Book Review: Nationalism And Imagination


Best known as a post colonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak was born in 1942 Calcutta, West Bengal to a middle class family. Described as a  “para-disciplinary, ethical philosopher”– though her early career also included “applied deconstruction”, Spivak rose to fame after she wrote the preface and translated Derrida’s ‘Of Grammatology’ in 1976. Since then she has applied deconstructive strategies to various theoretical engagements and textual analyses including feminismMarxism, literary criticism and post-colonialism. ‘Her subsequent works consist of post-structuralist literary criticism, deconstructivist readings of Marxism, Feminism and Postcolonialism.’[1] She has extensively worked with the Subaltern Studies group and has done a critical reading of American cultural studies in Outside in the Teaching Machine in 1993. She has translated Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi and currently is working as a Professor at Columbia University.

Nationalism and Imagination which is a transcript of one of her lectures at University of Sofia in Bulgaria is a very rigorous philosophical work which touches many areas of study. Spivak begins her talk by talking about the partition of India and states that the first memories of her childhood were of ‘famine and blood on streets’. She talks about how the Indian nationalism arose out of hatred that divided the people along the lines of religion and class and how people who had (conflictually) coexisted with each other for centuries and had shared history had become enemies overnight. She talks about how the whole demography of India changed within months prior to independence. She says and I quote “Overnight, Kolkata became a burdened city; even its speech patterns changed. If these were the recollections of Independence, the nationalist message in the streets created schizophrenia.”[2]

Spivak talks about resistance. Resistance was penalized by the British Raj under section 144 of the Penal Code with incarceration. However, the British did not understand the native languages of India and because of this the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) which was famous for its songs of resistance managed to survive as a political organization.

Spivak asserts that these songs and folklore were used by the hegemonic group to mobilize the people against the subaltern, in this case minorities such as Muslims. Muslims were treated not only as enemy but as evil which should be rooted out of the land of Hindus.

Nationalism is a collective sentiment harbored by a specific populace operating and abiding in a nation state. It is a normative codification of generic socio-cultural values and political principles that generate a sense of belonging by dissolving individual and ethnic identities into an abstract narrative that places the idea of nation state as a top priority by playing on the imagination of the people and hence perverting the private space and controlling the public sphere of a state. This talk “Nationalism and imagination” written by Gayatri Spivak (not so) clearly elucidates the idea of nationalism from an insider’s perspective of a nation state in post colonial times and how it affects the regional identity and ethnic groups. Known for her heavy style of writing, Gayatri Spivak frequently makes jumps from one topic to another and draws parallels between them and the idea of nationalism as an imagination.

Gayatri Spivak describes Nationalism as something which is tied to the circumstances of one’s birth, its recoding in terms of migration, marriage and history disappearing into claims to ancient birth. Here is where she introduces the term ‘reproductive heteronormativity’. She describes reproductive heteronormativity as an ingredient of nationalism. Reproductive heteronormativity is the normalization of particular roles for particular genders. By reproductive heteronormativity she means that heterosexuality is the only natural and acceptable expression of sexuality and nationalism endorses that. She argues that nationalism legitimizes reproductive heteronormativity. It assigns gender roles with giving women the responsibility of holding the future of the nation in their wombs which comes from the obvious narrative of marriage.

From here we move to subaltern studies which include minorities such as peasants, women, queers etc. Spivak defines subalterns as social groups who are socially, politically and geographically outside of their hegemonic power structure. Subalterns are oppressed people who have been deprived of their basic fundamental rights. Spivak talks about the subaltern group she has worked with who have accepted the wretchedness as normality. They have been kept pre-modern even though they are in the present and nationalism has failed to represent their stories in the official history. She argues that nationalism operates in the public sphere but it is mobilized in the private sphere of the subaltern. She further goes on to say that it is this underived private from where nationalism is recoded. ‘When you begin to think nationalism, this underived private has been recoded and reterritorialized as the antonym of the public. As if it is the opposite of public.”[3]

Spivak urges us to keep the impulse to nationalism in control as it often leads to the resolve to control others’ public sphere and this is often followed by the sense of being superior to or unique from others. Spivak also draws a comparison between nationalism and democracy where she argues that nationalism feeds on the ideology of “all reason is one” whereas democracy upholds “each equals one”.

Gayatri Spivak also surveys the fields of comparative literature with respect to that of area studies, and cultural and ethnic studies, and criticizes their insularity and parochialism. She advocates disciplinary collaboration and unrestricted permeability, urging these disciplines to establish institutional bridges to respond more appropriately to the representation of the marginalized groups and their alienation from the political and economic community. Spivak explores the oral formulaic literature of a group of subaltern women in India and talks about how the subaltern community tries to remain connected to the nation state or how they create an illusion of belonging on a grander narrative. She further explains how this creates an inventiveness of “equivalence” which in the oral-formulaic, signifies with nationalist signifiers sharing space with archaic, mythic, and sub national signifiers in such a way that all signifiers become imaginatively equivalent. The idea of sharing the same history and belonging to the same geographic location evokes a false consciousness in the marginalized communities and makes them feel like they are a part of the nation state and are bound to it. This literature can appropriate material of all sorts and generate an imaginarium in which the subaltern groups or the marginalized community feel “there” and represented but in actuality they don’t have any say in the workings of the state.

The main criticism of Gayatri Spivak’s work can be her language which is very difficult that people hardly understand her. She has extensively written on and for the subaltern people and since the subaltern people can hardly understand her, I do not see any point of her using such a difficult language. She is very hard to understand and comprehending her is a very difficult task. Other than that, Spivak is one of the most brilliant contemporary philosophers who has worked on diverse topics and cuts across various disciplines.

Spivak has mainly focused on de-transcendentalizing of nationalism with the task of forming a single narrative of single imagination with the objective of taking the nation out of the nation state. She argues that as a feminist also the liberationalist nationalism which is treated as something intrinsic is also forced upon us by the opposition and therefore should be rejected. Spivak also urges those belonging to the field of humanities to keep the civic structure of the state away from the concepts of nationalism and patriotism which would alter the ‘redistribution priorities of the state, creating regional alliances rather than going the extra-state or  non-governmental route alone’[4] which the comparative literature can do effortlessly.

To end with I would like to quote a paragraph from the transcript which sums up the entire lecture brilliantly, “Remember Edward Said quoting Hugo of St Victor: ‘The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land.’ The human being can give up even the facticity of language, but comparativism need not. What a comparativism based on equivalence attempts to undermine is the possessiveness, the exclusiveness, the isolationist expansionism of mere nationalism.”[5]

Ain ul Khair is from Kashmir and is currently pursuing her M.A in Peace and Conflict Studies at Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Jamia Millia Islamia.

[1]; accessed on 02/04/2016

[2] Nationalism and Imagination; Gayatri Spivak; pp.9; published in 2010; publishing house: British Library.

[3] Nationalism and Imagination; Gayatri Spivak; pp.17; published in 2010; publishing house: British Library.

[4] Nationalism and Imagination; Gayatri Spivak; pp.53; published in 2010; publishing house: British Library.

[5] Nationalism and Imagination; Gayatri Spivak; pp.31; published in 2010; publishing house: British Library.

Book Review: Nationalism And Imagination

Author: Gayatri Spivak

Publisher: British Library

Published in 2010


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