Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"To talk planet-talk" in Spivak's Death of a Discipline

In Robert Clements's Introduction to Comparative Literature, I pointed  as a critique of his work – that the attempt to trace the genealogy of comparative literature lacks explication on the very purpose of comparing national literatures worldwide. Why, I asked, is there a need juxtapose bodies of literature when it merely echoes the dominance and hegemonic influence of the West? 

Interestingly, Spivak’s Death of a Discipline provides possibility to free ourselves from that question. It provides an account that traces the origin of the institutionalization of comparative literature vis-à-vis area/cultural/postcolonial studies as a product of “forces of people moving about the world” (e.g the cold war, the flight of intellectuals from oppressive regimes, and the rise of Asian migration in the US). Moreover, globalizing forces, with its exploitative and dominating qualities, have inescapably mapped the computerized world in the “gridwork of electronic capital”. 

In facing this reality, Spivak compels us to overwrite the globe and think “planetarity”. The appeal of this idea, in my view, lies in our capacity to imagine: to visualize an escape of what seemingly is an inescapable cartography by capitalists of the computerized globe. Thinking “planetarity” means imagining ourselves not as global subjects, but as planetary species that dwell on the planet being loaned to us. 

In Spivak’s words, “to talk planet talk” in the “undivided ‘natural’ space rather than a differentiated political space” involves visualization of the earth as a “paranational image” (72). While this idea seems absurdly abstract and utopian, it remains a radically challenging concept that provides hope for resistance when everything seems inescapable in the globalizing earth. 

But then, how to ensure that this abstract imagining of the planet will not be again charted by capitalist cartographers of the globe? 

Of course nothing escapes the imagination, especially not the canniest uncanny thought of resistance and action. As I recall in Nietzchean philosophy – On the Genealogy of Morals – there is an instance in history where the “imaginary” triumphs over the dominant and oppressive. It is through the concept of ressentiment or resentment where the oppressed (Judeo-Christian slaves) stage an “imaginary revolt” against the oppressors (Roman masters) by labeling their values of strength and power as “evil”. 

Because of its symbolic and imagined qualities, ressentiment or internalized hatred is central to the later ascendance of the slave’s “good” morality. I can only assume that Spivak’s “planetarity” also believes in the kind of power that imagination leads society to resist and triumph over the destructiveness of capitalist cartography. 

The challenge though is to outmatch capitalist creativity, for it too has its own ability to materialize what is abstract and what is intangible. For instance, our imaginings of love, freedom, and nationhood are already unable to escape the capitalistic commodification of the abstract; how much more the imagination of the planet? 

Of course, Spivak provides us with strategies, from the obscurity of her writing to letting ourselves be imagined by others, without guarantees. But then, talking “planet-talk” will, sooner or later, be expectedly subjected to decoding and appropriation, by which capitalists are notorious for. And so, inasmuch as Spivak tells us that the outcome is “uncertain” or “to come”, it must arrive in haste before everything is too late.

Reference: Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.  

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