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Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching

Author(s): Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Source: Diacritics, Vol. 32, No. 3/4, Ethics (Autumn - Winter, 2002), pp. 17-31
Published by: Johns Hopkins University Press
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It is practicallypersuasivethat the eruptionof the ethical interruptsand postpones the

epistemological-the undertakingto constructthe other as object of knowledge, an
undertakingnever to be given up. L6vinas is the generic name associated with such a
position. A beautifulpassage from Otherwisethan Being lays it out, althoughneither
interruptionnorpostponementis mentioned.Thatconnectionis madeby Derrida[Adieu
Here, then, is L6vinas, for whom Kant's critical perspectivizationof the subject
and the rigorous limits of pure theoreticalreason seem to have been displaced by the
structuralisthermeneuticsof suspicion.ForL6vinas,structuralismdid not attendto what
in Kant was the mechanismthat interruptedthe constrainedand rigorousworkings of
purereason:"TheintereststhatKantdiscoveredin theoreticalreasonitself, he subordinatedto practicalreason,become merereason.It is just these intereststhatarecontested
by structuralism,which is perhapsto be defined by the primacyof theoreticalreason"
[Otherwisethan Being 58; trans.modified].
The relationshipbetween the postponementof the epistemologicalin L6vinas and
the subordinationof purereasonin Kantis a rich theme, beyond the scope of this essay.
Let us returnto what L6vinaswill perceive as a generalcontemporaryhermeneuticsof
suspicion, relatedto the primacyof theoreticalreason:"Thesuspicions engenderedby
psychoanalysis, sociology and politics weigh on human identity such that we never
know to whom we are speakingand what we are dealing with when we build our ideas
on the basis of the humanfact."'The political calculus thematizesthis suspicioninto an
entirecode of strategydefined as varietiesof game theoryandrationalchoice. This can
be verified across culturaldifference,backwardsthroughhistory,and in today's global
academic discourse. Over against this L6vinas posits the ethical with astonishinghumility: "butwe do not need this knowledge in the relationshipin which the otheris the
one next to me [le prochain]"[Otherwise59].
Kantthoughtthatthe ethical commonalityof being (gemeines Wesen-repeatedly
mistranslatedas "theethical state")cannotform the basis of a state. Surprisingly,there
is a clear line from the face-to-face of the ethical to the state in L6vinas.2It has long
This paper was first presented at the Centrefor Social Sciences in Kolkata,India. I have not
changedthe secondpart significantlyin orderto give the US readerthe sense of how alien ethical
discourse might seem on a remoteterrain.
1. Otherwise[59]; trans. modified.Thereis afootnote in the textto Paul Ricoeur'sConflict
of Interpretations[99]. The next quotedpassage is from the same page.
2. See Derrida, Adieu [29-33]for a discussion of this.

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been my habitto scavengeandtinkerin the field of practicalphilosophy.I will conserve

from Kant the discontinuitybetween the ethical and the political, from L6vinas the
discontinuity between the ethical and the epistemological. I will suggest that the
discontinuitiesbetweenthe ethicalandthe epistemologicalandpoliticalfields aretamed
in the nestling of logic and rhetoricin fiction.3
Enabled by such a suggestion, I can move to anotherbit of prose on that page in
L6vinas:"forreasons not at all transcendentalbut purely logical, the object-manmust
figure at the beginningof all knowing."
The figure of the "I"as object:this representationof the holy man in Levinas does
not matchourcolloquialandliteralexpectations.My generalsuggestion,thatthe protocol of fiction gives us a practicalsimulacrumof the graverdiscontinuitiesinhabiting
(and operating?)the ethico-epistemicandthe ethico-political,can, however,take such a
figure on board.I will continueto want to say thatfiction offers us an experienceof the
discontinuitiesthatremainin place "inreal life." Thatwould be a descriptionof fiction
as an event-an indeterminate"sharing"between writerand reader,where the effortof
readingis to tastethe impossible statusof being figuredas objectin the web of the other.
Reading, in this special sense, is sacred.
In this essay I considernot only fiction as event but also fiction as task. I locate in
RabindranathTagore(1861-1941) and J. M. Coetzee (1940- ) representationsof what
may be read as versions of the "I" figured as object and weave the representations
together as a warningtext for postcolonial political ambitions.4I am obviously using
"text"as "web,"coming from Latin texere-"to weave."
In the second partof the essay I move into the field of educationas a nation-buildI examine planningas its logic and teaching as its rhetoric-in the strong
sense of figuration.
On the cover of the firstPratichiEducationReport,thereis an artworkby Rabindranath
Tagorecontaininga poem, in English and Bengali, nestled in a tinted sketch, written
and paintedin Baghdadin 1932. Here is the poem, in Tagore'sown translation:
The night has ended.
Put out the light of the lamp of thine own narrowcorner smudgedwith
The great morningwhich is for all appears in the East.
Let its light reveal us to each other
Whowalk on the same path of pilgrimage.
The Bengaliis slightlymoreactive:Nikhileralopurbaakashejolilopunyodine/Ekshathe
jara cholibe taharashokolerenik chine. The universe'slight bums in the easternsky on
this blessed day / Let those who'll walk togetherrecognize each other.These lines resonate with what might be the mission statementof the moral entrepreneurshipof the
internationalcivil society today,which, howeverlaudable,is put togethernot by democraticprocedure,but largely by self-selection and networking.I am awareof course, of
the same forces at workin "democracies."But the presenceof mechanismsof redresselectoral or constitutional-however remote, produces a faith in electoral education,
which is useless if our faith is put entirelyin self-selected internationalhelpers.
3. Ifirst learned to notice thisfrom Derrida's article "WhiteMythology,"whose subtitle is
"Metaphorin the Textof Philosophy."
4. In thesecond lectureof the seriespresentedat the Centrefor Studiesin Sciences in Kolkata,
India,I offereda readingof SalmanRushdie's Midnight'sChildren,as a PresidentSchreber-style
critiqueof postcolonial political ambitions.


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"Apoman,"the poem Tagorewrote more than twenty years before this, afterreadKshitimohan
Sen's translationsof Kabir,is much darker.In this poem, Tagoreuses
the exact phrase"humanrights"-manusher adhikar-already at the beginning of the
last century.Whatis to me more strikingis that,insteadof urgingthathumanrights be
immediatelyrestoredto the descendantsof India's historicalunfortunates,he makes a
mysteriousprediction,looking towardthe historicalfuture:apomanehote hobe tahader
shobar shoman-my unfortunatecountry,you will have to be equal in disgraceto each
and every one of those you have disgracedmillennially-a disgraceto which Kabirhad
How can this enigmaticsentencebe understood?The idea of intertextuality,loosely
defined, can be used to confrontthis question.
I will offer an anecdotal account of intertextuality.It will help us coast through
Tagore'sIndia,Coetzee's SouthAfrica, and the space of a tiny groupof adivasis.5
In November 2002, Roald Hoffman, a Nobel Laureatechemist, gave a popular
mini-lecturewith slides in the basementof the CorneliaStreet Caf6 in New York.The
topic was "Movementin ConstrainedSpaces,"by which Hoffmanmeant the incessant
microscopic movement that goes on inside the human body to make it function. To
preparefor his talk, he had asked a choreographerfrom neighboringPrincetonto choreograph a dance for the space of the stage, which is very small. This is already
intertextuality,where one text, Hoffman's,would make its point by weaving itself with
another,the dance.A shot silk, as it were. Again, thatvenerablesense of text as in textile, and texere as weave.
The choreographermanageda patternof exquisite and minutemovementsfor two
dancers,male andfemale, in thattiny space. But, at the back of the long andnarrowbar,
two singers, female and male, sang La ci darem a mano in full-throatedease. That
wonderfulariafrom Mozart'sDon Giovanni,sung with such force and skill, boughtour
choreographerthe deep space of the bar, but also historical space-the space of an
opera that has been heard and loved by millions for a few centuries.Yet her dancers
gave somethingto Mozartas well. Full of lyric grace as a love song if heardby itselfa man telling his beloved of the exquisite beauty of the place to which they will escape-La ci daremis, in context, a brutalseductionsong of the most vicious class-fixed
gendering, a gentleman seducing a confused farmgirlonly to fuck, and the audience
sharingthejoke. The two impish and acrobaticdancerson the diminutivestage, wittily
partnering,gave the lie to the possibility of any such interpretation.
This is intertextuality,workingboth ways. Just as the chemist gave the dancerthe
lie, somewhat, for the movements he spoke of made the dance possible, so did the
dancersgive Mozartthe lie by takingaway his plot. Yet each gained somethingas well.
But in this case it did not work completely. Mozartis too elite for a radicalNew
Yorkaudience.They did not catch the allusion. When the boring literaryacademicreferredto it in a timid question,the choreographermelted in gratitude.
This is sometimes the task of the literaryacademic.To restorereferencein order
that intertextualitymay function;and to create intertextualityas well. In orderto do a
good job with the Tagorepoem, I have to readKabircarefully.And thatwill be another
session with the fictive simulacrumof the helpless strengthof the ethical.
J. M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace may be put in an intertextualrelationshipwith
Tagore'spoem. In representingjare tuminichefelo she tomarebandhibeje niche-the
one you fling down will bind you down there-in ruralSouthAfrica, Coetzee offers an
illustrationof what thatenigmaticpredictionmight mean:apomanehote hobe tahader
5. Adivasi is the name used commonlyfor so-called Indian "tribals,"by general account the
inhabitantsoflndia at the timeof the arrival of ndo-Europeanspeakersin the second millennium

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shobar shoman-you will have to be equal in disgrace to all of them. Here too,
intertextuality works two ways. Where Tagore alters his refrain in the last line:
mrityumajhehobe tobe chitabhashsheshobar shoman-you will then be equal to all of
them in the ashes of death-thus predictingthe death of a nation, Coetzee, writing an
unsentimentallygenderednarrative,makes his protagonistchoose life. (I should add
thatTagore'slast stanzais somewhatmore programmaticand asks for a call to all.)
Here is a plot summaryof Coetzee's novel: David Lurie,a middle-agedmale professor,sentimentalconsumerof metropolitansex-work,seducesa student,andis charged
with sexual harassmentby the appropriatecommittee.He refuses to utterthe formulas
thatwill get him off. He leaves the universityand goes to his possibly lesbian daughter
Lucy's flower farm. The daughteris raped and beaten, and he is himself beaten and
badly burnt.The daughteris pregnantand decides to carrythe child to term.One of the
rapiststurnsup at the neighboringfarmand is apparentlya relativeof the owner.This
farmerPetrus, already married,proposes a concubinage-stylemarriageto Lucy. She
accepts. The English professor startsworking for an outfit that puts unwanteddogs to
sleep. He has a shortliaison with the unattractivemarriedwoman who runs the outfit.
He writes an operettain a desultory way. He learns to love dogs and finally learns to
give up the dog thathe loves to the stipulateddeath.
These are some of the daughterLucy's last words in the novel. Her fatheris ready
to send his violateddaughterbackto her Dutchmother.Hollandis the remotemetropole
for the Afrikaner:
It is as if she has not heard him. "Go back to Petrus,"she says. "Proposethe
following. Say I accept his protection. Say he can put out whateverstory he
likes about our relationshipand I won't contradicthim. If he wants me to be
known as his third wife, so be it. As his concubine, ditto. But then the child
becomes his too. The child becomespart of his family. As for the land, say I
will sign the land over to him as long as the house remainsmine.I will become
a tenant on his land."... "How humiliating,"he says finally.... "yes, [she
says] I agree, it is humiliating.Butperhaps that is a good point to startfrom
again. ... Tostart at ground level. Withnothing.Not with nothing but. With
nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property,no rights, no dignity. [204-05;
emphasis mine]
Apomanehote hobe tahadershobar shoman.
Insofaras Disgrace is a father-daughterstory the intertextualityhere is with Lear.
If Lucy ends with nothing, Cordelia in the text of King Lear begins with the word
"nothing."That word signifies the withholdingof speech as an instrumentfor indicating socially inappropriateaffective value. In Cordelia'sunderstanding,to put love in
the value-form-let me measurehow much-is itself absurd.
Indeed,in the firstimpactof the word"nothing"in the play,this protestis mimedin
the clusteringof silences in the shortlines among the regulariambic pentameterlines.
"Cor Nothing, my lord. [six syllables of silence] / Lear Nothing? [eight syllables of
silence] / Cor Nothing. [eight again]/Lear.Nothing will come of nothing:speakagain"
[1.1.87-90]. The meterpicks up, and Cordeliaspeaks.
Now Cordeliashows thatshe is also a realistandknows thatlove in the value-form
is what makes the world go around.She is made to chide her sisters for not thinkingof
the love due to their husbands:"Whyhave my sisters husbandsif they say / They love
you all?" [1.1.97-98].
Just as Disgrace is also a father-daughterstory, so is King Lear also a play about
dynastic succession in the absence of a son, not an unimportanttopic in JacobeanEn-


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gland. It has been abundantlypointedout thatthe play's turnaroundcan be measuredby

the fact that "thepresence of Cordeliaat the head of a Frencharmy... marksthe final
horrificstage in the process by which Lear's division of the kingdom goes on turning
the world upside down"[Foakes 141]. Thus the love due to fathersbows to the love due
to husbandsand is then displaced,as it were. It is this story of fathersand husbands,and
dynastic succession at the very inceptionof capitalistcolonialism, thatDisgrace destabilizes, reaskingthe question of the Enlightenment("let those who will walk together
get to know each other by the dawning universallight," says the cover of the Pratichi
Report)with referenceto the public sphereand the classed andgenderedsubject,when
Lucy,"perhaps"a lesbian,decides to carrythe child of rapeto termandagreesto "marry"
Petrus,who is not (one of) the biological father(s).
Lucy's "nothing"is the same wordbutcarriesa differentmeaningfrom Cordelia's.
It is not the withholdingof speech protestingthe casting of love in the value-formand
giving it the wrong value. It is ratherthe casting aside of the affective value-system
attachedto reproductiveheteronormativityas it is acceptedas the currencyto measure
humandignity.I do not thinkthis is an acceptanceof rape,but a refusal to be raped,by
instrumentalizingreproduction.Coetzee's Lucy is made to make clear that the "nothing" is not to be itself measuredas the absence of "everything"by the old epistemicoaffective value form-the system of knowing-loving. It is not "nothingbut,"Lucy insists. It is an originary"nothing,"a scary beginning. Who imagines that centuries of
malpractice-shotek shatabdirashommanbhar-can be convenientlyundoneby diversified committees, such as the one that "tried"David Lurie for rape Enlightenmentstyle?6
"Unaccommodatedman is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou
art,"Learhad said to Edgar'sfaked madness, erasingthe place of the phallus:"a poor,
bare,forkedanimal."Whatdoes it mean, in the detritusof colonialism, for one from the
ruling race to call for interpellationas "unaccommodatedwoman, a poor, bare, forked
animal,"and hold negotiatingpower without sentimentalityin that very fork&dness?
What if L6vinas'scatachresticholy man is a catachresticholy woman, quite unlike the
maternitythatL6vinasembarrassinglyplaces in the stomachin the passage from which
I quoted?Is it a genderedspecial case, or can it claim generality,as makingvisible the
difficulty of the postcolonial formula:a new nation? Neither Lear nor Disgrace is a
blueprintfor unmediatedsocial policy. These are figures, asking for dis-figuration,as
figures must.And it is the representationof the "I"as figuredobject-as woman relinquishingthe child as property,as always, and as formercolonizer in the ex-colony. This
is how critiqueis operatedthroughfictions.
I emphasize that it is not an equality in death-mrityumajhe. It is not the sort of
equality that suicide bombing may bring. Suicidal resistanceis a message inscribedin
the body when no othermeans will get through.It is both execution and mourning,for
both self andother,where you die with me for the same cause, no matterwhich side you
are on, with the implicationthatthereis no dishonorin such sharedand innocentdeath.
That is an equality in disgrace broughtaboutby the withholdingof response,or a "response" so disingenuouslyrequiringduressas to be no responseat all, as from Israelto
6. 1 am waitingfor thefinal revisionofRosalind C. Morris, "SecretsUnderground:Historical
Violenceand 'TheSexual Thing'in A SouthAfricanMining Community"in order to be able to
cite an analysis of this rhetoricalquestion.
7. Since 1983, when I delivered "Can the SubalternSpeak?" as a lecture at the Summer
Instituteat the Universityof Illinois in Champaign-Urbana,I have been interestedin suicide as
envoi. Partha Chatterjeeremindedme in conversation last night (October 31, 2003) that the
"cause" is metalepticallyconstructedby the suicide, as the effect of an "effect." Mypoint is that
Lucyis not representedas the "subject"ofa "cause."Her representationmaybe readas Levinas's

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If Lucy is intertextualwith Lear, Lurie is intertextualwith Kafka's The Trial, a

novel notaboutbeginningwithnothing,butendinglike a dog whencivil societycrumbles.
Here is the end of The Trial,where Josef K.'s well-organizedcivil society gives way:
Logic is no doubt unshakable,but it can't withstanda person who wants to
live. Wherewas the judge he'd never seen? Wherewas the high court he'd
never reached? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers. But the
hands of one man were rightat K's throat,while the other thrustthe knifeinto
his heartand turnedit theretwice. Withfailing sight K. saw how the mendrew
near hisface, leaning cheek-to-cheekto observe the verdict. "Likea dog!" he
said; it seemed as thoughthe shame was to outlive him. [23 1]
This is how LurieunderstandsLucy's remarksabout"nothingbut."Not as a beginning
in disgraceful equality but the end of civil society (with the withdrawalof the colonizer?), where only shame is guaranteedcontinuity.This is a profoundmisunderstanding. And this brings me to the second point about literature.The literarytext gives
rhetoricalsignals to the reader,which lead to activatingthe readerlyimagination.Literatureadvocatesin this special way. These are not the ways of expositoryprose. Literary reading has to be learned. Metaphorleans on concept and concept on metaphor;
logic nestles in rhetoric.But they are not the same and one cannot be effaced in the
other.If the social sciences describethe rules of the game, literaryreadingteacheshow
to play. One cannotbe effaced in the other.This is too neat an opposition,of course. But
for the moment, let it suffice as a rule of thumb.
What rhetoricalsignal does Disgrace give to the canny reader?It comes through
the use of focalization,describedby Mieke Bal as "therelationbetween the vision and
that which is 'seen"' [100]. This term is deemed more useful than "pointof view" or
"perspective" because it emphasizes the fluidity of narrative-the impression of
(con)sequence as well as the transactionalnatureof reading.
Disgrace is relentlessin keeping the focalizationconfinedto David Lurie.Indeed,
this is the vehicle of the sympatheticportrayalof David Lurie.When Lucy is resolutely
denied focalization, the reader is provoked, for he or she does not want to share in
Lurie-the-chief-focalizer'sinability to "read"Lucy as patient and agent. No readeris
content with acting out the failureof reading.This is the rhetoricalsignal to the active
reader,to counterfocalize.This shuttlebetween focalizationand the makingof an alternative narrativeas the reader'srunningcommentary,as it were, used to be designated
You will see immeby the primphrase"dramaticirony"when I was an undergraduate.
diately how much more effortful and active this counterfocalizationis than what that
term can indicate.This provocationinto counterfocalizationis the "political"in political fiction-the transformationof a tendencyinto a crisis.8
Thus when Lurieasks, afterLucy's impassionedspeech, "Likea dog?"Lucy simply agrees, "Yes,like a dog."She does not providethe explanationthat the readerwho
can work the intertextualitywill provide.Lear and The Trialare not esoteric texts. We
can sense the deep contradictionof a split understandingof postcoloniality here: between the risk of beginningwith nothingandthe breakdownof civil societies. If not, we
can at least see that Lurieliteralizesher remarkand learnsto love dogs as the other of
being-human,as a source, even, of ethical lessons of a special sort. He is staged as
unableto touch eitherthe racialor the genderedother.These may be Lucy's last words,
object-humanas thefigure that subtendsall knowing,includingthe cognition of a cause. About
suicide bombingI speculate at greater length in "Terror:A Speech after 9-11."
8. Karl Marx uses the need to transforma tendencyinto crisis to describe why the tendency
of the rate of profit tofall does not result in increasinglylower profits [3: 365-66 et passim].


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but the novel continues,focalizing Lurieloving dogs, avoidingbathosonly by his obvious race-genderilliteracy,as we counterfocalizethe absentLucy.
Literaryreadingteaches us to learnfrom the singularand the unverifiable.It is not
that literaryreadingdoes not generalize. It is just that those generalizationsare not on
evidentiaryground.In this area, what is known is proved by vyavahdra,or setting-towork. MartinLutherKing, in his celebratedspeech "BeyondVietnam,"given on April
4, 1967, in RiversideChurch,had triedto imagine the otheragain and again.In his own
words, "[p]erhapsthe more difficultbut no less necessarytask is to speakfor those who
have been designatedas ourenemies. ... Surelywe mustunderstandtheirfeelings even
if we do not condone their actions."
Here is a setting-to-workof what in the secularimaginationis the literaryimpulse:
to imagine the otherwho does not resemblethe self. King, being a minister,had put it in
termsof liberationtheology,in the name of "theone who loved his enemies so fully that
he died for them."For the secularimagination,thattranscendentalnarrativeis just that,
a narrative,singularand unverifiable.When it is set to work, it enters the arenaof the
probable:King'simaginationof theViet Cong. I believe this is why Aristotlesaidpoiesis,
or making-in-fiction,was philosophoteron-a better instrumentof knowledge-than
historia-because it allowed us to produce the probableratherthan account for that
which has been possible.
In my words on suicide bombing, I was trying to follow Dr. King's lead halfway,
use the secular imaginationas emancipatoryinstrument.When I was a graduatestudent, on the eve of the VietnamWar,I lived in the same house as Paul Wolfowitz, the
ferocious Deputy Secretaryof Defense who was the chief talking head for the war on
Iraq.He was a Political Science undergraduate,disciple of Allan Bloom, the conservative politicalphilosopher.As I havewatchedhim on televisionlately,I haveoften thought
thatif he had had serioustrainingin literaryreadingand/orthe imaginingof the enemy
as human,his positionon Iraqwould not be so inflexible.This is not a verifiableconviction. But it is in view of such hopes thathumanitiesteaching acts itself out.
To repeat:literatureis not verifiable.The only way a reading establishes itselfwithoutguarantees-is by sharingthe steps of the reading.Thatis the experienceof the
impossible; ethical discontinuityshaken up in a simulacrum.Unless you take a step
with me, there will be no interdisciplinarity,only the tedium of turfbattles.
Insofaras Lucy is a figure thatmakes visible the rationalkernelof the institutionof
marriage-rape, social security,property,humancontinuity-we can check her out with
Herculine Barbin, the nineteenth-centuryhermaphroditewho committed suicide but
left a memoir,which Foucaultedited and made available.
HerculineBarbinwas a scholar-a diligent studentwho became a schoolmistress.
But when she was named a man by doctors, she could not access the scholarly position-of writing and speaking to a general public-that Kant secures for the enlightened subjectin "WhatIs Enlightenment?"
Let us look at Herculine/Abel'scautious elation at the moment of entry into the
world of men:
So, it was done [C'en 6tait donc fait]. Civil status called me to belong henceforth to that half of the humanrace that is called the strong sex [L'6tat civil
m'appelait t faire partied6sormaisde cette moiti6 du genre humain,appel6le
sexe fort]. I, who had been raised until the age of twenty-one in religious
houses, among shy [timides] female companions,was going to leave behind
me a past entirelydelightful[tout un pass6 d6licieux], likeAchilles, and enter
the lists, armedwith my weaknessalone and myprofoundinexperienceof men
and things! [89, trans.modified]

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It is this hope-of enteringthe publicsphereas the felicitous subject-that is dashed

as the possibility of agency is annulledin suicide [98].
Barbincannotarticulatethe relationshipbetween the denialof agency andthe incapability to reproduce.Yet, Tiresias-like,he offers a critical accountof marriage:
It has been given to me, as a man, the most intimateand deep knowledgeof all
the aptitudes,all the secrets, of thefemale character.I read in thatheart,as in
an open book.I counteverybeat of it. In a word,I have the secret of its strength
and the measure of its weakness; and just for that reason I would make a
detestablehusband;I also feel thatall myjoys wouldbe poisoned in marriage
and thatI wouldcruellyabuse,perhaps, the immenseadvantagethatwouldbe
mine, an advantagethat would turnagainst me. [107; trans.modified]
I presented"Canthe SubalternSpeak?"as a papertwenty yearsago. In thatpaperI
suggestedthatthe subalterncould not "speak"because, in the absenceof institutionally
validatedagency, there was no listening subject.My listening, separatedby space and
time, was perhapsan ethicalimpulse. But I am with Kantin thinkingthatsuch impulses
do not lead to the political.Theremustbe a presumedcollectivity of listeningand countersigningsubjectsandagentsin thepublicspherefor the subalternto "speak."Herculine
Barbinwrote abundantly,presuminga readerrepeatedly.And yet she could not speak.
Her solution would be the normalizationof the multisexedsubject,a civil and agential
ratherthansubjectivesolution.Therewould then be a listeningpublic who could countersignher "speechact."
In the arrangementof counterfocalizationwithin the validatinginstitutionof the
novel in English, the second half of Disgrace makes the subalternspeak, but does not
presume to give "voice,"either to Petrus or Lucy. This is not the novel's failure, but
rathera politically fastidious awarenessof the limits of its power. By the general dramatically ironic presentationof Lurie, he is shown to "understand"Petrusby the neat
reversal of the master-slave dialectic without sublation: "Petrusneeds him not for
pipefittingor plumbingbut to hold things, to pass him tools-to be his handlanger in
fact. The role is not one he objects to. Petrusis a good workman,it is an educationto
watchhim. It is Petrushimself thathe is beginningto dislike"[ 136-37]. Once again,the
novel and Lurie partcompany,precisely on the issue of reading, of control. This is a
perfectly valid reading,as is the invocationof the end of Kafka's The Trialto describe
the difficult birth of the new nation. It is precisely this limited perfect validity of the
liberal white ex-colonizer's understandingthat Disgrace questions throughthe invitation to focalize the enigma of Lucy. It is interestingthat Petrus's one-liner on Lucy
shows morekinshipwith the novel's verdict:"'She is a forward-lookinglady,not backward-looking"'[136]. If we, like Lurie, ignore the enigma of Lucy, the novel, being
fully focalized preciselyby Lurie,can be madeto say every racistthing.'Postcoloniality
from below can then be reduced to the education of Pollux, the young rapist who is
relatedto Petrus.Counterfocalized,it can be acknowledgedas perhapsthe first moment
in Lucy's refusal of rape by generalizing it into all heteronormativesexual practice:
"'Whenit comes to men and sex, David, nothingsurprisesme any more.... They spur
each otheron ....""And the thirdone, the boy?""Hewas thereto learn'"[158-59]. The
incipientbathos of Lurie's literalism("like a dog" means love dogs; forgiveness from
Melanie's parents means prostratinghimself on the floor before them [173]; loving
dogs means letting one of them into the operetta[215]; even the possibility thatthe last
9. Fora debateoversuchreadings,see PeterD. McDonald,"DisgraceEffects,"
Attwell,"Racein Disgrace."


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Christianscene of man giving up dog may slide into a rictus,'0given the overarching
narrativecontext) can be seen, in a reading that ignores the function of Lucy in the
narrative,as the novel's failure, ratherthan partof its rhetoricalweb.
I wantnow to come to the second way in which Tagore'srefraincan be understood:
the failureof democracy.
The PratichiTrustin India,to whose ReportI have referredabove, is doing astute
work, because it realizes that, if the largestsector of the electoratemisses out on early
education,democracycannotfunction, for it then allows the worst of the uppersectors
to flourish. Democracy sinks to that level, and we are all equal in disgrace.When we
readstatisticson who wins andwho loses the elections,the nonspecialist-locatedmiddle
class as well as the rest of the world, if it cares, thinksit shows how the countrythinks.
No. In the largest and lowest sector of the electorate,thereis a considerablesupply of
affect, good andbad; thereis native sharpness,andthereis acquiredcunning.But there
is no rationalchoice. Election does not even pretendto be based on rationalplatforms.
(This applies to the United States as well, in anotherway. But it would take me too far
to develop that here.) Genderingmust be understoodsimply here: female teachersare
preferred,thoughthey have less authority;genderingpresuppositionsmust be changed
througheducation,and so on.
Thereis little I can add to the Trust'smagisterialwork.After a generalcautionthat
work in this sphere runs the risk of structuralatrophy,like diversifiedcommittees in
Disgrace, andthereforemustbe interruptedby the ethical, I will adda few codicils here
and there.
ProfessorSen, the founderof the Trust,supportsthe state in opposing "the artificially generated need for private tuition," artificial because generated by careless
nonteachingin the free primaryschools [Pratichi 10]. While the state waits to implement this oppositionlegally, I have been tryingto providecollective "privatetuition"to
supplementthe defunctprimaryschools, to a tiny sector of the most disenfranchised.It
is my hope thatprivatetuitionin this form can be nationalizedand thus lose its definition. I will ask some questions in conclusion, which will make the direction of my
thoughts clear. The one-on-one of "private"tuition-at the moment in the service of
10. Thispossibility of an uneasy snigger (as well as the "giving up") may marksomething
irreducible,the seeming "abyss"-we thinkalso of the incessantback-and-forthof the abyssalbetweenthe "I"of the "Ithink"and thepresumedself-identityof the animal: "Thisautomotricity
as auto-affectionand self-relation,beforethe discursivethematicof a statementor an ego cogito,
indeed of a cogito ergo sum, is the characterrecognizedin the living and in animalityin general.
But between that self-relationship(that Self that ipseity) and the I of the "I think" there is, it
seems, an abyss" [Derrida, "L'animalque doncje suis [ai suivre]" 300]. It is possible that the
dull effort of a cogitative Lurie has an abyssality that must not be forgotten as we attemptto
acknowledgethe enigmatichistorialityof the mixed-racepostcolonial child of rape deliberately
given up as propertyfor the adoptedfather,Black Christian,a Petrusuponwhich rockthefuture,
guaranteeingtenancyfor the colonial turnednative, is founded. It is not the object-humanas a
figure with nothing that comes before all else, but the look of the nakedanimot (a word that the
reader must learn from the essay by Derrida I have just cited; a word [mot] that marks the
irreducibleheterogeneityof animality).Thisis Derrida's critiqueof Levinas.I have oftenfelt that
theformal logic of Coetzee'sfictionmimesethical movesin an uncannyway.The(non)relationship
betweenthecogitationof animalityand thesetting-to-workof genderedpostcolonialismin Disgrace
may be such an uncanny miming. The "dull decrepitude"of the former is where equality in
disgrace is impossible;we cannotdisgrace the animot.It is the limitof apomanehote hobe tahader
shobarshoman;and to call it a limit is to speakfrom one side. Since my ethical texts are Kant,
Lvinas,and Derrida,and myfictions are "Apoman,"Disgrace,and the uncoerciverearrangement
of desire, I have not consideredCoetzee's staged speculationsabout animalityand the humanin
"Livesof Animals."

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rote learningthatcannotrelateto the nurturingof the ethical impulse-is the only way
to undo the abdicationof the politically planned "public"education."Privatetuition,"
therefore,is a relationto transformratherthanprohibit.The tutorialsystem at the other
end of the spectrumis proof of this.
I must repeatthat I am enthralledby the reportand whateverI am addingis in the
natureof a supplementfrom a literaryperson. The work of the Trustis largely structural. The humanities-training in literaryreading in particular-is good at textural
change.Eachdisciplinehas its own species of "setting-to-work"-andthe textureof the
imaginationbelongs to the teacherof literaryreading.All good work is imaginative,of
course. But the humanitieshave little else.
There is a tiny exchange on page 69 of the book: "On the day of our visit [to a
school in Medinipur],we interviewedfour childrenof Class 4. ... well, can you tell us
somethingaboutwhat was taught?All four childrenwere silent."
Partof the silence rises from the very class apartheidthatbad ruraleducationperpetuates."The relationshipbetween the itinerantinspectorandthe child is, in addition,
Trainingin literaryreadingcan prepareone to work at these silences. I will submit
an example which it would be useless to translatehere. It is lesson 5 from Amader
Itihash, a Class 4 history book, specifically devoted to nationalliberation,one item in
which is the storyof Nelson Mandela.Let us overlookthe implicit misrepresentationof
Gandhi'srole in Mandela'spolitical victory in the lifting of apartheid,or the suggestive
detailthatthe section on nationalliberationstartswith GeorgeWashington.One cannot,
however, overlook, if one is a reader of Bengali, the hopeless ornamentationof the
prose, incomprehensibleto teacherand studentalike at the subalternlevel, in the outer
reaches of ruralWest Bengal. The point is not only to ask for "a radicallyenhancedset
of commitments""fromthe primaryteachers,"as the Reportstresses.The real disgrace
of ruralprimaryeducationis thateven the good teacher,with the best will in the world,
has been so indoctrinatedinto rote learningthat,even if s/he could understandthe lugubriousprose and even if s/he had retainedor imbibedenough generalknowledge of the
world-both doubtfulpropositions-the techniqueof emphasizingmeaningis not what
s/he would understandby teaching.ElsewhereI have emphasizedthis as the systematic
differencein teachingbetween baralok and chhotolok-translated by Pratichias highborn and low-born,braveattempts-gatar khatanoand mathakhatano-manual labor
and intellectuallabor does not quite translatethe active sense of khatano-setting-towork, then, of the body alone, andof the mind as well-that keeps class apartheidalive.
The common sight of a child of the ruralpoor tryingto makethe head engage in answer
to a textbookquestion and failing is as vivid a figure of withholdinghumanityas anything in Tagoreor Coetzee. The "silence"is active with pain and resentment.
The solutionis not to write new textbooks,the liberalintellectuals'favoriteoption.
The teachersat this level do not know how to use a book, any book, however progressive. Many of the textbooks, for instance, have a list of pedagogic goals at the top of
each lesson. The language of these lists is abstract,startingwith the title: shamortho,
capacity.Some times, for nine or ten lessons in a row, this abstracttitle is followed by
the remark:"see previouslesson."No primaryor nonformalteacherover the last thirteen years has ever noticed this in my presence, or, when informedof the presence of
this pedagogic machinery,been able to understandit, let alone implementit. Given the
axiomaticsof the so-called educationwithinwhich the teacherhas receivedwhatpasses
for training,it is foolish to expect implementation.
11. I have developedthe idea of the role of ruraleducationin maintainingclass apartheidin


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There are progressivetextbooks that try to combine Bengali andArithmetic-the

famousKajerPata.This combinationcausesnothingbutconfusionin studentandteacher
alike on this level. And frankly,it serves no specific purposehere. There are also books
where some metropolitanliberalor a committeeof them tries to engage whatthey think
is a ruralaudience.I wish I had the time to recountthe failureof their imaginationcase
by case. Thereis no possibilityof the emergenceof the ethicalwhen the writingsubject's
sense of superiorityis rock solid. The useless coyness of these failed attemptswould be
amusing if the problem were not so disgraceful. Both Hindu and Muslim poets are
included-communalism must be avoided at all costs, of course. The point is lost on
these children-though a sort of equality is achieved. All poetry is equally opaque,
occasionsfor memorizationwithoutcomprehension,learningtwo-waymeanings-what
does a mean?b; and what is b? a, of course. The meaningof meaningis itself compromised for these children,these teachers.A new textbookdrownsin that compromise.
Two girls, between eleven and fifteen years of age, show me what they are being
taughtin primaryschool. It is the piece aboutSouthAfrica. I ask them some questions.
They have absolutelyno clue what the piece is about, as they don't about any piece in
the book, about any piece in any book. To say "they haven't understoodthis piece"
would be to granttoo much. The girls are not unintelligent.Indeed, one of them is, I
think,strikinglyintelligent.They tell me theirteacherswould go over the materialagain
the next day.
The next day after school, we meet again. Did the teachers explain? "Reading
Bengaliphrasefor whichthereareequivaporiyechhe,"is the answer-an untranslatable
lents in all the majorIndianlanguages, no doubt. "Theymade us read reading"would
perhapsconvey the absurdity?Any piece is a collection of discretespelling exercises to
be read in a high drone with little regardto punctuation.The scandal is that everyone
knows this. It is embarrassingto put it in an essay aboutTagoreand Coetzee. Betterto
present social scientific surveys in English. This too is a way of disgracingthe disenfranchised.
To continuewith the narrative:afterthe girls' answerbegins the process of explainAs
ing. I have alreadymentioned,the experienceof a head attemptingbut failing to set
itself to work is killingly painful.Most of us interruptsuch silences with noise, speakup
and create a version of explanationto breakthe experience.At that point we think we
are teaching althoughno teaching is takingplace. Sometimes we learn to resist this by
excruciatingself-controlthat often fails.
In Foe, anothernovel by J. M. Coetzee, thereis a momentwhen a charactercalled
Friday(as in RobinsonCrusoe), an abductedsavage with his tongue cut out, resists the
attemptof the white woman to teach him how to write. Varietiesof such resistancein
the ground-levelruralclassroom can be read as the anger of the intelligent child not
being able to work his or her head. Such readingsare necessarilyoff the mark.But the
literarycritic is practicedin learningfrom the unverifiable.
If the older girl was just frustratedby not graspingat all what I was trying to explain, the younger one, the strikingly intelligent one, faced me with that inexorably
closed look, jaws firmly set, that reminds one of Friday,withholding.No response to
repeatedcarefulquestionsgoing over the same groundover andover again, simplifying
the story of Nelson Mandelafurtherat every go. These are studentswho have no concept or perceptof the neighboringdistricts,of theirown stateof WestBengal-because,
as the Pratichi Reportpoints out, they have arrivedat Class 4 throughneglect and no
teaching. How will they catch the referenceto Africa?
Into the second hour, sitting on the floor in that darkeningroom, I tried another
tack. Forget Africa, try shoman adhikar-equal rights. It was impossible to explain
rights in a place with no plumbing, pavement, electricity, stores, without doors and

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windows. Incidentally,do people really check-rather thaninterruptthe painfulexperience of havingfailed to teach-the long-termresidueof so-called legal awarenessseminars?What is learntthroughrepeatedbrusheswith the usual brutalityof the ruraljudiciary is not significantlychangedby the convictionthatthe benevolentamongthe masters will help them litigate. What is it to develop the subject-the capital I-of human
rights,ratherthan a feudal dispensationof humanrightsbreedingdependencyand litigious blackmailandprovokinga trailof vendettasin those punisherspunishedremotely?
Let us returnto the schoolroomin gatheringdusk.
It is common sense thatchildrenhave shortattentionspans.I was so helpless in my
inabilityto explain thatI was tyrannizingthe girls. At the time it seemed as if we were
locked together in an effort to let response emerge and blossom with its own energy.
The ethical as task ratherthanevent is effortful.And perhapsan hourand a half into the
struggle,I put my handnext to the brightone's purple-blackhandto explain apartheid.
Next to that rich color this pasty brown hand seemed white. And to explain shoman
adhikar equal rights, Mandela'sdemand, a desperateformulapresenteditself to me:
amija, tumita-what I, that you. Rememberthis is a student,not an asylum seeker in
the metropole,in whose name many millions of dollars are moved aroundeven as we
speak.12 This is just two students, accepting oppression as normality,understanding
their designatedtextbook.
Response did emerge.Yesses and noes were now given; even, if I rememberright,
a few words utteredas answersto questions.In a bit I let them go.
The next morningI askedthem to set down what they rememberedof the previous
day's lesson. The olderone could call up nothing.The youngerone, the more intelligent
one, producedthis: ami ja, tumi ta, raja here gachhe-what I, that you, the king was
defeated. A tremendousachievementin context but, if one thinks of all the children
studyingunderthe WestBengal Board,includingthe best studentsfromthe best schools
in Kolkata,with whom these girls are competing, this is a negligible result. I have no
doubt that even this pitiful residue of the content of the lesson is now long lost and
The incidenttook place aboutfour years ago. The two girls areyoung women now,
in high school. Speakingto them and their teachersin December,I stressedrepeatedly
the importanceof explainingthe text, of explainingrepeatedly,of checkingto see if the
student has understood.A futile exercise. You do not teach how to play a game by
talkingaboutit. No one can producemeaningsof unknownwords.Thereare no dictionaries, and, more important,no habit of consultingdictionaries.
As I continuedwith the useless harangue,I said, "astwo of you might remember,I
spent two hours explaining Nelson Mandelato you some years ago. It is importantto
explain."A fleeting smile, no eye contact, passed across the face of the bright one,
sitting in the last row. It is unusualfor such signals to pass from her class to mine.13
The numberof calculativemoves to be made and sustainedin the political sphere,
with the deflecting and overdeterminedcalculus of the vicissitudes of genderedclassmobility factoredin at every stop, in orderfor irony-shared-from-belowcommunication to be sustainedat this level, would requireimmense systemic change.Yet, in the
supplementaryrelationshipbetween the possibility of thatfleeting smile-a sign of the
andthe Failureof Good
12. ClydePrestowitz,in RogueNation:AmericanUnilateralism
Intentions,argues that the US wants to make everyoneAmerican,and there left and right meet.
Thesame, I think,can now be said of Europe.This is too big a topic to develop here. WhatI urge
is the need to imagine a world that is not necessarily lookingfor help.
13. She died a monthago of encephalitis.Her name was ShamoliSabar She is memorialized
on page 216 of my "RightingWrongs,"whereshe is one of the signatoriesof a petition requesting
a tube well. I offer this essay to her memory.


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interruptiveemergenceof the ethical-and the dauntinglabor of the political calculus,

we must begin with the end, which must remain the possibility of the ethical. That
inconvenienteffort is the uncertaingroundof everyjust society. If the political calculus
becomes the means and the end,justice is ill servedand no change sticks. The peculiar
thing about genderingis that, in Lucy's vision of "startingwith nothing,"in the reproductive situationshorn of the fetishizationof property,in the child given up as body's
product,the ethical moment can perhapsemerge-at least so the fiction says.'4
I have recountedthis narrativeto make clear that althoughon the literaryregister,
the registerof the singularand the unverifiable(this story,for example, is unverifiable
because you have nothingbut my testimony),the suggestive smile, directedby indirection and a shared experience, is a good event; it has no significance in terms of the
public sphere, to which education should give access. The discontinuitybetween the
ethical and the political is here instrumentalized-between the rhetoricof pedagogy
and the logic of its fruition in the public sphere. For the smile of complicity to pass
between the adivasi andthe caste-Indian,unprovoked,marksan immenseadvance.But
it is neithera beginning nor an end, only an irreduciblegroundingcondition.
When I was attemptingto teach in thatdarkeningroom, I had no thoughtbut to get
through.It so happenedthatthe topic was shomanadhikar equalrights.Writingthis for
you, on the otherhand,I put myself grandioselyin Tagore'spoem: manusherodhikare
bonchito korechhojaare, shommukhedanraye rekehetobu kole dao nai sthan-those
whom you have deprivedof humanrights, whom you have kept standingface-to-face
and yet not takenin your arms. So, spendingconsiderableskill and labor,to teach precisely the meaningof shomanadhikar,was I perhapsundoingthe poet's descriptionof
the behaviorof the Hinduhistoricaldominant,denying humanrights over centuriesto
the outcastes(today's dalits) and adivasis? The point I am laboriouslymakingis that it
is not so. Althoughthe literarymode of instructionactivatesthe subject,the capitalI, in
order to be secured it must enter the political calculus of the public sphere. Private
voluntarismsuch as mine remainsa mongrelpracticebetween the literaryandthe rational, rhetoricand logic.
And so the readerof literatureasks the social scientistsa question.Is it not possible
for the globally beleagueredstate to institutecivil service positions that will call, on a
regularand optional basis, upon interestedhumanitiesprofessionals from the highest
ranks to train ground-levelteachers,periodically,yet with some continuity,gradually
integratingandtransformingthe existingtrainingstructure,thusto deconstructor sublate
privatetuitionand slowly make it less possible for "a teacherof [sic] Birbhumvillage"
to say: "How can we carryover the trainingto our classrooms?Baro baro katha bala
soja-Talking big is easy" [Pratichi68].
Before I had startedthinkingaboutthe heritageof "disgrace,"I had triedto initiate
the productionof same-languagedictionariesin the majorIndian languages, specifically for ground-levelteachersand students.It came to nothing, because the situation
was not imaginableby those whom I had approached,and because the NRI (Non Resident Indian,Indiandesignationfor diasporics)has otherkinds of uses. Should the NRI
have no role but to help place the state in metropolitaneconomic bondage? Is it not
possible to think of subalternsingle-languagedictionariesas an importantstep toward
fostering the habit of freedom-the habit of finding a meaning for oneself, whoever
suggests this? Is it not possible to think not of writing new textbooks, but of revising
what is now in existence-to make them more user-friendlyfor the least privileged,
14. Wehave to have an idea of howfiction can be made to speak throughthe transactional
heading beyond the limits of the author's authority,which would expose thefrivolousness of a

positionsuchas RajatRay'sinExploring
[79, 115n28].

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even as such teachers and studentsare texturallyengaged? I do not believe the more
privilegedchild would sufferfrom such a change, thoughI can foresee a majoroutcry.
It mustbe repeated,to foster such freedomis simply to work at freedomin the sphereof
necessity, otherwise ravagedby the ravagesof political economy-no more than "the
groundingcondition [Grundbedingung]for the truerealm of freedom"[Marx,Capital
3: 959] always aroundthe corner.
Shakespeare,Kafka,Tagore,Coetzee, AmartyaSen. Heavy hitters.My questions
are banal.I am always energizedby thatparagraphin the thirdvolume of Capital from
which I quote above, and where Marx writes, in a high philosophical tone: "the true
realm of freedom,the developmentof humanpowers as an end in itself begins beyond
[the realm of necessity], though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its
ground."That sentenceis followed by this one: "thereductionof the workingday is its
groundingcondition."In Marx's text philosophy must thus displace itself into the everyday struggle.In my argument,literature,insofar as it is in the service of the emergence of the critical, must also displace itself thus. Its task is to foster yet anotherdisplacement: into a work for the remote possibility of the precariousproductionof an
infrastructurethatcan in turnproducea Lucy or her focalizer,figuringforthan equality
that takes disgracein its stride.

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