Does the subaltern exist as USD? An interview with Kyoto Prize laureate Gayatari Spivak

By Nick Dilonardo

The Vista was invited to interview Gayatari Spivak, author of “Can the Subaltern Speak,” an essay examining the support structure of patriarchal privilege.

NICK DILONARDO:. I go to the University of San Diego, and it’s a place of no uncertain privilege, and one of the tasks or things I’ve been asked to take from this is to try and bring some appreciation of that essay, or some appreciation of the thinking that essay would perhaps infer, or support – how do I take that and apply that to a place where ‘subaltern’ is hard to understand, where I walk across campus and see cars that cost more than homes I grew up in. I guess the question then would be, is how do we understand subaltern, and how do we understand the bias of a privileged position in place of such privilege? And can we?

GAYATARI SPIVAK: It’s a pleasure to talk to you first of all, good questions. You know, the subaltern exists everywhere. At my hotel, for example, there are maids coming up, you know? The subaltern – it’s a military metaphor, right? – It means those who only take orders. You know, if you really look around, not always looking above, but looking below, you will see that even your privileged world is supported by people who only take orders. Also: this is after all near the Tijuana border, so, in fact, one of the real, real, focus of the subaltern, in that sense, are people who only take orders. And then another one, which is people who have no access to any of the structures of the state – welfare structures – that’s the paperless immigrant. So living in San Diego [laughs], you don’t ask me where do I find the subaltern. Go to Arizona, and you’ll see the situation has been changed into a kind of police state. Mexican Studies being censored in high schools –

ND: – yes, that’s right, in Arizona –

GS: Right-O! Therefore, if we look where we are, and we look below, then we can see there is an invisible army – military metaphor again, junior officers are subalterns also – because it’s not like they don’t give orders to who is below, because I am quite sure there are terrible gender politics inside that group. So, they are like junior officers, they are kicking their wives, while they are also subaltern. You understand what I’m saying? Therefore, I’m not saying a subaltern is good. I’m saying a subaltern is a subaltern. Wherever you are, privilege is supported by subalternity, and subalternization. People are made like this. You know the Occupy Wall Street people?

ND: Yes ma’am.

GS: They are – what’s happening? The new deal is being dispersed, so the citizen is being subalternized. No access to welfare. They don’t look like people sleeping outside, but they are being made subalternized. You see what I’m saying?

ND: Yes.

GS: So this is an excellent question, so I gave you a classroom type answer.

ND: Thank you very much, and I guess the question I would ask in response is twofold: one, is it a matter of the act of subalternization, is that necessarily – in the example of Arizona with ethnic studies it’s a conscious process by the state – but is it spontaneous? Is it a product of the nature of the state itself? Or is it something… that hegemony actively does?

GS: Mixture. This is fine, I’m really enjoying this. It’s a mixture. the system produces it – I was just, in fact, that’s what I’m writing now, that’s what I was writing when you first came in, I was just having a chat with Lisa about the fact that people don’t know that they’re saying things that shut out the subaltern. That’s when the system produces it. You know, but on the other hand, it is also deliberately produced when this is presented quite often through a misuse of democratic procedure. Campaign rhetoric, right? Because that’s the best way to make people do terrifying things: when they are doing it for their country, for democracy. So when that happens, then it’s being deliberately done. But let me give you an addition here. I mean, this is not an interview. That’s soundbites. This is really much more a teaching session because you came in with such fine questions.

ND: Thank you very much.

GS: So let me just say, adding something, that you know the word hegemony, the man who coined the word subaltern, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian thinker who was put in jail because the public prosecutor said we cannot let this mind think for another twenty years. He defeated them. In jail, he produced twenty nine notebooks that we’re still reading. Eh? So that mind looked at hegemony, the state, even liberal education as both medicine and poison. He, for him, hegemony was not just bad. It’s easy for us to say that hegemony is only bad, because we are in privilege. Those who have nothing, for them, we need to be able to insert them into hegemony, and keep trying to use hegemony as medicine rather than as poison. It’s a philosophy of teaching use rather than just ‘this good, that bad.’ It’s an educative philosophy. Keep that in mind. Most people don’t understand this about Gramsci. But it’s very important.

ND: And, is it the role then – my university sells itself – it’s a private university – it sells itself as a place where they attempt to create social innovation, social entrepreneurship – it’s trying to take free enterprise and mix it with social good. I guess the question then is what roles do universities have in affecting this change, and can universities that are profit-driven, market-driven, can they do it? Because there are problems of incentives: if you’re trying to produce children to go into business school, can you at the same time produce children to in effect change your society? It’s like that quote from Albert Einstein, “you can’t be preparing for war and preparing for peace at the same time?”

GS: And there are now, of course, those peacemaking wars. Um, you know, it’s, the answer is, yes and no. Because we can’t burn the universities. We have to work with what we have. One the other hand, it’s a – the university is getting so corporatized –

ND: Yes! Amen.

GS: Eh? The almost, the division between public and private is almost disappearing. That, we have to become aware of how little the university can do for good and how much for evil. This is, unless, some of us are able to see this, there is no hope for the future. At this moment, if one says this, one is not going to be taken seriously. Because, one is surrounded by people who are either – excuse me for using very simple language – fools or knaves. The fools think this can really be done, that social entrepreneurship is not a contradiction in terms –

ND: Thank you.

GS: The knaves know, and knowingly they move this way. so, therefore, we have to keep working for the philosophers of the future. Because there may be, may be – no certainty – there may be people who will pick up on this when things have gone. There may come a critical mass who will know that a revolution is not a regime change, that a revolution is not violence, and so on, and that in fact that a revolution has to be kept up because each generation is born dumb. [Laughs] You know what I mean? So, therefore, the, it’s, I don’t think we should stop. But I don’t think we should delude ourselves into something, that’s it’s a battle easy to be won. And even more, congratulate ourselves because a small group of people have held up the bank or something. That’s child’s play. It can be done when they get around the other way.

ND: When you mentioned the philosophers of the future, it brought to mind for me Nietzche –

GS: But of course! What a pleasure that you caught the quote. It’s an obvious quote,

ND: – it is an obvious quote –

GS: – this morning, I mentioned Wittgenstein to a science fellow, and he hadn’t heard of him. This is the world. And I hardly – I didn’t mention some obscure, esoteric Indian philosopher of the ninth century b.c. No. You know, this is, you know, this is the world. But what is the use? You and I are in the minority, you see? If we had had this conversation and then photographed, I would have been really smiling.

ND: Thank you, I don’t know why, but when you mentioned the philosophers of the future and Nietzsche, it brought to my mind about specialization in education. [In “Twilight of the Idols”] He seems to argue, from what I understand, against specialization. And we’re talking about the corporate structure of universities – it seems to me moving more and more towards specialization – specialization seems to be the best way to commodify the educated product for the market. Is a broader liberal arts curriculum an antidote or a kind of medicine?

GS: Not seriously specialization in anything but what helps corporatization, so therefore let’s not say specialization. Because broader is also dilution. There is not an easy solution for today, okay? I mean, this is only an interview and it’s going to last a few more minutes. This is not something one can really talk about, and you have to be in the field working rather than talk about it, because you can be completely dismissed by the other side, showing you only the social productivity of capital and the subalternization. And that’s what people do, again and again and they don’t know better than to be taken in.
But on the other hand, you see, corporatization is very different from capital. Capital can be used – as I say to anybody who works with me – there is nothing wrong with capital. In fact, I even say in Benghali to the people that I work with – way there in the boonies – ‘pungi’, which is capital, ‘pungi ballo’, captial is good. ‘Pungi badkara’, capitalism is bad. There’s nothing wrong with capital, you know? One is really in bad faith if one wants to go back to ‘small is beautiful.’ Small business: what is small business? Immediately in hands of the venture capitalists. So let’s forget that one. So you can pretend it’s small. No, so therefore, the use capital is, medicine and poison. You know what I mean? So that’s a very different way, a very very different way of dealing with the problem and it is not going to be solved by broad liberal arts education, because how do our humanities teachers teach?
Remember, I teach at one of the best universities in the world. We teach so that our dissertation students cut down their topics so they can get jobs. It’s a vocational enterprise. You don’t change that kind of thing in a day. So therefore, it’s not producing a quick solution, broad this and broad that. In fact, I was offered a job at a university which for the moment will remain nameless, where I was – very fine university – where I was told that I would be able to bring the humanities initiative into a school which – if I gave you more detail, you’d know what I’m talking about it’s so well known – and, I’m not an idiot, so therefore, I went as a visiting professor for a semester, and man, I worked hard like you wouldn’t believe, like every Thursday meeting with all kinds of faculty until I realized at the end that I would be, more or less, produced as a nice catch to show that the humanities were encouraged. In fact, nothing would change.
So therefore, given the nature of the beast, in the belly of which we are, you know – and I’m not just talking about the United Sttates, I’m talking about the world – it’s very easy to point the finger at the United States – but, and that’s kind of reversal, legitimation by reversal – why am I sitting there if that’s how I feel?
So therefore I feel like we really have to work hard for the philosophers of the future, without producing solutions constantly. It’s bigger than what our minds can produce, as solutions for the moment.

ND: I may be mistaken, but the word that popped into my mind when you mentioned medicine that is both bad and good – isn’t that Pharmakon?

GS: Yes, but it’s not the Socratic Pharmakon as interpreted by Derrida. That’s much more complicated. You know if you go back to the pharmacy of Plato, you will see – because surely you didn’t meet it first with Socrates, you met it first with [Jacques] Derrida-

ND: Yes of course –

GS: So when you see how he’s un-peeling it, it’s much more complicated. This is why I don’t use the word pharmakon. I’m saying something much simpler, much more practical. You know what I mean.

ND: I very much enjoyed speaking with you. I guess the only thing I’d ask, as we are coming to an end here, is… what… what – what I mean, we talk about not having solutions, but is there an aim? A goal? Is there something we should be working towards? Is the idea that we’re working towards a society in which capital is available for all? is it – [heavy sigh] –

GS: Now – this is the hardest thing to learn: to work with no guarantees. This is the greatest gift of imaginative activism – which is what the humanities are – to work in such a way that when, you know, I gave the talk in Kyoto, I pointed out that all three of the laureates shared this conviction. So that to an extent, if you use yourself – and remember, they aren’t all humanities folks – and if you go back to my talk which is available, you’ll see that’s what I point out before beginning – that you have to learn how to go in such a way. Our work is a different kind of work from theirs, but nonetheless, you have to be able to – and this exists outside the humanities – you have to learn how to work without guarantees. It’s a very hard one.

So you should certainly imagine goals, knowing that if you wanted to achieve those goals, your work is going to become vitiated. This you really work in terms of the ‘future anterior’ – people who use that- you see I’m using the phrase, whereas with Pharmakon I wasn’t – people who use the phrase generally just mean future, but the future anterior is that something will have happened as a result – this what I was saying to Lisa when she thought I was saying that I have accomplished nothing, no – something will have happened in the future. The future is also tomorrow, right? It’s not just one hundred years later. You know, you can say very simply, unintended consequences, you can say it like that. But that talks about it as if it’s something outside of the job you are doing, or as if everything is caught by intention.

So, this is something that you have to learn, how to, how to, do practically. Unless you learn this, you will constantly want to produce solutions, or especially, a good student, whether humanities or anything – I can see you are a very smart student you will constantly want to produce solutions, be a leader, learn to follow. You know? That’s my answer.