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  • Spivak Lessons
  • Ben Conisbee Baer (bio)
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: In Other Words by Sangeeta Ray; Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

The questions that animate Sangeeta Ray’s engaging new book on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak bear upon teaching and learning. The push and pull of being both student of Spivak’s work and teacher of that work in the classroom and in the medium of the book are palpable from the first pages. We begin with a heading of “Partial Beginnings,” and soon the “impossible” task of a book on Spivak is invoked (1). “[H]ow would I write her without diminishing her presence?” (1) asks Ray, facing, in fact, the double bind confronting every teacher: how to respond responsibly to the subject they have to teach.

As Ray points out, Spivak calls attention to the play in Derrida’s French between répondre à and répondre de that formalizes several options here. Thus, “give an answer to,” “answering to,” “being answerable for” (Spivak, “Responsibility,” 61; Ray, 72).1 None is predictably the right thing. Caught in this double bind, the teacher is left without a reliable device with which to calculate what her answerability to the material to be taught should be. So we receive “a version of the many possible books that were discarded and rewritten” (Ray, 1). Maybe it all sounds a bit dramatic, but in fact it’s an experience of everyday life: like everyone, the teacher must decide how to go on, but every “instant of decision is a madness . . . a decision of urgency and precipitation, acting in the night of nonknowledge and nonrule” (Derrida, “Force of Law,” 255). In her continuously reflexive engagement with the texts of Spivak, Ray does not cease reminding her readers that [End Page 209] the urgent, productively anxiety-inducing scene of pedagogy is acted out in those texts.

The options open to the teacher will depend to some extent upon where she or he stands in the tremendously class-divided situation of education at all levels in the world today. As Ray observes, it is to questioning the instituted apartheid of education that Spivak has dedicated a great part of her energies over the last twenty years or so. In a class-divided system, standardized, rote-learned answers are called for from the poor, while the middle and upper classes demand that their children are taught to “think for themselves,” to become “problem solvers” and “leaders.” With unyielding perseverance, Spivak has worked to train teachers in the rural South to teach a state curriculum in such a way that the children of the subaltern might also become “problem solvers,” minimally equivalent in capacity to their Ivy League peers at the other end of the spectrum on which she teaches. In the second chapter, on the theme of “soul-making,” Ray shows how Spivak’s experience of education in the rural global South radically informs her apparently more abstract or “high”-level theoretical writing. To be able to discern the figure of the “gendered subaltern” and the “new subaltern” (nonreciprocally accessed by a one-way street of telecommunications and finance capital) at large in the world; to be able to read in the writings of Tagore and J. M. Coetzee, for instance, the specific disjunctures between ethics and politics, warning of the risks and failures of postcolonial politics, as well as their totally unexpected resources of hope; to be able to do any of these things (and myriad others, too, that readers will find original in Spivak’s work), Ray ob -serves, it is perhaps necessary to have ventured out of narrowly academic enclosures into teaching work alongside grassroots subaltern activists (51–62). This is no easy task: thinking you have successfully done so is itself a warning, a moment for vigilance (59).

Meanwhile, overseen by this multileveled labor of Spivak’s, there have appeared in the last few years several short monographic studies of her work. Stephen Morton’s Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2003) is part of Routledge’s Critical Thinkers series of “introductory guides to key figures in contemporary thought.” Mark Sanders’s Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2006) is part of Continuum’s Live Theory series published under similar rubric. Although the number...


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pp. 209-217
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