Gayatri Spivak is a renowned literary theorist and philosopher; her most famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is considered to be one of the founding texts of postcolonial theory. I recently saw Spivak speak at an event at the University of Houston, where she shared “Lessons from My Travels,” a set of reflections that mirrored the themes in her most recent book, Readings. In this work, Spivak elaborates a utopian vision of how literary reading can form “the will for peaceful social justice in coming generations.” There are many reasons to marvel at Spivak’s work—her command of multiple languages, the ease with which she moves between Kant, Bengali poetry, and the English Romantics, and the courage with which she has critiqued modes of knowing that further oppression. But for the moment, what I find most inspiring is the nuanced clarity with which she expressed the relationship between humanistic learning and social justice.

Spivak is by no means the only public academic who has written about the value of the humanities in recent years. A number of editorials (including our own) on the subject were inspired by Stephen Pinker’s 2013 New Republic piece “Science is not the enemy of the humanities.” Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, began his article by claiming the Enlightenment for social and evolutionary psychology, arguing that the great philosophers of the Age of Reason were “theorists of human nature.” According to Pinker, “Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith” did “remarkable things” given the dearth of “formal theory and empirical data” in the 17th and 18th centuries. How enthusiastically they would have embraced the advances that science has brought about in our own time! Pinker can only lament that contemporary humanists have not embraced science in the manner he imagines the greats of the Enlightenment would have done.

Defending his position against accusations of essentialism, reductionism, and scientism, Pinker claims that science is, in fact, the foundation of secular humanism, which he further argues has become the “de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions.” In its ability to show the factual errors in traditional world religions, science has succeeded in giving us an unassailable foundation for morality; a foundation that the enlightenment philosophers had sought but failed to attain. In other words, Pinker believes that “the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.” And because of this, Pinker argues that the humanities have lost their way in their hostility toward science. Pinker sees this error in the postmodern claims that science is not an objective mirror of the natural world, but that it is deeply entangled with the systems of power that structure all of human existence. For Pinker the humanities remain mired in the “disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness.” It is only through a consilience between the sciences and the humanities that Pinker believes the humanities can recover their ability to intervene on morality.


Reading, literary reading, can give us a ‘training of the imagination that makes revolutions last.’


To my knowledge, Spivak hasn’t ever written a piece responding to Pinker. And it is very likely that Pinker has in mind Spivak’s dense, literary prose when he describes the “defiant obscurantism” of the humanities. (Pinker certainly has no love for the writing style of feminist theorist Judith Butler, for instance, whose prose he holds up as the antithesis of elegant, compelling writing in his recent book A Sense of Style.) But what I find valuable in bringing Spivak and Pinker together is not the postcolonial critique Spivak could offer on the supposed objectivity of Pinker’s “Western,” “male,” “scientific” knowledge. Although we could certainly derive such a critique from Spivak, it is also worth noting that, although much of her early work was responsible for inspiring these sorts of criticisms, she later distanced herself from mainstream postcolonial theory. No, what I find so intoxicating about Spivak is that she offers an argument for the value of the humanities that is not primarily concerned with rebuking science.

Spivak is, after all, a literary theorist. In Readings, she describes what she believes is the deep value in literary reading:

That is what training in literary reading offers beyond the conventional definitions of literature—a painstaking learning of the language of others. This training can also come through cultural rearing, often compromised by gender and class. In other words, only women and servants must think of others, the babus and their children think of themselves, and the queer generally remain in hiding. This is a general description as I move through India. It is amazing to see in my own class how different the treatment of women and servants is, to observe how the children and the babus behave.

Literary reading can, if given the chance, undo this, and not just in India…. A literary education can direct one to noticing these otherwise ignored details…

By a literary education, Spivak has far more in mind than the simple mechanics of comprehension, grammar, and composition. Reading literature is a way of training the imagination to consider and care for the needs, perspectives, and troubles of those distant from us in terms of geography, worldview, class, race, religion, and gender. This is a necessary feature of social justice, one which is far harder to ingrain than we might imagine. Yet Spivak does not believe we can forcibly instill this in anyone—rather, we can only craft the conditions this other-orientedness needs to arise on its own.


Even alongside the grandest, purest vision of science, Spivak’s argument that ‘everything is medicine can turn to poison’ still rings true.


Spivak’s is a beautiful and terrifying vision of the ethical project. It’s a vision in which we cannot control the outcome; if we attempt to control it, we destroy any possibility of social justice. In seeking power, particularly when we fervently believe ourselves to be right, we destroy what was good about our moral system in the first place. Much of the evil in the world was committed by people who urgently believed in the righteousness of their cause. As Spivak explains, “everything that is medicine can turn to poison if the person or the collectivity who is using it is not trained to know how much to use, when, and how.” Reading, literary reading, can give us a “training of the imagination that makes revolutions last.”

Spivak’s belief in the tangible connection between social justice and the sometimes esoteric world of academia is a breath of fresh air. It compels us to consider what other methodologies and disciplines in the humanities could similarly offer. But it also illuminates why humanistic approaches to the world’s problems are a necessary addition to the epistemologies currently mapped out by the natural and social sciences. In his article, Pinker spoke glowingly of “the proudest accomplishments of our species, many of [them] gifts bestowed by science” as long as we, “set aside the removal of obstacles we set in our own path, such as the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism.” For Pinker, science is the shining light of human ingenuity that has escaped the putrefying entanglements of  human greed, oppression, and violence. It is only the “historically illiterate,” Pinker claims, that believe such ills as “Social Darwinism and eugenics” represent anything more than “political movements with pseudoscientific patina.” For argument’s sake, let us cede these points to Pinker—though it is only for the sake of an argument that I could be convinced to ignore the history of science in such a reckless way. Even alongside the grandest, purest vision of science, Spivak’s argument that “everything is medicine can turn to poison” still rings true. How shall we know to care and value the experiences and troubles of people whose lives are radically removed from our own? How can we learn to use hard-earned natural and social knowledge for freedom rather than oppression? Where shall we begin? Spivak’s call for the literary training of the imagination is at least one beguiling starting point.

Myrna Perez Sheldon is Editor-in-Chief of Cosmologics and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Rice University.

Image from Flickr via Zeeyolq Photography.


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