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The Gayatri Spivak Controversy Is About the Implosion of 'Subalternity' in Public Discourse

Our lack of preparedness to listen and appreciate amidst our differences leads to the defeat of institutional life and inclusivity.
Gayatri Spivak's lecture on W.E.B. Du Bois's at JNU. Photo: X@anshul_rai_shar

On May 21, well-known postcolonial scholar Gayathri Chakravorty Spivak spoke on ‘W.E.B. Du Bois and Democracy’ at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her talk was somewhat disorganised. However, it provided some deep insights into the making of subalternity.

She attempted to unpack the liminality of subalternity in Du Bois’s commitment to fighting racial discrimination, without him never having to personally suffer racial discrimination or slavery.

Du Bois belonged to a well-to-do family.

Spivak emphasised how the humanities help frame the question of transcending one’s identity to understand others’ positionalities, and that subalternity is internally porous because oppositional positions can be complicit with domination.

The porosity of subaltern liminality in being internally torn was demonstrated in the Q&A session.

It signified the fact that we are entering a new era of social conflicts in which we are being forced to evaluate different modes of discrimination such as gender and caste.

What transpired in the hall and after the talk signals a new possibility to expand democratic inclusion. However, it also signalled an ominous possibility of authoritarian appropriation.

During the Q&A session, a student, who introduced himself as a professor of the Centre for Brahmin Studies, questioned Spivak’s claim of belonging to the middle class, and to subalternity while being a Brahmin and being the great granddaughter of Bihari Lal Bhaduri.

Spivak cut him short and began to correct his pronunciation.

She suggested a correct way of pronouncing the name ‘Du Bois’, and that there is a politics of race attached to the pronunciation, not least because Du Bois himself was very particular that his name be pronounced not as French sounding but as most common/Black folks would pronounce it. She reprimanded him twice, and also requested him not to be rude to an 83-year-old woman who was in his institution on the request of the students. Neither the student who raised the query nor Spivak was innocent in their symbolic games; it was like ships passing by the night.

The student was trying to remind her of her own privileged caste position of being a Brahmin.

Spivak was either not prepared for such a question or did not get the thrust, or was not prepared to take such a line of questioning from a man.

She seemed to have also missed the symbolism of claiming to be a professor of Brahmin Studies, and perhaps took it literally, and could have mistaken him for some right-wing mercenary out to disturb her potentially subversive talk.

Her correction of the student’s pronunciation was not innocent either. She publicly reprimanded him for being a man and said that his rude behaviour represented aggressive masculinity. She had announced at the beginning of the Q&A that she would prefer questions from students, specifically from women students. Her gendered correction turned out to be casteist snobbery. When the student was wrongfully disallowed to complete his question, he staged a walk out.

The matter did not rest there.

The student later tweeted, referring to Spivak as ‘this bastard and bitch’ [who] did not allow me to complete my question. Spivak’s gender assertion took a casteist turn, and the student’s caste assertion took a misogynist turn. There is outrage on social media against Spivak for her outrageous behaviour as that is considered to be deeply prejudiced and coming from a position of power.

Whether she would have reprimanded him had she known his caste is an important question. Would she be right in correcting him in that abrupt manner even if he had been a Brahmin, as, perhaps, Spivak mistook him, based on his introduction, is yet another question. In any case, many postcolonial scholars, who profess to be deeply committed to subaltern subjectivity and their sovereign claims, mostly suffer from being ill-informed about the sociology of caste. They do not understand the nuances of caste-related anxieties and deep-seated working of insecurities. They have a distant and a sanitised understanding.

Most of this seems to come from the fact that many Indian postcolonial scholars are Bengali, and it’s a no brainer to see that most Bengali scholarship is relatively ill-informed of caste in the rest of India. Bengali scholars mostly generalise their views based on case studies and anecdotes from Bengal, where caste works in different registers, other than being identitarian.

The problem gets further compounded in the postcolonial scholarly network being rather small, closed and self-referential. This disallows them to partake in fast-paced developments and micro-sociological details that have kicked in. This limitation got reflected in Spivak’s response. Any other scholar from Bihar or Telangana would have made an immediate sense of the symbolism of the claim of ‘Brahmin studies’. Spivak’s sociological blindness certainly comes from her privilege.

Privilege comes with social gestation and empty-time, while subaltern subordination comes with constricted autonomy and absence of freedom to be anything else other than the identity and subjectivity attached to positionality.

On the other side of the divide, neither the student who wanted to ask a question, surprisingly nor the audience, or the social media warriors noted the gender performance staged by Spivak.

She consciously and deliberately answered questions from women students in a rather affable manner. She was also particular about her accolades being properly announced during her introduction. She said that these are achievements of a middle-class girl, who knew nobody when she landed in the US. She announced she prefers to answer students and not the faculty.

Her gender sensibilities were lost in her assertion, which came across as elitist and casteist snobbery as she reprimanded and corrected others’ pronunciation.

Again, English is a rather ticklish subject when it comes to caste. There is an ongoing demand from the Dalit community for education in the English medium. English is seen as an escape from caste-based indignities, getting publicly reprimanded for incorrect pronunciation becomes nothing short of a caste-slur.

How do caste and gender get entangled? This is a conflictual relation that has been brewing for some. Almost two decades back, there was an infamous incident in the University of Hyderabad. Students went to watch a cricket match, and they returned with acrimony and a series of complaints. The women lodged an official complaint that men threw banana peels at them while watching the match. An enquiry committee was instituted and it was discovered that most of the boys who seem to have misbehaved belonged to the Dalit-Bahujan community.

The men who deposed before the enquiry committee complained that the ‘upper’ caste women routinely despised them, made fun of them, and did not befriend them. The women complained of misogyny.

The committee had no way of resolving the matter other than to leave it to rest with a warning to both parties. I have also witnessed similar complaints at JNU about ‘caste Hindu’ women exclusively preferring friendships with men from elite backgrounds.

Around the same time, I vividly recall an incident when I lived in London. I was travelling in a public bus with two friends, one of whom happened to be a Christian woman, the other a Dalit man. While sitting together, the man’s legs ‘touched’ the woman’s thighs. She raised it as an issue of masculine behaviour that suffers from gender blindness.The ‘Dalit friend’ retorted by saying why would she sexualise a behaviour that he was not conscious about, and that urban etiquettes do not belong to his lifeworld. She replied by saying that if he is not conscious, then he has to ‘learn’, even if he does not intend his behaviour as a transgression.

The same way Spivak believed the student needed to ‘educate’ himself about correct pronunciation, this incident stayed with me, signalling the things to come and the sharpening of conflicts along multiple axes.

It would be mistaken to think that this gendered behaviour from a caste standpoint was targeted only against caste Hindu women. More recently, a Dalit woman activist pointed to the absence of women representation in the candidates contesting from the Bahujan Samaj Party, and held the male leadership responsible for it. She was badly trolled and abused, just the way Spivak is being, and the woman Dalit activist retorted by tweeting this as a making of a ‘Bahujan Bajrang Dal’.

Alongside subalternity, public discourse in India is imploding, bringing to halt the life of mind in institutional settings. What transpired in the course of Spivak’s talk and after is a story of incommensurability that cannot be easily reconciled. It could be seen as a zero-sum game that offers a ready mushrooming ground for the right-wing clampdown on institutions that could subvert a potentially progressive debate from within.

The Dalit-Bahujan questioning of merit and meritocracy as carrying caste-bias has been subverted by the right in weaponising mediocrity as an anti-elitist campaign. It is around the same anti-merit arguments that institutions of higher learning are being shut for Dalit-Bahujans under the current regime.

Our lack of preparedness to listen and appreciate amidst our differences leads to the defeat of institutional life and inclusivity.

Coming back to Spivak’s talk, one could not miss her self-deprecating humour, alongside her gender assertion. Even before she began her talk, Spivak in zest remarked, ‘I do not like Bengalis,’ to the amusement of the audience. She went on to say that which is most familiar to you creates the worst kind of discomfort. She also pointed to her own ‘complicity’ with dominant positionality that she cannot deny, even if she writes and speaks on the question of race.

Had the student paused to appreciate this, he would or could have spared reducing her to a caste body.

Had Spivak ‘educated’ herself of the nuances of caste assertion and anxieties, she wouldn’t have disallowed the student from completing his question. She would have certainly learned a thing or two.



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