AUP graduation ceremony at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

Dr. Gayatri Spivak at AUP roundtable

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For those familiar with the work of Dr. Gayatri Spivak, intellectual, scholar, literary theorist, critic, and long-time professor, the frequency with which words like “postcolonial” and “feminist” are attached to her impressive career should come as no surprise. Also not surprising is how Dr. Spivak has spent much of that same career questioning and challenging these terms and the ease with which they’re wielded. After all, this is the person who pushed for the title “Don’t Call Me Postcolonial” before her book was named the less incendiary, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. It was that idea of the vanishing present, which served as the foundation and guiding principle for her June 6th talk at AUP, as part of the international conference, “D’autres universels”, organized by Director of AUP’s Gender, Sexuality, and Society program, professor Lissa Lincoln.

During her initial presentation, Dr. Spivak counseled a mindful globalism, where specific perspectives and scenarios aren’t taken for the universal norm. She warned against exclusively focusing on single moments of our past, like colonialism, since in doing so, we might forget that history doesn’t begin with nor entirely revolve around such events. To that end, our moral outrage cannot dictate all that we believe and do. We must move beyond our personal indignation in order to discover matters that do not resemble our own experiences but are still worth considering, or as she advised, “Don’t just throw away what someone says because it’s counterintuitive to what you think.” When globalization doesn’t take into account specified and distinct struggles, or when we support non-interdisciplinary sustainable development that stays trapped between capital and colonialism, we are deliberately reordering the past, in order to decide the future, all while perpetrating the dissolution of the present.

Following the talk, a roundtable made up of AUP Professors Elaine Coburn (Global Communications), Philip Golub (International and Comparative Politics), and Yudhishthir Raj Isar (Global Communications, International and Comparative Politics), as well as Cornell University’s Professor Laurent Dubreil (Francophone and Comparative Literature) expounded upon Dr. Spivak’s themes and posed a series of questions. This allowed the conversation to delve into topics ranging from how to coordinate diverse systems of struggle with global varieties of capitalism and the notion of ancestral debt, to the role of storytelling in understanding our histories.

As one spectator noted, it’s easy to believe that the writers whom we grow up studying have arrived at ironclad conclusions, to be eternally respected, and rarely, if ever, contradicted. Professor Spivak’s talk confirmed her to be an academic who is unafraid to engage in self-interrogation in order to arrive at truths that are relevant to our changing world, even if that means jettisoning her previously-held opinions and beliefs.