Gayatri Spivak gave an impassioned and pointed lecture directed at geographers in just the appropriately theoretically and instructionally poignant ways. She was gently chiding in those moments requiring it, delightfully self-deprecating in others. Her sense of humor peppered the talk, always catching the audience just as they thought they might to start to nod off, not because she isn’t a fantastic speaker but because it was well into hours 9 and 10 of 12 hours of conferencing.
In the past two AAG’s, I have been disheartened by the turn toward Leninism and vanguardism. I’ve written about this extensively (particularly after last year’s AAG in Seattle) and won’t repeat my arguments here. Gayatri Spivak responded to this turn and the more general question of the role of academics within social movements. She reminds us that it is important to nurture a will to social justice. Our jobs, she tells us, is not to be the vanguard, even when asked, rather, to offer what we do have, our critical analysis and our ability to teach. She points out that individualist self-interest as a social justice project responds to the tyranny of capitalism – it works as a kind of damage control. But she reminds us to think further out. (The AAG Plenary followed and explicitly addressed this issue in multiple ways. I will write about that in my next post)
What I appreciated about her treatment of the question of vanguardism is her addressing the fallacy that Gramsci was a vanguardist. It takes a very poor reading of Gramsci, a lack of historical context, and a severe deficiency in the early texts of Marxism(s) from the early 20th century to read Gramsci in that way. His works, she reminded the audience, are simply a collection of his thoughts about the book he would write when he was released – it was not a book. Unfortunately, he died in prison before he was able to write his book.
Where she stopped short with him is in her discussion of his definition of the subaltern: that according to Gramsci, they are the group that has not achieved the state, that they are without the possibility of reaching the state (she further takes his definition). It is not that the subaltern do not speak, but that their voices are silenced against the state – they are a shouting into the wind of politics (or as Benjamin would have it, into the winds of history). If that is the case, then at what point do they reach a critical mass, a consciousness, whatever you want to call it, that they can finally be heard.
I understand the fascination with, the enamoring of, the notion of a vanguard. Vanguardists can purport to be the voice for the subaltern – the reaching of and for the subaltern to the state. But as any critical geographer knows, we cannot speak for the subaltern.
And it is here that she turns toward the insistence of geographers that we are an interdisciplinary discipline. But, she reminds us, a discipline is something that constructs the subject of knowledge. Real interdisciplinarity, she warns, opens up the work to the incalculable. And while the disciplinary boundaries should be resisted, they should not be discarded.
I cannot do Spivak justice in her eloquence and depth of address, so I apologize for poorly summarized notes and memories of what was a wonderful and thought-provoking lecture. It was a wildly inspiring talk that included a lovely set of clarifications of her writings that really opened up some of the ways of thinking through her work.
The talk is available as a sound file here. (Thank you Thomas Dörfler from Goettingen)