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Hope and the Humanities

Hope and the Humanities

Renowned critical theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak speaks with the RISD community about globalization and the role of an aesthetic education.

Students and faculty filled the RISD Auditorium on Wednesday evening to hear celebrated critical theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak share her thoughts on the role of design education in the era of globalization. Co-sponsored byRISD Global and organized by Global Faculty Fellow Avishek Ganguly as part of the Global Forum series, Spivak’s visit included a panel discussion with Liberal Arts faculty members Ijlal Muzzafar and Leora Maltz-Leca and Assistant Professor of Experimental + Foundation Studies Paula Gaetano-Adi. A follow-up workshop on Thursday offered a cross-disciplinary group of faculty members the opportunity to further explore notions of an aesthetic education.

“I’m here because I want to be instructed by you,” Spivak began. “I don’t know design but I learn from my mistakes. You cannot live intellectually if you don’t take chances.”

The longtime Columbia University professor —the first woman of color to hold the position—has recently changed tack in her thinking. Her latest book, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, questions “the neat polarities” of tradition and modernity, colonial and postcolonial thinking, and posits that the world needs the humanities now more than ever to guide ethical intervention. Dean of Liberal Arts Dan Cavicchi echoes her sentiment in noting that “the role of Liberal Arts at RISD is similarly based on the principle that serious engagement with the world of scholarship provides the foundation for truly critical, ethical and transformative work.”

In addition to her writing and speaking engagements, Spivak spends much of her time (and donated much of the money from her 2012 Kyoto Prize in Arts + Philosophy to) teaching the poor in India, her native country. “I’m there to repay ancestral debts,” she noted in her talk, “and the historical denial of intellectual resources.” She touched upon the difficulties inherent in forging one’s identity through “new geographies and old histories,” asking, “What is Indian? I have an Indian passport, but I’m a Western feminist.”

In response to questions about technology and speed in the global era, Spivak said, “we need minds trained in the interests of the humanities before we can make use of technology. We cannot let technology dictate what the humanities should focus on.” She also riffed on the idea of “labor-saving devices,” noting that “you cannot save intellectual labor. Independent thinking takes effort and time.”

Although her discourse was challenging – weaving together ideas proposed by Immanuel Kant, Jacques Derrida (whose groundbreaking book, Of Grammatology, she translated as a young woman and is now in the process of retranslating) and Karl Marx—Spivak’s talk was ultimately hopeful and even practical. In parsing out the distinctions between the words reasonable and rational as applied to Derrida’s last book, for example, she questioned whether the exercise has meaning for people who have nothing.

“The humanities,” Spivak said, “explore how people know themselves. We must take into account the play of the world and expand the circle of people who can learn from [these texts].”

Spivak fielded questions from the panel and audience with similar practicality and aplomb. “If we are aware of the limitations of globalization and development,” she said, “then nothing is impossible. And we mustn’t cling to theory. Practice [normalizes] theory.”

In conclusion, Spivak noted that we’re never going to change the world with moral metrics. “It is hard to know what people really need,” she remarked. “We must learn to learn from below, from social groups on the fringe.”

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