Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

SPIVAK Critique

NOTE: This brief critique was based solely on Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" and preceded "Escaping the Colonial Trap".


Spivak is a sectarian of the old Althusserian variety; hence her determination to pick fights with other "radical" writers. Or rather: she is a sectarian of this kind in theory but not in practice. (A full Althusserian would not accept a right to use theoretically incorrect arguments for pragmatic purposes, which Spivak does in the case of bride burning; her theory has to this extent restored the theory/practice separation and is closer to Lacan). She claims an ontologically privileged standpoint which she attacks others for not sharing. The basic procedure is as follows:
1. Assume a prior truth expressed in a privileged vocabulary of terms (such as "interest" and "exploitation") assumed to directly and exclusively express reality;
2. Confront opponents who do not use this language with an unsupported and arrogant claim that they are somehow "in denial" (terms used include "foreclose", "taken in", "cannot acknowledge", "disavowal", etc.) - the net result of which is a) to present Spivak's own argument as being on a more secure footing than it is and b) to reinscribe opposition to her view as "symptom" instead of as truth-claim. (Is it really true that Foucault "cannot acknowledge" economic exploitation, or that he can but won't, i.e. that he believes other concepts to be more useful? Or that Anderson "does not see", rather than disagreeing with the view that, the later Foucauly believes in a Subject of the West? Or that Deleuze and Guattari are "incapable of articulating a theory of interests", rather than articulating a theory which breaks down the idea of fixed interests?). Language of this kind is used to hint at evidence for a counterclaim - evidence which, however, she never presents.
3. Raise the emotional tone by adding an accusation that rivals are "dangerous" or complicit in all kinds of oppressive systems. Or in one case that: "The refusal of the sign-system [by Foucault] blocks the way to a developed theory of ideology" (280). NB again how it is simply assumed, not shown, that such a theory is necessary and superior to Foucault's approach. Or: "Neither Deleuze nor Foucault seems aware that the intellectual within socialized capital, brandishing concrete experience, can help consolidate the international division of labour" - classic Althusserian guilt-tripping. The absence of the correct theoretical terminology becomes proof of complicity with the enemy. Notice again how, subtracting the claim about "awareness" (see 2), the sentence is an unsupported assertion. The contentiousness of and lack of evidence for the thesis is concealed beneath the rhetoric seen in 2.

In this way, Spivak evades the need to provide evidence for a string of basic theoretical positions around which she is in dispute with others. Indeed, she tends to reproduce the entire logic of Althusserian "symptomatic reading", which rests on the theorist having an ontologically-privileged access to the whole Truth so as to be able to diagnose the "ideological" character of opposing views by exposing what is missing from them. So she claims to be able to point out what a work or tradition can't or won't say. Also, her attack on Foucault and Deleuze for 'privileging the subject' and 'subjective essentialism' and her criticism of 'fetishizing the concrete' implies a commitment to an Althusserian anti-humanist methodology involving a fetishism of the symbolic system, as if this is an external "material" structure which is unaffected by speech-acts and which cannot be deconstructed or used creatively. (Deleuze's "subject" is molecular and therefore fragmented, and not at all the subject of Spivak's account. Presumably, therefore, Spivak believes that any idea that something within human beings can exceed and challenge the status quo is "essentialist"; though she never explains why her Lacanian view of the social system is less "essentialist"). Belief in the subject is supposed to reproduce the social relations of production, although Spivak does not provide any support for this unlikely claim. (Surely capitalism is about objectifying workers, not subjectifying; and what of slavery?!). Hence, she exaggerates the role of existing, especially formal, symbolic systems in constructing identity and enabling or limiting speech; for instance, she claims that everything is representation. She also exaggerates the role of theory; Foucault and Deleuze express a vague agent called an "episteme" which "operates its silent programming function" on "the general nonspecialist, nonacademic population".

Partly as a result of this, she exaggerates the importance of classic texts. Whatever the role of these texts, they surely underwent rather more "interpretive" usage than Spivak allows (as is suggested by work by Guha, Amin, Scott, Chatterjee, etc.). Spivak often seems to be appealing
directly to the "authentic" meaning of classic Sanskrit texts. Also as a result of this, she seems to assume a kind of general and inescapable complicity of everyone in systems of oppression, a model which requires that one misrepresent one's work, not as something creative, but as a mere outgrowth of "its own material production as institutionality". Although this idea does not apparently affect her own claims. (Crucially, the concept of "interest" is very complicit in existing power-relations since it drives the discipline of economics which is a central "epistemic" basis for organisations such as the WTO, World Bank etc.).

Where this Althusserianism is Lacanianised is on the subject of "constitutive lack". "These philosophers will not entertain the thought of constitutive contradiction - that is where they admittedly part company with the Left" (274). Contrary to Spivak's assertion here, this is not a left idea (Marxian contradiction is Hegelian, not constitutive) but a Lacanian one. Indeed, she mystifies this mystified formula still further by suggesting it operates, not only in individual psyches, but collectively, through "our archaic past". She links this to the concept of "interest", i.e. "interest" marks the point where lack is inscribed in the subject. It is unclear what relationship this libidinal concept of "interest" has to the more usual economic meaning which occurs elsewhere in Spivak's essay. Perhaps she has picked up the bad habit, again common among Lacanians, of treating different senses of the same word as if they express some kind of unconscious unity. She specifically supports "a politically interested refusal to push to the limit the founding presuppositions of my desires", i.e. conceives politics as ideology (in the Situationist sense of the term). Also, the confusion of external others with "the interior voice that is the voice of the other in us" as a single "desiring subject as Other" - as if people are nothing but little bits of each other's psyches - is Lacanian. Most crucially, she seems to oppose the openness of theories such as those of Deleuze and Foucault, who leave space for resistance and "lines of flight", insisting instead that the system is a total trap which can actually go as far as to foreclose the possibility of subaltern collectivities emerging.

Spivak asks, "can the subaltern speak?" and her answer is "no". However, unlike Guha she doesn't really seem interested in how "the subaltern" tries to speak. Instead, she analyses dominant discourses and shows how they construct subaltern people as voiceless. This leads her away from evidence and into a discourse analysis focussed solely on dominant groups. For example: "The question is not of female participation in insurgency, or the ground rules of the sexual division of labour, for both of which there is 'evidence'. It is, rather, that, both as object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant". "The institutional evilsattendant upon this law are well known; I am considering its asymmetrical effect on the ideological formation of the sexed subject". Regarding feminism: "One never encounters the testimony of the women's voice-consciousness" (a paradoxical criticism since she criticises the idea of authentic voice when attacking Foucault). . Interpreting such phrases is difficult because Spivak does not define key concepts in her work (is "ideology" merely symbolic or also practical?) and her over-reliance on passive voice, but she seems to think that, because male linguistic texts define women as voiceless, therefore they are. This ignores the difficulty involved in imposing any particular dominant text: it is subject both to refusal and to deconstructive readings by "subaltern" people themselves. The Israelis construct the Palestinians as subordinate but this does not prevent Palestinian resistance. People do not necessarily become what dominant legal and symbolic systems say they are. Dominant social systems are often reduced to apparatuses hovering above everyday life, and their actuality when it exists is mostly a result of physical violence. It is not possible to draw conclusions about the identity of "the subaltern" from a discussion of the discourse of colonisers and elites.

The position of her own discourse in her theory is unclear. She claims to be "a postcolonial woman" and also claims that postcolonial women cannot speak due to being interpellated as voiceless by male and colonial power. However, here she is "speaking" (or rather, writing).

Despite her apparent bias against empirical claims, she falls back on them at key points, and also relies on class taxonomies despite her declared hostility to taxonomic logic. For instance: 'Belief in the plausibility of global alliance politics is prevalent among dominant social groups interested in "international feminism" in the comprador countries'; 'In the interest of maintaining the circulation and growth of industrial capital... transportation, law, and standardized education systems were developed - even as local industries were destroyed", etc. These claims are often unsupported.

Spivak's use of words is often clumsy. It is not clear to me why a plan to "Investigate, identify and measure the specific" is essentialist (284); in the quote from Guha she attacks, I would suggest only the ideas of 'ideal' and 'deviation' are essentialist (on a Barthesian reading). It is also not clear that the substance of Guha's work relies to a significant extent on the themes Spivak is attacking. She is also inclined to assume that only imperialist oppressions are real: Foucault's concern about prisons and mental asylums must be a veil for something else. Yet prisons and mental asylums are real.

Spivak's reading of Deleuze and Foucault is selective, reading sweeping problems into their work on the basis of one short article. She ignores other relevant material, such as Deleuze's discussion of shamanism in Anti-Oedipus. She also does not consider whether Foucault's method could in principle be applied to colonial systems. Her argument seems to be that Foucault and Deleuze write mainly about the west, therefore they must be ignorant (or in denial) about the "Other of Europe", therefore they must implicitly express a "Subject of the West". (This argument could be repeated in relation to any particular group which is not explicitly mentioned in a particular article). This is then backed by various appeals to her own views, usually with no supporting evidence or arguments. For instance: she simply asserts that it is surreptitiously oppressive to allow others to speak. Similarly, Foucault is supposed to have "helped positivist empiricism" and is "uncritical about the historical role of the intellectual". She does not mention his detailed critiques of the "human sciences". (Perhaps it is the fact that Foucault does not extend his critique of particular intellectual discourses to a critique of "the intellectual" treated as a mythical and ahistorical abstraction which is Spivak's problem here?).

On the other hand, she sometimes uses exegeses (eg. of Marx) in cases where the claim she is trying to demonstrate is empirical rather than exegetical. Why, for instance, does she assume that Marx is right about peasants, without examining any evidence on whether he is?

The practical implications are unclear. Spivak wants to "speak to" instead of "listen to" or "speak for" the subaltern woman, but does not define "speak to" or how it is differentiated from the other categories. This "speaking to" cannot presumably be dialogic because Spivak also claims the subaltern woman cannot speak; also because Spivak's work is not apparently written to be accessible to subalterns. Anyway, the purpose seems to be therapeutic rather than emancipatory (in this case - a repetition of another Althusserian idea - to "systematically unlearn privilege"). Notwithstanding her claims to "Left" status, Spivak endorses a string of pessimistic theses (constitutive lack, the permanent guilt of all intellectuals, the subaltern cannot speak) which rule out any kind of transformative praxis and which redirect theory instead into mostly self-regarding activities. The only case of political action listed here (a suicide) is a classic Zizekian "Act": a nihilistic gesture emphasised only for its defiance of established meaning (and flagged up by Spivak as not a model for action anyway).


  • At September 28, 2006 at 12:08 PM, Blogger dr.dan said…

    I was in court once and court started at 9 am.
    In walked this guy about 9:05 am noticing his case was up he raised his hand to get the court's attention.
    The judge started yelling at him and calling him some kind of criminal ,seem the judge thought his leather jacket made him a criminal.
    mind you the leather jacket was a dress leather clearly it at one time was a costly purchase.
    This judge places the guy on the stand and then tells him you will only answer how I tell you too.
    The judge was nuts...
    back about 6 months ago someone shot a judge in another court room so this judge clearly needed some mental help.
    I talked to the guy later and found out his wife had done him wrong and he was lacking any funds for any legal help.
    injury lawsuit


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