Reading Spivak: Random Musings on “More on Power/Knowledge” (1993)

I did not understand Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak the first time I read these words (which begin her essay “More on Power/Knowledge” in Outside in the Teaching Machine [1993, 2009]):

What is the relationship between critical and dogmatic philosophies of action? By “critical” I mean a philosophy that is aware of the limits of knowing. By “dogmatic” I mean a philosophy that advances coherent general principles without sufficient interest in empirical details. Kant’s warning, that the Jacobins had mistaken a critical for a dogmatic philosophy and had thus brought in terror, has served generations of humanist liberals as the inevitable critique of revolutionary politics. Its latest vindication seems to be the situation of international communism. It can certainly be advanced that one of the many scripts spelling out the vicissitudes of the diversified field of the first waves of global Marxism is the consequence of the realist compromises of reading a speculative morphology as an adequate blueprint for social justice: to treat a critical philosophy as a dogmatic. . . . The misadventures of international communism might teach us something about the violent consequences of imposing the most fragile part of Marx, the predictive Eurocentric scenario, upon large parts of the globe not historically centered in Europe. (Outside in the Teaching Machine 27)

She asks on the next page: “What is it to use a critical philosophy critically? What is it to use it ethically? Who can do so?” (28). Implicit in Spivak’s questions is the unsettling question: Has one—have I—ever learned to read a critical text non-dogmatically?

Years ago, when I attended the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell, I was often befuddled at how often Michel Foucault was treated dogmatically, which is to say, as a writer and thinker who advanced “general principles without sufficient interest in empirical details.” The treatments I encountered were not friendly but hostile and occasionally self-promotional. If I can just take down Foucault a peg or two, then I have advanced my own research a peg or two. Though I’m a card-carrying, thoroughly reprobate Deleuzian, I quickly became pegged—in my seminar and in discussions and public events outside of the seminar—as an apologist for Foucault’s life and work. Since I enjoyed reading Foucault a great deal (and had even brought several of his books with me to Ithaca), I was happy to play this role and to see how long I could keep it up.

I would like to say, of course, that my defenses of The History of Sexuality; his lectures, Security, Territory, Population; and “What Is Enlightenment?” were grounded in clever, detailed, and novel interpretations I could call my own, but this is not the case. All I had done, prior to attending SCT, was read Foucault as a thinker well aware of the limits of his own concepts, claims, interest, and evidence. (I had been trained to read Foucault by my mentor and friend, Stephen M. Barber.) My critical ripostes to Foucault’s critics did not really vary much in form or content, since all it took to deflate the objections I encountered was to attend to Foucault’s actual words and his style of writing. This is what happens, perhaps, when one “Read[s] (rather than merely quot[es]) Foucault” (Spivak 35).

While I am interested in the way Spivak resists particular dogmatic (and disappointed) codings of Foucault’s work and articulates an “everyday sense” of pouvoir/savoir (“being able to do something—only as you are able to make sense of it” [38]), my main takeaway from her essay is really a mode of critical and creative reading at odds with “the anxiety of academic [and, one might add, corporate and administrative] interlocutors” who “tell us, you must be doing this” (Spivak 45). Those, in short, who mistake the critical for the dogmatic. While this (speculative? agnostic?) mode of reading might seem somewhat counterproductive—shouldn’t we just say what we mean so that we can get down to the business of what we should do?—I retain a belief and a perverse pleasure in a kind of supplementary thinking and feeling that does not aim to establish anything (a political program, a method, a canon, a discipline, a college) but that strives to be useful in another way. “I continue to think,” Spivak writes, “that the real usefulness of these two [i.e., Foucault and Derrida] is in the lesson of their refusal to be taken in by victories measured out in rational abstractions, in the dying fall of their urge persistently to critique those dogmas for the few (in the name of the many) that we cannot not want to inhabit” (50). Which is to say, what, exactly? That Foucault and Derrida—whatever we might think of specific books, concepts, or quotations—might be useful for us insofar as they teach “a voice of caution, raised at the moment of negotiated independence, a critique of what one cannot not want” (51).

I cannot follow Spivak into her concluding example, Mahasweta Devi, since I cannot be responsible to the latter’s life and work (at least to the extent I would like). But I would take Spivak’s lesson—learned in the process of giving Foucault and Derrida in to one another—in another direction: a way of reading as self-care and care-of-the-other that resists dogmatizing what one reads, that learns to graft a “critical watchfulness” (52) to one’s greatest victories. There is perhaps a way to repeat this lesson with a Deleuzian difference: to plant a rhizome in one’s cherished places, to be sensuously cognizant of lines (molar, molecular, of flight) immanent to that which one cannot not want. As literary, cultural, film, and media studies continue to disaggregate into disciplines that have a harder and harder time recognizing one another—modernist studies, fan studies, audience studies, love studies, age studies, affect studies, queer studies, animal studies, nonhuman studies, one could go on—perhaps a mode of supplementary, speculative, and careful reading is more necessary than ever, a mode of reading capable of critiquing that which one cannot not want (a “studies” of one’s own).

This lesson is one I’m still learning to practice in my administrative work as well, where passwords like “accessibility,” “sustainability,” “responsibility,” “innovation,” and “reformation” are taken as unquestioned values. Aren’t they valuable? The point is not render them valueless, perhaps, but to bring them to crisis and to “mak[e] their built-in problems more visible” (134). But is this even possible anymore? Reading on . . .

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