Spivak, politics of pronunciation, and the search for a just democracy

The controversy over Gayatri Spivak’s public rebuke of a young, Dalit scholar may seem like a storm in a teacup, but it has important social and political implications.

Noted postcolonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s admonition of a young scholar for mispronouncing African-American sociologist WEB Du Bois’s name at a recent lecture has caused a brouhaha in academic circles [Wikimedia Commons].

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the noted postcolonial scholar and global public intellectual, is perhaps best known for her piece, “Can the subaltern speak?,” in which she claims that elite systems of knowledge filter out subaltern (marginalised group) voices so that even when the subaltern does speak, it’s not heard. Now, Spivak’s admonition of a young scholar for mispronouncing African-American sociologist WEB Du Bois’s name at a lecture she recently gave at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi has caused a brouhaha for allegedly silencing the very subaltern voice she claims to valorise. But it’s more complicated than that.

Spivak’s May 21 lecture on Du Bois’s “vision of democracy” was aimed at underlining the norms required for a more just democracy, one that prioritises not individual interests (“my rights”) but the rights of “other people”, especially those of the subaltern. When he was writing, Du Bois had in mind the downtrodden and racialised Blacks of the early 1900s in the United States, but Spivak’s implication was that his concerns might reasonably be extended to all marginalised people today (ie, the poor, gender and sexual minorities, Dalits, the disabled, Palestinians, etc).

Given Du Bois’s own status as a marginalised Black-American scholar of Haitian origins, Spivak’s lecture repeatedly returned to the importance of correctly pronouncing his name: Du Bois himself insisted on the English, not French, pronunciation – “dew-boys”, not “dew-bwah”.

But in the Q&A that followed Spivak’s lecture – a video of which has gone viral – things went sour. A graduate student, Anshul Kumar, tried to ask Spivak a question about her own privileged status in talking about the subaltern. But he was unable to complete his question because Spivak repeatedly interrupted him, first asking him who he was (to which he responded, “I am founding professor of the Centre for Brahmin Studies”), and then correcting him three times on his insistent mispronunciation of Du Bois’s name, reproaching that he should know better as someone doing Brahmin studies.

Things further deteriorated when Kumar audaciously accused Spivak of herself being a Brahmin (something she refuted) and then asking: “If this triviality is over, can I move on to the question?” Spivak responded with, “I’m an 82-year-old woman in public at your institution, and you are rude to me.” At the chair’s beckoning, Spivak then proceeded to take another audience member’s question without answering Kumar’s.

An internet firestorm erupted in the wake of this incident, with people either taking the student’s side for being bullied and silenced or Spivak’s for insisting on the pedagogical and political need for correct pronunciation. Kumar took to X to vent his anger against Spivak, even resorting to (inexcusably) misogynist insults, writing “This B*****d and B***h Lady had the audacity to interrupt me thrice on my pronunciation of Du Bois. Can the Subaltern Speak?”

Then, in the light of the news that Kumar is a Dalit, Spivak felt the need to defend herself, declaring that “Anshul Kumar had not identified himself as a Dalit [at the lecture]. Therefore, I thought he was a Brahminist, since he was saying that he was the founder of a Brahmin Studies Institute … As an old female teacher confronting a male student … my wounded remark that I did not want to hear his question was a gesture of protest.”

The incident may seem like a storm in a teacup, but I think it has important broader social and political implications. At one level, it appears as an illustration of the long-held practice of the “politics of pronunciation”, under which social elites assert their dominance over lower classes through language (“correct” diction, “polite” address, “proper” accent). But the twist in this case is that Spivak’s politics of pronunciation at the lecture is aimed at validating, not elite power, but subaltern voice – Du Bois’s explicit desire to be recognised as a Black Haitian-American. Whether deliberately or mistakenly, Kumar fails to appreciate this key point, since it would align well politically with his pro-subaltern and anti-Brahmanical stand.

Yet while Spivak may come out looking good at the level of the explicit political content of her message, we cannot forget the implicit power dynamics at play here. As a prominent and influential intellectual whose work (and word) is the centre of attention at this event, she is positioned as an authority figure, taking full advantage of it in her attempt to admonish the younger scholar, Kumar. At this implicit level, Spivak has hoisted with her own petard, falling prey to the very dangers of the “dialogue of the deaf” that she has warned against: elites ignoring and muting the subaltern’s voice.

True, it may be debatable whether Kumar is the subaltern he claims to be: While he is a Dalit, he is also a graduate student at a prestigious, elite Indian university that is JNU, a position reserved for the very few. Spivak says as much in a recent interview: “Subaltern and Dalit are not interchangeable words. The upwardly class-mobile Dalit person – and the academy is an instrument of upward class-mobility – should certainly use his/her new privilege to work for the entire Dalit community, especially the subaltern Dalits, who do not get into elite universities.”

Nonetheless, Kumar still occupied a subordinate position at the lecture. And given Spivak’s pro-subaltern politics, her rich experience as a university professor and trainer of elementary teachers (she has run schools for Indigenous or adivasi children in Bangladesh and India for some 40 years), was it not incumbent on her to engage her audience with a certain respect and humility? Could she not have politely corrected the student’s pronunciation and still engaged with the content of his question? This is all the more true under the circumstances: She had just completed a talk on Du Bois about how to be critically democratic, to ethically open up to the other, no matter their identity or position (why should Kumar have had to identify as a Dalit for Spivak to listen to him?).

In fact, to be true to such a Du Boisian democratic norm, the very fact that the (implicitly) subordinate audience member was trying to challenge her (through his mispronunciation, his question) needs to be seen as a boon, not a barrier. It should be seen as revealing of a refusal from below, an anti-authoritarian ethic – the very ethic that requires encouragement and support if we are to work towards a just democracy today.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.