Vol. 21 No. 13 · 1 July 1999

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Exacting Solidarities

Terry Eagleton only damages himself by refusing to read and engage Gayatri Spivak’s important contribution to the theory of cultural studies with the seriousness that it deserves (LRB, 13 May). Surely he knows that her influence on Third World feminism, Continental feminist theory, Marxist theory, subaltern studies and the philosophy of alterity is unparalleled by any living scholar, and that she has changed the academic terrain of each of these fields by her acute and brilliant contributions. He faults her for writing in an inaccessible style, but we all know that her critical interrogation of the political status quo in its global dimensions has reached tens of thousands of activists and scholars. So perhaps it is precisely her well-earned popularity, her ability to reach so many people, and change their thinking so profoundly, that forms the basis of Eagleton’s ressentiment.

Surely, neither the LRB nor Eagleton believes that theorists should confine themselves to writing introductory primers such as those that he has chosen to provide. The wide-ranging audience for Spivak’s work proves that spoon-feeding is less appreciated than forms of activist thinking and writing that challenge us to think the world more radically. Indeed, the difficulty of her work is fresh air when read against the truisms which, now fully commodified as ‘radical theory’, pass as critical thinking. Adorno surely had it right when he wrote – in Minima Moralia (1951) – about those who recirculate received opinion: ‘only what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable; only the word coined by commerce, and really alienated, touches them as familiar.’ Luckily for us, Spivak’s new book gives us the political landscape of culture in its obscurity and proximity, staying, temporarily, the death of thought her reviewer prescribes, and taking the kind of risks that make her so provocative and indisputably important.

Judith Butler
University of California, Berkeley

Contra Singh and Co.’s diatribe (Letters, 10 June) I found Terry Eagleton’s argument impressive: Eagleton at his absolute, almost insolently post-colonial best. Post-colonial theory is now the most fashionable field in international cultural studies. But it’s not often clear what holds this work together, especially since the label is extremely popular in places like Australia and Canada, whose ‘post-coloniality’ has nothing much in common with that, say, of Malawi or Tunisia.

‘Post-coloniality’ already has its canon (headed by Frantz Fanon and Salman Rushdie), its revered father-figure, and deservedly so (Edward Said), and its firmament of rising stars. After Said, Gayatri Spivak is probably the most dazzling and, as she seems keen that we should know, the most highly paid figure in the US’s overheated market for academic reputations. Homi Bhabha is the new heir apparent. If there’s any justice, he will puncture the balloon of Spivak’s fame.

Spivak is the best representative of the faults of post-coloniality. She writes in a pointlessly obscure and convoluted style. She deals in sweeping and gnomic generalisations about entities she calls ‘the colonial situation’, ‘the colonial subject’, ‘margins’ and so on, in ways utterly divorced from any serious inquiry into the real histories, real politics and economics of colonialism or its successors. She subscribes to an inflated idea of the political importance of academic cultural criticism. She also scorns ‘Enlightenment’ values while remaining maddeningly vague about what to put in their place. Her hunt for the colonial or post-colonial subject resembles that of Pooh and Piglet circling a tree, tracking footprints in the snow that they believe are those of a Woozle, then two Woozles, then ‘either Two Woozles and one, as it might be, Wizzle, or two, as it might be, Wizzles and one, if so it is, Woozle’.

If the problem with Bhabha is to be found at the micro-level, in untangling the allusions, compressions and seemingly arbitrary transitions in each of his sentences, then Spivak is problematic at the macro-level. The prose itself is more straightforward, if hardly elegant. But Spivak is so bewilderingly eclectic, so prone to juxtaposition rather than synthesis, that ascribing a coherent position to her on any question is extremely difficult. One might be impressed at the range of her reading until one starts noticing how regularly references to the same texts (including her own) are recycled; and how inaccurate these sometimes are. Perhaps it’s the combination of the intellectual magpie or butterfly and the high-profile media protagonist that explains why, in recent years, published interviews with her have virtually outnumbered her own writings.

Spivak’s sheer carelessness can at times be exasperating. She refers airily to someone called ‘Fröbel Folker’. Could this perhaps be a distant relative of the German economist Folker Fröbel? Otto Kreye becomes Otto Kreve. To top it off, she refers to Hélène Cixous as ‘a Creole’. Her attempts to lecture Americans on Indo-British culture are both risibly inaccurate (she goes on about what she calls ‘Indy-Pop’, by which she apparently means not only the Tindersticks but Bhangra) and insufferably pompous. Her neologisms are difficult sometimes to distinguish from malapropisms. Most tiresome of all is the intensity of self-regard that has increasingly disfigured her writing. She is constantly concerned to track her own progress, proclaim her own status. This may be thought of as vigilant self-awareness, a properly Post-Modern concern for reflexivity or even a feminist insistence on the politics of the personal. It can also be seen as something rather less grand: good old-fashioned showing off.

Mustapha Marrouchi
University of Toronto

An article strikingly similar to Eagleton's review of Gayatri Spivak's A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason appeared under Terry Eagleton's name in the inaugural issue of the journal Interventions (Autumn 1998), published a good six months before even the galleys of Spivak's book became available. Has Terry Eagleton gone Post-Modern?

Andrew Rubin
New York

It appears from the frivolity of Terry Eagleton’s tone that he thinks the whole business of post-coloniality is some sort of language game between him, Gayatri Spivak and a few other major-league players. It is not. The realities of which Spivak speaks with uncanny brilliance and Eagleton with watered-down Euro-liberal Marxism are far more serious than might be thought from ad hominem exchanges between two highly overpaid and massively undercriticised critics of those realities.

Before the post-structuralist pulling of the metaphysical rug from under the self-congratulatory positivism of the European Enlightenment, we ‘Orientals’ were exiled to the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ and condemned by our ‘Oriental Despotism’. As late as Fredric Jameson’s infamous essay on our literature, we were able to produce no work of literary art except in the form of ‘allegories of nationalism’. Whatever nonsense and gibberish may indeed be written under the canopy of ‘Post-Modernity’ or ‘post-colonialism’, both have done some good in forcing the self-appointed keepers of a chimera known as ‘Western Civilisation’ to come out of their medieval woods and put on the table whatever outdated currency they might have stored in their archival dungeons.

Hamid Dabashi
Columbia University,
New York

Reading Eagleton’s review again, I still think he was trying to be fair to Spivak – certainly it made me want to read her book – notwithstanding those strange sentences of hers to which he draws our attention. Nikhil Pal Singh and Co.’s letter is itself a fascinating example of a sort of knee-jerk gobbledy-gook which is not at all ‘a lack of style’, as they would have it, but the sheer inability to state clearly what you mean. And, by the way, what are ‘more exacting solidarities’?

John Byrne
Amarante, Portugal

What made Albert run

If J.P. Roos wants to argue (Letters, 10 June) that late 19th-century hysteria disappeared because brain research allowed a better understanding of the ‘genuine illnesses’ behind it, I wish him well. I would be very interested in knowing to what brain disease we should attribute the classic symptoms of Charcot’s grande hystérie – the four standard ‘phases’ of the hystero-epileptic attack (clownisme, attitudes passionnelles etc); the ‘ovarian tenderness’; the hemianaesthesias that migrate from one side of the body to the other in response to magnets; the hysterogenic points which Charcot would press to trigger or stop an attack; the sudden catalepsies provoked by the ringing of a gong; and the rest. Retrospective diagnosis is a tricky business, and just because many symptoms of hysteria can be individually correlated with specific lesions of the brain, it does not follow that the cases treated by Charcot or by Breuer and Freud can be reliably traced back to distinct neurological diseases. Whenever such attempts have been made, they have yielded inconclusive and contradictory results. How does J.P. Roos reconcile, for example, E.M. Thornton’s diagnosis of Anna O’s tuberculous meningitis, A. Orr-Andrawes’s diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy and L. Hurst’s diagnosis of sarcoid with lesions of the peripheral nerves?

As for the disappearance of hysteria during the first decade of the 20th century, it was due to the decline of hypnosis and, as Mark Micale has convincingly argued, to an influx of new diagnoses. Brain research played absolutely no role in that development: the indispensable diagnostic procedure for detecting most of the ‘genuine illnesses’ alluded to by J.P. Roos, the electroencephalogram, was not even available until much later.

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen
University of Washington,

I have obviously got stuck in pre-1909 psychiatry, as I have seen several patients with dissociative fugue states, although none of them have got as far as Albert – the last one turned up in Bassetlaw.

Linda Montague

In Search of a Massacre

One week after the publication of my piece on atrocity-hunting in Macedonia (LRB, 27 May), I spoke again with Ben Ward, who was gathering evidence of abuse for Human Rights Watch. This time we spoke on the telephone. He had read what I had written and agreed with it. But things had changed, he said. The evidence was gathering slowly but there appeared to be more testimony to suggest that the torture and killing of ethnic Albanians was indeed systematic. When I was in Macedonia it did not seem that it was. Ward, the majority of observers, aid workers and journalists did not have accounts of slaughter on the grand scale. What had concerned the people I spoke to was the hysterical need of reporters to find a massacre, to get a good story. I was a part of that. I wanted women to tell me that they had been raped, to hear the terrible detail of the deaths and then to write it up. Instead, we heard second-hand reports, most of which we had no means of verifying. We knew that the story would only really be told from inside Kosovo. The majority of the eyewitnesses were still there along with the dead.

‘What’s the Story’ was a snapshot in time, an account of war reporting from the border of a war. It did not seek to apologise for the Serbs, nor did it say there were no atrocities. It simply questioned the means by which stories were being told and the facts behind them. At that time, hunches did not align with evidence. Sadly, we have evidence now. I wanted to be the one to find it. I am probably glad that I didn’t.

Audrey Gillan
London EC1

Absence of evidence of massacres is not evidence of absence of massacres. Audrey Gillan’s challenge was a corrective to the mainstream of reporting from the refugee camps of the Kosovar diaspora. She was right to be uneasy about the near-uniformity of the refugees’ claims. She was right to be uneasy about the power of hysteria and the power of KLA propaganda. She was right – of course – to question the tabloid hunt for rape victims. But her failure, while the war was on, to find good evidence which backed up the refugees’ claims that Serb death squads massacred ethnic Albanians was above all a reflection of modern newspaper economics. She and I both work for the same impoverished newspaper group, Gillan at the Guardian, myself at the Observer. Neither paper can afford to have a reporter spend three weeks looking at one massacre. I went on holiday and Channel Four’s Dispatches provided the resources – a car, a helicopter, three translators working non-stop – that allowed us to trace refugees in Albania in five separate towns, all from the same village. We interviewed each key witness separately. The same story emerged: Serb death squads had arrived at their village of Little Krusha at 3.40 a.m. on 25 March and rounded up the villagers. The next day they machine-gunned 112 men and boys in a hayburn; three men escaped. The rest were either shot dead or burnt alive. Since the programme went out it has become clear that the Serbs killed an awful lot more people.

John Sweeney

I like the Dome

Iain Sinclair’s slightly gratuitous inclusion of the Stephen Lawrence murder gives a radius of over three miles from the Millennium Dome in which to wallow in death and destruction (LRB, 13 May). But why go that far when the third quarter of the 19th century saw (every few years, despite the well-meaning efforts of the Board of Trade) the blowing up of a few more local women employed at the local railway fog-signal factory on Greenwich Marshes only an explosion’s-throw from the Dome site? Go less than half that radius the other way to Wapping, and there you really had pirates and other malefactors gibbeted on the shoreline. Go a bit further west, but still inside that radius, and you are in Whitechapel, where ‘Jack the Ripper’ tourists still stalk the streets at night. But if it’s strange you’re after, stick with the marshes, and relish the thought of the Duke of Sutherland (staying somewhere in the locality) turning up at a late-night fire at a cable works in Charlton in the late 1860s in full fireman’s fig – he always travelled with it, never knowing when he would next hear the sound of the alarm.

I like the Dome. I like the area, and I’ve lived there for the last quarter of a century. The Pilot, opposite the Dome’s car-park, has been my local for the past few years. There’s a lot of history on the marshes – it’s only been ‘the peninsula’ since the publicists moved in – and some of it, after a bit of an argument with the developers, remains; like The Pilot itself and the 1801 terrace next door, as well as the amazing and historic gas-holder. But now it also has the Dome as a fantastic focus (I’m not so sure about the silver-sprayed shoebox they’ve just erected next door), as well as an architect’s dream of a supermarket about to open, and an extremely cheap workover on what was one of London’s most polluted sites.

Yes, cheap. For less than one billion pounds we’ve got a fascinating structure – the Dome – as well as a major tube interchange (and if you’ve ever lived in South-East London you will know what that means); quite apart from a lot of homes and the opportunity for an entire new shopping centre. This is national small change, but a big result for the locality.

Of course there have been losses. I still miss meeting the fox at the end of Horn Lane when walking at dusk along the river to The Pilot for a drink, but I can see her (or maybe her daughters) further up the hill any time I choose to walk home from Greenwich after 11 p.m.

Hugh Lyon
London SE7

Educating the Blimps

In his lively discussion of Basil Liddell Hart (LRB, 10 June), Geoffrey Best says that ‘Heinz Guderian and others subsequently proclaimed themselves his disciples.’ Kenneth Macksey, in his study of Guderian, says that the Panzer leader only expressed an indebtedness to Liddell Hart in the English edition of his memoirs, and that he did so in order to placate Liddell Hart’s vanity. Macksey argues that Guderian’s tank strategy was not influenced by Liddell Hart.

Tom Paulin
Hertford College, Oxford

What Warburg did

I hesitate to intervene in learned differences of transatlantic opinion about Warburg, but I can confirm Anthony Grafton's observation (LRB, 1 April) that, as is evident from Gombrich's magisterial Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography, there is a wealth of unexplored material relating to this exceptional scholar in the archives of the Institute that bears his name. It seems, to parody the man himself, that every scholar gets the Warburg he deserves. But perhaps I may be permitted at least to set the record straight on the Warburg Institute. Anyone who had spent more than a few minutes perusing the recent publications of my art-historian colleagues, or has attended any of our recent colloquia on art-historical topics, would know that there is no truth in the tired allegation that they are purveyors of narrow iconographical research. And the starkest difference between the Warburg Institute and the New York Institute of Fine Arts is that the Warburg's concerns, in keeping with its founder's notion of Kulturwissenschaft, and his central passion for the history of the classical tradition, reach far beyond the confines of fine art. There is not even a majority of art historians on the academic staff.

Nicholas Mann
Director, Warburg Institute, London WC1

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