Steve Paulson interviews Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (excerpt)

SP: When I look at your career, there seems to be a deep paradox. You are teaching PhD students at Columbia, where you’re regarded as the high priestess of literary theory, teaching very theoretical books, like Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Yet you’re also an activist involved in these schools for illiterate students, which would seem to have nothing to do with the world of high theory. Is there really a connection between these two worlds?

GS: There is, yes, if you’re talking about that era in France when people were thinking about theory or Gramsci in his jail cell. I’m also very influenced by Rosa Luxemburg, who believed in the state. But I don’t apply theory when I’m actually teaching in these schools or teaching at Columbia. It’s like I’ve been thrown into water and I’m learning to swim. Every time I’m still terrified before I go to class. But the thing is that afterward, when I think of the experience, I can see how theory is nuanced by what I have learned from the teaching and what part of the theory survives because theorizing is also a practice. This is something that we have not been able to teach our students at the top.

Do you think theory has actual political impact on real world problems?

Well, I was teaching Mao yesterday in my graduate seminar. I was not teaching The Little Red Book. I was teaching his intellectual stuff — the Hunan peasant stuff and then “On Contradiction” and also “On Practice.” It’s very difficult to get a good take on Mao in the United States. As an Indian it’s also sometimes hard because we are competitors. But that’s fine. An intellectual is there to question these kinds of received ideas. But we were looking at what he’s doing with Hegel and of course we were looking at the Chinese text. I’ve been learning Chinese now for six or seven years but my Chinese is certainly not good. But the graduate student who was giving his paper is in fact an Englishman who grew up in Hong Kong and then began to do modern Chinese studies very critical of his own situation in Hong Kong. So together we were looking at this extraordinary essay, “On Contradiction.” Mao had only read Hegel through Lenin and so on. And Gramsci himself talked about a new intellectual as a permanent persuader. So even if one doesn’t know that one is theorizing, one is doing so. If you generalize and you speak to groups, you are theorizing. In fact, it’s impossible to think without theorizing one way or the other. I don’t think one should become so convinced of the excellence of theory by itself that one polices theory, but I think that’s what’s happened. Theory has become a kind of thing that’s completely cut off from everything but it is not in fact cut off. It is in the world.

What do you make of the common criticism that we have all these university intellectuals doing very theoretical work who think they’re radicals but they’re just in their ivory towers, having no impact on real world issues? Does that critique carry any weight for you?

I’m just as critical of them as the picket line type of activist. I really do think they need a reality check. In fact, that’s not just ivory tower. I’m also on the global agenda committee on values at the World Economic Forum. I go there because it’s my fieldwork. I’m not listened to, but I’m extremely careful in always intervening. And certainly my colleagues there are friendly. Below a certain radar, the world is unknown to these well-meaning people. So yes, I’m very critical of people who come forward to help without any idea of what it requires to be able to understand. At the bottom, the first right is the right to refuse. This is something I say to my students in the villages. I say, “I’m your enemy. I’m good and my parents were good but two generations do not undo thousands of years.”

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