Imaginative Adventure

Gyatri Chakravorty Spivak

[ This talk is an excerpt from a speech made at the University of Toronto on June 8, 2000 ]


My task as a teacher and writer is to teach that the literary is on the way to the ethical. In the United States, the humanities have been progessively trivialized through the thirty-five years of my university teaching . This is a great cultural erosion because, if it is possible that through an intimate relationship with the language and indeed, the idiom of the other we can attempt to perform the political in view of the ethical, then it has to be admitted that it is in a training in literary reading that such an access to language is found. Literature allows us to understand that although it is just that there be law, law alone is not justice. Literature understood this way is a general cultural good. My message to students in the Social or Natural Sciences is do not let the imagination, in the most robust sense, take a back seat in your future. And I urge students in the Humanities not to professionalize themselves too soon. Liberal multiculturalism will use new immigrant Canadians to help in the willing exploitation of the countries of their origin. But corporate philanthropy, development-sustaining cost-efficiency, and impatient Human Rights intervention cannot fulfill the imaginative capacity with which we are gifted. They have no time to respect local responsibility-based systems that have allowed to stagnate. It is not easy to cultivate the ethical imagination but the adventure is great. In the last decade I have been fortunate enough to serve students at two ends of the spectrum at Columbia University and among the Aboriginals in Manbhum. For me this has given a new meaning to the sense of imaginative adventure. Khshurasya dhara nishita duratyaya durgama pathastat that path is steep and as difficult as the razor's edge. And then the Sanskrit says Kavayo badanti the poets say. This sense of the imagination is shared by Aristotle when he suggests that poiesis, imaginative making, is a better way of knowing philosophoteron than istoria the Recording of deconstruction, has added the word telepoiesis touching the distant other by the patient power of the imagination, something I am urging you not to lose.


I want to thank my parents for preparing the field for learning this lesson. My father, Pares Chandra Chakravorty, died when I was thirteen. But he had already given me a gift of spirit. I remember every day something he said to me : Always stand at the end of the line. As for my mother, Sivani Chakravorty, there is nothing I can say that can remotely approach what her guidance has meant to me. In my mother tongue child rearing is manush kora-- to make human. It is from my mother that I have understood the meaning of this phrase. Her example, of earning a Master's Degree in Bengali Literature in 1937 and then continuing untiring work for the social redress of refugees, destitute widows, and working class women, kept us proud. Of the million things that I could say about the way I have learnt from her I will mention two that will make sense here.

We live now in a world riven by separatism and ethnic identitaniarism. In 1985, standing in Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, I had complained to my mother at the sudden eruption of the accent of upstate New York. Kane tola jay na, I had said. My mother had turned to me and said, with utter gravity : ''baba, matribhasha to. It is their mother-tongue.'' Every language is somebody's mother-tongue. I repeat that to my students often. It is the goal of all Comparative Literature and it is at the basis of all ethical pratice.

The second lesson comes from a meeting on Leadership for South Asian Women at the Indian Consulate in New York. After much talk the Consul turned to my Mother, by far the oldest woman in the room and said ''Mrs Chakravorty, what wisdom can you give us?'' My Mother came through, loud and clear: ''Don't just think of South Asians, think of other people.'' Other people. The imagination is our great in built instrument for othering ourselves. It is therefore the pivot of all reading. It is therefore the pivot of all reading. Trying to step beyond identity is what keeps politics ethical. This is particularly important in the face of reactive cultural nationalism of the global periphery confronting the triumphalist of the centre. The imaginative task of preserving cultural diversity is in the service of the other.