Regaining the revolutionary power of education: Alisha Heinemann on Gayatri SpivakPublished:
In this dialogue with the past, Alisha Heinemann, Professor of Education at Bremen University, discusses the insights and importance of postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak across the educational divides.
In what ways has Gayatri Spivak influenced your work and thinking?
Being one of the most important postcolonial theorists next to Homi K. Bhabha and Edward Said, Spivak crosses many disciplinary borders between educational and social science, history, philosophy, gender studies, language, and literature studies.
She is best known for her essay Can the Subaltern Speak? (1988), which explores the silencing of marginalised individuals and groups in colonial and postcolonial contexts.
She has influenced me in many ways, not least because she is one of the few professors I know who manages to put what she writes about into practice in her own life and work.
In my current co-edited volume with Prof. Yalız Akbaba on Decolonising Education – Theoretical Debates and Practice-Oriented Impulses, we try to apply Spivak’s ideas, but also those of other important voices in the post- and decolonial discourse, to the German discourse on education.
Gayatri Spivak is an infamous figure, and she comes with explosive ideas. Beyond her contribution to the world of ideas, it is her vigilance and self-critique which I admire her for.
Even though she is often accused of behaving like a diva, of being arrogant and detached, there are few academics in her league who are so consistent in their self-critique and openness for discussing their positions.
What does Spivak mean by working at ‘both ends of the spectrum’?
For Spivak, it is essential to educate both the global elite and the socially, politically, and economically marginalised groups, known as the ‘subaltern’.
The education of the subaltern is intended to empower them to actively participate in civil society, whereas the education of the privileged focuses on dismantling their inherent arrogance and sanctioned ignorance.
As mentioned above, this is not only a theoretical approach for Spivak but is embedded in her praxis. Spivak, now 81, when she is not giving lectures in the academic space, ‘educates the educators’ of the subaltern in the rural areas and invests her private money in Indian elementary schools.
Gayatri Spivak is an infamous figure, and she comes with explosive ideas.
One of the central aims of hers is the process of ‘un-learning’ our privilege. She writes about the ‘instant soup syndrome’, where individuals tend to ignore the power dynamics behind the soup’s production. We just added the water, right?
Spivak calls upon the privileged individuals in the Global North, however disadvantaged they might be themselves, to still reflect on their given (ready-made) privileges.
Moreover, on the other side of the spectrum, she emphasises that it is important not to wipe out the voices of the subaltern. This means not speaking for them, yet at the same time not leaving them alone in a situation where they are not able to represent themselves.
Until these restrictive conditions change, until the subaltern are no longer subaltern, politically engaged postcolonial intellectuals have an ethical responsibility that they cannot renounce hiding behind the idea that the ‘masses can speak for themselves’. They must therefore tackle the ambivalent work of representation rather than resigning from it.
And where does adult education fit into this?
Spivak is always attempting to re-think adult education as a tool for change. She is continuously looking for a concept of education that is ‘not instrumental in the neoliberal capitalist sense’. A concept of education that makes it possible to break the lines of reality, to think utopian, and to invent yourself new.
Yet adult education is increasingly succumbing to the demands of the labour market, and as a result, non-functional offers in continuing education are becoming rare.
Spivak is always attempting to re-think adult education as a tool for change.
If we take as an example the German Second Language classroom, where participants are adult migrants primarily from the Global South, we fail to seize a significant opportunity.
The teaching goes in one direction only. And the dominant group also doesn’t get the chance to develop, to un-learn their privileges, and to ‘learn from below’.
Adult education cannot be part of a counter-hegemonic movement if the teachers themselves are not reflective about the tangled and intricate situation in which they live and teach.
Gayatri Spivak is not a household name in the field of higher and further education. Why do you think this is?
Despite her work seeming at home with the frequently quoted critical pedagogies of Paulo Freire, bell hooks and Henry Giroux, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s work has found very little reception in this field so far.
Her writing style may be an obstacle. Her prose was once described as ‘overstuffed, excessively elliptical (…) a smack in the face for conventional scholarship’. Although Judith Butler came to her defence and replied, that her ‘complex language’ has reached ‘tens of thousands of activists and scholars’.
Spivak herself, defending accusations of being obscure and opaque in writing, states: ‘We know plain prose cheats’.
But it is important to keep in mind that she has taught and worked in a country where the norm to belong in society and academia required, and still requires to an extent, being an Anglo-Saxon, White, male, Christian native speaker.
It is in these spaces, where again and again, she has to deal with interpellations reducing her to the ‘marginalised woman of colour’. And yet simultaneously, she has had to continuously deal with accusations of being part of elite academic institutions.
Throughout all of this, she has been painfully scrupulous by naming her privileges repeatedly so as not to be mistaken by anyone as a person representing the margins.
Spivak identifies deeply with her role as an educator and as a teacher. If we want education to regain some of its revolutionary power, Spivak can be a precious part of those voices who lead us along this track.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, born in 1942, is a renowned postcolonial theorist and feminist scholar. Her engagement and impact extend from prestigious US universities to rural Indian schools. Her influential concepts, exemplified by her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, have profoundly transformed cultural studies and critical theory.
Alisha M. B. Heinemann holds the position of Professor of Education at the University of Bremen in Germany. She has conducted extensive research on the intersection of migration, education, social justice, and critical pedagogy. Her publications delve into the complexities of pedagogical approaches in power-hierarchical settings.