Can There Be a Feminist World?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

The following is the lightly edited text of a lecture delivered on November 16, 2013, at the Columbia University Global Center in Amman, Jordan.




I am pleased to be here at the Columbia Global Center in Amman. I lunched with the Vice President for Global Centers three days ago and told him, only half in jest, that I was going to enjoy Amman more without him. I explained that I wanted to make new friends here, rather than be guided affectionately by him, by now an old friend.

Yet my experience in Jordan is not quite new. In the fall of 1980, I taught for three weeks at the Women’s Section of the University of Riyadh. There were students from all over the area, and some of them were from Jordan. Those young women would be in their 50s now. I do not expect anybody from that group to be here today. Yet among my dearest memories from that outstanding experience are our conversations in the free periods on the rooftop behind the water tank, agitated and real, where we tossed around in urgent whispers the question raised for you today: not just can, but how can there be a feminist world? Some of my dearest interlocutors were the young women from Jordan. Tonight I continue that earlier conversation, and I can only imagine the difference between those conversations and today’s conversations.

(Between then and now, I have delightedly encountered one of those allies from the water tank! Moneera Al-Ghadeer, colleague, author of Desert Voices: Bedouin Women’s Poetry in Saudi Arabia.)

And yet, for many women in our shared world, have things changed?

I am a teacher of the humanities. I do not directly influence state policy. Humanities teachers are like personal trainers in the gym of the mind. They believe that unless this work is done at the same time as agitating for merely legal change, generation after generation, persistently, supplemented by rearranging the desires of people, nothing can succeed. In the long run, if laws have to be constantly enforced on the majority, without any change in how people really think about rape, honor killings, gender discrimination in general—and I mean people, men and women—the laws become useless, ways of dodging them proliferate, and force takes over; not a feminist world. Short-term problem solving should not be stopped. There are too many problems. But the kind of work we do, silent work, quiet work, slow work, is the work that sustains everything. “Public awareness” preaches to the choir, at best makes the choir a bit larger. “Sustainable” is used only in the economic/ecologic sphere. We humanities teachers can be the sustainers, because generation after generation, we can produce the will to sustain. We can work toward being the long-term producers of problem solvers. We do not solve problems top-down, 24/7, with little result.

I learned to think this way during those deeply agitated conversations with those young women, behind the water tank on the rooftop, in 1980. I myself am from the world’s largest democracy, with huge numbers of rural poor. I have engaged myself actively there doing the kind of persistent work I have outlined; and that work continues at Columbia. In order to say something useful here in Amman, I would have to know the dynamics of social stratification thoroughly. Since I do not have that knowledge, let me just say that the solution that I am going to talk about here will be a one-size-fits-all general solution, the humanities in general: ceaseless uncoercive rearrangement of desires, which must keep supplementing all the quick-fix leadership talk.

A leader is one who knows how to follow. Under Safwan Masri’s leadership, we see this at work. As a leader, he has followed our suggestion that a global university should also involve its global centers in the central mandate of a university: learning and teaching. Not just top-down philanthropy. Indeed, my being here is the result of this. He knows well that I am bent on this kind of nonglamorous, persistent, generation-by-generation teaching—it is my 50th year of full-time university teaching in the United States—including those three weeks in Riyadh—and my 30th year of elementary school teaching and teacher training among the landless illiterate in India. This has taught me that you do not achieve social change by only changing the laws. It is good to change the laws. I am myself involved with that. Changing the laws, however, is not the same thing as teaching the general public to will the law, to want the law. As long as the law is predicated on enforcement, it is the same world, perhaps superficially changed, always observed, precarious, ready to revert any moment.

Humanities teachers are like personal trainers in the gym of the mind.

My work stands, then, in a spectrum, from theory through the teaching of theory in the West and the elite schools of the world, into the practice of activism. I am not interested in the activism of literacy. When we send our children to school, we do not send them to learn literacy. I do not have different standards. My standards are the same at Columbia University and my rural schools. The Human Development Index, in order to measure a country’s development, asks for quantity: how many years of schooling. When the team that put the Index together look for their own children, they look for quality. As long as there is this difference between human beings, we will not have a just world. Superficial activists located in the international civil society make much of access to education. They do not have the time, patience, or yet preparation to realize that the wretched quality of education in the bottom layers of society, even when available to women, does not change internalized core values—rape and bribe as normal. (In fact, quality education without slow humanities training also does nothing much to change this. We will remember this as I go on with my words this evening.)

However impractical it might seem, I believe that for general long-term thinking in this area it is right to assume that there is the possibility of goodwill in women and men today, generally in the educated middle class, but not only, to wish for their children a future world where regulations will be socially just. (In the Jordan that I have seen, admittedly without reference to the dynamics of sociopolitical stratification, this assumption seems quite possible, because of the enlightened sphere and the general level of education, women’s involvement in feminism, and the sphere of the legal. The point I am making is that we have to believe this for the rest of the world as well. Otherwise there is no going forward.) Now, as to whether people can imagine what that is is a different issue. Everywhere there are some vestiges of what I call “feudal benevolence” in the ethical section of the upper class and the motivated middle class. (The World Social Forum, when it comes to the global front, generally relates to such benevolent “feudal” folks, thinking that they are the ethnic heart of the Global South.) The task of the humanities is to teach literature and philosophy in such a way that people will be able to imagine what a socially just world should be. On the other hand, I think we should start from the assumption that they can. That is why the work of cooking the soul does not end.

For this brief talk, I broke my theory down into three. Theory by itself, which I outline above, psycho-analytico-social and ethico-political. Simply put, psychoanalysis deals, among other things, with ourselves before we become reasonable. When a child begins to develop a sense of self, “drives” in the mind are programmed to set it up. In the English of the Standard Edition of Freud, “drive” [der Trieb] is translated “instinct,” certainly a possible translation, but it misses Freud’s point. Like many neurophysicians today, and German classical philosophers since Immanuel Kant, Freud imagines the mind as also a machine, within which these drives begin to work before the time a baby has actually developed a sense of self. Psychoanalysis suggests that in this work, drives placed in the mind-machine, but not accessible to the child, relate the mind-machine to the openings in the body. The child gets a sense of the body in terms of its openings to the world, including eyes and ears and the reproductive apparatus, to give it a sense of a bordered whole that is our bodies and our selves. So we are wholes, but we are also bordered with permeable borders with the outside world. That is the first sense of what I am as the play of life begins.

Now I want to move on to a general word on gender. Gender is the tacit globalizer of the world before the globe could be thought by cartographers. Gendering embraces everyone. Both capitalists and communists are children of mothers. Being-gendered is bigger than our beliefs. And the psychoanalytic insight is that being-human begins with the coming-into-life of the bordered, gendered body. The female body is felt as permeable by the male. It is seen as permeable in perhaps the most basic gesture of violence. Yet, as the pathway to children, it is also in the benign service of humanity itself.

To assure respect for such a female body (and indeed also such a male), the short-term work is law. The long-term work is of imagining the borderlessness that attends to borders. To be borderless is also a pleasure for the female. We cannot deny this pleasure as we are working toward a feminist world, and I do not know what to say to this audience when I am also thinking of the queer. So it is attending to borderlessness rather than simply respecting it that is our first gender lesson. As you must know, there have been terrible rapes in India (in the rest of the world also, of course, but I am speaking here of what happened in my country), and there is a great deal of outrage in response. Yet it is not just a gender problem. Because there is such a class difference in education all over the world, rote teaching, learning prepared answers to prepared questions, the enforcers of the law, the lower ranks of the urban and rural police, cannot escape internalized rape culture and bribe culture, and this situation is feared and accepted by most women. The idea of attending to borders habitually rather than merely respecting them is thus difficult to teach. And, at the baseline of gendering, we enter the space of the incalculable, because part of this is worked into us before we become rational beings.

Gender is the tacit globalizer of the world before the globe could be thought by cartographers.

One of the things that needs to be done for the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 20 years after its adoption at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, is to take every woman’s suffering and assign it to a slot in that platform. If, however, we think that this is going to lead to a just world, we are wrong. That slotting is for the convenience of necessary and short-term problem solving. But even violence can be desired when we are in the arena of the incalculable. Attending to borders is a complex thing, as incalculable as life and death, subject to teaching that touches the spirit, rather than mere legal action, or tabulation for convenience.

These theoretical speculations, relating to the outlines of human beings, can translate into the collective history of the world, by way of the understanding that gender is not only the first tacit globalizer, but also our first instrument of abstraction.

We are used to thinking that gender is the most concrete. But it is also the collective first instrument of abstraction. If you are working with information technology, you know that an entire system of meaningfulness is created with a plus and a minus. The plus and the minus that was immediately perceptible to human beings, long before the digital age, is sexual difference. It is in terms of that plus and that minus that the sacred and the profane arranged themselves into social values. Gender was thus our first instrument of abstraction, at the base of the formation of every society as a system of internalized rules.

I am not talking here only theoretically. I am not taking this only historically, either: as a story about how something named feminism emerges in the Northwest European 18th century. I am asking us to remember this story, before theory and history: the idea of the bordered body as the first perception of the self in the gendered infant, leading on to the idea that it is with that perceived difference that culture, another name for deep-social meaning making systems, is created.

By contrast, what we recognize as the social tells us that the gender division of labor and inequality of rights, which the deep-social may tell us is natural, are in fact socially constructed. And therefore in our day, all over the world, the focus is on equality of rights, and in many areas of Asia, for communal gender equality. This is a tremendously good struggle, but it is necessarily centered on justified self-interest. I am not against this. But as someone who works for a just world, a personal trainer of the rearrangement of desires, I have to accept that this work is based on our self-interest, however justified, and try to push beyond. However against common sense or counterintuitive it might seem, those of us with a humanities focus, thinking of the long term, must remind ourselves that beyond the enforcement of the law is the creation of a society where the law becomes equal to a general social will. Our question today—“How can there be a feminist world?”—relates to the difficult and persistent effort of the establishment of this general will. And this is why the education that I do at both ends is to produce intuitions of democracy, not single-issue feminism alone.

I am either dealing with self-infantilized adult US students who think their world is the world, or with teachers and children who are so poor that they too cannot think of a world unlike their own. At both ends, it is the intuitions of democracy that must come through the philosophy of education. Anyone who is a parent here knows this. Talking at them is not going to change their minds. Therefore, a set of contradictions operates at each end: at the top, not claiming too much for ourselves yet seeing the way forward even as we learn to acknowledge complicity; at the bottom, combining the absence of competition with class struggle, equality for all combined with affirmative preference for the young girls, and female teachers. Contradictions will inhabit humanities work if you realize that work only for self-interest, however justified, is not going to create a just world in the long run.

Justified self-interest for groups at risk is the secret of human rights work, and that important struggle must go on. Yet the personal trainer for the gym of the mind, productive of future collectivities, must be mindful that such work will not produce a just world in the long run.

Changing the laws is not the same thing as teaching the general public to will the law, to want the law.

Democracy is not just “me,” it is not just “autonomy,” it is also other people. And equality is not sameness. The question of rights concerns both gender and class, women, servants, workers, those from whom duties have been expected by suggesting once again that it is natural or divinely decreed that it be so. I come from a country with a caste system. There again, changing the law is very good, but try working in the villages, because on the ground, even my students and teachers with whom I labor think that I have some kind of private connection to divinity because I am “upper caste.” We have done more harm to our people than colonialism. That complicity is something to think about in Africa, in India. I have nothing against Western feminism. After 54 years in the United States, I share in dominant feminism, international civil society feminism.

Whatever we call ourselves in terms of national origin, we must remember that the problem is gender and class. And within class there is still homophobia, heterosexual violence, rape culture, bribe culture. We must remember that much of this comes because of class apartheid in education. Building school buildings, donating textbooks, free education, does not mean much without human commitment to quality. And that work is as focused as teaching at a university in the United States. You do not teach at all the universities in the United States, do you? Therefore, this kind of focus is required. It is more difficult. If you are going to attend to quality among the very poor, below a certain class level, it is not money you need, it is time and skill. Fundraising is not education.

As a feminist, I am not ignoring the possibility of affection between men and women. But this affection, unintended consequence of social bonds, is transformed into the iron law of legitimacy, and becomes a cruel imposition upon the freedom of women’s spirit. Given the powerful work of feminist legal activists, I will say very little here, except once again to emphasize the importance, in this area also, of humanities-style education, imaginative training, the involvement with rearranging desires rather than consciousness raising or public awareness.

Education is not consciousness-raising. It is not public awareness. It is a change in how one wills. This is our long-term goal as concerns women, women given the preparation to will freedom, across class and gender, across nation and war, even as the shorter-term work of protection and keeping the peace necessarily goes on.

Now we come to the third point related to theory: the ethical and the political. The ethical is not just the moral, “Do the right thing.” Ethics are unconditional. Morality, operating by rational choice, is fine. Yet, unless we learn to engage in the impractical and powerful call of unconditional ethics, nothing will last. There is no doubt about that at all, because democracy is about everyone, not just for the nice self-selected moral entrepreneurs of international civil society. No social contract is self-selected. When we think of the ethical in a human being in general, we think of being directed toward the other rather than toward the self. It is not necessarily always doing good. This requires training. Because we are generally focused on saving ourselves, as we should be.

This creates a particular problem for us, as concerned women, because women in the underclass, as I said before, are socially obliged to care for others. Socially obliged. In the ethical, therefore, we have to learn to work within this contradiction. When we work with homeworkers, sweated labor inside the home without any workplace regulation at all, sometimes the women themselves say: we are supposed to do all the work at home anyway, and here we are getting paid for it, so what’s your problem? This is the kind of contradiction—women willing their subjection as ethical—within which you have to work. If ethics is other-directedness, because women and servants have always been obliged to be directed toward others, we are obliged to work within this contradiction and take this practice away from cultural requirements into training for what I will call, in this brief talk, the literary—not literature, because what I am talking about is not identical with what is recognized as literature, which came into being, in terms of history, very recently, and which is also specific to certain areas of the world. What we define as the literary is that of which the reading, making sense, is for its own sake, necessarily requiring that you suspend yourself in what the writer or the speaker says, rather than using it for self-interest. This is classroom teaching in literature. In any kind of classroom teaching in literature, you know that the teacher who teaches you how to read what the writer means, rather than making the writer’s text resemble what you yourself think, is teaching the literary. This is real literary teaching. This so-called training in reading is a practice of moving away from your self-interest into the other’s interest. It is just training for unconditional ethics; it does not make you ethical. It is like going to the gym and training your body, which does not necessarily make you an athlete; but without it, you will not be able to do anything. It is training. So always “me,” “my rights,” and so forth is not going to produce a just world.

Education is not consciousness-raising. it is not public awareness. It is a change in how one wills.

If at the bottom there is no training for intellectual labor because we have denied the right to intellectual labor, from within the caste/race/class/gender/colonial system, millennially, we have punished them for intellectual labor and trained them for nothing but obedience; then, at the top, intellectual labor is no longer understood or undertaken because of this untrained use of the digital, of so-called social media. I am not a technophobe, but the digital is like a powerful wild horse, you have to have a slow-trained mind, in order to use it properly.

I am not against social media. I am not against any civil society worker. To be against is to deny complicity. I am so much for the digital that I think people need to prepare for it. Otherwise cybercrime, pornography. The New York Times reported that top Silicon Valley executives send their children to schools where there is no computer training. Why do they do that? Because they best of all know, they understand, that you cannot use this incredibly powerful and dangerous instrument with minds that are untrained.

Literary reading and philosophizing gives you practice in moving away from self-interest and going into others’ interests. This is ethical practice. When servants and women have to work out constantly what the masters think, this is in fact a travesty or degradation of the ethical thing, required social obligation. It is within this profound social contradiction that we must work, so that so-called “free women” and indeed “free men” do not become completely self-interested. In the political, also, this contradiction is firmly present. If democracy is based only on my own rights, it is not democracy. Democracy is not just about us, it is also about others. The idea of democracy is based on the possibility of minorities. This contradiction is what makes it so hard. Democracy is a hard thing to work with, and I think we should try to translate this word—small d, not the Greek name for a certain kind of constitution—into many languages of the world to see what the difference is between several cultures, between Democracy as a Euro-style system of government, and democracy, which is caring about other people’s children as your own, irrespective of race-class-gender, if you like, moving desires so that human beings, wherever placed, are capable of thinking of a world that is not self-interest and/or feudal benevolence.

I belong to the middle class, and I was born in 1942 in Calcutta, where and when the middle class had servants. Being humane and kind to servants is not a just world; it is feudal benevolence. The idea of democracy is where you think about other people not as things, but as equal. That is different from feudal benevolence, which is a lot present both here, in my world, and in the rest of the world, transforming itself now to long-distance remote-control top-down philanthropy. There is no systemic instrument of social justice any more. In the 1980s, when I worked in Algeria, I would ask women in the so-called “socialist villages”: “What is it to vote?” The answers made it clear to me that voting had something to do with insights that the postcolonial state belongs to citizens, females and males. And then in 1991, after the Islamic Salvation Front came to power by democratic procedure in Algeria, I also saw the massive involvement of chador-wearing office-cleaning women, altogether underreported, in overturning an elected government, and the rest is history. Since 1986, my involvement with the landless illiterate, in the country of my citizenship, and of my first language because you can only teach in a language you know well, has made me realize that the question we asked—“What is it to vote?”—is the presupposition for developing democratic intuition rather than only a test.

I come now to my very last point. Activism. I wrote it down in four points. One, work. Two, labor-movement work necessarily involving women. Three, ecological work. Four, theory and practice.

One. This is very different from Doctors Without Borders, who come in when there is a problem. They are wonderful people, but let me tell you a story. In 1991, there was a huge and destructive cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. I traveled to the area in a trawler with food aid from the EU. Over the ice-like, slippery mud came running perhaps 20 Bangladeshi women, because they had heard that there were women on the trawler who spoke Bengali, saying: “We do not want to be saved, they are treating us like animals.” Who was treating them like animals? Doctors Without Borders. Why? Because the local interpreters from Bengali to English, in that crowd, have nothing but contempt for these women. So whatever they were saying to the doctors was not what the women were saying. Public health Euro-US institutions get million-dollar grants, and some of it is earmarked for translation, but one never thinks of the possibility of gender [contempt] and class contempt at the grass roots on the part of those who have access to the imperial languages. Paramedical work is different, because you have to know the language. I began my activism in the early ’80s in Bangladesh. Trying to transform the life habits of the rural poor, in order to save women from unwanted pregnancies, and stop infant mortality, and to provide good food habits, inoculation habits. Here I began to understand how much society depended upon their definition of women as the foundation. I call this “the training of the imagination of the rural underclass for epistemological performance”; in other words, constructing yourself differently. That is the “literary-philosophical” as I have described above.

The idea of democracy is based on the possibility of minorities. This contradiction is what makes it so hard.

I have no husband, no children. I am 73 years old. Not only in my country but in most places, the world is divided into childed and unchilded people, and to be such as me is considered to be a real misfortune. But my mother trained me, trained my imagination, in such a way that I think of it as freedom. I truly think of it as freedom. That is imaginative training in epistemological performance. The mother thinks honor; the daughter thinks reproductive rights. That is epistemological performance. Marx, in the only book that he wrote, Capital, volume 1, asked the working class to think of themselves not as victims of capitalism but as agents of production. Epistemological performance. Imaginative training for epistemological performance; that is something that was happening, for me as well, when I was traveling with the rural paramedics. That was my first training in activism.

Believe me, I was talking to these women, in their dialect, as if I were Muslim, acknowledging that even the very poor, the uneducated, have imagination. If you relate to them in the feudal version of love, top-down philanthropy, there is no solution, they know how to deal with that: automatic and effusive agreement followed by automatic forgetting. Why trust the ruling class, even when it smiles? As I have said, the task is to produce solvers of problems, not only solve problems.

To move to the labor movement in Bangladesh involves the permanent casuals, generally women, in the computer assembly works, in the textile industry, in international subcontracting, and in the extension of micro-credit without imaginative training. I think micro-credit works sometimes; I am not against it. But far and wide, what did Women’s World Banking say when they were talking to new graduates at the Columbia Law School, not necessarily feminists? That it was a vast, untapped commercial sector. Why did the Grameen Bank first begin to lend to women? Because women’s record for repayment was 93%. This internalized gendering is something that has not gone away.

Women with little or no imaginative preparation do not deal well with income. I have to leave that statement hanging, with nothing more than a warning against positive responses in photo ops, or the manufacturing of statistics. If you spend time with me we can discuss these points.

The work I am describing can be called supplementing vanguardism. In any group, there will be two or three people who do all the work. If you have done any activism, or not even that, committee work, any work, you will realize that it always takes two or three people to actually get the work done and so they in fact do all the work. This is the vanguard. Most of the time the vanguard goes on to constitute itself as a Steering Committee. They begin to become more and more famous and get more and more prizes and awards. They begin to delegate and it becomes a classed endeavor: empowerment work, leadership work, micro-credit, consciousness-raising, backed by corporate fundraising.

If this structure is not persistently and forever supplemented by people doing the unglamorous slow work of producing problem solvers rather than having a vanguard constantly solving problems, we cannot imagine a just world, where feminism is the anchor of justice, because gender is global, and gender is the primary instrument of abstraction. You cannot do it globally, from the top. It is a collectivity we must produce, not through interpreters. This is the sustaining policy preceding and following the global, embracing the global.

In conclusion, a summary: because I work in high theory in a very elite school, teaching this material to students, and also at the other end, teaching and training the very poor, trying to learn from below, because they are very different from us, the landless illiterate in the world’s largest democracy, I am learning to share my experience at both ends in terms of a gender-just world. My theory is therefore one of supplementing, wherever one’s own sphere of interest is universalized. I base social theory on gender. I say that ethical theory, a theory of unconditional ethics, can be practically taught through the literary-philosophical. I base political intervention on a performative contradiction that must presuppose what it wants to achieve. Supplementing work is persistent, I say, and define activism as imaginative training for epistemological performance; in labor movement work, ecological work, among the poor. The thing dearest to my heart is teaching the intuitions of democracy through an understanding of the meaning of the right to intellectual labor, on top as well as below. Thank you for your attention. Flesh it out for your own world.


©Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak