Gayatri Spivak on privilege etc.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a long time and never got around to it. This is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak speaking at the Gramsci Monument in The Bronx on August 24, 2013. The monument, a grandiose name for a structure built out of 2×4’s and plywood, to the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci was conceived by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschorn as a temporary installation and erected on the grounds of the Forest Houses, a public housing project in the only one of the five boroughs of New York City that’s on the American mainland. The idea is profoundly moving—bringing the ideas and personality of an Italian Marxist imprisoned by Mussolini to a part of the world where revolutionary politics and art can be in short supply. Spivak’s talk was part of a series of events at the monument.


“If one only works to end the misery of the poor, the minorities, the racialized, the gender oppressed…without…looking towards everyone, nothing will last. Nothing will last if a collectivity looks only at itself…. Remember the Occupiers, the Arab Spring. Gramsci’s word here was, and I quote, “political passion even if fiery (“incandescent” in Italian), cannot lead to permanent political structures.”


“Before I started working—this work [teaching among the Indian poor]—I would say, ‘unlearn your privilege.’ I think that’s a remarkably stupid thing to say. Because it’s very narcissistic, you just keep thinking, ‘oh my privilege.’ You cannot unlearn your privilege. It’s a historical thing. History is larger than personal goodwill. After I started working I realized I should use my bloody privilege. First of all, it makes my work suspicious for all the do-gooders. They’d say, ‘oh she’s behaving like a Brahmin upper class.’ Of course I am. I have certain kinds of power. I’m a Columbia professor. I have certain kinds of power. I’m using it….”


“Let’s not forget that identity is involved in the democratic, but if one thinks of what democracy can be, of what citizenship can be, then one must be aware that at the end of the line is a position without identity. It’s abstract, it’s not fuzzy. Fuzzy is identity. Struggle doesn’t always have to begin with identity [as a questioner suggested]. Struggle can also begin with things like class, which is not identity. Class itself is very mobile…. If the other side opposes us by identity, if we begin to believe that we are completely determined by that identity, if we can’t be critical of the bad things within that identity, we are giving into them. That’s why I said democracy has no ethnicity and no gender…. To an extent we can’t live without identity, but the political cannot be led by our identity. It is a cruel master, identity….”

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