Monthly Archives: November 2015

Spivak at RISD

Being part of the URI community means having access to all of the amazing speakers hosted by not only our department but by all of the various foundations and schools throughout the university. In addition to this, our unique location also positions us to take advantage of a community of other universities in the Northeast who host their own speaker events. Thanks to the diligence of the English department, we are kept up to date on these various events that might hold particular interest for those of us in the humanities. It was through one of these emails that I learned that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak would be speaking at RISD, a short drive from URI’s campus.

I had never been to the Rhode Island School of Design (otherwise kno20151119_010302982_iOSwn as RISD), but found it easily enough (after missing the first exit I was supposed to take – Providence roads still confound me). The talk was held in their auditorium and it quickly filled. Initially, I found it curious that Spivak, a postcolonial literary theorist perhaps best known for her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and her introduction and translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, would be speaking at a school of art and design. However, my confusion only demonstrated my own limited view of the humanities and perhaps a too rigid view of departmental borders. Spivak’s talk was part of the Global Forum Series at RISD which seeks to address the global, interconnected world in which RISD graduates’ contributions will  “shape the cultural, social and environmental innovations of future generations” (http://gpp.risd.edu/descriptiongoals/). Spivak’s own academic work in postcolonialism as well as her “philanthropic” work speaks directly to these concerns.

Spivak’s talk focused on epistemological concerns posing an intellectual challenge: is it possible to learn from epistemological machines that have been damaged? From there she raised the distinction between play in the world vs. play of the world utilizing two competing or at least divergent definitions of design—to plan or sketch something artistically and to scheme or contrive—embodied by Jean-Luc Nancy’s recent book The Pleasure in Drawing and a recent post from the Harvard Business School, respectively. Both, she claims, ignore the play of the world. From here she spoke briefly of Derrida’s reading of Rousseau’s critique of supplement that color, as supplement, somehow corrupts design. Rousseau, Spivak highlights, never makes explicit the lack that necessitates supplementation in the first place.

Constrained by time, Spivak was forced to skip over a more detailed discussion of her previous points and ended with a call to the humanities, saying that what we have to ask ourselves is how to people know themselves. She reiterated that often the plan of what one (or a government) seeks to achieve is marked by the absence of questions of what is truly needed and so, while you may accomplish something, it is rarely what you initially intended. For this reason, we must expand the circle of people who can learn from literature.

The faculty question and answer session that accompanied Spivak’s talk was, for me, the most enjoyable part of the forum. Spivak touched on a range of issues, from the concept of teaching from below (accompanied by an extremely entertaining anecdote about an elephant that was terrorizing an African village where she had gone to guest teach an English class to young children) and how to engage with and work with various groups of people, to the advent of artificial intelligence. What resonated most with me was her discussion of her work in rural India. In discussing her work with various charities, she criticizes calling this philanthropy, instead viewing it as a repayment of the historical denial of intellectual resources that, while she herself is not actively engaging in, has occurred for millennia and from which she has benefited.

Attending this event was a wonderful experience. Because of our department’s tireless efforts to make sure we are kept up to date on all of the various resources that exist, not only at URI, I was able to see speak in person a woman whose work I have always found inspiring.

Paranoid Reading: Barber’s Exploration of Psyche and Politics in Woolf and Sedgwick

There wasn’t an inch of space left as Associate Professor Stephen Barber walked into the Hoffmann room in Swan Hall Thursday, November 5, 2015. Sharing salutations with old friends, faculty, and students, Barber received spectators with open arms. As part of the English Department’s Faculty Speaker Series, spectators eagerly awaited the talk “Psyche and Politics: Virginia Woolf’s Final Writings.”

Developing the history of Barber’s pedagogy and interpersonal relationships with students and individuals in general, Ph.D candidate Amy Foley informed the crowd that “no one knows Virginia Woolf like Stephen.” Influenced by the work of Woolf,  Gayatri Spivak, Eve Sedgwick, and Michel Foucault among others, Barber has inspired scholars for over twenty years, writing on these authors with a particular interest in their later works.

Barber revealed that he lived under the same roof as Sedgwick as she composed some of her critical works.  Her essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” he reveals, was dedicated to colleagues of Sedgwick, including himself. In the tradition of genuine scholarship, Barber noted the challenge of reading Sedwick’s late works, in comparison to Woolf’s own struggle reading Freud. Woolf, according to Barber, did not claim to start reading Freud until 1939. Although she “never becomes a Freudian” for Barber, Woolf began to “forge a radical psychology, and gives herself fully to thinking about political agency.”

Political agency was an issue of concern for both Woolf and Sedgwick according to his work; however, Sedgwick’s interest in political agency revolved around paranoia. For Sedgwick, according to Barber, paranoia involves bad news that is always already known. Sedgwick’s notion of paranoia also included the mantra, “anything that you can do to me, I can do worse.”

The paranoid reading became more intense in the late 60s as particular American events such as the Watergate scandal prompted the agenda of conspiracy theories. Barber suggests that when Sedwick encountered D.A. Miller’s “The Novel and The Police” (1989) she had trouble finding connections with the novel through the paranoid mode of reading. The barrier that arose in the encounter with Miller’s work inspired Sedgwick to revisit the hermeneutics of suspicion— the mode of theory that had been dominant prior to her propositions for paranoid and reparative readings.

Cheered by the presence of students, cherished colleagues, and visitors, Barber concludes with the notion that criticism for Sedgwick is still an invasive form of social interpretation. Opening the conversation to a friendly question and answer session, Barber reveals, “Nothing about the book (he is currently completing) is autobiographical.” His interest in Sedgwick, Foucault, and Spivak contributes to his reading of the final work of Woolf, Between the Acts (1941) a text which he believes Woolf uses as a medium to theorize her own reading of Freud. Woolf would not necessarily follow Freud, especially in the boiling down of individual’s affective states (love and hate according to Freud) but this tour de force work established the last prodigious testimony of the author’s philosophical and psychological explorations.