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An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization

reviewed by Anne Donadey - February 02, 2012

coverTitle: An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization
Author(s): Gayatri C. Spivak
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674051831, Pages: 624, Year: 2012
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This book collection consists of previously published essays by Gayatri Spivak that are loosely organized thematically and chronologically. With the exception of a new preface, introduction, and the chapter “The Stakes of a World Literature,” the essays were first published between 1989 and 2009. Spivak interjects a running contemporary commentary throughout her earlier pieces, highlighting her current pessimism regarding the state of the world in general and higher education in particular. She uses the theme of the double bind as the book’s structuring trope. Her most famous formulation of the double bind remains the one she first articulated over twenty-five years ago in her landmark essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” with respect to the issue of sati (widow burning) in India. In this case, the widows are the subaltern, defined as people who have no access to the circuits of power. Spivak argues that their speech could only be recast and understood through one of two dominant and opposed scripts: on one side, the British colonial ideology that “White men [and white women] are saving brown women from brown men” and on the other side, the nativist Indian ideology that “The women wanted to die” (Spivak, p. 93). The context was so overdetermined that there was no space to interpret women’s words and actions except through the lenses of these two dominant discourses, thus creating a situation of silencing.

In Chapter 7, Spivak asks questions that are central for educators, “What is it to learn?” and “What would it be to learn otherwise?” (p. 164). Her main answer is that the task of the humanities in general and of literary studies/comparative literature in particular is to provide an aesthetic education that entails opening up students’ imagination to the possibility of thinking otherwise. Spivak calls for “the ability to imagine the other side as another human being,” even in a context such as 9/11 and its aftermath (p. 389), something that she acknowledges is extremely difficult to achieve. She insists on the importance of the kinds of critical reading skills that humanities training provides to help us interpret our world’s various ideological systems. It is ultimately a matter of “learn[ing] to learn from below, from the subaltern, rather than only study him (her)” (p. 439). In other words, Spivak’s concept of an aesthetic education connects epistemology/knowledge/learning with ethics, two fields that are traditionally seen as separate since the epistemological seeks “to construct the other as object of knowledge” (p. 374) whereas the ethical strives “to listen to the other” (p. 373). An aesthetic education would ideally produce an “uncoercive rearrangements of desires, through teaching reading” (p. 387), something she contrasts with the goals of religious, nationalistic, or identitarian belief.

Reading this long volume, one is struck by Spivak’s continuing indebtedness to a handful of major thinkers: Kant, Marx, Gramsci, and Derrida. She also provides analyses of a number of literary works by writers from various backgrounds, returning in several chapters to works by Indian authors Rabindranath Tagore and Mahasweta Devi and Algerian writer Assia Djebar, who have all articulated the double bind in various ways. Spivak repeatedly refers to the concept of teleiopoiesis, a term from Derrida that she defines as “a reaching toward the distant other by the patient power of the imagination” (p. 404). This concept has important ethical and pedagogical implications for many fields such as feminist thought and activism, postcolonial studies, and comparative literature, the latter of which brings together texts from various cultures and historical times. Comparative literature provides another example of the double bind, since it purports to “compare and contrast” when it is really about “judging and choosing” (p. 468), “ranking” rather than simply “pairing with” (p. 470). In this context, Spivak also repeatedly highlights that “deep language learning and literary textuality train the ethical reflex” (p. 27). In other words, an ability to truly engage in teleiopoiesis requires a sophisticated knowledge of the original languages and cultural contexts in which a text was written or in which another subject is speaking. Only this deep knowledge can allow us to become successful translators and ethical communicators.

As a counterpoint to this strong vision for the humanities in the world, Spivak repeatedly mentions her current state of hopelessness with respect to her goals due to various reasons: the many leadership problems postcolonial nations face as well as her changed understanding of the situation of indigenous people in India since she began engaging with the work of Mahasweta Devi have made her more pessimistic regarding the status of the subaltern. Our current globalized, privatized society “where the only ethical model is a triumphalist corporate philanthropy matched by a trade-related human rights paradigm and global military policing” (p. 203) has resulted in “the full corporatization of the university” (p. 398) and has created a context in which the humanities, comparative literature, and “deep language learning” are so devalued as to make Spivak feel that her goals have become moot. And yet, in another case of the double bind, she, and we, have no choice but to continue to oppose the closing of foreign language and literature programs because they are seen as being too costly, to continue to insist on the need for all students to have access to a liberal arts education rather than simple professional training, and to keep on working toward full decolonization and women’s liberation.

Reading Spivak is a demanding task, in part because her interdisciplinary and multilingual training means that she masters a dozen areas of study—French theory, Marxist theory, German philosophy, Indian historiography, feminist theory, and theories of comparative literature being the most salient ones—when many of us can only lay claim to a few of these. While her work addresses issues in liberatory teaching, her background as a postcolonial feminist theorist results in a departure from books usually reviewed in this journal in terms of style, thematics, and works cited. Reading and re-reading Spivak is also a deeply rewarding task, because her insights into our world are among the most accurate and sophisticated ones produced by any scholar today. Having such important essays collected in one volume represents a welcome addition to the Spivak corpus.


Spivak, G.C. (1994). Can the Subaltern Speak? In P. Williams and L. Chrisman (Eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: a Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 02, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16683, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 2:17:12 AM

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About the Author
  • Anne Donadey
    San Diego State University
    E-mail Author
    ANNE DONADEY is Professor of French and Women’s Studies and chair of the department of European Studies at San Diego State University. She is the author of a book on Assia Djebar and Leïla Sebbar, Recasting Postcolonialism: Women Writing between Worlds (Heinemann, 2001), co-editor with H. Adlai Murdoch of Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies (University Press of Florida, 2005) and editor of a special issue of L’Esprit créateur on the works of Assia Djebar (Winter 2008). She has also published articles on the current state of feminist literary studies, on anti-racist perspectives in Women’s Studies and French cultural studies, and on the works of various postcolonial feminist writers. Recent articles have appeared in journals such as Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Research in African Literature, and The French Review.
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