Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born in Calcutta. She now
teaches English and Culture Studies at the University of
Pittsburgh. Her translation of Derrida’ s Of Grammatology
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), with a long and
authoritative introduction, remains a controversial event in
the recent history of philosophy and cultural theory, as does
her recent In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics
(Methuen, 1987). In November 1988 she visited England to
participate in the Radical Philosophy Conference, ‘Politics,
Reason and Hope’, and we took the opportunity of recording
RP: You have described yourself as a ‘practical deconstructivist feminist Marxist’ . What kind of relation do you
see between these different aspects of your work?
SPIV AK: Marxism is the project of looking at how capital
operates, whereas feminism has to do with theories of the
subject – the development of men and women as subjects – as
well as social practices dealing with definitions of sexual
difference. This is not organised in as abstract and theoretical
a way as Marxism. So it seems to me that the Marxist and
feminist projects cannot be thought of as operating together,
although they do relate. As for deconstruction: it is really the
name of a way of doing these two things – or any kind of
thing. It is much less substantive than these two projects. It is
more of a way of looking than a programme for doing: a way
of looking at the way we do things so that this way of looking
becomes its doing.
RP: So one could be a deconstructive conservative, for example?
SPIV AK: I believe so.
deconstruction to be what it isn’t. I have realised its value by
recognising its limits – by not asking it to do everything for
me. I no longer feel that I’ve got to go out and bat for it in
every field. I have very little patience with people who are so
deeply into deconstruction that they have nothing else substantive to think about. On the other hand, I believe that I am
now much more deeply influenced by it than I was when I was
so angry at it for not being everything. All my practice is
turned by it.
RP: Your introduction to Grammatology established you
as a person of full professional competence in philosophy
and the history of philosophy, yet you repeatedly say that
you are a literary critic, not a philosopher. What does this
SPIV AK: It means that I take disciplinary boundaries very
seriously. If you want to do interdisciplinary work, you have
to admit that all those years of training in a disc~pline make a
difference. You need to infiltrate the other disciplines. Graduate students in philosophy come to my classes and they say: ‘I
don’t understand you.’ What they mean is: ‘You aren’t meeting my condition for intelligibility; therefore your work is not
worth anything.’ It’s very hard for them, who have learned
this worthless, dogmatic, door-shutting remark, and we
should not underestimate the difficulties.
There is a great deal of ‘nothing-but-ism’ practised on
Derrida within philosophy in the United States: nothing but
Heidegger, nothing but Hegel, nothing but the poor man’s
Nietzsche, nothing but mysticism, nothing but Wittgenstein
I don’t say that I am just a literary critic. I say I am a
RP: Would you say that you began by learning the deconstructive approach and then went on to apply it in particular projects?
RP: Many people think that left-wing theoretical activity
in the United States lost its way some time in the last
twenty years, that it ceased trying to reach a large public,
so that it became an academic discipline of its own. What
do you think of that analysis?
SPIV AK: I don’t think so. One of the peculiar things about
deconstruction (or the stuff Derrida writes) is that people who
are taken by it will quite often say: ‘That’s what I was already
thinking.’ When I first read Of Grammatology, I felt I had
understood what it was saying, and that it was a better way of
describing what I was already trying to do. As to whether I
was right or wrong, I’ve no idea.
For a time I felt ferociously angry with deconstruction
because Derrida seemed not to be enough of a Marxist. He
also seemed to be a sexist. But that’s because I was wanting
SPIV AK: Was it a question or the left losing its way, or the
right knowing its way? Some people in Europe seem to think
that the United States is the future of the intellectual enterprise, because the very heterogeneous tertiary education system there isolates a few elite institutions where these people
can come and go, where there is a lot of radical chic. There is
a practical political left in the United States, but it has, at best,
a tenuous connection with the academic left, the cultural
fringes of which are fully disciplinary.
There’s also the question: in what kind of state does the
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990
intellectual have any real voice in the affairs of the state? In
the newly de-colonised areas~ the elite national bourgeoisie
think of themselves as more political. They have a much
stronger voice in the construction of national identity.
RP: You spoke earlier about the problem of deconstruction failing to meet certain people’s conditions of intelligibility. Doesn’t this cut it off from practical political activity?
SPIV AK: Why privilege the conditions of intelligibility established by analytical philosophy departments? That’s what
I was talking about. Deconstruction is good in contact politics~ not in broad planning. It’s good for tactical situations~
people one-on-one. In electoral politics it’s not much use at
Derrida is interested in how truth is constructed rather than
in exposing error. You could say that the text is addressed to
the Nambikwara as much as to Levi-Strauss. Deconstruction
can only speak in the language of the thing it criticises. So~ as
Derrida says~ it falls prey to its own critique~ in a certain way.
That makes it very different from ideology-critique~ even
from auto-critique. The investment that deconstruction has to
make in the thing being deconstructed is so great that it can~t
be made simply as the result of a decision that something must
be deconstructed. It is a matter of looking at how one is
speaking~ knowing that one is probably not going to be able to
speak in a very different way. If it is an auto-critique~ then it is
so in a much more complicated way.
If you want to get to the other side – as you sometimes~
indeed always~ must – then you must give up hope of doing it
fully deconstructively. That is the double bind written into
deconstruction: that it cannot lead to the vanguardism of a
practice supposedly adequate to theory. You cannot even
want to deconstruct the person you want to ideology-critique.
Deconstruction comes in when you flout your ideologycritique. The only things one really deconstructs are things
into which one is intimately mired~ like the desire to engage in
By what means does [one] calm within [one]self the
desire to be everything? … the disguised suffering
which the astonishment at not being everything~ at
even having concise limits~ gives us. A suffering so
difficult to acknowledge leads to inner hypocrisy~ to
solemn distant exigencies. (Bataille~ Preface to Inner
This is where deconstruction is lodged.
One must not think that deconstruction is the only game in
town. You can ~t say ~ as some real brief-holders for deconstruction would say ~ that it necessarily allow~ YOll to practise
better. No~ sometimes it stands in the way. But I’m not so sure
that that~s necessarily a bad thing. The straight road to practice has led to too many nightmares.
all. It works much more strongly in the highly diversified
politics of feminism and anti-racism. It can also be useful- although unlike Marxism or feminism~ deconstruction here
should lose its proper name – in the broader areas of collective
political activity ~ as I suggested in my talk at the conference.
RP: In the Preface to Grammatology, you wrote of Derrida’s use of the expression ‘totality of an era’. Do you
think that some conception of the ‘history of metaphysics’
as a whole is indispensable to defining the project of
RP: Derrida has spoken of deconstruction in terms of the
idea of ‘responsibility towards the trace of the other’.
Some people have sought a role here for deconstruction as
a kind of critique. Yet Derrida insists that deconstruction
is not a form of critique. What do you think of the attempts
which have been made to understand deconstruction as a
form of ideology-critique?
SPIV AK: Yes~ I do. And it applies not just to deconstruction
but to poststructuralists generally. They need a name for the
general principle which seems to them to define things~
though they keep changing the name. But it seems to me that
‘the history of metaphysics~ was a bad name. Derrida never
really finished~ or even undertook~ that much-promised deconstruction. He hasn ~t been Son of Heidegger in that respect.
As for how deconstruction actually operates~ it fixes on
small things: margins~ moments~ etc. But something unifying
is needed …
SPIV AK: The problem with the idea of deconstruction as a
form of ideology-critique is that deconstruction is not really
interested in the exposure of error. At the beginning of Grammatology~ it may look as if Derrida is a young hot-head
exposing the error of Levi-Strauss. But what he is really
saying~ contrary to Levi-Strauss~ is that the Nambikwara also
had writing – because there are other ways of writing than
ours. This is a bit like what Marx says about dissolving the
mystery of money in the first chapter of Capital: that money is
only a convenient way of measuring equivalences. We work
with equivalences whenever we exchange anything. It~s like
Monsieur J ourdain speaking prose.
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990
RP: As a fiction?
SPIV AK: As a necessary theoretical fiction which is a methodological presupposition. But the possibility of this fiction
cannot be derived from some true account of things. If you
take the theoretical form ulation of deconstruction~ you have a
stalling at the beginning and a stalling at the end (differance at
the beginning~ and aporia at the end)~ so that you can neither
properly begin nor properly end. Most of the people who are
interested in deconstruction are interested in these two things.
But I’m more interested in what happens in the middle; and I
think the later Derrida is too.
RP: When you spoke about humanism at the Radical Philosophy conference you seemed to suggest that difference
might itself be thought as the unifying moment of a universal humanism.
SPIVAK: People are similar not by virtue of being similar,
but by virtue of producing a differential, or by virtue of
thinking of themselves as other than a self-identical example
of the species. It seems to me that the emancipatory project is
more likely to succeed if one thinks of other people as being
different; ultimately, perhaps absolutely different. On a very
trivial level, people are different from the object of emancipatory benevolence.
RP: Nonetheless, you accept that emancipatory projects
require identity at some level, even if it is difference which
must itself be taken as the name for this identity?
SPIV AK: Yes.
RP: Your warning about the necessity for some kind of
identity here sounds very like Adorno’s idea that totality
must be ‘both construed and denied’ within a materialist
dialectic. Doesn’t this point to some kind of deep theoretical coherence between deconstruction and Marxism?
SPIVAK: I don’t want to agree with you. There isn’t that
coherence between deconstruction and Marxism – no way.
The relationship between a reading of Marxism enhanced by
deconstruction, in the broadest possible sense, and the extraordinary richness of the Marxian project is a much more
interesting one than a mere coherence. There is a danger in
making deconstruction coherent with Marxism. Everything
that’s useful in deconstruction will bite the dust, transformed
into something that seems more radical. And everything that’s
expandable in Marxism in all kinds of different contexts win
shrink into an extremely history-specific, race-specific, class-
SPIV AK: I ask less of deconstruction and I value it more.
There is a real difference between my own agenda with deconstruction, and what most admirers of Derrida do with his
stuff. I read Derrida much more as someone who is related to
an extremely important arena of practice: the production of
philosophical writing and teaching, a critique of the elementary ingredients of the Euro-American ethicatuniversal. In
the field where I make my living, deconstruction teaches me
that the politics of teaching rampant in the academy is a bad
politics – a politics of refuting, following your master, etc. It
is more interesting to enter into texts so that the moments of
bafflement can become useful.
The other thing that’s happened is that although I’m
against sexism I cannot think about women’s solidarity because they are women. And although I find in Marx’s analysis
of capital the most powerful way of understanding what’s
going on in the world, I’m not particularly interested in
privileging the class struggle; although to forget it has its own
agenda. Similarly, in the case of the history of imperialism,
I’m much more interested in the enabling violation of the
post-colonial situation than in finding some sort of national
identity untouched by the vicissitudes of history. It seems to
me that that’s the change that’s taken place as – after twenty
years of reading Derrida – some things have lasted in the
wash. I am always in search of left-out places. That’s enough
to take up all your time.
Interviewed by Peter Osborne and Jonathan Ree
A revised version of Spivak’s talk at the RP Conference,
‘Remembering the Limits: Difference, Identity and Practice’,
will be appearing in Peter Osborne (ed.), Socialism and the
Limits of Liberalism, to be published by Verso in 1990.
specific, trade-specific way of talking about doing things. A
coherence between them would be worth no more than the
satisfaction of coherence.
RP: How have you changed in the last twenty years?
Radical Philosophy 54, Spring 1990