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<nettime> interview with Gayatri Spivak
Geert Lovink on Sat, 26 Jul 1997 14:51:35 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> interview with Gayatri Spivak

Pax Electronica: against crisis-driven global telecommunication
An Interview with Gayatri Spivak
By Geert Lovink
July 23, 1997

At Hybrid Workspace, Documenta X, Kassel

"Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, born in India, is a professor of English
and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. Her
name is primarily associated with the concept of postcolonial
studies and along with Edward Said and Homi Bhabba she is
regarded to be one of the most important representatives of this
Anglo-American theoretical field. Her literary analyses and
theoretical writings have invariably dealt with the deconstruction of
neocolonial discourses and a feminist-Marxist approach to
postcolonialism, particularly to the schematized forms of
representing women in the Third World. During the summer months
Gayatri Spivak works with a non-governmental organization in
Bangladesh to organize an educational program for women and a
teacher training course." The ofifcial Documenta X biography

You can see the lecture of Gayatri Spivak (real video) on:

The Global Knowledge conference she is referring to was organized by the
Worldbank and took place in Toronto from june 22-25 june 1997. See also:
The protests against this event were impressive. Read the report on:

Geert Lovink: You are writing by hand?

Gayatri Spivak: It is not so much deliberate, but I just can't help
writing by hand. One types by hand also. It is not that the hand
disappears, but if I start typing, or working on the screen, I am
dinosaur. I find that it disappears from me. I have a secretary but she
certainly does not type the stuff I write. I am from the manual typewriter
era. The extraordinary editing capacities of the computer also touch me.
That second typing on the screen is a creative moment. It is just not the
first moment. Is writing the first moment we do not know. I consume the
affect of writing by hand. Another reason is that I do a lot of work in
areas where there no electricity at all.

GL: Here we try to mix real and virtual spaces, old and new media,
thereby polluting the clean, bright concept of high-tech. We are trying
to get away from the autopoetic, self-referential tendencies and 
ideologies written into both the hard- and software.

GS: The high-tech is an epistemological constraint I want to escape.
That's the secret of hybridisation. The biggest hybridisation is of
course the sexual encounter which you want to escape and at the same
time are seduced by. Yes, epistemologic constraints seduce me because
they are outside of me, while at the same time I want to escape them.
This is how the game of hybridisation in my life goes on.

GL: Do you consider the computer as a machine of exclusion? Or is it
just a tool?

GS: It does seem to me that in one way the computer is part of an
empericisation of the desire for virtuality. This made D.H. Lawrence
write some time ago that the sexual encounter is the eternal virginity
of the soul. To an extent, real virtuality is the imagination, which
does indeed exclude. It constantly makes you other yourself and other
the Other. So it is not as if the computer is alien to the way we are.
I don't see a distinction between natural and artificial intelligence.
I think that's bogus. At the same time it can become exclusive, an
instrument of a certain narcissism, a simulacrum of reaching
the other, which is exactly a withdrawal of the responsibility.
In a much broader, political sense, it can be exclusivist because of
the stratification of the world. But that's another story. Like most
answers: what is poison is also medicine.

GL: In what direction would you like to see this new genre of 'net
criticism' grow into? Is there something we could learn from literary

GS: I can only tell you what my notion of literary criticism is. The
imagination is the possibility of real virtuality. The claims made for
virtual reality are sometimes, somewhat empiricised. The imagination is
the possibility of being somewhere that is not the Self. This is
related to being human, as already being open to a connection with
something other. That is what to be human is. Otherwise the infant
would not be able to invent his or her mother tongue. That is how the
infant begins, by creating a language which then the parent learns, as
it were. Through that it develops into a language with a history. That
is the synthesis with the absolutely Other which is monitored by the
imagination. You could look at literature in this way, as a kind of
machine for the training into relating with the Other.
I am not in the business of getting information from the South and then
doing research in the North. I teach Marx to Americans. And I do
practical work in Bangladesh so that I can learn. I say to my American
students, let us now imagine that there has been no history. Nothing has
happened, this text is about to be written. It is not that one denies
history. We learn to learn from the singular and the unverifiable --
that is what the literary is. It is hard to describe because it is a doing
thing. It sounds romantic if you talk about it. I believe that this
literary critical practice has connections with the notion of virtual
reality, but I don't know what they are. You will have to think about it
in your own way.
I don't see the literary primarily as a field of expression. I see it as
a field of being impressed: 'gepraegt'. Perhaps that is one way of
looking at the Internet. If I ever got into developing net criticism, I
think I would probably be as eccentric as I am in the field of this
literacy stuff. Maybe you could pull me in and see what peculiar comes
out of it.

GL: For a country like India it seems of strategic importance to
introduce cyber-technologies. Do think that this has a priority over
other infrastructure, like roads or electricity, or even over education
or food?

GS: I don't think that is a choice anymore. Here in Kassel I will talk
about a conference that took place in Toronto on June 25, called
'Global Knowledge'. The actual agenda said that the so-called
developing countries should be given preferential treatment. It was all
about selling access to telecommunication-as-empowerment as such. There
is this picture of a very tall and lovely African woman, in her cloth,
with a spear her right hand and a cellular telephone in her left. It is
scary. Global telecommunications combined with actually women's 'micro
credit' is spelling out the importance of finance capital. In a
situation where financial capital turns over twenty-five times more
than world trade, states are undermined and the possibility of social
re-distribution is being questioned, it is a luddite idea to think that
one can stop the world and that a developing state can chose whether to
prefer electricity, food, roads, seeds, bio-diversity, or primary health.
This is not a choice because telecommunications are being sold as access
to all of this. The idea of the Pax Electronica, coming from the Pax
Romana, the Pax Brittanica and the Pax Americana is a very welcome notion
when one is not aware of the worm in the rose. McLuhan was the avatar of
this Global Knowledge conference. Both McLuhan in his 'Global Village'
and Lyotard in his 'The Postmodern Condition' suggest that with
societies, what pre-writing societies used to have -- the oral
cultures -- will come back. The first world will be able to access the
internal, unmediated richness of the oral culture. Not only go back, but
go forward. One of highlights of the Global Knowledge conference was a
school in Alaska for the Inuits, so far West that if you cross the
water you cross over to the East. That is the ultimate notion of the
slogan 'Go West, Young Man'.  McLuhan said that today's Third World has
lost touch with the holistic view, and in the telematic world we will go
back this immediacy. Lyotard's example in 'The Postmodern Condition' is
of the Gashiahoo Indian, the native Canadian American. There is certainly
an allure here to the post-affluent, superannuated hippie -- the walking
wounded from the sixties.
I got news of this conference in Bangladesh, I was not in Toronto.
What was striking was that the mailing from this conference has
already started. The so-called least developed nations are already
getting the letters. If we protesters take our time, we will have
missed the boat. It is no use vaulting the World Bank. The notion that
'women are truly stepping forward to an unexamined notion of global
feminism through telecommunication' is very scary thing.

GL: Could you tell us about the work you have been doing in Bangladesh,
regarding the media situation and the question of access to

GS: I am not connected to an NGO, as the Documenta brochure says. I am
not connected to anyone. Since you can't work complete alone, I am
friendly with, tolerated by, a group that is an alternative development
policy research collective in Bangladesh. They are deliberately not an
NGO, they pay taxes. In the current post-Soviet conjuncture we have to
be very critical about this new, rising NGO-culture. They call
themselves a consulting agency. They produce research that is not
government sponsored or NGO sponsored.
NGO is not really a category. You can't define something simply by
saying that it is non-governmental. An organisation is content
specific, funding specific, structure and salary specific, who
evaluates, what kind of advisers exist, etc. In India there is now a
new category called 'people's movement' which is neither a new social
movement, according to the European notion of the greens. Nor is it an
NGO thing, to the extend that a people's movement must be a group whose
work will survive even if the funding is stopped. The critique of the
NGO is that in the New World Order of economic restructuring, whereby
barriers between state economies and international capital are
one-by-one removed, you need something which can take over the 'economic
citizenship', as Saskia Sassen calls it, and this is done by the huge
structure of collaborative NGOs. This is called the 'international civil
society'. In 1995, after the GATT was concluded, immediately the World
Trade Organisation began making the GATT something that could be
enforced. In this context, NGOs are not a useful group to work with as
they are too involved in the New World Order -- in terms of big players
like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade
Organisation as the economic arm and, unfortunately, more and more, the
United Nations as the political arm.

GL: How does this group you work with look at global telecommunications
and to whether access is important?

GS: Yes, access is important. This group I work with brings out a
journal in Bengali called 'Informatics'. They use the English word in
Bengali script. What they are interested in is strategy-driven, rather
than crisis-driven, access to telecommunications. Certainly not the idea
that simply access as such is empowerment. In the old days we used to
say that rights are an empty notion. You have to bind every freedom to
a content, so that in its binding a freedom is exercised, otherwise you
only have non-exercised guarantees. When they are exercised you
have riots and violence. They are trying to effect the charges that
are being imposed, so that your idea of a public space becomes
This is an up-hill battle, especially when the telecommunication will be
sold 'for free'.

GL: Could you tell us more about this group: who they are and what they
are doing.

GS: They are called, in English, Alternative Development Policy
Research. They focus on ecological agriculture on a large scale. One of
their main projects is the struggle against pesticides, chemical
fertilisers and bio-piracy. Bangladesh has 12,000 kinds of rice. As
monoculture is coming in, the farmers are having buy back their own
seed. What they also do is the struggle against the international
population control lobby. Not against family planning. Against
pharmaceutical dumping, coercive contraception, etc. These are the
negative uncertainties. They are part of the Third World Network and are
connected to the Asian Women's Human Rights Council. The development of
a notion of informatics fits into this.
They are also active on the cultural front. They are profoundly
connected to Bengali Sufi: a detheologized islamic-hindu combinations
on the ground, which is very different from either bourgeois secularism
or virulent nationalism. This comes through their attachment to music.
Also they are involved in the reform and restoration of old
Arabic-Persian words in Bengali, which surpressed in the 19th
century when Indian nationalism picked up Bengali and made it into
something more Hindu.
What I am interested in doing is learning to learn from below. I hang
out with extremely deprived groups to see how their children should be
taught. I am with the children so that I can find ways of telling the
teachers what to do. Now this is very slow work, one on one. I have
been doing it for the last ten years. You can't do it by reading Paolo
Freire. Each place is different and the teachers are full of good will,
but extremely ill-educated. I can't do this for long because the
teachers, given the way in which they have developed, cannot believe
that the ideas that I am giving are any good at all. The workshops
given by NGOs or the government are so different from what I say. If
they start obeying me, everything will be ruined.
If there is going to be democracy in the world, the largest sectors are
the rural poor in the South. And there is no other way of doing this.
More and more I feel that I don't want to give time and skill to the
resource-rich. My teaching in the United States is no longer filled
with the kind of enthusiasm I had during the eighties. I tell my
students that. On the other hand it is fieldwork for me, to study the
ignorance of the advanced student who wants to do good. I am of course
seduced by the comfort and money there, and to have this money is
useful if one is as quixotic as I am in the other work that I do.
What is also useful in the United States is New York. I love New York
and this is a contradiction in my life. I am a real New Yorker.

(edited by Linda Wallace)

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