Born on February 24, 1942 in Ballygunge, Kolkata, India, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Calcutta in 1959, followed by an MA (1962) and PhD (1967) at Cornell University. She first rose to prominence in academia with her 1976 translation of the French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida’s 1967 book, Of Grammatology. In 1985, Spivak published “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, a highly influential essay about the inability of powerless and oppressed people to express themselves effectively. In a series of later essays, Spivak encouraged women to intervene in the evolution of deconstructive theory. Critical of “phallogocentric” historical interpretation, she argued that “bourgeois” Western feminists were complicit in international capitalism’s exploitation of women in the developing world.
A self-proclaimed crusader for “international feminism,” Spivak has been a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University since 1991. She was a founding member of the school’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. She is also widely regarded as one of the founders of postcolonial studies, an academic discipline that examines the negative cultural legacy of colonialism and imperialism.
Aside from her work at Columbia, Spivak has also taught variously at Brown University, the University of Texas at Austin, UC Santa Cruz, Université Paul Valery, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Stanford University, the University of British Columbia, Goethe Universitat (in Frankfurt), Riydah University, Emory University, and the University of Pittsburgh.
Spivak is a harsh critic of Israel and its allegedly brutal treatment of the Palestinian people. She supports the notion that Islamic suicide bombings and mass murders targeting Israelis and Americans are the justifiable and understandable actions of desperate, demoralized populations – on the premise that Israel and the U.S. practice their own brand of state terrorism against weaker peoples in the Middle East. For example, in a speech which she delivered at Leeds University in June 2002, Spivak said: “Suicide bombing – and the planes of 9/11 were living bombs – is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism, killing oneself as other, in the process killing others…. Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed on the body when no other means will get through. It is both execution and mourning … you die with me for the same cause, no matter which side you are on. Because no matter who you are, there are no designated killees [sic] in suicide bombing…. It is a response … to the state terrorism practiced outside of its own ambit by the United States, and in the Palestinian case additionally to an absolute failure of [Israeli] hospitality.”
Spivak’s contempt for Israel is likewise reflected in her support for the Hamas-inspired Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Jewish state. In June 2014, for instance, she signed a public letter that cited the BDS movement and exhorted artists to cancel their scheduled participation in an upcoming “Living as Form” exhibition at the Haifa-based Technion Israel Institute of Technology. According to the letter, this Institute had played a “central role in maintaining [Israel’s] unjust and illegal occupation of Palestine.” Specifically:
“Technion has, for decades, been a crucial research center for the development of technologies used by the Israeli Defence Forces against Palestinians in regular and widespread acts of surveillance, land theft, unwarranted eviction, restriction on movement, and violent repression. As the leading science and technology university in Israel,… Technion has been central in the development of military unmanned aerial vehicles such as the ‘Stealth drone’ … Technion has also innovated remote control capabilities for the Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozer, an effective tool in the continued destruction of Palestinian homes…. Technion works closely with Rafael, the Israeli government company that designs advanced weapons systems, and Elbit, one of the two main contractors of the electronic detection fence, a key component of Israel’s Separation Wall in the West Bank.”
In April 2015, Spivak helped lead an initiative opposing a New York City lecture series because one of the scheduled speakers was the French philosopher Monique Canto-Sperber, who was known for her anti-BDS activism.
In January 2017, Spivak was featured in a video promoting a resolution that exhorted the Modern Language Association (MLA) to conduct a boycott against Israel. “I support this boycott … because I think [Israel’s behavior] is a case of global injustice,” Spivak said in the video. “[T]he situation of injustice is exacerbating under the current administration of Israel,” she added, “and it does seem to me that it is our obligation to stand up against injustice as intellectuals.”
Further Reading: “Gayatri Spivak” (Columbia Global Centers, Britannica.com); “Creating a Stir Wherever She Goes” (NY Times, 2-9-2002); “A Conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Politics and the Imagination” (Academia.edu, 2003); “Critical Intimacy: An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak” (Los Angeles Review of Books, 7-29-2016); “Professors for Suicide Bombers” (by Edward Alexander, 6-26-2003); “Gayatri Spivak” (CanaryMission.org, re: Technion Israel Institute, opposition to Monique Canto-Sperber, and MLA).