In the Gaudy Supermarket

Terry Eagleton

  • A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
    Harvard, 448 pp, £30.95, June 1999, ISBN 0 674 17763 0

There must exist somewhere a secret handbook for post-colonial critics, the first rule of which reads: ‘Begin by rejecting the whole notion of post-colonialism.’ It is remarkable how hard it is to find an unabashed enthusiast for the concept among those who promote it: as hard as it was in the Sixties or Seventies to find anyone who owned up to being a structuralist. The idea of the post-colonial has taken such a battering from post-colonial theorists that to use the word unreservedly of oneself would be rather like calling oneself Fatso, or confessing to a furtive interest in coprophilia. Gayatri Spivak remarks with some justification in this book that a good deal of US post-colonial theory is ‘bogus’, but this gesture is de rigueur when it comes to one post-colonial critic writing about the rest. Besides, for a ‘Third World’ theorist to break this news to her American colleagues is in one sense deeply unwelcome, and in another sense exactly what they want to hear. Nothing is more voguish in guilt-ridden US academia than to point to the inevitable bad faith of one’s position. It is the nearest a Post-Modernist can come to authenticity.

The second rule of this samizdat handbook reads: ‘Be as obscurantist as you can decently get away with.’ Post-colonial theorists are often to be found agonising about the gap between their own intellectual discourse and the natives of whom they speak; but the gap might look rather less awesome if they did not speak a discourse which most intellectuals, too, find unintelligible. You do not need to hail from a shanty town to find a Spivakian metaphorical muddle like ‘many of us are trying to carve out positive negotiations with the epistemic graphing of imperialism’ pretentiously opaque. It is hard to see how anyone can write like this and admire the luminous writings of, say, Freud. Post-colonial theory makes heavy weather of a respect for the Other, but its most immediate Other, the reader, is apparently dispensed from this sensitivity. Radical academics, one might have naively imagined, have a certain political responsibility to ensure that their ideas win an audience outside senior common rooms. In US academia, however, such popularising or plumpes Denken is unlikely to win you much in the way of posh chairs and prestigious awards, so that left-wingers like Spivak, for all their stock-in-trade scorn for academia, can churn out writing far more inaccessible to the public than the literary élitists who so heartily despise them.

It might just be, of course, that the point of a wretched sentence like ‘the in-choate in-fans ab-original para-subject cannot be theorised as functionally completely frozen in a world where teleology is schematised into geo-graphy’ is to subvert the bogus transparency of Western Reason. Or it might be that discussing public matters in this hermetically private idiom is more a symptom of that Reason than a solution to it. Like most questions of style, Spivak’s obscurantism is not just a question of style. Its duff ear for tone and rhythm, its careless way with verbal texture, its theoretical soundbites (‘Derrida has staged the homoeroticity of European philosophy in the left-hand column of Glas’), spring quite as much from the commodified language of the US as they do from some devious attempt to undermine it. A sentence which begins ‘At 26, graphing himself into the seat of Aufhebung, Marx sees the necessity for this critical enterprise’ combines the vocabulary of Hegel with the syntax of Hello! Spivak’s language, lurching as it does from the high-toned to the streetwise, belongs to a culture where there is less and less middle ground between the portentous and the homespun, the rhetorical and the racy. One whiff of irony or humour would prove fatal to its self-regarding solemnity. In the course of this book, Spivak writes with great theoretical brilliance on Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley, Jean Rhys and Mahasweta Devi; but she pays almost no attention to their language, form or style. Like the old-fashioned literary scholarship it despises, the most avant-garde literary theory turns out to be a form of good old-fashioned content analysis.

Spivak rightly sets her face against the left philistines for whom any idea which will not instantly topple the bosses is about as politically useful as algebraic topology. But she is far more reluctant to recognise the seed of truth in their point of view: that radical theory tends to grow unpleasantly narcissistic when deprived of a political outlet. As the semioticians might put it, the theory then comes to stand in metaphorically for what it signifies. Political revolution may have many perils, but failing to concentrate the mind wonderfully is not among them. The endless digressions and self-interruptions of this study, as it meanders from Kant to Krishna, Schiller to Sati, belong, among other places, to a politically directionless Left. More charitable readers will see this garrulous hotch-potch as a strike at the linear narratives of Enlightenment, by one whose gender and ethnicity these violently exclude. If colonial societies endure what Spivak calls ‘a series of interruptions, a repeated tearing of time that cannot be sutured’, much the same is true of her own overstuffed, excessively elliptical prose. She herself, unsurprisingly, reads the book’s broken-backed structure in just this way, as an iconoclastic departure from ‘accepted scholarly or critical practice’. But the ellipses, the heavy-handed jargon, the cavalier assumption that you know what she means, or that if you don’t she doesn’t much care, are as much the overcodings of an academic coterie as a smack in the face for conventional scholarship.

If an abrupt leaping from Jane Eyre to the Asiatic Mode of Production challenges the staider compositional notions of white male scholars, it also has more than a smack of good old American eclecticism about it. In this gaudy, all-licensed supermarket of the mind, any idea can apparently be permutated with any other. What some might call dialectical thinking is for others a pathological inability to stick to the point. The line between post-colonial hybridity and Post-Modern anything-goes-ism is embarrassingly thin. As feminist, deconstructionist, post-Marxist and post-colonialist together, Spivak seems reluctant to be left out of any theoretical game in town. Multiplying one’s options is an admirable theoretical posture, as well as a familiar bit of US market philosophy. For Spivak to impose a coherent narrative on her materials, even if her title spuriously suggests one, would be the sin of teleology, which banishes certain topics just as imperialism sidelines certain peoples. But if cultural theorists these days can bound briskly from allegory to the Internet, in a kind of intellectual version of Attention Deficit Disorder, it is partly because they are free from the inevitably constricting claims of a major political project. Lateral thinking is thus not altogether easy to distinguish from loss of political purpose. Even the books which Spivak has not written cluster like unquiet ghosts within her footnotes, reluctant to be excluded. Indeed, an essay remains to be written on the unpublished writings of Gayatri Spivak, which would take as its subject all those footnotes in which she has announced a work which never actually appeared, or – as here – describes a work that she will not or cannot write.

Spivak’s hankering to say everything at once is not perhaps entirely innocent of a desire to impress; but it is a great deal more than that, just as the obscurity of a theorist’s style can sometimes signal insecurity quite as much as arrogance. The fact is that Spivak has a quite formidable span of reference, which leaves most other cultural theorists looking dismally parochial. Few of them could remotely match the range and versatility of this book, which stretches from Hegelian philosophy and the historical archives of colonial India to Post-Modern culture and international trade. Much post-colonial writing behaves as though the relations between the North and South of the globe were primarily a ‘cultural’ affair, thus allowing literary types to muscle in on rather more weighty matters than insect imagery in the later James. Spivak, by contrast, has a proper scorn for such ‘culturalism’, even if she shares a good many of its assumptions. She does not make the mistake of imagining that an essay on the figure of the woman in A Passage to India is inherently more threatening to the transnational corporations than an inquiry into Thackeray’s use of the semi-colon. The relations between North and South are not primarily about discourse, language or identity but about armaments, commodities, exploitation, migrant labour, debt and drugs; and this study boldly addresses the economic realities which too many post-colonial critics culturalise away. (For some of them these days, any reference to the economic is ipso facto ‘economistic’, just as any allusion to the lungs or kidneys is ‘biologistic’.) If Spivak knows about graphemics, she also knows about the garment industry. It helps, too, that she is among the most coruscatingly intelligent of all contemporary theorists, whose insights can be idiosyncratic but rarely less than original. She has probably done more long-term political good, in pioneering feminist and post-colonial studies within global academia, than almost any of her theoretical colleagues. And like all such grandes maîtresses, she has now to deal with that ultimate source of embarrassment, her devoted acolytes.

She accomplishes this task with rather too much grace. Somebody should write a critique of post-colonial reason, assessing both its achievements and its absurdities, but this book is too well-mannered, as well as too episodic, to be that. If its subtitle is only just intelligible, its title is positively misleading. Spivak is at once the best and worst-placed author to carry out such a project, and her failure to do so is both disappointing and understandable. She is the best-placed because as an immigrant in the West she can spot those conceptual limits which are less obvious to insiders. There is a great deal of timely good sense, if Spivak would forgive the phrase, in pointing out to the more idealist employees of the Western post-colonial industry that nativism is not to be romanticised; that ethnic minorities within metropolitan countries are not the same as colonised peoples; that there is nothing ‘essentialist’ about civic rights; and that for subaltern groups to become institutionalised citizens is an undesirable goal only for card-carrying primitivists. Unlike some of her more starry-eyed colleagues, Spivak does not see the transition from ethnic immigrant to business executive as unequivocal progress, or feel the need to disavow the reality of ‘ethnic entrepreneurs … pimping for the transnationals and selling their women into sweated labour’. She is equally aware that feminists working for ‘gender justice’ in the West are inevitably helping to shore up a social order whose global operations stifle such rights elsewhere.

Yet this withering criticism of the post-colonial Western liberals never quite comes to a head. If Spivak has an uncannily keen nose for Western cant, patronage and hypocrisy, she is notably reluctant to break ranks. In one sense, this is an admirable refusal to indulge in the gamesmanship of those in the know confronted with those who want to be. There is enough futile self-laceration in American academia without Spivak mauling the victim a little further. It is also a brave acknowledgment of her own compromised condition, as an academic superstar who speaks of caste and clitoridectomy. But there is more to her reticence than that. This book takes a few well-deserved smacks at the wilder breed of post-colonialist critics, whose fascination for the Other is in part a demoralised yearning to be absolutely anyone but themselves. But it is also tinged by the bland, anodyne consensus of US academia, where outright conflict is too often muffled by a common ‘professionalism’. Despite its revealing habit of using the word ‘aggressive’ as complimentary, the United States is a culture deeply fearful of contention, which perhaps explains why wrestling, a game which converts real combat into simulated spectacle, is the most popular of its TV sports.

Spivak is the worst-placed of critics to write the book which her title deceptively promises because she is too much the insider, as one of the major architects of the whole post-colonial enterprise in the West. Her fellow architect Edward Said has become increasingly impatient with what they have jointly succeeded in constructing, and in his attractively caustic manner is not averse to saying so; but Spivak is more eirenic than her occasionally embattled prose-style would suggest. Her comment that much in the area is ‘bogus’ is largely an aside. If she rightly distinguishes between ethnic minority and colonised nation, she fails to drive home the point that a good deal of post-colonialism has been a kind of ‘exported’ version of the US’s own grievous ethnic problems, and thus yet another instance of God’s Own Country, one of the most insular on earth, defining the rest of the world in terms of itself. For this exportation to get under way, certain imports known as Third World intellectuals are necessary to act as its agents; yet though Spivak has reason to know this better than most, she never pauses long enough in this book to unpack its implications. To do so would require some systematic critique; but systematic critique is for her more part of the problem than the solution, as it is for all those privileged enough not to stand in need of rigorous knowledge. These individuals used to be known as the gentry, and are nowadays known as post-structuralists. If she can be splendidly scathing about ‘white boys talking post-coloniality’, or the alliance between cultural studies, liberal multiculturalism and transnational capitalism, these wholesome morsels surface only to vanish again into the thick stew of her text.

There is, to be sure, a great deal more to be said for post-colonial studies than that, and Spivak herself says much of it in these pages. Whatever its romantic illusions and secret self-regard, this most rapidly growing sector of literary criticism signals the entry onto the Western cultural stage, for the first time in its history, of those the West has most injured and abused. There can thus be few more important critics of our age than the likes of Spivak, Said and Homi Bhabha, even if two of that trio can be impenetrably opaque. Unlike one of the two Calvary thieves being saved, this is hardly a reasonable percentage. But there are discreditable as well as creditable reasons for the speedy surfacing of post-colonialism, and Spivak remains for the most part silent about them. Its birth, for example, followed in the wake of the defeat, at least for the present, of both class-struggle in Western societies and revolutionary nationalism in the previously colonialised world. American students who, through no fault of their own, would not recognise class-struggle if it perched on the tip of their skateboards, or who might not be so keen on the Third World if some of its inhabitants were killing their fathers and brothers in large numbers, can vicariously fulfil their generously radical impulses by displacing oppression elsewhere. This move leaves them plunged into fashionably Post-Modern gloom about the ‘monolithic’ benightedness of their own social orders. It is as if the depleted, disorientated subject of the consumerist West comes by an extraordinary historical irony to find an image of itself in the wretched of the earth. If ‘margins’ are now much in vogue, it is partly because those who inhabit them clamour for political justice, and partly because a generation bereft of political memory has cynically abandoned all hope for the ‘centre’. Like most US feminism, post-colonialism is a way of being politically radical without necessarily being anti-capitalist, and so is a peculiarly hospitable form of leftism for a ‘post-political’ world. Gayatri Spivak, by contrast, has kept faith, however ambiguously, with the socialist tradition; but though she has a good many striking perceptions about Marxism in this book, she is too deeply invested in feminism and post-colonialism to launch a full-scale socialist critique of these currents. And just as she straddles two worlds here, so her work’s rather tiresome habit of self-theatricalising and self-alluding is the colonial’s ironic self-performance, a satirical stab at scholarly impersonality, and a familiar American cult of personality.

There are some kinds of criticism – Orwell’s would do as an example – which are a good deal more politically radical than their bluffly commonsensical style would suggest. For all his dyspepsia about shockheaded Marxists, not to speak of his apparent willingness to shop Communists to the state, Orwell’s politics are much more far-reaching than his conventionally-minded prose would suggest. With much post-colonial writing, the situation is just the reverse. Its flamboyant theoretical avant-gardism conceals a rather modest political agenda. Where it ventures political proposals at all, which is rare enough, they hardly have the revolutionary élan of its scandalous speculations on desire or the death of Man or the end of History. This is a feature shared by Derrida, Foucault and others like them, who veer between a cult of theoretical ‘madness’ or ‘monstrosity’ and a more restrained, reformist sort of politics, retreating from the one front to the other depending on the direction of the critical fire.

Derrida – a consecrated figure for this book, about whom hardly a breath of criticism seems permissible – can sometimes make deconstruction sound like such an ordinary, affirmative, innocuous sort of affair that one wonders why Christopher Ricks and Denis Donoghue do not instantly rush to embrace it. At other times, and for other audiences, it becomes a far more menacing, subversive matter: nothing less than a radicalised form of Marxism, a claim which must come as a mighty surprise to most deconstructionists and all Marxists. Deconstruction can indeed be a politically destabilising manoeuvre, but devotees like Gayatri Spivak ought to acknowledge its displacing effect, too. Like much cultural theory, it can allow one to speak darkly of subversion while leaving one’s actual politics only slightly to the left of Edward Kennedy’s. For some post-colonial theorists, for example, the concept of emancipation is embarrassingly old-hat. For some American feminists, socialism is as alien a territory as Alpha Centauri.

Gayatri Spivak’s own politics are as elusive as her thought-processes; but there are signs in this study that she, too, is rather more audacious about epistemology than she is about social reconstruction. At times, she will speak positively about the need for new laws, health and education systems, relations of production; at other times, in familiar post-colonial style, her emphasis is less on transformation than on resistance. Resistance suggests militant action, but also implies that the political buck is always elsewhere. It is a convenient doctrine for those who dislike what the system does while doubting that they will ever be strong enough to bring it down. Marxism, for Spivak if not for its founder, is a speculation rather than a programme, and can only have violent consequences if used for ‘predictive social engineering’. Like the thought of strangling your flat-mate, in other words, it is all very well as long as you don’t act on it. The current system of power can be ceaselessly ‘interrupted’, deferred or ‘pushed away’, but to try to get beyond it altogether is the most credulous form of utopianism.

This may well turn out to be true; but it sounds a little too undeconstructively sure of itself as it stands, just as this book assumes (rather than openly argues) the dogmatic Post-Modern case that almost all universalism is reactionary, almost all transgression or disruption positive, and almost all attempts at precise calculation a form of dominative reason. For Spivak, to propose an ‘other’ to what we have at present is to deny one’s inevitable complicity with what we have, and so to leave critics like herself particularly vulnerable. Nobody would imagine that Stanley Fish was not up to his ears in capitalism, not least Stanley Fish; but there are a number of gullible souls in US graduate programmes who might just make the mistake of seeing Gayatri Spivak as some avatar of pure alterity. She herself is rightly out to scotch this sentimentalism, reminding these fans of the Black Female that she is also a highly-paid bourgeoise and the scion of a colonial élite. She would thus rather opt for the bad faith of refusing the system while proposing no general alternative to it, than the bad faith of denying her collusion with it.

Guilt can be just as disabling as arrogance, however. The political good which Spivak has done far outweighs the fact that she leads a well-heeled life in the States. If complicity means living in capitalist society, then just about everyone but Fidel Castro stands accused of it; if it means ‘buying in’ (as the Americans revealingly phrase it) to something called Western Reason, then only those racist or non-dialectical thinkers for whom such reason is uniformly oppressive need worry about it. The word ‘complicit’ has an ominous ring to it, but there is nothing ominous about being ‘complicit’ with the Child Poverty Action Group or the writings of the suffragettes. In any case, Spivak is logically mistaken to suppose that imagining some overall alternative to the current system means claiming to be unblemished by it. To imagine that it would be nice to be in Siena is not necessarily to disavow the fact that I am in Scunthorpe. She contrasts her own critique of metropolitan post-colonial theory with her Indian colleague Aijaz Ahmad’s scorching assault on it in his book In Theory, and describes her own volume as ‘more nuanced with a productive acknowledgment of complicity’. But why exactly should this be thought a virtue, if the result is a less searching account? Ahmad may dissemble his involvement in what he attacks, at least in Spivak’s view, but this does not automatically make for a less accurate portrayal of it. In any case, Ahmad arguably is less ‘complicit’ than Spivak: he has spent far less time teaching in the West, is more explicitly committed to a socialist alternative to it, and far less enamoured of recent Western-bred theories. But it does not really matter: what matters is how well he writes on post-colonial theory, a body of work which you can dismiss in Delhi just as you can support it in Sacramento. The post-structuralist emphasis on ‘subject position’ is oddly akin to the existentialist obsession with authenticity: what matters is less what you say than the fact that you are saying it. Liberalism, rather similarly, tends to believe that what is chosen is less important than the fact that I choose it, and is thus an ethic peculiarly fit for adolescents. But it is post-colonialism we are interested in, not the bad faith or psychic hang-ups of its academic practitioners. Spivak is a resolute anti-intentionalist when it comes to other people’s works, but constantly anecdotal and autobiographical when it comes to her own. If this is an admirable attempt to introduce a spot of subjectivity into the impersonal debates of the patriarchs, it also betrays rather too much concern with one subjectivity in particular.

When it comes to the idea of resistance, one must surely as a stout Derridean take ‘a certain caution, a vigilance, a persistent taking of distance’, to quote Spivak’s own words on a different matter. Quite a few people in the Soviet bloc in the mid-Eighties were convinced that their political system could be resisted but not transformed; but this opinion turned out in the end to be a little too rigid, even if what that system changed into was hardly a just society. One might add that, when the time to sweep away this power structure arrived, collective agency proved not such an essentialising fiction, or precise calculation such a liability, as the post-structuralists seem to imagine.