On Wednesday night, a retired Bwogger relived his glory days of lecturehopping when he headed downtown and attempted to decipher the postmodern conundrum of a panel featuring Columbia professors Gayatri Spivak and Rosalind Morris, and soon-to-be-Columbia-professor Judith Butler.
So, humanities majors, you know that first time you go back home freshman year, probably for Thanksgiving? Over turkey, you try to explain to your parents the colonial problems with the holiday, which then somehow becomes you trying to explain how gender is socially constructed. You end up sounding pretentious, and your dad ends up saying something like, “if gender is socially constructed, then why do all girls like pink? Can you explain that?” This results in you slamming your face down into the mashed potatoes.
Well, the two academics perhaps most responsible for this conversation—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Judith Butler—shared the stage this past Wednesday at the CUNY graduate center to discuss and celebrate “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Spivak’s foundational 1983 essay that helped make postcolonial studies into the pervasive discipline it is today. Any attempt to sum up the essay’s arguments will be insufficient, but suffice it to say that the answer to the title’s question was and remains “not yet,” according to Spivak.
Joining this post-structuralist, binary-battling duo were Columbia’s very own anthro professor Rosalind Morris and then a bunch of people you don’t care about (I mean, let’s be real). Each member of the large panel gave a brief presentation on some aspect of Spivak’s essay. Professor Morris went first, laying out the essay’s arguments and discussing the book she recently edited on “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. The book, which has the same title as Wednesday night’s event, is a collection essays from a conference held to commemorate the anniversary of the original essay. Yeah, try to say that five times fast. After Morris came an assortment of academics, one of whom managed to quote passages from her own semi-autobiographical novel and her memoirs, while identifying them as such. Others discussed everything from their own experiences with Professor Spivak and radical politics in South Africa to the nuances of Gramsci in relation to Spivak’s work. The room went into a tizzy when Judith Butler began her presentation, perhaps the best of the evening, which teased out the Freudian undertones in the Spivak’s famous phrase “white men saving brown women from brown men.”
The event finished with a few words from the woman herself. Professor Spivak commented on everything from her own family history to the current situation in North Africa, before receiving a rousing round of applause from the at-capacity auditorium. She also mentioned, much to the audience’s delight, that Butler and she share a February 24th birthday, which they had celebrated together last year at UC Berkeley. Butler seemed a bit embarrassed when Spivak mentioned the specific years that both of them were born. That moment definitely charted as one of the most adorable academic interactions of all time. It also left at least one Columbia student with the hope that, when Butler comes to Columbia, the Spivak-Butler birthday-fest will become an annual tradition.