As I wait for Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her brand new office at New York’s ivy-league Columbia University where she is University Professor in the Humanities — the only woman of colour to be bestowed the University’s highest honour in its 264-year history — I admit I am nervous.
At 68, Spivak is — and has long been — a celebrity academic, dubbed by The New York Times as ‘famously hard-to-understand’.
But as she enters — crewcut hair, haversack on shoulder, wearing a sari — her disarming smile puts me at ease….
You travel the world in a sari. Is that a statement of identity?
Not really. I wear a sari…I always have worn one….. You know, I am 68 years old. It’s the most convenient thing for me…it never occurred to me that I should change... I am not an identitarian. I sometimes wear Western clothes but most of the time I wear saris because they are cheaper and second, I feel all the fashion efforts made for saris go against the grain of that free flowing garment. I don’t think of it as traditional because this way of wearing the sari came about from conversations with the Tagore family women and women from Bombay in order to make the sari more manageable for riding cycles and so on. Also people give me saris and so it is economical. . I don’t know what my identity is or anything… I think the sari is a contemporary garment. I wear Western clothes and 57 per cent of the time I wear a sari.
You were very young when you came to America...
Weren’t you uncomfortable about standing out?
I’ve always stood out! (laughs). I was incredibly tall and a very strange kind of person. I was quite used to standing out. That’s a silly remark to make but it’s a fact. Whether one stands out for a good reason or not, that’s another thing.…No, it didn’t bother me in the least. Although I was 19, at home I was already a 2nd year MA student and I had come here to do graduate work and, in 4 years, I was an Assistant Professor so I was very precocious and not at all like a starry-eyed teenager. Also at that time, 1961, before Lyndon Johnson raised the quota, not too many Indians came to the United States in the English dept. I felt really that I knew everything about the US. You know, I was a Calcutta girl… I had read Time magazine and all that stuff. There were no novels talking about immigrants and so on and I didn’t know that I was supposed to feel any kind of cultural this that. I just came and started going to class and never thought about the fact that wearing a sari was an odd thing. And that was also the way my Indian citizenship has remained intact. I never thought that I was supposed to change.
You’ve spent most of your life in America....
How do you see yourself? As an Indian or someone from America?
I don’t really know. I don’t know how a person actually thinks an identity. I think it’s probably something that came about from this process of national liberation. You were thinking that you belonged to this nation and that you should be free but I am truly not very concerned about questioning myself about my identity and so on, so I can’t give u a fully-fledged answer to this question. I think one manufactures a stereotype for oneself and I don’t think that’s a very interesting thing one’s own stereotype about oneself, so I don’t spend very much time thinking about it.
What brought you to America....what triggered the move?
I was very critical of the university. One of my professors told me that I wouldn’t get a 1st class. I was a fatherless person and I had worked very hard indeed to get a 1st class 1st in my BA. At that time, as far as I knew, for someone who was not going to be able to finance her trip abroad and was in the humanities ..who knows, I never checked this carefully but I was only 18 after all...I thought I would even have difficulty getting a passport if I didn’t have a first class and I thought ‘ this is the time for me to leave’. That’s why I left….I didn’t want to go to Britain...I was an adventurous kind of soul and I thought the British universities were an extension of our Indian experience and also that I would have to take a second BA and, at that point, that was not acceptable…so I went off…I borrowed money. The person who lent me the money who I hadn’t known before I just knew his name. He told me that it was a life mortgage because I had no collateral to offer – I didn’t even know what collateral was – I don’t think there were life mortgages at that time. You must realise how innocent I was. I was a very intelligent person in the matter of taking exams and studying literature and all that but I had no practical sense and I was very protected by my wonderful mother and my father , who had died about 6 years before that. I just felt free to do anything and that’s how I came. I signed a document which said that if I didn’t return the money in 5 years then I would be obliged to accept any employment as long as it wasn’t illegal or criminal that this person would suggest. But I did give him the money back in 5 years by saving and stuff and he was kind enough to say that I had already repaid him and did not accept repayment and that was the start of my savings (laughs)…
Could you tell us a little bit about your intellectual evolution. You are considered among one of the foremost thinkers in the world today. Did you have any sense of how far you would go?
No, frankly, no (laughs).I have never been able to think that I am anything but just a non-bluffing person. I am not a scholar. I was trained in Calcutta University during those years to think on my feet but because I am not a scholar I often reinvent the wheel and then I console myself by saying that the wheel is not a bad thing to invent… and that’s why I can also be so bold. I go into other disciplines and I can always tell that the disciplinarians who are really good and wonderful they support me. They see that here is a person from the outside the discipline who is trying and so they support me and when there is some kind of mistake they take me in hand. I think of people like Bimal Krishna Matilal. I have solid high school Sanskrit. I can read historical narrative things like Rajatarangini and Mahabharata without a dictionary. I can’t read philosophical or linguistic Sanskrit and that needs to be explained to me. And with this Sanskrit in hand I have offered readings here and there and people like Bimal or Peter van Der Veer would say “Good, someone outside of the discipline is trying carefully, is trying hard and comes up sometimes with interesting things”. And Bimal would also say affectionately,” tell them this is a new reading” and he knew that people wouldn’t question his authority. On the other hand, people who are less good, who are kind of bound by their discipline are quite hostile towards me. In history, in Sanskrit, in political theory…some colleague whose name I will not divulge has actually said in print that I was juridically and theoretically unprepared for reading the Dharmashastra in “Can the subaltern Speak?”. What I told him was “now when feminists the world over read Oedipus, they are not all classicists. I certainly can read texts that constitute of me in culture which I share even with the poorest woman within Hinduism. I have a right from within and I know some Sanskrit. Who are you to say I am not the appropriate reader”? So that’s what I can say to myself. That I try very hard, I don’t bluff, I am not a scholarly type but I do as much homework as I can and I look for support from those scholars and friends who are strong enough in their fields to appreciate that I try. That’s how I see myself. I don’t really see myself as a great thinker. I am always surprised when people say they have read something by me or know my name. I can even say something else...this is one of my touchstones in a Mathew Arnold kind of way. My mother was once with me at an event where there were many many people in the audience maybe about a thousand and I spoke and came back and there was lots of applause, questions etc. I came home with ma and my brother asked her “well, how was she?” and my mother loved me with all her heart but she also knew that the kind of unquestioning pride in oneself (vanity) is a very bad idea it really stops the intelligence from operating so she, with a smile, quoted that old advertisement for Bankim Chandra from Star Theatre. I remember when Gobindalal came onto the stage on horseback with Bengal lights on the horses. So my mother looks at my brother and says “hei hei kando, rei rei bapar; astho pristhe gobindlal” . She said this with affection but it immediately made me realise how stupid it would be for me to take these kinds of tokenised occasions as any indication of any achievement on my part. I have never forgotten it and it protects me.
There are so many languages that you have worked in....
There is another story…quite an amazing story. I borrowed money, right? I couldn’t get a fellowship the next year because I was not a native speaker. These things have changed now but to an extent they have changed because of our work, you know. I had no working permit, and I was thinking ‘what on earth am I going to do next year?’ and so I gave a paper in Paul de Man’s seminar. He had just become the new chair in the new Comparative Literature department. My paper was respectable and he had filled all his financial aid slots for students and there was one left and this has come out in conversation much later when I was myself directing a programme in Comp Lit. At that time I thought it was because I was so dazzlingly brilliant but when Mr. de Man asked me if I would like a fellowship in Comp Lit I said ‘of course’. Because those slots ...if you don’t fill them they disappear, so he said ‘ well, what is your foreign language?’ I said,’ English’. I must say that even at that stage it did not occur to me to declare my mother tongue as a foreign language which people do all the time these days to get into Comp Lit and I think that the politics of that gesture is deeply suspect. In a foreign country to get money you call your mother tongue a foreign language? So I said ‘English’. So he said, ‘Well, that won’t do. What else?’ I said,’ nothing’. I had had six months of French at the Alliance Francaise in Calcutta and three months of German with Mrs. Bhaduri who was the German widow of a Bengali freedom fighter in Ballygunge where I lived. So I asked ‘will the readings be in that language?’ He said,’ yes’. ‘Will the lectures be in that language?’ and he said, ‘sometimes’. And I said ,’will I have to write my papers in the language?’ He said, ’no, not necessarily’. I said, ‘ok, then I am in’ because I had no money. He said, ‘you can’t take language courses. If you are doing a PhD in Comparative Literature at an Ivy League school, you are supposed to know the languages’. I said, ‘well, I’ll give it a try’. That’s all the French and German I ever had had and so I sailed forth. I was a very brave person. I can say something very boastful: a couple of years ago, when it was the 40th anniversary of the Comp Lit programme at Cornell, they invited me – so sweet – as the best student that Comp Lit had produced.…and I was thinking to myself, ‘gosh, and I went in knowing no language really at all’! That was amazing. And how I went ahead to translate Derrida and that too in French, I have no idea, but I did.
How long did it take you to translate a complex thinker like Derrida?
Immediately, because I had no idea who he was. I was an Assistant Professor at Iowa…you know, I was very young: I was about 24/25 by then. I thought: here I am... a 1st class 1st from the University of Calcutta, Ph.D. from Cornell, here I am at Iowa – stupid really – I must keep up my intellectual life. I would order books from catalogues and, you know, it was by chance that I ordered Grammatologie. If I hadn’t ordered the book … I didn’t know Derrida’s name at all. I was far, far away. There was no email, no fax, no nothing. How would I know? If I hadn’t ordered that book my life would have been so totally different. Just the thought of that accident fills me with a certain kind of terror…and also with so little French it is a very complicated book at the age of 25. I think that’s the one intelligent thing I have done in my entire life. I read the book and I knew that this was a good book…I thought to myself: I am a young Assistant Professor and this is a young unknown author. I want to write something on this book but there was no way that this was going to fly…I heard at a cocktail party someone mention that the University of Massachusetts press was doing translations. I really felt at that point that I could do anything. So that gave me the idea. So I wrote this absurd query letter to the University of Massachusetts press: I am a wonderful translator – I had never translated anything before! It took me a week to translate that one page. I was a wonderful translator, it’s a wonderful book but I wouldn’t translate if they didn’t let me write a monograph-size introduction, and sent it off. This query letter was so innocent, with no one’s recommendation or anything… these days you know when I recommend my students’ manuscripts for publication, I think to myself that there was no one recommending this thing. I just sent a query letter. You know, I always fall on my feet like borrowing that money. And so they felt that they should give me a chance and they gave me a chance. And I surfaced, and so that’s how it was. I didn’t even think twice about it. Of course my Chairman said I was stupid because I was going into this unknown thing. He didn’t know either. Why was I going away from British literature and doing this thing? But, of course, it really kind of made me into a kind of middle line star, didn’t it? And I took a whole year off because I had never had a course in philosophy undergraduate, graduate, anything. Of course when I was de Man’s student he had met Derrida, but this I didn’t know. So I took a year off and I got a sabbatical from Iowa ..they were very kind and I put myself to school and I read all by myself this philosophical text and I wrote my introduction. It’s really like…when I think back upon it I think, ‘My God, how did I mange all that?’
How did ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ come about?
What happened was that in 1981, I got a request from Yale French Studies to write on French Feminism and from Critical Enquiry to write on Deconstruction. At that point the thought of identity did come in a little because it was in the air in 1981. Edward Said was a very dear friend of mine I had met him in 74. I didn’t read Orientalism until after his death but, nonetheless, those thoughts were in the air. And so I wrote French Feminism in an international frame for Yale French Studies and lost the friendship of Julia Kristeva forever because I criticised her absurd book on Chinese women and I translated Draupadi with an introduction for Critical Inquiry. And then something in me was wanting not to be taken over completely by French theory and so it was ...you were talking about intellectual evolution: this is my stereotype of the narrative, ok ? I was looking at this interview between Foucault and Deleuze these two people who have written such complicated theoretical material. When they are just talking between themselves to each other they, in fact, are revealing very theoretical pre-critical stuff which they would question in their writing. So the presuppositions are all there. You know it’s like let me put a humble example here. I am not an American citizen, but my mother was because she was with my brother’s family…she was my brother’s dependent. My mother was a spirited woman. She was what we call a social worker in India in Calcutta all her life and she gave more than 10000 hours until she was in her 80s to post traumatic stress syndrome affected Vietnam war veterans in the United States because she felt that to be a citizen meant to bear responsibility… Even some politically correct people think that, in their heart of hearts, they think that being American means White. So this is the kind of thing I was looking at: unacknowledged pre-suppositions which came out in conversation but would not be acknowledged in their theoretical productions. And so that’s what I needed to escape from, I felt at that point. All of this was a little silly, but there it was… so to escape where would I go? This woman…the woman who hanged herself in ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ was, in fact, my grandmother’s sister…so she was like a family person. I never mentioned that because I didn’t feel that it was appropriate, first of all, and second, I wanted people to react without the kind of benevolence that they give, for example, to a Patricia Williams or Saidiya Hartman because they talk about their own family connections to the past. So think it was a good decision. It was extremely hard for me to write that piece and at a certain point I felt that I had used myself up because I did feel that in her gestures she had deeply questioned the idea of a woman belonging to one man and that women in the family had forgotten that she had tried to make this clear in the way in which she died. And so I laid out that ideology of belonging to a unique man in its extreme statement in sati, although I was also aware that it was an economic phenomenon etc. It was a realistic idea, ok... that’s why I said she cannot speak. She could not speak because she did speak but was not heard. That was the meaning of ‘cannot speak’. I got a lot of nonsense as a result of my saying this to the extent that finally Dipesh Chakraborty told me that our friend Megan Morris had said a very wonderful thing to him saying , ‘those people who question Gayatri and say that you take away the subaltern’s ability to speak etc, they think her article is called Can the Subaltern Talk (laughs)! It was not about talking. It was about: when the subaltern speaks there is not enough infrastructure for people to recognise it as resistant speech. That’s what it means. So when I felt that I couldn’t write any more, I sent it to my editor and said ‘please cut it or do something with it. I can’t control this anymore’. And they printed it as it was!
Over the years
Over the years…but you see, that was the beginning and for a person who somewhat deliberately had no family, I have been nourished by both my parents, my sisters and my foremothers. This woman who I never saw (I was seventeen when she died) has really taught me the value of going in a certain direction which was amazing, wasn’t it? But I went away from my own class to think of the subaltern in other ways. According to Gramsci’s definition, people who have no entry into the structures of the welfare of the state, who cannot have… have not achieved that state. In that sense my idea of the subaltern is somewhat different from subaltern studies. I don’t study the subaltern… I learn from the subaltern. There is a little difference there.
Where are your thoughts now?
I have more or less finished a huge book called An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalisation. You mustn’t get me wrong. I feel that both ends need a re-arrangement of desires, ok? I am not just interested in the subaltern. I am also interested in the super-power … I don’t teach South-Asia. I teach the dominant languages at the doctoral level at a very powerful university in a very powerful city and I have had these schools in the so-called backward districts for 25 years. Some were closed for reasons that are also very interesting political reasons. So I feel that desires have to be re-arranged at both ends. I see myself as a classroom teacher rather than anything. I write these books because I can’t not write. You know, it’s that kind of a obsession. I have read an awful lot of very excellent books to think that my books will really make the grade in the long run but they are written with great seriousness and sincerity. But I don’t write well either. Many people have said this in print – that I don’t write well and I am sorry about that... I try my best. My language has become much simpler but not, therefore, easier to understand.
Your language has often been criticised as being ‘dense’ or ‘opaque’. Has your language been a response to the very complex material that you deal with?
I think so. I don’t like the fact that I was so overwhelmed by the complexity of my subject. You see, I am an intellectually insecure person. You will find this hard to believe and so I felt that I wanted to be taken seriously by people and I think that’s not a good motive for writing. Over the years my language has become much simpler but the density has not disappeared. My current book begins with two simple sentences: Only capital and data globalise. All the rest is damage control. These are two very simple sentences but they are not easy. The first sentence might be easy but the second sentence is incredibly complicated and the trouble is that when you write it in simple language people think they understand but it’s a great trouble because what they understand is so far from what I was thinking. I am a very counter-intuitive person ....that’s a problem, what to do?
Do you think it is necessary for there to be a dialogue between thinkers and the ‘real’ world?
Some thinkers do percolate and some don’t. John McDowell is one of the greatest philosophers of our time: I don’t think he has a great popular following. It seems to me that in our time the situation may be different in India but here, in the United States, the so called exchange between policy makers and the international civil society and human rights activists and ‘thinkers’ let’s use that word for me – is not real. If we don’t, in fact, more or less speak with the presuppositions of that crowd we don’t fly and so I have a feeling that the other side has a bit of an obligation to ask us questions. I myself am not tremendously interested in communicating with the so-called ‘real world’. The university is not unreal: in fact, the university now is so corporatised it is very much a part of the real world. What can I say, I’m quite cynical after so many years of being at the university.
Do you think Marxism as a political system is dying?
I think it will probably happen again because I believe it is never exactly appropriate to the theory. It seems to me one cannot tell the future, the future is undecidable but, nonetheless, it seems to me that the idea that capital should be used for social justice is not an idea that’s going to go away. I think that what we had – parties within a parliamentary democracy which is also Gramscian you know, democratic communism, that I think is probably going to come around again. At this point ,with the break-up of Russia, it’s too soon to say anything but, on the other hand, the idea of socialism which was based on the notion that if the agents of production knew that capital emerged out of the difference between how much they needed and how much they could make and that if they controlled that then they could build with that capital a just world – a welfare state, let’s say, that was not a very practical idea. Anyone who has been in teaching knows that the line from freedom from oppression and freedom to a build a just society simply does not exist. The only thing that can exist is freedom from oppression in claiming rights, which is also a certain kind of self interest. There was a huge education-shaped hole in the idea of socialism, so the kind of education that was encouraged was science and all that kind of stuff and as everybody knows it became state capitalism of various sorts unless it was within the mischief of party politics. But, nonetheless, as I say, you know, within a parliamentary systems things do happen. Goon politics was always there. Excuse me, I am not an idealist here but having been in those villages and having actually heard the stories of what the party did and how they were before, it’s not something you can immediately forget. I am not a party person and it took me years to break into these conversations. But it seems to me that it will come around but that will have to be taken into account that supposedly it’s about everyone’s changing of desires. I don’t think that changing the state formation is the end of it. In fact, it’s the beginning of it, as it were, so it will have to look very different. It’s also true that the factory floor has been pulverised under this globalisation thing etc so we will have to think of a model that is a little different from industrial proletariat as the kind of measure of socialism. And finally, but not less importantly, is the fact that it has to be gendered. There is a beautiful book by a woman -- I think Dai Jinhuai is her name – who is a film professor at Peking University and she has written about the fantastic change in women’s conditions under Mao. That is something that no one can deny. It completely changed what Chinese women were and men and women became the same but then, she says, just that kind of rational egalitarianism does not undo internalised gendering which has turned, for example, organised labour everywhere into an enemy of women. Permanent casuals: that’s what the women are, right? The idea of free love, for example, at the upper end – that’s also a ridiculous idea. So, to an extent, it will have to become gendered in complex ways. As to how this can happen, who can tell because it’s not really a question of just a change. And the last thing I will say, and where Gandhi was very prescient, the model that Marx really dealt with – perhaps it was never clearly set out was not necessarily the model of what is called ‘revolution’ – the violent overthrow of a previous dispensation . That’s why when he wrote he said that he could only write in Britain because Britain had come to a certain place in the development of capitalism, and he said Germany can’t produce anything right now. Before the idea of the general strike later, that was more the model for change because at that point it was the industrial proletariat. I have already said that cannot be the centre but that would be – and I am now thinking about Rosa Luxemburg – a place where the intellectuals would just give tactical ideologues, just give tactical advice because the agent would be.... since in a general strike it’s not the intellectuals who are employed by the factories. In a general strike if there is violence it is epiphenomenol, it is not part of the definition.. This idea in Marxism which, in fact, Gandhi’s non-cooperation etc is related to – one can see that also in his Hind Swaraj and so on – that is not necessarily connected with violence. I am not suggesting that Marxism was a non-violent theory but it’s not crucial to this change in the agent of production. As Gramsci saw, and I am quoting, that Marxist project was ‘not just moral and psychological but epistemological’. This idea, that it needed a rearrangement of desires, not individualistic but collective if you like, because there are also Marxist fundamentalists who will approach any idea on education and dismiss it with the word individualistic. This is a great great shame. They have to be able to think that the singular is always universalisable. It’s not this collective and individualist kind of thing. These changes which makes a reality check on the assumption that freedom from oppression or exploitation leads directly to the impulse to build a just society or that Marxism is about self-interest... you know, which is about the human rights folks, the universal rights folks and the job creation folks ...these will have to change and it will have to be gendered and we have to know that the model cannot be just industrial proletariat anymore because of where the mode of production has moved in the current conjuncture. The last thing is that the mode of production has not gone away. In our recent crisis, which we are still within, what really kept happening was that insurance for credit kept failing, right? One after the other after the other because there was a whole system of insuring for credit protection that had been built up totally imaginary, as it were. It fell and fell and fell and right at the end was, in fact, the old model working class. That’s the funny thing. All this stuff about service economy and so on and so forth...it hasn’t disappeared, the industrial model. I said a great deal because I think about these things but once again, I am not a political theorist and spoke totally as a citizen of the world rather than someone who knows it.
Did the communist states in India get things wrong, such as the government in West Bengal which is said to be on its way out?
I am not good at predictions but, of course, like everybody else I think about these things. So as an interested person I will say that I think that on the kind of level immediately outside the metropolitan circles of good behaviour and so on and so forth, this kind of goon politics is not just confined to the Communist Party. I think that the reason for this sort of thing, Clan politics in Central Asia, goon politics in our country outside of what Lenin would call the progressive bourgeoisie…there is a book about Central Asia, not about India, by a woman called Catherine Collins which is a real an eye-opener. It was also full of this goon politics which came into the fore when they were unable to think industrialisation in any kind of soft capitalist way. So, to an extent ,it was a weakness of their strength. They really were incapable of doing a better soft capitalism and they made a mistake. The goon politics pre-dates all this and it is shared by other parties. There, I think, to fault Marxism needs a reality check, but then what happened was what I call the feudal layer of international civil society folks. Women, quite often, what they did was set out to destroy the party and that was a mistake. I am not in favour of whatever happened in Singur and Nandigram, who could? But as I say, the goon politics issue is across the board and it’s on that that these women – what I call the benevolent feudal layer of protecting the subaltern etc – they came in on that and destroyed the party and it seems to me that given that communism had bitten the dust in Soviet Russia and is kind of transforming itself willy nilly into a kind of peculiar capitalism in China, it was, perhaps, not very well considered to have done that. On the other hand, I have also heard it said – what do I know, you know? – that in a couple of years they will come back again and that they deserved to be taught a lesson etc. I am not very good at those kinds of political predictions but this is my feeling. I am very distressed with what happened and cannot support the party but to take them down on the issue of that kind of murderous politics in the village areas was a mistake because that is shared by parties and does not depend on ideologies and this I have seen through my experience of actually hanging around rather than by just being with the local zamindars and so on in these backward areas. So that’s what I would say. And I would also say that the idea of subaltern Maoism – I think it’s a kind of rational choice of Marxist vocabulary to describe something which is much more complicated and I think it’s highly irresponsible and it’s a pity because unfortunately these people have been so used to being cannon fodder and take their readiness to get into armed struggle...physical opposition, let me put it that way, is to take advantage of people. The incredible bad face among the progressive bourgeoisie about what is actually happening, I find it tremendous troubling. Some of the writings that describe these people is almost like explorers writing about strange and wonderful tribes. It’s not interesting, which is a very vague way of putting this. So this is the sort of general uneducated opinion that I can share with you.
Do you see yourself as a feminist? What does the term connote to you – as a concept, and by way of a ‘lived experience’?
I think that gendering is a bigger institution than anything in the world. I think that it globalised tacitly before – long, long, long, before, thousands of years before – people could think the globe. Sexual difference, which is different from gender, is the only empirical difference that everyone can sense and so, as you will know, any science system needs a difference around which to construct itself. Gendering is our first, and most persistent, instrument of abstraction. That’s the most primitive theoretical tool. Both capitalist and worker are within it, coloniser and colonised are within it. Those kinds of distinctions disappear. Any kind of academic work is incorrect if not gendered. There are people who think that only women and queers ought to be talking about this kind of thing. For me that is wrong. I say to my students: just remember that whatever you are researching will be incorrect if you don’t take this into consideration: gender it. I don’t know if that is supposed to be feminist. That’s a thinking thing, right? On the other hand, working for good laws that would undo this gender difference is a different kind of work. I think that’s quite crucial and should not become a single issue thing. I don’t like the idea of the women’s vote or something like this. That work, however, cannot be taken as an end in itself because the establishment of laws does not mean that they will be implemented across the board. I am involved in countless public interest litigations. I am involved in a lot of these things but with a clear eye. Now that I am older I can say this: that we should not take this as the end of the struggle. It is in many ways the beginning of the struggle – the passing of a good law because then the definition of the subaltern is someone who does not have access to these structures. I have used examples in my writings. There is a piece called Righting Wrongs which I gave to Amnesty International and is now published and I give examples there about how this happens. There are many feminist thinkers who agree with me there, including people who are not very like me like Catherine Mckinnon. I don’t know if that quite boils down to the label feminist ,just like you have been saying Marxist but I don’t know if it quite boils down to the label Marxist. I will say something more about the Marxist business. People have objected to my saying that I have been always been associated, even sometimes behind the scenes, with the magazine called Frontier. I think they have no right to object. I was very close to Samar Sen, the founder of the magazine. He actually was, in a sense, part of our larger family and then, after his death, I am very close to Timir Basu. That position for me has always been the left of the left critique of parliamentary communism and I think that is a very important position and necessary position. Gramsci in his jail cell was in that position, it seems to me. I would like to say that so people don’t dismiss anything that people like me would say as simply ignorant speculation.
Columbia University lists globalisation as one of your current interests....
Who can not be interested in globalisation? The university is fully globalised. You folks say corporatised, but actually it is within a system which we call globalisation. This is also true at home. I am going to give a talk to the University of Baroda and the way they have been running it .. it does not seem to be like an Indian University anymore. Our universities – the elite universities – are also within that circle. Yes of course I am interested in globalisation, but I am not an economist and I really do think that what really globalises is capital and data and the other things are very uneven results .. and my feeling is that the humanities cannot and should not be global. We should supplement the fact that there are some things that will be global in that uniformising sense. Are we just going to write off all the languages of the world? In order to be global you have to have two or three big languages. Yes, of course I am interested in globalisation but I am interested in unmaking the global from the end of the humanities, as it were.
You have straddled so many different fields and areas. Are you looking at putting your thoughts together in a holistic way, perhaps in a book?
Maybe in this book that I am now working on for Harvard. It’s finished, I am just putting in the references. I have a feeling that most of my writings are kind of a mish-mash of a whole lot of different things. I kind of define myself by an American idiom: a mile wide and an inch thick. I am not a specialist in anything. I am kind of a generalist thinking about things. I know a couple of languages, I read carefully. I write what comes to me. I write because I am obsessed. I can’t not write. But I am much more a classroom teacher. I’ve been wanting to write about the possibility of socialist ethics since 1978, but the world is changing, so the answer to that question is changing and I have a feeling I’ll die before I write it. The next book is the lectures I gave in 2009 at Harvard – the Du Bois lectures. I think Du Bois was the greatest sociologist historian of the 20th century. People don’t pay as much attention to him as they should maybe because he is almost identified with his first book The Souls of Black Folk and that’s it and he’s seen as kind of an African Americanist. But I gave these lectures about Dubois and the general strike, by the way. That’s the next book. Then I have a contracted book on Derrida where I get to write about what I understand about that oeuvre. And then after that, who knows? I may be dead.
Where are your thoughts now?
I learn from my mistakes. The idea of education, the uncoercive arrangement of desires. Both at the top and the bottom. That’s my consuming interest. A lot of things come and go because I teach courses after all, but that’s my consuming big interest. Du Bois, Derrida, everyone comes in there. I was just talking about Primo Levi at the Primo Levi Foundation. Primo Levi, you see, was at Auschwitz. He writes that when young people ask him ” what were your torturers like in these concentration camps?”, he answers: “Well, apart from the exceptional monsters, they were just average men like us, badly reared”. See that word ‘rearing’. Starting from child rearing through institutional humanities style and qualitative social sciences style education – that’s rearing. That’s more basic than this idea of knowledge, knowledge about knowledge. Let’s take that word rearing. That’s my consuming interest and that’s, as I said, that formula ‘uncoercive rearing’ – that’s very hard to do. Both at the top where the superpower is ready, to quote, ‘help the world’, is very arrogant and, at the bottom, where rote education… you know, I work way below the NGO radar. NGO folks come and go and either they feel they have results or they are always there, running their schools or kind of taking the children away from their regular upbringing into a more kind of ‘bhadralok’ arrangement. This is not what I am talking about. It’s a very complicated thing. If I have any intellectual ambition anywhere, it’s this – can it be done?