The following is a guest post by Aren Airuza, blogger at the moving going somewhere?.
I've spent the last week trying to decide whether to engage––as may be expected on a 'literary' blog––in 'close reading' in a philosophical/literary manner, or to get eclectic on your asses, and tie some questions Spivak asks to questions I'd like people to think more about. I ended up going with the latter, and at length. But first, prefatory caveats. Part of the oddness of my response to "Scattered Speculations", I think, is that capitalism has never seemed that coherent or smooth to me. It has always seemed crazy. Now, I am not a scholar of Marx, and I lack skills in parsing the distinctions in debates about use-value, exchange-value and surplus-value unless they are explained to me very slowly. But it still seems 'intuitive' that capitalism runs on crisis. There's an interview in Hatred of Capitalism where Jack Smith calls capitalism (or rather, landlordism, but he saw landlordism as an extension of capitalism) a fear ritual, completely counterintuitive: "We have to spend the rest of our time struggling against the uses we make of our money against us." This might be about antagonism rather than indeterminacy, I know, but I will come back to Jack Smith later. (I also committed to blogging against heteronormativity today, and later I'll try to address that in regard to value.) What I get from "Scattered Speculations" is yet another insight into the precise mechanics of that insanity; and, more importantly, the role of imperialism and 'culture' in that mechanics.
It strikes me as ironic that in the original discussion about doing a symposium evaluating a 'bad academic writer', Butler was proposed before Spivak. Of course, Judith Butler, that odd dykey nerd that no-one really gets (except queer theory heads), although everyone wants to––and if they don’t get it, they see it as some obscure insult. Last week on qstudy-l, a US-based queer studies listserv I'm on, someone posted a link to Butler's 1999 award of the Fourth Annual Bad Writing Contest, as if it had just happened yesterday. The resulting replies were like the qstudy equivalent of "OMG thats so cool!!!!1! butler is such a moron!!1!" Someone else pointed out that the contest was seven years ago, but it didn't stop an outpouring of anti-Butler sentiment. It's like time stopped for Butler at that moment, and she can never live the episode down. The article circulates around the web like a deranged meme, trading on the gullible Schadenfreude of procrastinating graduate students. But that's beside the point. People hate Butler, and Spivak, for similar reasons: the fact that a woman is speaking in a language one may not immediately understand means, for some, that she is speaking nonsense. A lesbian woman, a non-white woman: oh, she must be stupid. But the problem also relates (particularly with Spivak) to the impossibility of branding: the impossibility of knowing to which discipline a writer properly belongs and her refusal to stay within the bounds of the 'discipline' per se; her demand that a reader travel across rather than inside philosophical or theoretical zones and learn by traveling.
There's an important moment in this lecture where Spivak claims her first working definition for the condition of subalternity was not as a categorisable identity, but those who are, at any given moment, “without access to the lines of social mobility.” While both Spivak and Butler may be geographically mobile, as conference-hopping academic superstars, Butler is forever freeze-framed as the blinking butt of a frathouse joke awards night, and Spivak is constantly equated with exotic food, the everpopular medium through which anti-colonial or non-colonial practices are consumed, spewed back up as ‘indigestible’, re-digested as fetish, and finally assimilated into “Western” economic and cultural hegemony as, say, a McDonald’s Tasty Tandoori Chicken Wrap. (By engaging in the gumbo joke, I merely repeated that mistake, it seems, and unnecessarily.)
Here I risk being accused of conflating and comparing 'sexuality' and 'geography/ethnicity' as if they were comparable or as if the laws governing each category were the same. What I'm trying to say is, no, they are not the same: but in the dynamic of 'universal equivalence' (capitalism/democracy) they circulate as such, and within that dynamic, certain strategies may repeat themselves. Neither theorist is permitted to move past her ‘background’, or her supposed grounding in a visibly different identity. Social mobility here grinds to a halt. But maybe this is also a fragmented potential subaltern resistance strategy, in which you could read 'incomprehensibility' also as the deliberately broken cog that grinds the machine itself to a halt. (Here I’m gesturing towards a ‘strategic incomprehensibility’: a style not premised on being clear, or ‘common-sensical’, strategically, as a way of resisting the hegemonic call to “make sense! Speak!”) Because in the moment where marketability and identity converge, social mobility is also the circulation of a particular kind of value. In the same way that products are made to be consumed, books are supposedly written to be understood, people say; books are written (supposedly) to be summarised in first-year courses on philosophy, deconstruction, sexuality, feminism, "the postcolonial", etc. Not for themselves.
Here a question arises: how, then, does the discontinuity so central to Spivak's thinking in "Scattered Speculations"––discontinuity, crisis, rupture as management and as reproduction of the chain of value––intervene on the scene where Spivak herself ruptures the smooth progress/processing of contemporary philosophical history? "[For Spivak] the notion of value as continuity," Jon writes, "is at best mistaken, at worst ideological, and so complicit." Because if Spivak herself ruptures continuity, she herself also reproduces the chain of value (or rather, not 'she', the person, but 'Spivak' the name.) Again, I am having a hard time keeping within the bounds of the Marxological calculus of [economic] capital and not simply talking about value, as such. But isn't this the point? Any idea of value is about economics, just as any idea of economics can be about values. I'll try to think both at the same time.
When a Spivak blogweave was first proposed, I momentarily confused "Scattered Speculations" with another essay, "Poststructuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality and Value" (1990). This was a productive moment of confusion. In the 1990 essay, Spivak talks about how 'marginality' suddenly began to circulate as a buzzword in academia. She also returns to the subject of value, in what I think is a far more compact or 'portable' consideration than "Scattered Speculations", at least for me:
A word to name the margin. Perhaps that is what the audience wanted to hear: a voice from the margin. If there is a buzzword in cultural critique now, it is 'marginality'. Every academic knows that one cannot do without labels. To this particular label, however, Foucault's caution must be applied, and we must attend to its Herkunft or descent. When a cultural identity is thrust upon one because the centre wants an identifiable margin, claims for marginality assure validation from the centre. It should then be pointed out that what is being negotiated here is not even a 'race or a social type' ... but an economic principle of identification through separation. (200)
'Value' is the name of that 'contentless and simple' thing by way of which Marx rewrote not mediation, but the possibility of the mediation that makes possible in its turn all exchange, all communication, sociality itself. (205)
From all that begs for commentary there, right now I can only take on the ‘contentless’ part: the insight that the actual content of a category, or commodity-form, in circulation within capital does not matter. (I'm trying to figure out if this means that the use-value of the commodity doesn't really matter, only exchange-value. Advice?) The content, per se, of the 'marginalised' does not matter (for example, which marginal and from where, and what hir life is like). What does matter is that the entry of 'the marginalised' into debate sends the existing economy into momentary crisis: at that conjuncture in the mid-1980's, and in every moment in a group or collective or 'democratic' situation in which people say, "We're all too white here, we need some diversity," or, "We have to start addressing the needs of 'the marginalised'." Hence, tokenism. Ange has talked about the irrelevance of content under capitalism and democracy a lot, and my thinking is very influenced by hers, here.
This ties in an anti-identity politics strategy quite nicely with a critique of capitalism. But, so what? In response to Ange's differentia specifica post, Danny asks, "How does one process or hybridise the labour of the Other that is incorporated in one's own cognitive labour?". Aside from how that's an awesome question in itself, it calls for attention to be paid to the specificity and difference of labour, how labour is not all the same (neither in a temporal, epochal sense or a horizontal, democratic sense): how, as Spivak notes, the earning of $2 million for 15 minutes of labour is only made possible by Sri Lankan women for whom a buying a t-shirt costs 2287 minutes at work (171). Attending to that incorporation of the Other's labour might also involve seeing how the subject, 'we', of the statement, "We need more marginality," is shaped as a homogeneity through the positioning of others as valuable only because of their 'marginality', and as a call to attend to the levels of coercion under which anyone deemed 'marginal' must labour: both to stay there, and to escape or refuse that appellation.
I'm going to finish really soon, I promise, but I also promised to return to Jack Smith, and to talk about heteronormativity. I can't really talk about heteronormativity without also critiquing 'the gay and lesbian community', since that particular value crisis has resulted, here and elsewhere, in a new nearly-smooth sexual economy in which gayness is nearly as accepted, and just as boring, as heterosexuality. (I said, nearly smooth. Don't get excited.) In the same interview I cited above, Jack Smith talks about how the 'gay movement' had become a ghetto and how the industry of 'gay' subject-production was "just one of the unexpected bad side developments ... that's making it possible to be so happily ghettoized." (249) This was in 1978. Gay rights talk is also, it seems, one of the bad side-effects.
A couple of weeks ago, Jasmyne Cannick wrote an article in the Advocate 'coming out' against the massive open borders marches that some are calling a 'new poor people's movement' in the US. Her logic goes like this: if hard-working, tax-paying gay and lesbian citizens still don't have all of their rights, then why should 'illegal immigrants' be given more rights than 'us'? They're not citizens. They should wait their turn.
I won't go into the dangers of the 'scarcity' model of rights here, but I will touch on how 'gay rights' fought for at the expense of 'other' rights––particularly the rights that relate to freedom of movement and labour––merely bolster heteronormativity through reproducing queers as the equivalents of straight people. Why? Because when the goal becomes 'to have the same rights as straight people', who are the straight people one wants the equivalent rights of? Not, I assume, undocumented migrant heteros living in constant danger of deportation. Heterosexuality is not a mass identity in which no difference subsists; it shores up some, important, apparatuses of differentiation (among them the reproduction of labour, and labouring subjects) but it cuts across others.
This anti-immigration stuff probably gets published in the Advocate all the time by white gay male writers and no-one gives a crap. Post Andrew Sullivan, we expect it. The key difference here was that Cannick circulated her ideas speaking as a 'Black lesbian.' A flurry of responses ensued from non-white, pro-migration queers saying, in essence (and angrily), "This woman does not speak for us." It seems pertinent here to consider how much labour must go into that calculus of distancing, and the context in which that labour takes place. It's a context in which different rhetorics of blame and racism position themselves against and through each other; and in which subalternity does not have the option of shrugging off its 'bad representatives', because one representation might result in everyone queer and non-white being targeted (however ironically) for being "anti-migration". It's also a context in which white, male middle-class subjects always already inhabit unmarkedness. They are not required to speak for anyone except themselves. They are almost always permitted the great invisible privilege of "just expressing an opinion."
To bring it full circle, I ask this: if Spivak were permitted that privilege, would people find her work so difficult to comprehend?