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.

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