Fiona Lee and Kiran Mascarenhas (English, PhD Program, GC)

Professor Spivak first walked us through her book, Other Asias, which is, she says, a collection of occasional essays united by their politics: non-minoritarian, non-identitarian, non-nationalist forays into what for her were new and even uncomfortable areas of inquiry.

The following chapter summary was given: 1. an address given to Amnesty International at Oxford on the gap between the NGO pontification of globality and actualities of Calcutta, and how the possibility of postnationalism can be found in examining that gap; 2. on the barriers confronted by a Bangladeshi man attempting to speak to the World Bank; 3. on grappling with Armenia as a blind spot in postcolonial theory and discovering the need to theorize U.S. imperial presence in that region; 4. on the limits of Foucaultian theory in Afghanistan; 5. on theorizing the Megacity as not a city at all, not a place, but a networked space[A1] ;  6. a piece written as the interpellated subject position of a hyphenated person; and finally, 7. a prescription: how (not) to be continental--claiming Asia(s) from a position-without-identity. 

From Professor Dabashi’s perspective, Other Asias is the virtuoso performance of an alternative mode of knowledge production, written from the position of a world-class theorist walking intentionally into uncharted territories. It is a courageous book, written from the trenches, moving from dissatisfaction with easy postnationalisms and transnational alliances fabricated in a time of asymmetrical warfare to critical regionalisms. Of the essays in the collection, Dabashi most liked Chapter 6: “Moving Devi” which is engaged with detranscendentalizing alterity and thinking beyond the religion/secularism binary, and Chapter 2, on Foucault and Najibullah, which Dabashi contrasts favorably with Foucault’s own work in Iran.

Addressing the above points, Spivak underscored the importance of historicizing the (trans)formation of the nation-state in relation to the global events such as the Cold War and the financialization of capital. Important to the project of thinking collectivities is the consideration of different perspectives offered from various geo-historical positions. She also cautioned against taking collectivities formed in response to war or injustice—collectivities “without sufficient epistemic preparation”—as political models, emphasizing her position-without-identity stance. All abstract structures, she added, be they state or regional, are mired in double binds. Much well-intentioned development work in Asia is a result of failing to negotiate these double binds and practice a simplistic but dangerous identity politics. For them, “righting wrongs must assume victims, inert subjects; solving problems rather than producing problem solvers.” In literature, this emerges as the genre of identitarian-evidentiary fiction.

In response to a question on identitarianism and how one begins to learn from below, Professor Spivak offered the ID card and the information that goes on it as a way of understanding identity. The example rewrites the onto-phenomenological question (“what is identity?”) as a question around the act of identification (“what is it to identify/be identified?”). The position of learning to learn from below is a paradoxical one, of having to learn from the subaltern as to how to teach them, one that requires one’s own undoing. “When you learn from below,” she said of her own work in teacher training in West Bengal, “you see the chasm between your epistemic production and that of people who have over centuries been cognitively damaged, punished for intellectual labor. Learning from below is trying to undo yourself as much as possible.”

Clarifying the phrase, “uncoercive rearranging of desires,” Spivak accepted that education is inevitably coercive but also pointed out that the pedagogical scene’s openness to alterity—“whatever you might plan, the unexpected will happen”—makes possible a relational exchange, a “critical intimacy,” that involves both learning from below and rearranging desires simultaneously, rather than teacher advocating change in student.