Kiran Asher


Notes on “learning to learn from below” from Spivak

In May 2010, hundreds of movement-activists and a few dozen scholar-academics gathered in Lima for a conference entitled Encuentro de Saberes y Movimientos:  Entre las crisis y otros mundos posibles (An Encounter of Knowledge and Movements:  Between Crises and Other Possible Worlds).[i] As the title suggests, the aim of the meeting and the subsequent dialogue was to discuss the various crises—economic, political, social and environmental—within which we find ourselves, and to envision alternative ways of being in the world. The conference and workshop opened and closed with misticas (rituals or ceremonies) to celebrate and honor the richness of nature, and to highlight how humans are deeply connected to and sustained by the Earth’s bounty.

Less than a year later, in March 2011, a lamplighting ceremony roughly equivalent to the misticas above was part of the inauguration of a three-day “Grandmothers University” at Vandana Shiva’s organic farm and training center, located a few hours from Dehra Dun in the Garhwal Hills of Northern India. Among the attendees were young students, mostly white Euro-Americans but also some from Latin America; and many thirty-to-forty-somethings from the West and the Indian diaspora, who had come to learn organic and sustainable agricultural techniques from Garhwali women. The speakers at the flower-draped podium included Shiva (a world renowned activist and critic of mainstream agriculture and development), Sunderlal Bahuguna of Chipko fame, and Margaret Alva, then governor of Uttar Pradesh. The Garhwali teachers—about a dozen grandmothers, mothers, daughters, daughters-in-laws—were at the edges of the crowd, barely visible behind Governor Alva’s black-suited bodyguards. In their inaugural remarks, Shiva and Alva extoled the many virtues of grandmothers, including their traditional knowledge and wisdom about the earth, and their admonition to practice love and compassion.

Misticas such as the one in Lima highlight how indigenous peoples, from the Maya in Mexico to the Mapuche in Chile, and Afro-descendent groups such as those in Colombia, invoke concerns over “nature” and “culture” in their demands for “traditional” rights and claims to ancestral lands. Scholars and activists, influenced to varying degrees by postcolonial, decolonial, and feminist critiques of modernity, contend that such movements oppose the current “neoliberal” phase of globalization and the Eurocentric, capitalist modernity it represents. They contend that the traditional practices of such communities and the experiences of those situated “outside Europe” contain possibilities of sustainable and just alternatives to liberal democracy and capitalist development.

But notwithstanding the rise of the indigenously-flecked Left in Latin America and the adoption of such laws as the Forests Rights Act (2006) in India, struggles for ethnic and territorial autonomy and attempts to assert alternatives to development have not been unmitigated successes. Social movements across the world are having contradictory and contingent outcomes alongside the violent expansion of capitalist globalization everywhere (Asher 2009, Gidwani 2002, Perreault 2008, Pieck 2011).  Indigenous scholars and critics of settler colonialism also point out liberal modernity is built on the continued dispossession and invisibilization of native peoples.  Within this context the need to beyond Eurocentric views of the world are indisputable.  Or in the words of this project, we need to think beyond “the limits of reigning narratives of modernity, capitalism, and state and cultural formations.”

This paper is inspired by various world social movements to respond to this need by outlining the parameters for a deep analytical, ethical and political commitment to more just natural-cultural worlds. I start from the premise that such commitment must go beyond oppositional approaches to imagine non-Eurocentric and just futures. In the last several decades, ideas and ideals that rest on binaries such as theory-praxis, critique-alternatives, science-tradition, academia-activism, movements-scholarship have been presented and critiqued (cite Shohat and Stam, Spivak, and a host of others). Many current various of “decolonial thinking” are replicating (perhaps inadvertently) binaries such as postcolonial-decolonial and epistemology-ontology, and risking (again perhaps inadvertently) nativist thinking in their attempt to formulate non-Eurocentric knowledge.

I aim to move beyond positions that pitch decolonial thinking against postcolonial approaches, rejecting the latter and its proponents as mere “critiques” from the western academy and upholding the former as pathways to a new future. Again in the terms of this project, I wish to contribute to opening up,  “…new angles of vision and to critical, reparative, and non-eurocentric understanding of dialectical world processes” by questioning Latin America and Asia as a priori “regional” sources or knowledge production to facilitate a “South-South” exchange and critical dialogue about what post- and de-colonial approaches can yield to decenter the West as the center of knowledge production.

Specifically, I build on some recent work (Asher 2017a, 2017b) to draw on Gayatri Spivak’s call “to learn to learn from below” to grapple with the problematic of “development” or science (as subsets of Eurocentric knowledge).  My tasks are to flesh out the logics and parameters of a form of “relational thinking” and theorize representation (understood in various ways and in various contexts including in current debates about “relational” ontologies, decolonial thought, indigenous epistemes and critiques of settler colonialism, etc.). (Later I will also draw on Silvia Rivera-Cusicanqui’s work). Here I will build on my prior research and empirical fieldwork on how rural communities, third world women, and nature are inserted into the circuits of global capitalism: in other words, tracing their complex and contradictory relations with the state, nationalism, development, and environmental politics.  My past research shows that such relations are fraught with ambiguities and contradictions, and I want to trace the gaps and fissures of dominant logic and the traces of other logics that are always already there in these relations. This then builds the groundwork for thinking natural-cultural life and worlds, and how to inhabit them productively (rather than sidestep).  Anna Tsing, Donna Haraway, feminist STS work crucial here.  But first to Spivak.

Why Spivak? What does she bring to my tasks

Any attempt to bring Spivak’s texts to bear on existing literature is fraught with the radical anti-disciplinarity and complexity of her texts.  Here I focus on a half-dozen of her most important and relevant works to clarify the value of her distinctive reading of difference, development, and capitalism.

Issues of social and environmental justice are implicitly and explicitly central in her work as a literary critic and translator. In the afterword to Imaginary Maps, her translation of Mahasweta Devi’s short stories about tribals in India, she notes:

I have no doubt that we must learn to learn from the original practical ecological philosophers of the world, through slow, attentive, mind-changing (on both sides), ethical singularity that deserves the name of “love”—to supplement necessary collective efforts to change laws, modes of production, systems of education and health care. … Indeed, in the general predicament today, such a supplementation must become the relationship between the silent gift of the subaltern and the thunderous imperative of the Enlightenment to “the public use of Reason,” however hopeless that undertaking might seem. One filling the other’s gap. (1995 p. 201)

Spivak’s commitment to change the current order might parallel that of post-development.  But her call to “learn to learn from below” is very different from the retrieval of subaltern knowledge or subjectivity. Development scholars and feminists attempting to mobilize postcolonial insights turn to Spivak for “the strategic use of essentialism,” (1990) and misread the difficult argument in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988).  Both are mistakenly invoked to recuperate the “agency” of subaltern subjects, especially of third world women. But as Rosalind Morris (2010) notes in her introduction to Reflections on the History of an Idea: Can the Subaltern Speak,

It may be that anthropologists, historians, and other interpretative social scientists less trained in the reading practices that guide literary criticism may be more susceptible to this kind of misreading, but misreading it is.  At no point does Spivak ever express a normative goal of transparency; her essay and, indeed all her writing, testifies to the impossibility of such transparency, … because the subaltern (as woman) describes a relation between subject and object status (under imperialism and then globalization) that is not one of silence—to be overcome by representational heroism—but aporia. (p. 13)

As Morris notes, the problematic or aporia of representation—as an impossibility and a necessity—in colonialism, capitalism, and feminism, is a thread that runs through all of Spivak’s work, from Can the Subaltern Speak? (1988) to An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization (2012).  In the introduction to the latter, she writes of this issue as the double bind of “learning to live with contradictory instructions” (p. 3). She elaborates, “We are in an aporia which by definition cannot be crossed, a double bind. It is not a logical or philosophical problem like a contradiction, a dilemma, a paradox, an antinomy” (p. 104).  Such an uncrossing or non-passage is far from a passive acceptance or rejection of the status quo.  Rather it involves an active “…negotiation and acknowledgement of complicity” (1993: 121) by investigating subjects (including feminists, postcolonial theorists and diasporic academics) in the historical production of their objects of research and representation.

Inspired by Spivak, Said, Marx, Derrida, Dussel, and others, Wainwright (2008: 10-12) offers an excellent reading of “Development as Aporia.” He finds development absolutely necessary and also absolutely inadequate to its task.  He notes that in the face of abject poverty and inequality, one cannot not desire development:

Rejecting “development”—the hegemonic denomination for our responsibility—is neither possible nor desirable.  Thus there can be no simple negation or rejection of development.   Not because development is good (it is not), but because a rejection still turns within the analytic space opened and shaped by development discourses.  Development marks the site of a fundamental doubt that must be struggled through in order to produce stronger positions and concepts. (p.11)

“Accelerated” or “improved” development are hardly stronger responses, since they remain rooted in structures that cannot change the basic conditions that produce inequality.  This critique parallels Escobar’s.  Colonialism and nationalism, history and geography, philosophy and territory are also analytically central to Wainwright’s critique of development.  But his postcolonial Marxist critique is fundamentally different from post-development in that it pivots on “reading” how capitalism becomes synonymous with development (“capitalism qua development”). The “post” that most shapes Wainwright’s reading is post-colonialism, and among it are two lessons from Spivak.  One is the need for a persistently skeptical approach to representing subaltern voices:

This skepticism is not so much scientific or empirical as it is political and ethical.  The challenge is to remain open to subaltern histories and geographies without speaking for or contributing otherwise to epistemic violence. (p. 16)

The second lesson from Spivak is “to analyze the aporias of the colonial present without recourse to essentialism.” (p. 17). Both lessons flag that while representation is inevitable, it must be accompanied by an ethic of responsibility.  Drucilla Cornell (2010) also draw these lessons from Spivak’s relentless anti-positivist critique and her warning against misguided benevolence (2008).  Cornell writes, “once we come to terms with the inevitability of representation, both in terms of ideals and people involved in political struggle, then we must, and the must here is the ethical moment, confront how we are shaping others through those representations so as to reinforce the images and fantasies of the colonial as well as the not-yet-decolonized imaginary” (p. 101).

Among those who find Spivak’s work particularly relevant to Latin American struggles are Jean Franco (2010) and Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (2010, 2012). Particularly referencing recent Latin American decolonialists, they urge critical scholars and national elites to examine how their own “institutional embeddedness” motivates their representation of indigenous peoples and social struggles. Franco further notes that post-colonial and decolonial invocation of the direct experience of subalterns rests on “forgetting” how both sides are positioned, albeit differently, within the international division of labor (IDL) of global capitalism.  In her analysis of indigenous women’s activism against the patriarchal control of the state and (male) community leaders, she discusses how subcommandante Esther’s speech to the Mexican government and Rigoberta Menchu’s public advocacy are examples of the “subalternity’s passage into hegemony.” (p. 221)

Spivak’s lessons are a difficult but necessary supplement to binary thinking. Spivak contends that subaltern speech cannot be recognized without institutional infrastructures to validate it as resistance. Her deconstructive, anti-positivist approach entails a critique of Eurocentric Enlightenment from within its parameters, and looks for traces of the subaltern within the texts of the Enlightenment. In contrast to the ethnography and anthropology that underlie Escobar’s post-development alternatives, Spivak (1999) calls for a historico-political perspective to trace the erasure and mobilization of “culture” in dominant narratives, including those of the state, nationalism, and development.  As scathing in her critique of capitalist development as Escobar, her methodology “supplements Marxism” in service of feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial efforts.  This “supplementing” neither offers a corrective to Marxism nor rejects it.  Rather it works with Marx’s thought to trace the insertion of rural communities, especially third world women, into the circuits of global capitalism.  That is, to trace where they and movements of that resist development are located within IDL.

Spivak draws attention to non-Eurocentric ecological movements and to “planetarity” – a term she uses for being concerned about nature and ecology beyond human self-interest or functionality.  However, her engagement with them differs radically from post-development’s recovery of subaltern practices.  She notes:

In order for planetarity to be used for feminist utopias or ecological justice or whatever, you would have to put it in the value form, and I use the term value form in the original Marxian, not Marxist, sense. Marxists have either given it up or are confused about it, one reason being that the English translation of that simple sentence in Marx describing value has right from the start been wrong. Marx writes that it is inhaltlos and einfach, “contentless and simple.” Why contentless? Because it allows the use of a form. All the English translations are “slight and simple” or “slight in content.” How could they mistranslate a word like inhaltlos in which the -los is cognate to English “-less”? The only answer is that they didn’t understand what Marx was trying to say. Take the example of a bottle of water where you have the ingredients listed and assigned percentages. That is water put in the value form. Because the value form…is what makes commensurability possible. So by putting a certain percentage on this ingredient you make this water commensurable with roast beef, say. You can compare. That’s all it is. If you want planetarity to travel to ecological justice, or utopian feminism, or whatever, you have to put planetarity in the value form, and its unmotivated reminding task—of an epistemological gap—evaporates. Marx was inviting us to understand and use the pharmakonic potential of quantification through an appreciation of the value form. Planetarity is elsewhere, always, from finding a measure. (2011: 61-62)

Once again Spivak returns us to non-passages and aporias.  She rereads Marx to trace the work and expansion of capital, and how it draws more and more of the world into its orbit by turning all kinds of products and knowledge, including the “indigenous” variety, into the value form.  But capitalist development (or capitalism qua development) cannot simply be replaced by indigenous alternatives.  Nor can it be accepted, given that it is unjust by its very nature. Marx recognized this, but his thinking was limited by his time and culture. It is imperative to supplement Marxism and re-engage his writings, including about socialism as an alternative to capitalism.  It is equally imperative to think beyond economic globalization to “re-imagine the planet” (Spivak 2012: 335). It is for these tasks that Spivak invites us to think ethically with the responsibility-based livelihoods of aborigines—another important supplement for post-development.

Post-development approaches (the latest variant draws on decoloniality) also grapple with the incommensurability of non-Western, non-capitalist practices as part of the search for ecological justice and decolonial alternatives. But their efforts to value and validate do not offer tools for thinking through their relations—past and present—with the state, capital, and development.  The methodological and political challenges of reading development and representation with Spivak are different.  They include the uncomfortable labor of applying one’s critical lessons to one’s own critiques.  But Spivak also offers an example in that she is always attentive to these lessons in her interrogation and theorizing of relations – between colonialism and capitalism, modes of productions, nationalism and capitalism, elites and subalterns, patriarchy and feminism, third world diaspora and migrant labor, and indeed post/decolonial academics and grassroots intellectuals.

[i] The meeting was hosted and organized by the Programa para Democracia and Transformacion Social which is part of a collaborative team engaged in researching social movements and changing cultural politics in Latin America. It was initially scheduled to be held in the historic Casona de San Marcos on the campus of Peru’s public university.  However, at the last minute the organizers of the conference were told that the historic venue was to be given up to another meeting of IMF/World Bank officials.  Despite protests against such egregious behavior, the encuentro was forced to find a new venue and the event took place in a shabby hotel in a run down area of downtown Lima.


Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

My work focuses on the complex and contradictory intertwining of natural-cultural worlds, and the challenges these pose for 21st-century struggles for environmental and social justice.

Provisional sketch of essay:

I’d probably want to write a book chapter to explore how Gayatri Spivak’s ideas of planetary and cosmopolitanism, help us reimagine nature-culture worlds ethically but unromantically.  Many of the decoloniality inspired post-development alternatives I
engage, dismiss Spivak’s postcolonialism as “mere critique.” But in her call “to learn from below,” I read an invitation to engage in the slow, unguaranteed labor of careful critique and patient undoing of the problematic of “development” or science. Paraphrasing and summarizing her complex formulations, I suggest that her methodology entails mobilizing a historico-political perspective to “supplement” science in service of feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial efforts. For social and environmental justice work,
this “supplementing” involves tracing how rural communities, third world women, and
nature are inserted into the circuits of global capitalism: in other words, their complex and contradictory relations with the state, nationalism, development, and environmental politics. Such tracings reveal the gaps and fissures of dominant logic and the traces of other logics that are always already there. These are radical tasks, as they require us to productively inhabit (rather than sidestep) the ambiguities and contradictions of natural-cultural life and worlds.