Gayatri Spivak

A critical theorist, postcolonial feminist, and activist, Gayatri Spivak's works have deconstructed the notion of 'truth' as something intrinsically tied to Western philosophy and the legacy of colonialism. It has been Spivak's ambition to put this constructed reality under the microscope, to find out how and why the experiences of people in the Global South - and of women in particular - have so often been excluded from the agenda.

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Table of contents

    Gayatri Spivak: biography

    Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born on February 24th 1942 in Calcutta, India. Spivak has described herself as belonging to the 'first generation of intellectuals after [Indian] independence'1 from the British Empire. In 1959, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Calcutta. Two years later, Spivak relocated to the US to complete both her Master's and PhD in Comparative Literature at Cornell University.

    In 1976, Spivak published her first major academic work, an English translation of Jacques Derrida's De la Grammatologie (Of Grammatology). In the preface to this work, Spivak showcased her ability to deconstruct and criticise the tendency of Western philosophy to exclude the experiences of individuals (particularly women) in the Global South. She was heavily influenced by the deconstructionist movement of the 1960s and 70s, in which Derrida himself played a vital role. The critical essay became the dominant form through which Spivak articulated her ideas, resulting in such collections as In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987) and The Post-Colonial Critic (1990).

    Deconstructionism is an intellectual movement prevalent in twentieth-century philosophy, literature, and social sciences. Its objective was to subvert the binary distinctions believed to be dominant in Western academic texts (subject/object, centre/margin, the Occident/the Orient) and create a less rigid - and more inclusive - form of analysis.

    However, it was in 1985 that Spivak's seminal work, Can the Subaltern Speak? was published. In this essay, Spivak posed the question of whether marginalised women from the Global South are able to represent their own interests. Spivak's arguments (which are examined in more detail below) shocked many, but also laid the groundwork for her postcolonial feminist theory.

    Postcolonial feminism is a branch of feminism that developed as a response to Western feminist movements which focused almost exclusively on the experiences of women in Western countries. It concerns itself with the impacts of colonialism and globalisation on women in the Global South.

    Throughout her life, Spivak has worked at a number of educational institutions across a variety of departments and disciplines. In 1978, she was National Humanities Professor at the University of Chicago; in the same year, she moved to the University of Texas as a professor of English and Comparative Literature. From 1991 until 2006, Spivak was a Member of Faculty in the Humanities department of Columbia University, before becoming University Professor of Humanities in 2007, a role which she still occupies today.

    Since 1986, Spivak has focused a great deal of energy on remedying the vast disparities and inequalities in postcolonial India. She has set up a number of educational programmes which target women living in rural, agricultural communities. In 2012, Spivak was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for her work as both a critical theorist and educator. A year later, she won the Padma Bhushan award, one of the most prestigious awards granted in the Republic of India.

    Gayatri Spivak Padma Bhushan award ribbon StudySmarterFig. 1 - Padma Bhushan award ribbon

    Gayatri Spivak: postcolonial feminism

    If postcolonial feminism is grounded in the idea that Western feminist movements disregard the experience of women in the Global South, how does Spivak's deconstructionist approach fit into this movement?

    As we have seen, Spivak's deconstructionist approach means that a her analysis has been centred on academic language, and how it forms part of the architecture of colonialism. Spivak's particular postcolonial feminist theory is interested in how narratives are created and articulated in this academic language. By relaying these narratives, Western philosophers universalise theories which are not applicable outside of the European context. As a consequence, her postcolonial theory is heavily critical of even the most radical of Western philosophers.

    Identifying herself intellectually as a 'feminist, deconstructionist Marxist', Spivak notes how Marx's analysis of labour is grounded in the Western framework of economics. In disregarding societal distinctions prevalent in the Global South - such as gender roles or the caste system in India - Western philosophy, in Spivak's view, has created conditions in which the voices of individuals outside the West simply cannot be heard, as they are excluded from the discussion.

    Spivak's postcolonial feminist theory is deeply critical of Western philosophy, and even Western feminism. Spivak criticises liberal feminists for universalising the binary distinction between 'public' and 'private' spaces and the idea that women's liberation is achieved through entry into the 'public' domain, occupied by men. For Spivak, this view is problematic, because it frames liberation in terms of one's ability to access labour and accumulate wealth within a capitalist economic system, and has nothing to say about liberation outside of capitalism.

    Furthermore, this distinction between the 'public' and the 'private' is not helpful or applicable to societies such as India, where rigid caste systems and gender inequalities are maintained to subjugate women. As we will see in our discussion of the subaltern, Spivak views this universalisation of Western structures and language as deeply problematic.

    Gayatri Spivak: globalisation

    Another area of interest for Spivak is the phenomenon of globalisation and how this new (constructed) reality impacts the experiences of women in the Global South. With a particular focus on India, Spivak has noted that globalisation, and the narratives built around it, have created a new of form of colonialism which has taken hold of the Global South.

    Globalisation describes the flow of goods, capital, data, technology, and information across the globe. It is associated with the free market, in that it relies on frictionless borders through which commodities can be transported and traded. Political theorists such as Spivak have developed this concept, arguing that cultural practises, knowledge, and ideas have also become part of the globalised market.

    For Spivak, Western theorists' fixation on globalisation as something which primarily affects urban areas - including megacities such as Delhi and Mumbai - has meant that agrarian communities are overlooked as an area of analysis.

    Gayatri Spivak McDonald's in India StudySmarterFig. 2 - A McDonald's restaurant in Delhi, India - the clearest symbol of globalisation available

    In India, 'rural practices, especially at a grassroots level, were shared by women and men equally'2, and therefore they are of great importance to our understanding. Spivak goes on to say that

    Cultural conformity within those [rural] areas shows us patterns where women are not necessarily inferior persons who are not active in what one would call "the public sphere", even if it's not the public sphere as we know it through European and colonial history3

    In this quote, Spivak's asserts that the "public sphere" is a purely European construct, with little relevence to cultures outside of that context. Spivak contests that, in the globalised market of ideas, these cultural understandings are being applied in contexts where they have no meaning. We now begin to see that, by analysing globalisation through a postcolonial feminist lens, Spivak is furthering her arguments against the hegemony of Western discourse.

    One of Spivak's concerns about the narrative of 'global modernisation' is that - by placing patents on historic agricultural techniques and commercialising the processes of formerly sustainable practises - it is universalising the Western economic system of capital accumulation and destroying alternative models and practices from other cultures.

    Gayatri Spivak: subaltern theory

    The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci first used the term 'subaltern' to describe the lower ranks of the Soviet army, as well as other marginalised groups. Through developing the concept of the subaltern, Gramsci explored the argument that the histories of the lower and working classes would always be excluded and disregarded in favour of the histories of the dominant class. It is the history of the 'masters', Gramsci explained, that will always be considered 'official'. The history of the subaltern, however, will remain scattered, undocumented, and obscure.

    The concept of a voiceless, subaltern class, denied access to the narrative of history was, for Spivak, wholly applicable to the postcolonial Indian society she grew up in. Spivak elaborated the theory of the subaltern to show how colonial oppression had fundamentally changed the landscape of India's history, whilst arguing that twentieth-century European philosophy and academia had become the new instrument of Western hegemony.

    Gayatri Spivak: Can the Subaltern Speak?

    Spivak's seminal essay, Can the Subaltern Speak? was published in 1985. In it, Spivak contends that the destruction caused by colonial power fundamentally alters the history of a country. The language of academia in postcolonial societies then reinforces the hegemonic power of Western cultures over those in the developing world, even after empires disappear. Those most deeply affected, the 'subaltern' class, are entirely wiped out from the landscape of history and therefore remain voiceless and oppressed.

    She concludes that the subaltern class will never be able to recover their voice and that the only solution is for them to be represented through a new, more inclusive narrative. This view sparked controversy within postcolonial academia. So, how was it reached?

    Critique of Western Philosophy

    In this essay, Spivak criticises Western philosophy for committing 'epistemic violence' by insisting on applying Western analytical frameworks to societies outside the West. Spivak contends that, just as centuries of colonial rule in nations such as India had excluded the subaltern classes from participation in society, the same process is being repeated but through academic discourse. The ideas of post-modern philosophers, such as Foucault and Deleuze, constructed a sense of Europe as the centre from which all ideas flow.

    Their insistence on applying economic theories relevant to developed nations on countries in the Global South, Spivak contended, perpetuated European hegemony.

    Epistemology is the study of knowledge or knowing. Epistemology attempts to understand how knowledge is constructed, disseminated, and received.

    Symbolism of Sati

    The historic practice of sati in India involved widows being burnt alive on the same funeral pyre as their husbands' bodies. Outlawed in 1829, at the height of British Colonial rule, Spivak contends that this entrenched the narrative of the 'civilised' West and the 'barbaric other'. Without any involvement from those affected, the subaltern class, the narrative constructed here was one where 'white men saved brown women from brown men'. Thus, the history of sati was developed into a projection of the colonisers as 'saviours' and the subaltern classes as the 'subjects' of this salvation.

    Gayatri Spivak - Key takeaways

      • Gayatri Spivak is a famous scholar, theorist and postcolonial feminist who was born in Calcutta, India.

      • Spivak's particular brand of postcolonial feminism was heavily influenced by the deconstructionist theory of the twentieth century philosopher Jacques Derrida.

      • Spivak's works analyse the narratives through which history becomes 'official' or 'true', even though it excludes the voices of the marginalsied, including women.

      • For Spivak, those histories which are recognised as 'official' are always Western or European, and she is critical of Western philosophers for perpetuating this reality through their Eurocentric works

      • Spivak frames globalisation as detrimental to women in the Global South, particularly in rural areas.

      • She is heavily critical of Liberal Feminism for framing the oppression of women in an entirely Western, capitalist context.

      • Subaltern theory was first developed by Antonio Gramsci

      • Her seminal work, the critical essay Can the Subaltern Speak?, was published in 1985.

      • In this work, Spivak develops the concept of the subaltern in postcolonial India and argues that western academic, scientific and philosophical discourse and language has become the new medium through which colonialism is implemented.

      • She is critical of Western philosophers such as Foucault and uses the example of sati to demonstrate how colonial histories are presented as true and authoritative.


    1. Alfred Arteaga. “Bonding in Difference.” The Spivak Reader, (1995), pp. 15-29.
    2. Jenny Sharpe and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 'A Conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Politics and the Imagination', Signs Vol. 28 No.2, (Winter 2003), pp. 609-624.
    3. Ibid.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Gayatri Spivak

    What does Spivak mean by subaltern?

    Subaltern is a term first put forward by Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, to describe the lower ranks of the Soviet Army. For Spivak, the subaltern class are those in the developing world who are voiceless and excluded from the mainstream narrative of history

    What is Gayatri Spivak main focus?

    Spivak’s main focus in her work is deconstructing the ways in which Western and liberal scholarship approach and explore the narratives of those in the developing world

    What is the theory of Gayatri Spivak? 

    Spivak's theories have been heavily influenced by the works of twentieth century deconstructionist philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida. Spivak's theory is centred on the notion that Western philosophy is the new language of imperialism, as it frames all problematics with the Western world at the centre

    What is Gayatri Spivak's biography?

    Born in Calcutta in 1942, Spivak completed her undergraduate at the University of Calcutta before relocating to the US to complete her masters and Ph.D at Cornell University. Since then, she has been a prolific academic writer and lectured across subjects within the Arts and Humanities. She is currently the University Professor of Humanities at Columbia University

    What is subaltern feminism? 

    Subaltern feminism is a movement within feminism which aims to give a voice to women who are subjugated and disenfranchised in the developing world. Its focus on women in the Global South.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In what area does Spivak contend that the impact of globalisation is felt the most?

    Which of these is a criticism Spivak applies to Liberal Feminism?

    Who originally developed subaltern theory?


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