Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak | Additional Thoughts

By Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Let me begin with Edward Said’s On Late Style:

the relationship between bodily condition and aesthetic style seems at first to be a subject so irrelevant and perhaps even trivial by comparison with the momentousness of life, mortality, medical science, and health, as to be quickly dismissed. Nevertheless, my contention is as follows: all of us, by virtue of the simple fact of being conscious, are involved in constantly thinking about and making something of our lives, self-making being one of the bases of history, which according to Ibn Khaldun and Vico, the great founders of the science of history, is essentially the product of human labor.[i]

Said has clearly oublié Foucault – the typically mischievous title of a book by Jean Baudrillard — perhaps because there was so much Sturm und Drang over his misunderstanding of Foucault, first from Jim Clifford and others and lately the question from Etienne Balibar:

Did Said have any acquaintance, direct or indirect, with the discourses in which, through the detour of a discussion of the Greek notion of parrèsia, Foucault himself tried to engage in a genealogy of the agonistic relationship between “truth-telling,” is a function of the intellectual…, and the combination of power and knowledge in the exercise of government? Probably not. But for us at least the result is a striking tension between the clear Foucauldian resonances of those words with which Said defines what he calls “the basic question for the intellectual: how does one speak the truth? What truth? For whom and where?”), and a certain distance which is perceptible in the text with respect to Foucault’s understanding and applications of his own formulations.… With a few others, I do in fact believes that a self-critical reflection of Foucault’s on his own engagement alongside the Iranian Revolution, about which he kept completely silent after 1979, could be one of the causes of Foucault’s interest for the meaning and transformations of the Ancient civic and moral notion of the parrèsia, or the “fearless speech”.[ii]

Foucault himself relates German interest in Cynicism to the second world war.

For him another “cause” – if that is the word – is the call of late style. What is Said’s definition of late style? His “obvious personal reason” (LS6) is impending death from chronic leukaemia. I am also now revising my words on Frantz Fanon opening Goran Olsson’s film “Concerning Violence” and therefore thinking hard about the fact that The Wretched of the Earth was famously written in the last ten weeks of Fanon’s life, when he knew he was dying of acute leukemia and finally traveling to a hostile United States for a cure that failed. Said suggests that at a certain point in our lives we want to locate a point of origin, but the late style does not necessarily do so. I would like to propose that Foucault does the whole thing in these last lectures: Socrates began, but also not – and vedi Napoli, poi mori – “a philosophy professor” must teach Socrates “at least once in one’s life.”[iii]

Said’s “second great problematic is about… continuity” (LS5). This too Foucault rehearses in these late lectures; precisely the most disappointing lecture in the series, Foucault knows it is the least good – “forgive these superficial surveys,” he says, “they are notes for possible work” – hoping for continuity — is about the continuity of the Cynics into modernity and terrorism.

But Said is most interested in “explor[ing] the experience of late style that involves a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against….” (LS7).

Although Foucault celebrates Socrates as the master of harmonies and pays his dues; and shows some of his contrariness in reading the classical philosophical tradition as clearly suggesting that there can be no ethical differentiation in democracy – incidentally I can turn Foucault around here and put him with Gramsci and Fanon and, humbly, with my own practice, by suggesting that this calls for sustained work for individual education for collectivization that his argument can be made to take on board.

But surely it is in the celebration of the philosophy of the cynic that the absence of serenity and “the deliberately unproductive productiveness going against” comes into play; precisely after his apology for the effort to show continuity into and through terrorism.

Foucault had always said that he did not mention Heidegger because Heidegger was so important to him. He relates the neglect of “the question of the philosophical life” to Heidegger’s project of suggesting that “the question of Being . . . has been what Western philosophy has forgotten, and that this forgetting is what made metaphysics possible” (236).

There is indeed a moment of serenity in quoting Epictetus’ formula for the cynic: “The Cynic ought to be free from distraction, wholly devoted to the service of God, free to go about among men, not tied down by the private duties of men, nor involved in relationships which he cannot violate and still maintain his role as a good and excellent man.”[iv]

But it is the last characteristic of the cynical program that he particularly celebrates in the first hour of the lecture on March 14, 1984, figures a summary of what he has said so far: first the political bravery of truth-telling it’s “involved opposing the courage of truth-telling to an opinion, an error,” “in the case of Socratic irony, and” by contrast and in the second stage “it involves introducing a certain form of truth into a knowledge that men do not know they know, a form of truth which will lead them to take care of themselves” “After political bravery and Socratic irony we have, if you like, Cynic scandal” (233-4). This is where “one risks one’s life,… By the very way in which one lives. In all the meanings of the words, one ‘exposes’ one’s life. Today, through the modality of Protestantism and the scientific study of philosophy, the old grand idea that philosophical life must be “an other life” has been forgotten. This is where we are now with parrhesia – living a life to risk death. “Now, the Cynics say, can there be anything bad in what nature wills and in what she has placed in us?” (254; see also 314 and the last words on 340)

Now again he starts telling anecdotes as reported by the ancients. He speaks of Heraclitus, who was supposed to have gone “among the artisans and sat and warmed himself at the baker’s oven, saying to those who were astonished and indignant: . . . but the gods are also here.” In the original Aristotle text, the word can also be “dungheap” or “latrine”. Foucault writes that

Diogenes chose to go to Corinth so often because it was a big, public town where one could live in public and meet sailors, travelers, and people from all over the world on the street corners and in the temples. It was under this gaze that Diogenes chose to live. And finally he dies in a gymnasium at the gates of Corinth, wrapped in his cloak like a sleeping beggar (253-4; translation modified).

And the “cynic must actively seek dishonor” – adoxia – which “could not begiven positive value in a society in which relations of honor were so important, where glory, a good reputation and the record one leaves in men’s memory, was one of the desired forms of afterlife” (261, 260). Thus Yet Foucault never exercises a deliberate intentionalism here. It is nowhere more than this is how they thought. The only “effect” of what he is teaching is his technique of teaching now through narrative as ethical instantiation rather than argument. Stories, stories; same stories not always read the same way . . . This impatience I will describe in Michael Wood’s delicate words: “Death does sometimes wait for us. . . . The quality of time alters then, like a change in the light, because the present is so thoroughly shadowed by other seasons: the revived or receding past, the newly unmeasurable future, the unimaginable time beyond time” (LS xii).

This is a text without women. The only mentions of women are on page 171: “Epictetus says that the Cynic cannot have a family because, ultimately, humankind is his family: ‘Man, he has fathered all humanity, all men are his sons, all women his daughters.’” And 299, where Hector asks Andromache to go home and weave. I can live with this. In these lectures in the late style, Foucault has perhaps undone – since he doesn’t openly speak his desire – the impudent compalaint that I made against him in 1981: that he doesn’t walk what he talks.

Many of us know he can’t step out of Europe. It’s hard, but I want to end by citing the very beginning of my “Foucault and Najibullah,” which Pakistani feminists have found helpful. [Not enough time to integrate, I will answer in Q & A if there is interest]



[i] Edward W. Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (New York: Pantheon, 2006), p. 5; hereafter in text with LS and page number.

[ii][ii] Jean Baudrillard, Oublier Foucault (Paris, Galilée, 1977); James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, ***, p. 255-256; Robert J.C. Young, *** (see Harold Veeser, ***, for a rebuttal ***); Etienne Balibar, “Speak Truth to Power,” Journal of Contemporary Thought 39 (Summer 2014), p. 16.

[iii] Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth: the Government of Self and Others, tr. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave, 2011), p. 153; hereafter quoted in text by page number.

[iv] Epictetus Bk III, 69


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