• Experiencing Gayatri Spivak: Training the Imagination

    Date posted: October 11, 2013 Author: mauri
    Portrait of Gayatri Spivak. Image courtesy of Columbia University.
    Portrait of Gayatri Spivak. Image courtesy of Columbia University.

    Debunking Foucaltian notions of power, post colonialism, and feminism in the most intricate fashion, Gayatri Chakravoerty Spivak left me mesmerized in a lecture she gave last month at New York University entitled, “Democracy and Representation.” I have worshipped at the academic alter of Gayatri Spivak for close to a decade and now would be able to pay my respects in person. A professor within the Media, Culture and Communications department of NYU had described professor Spivak’s lecture style to me as “talking in 3D.” This same professor had also advised me not to take notes during the lecture because of the experiential quality her talks often took. His advice proved to be incredibly helpful and after several minutes of trying to keep up with what she was discussing in my notebook, I quickly gave up and simply let Professor Spivak’s words wash over me.

    Following several long introductions, Professor Spivak finally rose from her chair to address the packed room. She donned a deep blue sari with green accents, and dark glasses that hung from a chain around her neck emphasized her close-cropped haircut. She began with some opening comments on the situation in Syria, then shifted to a discussion about the Patrice Lumamba regime that ruled the Congo until 1961, and the larger social and political implications this had within Africa and Europe. From here she moved onto talking about the ways in which democracy and representation function on a global scale and began to discuss her experiences working with rural teachers in India several years ago. Professor Spivak went onto speak for over ninety minutes circling around these various topics in a complicated way. I was astounded at both the length of time she lectured for but also the passionate way she discussed the various issues she was presenting on.

    It is Professor Spivak’s passion and extreme intellect that have formed the basis of her career.  At the age of thirty-four, she translated Derrida’s famous book Of Grammatology from French to English.  She went on to earn her PhD from Cornell University and became the first woman of color to receive the title of University Professor at Columbia University in 2007.  Her 1988 article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is what many consider to be the foundational text of post- colonial studies. She has also been the recipient of numerous awards and honorary doctorates including the 2012 Kyoto Prize in Art and Philosophy, and this year she was awarded the Padma Bhushan award by the Republic of India for English and Literature.

    Given the political and social headiness of the lecture, one element I kept returning to was a brief comment Professor Spivak made about “training the imagination.” She said this within a larger conversation surrounding knowledge production and who “the producers of knowledge” are. Although this comment was referenced within a larger discussion about issues within education systems world-wide, it also seemed to offer a possible solution to these existing concerns. During the question and answer period following the lecture, one person asked what Professor Spivak meant by “the training of the imagination.” While she did not entirely nail down a working definition of this, it did leave a space open for a myriad of alternative possibilities to arise from.

    I saw her comment as an opportunity to expand both upon my own academic and artistic training, and also where this might be present within an educational context today. My “training” first took place at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I then went on to receive two Masters within the humanities: one in Gender and Cultural Studies and a second in Performance Studies. Over time, I began to notice that some of the foundational components I learned in art school, such as to think critically about the world around, and to find inspiration in the everyday, were so much apart of my writing and artistic practice that it had become almost ingrained within my psyche. Although these key ingredients were something I was both taught to do and naturally gravitated towards, there does seem to be a growing need within in academia for individuals to be taught to think creatively.

    In many ways, I think that Professor Spivak is urging us to continue to look beyond what the obvious solutions may be and to strive for more creative, effective strategies to solve issues on a macro and micro level. To train the imagination is to both develop a craft, but to also be able to integrate these skills into the quotidian. Within training the imagination, we must also un-train ourselves of habits, preconceived notions, and anxiety of the unknown. Everyone posses an imagination and can be taught to think creatively, but we also must be taught how not to feel self-conscious about this process and what may come with it.

    While there are various overlaps that occur within the humanities and the arts in terms of the kinds of education people receive, there is also a need to extend beyond these bounds. Creativity training is needed on every level of the educational spectrum. It can serve both to foster new ideas and to develop problem-solving skills that reach beyond the immediate things at hand. Training the imagination is not only about developing new techniques within the sciences, humanities, and new forms of art, it is also about teaching the next generation of artist and academics to continue to strive beyond what is currently known.

    By Anni Irish

    The full lecture can be seen here:

    Democracy and Representation, a talk by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak from Media, Culture, Communication on Vimeo.

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