Gayatri Spivak: They speak, but we cannot hear!

A recording from the 7th of May 2020, from the series “The Left Reflects on the Global Pandemic” by transform! Europe

When we say, that we as the left are acting in Solidarity, when we claim to reshape the way we do politics, when we build networks, we are taking for granted an answer to a very complicated question: who, specifically, is the “we” to which we refer. In this episode of the Mosaik-Podcast, Professor Gayatri Spivak, confronts us with this question. She reminds us, that solidarity can easily become an empty signifier, if we do not try to understand and analyse the different social, economic, and political contexts of the people we claim to defend. We tend to misperceive the Global South as one, homogeneous world.

In this context, Spivak discusses the longstanding plight of the Rohingya people – a stateless, predominantly Moslem ethnic group, who have been victims of genocide in Myanmar since 2017. In recounting the displacement and atrocities experienced by these people, Spivak not only describes the effects of COVID-19 on international aid provided, but also to make a clear distinction between being a migrant and being stateless.  

Οne of the most critical points she makes, involves the issue of humanism during the pandemic. Thus far, people have had to rely solely on their human behaviour to manage this crisis. However, we should be aware that the middle class is lending a particular meaning to this kind of humanism, one that incorporates petit-bourgeois family values and what we can call ‘digital idealism’.

She goes on to explain why the core issue today, is citizenship and how the agents of social justice and emancipation will be citizens as such, since the variable of class is not accessible to us in the way it used to be. For Spivak, class solidarity is not going to be central to the social movement of our times. Even though, during this pandemic crisis, we did witness an increased recognition of the value of workers performing essential services, this will not last.

Spivak posits, that we have entered a new mode of production, pointing out that Marx was clear that the value form is not eternal. Nonetheless, the left’s emancipatory outlook is already established: it is the simple conviction that capital must not take priority over human beings.

She goes on to discuss the burning issue of the subaltern and specifically, the ability, or otherwise, of the subaltern to speak for itself. Spivak’s position on the issue is clear: The subaltern can speak, but cannot be heard. Or as she puts it: ‘Their speech act cannot be completed because they speak, but we cannot hear.’ As such, the subaltern must be understood as a position, a disposition, because they do not resemble each other. We cannot identify the subaltern because they cannot be generalized.

Gayatri Spivak is one of the most prominent intellectuals of our times, a post-colonial scholar, literary theorist, and feminist critic. She has been a University Professor at Columbia University and an activist in rural education and of feminist and ecological social movements for decades. She lives in New York.

The interview was conducted by Monika Mokre, a political scientist and an activist in the fields of immigration, asylum, and imprisonment. She has been a research fellow at the Austrian Academy of Sciences since 1991 and teaches at various universities in Austria. As usual, we have Angelina Giannopoulou to thank for the moderation. She is a political scientist and facilitator of transform! europe in the programme ‘Strategic Perspectives of the Radical Left and European Integration’.

This is the final episode of a series developed with transform! Europe, a network of 34 European organizations in 22 countries, active in the fields of political education and critical scientific analysis. The transform! network is the recognized political foundation of the Party of the European Left.

After the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the series “The Left Reflects on the Global Pandemic” was launched, in which various befriended intellectuals were asked to share their reflections, assessments and proposals regarding the crisis. You can listen to all previous episodes here, on Mosaik-Podcast.


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