Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Harvard University Press ($35)

by W. C. Bamberger

The first paragraph of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Introduction to An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalizaton announces, “Globalization takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control.” For Spivak, the “most pernicious presupposition today is that globalization has happily happened in every aspect of our lives,” yet, she objects, it “can never happen to the sensory equipment of the experiencing being” in any significant way. It is this experiencing being, the part of us that can learn to recognize and to swerve from the beliefs and desires of globalization, that Spivak addresses in these essays.

For Spivak the new, electronically homogenized and all-pervasive information flow which is adapted to and created by a desire to attach oneself to the flashy powers of capital and data have ruined, among other things, “knowledge and reading.” The effect of this is that most of us no longer know what to do with the information to which we are exposed. Information is now most often sorted but not analyzed in any depth; it is used mostly to support the new globalized electronic capitalist model. When scholars in the humanities try to join the globalization parade, the result is that they become “epistemologically challenged market analysts,”and are “no longer a moving epistemological force. They will increasingly be like the opera, serving a peripheral function in society.” Spivak advocates a return to an earlier model of reading and of knowledge formation, one that embraces intellectual wandering and chance and avoids limiting itself to the rational and to self-interest.

In that spirit, Spivak offers this thick collection of essays which, as she tells us, concern themselves with a “productive undoing” of the current popular aesthetic of what should be learned and desired. She strives to alter the aesthetic—that which forms the premises of “the doing” beneath the globalization—by looking carefully at “the fault lines of the doing . . . with a view to use.” The goal of Spivak’s approach is to create a new aesthetic basis, one with different premises, from which a new epistemology could develop, one that will promote the emergence of new—and ideally less destructive and numbing—desires. Because as Spivak knows, desires (not needs) are what drive cultures, and desires are shaped by what is admitted into the process of the formation of knowledge. More simply put, what we believe we know shapes what we desire.

The essays gathered in this book were written over a span of more than a quarter century. They share a number of common concerns—translation, education reform, the effects of the new global capitalism, nationalism and literature, the “international civil society” (NGO’s that cross borders), and Marxist economics, to name a few. They offer both theoretical approaches and intriguing anecdotal support. In “The Burden of English,” for example, Spivak observes that a reader cannot make sense of anything written or spoken without at some level believing it was “destined” for them; therefore, Indian students of English Literature “might still be open . . . to an alienating cultural indoctrination that is out of step with the historical moment [of pulling away from the former colonial power].” That is, engagement with literature can “bring a degree of alienation.” This theoretical note is reinforced by her personal experience of having taught English Literature in post-colonial India. In “Translating into English” what begins as a traditional exposition on the philosophical difficulties of translation ends with Spivak contemplating the odd dynamics of translating some forty-plus-year-old poems from the Bengali, poems that were written for and dedicated to her by a young man she had never spoken to and who had only watched her from afar for two days in 1961.

As has been observed many times, Spivak’s writing style is difficult. (In interviews she seems almost proud of this.) The difficulty is in part due to the fact that Spivak often chooses not to present her arguments in a simple linear fashion, but it is also in part because she chooses to “borrow” terms and use them in senses which differ from those we are used to. Spivak’s use of the term “double bind,” for example, may be distracting to readers familiar with Gregory Bateson’s coining and uses of the term. While Spivak credits Bateson and quotes from some of his work, the most fundamental aspect of the term for Bateson—that either of two possible choices result in equally punishing ends—is absent. In most instances Spivak’s use of the term means something more like a dialectic, but without the need for any syntheses to emerge. The use of “double bind” may introduce an extra element of tension and a suggestion that what needs to be changed is our habits of thinking, but it also introduces a level of blurring into the language.

Other terms can be equally challenging. The most important of these terms for her arguments here is probably “subaltern.” ”Subalternity is the name I borrow for the space out of access to the welfare mechanisms, however minimal, of the state,” Spivak writes—those so far down the class and financial helix that their governments are no longer able to mitigate (or are no longer interested in mitigating) their circumstances. Spivak sees hope for aesthetic education in this subaltern, a hope that some sympathetic intellectual and social movements above them still believe they can learn from those below. She explicitly denies that she is advocating “romanticizing the aboriginal”; rather, this would be taking from the subaltern a view of the world not dependent on reason and self-interest. “We want to open our minds to being haunted by the aboriginal. We want the spectral to haunt the calculus.”

Spivak deliberately positions the reader to react with skepticism to her work. Her conclusions and suggestions are presented as being firmly based in theory and reinforced by personal experience, yet she does not present them as definitive. There is a pervasive sense in the Introduction and in the updating material she has written into a number of essays that Spivak now believes—or at least wants us to believe—that she had settled for too-easy answers in earlier considerations of the questions she looks into here. Yet, even in the essays she now casts a skeptical eye upon, she can be seen constantly revising her opinions—just as she tells us an aesthetic education ideally must do. For example, in reconsidering the idea that women must be more integrated into the workings of the world economy and considering the terms “women’s reality” and “the beginning of global feminism,” Spivak sees even these positive-seeming ideas in a skeptical light:

Although eminently efficient and benevolent, these headings are in a double bind with the far less bold and confident but far wiser premises of an aesthetic education.

In the end, Spivak offers these essays not as finished thoughts, not as exemplars of intellectual or moral conclusion, but as models for how aesthetic thinking might proceed and how it might meet the challenge of the blinding, glittering—and at the same time numbing and narrowing—allure of globalization.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012