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  • (Not) at Home in (Hindu) IndiaShahid Amin, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and the Critique of History
  • Qadri Ismail (bio)


The second sentence of Gayatri Spivak's most famous, most misunderstood—and, okay, okay, notoriously difficult to read—essay has not received much critical attention. Yet it raises an important question, especially for the leftist, about the relation between theory, for want of a better word, and politics. "Whatever power these meditations command," she writes, "may have been earned by a politically interested refusal to push to the limit the founding presuppositions of my desires, as far as they are within my grasp."1 A particularly dense formulation in an essay replete with them, its elements need disaggregating—or unpacking, as a frequent flying academic might put it. The first, and perhaps easiest, observation concerns the statement that her desires—to be precise, their "founding presuppositions," but let's stay with desires—are not completely within her grasp. The invocation, obviously, is the subject of psychoanalysis. The next concerns the statement that she will not push to the limit the founding presuppositions of these desires. But what are these unnamed presuppositions, the ground, in a sense, from which she speaks? The critique of the sovereign, autonomous, self-conscious enlightenment subject; or, to use a much-abused term, a certain strand of poststructuralism. She will, that is, refuse, perhaps even resist, being consistently or rigorously poststructuralist. This might sound shocking coming from a scholar whose work, at its best, is exemplary in its rigor ("at its best" because often, too often, Spivak resorts to anecdotes—truth claims in narrative form, unverifiable by definition—to establish some of her positions). What is at stake in the refusal? Is there a lesson here for the leftist? Why does the essay begin, necessarily, with such a position/ing? [End Page 210]

For, as Spivak puts it, politically interested reasons: her political convictions overdetermine her theoretical ones. To grasp this politics—or, better, this tension between theoretical rigor and the commitment to politics, which always brings strategic/tactical considerations into play—one has to move to a much later moment in the text, where Spivak refuses to disavow

[r]eporting on, or better still, participating in, antisexist work among women of color or women in class oppression in the First World or the Third World. [It] is undeniably on the agenda. We should also welcome all the information retrieval in these silenced areas that is taking place in anthropology, political science, history, and sociology. Yet the assumption and construction of a consciousness or subject sustains such work and will, in the long run, cohere with the work of imperialist subject-constitution, mingling epistemic violence with the advancement of learning.2

Her theoretical convictions suggest that what is blandly called "information retrieval"—it sounds less innocent if called the production of disciplinary truth claims—will reinscribe and reinforce the sovereign, self-conscious subject, now also termed, and damningly from a postcolonialist, imperialist. (Those familiar with the essay will realize why the adjective becomes necessary by its end.) Nevertheless, her politics, the commitment to feminism—more precisely, the opposition to sexism—makes it impossible to dismiss feminist social science. The political or strategic necessity for knowledge overdetermines both the critique of the subject and the critique of knowledge, even though Spivak knows, as it were, that the desire for knowledge—always a desire for mastery (of the object by the subject)—is, at best, suspect; and, at worst, coincides with the epistemological strand of imperialism. So, while suspect, to be handled with caution, history and the other social sciences are also necessary; not just unavoidable, but necessary; to abuse the literary critical term, pharmakonic.

In a later essay, on Subaltern Studies, Spivak strengthens her critique of the discipline.3 It contains the celebrated sound bite defending the work of the collective as "strategic essentialism"—but only, with the qualifier most of her hasty readers have missed, "in a scrupulously visible political interest."4 (Even though, as Madhava Prasad reminds us, this is a political resolution of a theoretical problem and so is unsatisfactory.) 5 Impossible without the subject, history now is [End Page 211] an unqualified accomplice of...