Spivak (re)envisions ‘global humanities’

Friday, February 6, 2009

In the course of a wide-ranging speech Wednesday, eminent literary theorist Gayatri Spivak decried the “thousands of years of cognitive oppression” imposed on marginalized populations and urged the humanities towards a heightened awareness of these issues. Spivak’s talk to a packed Pembroke Hall inaugurated the new Global Humanities Initiative’s lecture series, “Towards a Global Humanities.”

Author of the seminal essay “Can The Subaltern Speak?” Spivak has contributed to the intellectual fields of feminism, Marxism and deconstructionism. She currently holds the post of university professor and director of the Center for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia.

Introducing Spivak, Chair of Africana Studies Barrymore Bogues described her dedication to “not only new knowledge, but acting within the world.” He told the crowd that the Initiative had unanimously chosen Spivak “without any sort of discussion at all” as the scholar most fit to kick off the series.

Spivak’s extensive and groundbreaking work in postcolonial and feminist studies and her dedication to unyielding critique made her “the perfect voice” for the series, Cogut Center for the Humanities Director Michael Steinberg told The Herald.

Steinberg said the Global Humanties Initiative does not aim to “export our knowledge to other places in the world.” Rather, the Initiative – which has thus far developed exchanges between Brown students and scholars in Havana and Nanjing, China, along with an Africana lecture series – recognizes that knowledge takes different forms and resides everywhere.

“One of the functions of humanities is critical,” Steinberg said, adding that the nascent field of global humanities, which seeks to make the field more interdisciplinary and transnational, must criticize itself in order to avoid the colonialist mistakes of the past.

Entitled “The Stakes of World Literature,” Spivak’s talk, which drew heavily on the writings of Marx, Goethe, Antonio Gramsci and Paul de Man, explored the possibility of a world literature and what that literature might encompass, while addressing issues of knowledge production, gendering, globalism and the humanities’ role in each of these areas.

After a spirited beginning, engaging the crowd and referencing the trajectory and transformation of her own approach, Spivak was quick to assert that an adequate definition of world literature has yet to be formulated. World literature, as such, will be more of a dynamic process than a concrete body of work, she said.

Throughout her lecture, Spivak parsed and synthesized the works of many theorists, complicating their views and offering several caveats to the global humanities project. Importantly, she warned that the West has a tendency to conceive “creation and innovation as its own cultural secret” while treating other groups as uncritical products of their own cultures.

Spivak closed the lecture by emphasizing that, despite the failings of the humanities, the field remains integral to the resuscitation of the arts. She argued that the only hope of reclaiming the arts “from the investment circuit” lies in the painstaking work of criticism and support that the humanities undertakes.

Addressing the lecture’s relevance to Brown students, Steinberg stressed that, like the decision-making that goes into the construction of a discipline, the fashioning of one’s own curriculum is an inherently political project. The question that emerges from modeling a curriculum, Steinberg said, should be, “How do you increase knowledge but also take responsibility for the way knowledge is organized?”

Spivak’s lecture certainly gestured toward this same question, and reminded students that, as Steinberg put it, “the decision is conscious, not an ivory tower situation.”

Hopeful for the continued relevance of the field, Steinberg suggested that the humanities, with the importance they place on critique, may serve as “the key to the university, as its conscience.”