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Gayatri Spivak: A famously hard-to-understand scholar

world Updated: Sep 27, 2013 02:26 IST
Noopur Tiwari
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the world's most influential celebrity scholars has said that violence against women in India is a "product of class apartheid in education" which leads both men and women into "getting educated into rape culture and bribe culture".

For Spivak, laws are existentially impoverished but they have to be implemented. Her work in classrooms, she says, is to "produce problem solvers rather than solve problems".

Talking about secularism in the Indian context, Spivak said, "Religion, is a very powerful instrument and it's easily politically mobilised."

She also added that it cannot be brought into social behaviour nor serve as an instrument of social justice. If she could say one thing to the Arab Spring rebels and Wall Street occupiers she'd say, "What you folks have to learn is to turn that passion into permanent political structures."

A literary theorist, feminist and philosopher, Spivak won the $630,000 Kyoto prize for her work against "intellectual colonialism" in 2012. She gave away the cash to her foundation for primary education in India. Her schools in Birbhum, in rural West Bengal, had been running on her salary since 1986.

Jaywalking through the streets of Paris, with a small rucksack on her back, 71-year-old Spivak tells HT, "You cannot evaluate the kind of teaching I represent, it's invaluable. I'm not unique but we need this kind of invaluable thing which people are not prepared to give. Money is not what we need."

Spivak says she teaches her students "how to read and to hang out in the space of the other".

In Birbhum, she teaches "the poetry of the decimal system" by asking her students to think of the rishis who thought about how they could "measure the smallest, even before there was any scientific need to do so". To her PhD students at Columbia she says, "Read Das Kapital as if you are writing it."

Spivak has been called 'famously hard to understand' and laughs at critics saying she is a 'boring sermoniser'. Salman Rushdie described a fictional character based on her as "a tall, thin, Bengali woman with a crew cut who talked non-stop about Kant". Amartya Sen has called her the "quintessential argumentative Indian".

She first shot to fame for translating Jacques Derrida's "Of Grammatology" in 1976, introducing deconstructionist theory to the English-speaking world. Her 1988 essay "Can the subaltern speak?" is widely quoted and hotly debated even today.

"White men saving brown women from brown men" was one of her many statements that created a stir. A star speaker, Spivak continues travelling and writing books.

She has lived in the US on her Indian passport for more than 50 years. "I feel fine that I'm not at home either in India or in the US". She says she loves "a certain New York" and for Calcutta, she says, "I feel I own that place. If anybody says you don't belong here I will (pauses and laughs) stand up for my rights in Ballygunj."