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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

Spivak lectures on 'Human Rights and the Humanities'

Literary theorist Gayatri Spivak spoke Monday of the need for educators in Europe and the United States, as well as in developing nations, "to learn to learn from below."

Meanwhile, many of those who attended Spivak's lecture, "Human Rights and the Humanities," found themselves learning to learn from below, too, but in a slightly different sense of the phrase: Stanford literature professors Richard Rorty and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht joined dozens of other scholars and students on the floor of Room 190 at the Law School, where there weren't enough seats to accommodate the crowd. (Spivak's talk was displaced from a larger room by another event.)

However, the roughly 250 people who squeezed into the hot and crowded lecture space for the final installment of the 2000-2001 series of the Presidential and Endowed Lectures in the Humanities and Arts were evidence of Spivak's stature in the fields of post-colonial and literary studies.

In introducing her, Gumbrecht, who champions universities' role in sustaining "sublime complexity," bestowed on her what probably is his highest praise: "No other person at the present, perhaps, has contributed so much to making our world a more complex ... place to think."

The Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, Spivak analyzes political and literary texts using deconstruction, a theory that maintains all readings of texts -- whether they're literary, historical, religious or philosophical -- are contingent. The theory holds that language cannot refer to reality in a direct way.

Spivak is known for adopting the tools of the Western enlightenment philosophical tradition, as well as deconstruction, to critique legacies of patriarchy and imperialism.

During Monday's lecture, she said that although the study of human rights at universities generally occurs in the field of international law -- not the humanities -- humanities-style teaching can, in the long run, help to close the divide between those who take part in human-rights activities and those who are its benefactors. The right method of educating both the dominant and "subaltern" classes can play a key role in ending the ascendant control that stems, however unwittingly, from the human-rights efforts of Europe, America and the indigenous elite of developing nations, she said.

An education in the humanities "attempts to be an uncoercive rearrangement of desires," she said. In her classroom at Columbia, Spivak said she attempts to develop in students the habit of literary reading -- "just reading, sending oneself into the text of the other" -- as a way of uncoercively re-arranging desires. She said it's important for them, as part of the cadre of elite students around the world, to distance themselves from the notion that they are superior agents of human rights.

Spivak runs schools in poor parts of India, where she attempts to bring together this culture of responsibility with a culture of human rights so that human-rights recipients do not remain simply objects of benevolence. To achieve this, educators must learn the culture of responsibility of the poor, aboriginal classes, she says.

While education for the middle and upper classes teaches students to understand texts, education for the poor in developing nations mainly involves learning to spell and memorize "incomprehensible" chunks of prose.

"Education [on that level] is the detritus of the post-colonial state," Spivak said.

Born in Calcutta, India, in 1942, Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak attended the University of Calcutta. She earned a master's degree, in 1962, and doctorate, in 1967, from Cornell University. She has taught at Brown University, Stanford, the University of Texas-Austin, the University of California-Santa Cruz and Goethe Universitat in Frankfurt, to name a few. Before joining the faculty at Columbia in 1991, she was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

She has held fellowships at the National Humanities Institute, the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan and the Humanities Research Center at the Australian National University, among others.

Spivak became a well-known figure in the academy after translating Jacque Derrida's De la grammatologie (1967) into English. The translation, Of Grammatology, was published in 1976. She is the author of In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987), The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (1990), Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993) and A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999).


By John Sanford

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