Key Thinker: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Key thinker: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1942–)

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1944-)


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born in Calcutta, India. Spivak earned a BA in English from Presidency College in Calcutta in 1959, before moving to Cambridge and Cornell University to complete her PhD (1967) ( In the following years, Spivak taught English and comparative literature at universities across the world, including Iowa, Brown, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, Riyadh University, Goethe University Frankfurt, and Columbia University in New York. In 2007, Spivak was appointed Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, where she still teaches today ( Spivak is a founding member of the Columbia Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, a research centre which aims to expand the discipline of comparative literature by providing training in non-European languages and cultures ( She also holds a Professorship at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.


Spivak is considered one of the leading voices of post-colonial studies (see Key Concept: Postcolonialism), not least due to her association with the Subaltern Studies Group (see 24.2.2. Subaltern Studies), a collective of South Asian scholars founded by Ranajit Guha (see Key Thinker: Ranajit Guha in Chapter 37 on Dipesh Chakrabarty) whose pioneering work on histories from below shaped the discipline. Inspired by Gramscian Marxism (see 9.3.1. Key thinker: Gramsci in Chapter 9 on Rousseau), the SSG studied how peasant consciousness reflects material conditions and reveals possibilities for anti-capitalist resistance in South Asia.

Spivak is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking 1988 essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, which used a Subaltern studies approach to question why subalterns have systematically been silenced in colonial and anti-colonial discourses (see 24.2.1. Representation). For Spivak, as for Gramsci, subalternity is a subject position which is produced through economic, social, political, and cultural oppression (see 24.2. Subalternity). Because subaltern resistance to domination does not take place within the framework of organized working-class struggle such as unions, for example, their dissident political practices are often dismissed or ignored.

Spivak’s essay explores the tension between scholars in the First World and the subjects in the Third World they write about or on behalf of. She criticizes Michel Foucault (see Chapter 33 on Foucault) and Gilles Deleuze (see 33.3.2 Key thinker: Gilles Deleuze in Chapter 33 on Foucault) for their theories of representations which, she argues, place all responsibility for revolutionary change on gendered subaltern subjects while absolving themselves of any obligation as intellectuals. For Foucault, for example, subaltern subjects can understand their own oppression and therefore do not need intellectuals to explain it to them. But Spivak argues that he romanticizes subalterns who are not, in fact, coherent political subjects. Instead, she argues that representation plays a crucial role in decolonization and that intellectuals must also ‘speak for’ those who have been silenced and marginalized in political discourse. But Western scholars’ paternalistic claim that they have perfect knowledge of the experiences and perspectives of Third World subjects (see Key Concept: Third World) is equally problematic, since it victimizes them. The question, then, is how to represent subaltern subjects while avoiding these pitfalls. 

Spivak’s postcolonial feminism shows that Third World women are oppressed by two different patriarchal structures: imperialism and Indigenous patriarchies. Therefore, any feminist discourse that takes the subaltern subject as its starting point must articulate a critique that simultaneously challenges both forms of patriarchal oppression. For Spivak, there are little, if any, shared aspirations and interests between imperialist feminists and gendered subaltern subjects. She is less than optimistic about the possibility of transnational solidarity (see 24.3.1. Transnational Solidarity) between gendered subjects who occupy different positions in the international division of labour (see Key Concept: Gendered International Division of Labour).

Imperialist feminism (see 24.2.3. Imperialist Feminism) casts Third World women as helpless victims of gendered violence, which they consider the product of ‘oriental barbarism’ or a non-Enlightened (see 24.3.1. Decolonizing Enlightenment) culture. According to this logic, Third World women must be rescued from gendered oppression by enlightened political subjects like the Western bourgeois woman. But Spivak argues that this paternalistic attitude towards gendered subaltern subjects merely justifies imperialist intervention and violence, since subalterns don’t have access to the institutions or spaces that would allow them to make their own claims in the national or international public sphere. 

Spivak argues that subaltern subject positions are marked by heterogeneity. Gender or class intersects to produce a range of possible combinations that make up a subaltern’s subject position (see 24.2.2. Subaltern Studies); therefore, the subaltern resists coherence and cannot simply be described by pointing to generic concepts like ‘woman’. But Spivak does not entirely discard identity categories as a tool for political organising. The concept of strategic essentialism (see Key Concept: Strategic Essentialism) describes a situation in which oppressed groups briefly ignore their heterogeneity and organize around a positive essentialism to achieve a specific political aim. While they do not actually believe that the essentialism they claim accurately describes their subject position, it can be used to assert political demands in the public sphere. A group can organize as women around the issue of abortion rights, for example, without necessarily endorsing an essentialist interpretation of what it means to be a woman. But Spivak’s concept has often been used to further oppressive political projects that her writing and activism has sought to dismantle. Therefore, she has increasingly distanced herself from the concept. 

Spivak’s poststructuralist and deconstructive (see Key Thinker: Jacques Derrida) interventions in Marxist theory have caused some controversy among Marxian scholars. Terry Eagleton, for example, has dismissed Spivak’s writing as obscure and opaque (Eagleton, 1999). Postcolonial poststructuralist scholars like Dipesh Chakrabarty (see Chapter 37 on Dipesh Chakrabarty), Judith Butler (see Chapter 36 on Judith Butler), and Hamid Dabashi, however, have defended Spivak’s work and in turn accused Eagleton of advancing a Eurocentric leftism that ignores political and economic realities in the global south ( Spivak herself responded to Eagleton by pointing out that plain language and perceived ‘clarity’ can sometimes lead to a less nuanced or accurate understanding of the world. While Spivak’s postcolonial feminism might not offer a clear programme for political action, it has nonetheless reached and inspired thousands of activists in the global south. This is a testament to its accessibility. Spivak is considered one of our foremost political thinkers and her contributions to postcolonial studies, feminism, and poststructuralism have changed the way we think about subalternity today.

Further Reading

Spivak, G. C. (1988a) “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, (eds). Marxism and the interpretation of Culture, Chicago: University of Illinois Press: 271-313.

Spivak, G. C. (1999) A Critique Of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Morris, R. (ed.) (2010) Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea, New York: Columbia University Press.

Allen, A. (2016): The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Eagleton, T. (1999): In the Gaudy Supermarket. In: London Review of Books, 21 (10): 3-6.

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