Theory and Education - English

A Bit on Theory

By Gayatri C. Spivak15.06.2015Culture and Society

Theory is epistemological and ethical healthcare for our society. Gayatri C. Spivak tackles the question “Is theory critical?”


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“Is Theory Critical?” was a question recently put to some of us publicly. I myself interpreted this question institutionally and practically: how can we ask for continued funding when the humanities have been trivialized and self-trivialized, with something called “theory” at its extreme edge? I quote a sentence from the muscular letter I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Toronto: “This kind of training will never generate income for the university directly. Think of it as epistemological and ethical healthcare for the society at large.”

Otherwise, it is hard for me to answer any question that pre-asks “What is theory?” I have to rewrite it as “What is it to theorize?” In that mode, I have responded to the Anthropocene — an item included in the original question — by reading the synthetic a priori as rape. This argument will not appeal to responders. Here’s a last paragraph from published prose: “Why try to conserve something seen, when the society we live in proves its decrepitude by gated journalism, gated publishing, protected by high walls? Absolutely forget, even the lesson that the literary-ethical suspension in the space of the other is to de-humanize, if humanization from the animal is by way of rape in general, unless we want to mooch over being-human in the face of the Anthropocene.”

Toolkits and Teaching

Globalization was yet another item. I gave back potential funder prose, where the dirty word “theory” lingers under “deep language learning”: a global student is one who senses that nation-states are diverse, with history, literature, and philosophical traditions (inclusive of the Law) that can be accessed through deep language learning; that the sciences, though diverse in their beginnings, came to be consolidated in a single trajectory that becomes pluri-dimensional in the world of technology; and that today there is a global simultaneity where these two kinds of diversity can be digitally accessed. The global student comes with an expectation to be introduced into the methodology for accessing this multi-layered reality. As the student matures, s/he gets a rough sense that the Schools of Business and Medicine can make use of digital globality in a more direct way, but the preparation outlined above can enhance this use: primary healthcare and chronic disease relief for the Medical School, for example, and real corporate socio-cultural responsibility for the Business School.

To me, neoliberalism and neo-capitalism are closely linked on a chain of displacements. It is “the ‘rule of law’ that arises because barriers between national capital and global capital are removed, and the state, run to manage the global economy, rather than specifically to look after its citizens, attempts to enhance teaching and learning by producing toolkits that also limit teaching and learning.” There, I believe we acknowledge complicity, being folded together, and proceed from this into remembering the importance of elementary school teaching.

A Limit to Philosophizing?

Here are bits written for Occupy Wall Street and for Vincennes-St. Denis. Wall Street first: “Without the general nurturing of the will to justice among the people, no just society can survive. The Occupy Wall Street movement must attend to education — primary through post-tertiary — at the same time as it attends to the uncoupling of the specifically capitalist globalization and the nation-state. This is an almost impossible task to remember, especially when there are such complex and urgent immediate tasks lined up!” And here’s Vincennes: “I’m now speaking in the same tone in which, in 1968, we spoke about revolution in the university — except we did not then know that change in elite universities alone will not do the trick. Therefore, now, wherever I go, I repeat the same message. That education has to become holistic, that humanities education especially must not keep compartmentalized primary, secondary, tertiary, post-tertiary and beyond. That is almost impossible in the Western world.”

In conclusion: The first part of my answer to the question: “Is Theory Critical?” is institutional. The second part is bits of work. I am not able to answer the question: “Is theory…?” My effort shows to me, yet once again, that theorizing connects to teaching reading, in the broadest sense. Is this “critical”? You tell me. For me, critique remains, vulgarized, a limit to philosophizing. All this is turned around if you consider the tremendous diversity of classed and raced gender-plurality. Try it.



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