An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization
by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Reviewed by Arianne Johnson


Published by Harvard University Press, 2012   |   624 pages

At the exact moment when England was entering the mature phase of capitalism and transforming into a technological industrial state, Percy Bysshe Shelley remarked: “we want the creative faculty to imagine what we know.” This longing – in response to the perceived privileging of technology, mathematics and the sciences over the humanities – for an aesthetic sensibility, is reflected in our own era, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a leading figure of postcolonialism and the author of the foundational essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” (1988), has now contributed a significant work to the cause. In An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, she challenges us to “train the imagination” through the careful study of literature, and encourages the development of an educational system and student body capable of providing for its own sustained critique.

Spivak, a self-described “practical Marxist-feminist-deconstructionist” – perhaps most famous as the principle English language translator of Derrida – has always stressed that, despite the apparently increased emphasis on multiculturalism in Western curriculum in the past few decades, Western education has generally failed to teach students how to understand the lives of those who fall outside hegemonic constructs. Spivak’s argument has similarities with Roland Barthes’ famous essay on Edward Steichen’s “The Family of Man” exhibition Museum of Modern Art in 1955, suggesting that, in emphasizing “sameness” over diversity and technology over humanity, we render the “subaltern” invisible. Rather than equipping students with tools for finding solutions to global problems, institutions of higher education instead rely on what Spivak labels “monolingual” interdisciplinary approaches to culture.

Culture, as Spivak defines it, is “a package of largely unacknowledged assumptions, loosely held by a loosely outlined group of people mapping negotiations between the sacred and the profane, and the relationship between the sexes.” This definition stakes a claim for free human agency and highlights the various ways in which individuals and groups create culture, both locally and globally. Spivak points out that, “culture alive is always on the run,” changing and shifting as political and social climates change. Accordingly, any engagement with culture must develop an awareness of “hybrid” identities and adapt to the perspective of others.

This awareness and understanding of hybrid identities is developed, according to Spivak, through a study of transnational literature which illuminates the voice of previously invisible “other”. It is through these narratives that we begin to understand the significance of national and cultural differences in an otherwise global environment. Not only does the study of literature become a powerful tool, the translation of this literature from native languages into English plays an important role in allowing subaltern voices to be heard. Thus, translation is not only based on the transportation of language across cultures, but rather the transmission of cultures in a global market. Because of this importance of language and literature, Spivak argues an education in the humanities ultimately prevents the “collapse” of differences into a single category of understanding.

One of the primary dangers that result from globalization is the creation of monolithic categories that erase difference, ignore unique identities, and minimize the importance of gender and sexual diversities. Spivak’s position on culture and global identity is undeniably a feminist one, even as she argues that “feminist engagement” in both education and global affairs is in need of marked change, because of the privileging of the Western in contemporary academic feminism. With the vast majority of women in the subaltern world in particular lacking agency and the means to produce change, Spivak argues that feminism itself must, through an education in the humanities, create problem solvers capable of navigating the ethical dilemmas and ever-shifting channels of nationalism, economic development and class structure.

The continuing violence of the contemporary political scene forces us to reexamine our notions of self and other, and challenges us to find solutions. For Spivak, the ethical dilemmas posed by globalism and post-modernity can only be dealt with if we begin to acknowledge what she calls our “planetary imperative to responsibility.” Our responsibility is thus to engage with the humanities in the classroom so as to “train the imagination” to both preserve our own cultural heritage and increase our understanding of, and respect for, the vast diversity of human cultures.

Arianne Johnson is an MA candidate in Music and Women’s and Gender Studies at Brandeis University, where she is currently writing her thesis on music in Italian convents during the late Renaissance. Her areas of interest include early music, music and gender and feminist theory.

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