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Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Relevance for Communication Studies

Summary and Keywords

Gayatri Spivak is one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th and 21st centuries. Although a literary critic, her work can be seen as philosophical as it is concerned with how to develop a transnational ethical responsibility to the radical “other,” who cannot be accessed by our discursive (and thus institutionalized) regimes of knowledge. Regarded as a leading postcolonial theorist, Spivak is probably best seen as a postcolonial Marxist feminist theorist, although she herself does not feel comfortable with rigid academic labeling. Her work is significantly influenced by the deconstructionist impulses of Jacques Derrida. Additionally, the influence of Gramsci and Marx is prominent in her thinking.

Spivak’s work has consistently called attention to the logics of imperialism that inform texts in the West, including in Western feminist scholarship. Relatedly, she has also written significantly on how the nation, in attempting to represent the entirety of a population, cannot access otherness or radical alterity. This is best seen in her work on the subaltern and in her intervention into the famous Indian group of Subaltern Studies scholars. Other related foci of her work have been on comprehending translation as a transnational cultural politics, and what it means to develop a transnational ethics of literacy.

Keywords: deconstruction, Derrida, imperialism, feminism, alterity, subalternity, gendered subaltern, archive, representation, nation, transnational, translation, transnational literacy, communication and critical studies


Gayatri Spivak’s work is situated at the intersection of feminism, postcolonial studies, and Marxism. It has been widely influential across several disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Spivak, arguably, is one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries. She is also a recent recipient of the Kyoto Prize (equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the Humanities) that is awarded by the Inamori Foundation in Japan. In 2013, she received one of the highest civilian awards given by the State of India and it was delivered and decorated by the President of India—the Padma Bhusan Award. She was awarded this for her contributions to the humanities. In 2017, France conferred upon her the Insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, which recognizes artists, thinkers, and writers who have contributed to the arts throughout the world. In 2018, the Modern Language Association (MLA) honored her with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Beyond this, she has (as of 2018) 11 honorary doctorates from prestigious universities in the world.

Spivak was born in India when India was still under British colonial rule. She received her primary and secondary education there. She completed her undergraduate work (bachelor’s degree) in English literature in 1959 from the distinguished Presidency College [now Presidency University] in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), which was then under the University of Calcutta. She graduated with First Class Honors. In the University of Calcutta system, a first class is extremely difficult to secure and, in any given year, only a handful of students out of the thousands who sit for these exams secure a first class. In 1961, at the reported age of 19, she came to Cornell University where she completed her master’s in English, and doctorate in comparative literature. She came into comparative literature from English by “default,” as it were, for she could not receive sufficient funding from the Department of English at Cornell. And coming from a middle-class household in India, she was clearly dependent on funding. Thus, she transferred to the newly formed Department of Comparative Literature at Cornell. For her PhD, she worked under the famous deconstructionist scholar Paul de Man, who was associated with the famous Yale School of Criticism. Her earlier work, based on her dissertation, was on W. B. Yeats. However, it is her translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1974) (see “Deconstruction, Derrida, and Spivak’s Style”) that first released her into global fame.

Broadly speaking, Spivak’s scholarship has been concerned with revealing the intimate relationships between “knowledge” and geopolitics, and with addressing what obstructs our ability to access radical alterity. Although Spivak, along with other postcolonial scholars, has played a significant role in challenging Euro-US centrism that informs much of what passes as knowledge in various academic disciplines, ultimately Spivak is less interested in Eurocentrism as identity politics. Rather, her focus has been on what it means to “right [history’s] wrongs” (2004) in various structures of knowledge that have erased the histories of colonialism and geopolitics that have informed their production. Spivak has frequently expressed her discomfort with identity politics and with reifying identity as a category upon which to lodge our political struggles. She has discussed “the narcissism of mere identity scholarship” (in Hegde & Shome, 2002, p. 271). For her, “[s]ometimes identity scholarship might seem too confining . . . because it is all about what I am and what I know—the particular idea that I have to make myself included” (p. 271). This can produce a paralysis that prevents us from developing an ethical responsibility to “others,” especially transnational others who are erased from all global structures of recognition and politics.

Spivak’s work has been consistently concerned with who gets left out of knowledge and the “cognitive damage” (in Ghosal, 2013) wrought by imperialism through various regimes of knowledge (including various academic disciplines). Whose knowledge does not count as knowledge or cannot come up to the surface of known history to even be accessed as knowledge? What are the representational practices and politics through which knowledge is constructed as an epistemological object? These are the kinds of questions that inform her work. And it is with such questions that she foregrounds the importance of “unlearning” our (dominant) training, our academic protocols and privileges, so as to “learn from below”—an important concept in much of Spivak’s work. While it may seem that some of these questions have also concerned scholars working in the feminist or critical race tradition (in Anglophone academia, for instance), what distinguishes Spivak is her careful weaving of geopolitics, knowledge production, and the local in her theorizations. Feminist scholarship in the West as well as critical race studies have often paid minimal attention to geopolitics, especially as it connects to the relations of the Global South, as we see in Spivak’s engagement with French feminism (see the section “Contributions to Feminist Studies”). It has also paid minimal attention to the histories that inform the theoretical constructs that are used to examine gendered politics. Spivak’s work has consistently demonstrated that many of our feminist constructs (often universalized) speak primarily to issues in the United States or western Europe. They do not translate into “other worlds.” The discussion in this article elaborates upon some of these insights of Spivak.


It is difficult to condense all of Spivak’s work in one article; even a book would be impossible for such a task. Thus, keeping in mind the audience likely to be the readers of this article, this article only focuses on a few main themes in Spivak’s work. The hope is that the interested reader follows up by engaging Spivak’s work directly to explore the numerous intersections of geopolitics, colonialism, nation, gender, and knowledge production (academic and popular) that are addressed in her work. This article first briefly addresses Spivak as a deconstructionist, as she often uses the lessons of (particularly Derridean) deconstruction, and Derrida more generally, in her critiques (see “Deconstruction, Derrida, and Spivak’s Style”). The section also discusses Spivak’s writing style. Second, the article addresses some of Spivak’s early interventions into (French) feminism (see “Contributions to Feminist Studies”), although throughout the article, Spivak’s other feminist interventions are variously discussed. Third, the article addresses Spivak’s discussions of subalternity as this has been, arguably, the work for which she is best known (see “Subalternity: Politics of Representation, Unlearning Intellectual Privilege, and the Gendered Subaltern”). Significant attention is given to her pathbreaking essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1994a).1 This essay demonstrates Spivak’s astuteness in utilizing deconstruction as a reading strategy or, more specifically, her use of deconstruction for a political reading of texts and situations. Fourth, it discusses the theme of translation (see “Translation: Translation as Culture, Culture as Translation”)—central in Spivak’s work—and fifth, it addresses the theme of transnational literacy as engaged by Spivak (see “Transnational Literary”). Finally, the article offers a few words about the relevance and implications of Spivak’s work for communication studies (see “Conclusion: Implications for Communication Studies”). Taken together, these themes in Spivak’s work raise important issues about representation, agency, relations between structures of communication, discourse, knowledge, and geopolitics and our intellectual privileges that inform how we communicate and construct knowledge as an epistemological object. Particularly, these themes in Spivak’s work enables us to recognize how the performance of knowledge often occurs (and has occurred) in the academy (and beyond) in ways that are history blind and geopolitically unreflexive.

Deconstruction, Derrida, and Spivak’s Style

Spivak’s ways of working and asking questions reflect the best of what is termed (and often misunderstood) as deconstruction. Spivak is a deconstructionist. Her deconstructionist impulses are greatly influenced by the work of Jacques Derrida, whose Of Grammatology (OG) [1974] she translated from French to English.2 Spivak’s introduction to the book is one of the best exposés of Derridean deconstruction and its critique of Western metaphysics and logocentrism. In the most recent edition of OG (2016), Judith Butler also provides a powerful introduction to Derrida. Spivak has been primarily responsible for introducing Derrida’s work to the Anglophone academy. Spivak is (as has been Derrida) often criticized by quarters that misunderstand deconstruction and see it as being about endless critique of “truths” and about a ceaseless decentering of the subject. Yet this is not a correct characterization of deconstruction.

Spivak makes it clear that deconstruction is about examining the logics through which something called “truth” may be produced and how that production anchors the subject in particular ways. Thus, arguments leveled against Spivak (and other post-structuralists)—that they seemingly just “deconstruct”—where the term is used in a facile way to suggest endless criticism without a goal, are wrong. Deconstruction is less about dismantling history and more about calling attention to the limits that were produced as limits to narrate something called history (i.e., known history). Decentering of the subject is not the aim of deconstruction—as though that is really possible. The subject is always anchored in particular regimes of truth, whether she or he recognizes them or not. As Spivak notes, “the subject is always centered as a subject. You cannot decide to be decentered . . . .What deconstruction looks at is the limits of that centering” (1990, p. 104). It points to the fact that the boundaries of that centering are actually indeterminate and provisional, and that they have their histories.

To that extent deconstruction is concerned with liminalities, slippages, excesses (i.e., what escapes language), and ruptures (and thus interrupts language’s claim to offer a total meaning of something). That is, deconstruction is concerned with all that remains irrecuperable in discourse, that exceeds discourse, for a particular production of the “subject” (e.g., the human) to take place. This is the famous concept of differance in Derridean deconstruction. Deconstruction, in its attempts to critique logocentrism in philosophy, argues that the sign (and the meaning it purports to convey) is the outcome of two related things: first, difference—that is, that which has to be constructed as a “not,” as an antonym, as an exclusion (i.e., to be different from) to constitute a particular meaning of X. In the chapter “Setting to Work of Deconstruction,” which is an appendix to A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), Spivak explains:

Deconstruction, as it emerged in Derrida’s early writings, examined how texts of philosophy, when they established definitions as starting points, did not attend to the fact that all such gestures involved setting each defined item off from all that it was not. It was possible . . . to show that the elaboration of a definition . . . was a pushing away of these antonyms. (p. 423)

This deconstructionist understanding of the sign then interrupts any sign’s claim to totality of meaning (of any X).

But—and this is the second point—the sign is also made possible by “an outside” that can never come into the discursive field of the sign, for that is the limitation of language itself. This outside is not the opposite of the inside (the sign, if you will), but rather its constitutive other. In other words, this outside, which escapes and exceeds the sign (and the meaning), is constantly “deferred” (as it can never be brought into meaning, it can never be captured, so it is always escaping language) by the sign; yet it is also that which makes the sign come into being. Thus, the difference, as well as the eternal deferral of this constitutive other, makes up the notion of differance. Differance is the supplement, the trace that always underlies and interrupts the sign but is “barred from entry by a reigning discursive field” (Butler, 2016) which makes up the sign. Judith Butler, in her introduction to the most recent edition of OG, writes that the supplement “is neither a presence not an absence. No ontology can think of its operation” (Derrida, cited in Butler, 2016, para 6) (emphasis added), for to think of its operation would be to recognize it only within a discursive field (and thus in a logic of “presence”). Differance cannot be named thus. If it could be named it would already have surrendered to the laws of the sign, to logocentrism (Spivak, 1999).

This is one of the most useful lessons of Derridean deconstruction—its critique of the transcendental signified—that Spivak puts to frequent use in her postcolonial interrogations (see the section “Subalternity: Politics of Representation, Unlearning, Intellectual Privilege, and the Gendered Subaltern”). In the “Translator’s Preface” to OG (2016), she reminds us that the sign is “a structure of difference . . . but also the never-annulled difference from ‘the completely other.’ Such is the strange ‘being’ of the sign: half of it is ‘not there’ and the other half always ‘not that.’ . . . This other is of course never to be found in its full being” (emphasis added). It should be clear to the reader now how this move becomes important in recognizing the relations between colonialism and knowledge production.

Here are a few words about Spivak’s writing style: Spivak’s writing and analytical style reflect her training in deconstruction. Often, she will take a text or situation and note what the axiomatics or the logic of the text cannot include or say; and what cannot be included, what exceeds the text and context, is that to which she often calls attention. Relatedly, she will often take a sign—such as “nation”—and demonstrate how it is always haunted or interrupted by the trace of the other. She does this frequently by demonstrating how the subaltern woman is the constitutive outside of the nation (in India, for instance) that interrupts and mocks the nation’s claim to represent the totality of its population.

Spivak’s writing style usually does not follow a linear mode. She often digresses to other issues while making a point. This is not a limitation. It reflects both her thinking and the demands she makes of her readers—a demand to move to relations and contexts that are often not seemingly “in the situation” she is analyzing and yet it is very much (an unseen or unrecognized) part of the situation. This is again an example in deconstruction. She uses words that are difficult or offers even new word coinages (such as “wordling” or “epistemic violence”). Such coinages are often important to capture ideas that have thus far not been placed in critical theory or that cannot be captured by conventional available vocabulary.

Spivak’s writing style is frequently critiqued for being difficult, dense, and inaccessible, but as Spivak argued in an interview in the New York Times (February 9, 2002), “When academics say I’m difficult to understand, I don’t pay attention because I think they are saying, ‘This does not deserve to be understood.’” Further, what should be noted is that it is often women and minorities or those from “other worlds” who are chastised for having a “difficult style” when in fact, many White male scholars and philosophers, for the longest time, have written in styles that are challenging or inaccessible. Additionally, scholars such as Spivak (or even Judith Butler who too has been similarly critiqued) write in a manner (whether intentional or not) that attempts to shake the audience out of a comfortable space and make intellectual demands on them. As Judith Butler—who has defended Spivak’s writing style, especially in relation to criticisms against Spivak offered by literary critic Terry Eagleton—had once noted, “[i[f common sense sometimes preserves the social status quo, and that status quo sometimes treats unjust social hierarchies as natural, it makes good sense on such occasions to find ways of challenging common sense” (1999). Finally, it must be noted that complex arguments that attempt to take us to other worlds and “other desires” cannot always be expressed in simple ways, through terminology grounded in the ordinary, for it is this dominance or normalization of the “ordinary,” the “known,” that such works attempt to challenge and move beyond.

Contributions to Feminist Studies

Spivak’s contributions to feminist scholarship are enormous. Throughout this article, numerous moments are presented where Spivak’s engagements with gender are visible. Here, however, the author can only touch upon a few themes in Spivak’s contributions, and in the interest of space, this discussion is brief. Spivak is well known for her work on gendered subaltern (see “The Gendered Subaltern”). However, she is equally well known for having interrupted Western feminist scholarship by foregrounding imperialism and colonialism in the narratives and logics of Western feminist scholarship. She has argued that “the limits of their theories are disclosed by an encounter with the materiality of that other of the West—that is one of the limits” (1990, p. 11).

In a well-known essay, “Three Women’s Text and a Critique of Imperialism” (1985a), one witnesses Spivak’s exposé of imperialism in Western literary texts and Western feminist readings of such texts. In this famous essay, she reads, for instance, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which is seen as a “cult text of feminism” (1985a, p. 244) and in which we see assumptions of imperial logics significantly at work. In the novel, Jane is seen as moving from a position of “counter family” (in her illicit relationship with Rochester) to the centrality of the family as her relationship with Rochester acquires legal status. This movement, in the reading of the novel by critics such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, has been interpreted as an emancipatory movement of feminist individualism. Spivak troubles this interpretation offered by many Anglo feminists. Spivak argues that “it is the active ideology of imperialism that provides the discursive field” that enables Jane’s movement from counter family to family-in-law (1985a, p. 247). This ideology of imperialism, or what she calls the “axiomatics of imperialism” (p. 247), is revealed in the erasure of Bertha Mason—the White Jamaican Creole woman—who is Rochester’s first wife. She is positioned in the novel as “mad woman,” rather animal-beast like, with disheveled appearance and wild behaviors, whose growling from a locked room Jane could frequently hear.

Spivak has critiqued critics such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar for seeing Bertha’s figure merely as a psychological dark other to and of Jane but not being able to locate her in the logics of imperialism. It is the erasure of Bertha, a Creole woman from Jamaica, from the discursive field of the family that enables Jane’s movement to the center of the family. This movement in the novel is contingent upon the self-immolation of Bertha. The Third World other is literally erased in the novel. Yet it is this erasure that also enables Jane’s growing movement to centrality of family. The Third-World female figure, symptomized by the Creole woman Bertha, then is the constitutive other of Jane Eyre. Here then is again Spivak’s use of deconstruction to offer a political reading of Jane Eyre in which she demonstrates how Western female subjects are too often constituted by the erasure of global (gendered) others. This is the “epistemic violence of imperialism” (1994a, p. 82) that often informs feminist texts and readings in the Global North as these texts address (gendered) subject constitutions.

Spivak thus is always interested in the heterogeneous production of the sexed or gendered subject: “My own interest, on the other hand . . . is in working out the heterogeneous production of sexed subjects. It is also to move the question out of subject-constitution—in terms of recognizing the international division of labor” (1999, p. 10). What she means by moving out of subject constitution is what she has also discussed elsewhere as an exclusive focus on identity and subjectivity in critical studies that often remain disconnected from material structures of imperialism and the international division of labor hiding “other women” from our Western or privileged eyes.

These points are revealed in another of her famous essays: “French feminism in an international frame” (1981). This essay is a critique of French feminism that dominated feminist scholarship, especially in the Anglo academy, in the 1970s and 1980s. Two points are pertinent in her critique. She criticizes French feminists’ atemporal and homogeneous reading of the Western “other.” Focusing on Julia Kristeva’s (1977) text About Chinese Women, Spivak notes how Kristeva’s description of other women (Chinese peasant women) in Huxian Square and their silent stare render them homogeneous, in Kristeva’s reading, erasing any heterogeneity of these other women. She faults French and Anglo feminism’s engagement with Western others, for they end up constructing a homogeneous “Third World” woman who romanticizes and even exoticizes, as Kristeva does, these other women. French feminists are unable to read the silences of these other women, as in the case of Kristeva who cannot read the silent stares of the peasant women. Kristeva’s engagement with Chinese women is ultimately self-obsessed and self-centered. Her engagement is ultimately “about her own identity rather than theirs” (1981, p. 158). Thus, the academic (Western) feminist must “learn to learn from them, to speak to them, to suspect that their access to the political and sexual scene is not merely to be corrected by our superior theory and enlightened compassion” (1981, p. 156).

Another critique of French feminism that Spivak offers is aimed at its exclusive and singular focus on the clitoris (and desire) and its location of female resistance in the excesses of women’s clitoral pleasure: jouissance (erotic-sexual pleasure). French feminists have typically focused their attention on desire, on women’s clitoral pleasure (whose description escapes culture and language, for these descriptions are phallocentric to begin with), as a site of female sexual empowerment, which must be reinscribed on the female body. Without dismissing the importance of such observations, Spivak, however, critiques the singularity of such notions. Seeing sexual empowerment only through the lens of recovering clitoral pleasure, for Spivak, is not incorrect as much as it is partial and geopolitically narrow.

It is partial because a singular and privileged focus on the clitoral economy overlooks the fact that in many other parts of the world, especially in the Global South, it is the uterine economy of motherhood that places women in bondage as they are forced into reproductive labor and motherhood for economic survival. Thus, recovering clitoral pleasure does nothing to “free” these women from patriarchal structures. Such a situation is described in Spivak’s translation of famous Bengali Marxist feminist fiction writer Mahasweta Devi’s short story, "Breast Giver" (in Spivak, 1988).

The story narrates the life of a subaltern woman, Jashodhara, who made a living by serving as a professional wet nurse to several upper-caste children in Bengal, India. At the end, however, Jashodhara’s body begins to decay as her breasts have been “given” to numerous sucklings of upper class babies: “The sores on her breast kept mocking her with a hundred mouths, a hundred eyes” (1988, p. 236). French and Anglo feminism, in its focus on sexual pleasure as a site of empowerment, erase these other kinds of bondages of a uterine social organization on the other side of the international division of labor. Western feminism also forgets that unlike in the metropolitan West, reproductive labor is not always wageless in the Global South, as in the case of Jashodha, and today, we can also think of the prevalence of surrogate motherhood in the Global South. Thus, Spivak reminds us that:

even as we reclaim the excess of the clitoris, we cannot fully escape the symmetry of the reproductive definition. One cannot write off what may be called uterine social organization. . . in favor of a clitoral [. . .] [I]t is the ideological-material repression of the clitoris as the signifier of the sexed subject that operates the specific oppression of women, as the lowest level of the cheap labor that the multi-national corporations employ by remote control in the extraction of surplus-value in the less developed countries. (1981, p. 183)

Subalternity: Politics of Representation, Unlearning Intellectual Privilege, and the Gendered Subaltern

To understand Spivak’s discussion of the subaltern, we need to revisit Antonio Gramsci and the South Asian Subaltern Studies group, for it is through an engagement with the latter that Spivak first theorized subalternity. This group had been influenced by Gramsci, so Gramsci needs to be discussed first.


A crucial aspect of Spivak’s postcolonial work is its engagement with the scholarship of the (now disbanded but highly influential) South Asian Subaltern Studies group. Subaltern was a term initially used in the army to refer to officers of a junior rank in the British Army. The term received critical and political treatment in Antonio Gramsci’s work, The Prison Notebooks (1999). Gramsci used the notion to refer to peasants and subordinate groups—those who were unable to or were excluded from representing their own rights and voices under the fascist regime of Mussolini in Italy. For Gramsci, the subaltern would be a group that had “‘not yet gained consciousness of its strength, its possibilities, of how it is to develop” (1999, p. 371) and “consequently it never occurs to them that their history might have some possible importance, that there might be some value in leaving documentary evidence of it” (p. 430).

Gramsci had been significantly concerned with the condition of the South (see his “The Southern Question”)—and peasants in particular. He was troubled by how peasant lives, needs, practices, protests, idioms, and conditions were looked down upon or neglected by the urban proletariat and workers in their struggle against the State. In fact, Southern peasants were often seen as socially inferior and outsiders in the modern state. Gramsci recognized the need for an alliance between the urban proletariat-worker and the peasant class if the State had to be unsettled and a hegemony of the proletariat was to emerge.

Unlike traditional Marxists and their economic determinism, Gramsci was interested in the issue of culture. He was convinced of the importance of culture in producing a revolutionary movement. Consequently, he was interested in peasant culture. What prevented the peasants from overthrowing the State, from forming a counter hegemony? What were the beliefs, practices, and even the “common sense” of the peasants? Peasant life was important to understand, not in order to see the peasants as backward or incapable of organizing politically as a collective (as did Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [2008] or did British historian Hobsbawm in his use of the term prepolitical [p. 2] to refer to peasant revolts, or primitive resistances, in his classic Primitive Rebels [1971]). For Gramsci, peasant culture was not to be seen as irrational or simply spontaneous—that is, without any logic—but rather to be regarded on its own terms and logics. This was necessary if peasants were to be mobilized into the revolutionary movement. This stance differentiated Gramsci from traditional Marxists who endorsed economic and historical determinism and believed that the proletariat would and could overthrow the State, as one of the final stages of class struggle. For Gramsci, the urban workers in the North had to “win over” the peasants in the South if a truly revolutionary moment was to emerge. This position also made Gramsci so useful in cultural studies, and particularly in postcolonial studies. In positing a connection between culture, nation/alism, and fascism, and in reminding us that even within national liberation projects there are populations who are excluded from the frames and structures of recognition, Gramsci anticipated not only the work of the subaltern studies, but also other early anticolonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon.

The South Asian Subaltern Studies Project

Some of the intellectual impulses of Gramsci found their way into what is now known as the South Asian Subaltern Studies group. (A Latin American Subaltern Studies group emerged later in the early 1990s, and is to be differentiated from the imperatives of the South Asian group.) The Subaltern Studies collective was comprised of a group of Marxist scholars working on Indian history. It was led by the eminent Indian historian Ranajit Guha and many of his mentees, students, and other younger scholars who were influenced by his work, although there were others beyond this circle as well. Initial ideas about the project emerged in England, Sussex, where Guha was a professor, although later an editorial collective was formed to edit numerous volumes of papers that were to become part of the project. The editorial collective was spread across England, Australia, and India. Influential names, beyond Ranajit Guha, include Gautam Bhadra, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Shahid Amin, Gyan Pandey, Gyan Prakash, Sudipto Kaviraj, Sumit Sarkar, David Arnold, David Hardiman, and Partha Chatterjee, to name a few. Dissatisfied with the nationalist histories of India that were being written after India’s independence from Britain, these scholars argued that dominant nationalist histories of India were elitist and were unable to account for the lowest groups in Indian society. There was the Cambridge School, on the one hand, that saw the emergence of Indian nationalism as having nothing to do with moral ideals of liberation. Rather, this school viewed Indian nationalism as an outcome of power negotiations with the British by elite Indian opportunists who wanted a share in national power. On the other hand, there were anti-imperialist historians (such as Bipin Chanda at Jawaharlal Nehru University and anti-imperialist leaders such as Nehru and Gandhi) who saw the struggle for nationalism and self rule as a moral issue.

The Subaltern Studies group saw, in these various versions of nationalist histories and liberation projects, an elitism that excluded the voices and desires of the rural peasants in India. The group was concerned with how Indian nationalist history, and the Indian leaders who participated in or became spokespersons of that history, often exploited or suppressed peasant rebellions with a heavy hand. Although nationalist leaders were not unsympathetic to peasants and their conditions, nonetheless rural peasants were seen as somehow backward and therefore (the thinking went) they needed to be brought into the modernity and citizenship that were being promised by narratives of national liberation in India. In other words, the peasants were denied an opportunity to write and express their struggles through their own idioms, sentiments, and needs. One sees the link with Gramsci here.

Subaltern Studies scholars thus went about challenging this elitist ethos in Indian nationalist historiography. Their goal was to counter not just nationalist history but the canons of historiography—the very writing of history itself—as it had been conducted thus far in India and had been influenced by various Western models of history writing. Thus, a “critique of the nation form” and an “interrogation of the relationship between power and knowledge and hence of the archive and of history as a form of knowledge” (Chakrabarty, 2002, p. 8) were central to their project. The group sought a historiography that could address materials (in this case of peasant insurgency) that had escaped the historical archives, since the archive itself had a discursive authority that did not include peasant rebellions and peasant sensibilities in colonial (and immediate postindependence) India.

Plus, accessing peasant life and idiom meant having to move to materials that could not be officially termed as archive. Peasant lives and peasant idioms often had to be accessed through fragments found here and there, thus raising important questions about the writing of history: What is an archive? For whom does it function? What is the relationship between archive and nation formation? Is the archive ultimately a fiction (but not a “lie” in the sense that it does not exist)? If so, what does it fictionalize? What are the material effects of that fictionalizing?

The group was focused on the need to recover a “subaltern consciousness,” to give the subaltern a voice, and thus to resurrect the subaltern as a rightful subject of history in national and anticolonial politics. Ranajit Guha’s pathbreaking book, The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983), remains a touchstone volume that outlines the impulses of the project. It is in the desire to recover and access subaltern consciousness that the Subaltern Studies project got into trouble with what Dipesh Chakrabarty (1985) called the “thorny question of consciousness” (p. 376). It is in this fraught space, as it were, that Gayatri Spivak entered the stage in an interventionist manner with her two influential writings: “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1994a) and “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography” (1998).

Spivak’s Intervention Into Subaltern Studies

Spivak engaged the Subaltern Studies project as a response to, and a critique of, the project even though she appreciated its important moves of rethinking historiography and of critiquing the nation-form in the writing of history. Spivak’s response to the Subaltern Studies project and her conceptual engagement with subalternity raised a number of important theoretical issues that are of relevance to communication studies as well as to numerous other disciplines. These issues are concerned with the politics and problematics of representation, theorizing of agency, cultural translation, the (seeming) transparency of the intellectual’s location in desiring to speak for and represent the oppressed, and, ultimately, about the discursive limits of knowledge and communication itself in accessing alterity. As she stated in one of her later works, “alterity remains underived from us” (2003, p. 73). In other words, alterity, radical alterity, can never be brought into representation; it can never be completely known, for such is the entrapment of language itself. Spivak’s work on the subaltern has had a lasting global influence in fields as diverse as literature, political theory, sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, geography, social work, development studies, and many other cognate fields. This influence is understandable given that the issues she raises compel us to reflect on the intimate relation between knowledge, geopolitics, alterity, and the locations and desires within and from which we—scholars and intellectuals—produce knowledge.

In Western (and especially US) academia, Subaltern Studies is sometimes wrongly conflated with Spivak because her two pathbreaking essays “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography” provided the Subaltern Studies project with a global visibility. It is important to remember that while Spivak’s career has significantly focused on the subaltern, she was never a formal member of the Subaltern Studies group. She engaged the group much later in their development and did so in an interventionist vein.

A few points can be noted about Spivak’s interventions into Subaltern Studies and the theoretical questions and arguments they yielded. Spivak’s interventions critiqued the idea of recovering “peasant consciousness” (which was the goal of the Subaltern Studies group) and thus, of recovering the rural peasant as an autonomous subject of national history (O’Hanlon, 1988). Her argument critiques the logic of transparency in these intellectuals’ desires to access the subaltern, and in their nostalgia for recovering lost origins of a subject that somehow can be resurrected. More broadly, this can also be seen as a critique of a spirit of humanism that she identified in the Subaltern Studies project, as though it is possible to recover a pure subaltern consciousness. To think so would be to ignore the politics of representation itself. Subaltern consciousness

is never fully recoverable. . .it is always askew from its received signifiers, . . .it is effaced even as it is disclosed, . . .it is irreducibly discursive.

(Spivak, 1988, p. 203)

The point to recognize is that “the subaltern cannot appear in discourse without the thought of the ‘elite’ [or we can say the intellectual]” (1988 p. 203). Thus, “the postcolonial intellectuals learn that their privilege is their loss” (1994a, p. 82) and in this sense, “they are the paradigm of the intellectuals” (p. 82). Spivak argues that “when we come to the concomitant question of the consciousness of the subaltern, what the work cannot say becomes important” (1994a, p. 82). In other words, what cannot come into representation, into discourse, itself reveals the space of subalternity as the limit of history and representation.

For Spivak, subalternity, in this stage of her intervention, is a “differential space”; it is an aporia. It is not an identity, for to be an identity, the subaltern has to come into the structures of recognition, and thus discourse, and thus hegemony. Subalternity is a positionality and not an identity (Spivak, 2005; see also Morris, 2010). As Spivak noted, no one can say “I am a subaltern (emphasis added)” (2005, p. 476). Rosalind Morris’s introduction to the edited collection Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea (2010) and Rosalind O Hanlon’s 1988 essay, “Recovering the Subject,” are two influential reviews capturing these problems of representation and Spivak’s engagement with the issue of subalternity (and the latter is seen more in Morris’s introduction).

Spivak’s intervention into the Subaltern Studies project reflects deconstructive reading at its best, with its goal of attempting to understand what a text cannot say, or is unable to say, given the logic of its production and operation. Such an intervention also reveals the intellectual’s narcissism in her or his desire to speak for the “other” as though between radical otherness and the intellectual, there is no history, no structures of privilege, no geopolitics, and no ideology. For Spivak, recognizing this should ideally result in a need to unlearn our privilege as loss (1994a)—a very important Spivakian concept that has undergone much discussion. Such unlearning should (ideally) produce in the intellectual an ethical responsibility to the other, a responsibility that recognizes that we are “‘folded together’ with the other” (Spivak, 1999, p. 361).

This is the double bind of deconstruction, its peculiar humility, responsibility and strength; its acknowledgement of radical contamination. (1994b, p. 28, emphasis mine)

Critique of Foucault and Deleuze

For our communication discipline and its critical theory contingent that is so fond of French theorists such as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, the implications of Spivak’s arguments go well beyond the Subaltern Studies project. They move us into a critique of Foucault and Deleuze. It is notable that communication scholars who so regularly draw on Foucault or Deleuze rarely engage Spivak’s critique of these post-structuralists (demonstrating once again a historical and geopolitical blindness that plagues communication scholarship). The first part of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” offers a similar critique of Foucault and Deleuze that is offered of the Subaltern Studies project. Focusing on an exchange between Foucault and Deleuze titled “Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze” (1977)—where these scholars discuss the issue of representing the oppressed—Spivak critiques them for ignoring ideology, and the role of ideology in the positioning and production of the intellectual her- and himself. Indeed, one of the serious limitations of Foucault’s work has been a disregard for ideology. Foucault is not able to address why some ideas (or “utterances” as he might say) can rise to the level of a discourse (and not others), and how those discourses can secure particular subject positions and practices of disciplinarity.

Like the Subaltern Studies group, Foucault and Deleuze seem to think that they can make heard or access the oppressed. Thus, in this desire for a transparent access to the oppressed, we see an “unquestioned valorization of the oppressed as subject, as ‘object being’” (1994a, p. 69). They further think that it is possible to “‘establish conditions where the prisoners themselves would be able to speak’” (p. 69) and that (as Foucault stated) “‘the masses know perfectly well, clearly’” and that they are “‘undeceived’” and certainly “‘say it very well’” (p. 69). Foucault and Deleuze place their hopes of a revolutionary subject in the masses. Spivak rejects this transparent notion of knowing the masses (and knowing what they think, desire, or are capable of). For her, the ideological subject formation (of the intellectual) and our [the intellectuals’] positioning in “state formations and systems of political economy” (p. 70) are erased in the works of these scholars as they claim to “know” the masses. In attempting to represent the oppressed (and believing that it is possible to fully know the “other”) “the intellectuals represent themselves as transparent” (p. 70).

This is an opportune moment to briefly allude to another critique of Foucault, often ignored in communication studies, which is also offered by Spivak. This critique calls attention to how poststructuralism frequently ignored geopolitics in its theorization of power. For instance, Spivak notes that while Foucault was a brilliant theorist of power and space in his examination of modern institutions, such as the prison or the asylum, he did not connect these regimes of power to the other side of the international division of labor, and thus to colonialism itself. The same power relations of European modernity that produced the asylum, the prison, the medical establishment, and so on, were also intimately engaged in violent colonial practices beyond Europe at this same time of Europe’s modernity. It is here that Spivak faults Foucault (and many radical theorists of the West) for his blindness to colonialism and his neglect of the production of colonies in other spaces:

[i]t is well known that Foucault locates epistemic violence, a complete overhaul of the episteme, in the redefinition of sanity at the end of the European eighteenth century. But what if that particular redefinition was only a part of the narrative of history in Europe as well as in the colonies? (1994a, p. 76, emphasis added)

The Gendered Subaltern

Another intervention of Spivak’s into the Subaltern Studies project, whose implications went beyond the project itself, is the issue of the gendered subaltern. The Subaltern Studies group did not address gender in any meaningful way until Spivak’s intervention into the group. Spivak noted that while the group did address “moments when men and women are joined in struggle” (i.e., in peasant struggles), they did not consider how important the metaphor “woman” is “to the functioning of their discourse” (1988, p. 215). In other words, how does the figure of the woman function differently in discourses of insurgent peasant rebellions and mobilizations which utilize the signifier woman? In elaborating these arguments in “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Spivak provides us with complex theoretical questions about the politics of representation of the gendered subaltern. The issues that she raises have had far-reaching implications for the politics of “reading” the oppressed, where such reading becomes laden with crisis, reminding us of the impossibility of adequately representing those whose experiences cannot be captured in discourse. Her intervention also reminds us that the body of the gendered subaltern can perhaps “speak” in ways that we cannot recognize through our various discursive frames that we utilize to give meaning to the gendered subaltern (or the disempowered more generally). To exemplify this, Spivak turns to two cases of suicide in India in two very different time periods in India’s history, in “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

The First “Suicide.”

This suicide was sati in India during British colonial times. Sati was coded by the British colonialists as an instance of widow sacrifice (i.e., when the husband died, the wife committed sati—an act of burning herself on the husband’s pyre). The British attempted to outlaw sati through various legal prohibitions, for they read sati as reflecting regressive native patriarchal ideologies of burning women after the husband’s death. Thus, the outlawing of sati was woven with the imperial logic of a civilizing mission that was linked to the imperial protection of the native woman from local patriarchal society. In one of her well-known statements that has relevance to today’s world as well, Spivak notes that “[i]imperialism’s image as the establisher of the good society is marked by the espousal of the woman as object (emphasis in original) of protection from her own kind” (1994a, p. 94).

In contrast to the British colonialists’ reading of sati as widow burning, native Indian arguments about the practice of sati often suggested that the women (the widows) who enacted sati actually wanted to die, or, the practice of sati was seen in native thinking as an act that adhered to older cultural norms at a time when indigenous practices were seen as being unsettled by European colonialism. The question, “Can the subaltern speak?,” is one that constantly reminds us that between these two discourses (British and native) about sati, what the woman (the subaltern woman) who committed sati may have actually thought, what her consciousness might have been, what her testimony about her own sati may have been, can be never known. While Spivak recognizes that any such testimony (from the sati woman) would not have escaped ideology, it may have at least enabled us to see the hint of “counter sentence” (1994a, p. 93) in order to consider an alternative narrative or explanation of sati beyond the colonial British explanations and local patriarchal renditions of sati.

To attempt something of this sort—that is, to find a counter sentence—Spivak engages in the difficult task of retreating to ancient Sanskrit philosophical texts, such as the Dharmasastra (which date back before Christ and contain treatises of Hindu dharma [religion]). She finds that sati was never sanctioned or allowed in these great texts of Hinduism. If anything, sati was marked as an exception in the Dharmasastra. Only under certain conditions were allowances for sati made in these texts. If the woman engaging in sati saw herself as a nonidentity, that is, she saw herself more as a soul, a spirit that transcended the “phenomenality” (1994a, p. 95) of an (corporeal, earth-bound) identity (a Hindu spiritual idea), then in that case, the enlightened self (i.e., the sati woman) knows that the “demolition of [her] identity is not atmaghata,” [suicide] (p. 95)]. Her real Self—which is Spirit—is much larger than the materiality of her identity or position in this world that is being sacrificed by the act of sati. The dead husband, in this thinking, takes the place of the transcendental Being with whom the Self’s Spirit (the sati woman’s spirit) merges in earthly sacrifice of the body. But the Spirit (the soul, that is, the larger Self of the woman) cannot die. This is the suicide, then, that is never a suicide, for the Self (as Spirit) cannot be killed. This is an “alternative ideology” derived from Hindu philosophical understandings of the Self and Spirit that could not be understood by the colonial British. Understanding this point of Spivak’s requires the reader to engage with some of the tenets of Hindu philosophy, and this engagement is a demand that “Can the Subaltern Speak?” makes of the reader—to enter a context and assumption far removed from Western, corporeal, and individualistic understandings of Self (and identity).

It is beyond the scope of this article to present other such complexities that Spivak brings into her reading of the sati woman as a subaltern woman. What is to be applauded is Spivak’s brilliance, rigor, and erudition. Very few scholars would have made the leap to descend into ancient Hindu texts written in ancient Sanskrit and research them in order to comprehend how sati was first grasped so as to see how later it became something else during times of British colonialism in India. What is to be noted, however, is that in attempting to seek a “counter sentence” about sati, Spivak herself cannot escape the problem of representation. But Spivak would hardly deny that. The “counter sentence” about sati that she tries to glean from her readings of ancient texts is one that brings to crisis the dominant discourses (native patriarchal and British colonial) percolating about sati at that time in India. It is a counter sentence that reveals how, during British colonialism, sati became mobilized to serve very different political and cultural ends than how it was first discussed in the Dharmasastra, and how its meaning had shifted far away from the ancient text during British colonialism. Thus, during the time of British colonialism in India, sati had become an ideological battleground between local native patriarchy and British colonialists—a very different formation than what was originally discussed in ancient texts such as the Dharmasastra.

There is another moment in India’s history that Spivak calls attention to, that also unsettles the colonial (Euromodern) construction of sati. In particular moments in Bengal’s history (Bengal was and is a state and region in India and colonial India, although its geographical boundaries have changed since the partition of India that accompanied independence), a widowed woman could inherit her dead husband’s property and wealth. In revealing this matter, Spivak demonstrates the progressiveness of the social context at that time that enabled the widow to inherit her husband’s property in certain contexts. Yet, women in many Western countries around that same time did not possess the right to economic inheritance.

But the act of sati still may have occurred in such contexts in Bengal despite the widow possessing the right to economic inheritance and thus possessing agency. This is because, sometimes out of jealousy or greed for the property left to the widow, family relatives plotted to eliminate the widow by appealing to her devotion toward her dead husband (the transcendental Spirit) at a time when she was most vulnerable. This situation might have resulted in her “choosing” to perform sati to express her devotion to her husband (and thus the act may not have been directly coerced). Additionally, although sati was not condoned by many enlightened native males in India during the time of British colonialism, and even prior to that, such men nonetheless sometimes expressed admiration for the widow’s “courage” in choosing sati—that is, sati was then seen as an expression of the widow’s free will.

What we have, then, is a scenario in which we witness contending (patriarchal) discourses about sati and the struggle over the meaning of (woman’s) freedom and free will. And in this struggle, the sexed subaltern woman is lost. She remains inaccessible and untranslatable. She is unrecoverable. The gendered subaltern thus represents an aporia, or what Spivak (1994a), drawing on Lyotard, also calls differend:

I am suggesting that, within the two contending versions of freedom, the constitution of the female subject in life is the place of differend. In the case of widow self immolation, ritual is not being redefined [by the British colonials] as superstition but as crime. The gravity of sati was that it was ideologically cathected as “reward,” just as the gravity of imperialism was that it was ideologically cathected as “social mission.” (p. 97)

The Second “Suicide.”

The second case of suicide which Spivak focuses on is from a much later time period—in the 20th century in India—although India was still under British rule but national liberation struggles were rife at this time. Here Spivak reads the “death” or “suicide” of a young unmarried Bengali woman named Bhubaneswari Bhaduri to suggest how the dead body of this woman becomes an ideological arena in which the sexed female subject’s will or desire once again could not be accessed and comprehended. Bhaduri hanged herself in North Calcutta in 1926. This case of suicide was puzzling, since Bhaduri was menstruating at the time of her death. It is in this puzzle that Spivak sees Bhaduri rewriting “social text of sati-suicide in an interventionist way” (1994a, p. 103). In choosing to hang herself at the time of menstruation—a well thought out strategy—Bhaduri tried to speak through her body. In hanging herself while her body was menstruating, Bhaduri refused the typical explanation that would have been attached to her suicide by relatives, which was common at the time—that she must have been pregnant through an illicit lover and thus must have hanged herself out of shame and fear of social ostracization. In attempting to ensure that her death would not be coded through this patriarchal narrative, which was often used to explain young women’s suicides in those days, she chose to hang herself at the time of menstruation.

What was discovered much later was that Bhaduri had been part of a political group that was involved in struggles against independence. She had been entrusted to carry out a political assassination, but she failed to do so. Out of a sense of despair at not being able to perform this important task, she killed herself but took pains to do so when her body was menstruating. Her suicide thus puzzled those around her who were unable to accord it the typical meaning of illegitimate intimacy and ensuing pregnancy. Because there were no other available meanings to read the suicide of a young woman beyond this deeply entrenched patriarchal narrative, her relatives were unable to read the suicide as a counter sentence, as an intervention into patriarchal narratives about women’s bodies and reasons for suicide. Once again, Spivak brings to the fore how, as woman’s self-immolation became coded through available patriarchal discourses of the time, the matter of the woman’s “free will” cannot be comprehended. “The subaltern as female cannot be heard or read” (1994a, p. 104). As Spivak stated in another famous essay, “The Rani of Simur” (1985b), “caught in the cracks between the production of the archives and indigenous patriarchy. . . there is no ‘real Rani’ to be found” (p. 271).

Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” has often been misread and has consequently generated facile, thin, or misguided criticisms that have created their own echo chambers in academic circles. The gist of most of these criticisms go like this: “Spivak is silencing the oppressed,” or “she is not giving any voice to the oppressed,” or, worse, “she is celebrating widow immolation.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Spivak is inviting us to recognize how far removed subalternity is from hegemony such that we cannot access the subaltern due to our situatedness in various structures of hegemony that cut us off from the subaltern.

The Archive

Spivak’s discussion of the impossibility of recovering subaltern experiences raises an important issue about the archive. If there is no known archive about the extreme oppressed, then how do we bring them into representation? Can we? Clearly, the answer is that we cannot. Yet, as Spivak’s work on the gendered subaltern demonstrates—especially when she goes back to ancient Sanskrit texts to seek an alternative meaning about sati—it may be possible, through rigorous research, to piece together alternative (even if they are tentative) explanations for the conditions of those who we see as oppressed in order to tease out what they might have wanted to say. Complete knowability of alterity is impossible; such are the structures of recognition within which we operate. Our attempt at knowability is always a contaminated space—as Spivak has time and again insisted. This is what Spivak has discussed as ethics, “as the experience of the impossible” (1995, p. xxv). She clarifies: “Please note that I am not saying that ethics are impossible but rather that ethics as the experience of the impossible” (p. xxv) and that “full ethical engagement” (p. xxv) with the other (the subaltern) is an impossibility, given the discursive regimes within which we try to engage subalternity. Yet, despite the impossibility of a full ethical engagement with the other, we must still continually make the effort, however incomplete, to engage with radical otherness. This recognition calls for a critical reflexivity in our work as intellectuals, but not in a way that lapses into paralysis. This also calls for a refusal of a purist model of engaging with the oppressed (as though that is possible), for which she took Foucault, Deleuze, and the Subaltern Studies group to task.

The New Subaltern

In later years, Spivak reformulated the notion of subalternity. Arguing that the shift from welfare states to capitalist globalization places a demand on us to reconsider subalternity, she suggests that now (under conditions of global capitalism) the subaltern—unlike in earlier times—is not so cut off from lines of access. If anything, the subaltern is now being rapidly accessed by various instruments of global capital as well as by dominant humanitarian discourses (the big NGO types) and telecommunication regimes that use the subaltern as data. The subaltern today often serves as an alibi for benevolent humanitarian global discourses and organizations. Yet, Spivak reminds us in so many places that this alibi constitutes a one-way access, for the subaltern still cannot speak and be heard.

Today the “subaltern” must be rethought. S/he is no longer cut off from lines of access to the centre. The centre, as represented by the Bretton Woods agencies and the World Trade Organization, is altogether interested in the rural and indigenous subaltern as a source of trade-related intellectual property.

(Spivak, 2012, p. 326)

In other words, while new forces of capital and “human rights” discourses in globalization can today access the subaltern, the subaltern, through that access however is still “made to unspeak himself or herself” as s/he “is made to produce a general will for exploitation” (in Hegde & Shome, 2002, p. 285). This argument makes an important contribution to global communication studies as well as to the rise of humanitarian communication studies.

Translation: Translation as Culture, Culture as Translation

Spivak’s work has offered important insights into translation where translation is to be understood not merely as content (or information) transfer from one language to another. Rather, what it means to translate and the larger geopolitical relations within which we translate are her central concerns. In reading her work on translation, one catches glimpses of how her engagement with feminism, imperialism, and the recognition of the im/possibilities of a seamless transnational (feminist) solidarity (that obscures power relations) are connected to her thoughts on translation. For Spivak, translation is an act of intimacy. A translator must surrender to the original text. Spivak warns us against operating from a position of “monolinguistic superiority” (1993, p. 195) in acts of translation. She emphasizes the importance of learning the language of the author and of the culture in which the author is situated:

To decide whether you are prepared enough to start translating, then, it might help if you have graduated into speaking, by choice or preference, of intimate matters in the language of the original. (1993, p. 187)

She raises important issues about accessibility of the text and about the need to consider carefully the status of the language (from which one is translating) in the larger world of geopolitical imbalances. Indeed, not all languages are equally positioned in the world; their positioning itself is a matter of power and politics. This recognition suggests that not only is translation a matter of cultural politics, it is also a matter of ethics and responsibility to the other. Thus, whether a translation is accessible (or not) should be considered from the point of view of whether it is accessible ultimately for the “person who wrote it [the original text]” (1993, p. 191) (emphasis added) (i.e., when we are forced to recognize that “she [the author] is not within the same history of style” [p. 191]). This recognition should ideally place an ethical and political demand on the translator. For Spivak, “[t]he history of the language, the history of the author’s moment, the history of the language-in-and-as-translation, must figure in the weaving as well” (1993, p. 186). While it may be obvious, it is still important to note that Spivak is discussing translation from a globally nondominant language to a dominant one. She is insisting that we recognize translation as cultural politics that are imbricated in geopolitical inequalities. In this, she anticipates the works of scholars such as Naoki Sakai, Meaghan Morris, Rey Chow, and Lydia Liu, who also have made significant contributions to our understanding of translation as transnational cultural politics.

Spivak distinguishes between bad, easy, hasty translation and translation that is done responsibly. This distinction, for Spivak, is not a matter of technicality but one that has geopolitical and transnational implications. For instance, she asks why the convenience of the publisher (in the West) who may hastily try to publish a translation, or why the convenience of scholars who do not want to make time to learn the language or historical-cultural ethos of the author, “should organize the construction of the rest of the world” (1993, p. 187). Indeed, a lack of a serious ethically driven and intimate engagement with the text of the other results in problematic constructions of other worlds. This again renders those worlds inaccessible, as they are reduced to dominant Western frames (or dominant geopolitical linguistic regimes) that represent them.

Spivak also suggests how the politics of translation can be tied to market needs of the publisher. Sometimes the pressure from publishers (or any others seeking quick translation outcomes) on translators produces a situation where the translator may be pressured to “give up” a little. In other words, give up rigor, give up a responsibility toward the other, give up an ethics toward the other’s history within which the language of the original book is situated. This leads to some important questions: “What am I giving, or giving up? To whom am I giving by assuring that you don’t have to work that hard, just come and get it? What am I trying to promote?” (1993, p. 187).

Transnational Literacy

Spivak’s discussion of translation is intimately tied to her notion of transnational literacy. When she discusses the need to engage in translation as a practice that engages the history of the context, the history of the language, and the knowledge structures that give rise to a particular kind of literacy that may escape our (Euro modern) frames of literacy, she intimates the need for transnational literacy. Spivak does not explicitly define transnational literacy but refers to the notion several times. One can glean a few things, however, from her discussion. Transnational literacy is an interruptive practice. But what does it interrupt, or at least help us interrupt? Based on her discussions, one can suggest that it interrupts various taken for granted logics that have become sedimented in the Anglophone academy through which we theorize intercultural encounters, including in postcolonial, multicultural-critical race and feminist studies. For instance, Spivak critiques the multicultural model (of the United States, in particular) in many places in her work. This is a model that seeks to include difference into its contours but makes little effort to connect to histories and structures in other worlds (similar to her critique of Foucault and Deleuze discussed earlier), thus rendering a homogeneous temporality and spatiality to multiculturalism.

In an interview in The Spivak Reader (1996), she offers the example of abortion rights in the West to elaborate on this point. In the context of abortion rights in the United States and the North Atlantic West more broadly, what is often overlooked is how rights over one’s reproductive body are often (but not exclusively) connected to the logics of a consumerist capitalist society. Child raising is “time-consuming” and thus “resource-consuming” (1996, p. 300). Hence, the notion of having to bear endless children in the name of love or marriage or even faith curtails women’s freedom. In such a Western context, the issue of reproductive rights or choice is simply reduced to a matter of abortion, but the politics of reproductive choice can have very different meanings and functions in non-Western contexts.

In societies that have not acceded to consumption in ways that many capitalist societies have, the rights over the female body and over reproduction are seen primarily as a matter of abortion rights. But this may not be the goal for other societies, as in the Global South, for example. In fact, population control in the Global South has often been encouraged by various world organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), and local organizations who claim to have a solution to poverty in the Global South. The solution has often been seen as contraception (often forced) to enable population control, or contraception offered in exchange for financial rewards. China’s famous “one child, per family” motto is also a case in point. Yet, the larger complexities around religion, faith, health, and, most importantly, the unequal distribution of the world’s resources remain largely ignored in such seemingly benevolent globalization gestures that attempt population planning in the Global South. In 1993, Evelyne Hong wrote an important paper that is still relevant today. There she reminded us that “the important equation is not so much that ‘four out of every five people live in the South’ but that ‘four out of every five units of resources consumed are consumed in the North’” (p. 24). While the statistics may have shifted somewhat in the early 21st century, the argument still holds true.

Thus, for Spivak, we need to learn “another attitude toward the ecobiome” (1996, p. 287). We need to recognize that the poor woman in the Global South may not want or may not see abortion as a matter of liberation, but rather may experience it as the very opposite: a coercive agenda of population control that targets her body with the aim of reducing or containing population growth among the poorest sectors of the world so that global capitalism can serve the affluent, the rich, and the middle class, and thus encourage family growth in these sectors (thereby creating more “market” of people with purchasing power). Such recognition constitutes the grounds of a feminist transnational literacy practice that can function as an interruption to our dominant frames of feminist practices (i.e., models of feminism in the Global North).

Conclusion: Implications for Communication Studies

Communication studies in general has been very slow to appreciate the work of Spivak. Perhaps this can be attributed to the Euro-US centrism of the field itself, for often the cultural and historical contexts into which Spivak’s work takes readers requires them to make huge leaps in their imaginations to enter worlds that are incomprehensible and unfamiliar to Western or Western-influenced frames of knowing. Spivak’s work also requires the reader to suspend or challenge many of the theoretical logics or concepts through which they typically engage matters of social inequalities—for example, identity or reproductive rights—and universalize them to other national contexts—in particular contexts in the Global South where these concepts may not always have much political purchase (or a very different kind of purchase) in mapping local inequalities.

Such recognition has implications for understanding global inequalities in knowledge production. They also have implications for thinking about our relationship with transnational “others.” Further, her discussions of transnational literacy, and translation as transnational politics, have implications for Western research, teaching, and mentoring activities in the academy and also for engagements with publishing. For instance, they invite us to reconsider our engagement with “diversity” in communication studies (and the larger academy) in the United States, where our comprehension of diversity remains too United States centered and is thus unable to connect to those transnational “others” whose lives, living practices, communication practices, and histories exceed or interrupt the identity-based categorizations of race and otherness as understood in the United States. Ultimately, they have implications for recognizing that the transnational other has a history, and it our ethical responsibility to understand that history (in whatever way possible) so as to open up possibilities for an ethical and geopolitically reflexive engagements with that other. Globalization and capitalist driven cross cultural exchanges often call for quick translations or translation manuals. Yet, in such haste, we witness again the production of an epistemic violence that serves corporate globalization’s need for a commodified transnational cultural exchange that is dehistoricized in its desire to engage in facile, manual-version (i.e., having a quick translation book that one can look up) modes of translation. This is the kind of cross-cultural training often provided to corporates who travel to other nations to strike business deals.

Spivak’s discussion of translation raises an important question for feminist (communication) studies. Can we imagine and build a “global” solidarity of women when so many women in the world fall out of our regimes of literacy and our models of solidarity in the (North Atlantic) West? The languages of such women or men may be charged with histories and traditions that we cannot comprehend, or their idioms might refuse or escape our attempts at translation.

If we are discussing solidarity as a theoretical position, we must also remember that not all the world’s women are literate. There are traditions and situations that remain obscure because we cannot share their linguistic constitution.

(Spivak, 1993, p. 192)

This important recognition compels us to also confront the untranslatabilites of culture, history and language in “the global” (Shome, 2006). I place global within scare quotes to emphasize that what we may view the “global” itself is a construction or representation that is imbricated in geopolitics. The “global” often cannot capture or recognize the numerous transnationally entangled—but interruptive and invisible—contexts that have to be erased or dehistoricized in order to perform itself as the “global.” While perfect or complete translation is never possible—we are after all trapped by language—what should be aimed for is an ethical effort which is geopolitically responsible and transnationally responsive—and that recognizes, as Spivak has argued in many places, how we are “folded” in with the other—in the act of translation.

In my discussion of Spivak’s engagement with the subaltern woman, I already suggested some points about the relevance of her arguments for communication studies, especially in relation to representation. But let me also emphasize one more point. The very question, “Can the subaltern speak?,” and Spivak’s engagement with the question, offers important lessons and reminders for communication scholars. This is the recognition that that there is a difference between “speaking” and “talking.” The subaltern can “talk” but “speaking” is a different matter, for speech is a matter of having access to public-ness, of being situated (however marginally) in structures of recognition and exchange. Invoking Meaghan Morris who, for Spivak, is one of the few people who understood this point, Spivak (2011) states that she [Morris] “said to Dipesh Chakrabarty that ‘[m]ost people who criticize Gayatri’s essay think the essay is entitled ‘Can the Subaltern Talk?’” (p. 146, emphasis mine). A careful reading of Spivak’s work (especially her later work) will also reveal that ultimately Spivak is interested in finding ways to build infrastructure (and for her education is important in this effort) that can move the subaltern into hegemony (into speech). It is the possibility of this movement that animates so much of her later work on subalternity.

As should be clear by now, Gayatri Spivak’s work cannot be confined to any one discipline, for the questions and issues she raises traverses several disciplines. Yet, what should be evident from the above discussions is that her work is highly relevant to communication studies. Her insights into the problematics of representation, the politics of representing the “other,” the impossibility of accessing radical alterity, the matter of translation as being a matter of cultural politics as well as geopolitics, and transnational literacy as a matter of being responsible to language, history, culture, ethics, and geopolitics are all salient to the field of communication. For at the end, as at the beginning, such issues remind us of the transnational inequalities—and the connections and disconnections they enable—within which communicative conditions and exchanges occur, while simultaneously also enabling those very conditions and exchanges.

Further Reading

Morton, S. (2003). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

    Morton, S. (2007). Gayatri Spivak: Ethics, subalternity and the critique of postcolonial reason. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.Find this resource:

      Sanders, M. (2006). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Live theory. London, UK: Continuum.Find this resource:

        Spivak, G. (1983). Displacement and the discourse of woman. In M. Krupnick (Ed.), Displacement: Derrida and after (pp. 169–195). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Find this resource:

          Spivak, G. (1989). Who claims alterity. In B. Kruger & P. Mariani (Eds.), Remaking history (pp. 269–292). Seattle, WA: Bay Press.Find this resource:

            Spivak, G. (1989–1990). Woman in difference. Mahasweta Devi’s “Douloti the bountiful.” Cultural Critique, 14, 105–128.Find this resource:

              Spivak, G. (2003). Death of a discipline. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                Spivak, G. (2008). Other Asias. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2008.Find this resource:

                  Spivak, G. (2013). An aesthetic education in the era of globalization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

                    Spivak, G., & Butler, J. (2007). Who sings the nation-state? New York, NY: Seagulls Books.Find this resource:


                      Butler, J. (1999). Letters. London Review of Books, 21(13), 1. Find this resource:

                        Butler, J. (2016). Introduction. Of grammatology (40th anniversary ed., G. Spivak, Trans.). Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press. Kindle DX version. (Original work published 1974.) Find this resource:

                          Chakrabarty, D. (1985). Invitation to a dialogue. In R. Guha (Ed.), Subaltern studies (Vol. 4, pp. 364–376). Delhi, India: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                            Chakrabarty, D. (2002). Habitations of modernity. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                              Derrida, J. (2016). Of grammatology. Kindle DX version. (Original work published 1974.)

                              Devi, M. (1988). Breast giver. In G. Spivak (Ed.), In other worlds (pp. 222–240). New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                Foucault, M. (1977). Intellectuals and power: A conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. In D. Bouchard (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice (pp. 205–217). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Find this resource:

                                  Ghosal, S. (2013, January 26). A conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. LiveMint. Find this resource:

                                    Gramsci, A. (1999). Selections from the prison notebooks (Q. Hoare & G. Smith, Ed. and Trans.). London, UK: Electric Book (transcribed from the 1971 edition published by Lawrence and Wishart).Find this resource:

                                      Guha, R. (1983). Elementary aspects of peasant insurgency in colonial India. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                        Hegde, R., & Shome, R. (2002). Postcolonial scholarship—Productions and directions: An interview with Gayatri Spivak. Communication Theory, 12(3), 271–286.Find this resource:

                                          Hobsbawm, E. (1971). Primitive rebels. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:

                                            Hong, E. (1993). Population: A third world women’s perspective. Resurgence, 35, 22–24.Find this resource:

                                              Kristeva, J. (1977). About Chinese women. London, UK: Marion Boyars.Find this resource:

                                                Marx, K. (2008). Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York, NY: Cosimo Classics.Find this resource:

                                                  Morris, R. (Ed.). (2010). Can the subaltern speak? Reflections on the history of an idea. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                                    O’Hanlon, R. (1988). Recovering the subject: Subaltern studies and histories of resistance in colonial South Asia. Modern Asian Studies, 22(1), 189–224.Find this resource:

                                                      Shome, R. (2006). Interdisciplinary research and globalization. Communication Review, 9(1), 1–36.Find this resource:

                                                        Spivak, G. (1981). French feminism in an international frame. Yale French Studies, 62, 154–184.Find this resource:

                                                          Spivak, G. (1985a). Three women’s text and a critique of imperialism. Critical Inquiry, 12(1), 243–261.Find this resource:

                                                            Spivak, G. (1985b). Rani of Simur: An essay in reading the archives. History and Theory, 24(3), 247–272.Find this resource:

                                                              Spivak, G. (1988). In other worlds. New York, NY: RoutledgeFind this resource:

                                                                Spivak, G. (1990). The postcolonial critic (S. Harasym, Ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                  Spivak, G. (1993). Outside in the teaching machine. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                    Spivak, G. (1994a). Can the subaltern speak? In P. Williams & L. Chrisman (Eds.), Colonial discourse and postcolonial theory (pp. 66–111). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                      Spivak, G. (1994b). Responsibility. Boundary 2, 21(3), 19–64.Find this resource:

                                                                        Spivak, G. (1995). Translator’s preface. Imaginary maps: Three stories by Mahasweta Devi. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                          Spivak, G. (1996). The Spivak reader (D. Landry & G. Maclean, Eds.). New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                                                            Spivak, G. (1999). A critique of postcolonial reason: Towards a history of the vanishing present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                              Spivak, G. (February 9, 2002). Creating a stir wherever she goes. Interviewed by D. Smith, New York Times. Find this resource:

                                                                                Spivak, G. (2003). Death of a discipline. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Spivak, G. (2004). Righting wrongs. South Atlantic Quarterly, 103 (2/3), 523–581.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Spivak, G. (2005). Scattered speculations on the subaltern and the popular. Postcolonial Studies, 8(4), 475–486.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Spivak, G. (2011). Extempore response to Susan Abraham, Tat-siong Benny Liew and Mayra Rivera. In S. Moore & M. Rivera (Eds.), Planetary loves (pp. 136–148). Fordham, NY: Fordham University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Spivak, G. (2012). The new subaltern: A silent interview. In V. Chaturvedi (Ed.), Mapping subaltern studies and the postcolonial (pp. 324–340). London, UK: Verso.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Spivak, G. (2016). Translator’s preface. Of grammatology. Kindle DX version. Find this resource:


                                                                                            (1.) This article was originally published in 1988 but draws on the 1994 reprinted version.

                                                                                            (2.) This refers to the 2016 new edition, although Of Grammatology was first published in English in 1974.