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Hard Sell

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

If you have been reading Derrida, you will know that a plausible gesture would be to begin with a consideration of “the question of the preface.” But I write in the hope that for at least some of the readers of this volume Derrida is new; and therefore take it for granted that, for the moment, an introduction can be made.

For anyone new to ‘continental philosophy’, as I was in the 1990s, it seemed to come from a different planet. Even the cover was baffling. What was that – a creature, a map? What were the symbols? And this word, grammatology?

A glance inside brought no peace – chapters such as ‘The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing’, ‘Algebra: Arcanum and Transparence’ and ‘The Exorbitant. Question of Method’. Who was Jacques Derrida? And who was his translator, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak?

Last week I had the privilege of attending the conference Capitalism: Concept and Idea at Kingston University which marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Marx’s Capital with a two day exploration of how that book continues to engage with, and radically critique, capitalism today.

For all the noble and intellectual reasons I had for attending, I have to admit that a huge part of my motivation was the chance to attend the lecture ‘Capital’s Destinerrance: Event and Task’ to be given by the very Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who had intrigued me so many years before, and who remains an intellectual hero.

Spivak’s was a bravura performance, funny, passionate, generous, engaged, querulous and ultimately inspiring. Ranging from Marx, to the current situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar, to ways in which the project of political engagement remains vexing, partial, and yet absolutely necessary, it was a thorough going decimation of the possibility of ‘wait and see’, of needing to have all the facts, and all of one’s political pieces in place in order to act.

This, in many ways, characterises Spivak’s work – when she translated Of Grammatology (1967), she was an unknown 25-year-old associate professor at the University of Iowa, and had never heard of Jacques Derrida (five years after the translation came out she was at a conference and a man came up and said “Je m’appelle Jacques Derrida,” throwing her completely – she had no idea even what he looked like).

She was also undeterred by the fact that neither French nor English were her first language, having only left India in 1961. But in her words, as related in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016, “Well, I’m a smart young foreign woman, and here’s an unknown author. Nobody’s going to give me a contract for a book on him, so why don’t I try to translate him?”

The book did get a contract, and remains one of the greatest of all of the translations of Derrida’s work. It remains a clarion call, not only for its content, and Spivak’s astonishing preface, but for the way it throws down a challenge to all intellectual – and political – obfuscation. It is a message that Spivak continues to hammer home in her work and in her words, and puts those of us who continue to defer our intellectual – and political – goals.

The full interview with Spivak can be found here.

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