Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and the Deadly Silence

In less than a month I will have the distinct pleasure of delivering the Keynote Address before the Annual Meeting of the Institute of Foreign Languages, held this year in Podgorica, Mongenegro ( This in itself is a great honor. But the real honor is the subject of that address: the amazing Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”
It is already more than twenty years ago when I first encountered Professor Spivak’s writing in a course taught by Leora Auslander on methods in historical research. At the time I was completing my doctoral research at the University of Chicago and I am certain that I did not fully appreciate Professor Spivak’s contribution. Reading the work again now twenty years later, it is clear that Professor Spivak was light-years ahead of anyone else at the time; or very nearly. Today we have slipped even further down the embankment to which Spivak called our attention back then. Forgetful of the social formation that constituted both our world and the world of the subaltern — forgetful that is of capitalism — we have tolerated and even abetted the drive to rid our institutions, our syllabi, and our curricula of all but the most insipid traces of the violence under whose cover we are still permitted to speak at all.
This permission, in fact, has prompted a not entirely benign rumor to circulate in Bosnia and Herzegovina that I am in fact a spy for the State Department or the CIA, my Marxist credentials only a convenient cover for my true intentions: to infiltrate and report back to the US about the public and published minutes of Plenum and its radical leaders. Without doubt I am here at the State Department’s leisure. And like innumerable Fulbrighters before me my credentials are far to the left of those who selected, funded and sent me.
Nevertheless, these facts should not be permitted to overshadow the inconvenient truth that I am permitted — no, I am invited, urged, compelled — to speak in Mostar, Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Zenica, and Tuzla, at Medresa and English Departments, at Economic Conferences and the Six O’Clock News, while countless more deserving and more articulate voices are silenced. Which is why, whenever I speak, I try as much as possible to remember Professor Spivak and the wonderful spanking she gave to Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze twenty-six years ago.
But, of course, over the course of these twenty-six years it has gotten so much worse. If students at UC Berkeley pack my courses to overflowing, it is in large measure a sad commentary on what counts as scholarship in the other lecture halls. We must feel the walls closing in on us, narrowing and constricting what we can think and what we can say. Yet it is only as we reflect critically on the constraints imposed on human knowledge, on the ways that the world we live in shapes what we can think, that we might be provoked to also think critically on what we might be able to think under a different set of constraints and not as is now frequently thought in the absence of constraints entirely. Exposing how capitalism and how imperialism have shaped, for example, my many invitations to serve as MC at conferences over whose subjects I enjoy only ephemeral and passing knowledge, is significant because it reminds us that access and speech are gendered, monetized, and cultivated. But to not point this out, to fail to make this my privilege a point of study, is to naturalize them in ways that damages knowledge and learning itself.
I am still forming my thoughts on Professor Spivak and am not sure how I will pitch this subject at a conference whose attendees, like me, enjoy the privilege of speech. What I want is an uprising within departments and institutions and states against capital on behalf of those who as yet have been silenced and for whom I cannot yet speak. But I need to think with sufficient care if I am not to join Saints Michel and Gilles on Professor Spivak’s whipping block. Beware you know I will.

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