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Gayatri Spivak on Derrida, the subaltern, and her life and work

For the Los Angeles Review of Books, Steve Paulson interviews feminist, Marxist, and post-colonial studies scholar Gayatri Spivak. She speaks about what it was like to first translate Derrida’s Of Grammatology in the '60s as a young woman shortly after immigrating from India, as well as her new afterward for the 40th anniversary edition of that book, and everything that happened in between. As Spivak is incredibly open the entire interview is great, but her thoughts on what it means to be inside–or for many, outside–academia (as well as her take on Derrida’s identity as an Algerian Jew), are particularly profound. An excerpt is below, the full version via LARB.

STEVE PAULSON: You have just come out with the 40th anniversary edition of Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Why do we need a revised translation of this book?

GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK: When I translated it, I didn’t know who Derrida was or anything about his thinking. So I did my best to introduce and translate it and the introduction really caught on, for which I’m very grateful. But now, after a lifetime of working with and through Derrida, I can say something more to my readers about this extraordinary thinker, so I added an afterword. This is a kind of tribute to a lived life rather than encountering a great new text.

Has your understanding of Derrida’s book changed over the four decades since you first translated it?

So I found. When I began, I didn’t notice how critical the book was of “Eurocentrism” because the word in 1967 was not so common. Derrida was an Algerian Jew, born before World War II, who was actually encountering Western philosophy from the inside. A brilliant man, he was looking at its Eurocentrism. I don’t think I had caught onto that aspect as much as I do now. I also understand the thread that runs through it in terms of not only how we should read but how we should live, which was not as clear to me then. And I also know a bit more about Hegel than I did at that time so I was able to make some connections.

So you see this book as basically a critique of Western philosophy?

That’s what de-construction is about, right? It’s not just destruction. It’s also construction. It’s critical intimacy, not critical distance. So you actually speak from inside. That’s deconstruction. My teacher Paul de Man once said to another very great critic, Fredric Jameson, “Fred, you can only deconstruct what you love.” Because you are doing it from the inside, with real intimacy. You’re kind of turning it around. It’s that kind of critique.

What was Derrida trying to deconstruct? How was he trying to interpret Western philosophy in a new light?

It had a focus on being dominant for centuries without change. Whole groups get excluded because a certain kind of dominant discourse is established. He also said a very powerful thing about African orality: they could remember seven generations back; we’ve lost that capacity. There, “writing” takes place on the psychic material called “memory.” Derrida connects this to Freud. So he was saying, look at reality carefully. It’s coded so that other people, even if they’re not present, can understand what we are saying. He looked at how this was suppressed in philosophical traditions.

You first started working on the translation of Of Grammatology in the late ’60s. You were an unknown scholar at the time and Derrida was still largely unknown in the United States. This was a highly theoretical, very difficult book that’s still challenging to read. Why did you want to take on such a daunting project?

Well, I didn’t know who Derrida was at all. I was 25 and an assistant professor at the University of Iowa in 1967, and I was trying to keep myself intellectually clued in. So I would order books from the catalog which looked unusual enough that I should read, so that’s how I ordered the book.

So you read it in the original French and then thought maybe there should be an English translation?

No, no. I managed to read it and thought it was an extraordinary book. This was before the internet, so nobody was telling me anything about Derrida. My teacher had not met Derrida when I left Cornell, so I truly didn’t know who he was. So I thought, “Well, I’m a smart young foreign woman, and here’s an unknown author. Nobody’s going to give me a contract for a book on him, so why don’t I try to translate him?” And I had heard at a cocktail party that the University of Massachusetts Press was doing translations, so I wrote them a very innocent query letter in late 1967 or early 1968. They told me later that they found my query letter so brave and sweet that they thought they should give me a chance. [Laughs.] It’s really ridiculous, but there it was.

Quite humble origins for a book that has become a classic.

You know, I was surprised. You must put yourself back into my shoes. Neither English nor French was my first language and I had left India only in 1961. My introduction was a humble introduction because I had never even had a course in philosophy.

And it’s a very long introduction. Your introduction to Derrida’s book is almost a book in itself.

That’s what I wrote in my contract because I wanted to write a book on him. So I wrote in my contract, I will not do the translation if I cannot write a monograph-length introduction. I was in my mid-20s when I wrote that letter. Now it just fills me with shame and embarrassment.

Did you have much contact with Derrida himself as you were working on the translation?

No. I didn’t know him at all. I only met him in 1971. And I did not recognize him until he came up to me and said, in French, “Je m’appelle Jacques Derrida,” and I almost died.

But I assume you got to know him quite well after that.

Yes, we became friends. We were allies. You see, one of the things he understood, perhaps more than I did at that point, was the meaning of this Asian girl who really didn’t have much French, launching this book into the world in her own way, so far out of the European coterie of high philosophy. He and I would go out to eat — and he was a swarthy man, a Sephardic Jew from Algeria — and people would take him to be Indian, and I’m Indian and my cultural inscription is strong and sometimes I wear a sari, so it was a joke and he would say, “Yes, I’m Indian.” He understood the beauty of the situation of this young person who was neither a French PhD nor a native French speaker or native English speaker for that matter, and she was offering his text, not because she was worshipful toward him, because she hadn’t even known who he was. She was offering his text to the rest of the world and they were picking it up. There was something very attractive for him about that situation.

You were born in Calcutta a few years before the Partition of India. Did you grow up in a family of intellectuals?

Yes. My mother was married at 14, and my brother was born when she was 15. My father was born in a village way up in the foothills of the Himalayas in what is now Bangladesh, in a community where they didn’t even wear clothes until they were six or seven years old. They just wore a metal ring around their middle. When they went to school they put on dhotis. In the wintertime, they sat by the fire with a wrap around their shoulders. Yet these two people really were both intellectuals and later led lives of intellectuals and brought up their children for the life of the mind. Proto-feminist dad, feminist mother. It was an extraordinary upbringing. I owe almost everything to my parents.

Did the Partition that split the country into India and Pakistan have much impact on your family?

You know, we also thought of it as Independence. Independence was marked by the horror of Partition. So Partition was the price that we were obliged to pay. Well, it marked my relatives more than my immediate family because my father had in fact run away from East Bengal, which is now Bangladesh. When he did well in his high school graduating exam, his father said to him, “Ah, then you can be postmaster in the county town,” and my father was much more ambitious, so ticketless, he ran off to Calcutta in 1917. I was born in Calcutta. But the way in which the Partition did affect our lives was of course the terrible riots that were brought on by the Calcutta Killings of 1946 and the artificially created famine of 1942 and after. Those things really affected us. And once the refugees started coming in, my mother, who was by then a considerable social worker, would leave at five in the morning and go to the railway station to help with refugee rehabilitation. These were some of the things that marked my childhood.

You must also have seen how Muslims came to be branded as outsiders.

Of course that’s now increasing in India. In 1947 I was too young — I was five years old — to sense the difference between Hindus and Muslims since I was in a very ecumenical household. But it was all around us. It was there in the Hindu-Muslim riots, which were very unusual because until then there had been a sort of conflictual coexistence for centuries. But when that started in our neighborhood, you would hear Allahu akbar and then Hara hara Mahadeo and you knew that someone was being killed. And you would see bloodshed. But I was so young and at home there was so little differentiation between caste or religion or anything. And my father’s Muslim students were so supportive, even to come to him dressed as Hindus and tell him not to answer a phone call in the evening. My father himself was a nonviolent man. Opening the small house, he would stand with Muslim men on the terrace and women and children inside the house, saying, “As long as I’m alive, nobody is going to touch you.” We didn’t think of the difference so much. As children we thought we were the same people.

You got your undergraduate degree in India. How did you end up coming to the United States?

I got my degree at the University of Calcutta, and I was working on my MA. I was only 18 years old and didn’t have a father — he died when I was 13 — and I realized I was not going to get a first class because I was editor of a journal and I’d been very critical of the university. So I borrowed money and came with a one way ticket and $18 in my pocket. I did not want to go to Britain because I would have had to take a second BA and I was just immediately post-independence. So this is why I came to the United States. I went to Cornell because I only knew the names Harvard, Yale, and Cornell and I thought Harvard and Yale were too good for me.

Today you are best known as one of the founders of postcolonial studies. Is there a connection between this work and your earlier work on deconstruction and translating Derrida?

You know, I was not at all part of the French theory coterie. So as an outsider I had been the tiniest bit of a trendsetter with deconstruction. It had become so internalized that I certainly wasn’t making connections. But the postcolonial business had come as a sort of autobiographical moment that comes to most middle-class metropolitan migrants — like Edward Said, thinking “I was Orientalized.” In 1981 when I was asked by the Yale French Studies to write on French feminism and by Critical Inquiry to write on deconstruction, I asked myself, how is it that I have become an authority on French material? So I turned around to think differently. Therefore, it was an engagement with that part of deconstruction, which looked at what is excluded when we construct systems. That part of deconstruction which said the best way to proceed is a very robust self-critique. And that part of deconstruction which said that you do not accuse what you are deconstructing. You enter it. Remember that critical intimacy? And you locate a moment where the text teaches you how to turn it around and use it. So this had become part of my way of moving. So clearly, there was a connection. But one thing I’ve never done is apply theory. Theorizing is a practice. It becomes internalized. You are changed in your thinking and that shows in your work. So that’s what happened.

*Image of Gayatri Spivak via dawn.com