 (2004) 203-221
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"On the Cusp of the Personal and the Impersonal":
An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Laura E. Lyons
In the spring semester of 2003, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, occupied the position of Citizens' Chair at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. The Citizens' Chair was created in 1965 by the state legislature to attract individuals of extraordinary scholarly and creative accomplishments to our University with the mandate that their presence would benefit both the academic and the larger communities of Hawai'i. In addition to conducting a graduate seminar, "Narratives of the Multiple Politics of Culture," Spivak gave numerous talks: "Terror" here at the university; "The Humanities in the Twenty-First Century" at the Honolulu Academy of Art; "Beyond Academe" for the Graduate Student Conference in Languages, Linguistics and Literatures; "Two Worlds Meeting: Conversations on Indigenous Issues and Settler Viewpoints" with Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, Director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa; a roundtable on film and social justice for the South Asian Studies Symposium; and several presentations on the other islands.
Although not regularly associated with the field of life writing, Spivak's work provides integral contributions to it, as evidenced by the many references to her work in this volume. A cultural and literary critic, translator, and teacher, Spivak has been at the forefront of the disciplinary formation of postcolonial studies. Her influential books range from In Other Worlds (1987) to Death of a Discipline (2003). Her interest in those parts of the world that are left out of or "jumped over" by hegemonic orders such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation brings to the foreground the importance of narratives that testify to the resilience of people and oppositional cultural practices. A feminist who has participated in the Subaltern Studies Collective, Spivak challenges as well as provides insights into questions of agency, authority, and representation, all of which are crucial to life writing studies. Known for [End Page 203] using evocative stories from her own and others' lives, Spivak in her teaching and writing powerfully positions herself and her critical interruptions "on the cusp of the personal and the impersonal." In her recent research, Spivak has been a vocal critic of those who attempt to redress human rights abuses through "quick fix" models or glib forms of liberalism that do not adequately address the material conditions and structures on the ground. By contrast, Spivak works in rural areas of India as a self-subsidized volunteer through small local non-governmental organizations to train teachers for teaching democratic habits of mind through elementary education. Her work in these schools exemplifies the difficult process of "learning to learn from below" that is so necessary to effecting the kind of cultural transformation that has a chance of creating a more just world. She addresses these and a wide range of other issues relevant to life writing in the interview below.
Cynthia Franklin and Laura E. Lyons (CF & LEL):An explicit duty of the Citizens' Chair holders is to extend their influence beyond the University and out to the larger community. Can you speak to your relationship to "citizenship" in the context of occupying this chair at the University of Hawai'i? At several points, you have remarked upon the ways in which your students at Columbia have access to certain kinds of organizations that allow them to see themselves as benevolent actors in the world. How do you see yourself using your position as Citizens' Chair to intervene or work against neoliberal notions of the "citizen" that are tied to good works and to the kind of benevolence that you critique? Do you see particular problems that you want to pose to the concept of citizenship given the uses to which it has been put in the post-9/11 political climate in the United States?
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (GCS): I have tried to follow...