Stephen Morton's text on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is part of a recent series put out by the Routledge Press, designed under the general editorial direction of Robert Eaglestone (Royal Holloway, University of London), to explore the most recent and exciting ideas in intellectual development during the past century or so. To this end, figures such as Martin Heidegger, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francios Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricouer, Friedrich Nietzsche and other influential thinkers in critical thought are highlighted in the series, planned to include more than 21 volumes in all.
Morton's text, following the pattern of the others, includes background information on Spivak and his significance, the key ideas and sources, and Spivak's continuing impact on other thinkers. As the series preface indicates, no critical thinker arises in a vacuum, so the context, influences and broader cultural environment are all important as a part of the study, something with which Nietzsche (one of the thinkers highlighted in this series) might have some argument.
Why is Spivak included in this series? Spivak is less well known in comparison with some of the thinkers in this series, but her impact in modern critical thinking has gone far beyond narrow intellectual confines to influence in many fields impacted with the thinking of the postmodern world; these include psychology, politics, literature, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, history and anthropology. The idea of postcolonial issues continues as a primary force in cultures that have long since gained political autonomy, because of the long-standing legacies imposed upon such cultures.
For example, Spivak recognizes the situation of irony in that she is product of the English-speaking, post-colonial situation in India, and now lives and teaches in the United States. However, her situation is also informed by the failure of the Indian socialism to deal the issues of women's equality, the underclass, and issues of tribalism and rural poverty. Spivak was heavily influenced by the major critical thinkers, particularly Derrida and de Man (Paul de Man was her dissertation director).
Key ideas that Morton highlights start with Theory, politics and the question of style. Spivak is very much different from another major thinker in post-colonial theory, Edward Said, in that she looks for contemporary literary theory to help reveal, rather than obscure, social and political relationships. In terms of deconstructionism, Spivak sees the ethical imperative to move this concept beyond academia and literary circles into socio-economic and political realms. In dealing with the Subaltern, the underclasses and less privileged people, she reworks the Marxist framework to look at histories that take a broader community into account - in particular, 'third world' women, one of the least visible and audible groups of people in the world. Morton also develops chapters on Spivak's idea of materialism, as well as her work on colonial and post-colonial issues in a specifically literary context.
One of the useful features of the text is the side-bar boxes inserted at various points. For example, during the discussion on Spivak's development of 'third world' women and Western feminist thought, there are brief discussions, set apart from the primary strand of the text, on the issues of essentialism, strategic essentialism, developing further these ideas should the reader not be familiar with them, or at least not in the way with which Spivak would be working with ideas derived from it. There are also brief boxes on Marx, Derrida and others, giving insight into key ideas from these thinkers as they relate to Spivak. Each section on a key idea spans approximately twenty pages, with a brief summary concluding each, which gives a recap of the ideas (and provides a handy reference).
The concluding chapter, After Spivak, highlights some key areas of development in relation to other thinkers, as well as points of possible exploration for the reader. Morton traces the influence of Spivak according to several areas: the future of postcolonial theory; how Marxist thought exists after Spivak; the ideas of transnational feminism in Butler, Alexander and Mohanty; and the idea of reading the subaltern in Parry, Varadharajan, Moore-Gilbert, and Bellamy.
As do the other volumes in this series, Morton concludes with an annotated bibliography of works by Spivak, and works on Lyotard by principal scholars. He also includes an internet resources link and a useful index.
While this series focuses intentionally upon critical literary theory and cultural studies, in fact this is only the starting point. As intellectual endeavours of every sort depend upon language, understanding, and interpretation, the thorough comprehension of how and why we know what we know is crucial.