This interview occurred on March 13, 2014 in Cambridge, UK, on the occasion of Professor Spivak’s visit to the University of Cambridge to give a public lecture. We discussed the task of aesthetic education in the digital age, the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois and black reconstruction, issues of translation in ‘international civil society’, and the difficulty of teaching.
In your recent book, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, you put forward an account of the struggle to secure an integral place for the humanities in the digital age. You talk about the task of imparting “an aesthetic education”, one that forges well-trained minds to effectively use digital media, in an era when vast troves of information are widely dispersed and rapidly available. This is, you say, quite different from traditional preoccupations of the humanities, like expanding the literary canon. Why aesthetic education? And, you’ve said this is a work in progress – how has your thinking evolved on this challenge?
I think I should make clear that the word aesthetic is a dangerous word. I tend to use these kinds of words that give off a negative vibe so that it doesn’t seem to offer quick and easy solutions. Most people think of “aesthetic” in a colloquial way as ivory tower, art for art’s sake. That is of course wrong, as most academics would know. So then we’re coming to the aesthetic through 18th century German writers – Baumgarten, Kant, Schiller, etc. I like to reclaim these words and keep insisting on simpler definitions, so I have to actually revise my definitions constantly. That’s a good idea because it brings it into the fore again. And so I will repeat that throughout the book I have a very simple formula: “imaginative training for epistemological performance”. That is what I call not “the aesthetic”, but aesthetic education. Aesthetic education means, for me, to teach in a certain way. It’s not the onto-phenomenological descriptions of the aesthetic, if you know what I mean. It’s an adjective rather than a gerund. Epistemological performance is to construct objects of knowledge differently. That kind of project cannot be completed. In that sense, it’s a work in progress, not in the sense of developing new thought.
As for the digital age – you know, I’m not really against expanding or revising the canon. What I have been somewhat critical of – not just now at this moment but forever, it seems to me – is expanding the canon from within English departments in anglophone countries, within French departments in francophone countries, Portuguese departments in lusophone countries, and so on. You know, nobody focuses on language learning anymore. And so that’s what I have always been concerned about. In my younger days I used to call it “expanding the Empire of English”. Wherever I went to give talks, young teachers would come to me and say, “Professor Spivak, do say what your position really is, because the administration here use you as a way of shutting us down when we want to expand”. So this, too, like the work of an aesthetic education, is something that I have to repeat, in terms of why my position is not completely in support of this, and how it must be distinguished from the other side of traditional conservative, and now corporatist, people agreeing with the trivialization of the humanities. So that’s really my position on the expansion of the canon – it relates really to languages around the world, not to expansion as such.
I wonder what you would think about what Cornel West told us here in Cambridge in an interview last May. Speaking about a more general expansion of a sometimes narrow literary canon in universities, he said W.E.B. Du Bois ought to be integral to the curriculum, that it ought to be impossible to graduate from college without reading Du Bois – on one’s own, or assigned. He said it isn’t just about being “sensitive to black folks”, but because Du Bois, just like other writers, is “struggling with what it means to be human”. I assume you must agree with Dr. West here. You have a forthcoming book, Du Bois and the General Strike. You’ve said that one can find the existence of the subaltern in Du Bois’s texts. Can you elaborate on that?
I think of Du Bois as really the major historian-sociologist of the 20th century. I don’t think one has to say “African-American”, because I don’t think we’re listening to a kind of disenfranchised voice when we’re acknowledging Du Bois. If we are not outraged by the niche-marketing of Du Bois, we’re acknowledging a kind of low-grade racism that makes the world go round. It’s a slightly different kind of agenda. Du Bois himself realized this. Du Bois’s entry into the Who’s Who is the only entry that provides the detail: of negro extraction. Jackie Robinson? No. Martin Luther King? No. They were quite rightly not concerned about this detail. Du Bois’s own personal library collection was full of biographies of greatly thoughtful Negro intellectuals [I use the word Negro because that’s his word. It belongs to his time]. He understood that they’re not acknowledged because they happen to be what they are and so put in that little bit of description when he was acknowledged.
So those are not disenfranchised voices; Du Bois is not a subaltern. When Du Bois thinks of the subaltern, he’s writing about the emancipated slaves, the folks who became part of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the first social welfare project undertaken by the government of the U.S., which came to nothing because of the entrenched forces of racism and capitalism. This analysis is in his huge book, Black Reconstruction, which some folks dismiss – not Cornel West – from within the African-American establishment because it brings out again and again racism as an ideological production used unwittingly to describe, accept, propagate, and even to redress or ameliorate what was basically the workings of capital. The entire purpose of the establishment of capitalist democracy was at the expense of the failure of black reconstruction. You see how quickly and stunningly the black population – I don’t like the world “community” – responded to the challenges of black reconstruction in terms of working within the dictates of parliamentary democracy. It’s a fantastic story. Du Bois’s work with black reconstruction is a new kind of historiography. His book The Philadelphia Negro is a new kind of sociology, not just because it relates to African-Americans.
It’s funny that Cornel should bring this up in Cambridge. I was giving a seminar two years ago at Columbia on the general strike, “Imagining the General Strike”, and of course Du Bois was an important part of this. One of the students, a graduate of Cambridge, said in class – without much regret or anything but just as a descriptive – “Du Bois is not much read in Cambridge”. (laughs) I just thought: I’m not going to require everybody to read him. I think I would expect academics to have enough of a sense about how to be correct about historiography and sociology in the 20th century. I have no desire to make anything compulsory or required reading. I really believe in developing people who will want to do this rather than people who are obliged to, if you know what I mean. That may be the main difference here between Cornel and me.
So what specific aspects of Du Bois’s thought will you focus on in your book? Will it be mostly about Black Reconstruction?
I’m on my way to Ghana where, as you know, Du Bois became a citizen, and was buried. I’ve been plowing through his personal collection of books to get a sense of the man that is different from this “double consciousness” which he talked about, looking at the marginalia in his books – not the books he wrote but the books he possessed. And so at this point I’m letting the project move me, rather than deciding what I’m doing ahead of time. I already gave the Du Bois Lectures at Harvard in 2009. So five years ago I had a question: “Why did someone as learned as Du Bois deliberately call the exodus of the slaves during the civil war and their joining the Union army a ‘general strike’?” Because it was pretty clear that it didn’t match the accepted model of a general strike. So rather than to “correct” Du Bois, I asked the question, why. So that’s what the Harvard lectures were about, and there I was referring mainly to Black Reconstruction, since that’s the book in which Du Bois provided this particular description.
I think I may change the title of the book to something like Du Bois and the World, or something similar, because I’m very focused on efforts at Pan-Africanism, moving away from just individual predicaments. Pan-Africanism is not black reconstruction. Black reconstruction belongs to the situation in the American South after the Civil War. And Pan-Africanism begins at the start of the 20th century, mostly at the instigation of Du Bois. And so I’m just allowing myself to be buffeted in trying to imagine this great intellect.
You’ve been critical of “international civil society” and the fleeting, ephemeral kind of solidarity it produces. I wonder how language-learning and the political importance of translation factors into your critique. Here I’m thinking specifically of the UN climate change conference in Warsaw that I attended a few months ago. I went to a meeting of indigenous farmers and activists from South America and Africa. There were more than three or four native languages in the room, and yet, only one translator who struggled to describe the detailed policy framework proposal of Bolivian indigenous leaders, making comprehension a serious difficulty. It was also probably the least attended event in a conference with thousands of delegates; only a dozen or so people showed up, mostly other activists. I left the room remembering that everyone with actual decision-making power was at the huge plenary sessions or in private negotiations at the other side of the stadium, numerous translators at hand.
Those indigenous sessions are really there so that the ones who are really making policy can say that they were there. You know, I mean, it looks good. They’re not going to say it was poorly attended. They’re not going to say they provided scant translation facilities. They’re not going to say that we, the policymakers, don’t know anything about what they said. But to be able to say that we included these indigenous sessions gives them a certain plausibility. That’s my cynical point of view.
I, on the other hand, don’t just believe in being dismissive. I do think that we should try to wrench it back in some way. Colloquially, the real project is to produce translation activism, which doesn’t look like much of an activism at all. You think the climate change translations are tedious? You should look at the translation conferences. They are also exceedingly tedious because nobody is really interested in putting translation at the forefront of the major changes necessary in the world. Look at the World Economic Forum. All they are interested in is using the most banal knowledge management techniques that reduce a group of thinking persons to children with different colored tags. They produce toolkits that will be blindly followed. You do not produce worldwide change in this way or perhaps you do, too quickly. Same difference.
This is the epistemological performance I was talking about. Think of it as aesthetic education. We have to somehow make the entire translation lobby rethink itself as an object of knowledge – what is translation for me, when I’m in it. We have to be able to enter the lingual memory of these languages so that we translate as a kind of activism – active practice – rather than simply convenience. The translations for you, for example, are quite different from the translations that are made in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Those translations are completely useless because, certainly, the subaltern populations cannot read at that level in non-English, or non-imperial languages. So therefore it’s really a project that’s very different from just understanding indigenous leaders. It has to think translation in a different way so that the result of what’s happening with translation can be felt in the kind of situation you’re describing.
It’s not going to happen. People try to solve this particular translation problem by becoming wonderful translators, if you know what I mean. Translation has to be rethought. This is such a big problem. I cannot really go on about this here because it would take up a lot of time.
You’ve largely dedicated your life to teaching: from your Memorial Literacy Project in places like West Bengal, India, to Columbia University, and during your many speaking engagements around the world. On different occasions, I’ve heard you say two disparate things about the act of teaching that seem to me nevertheless related.
The first is that the use of specialized knowledge is a way of wielding power, and that it would be dishonest to deny that we all succumb to that temptation. Basically, the temptation to gain influence, or power-through-knowledge, keeps many academics going.
The other thing you’ve said is that teaching can be intensive, very difficult labour, and that even with decades of experience, you often fail at it. It’s something you repeated in your recent lecture at King’s College, Cambridge during the Q&A: that you may have failed at the task you set for yourself, that it’s a type of failure on the part of the teacher that occurs when there’s serious misapprehension or miscomprehension.
Does the power that the academic wields through knowledge end wherever and whenever teaching fails?
No. I think this idea of “power-through-knowledge” is extremely relative. Today the connection between policy and the regular academic is so thin that power-through-knowledge is almost a consolation prize, if you know what I mean. Knowledge itself is so undermined by information control in the digital age that power-through-knowledge can even be scorned by people who actually get things done. I think the situation of power-through-knowledge is an older point of view, one that has significantly changed; the knowledge industry does not have the same pull because of the digital.
I mean, for example, consider the use of knowledge in so-called “distance learning”. The feeling of power that the person using the knowledge gets – the teacher – is so impersonal, so quantified, so mechanically reproduced, to quote Walter Benjamin. That’s not the sort of classroom thing that students in the 1960s were rebelling against. I think the acknowledgment that after the so-called digital revolution we’re moving away from this 60s feeling of knowledge-through-power in the teacher can in fact undo the past situation.
But at the same time, I think about Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach: Who will educate the educators? If one actually pays attention to it, and if I understand what it’s trying to say, it’s a bit complicated with Engels’ revision and the various ways of translating it. But nonetheless, I think what Marx was trying to say is that the difference between the teacher and the student is not going to go away by babysitting and being nice and so forth, especially if there’s something really to be known in the classroom, and if the teacher is bringing a longer time span in which the teacher has had something to attend to, and so on. And so to an extent, with the word that’s translated as revolution – I think Engels turned Umwälzung to Revolution – I think Marx was saying that that situation of mere power should be renegotiated again and again in the learning situation, not just the teaching situation.
So, for example, yesterday we were doing a “workshop”. There was a tendency of the ones who had that whole power-knowledge consolation of giving answers to be constantly legitimizing it by scripting notes and receiving answers from people famous for having knowledge. There’s no negotiation in the classroom space, even as the world has moved on through this knowledge management and so on.
So how does one really know when the aesthetic education is being fostered? You’ve said about your own pedagogical self-appraisal that you like to see what happens to the student, what the student does, after your teaching. So you’re saying that diagnosing whether one has succeeded or failed as a teacher is always postponed?
To an extent that is true. I would say that I don’t particularly remain focused on whether I’ve succeeded in teaching. See, it is the contingent, the unexpected, that tells me this and that. That’s not my main focus. Being thrown into water and somehow learning to swim – the teaching situation is like that. You remain focused on people you teach, rather than on “am I succeeding”? It’s a subtle difference in focus.
I’m not teaching, after all, a hard science. I’m not talking about all disciplines. I’m teaching something that does not have much material to transmit, but rather it teaches imaginative practice. The so-called humanities, literature and philosophy. In those disciplines, there is a certain sense in which ‘who wins, loses’. This is why, for example, I run those rural schools on my own salary. I could use corporate funding and I’m always looking for money. But corporate funding would assign evaluative techniques that are meaningless, because if you’re trying to approach cognitive damage that has been perpetrated on very large groups of people for thousands of years, the idea that you’re going to “win” in thirty years – which is the extent of my training time in those schools – it’s a derisive idea. That you’ve got to show that you have “won” in order to renew the grant. This is an absurd idea. And so to an extent the very meaning of success is different.
When Du Bois wrote about the recently emancipated slaves, he said they certainly need food, clothing and shelter, but at the same time, to learn to communicate with the stars. Now that fourth item is not something about which you can just say, “oh well, that will be easily taught, because after all, they’ve suffered, and so they’re pure of soul”. All these mantras of “feminism is the secret”, or “the indigenous know the answer”, that one can just do anything with any group and they will just retain their purity. That is a very idealistic denial of history. It’s a hard task. I kind of monitor my failures because that’s the only way I can learn. I learn from my mistakes. I’m not sitting there always evaluating myself and wanting to succeed. It’s kind of narcissistic to remain so focused on “am I succeeding?”
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a philosopher, literary theorist, and University Professor at Columbia University, where she is a founding member of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.