Academic journal article Humanities Research

Can the Institution Speak? the University as Testimony in Canada Today

Academic journal article Humanities Research

Can the Institution Speak? the University as Testimony in Canada Today

Article excerpt

This article has two parts, each exploring the possibility and effectiveness of testimony. In the first part, I take up Gayatri Spivak's endlessly exacting question, 'Can the subaltern speak?'1 The essay so entitled connects testimony to postcolonial studies and to the politics of voice and script inside and outside the 'semiotic stockade'2 - a place of meaning making where the colonised other is and was so often confined but could always, at least somatically, remain resistant because inassimilable. In the second part - and stimulated especially by Spivak's considerations of institutional and disciplinary politics - I offer an assessment of the current capacity of Canadian universities to nurture and legitimate testimony. Here I will use the proposal to boycott Israeli universities - a proposal considered and then rejected by the professoriate in the United Kingdom - to illustrate some of the limits to testimony within institutions ostensibly dedicated to that very activity.

Can the subaltern speak (yet)?

When it appeared in 1988, in a collection featuring some of the most eminent cultural theorists working in English, Gayatri Spivak's long, dense, brilliantly contrarian essay gave testimony about testimony. She posed a question that seemed to many readers to have a self-evident answer and therefore to be a rhetorical question appealing confidently to a pre-existing consensus on a particular matter. The answer to her question seemed to go something like this: 'Of course, the subaltern can speak, even though no-one may be listening/ As she de-naturalises this deceptively simple question in a welter of complex preliminaries, one comes to realise that Spivak's critical attention has expanded from a report on the receptivity of the dominant as listeners to a meditation on the category of the subaltern as such. For Spivak, this latter subject position will silence anyone entitled to occupy it, even when their identity is not reducible or confinable to subalternity itself. Accordingly, no subaltern qua subaltern can speak. In proffering a question as the primary product or outcome of intense and wide-ranging deliberation, Spivak opens up to interrogation the First World, its reluctantly embedded academics and their host institutions as being committed to coyly self-interested answers pursued under the aegis of disinterestedness and objectivity. In attesting to the complexities of testimony, this implacable postcolonial scholar suggests to her peers that academic speech and writing might be more problematic than the subaltern's silence.

As hinted at above, however, a question can also be an answer. A rhetorical question aims to silence pre-emptively those who might otherwise be disposed to respond to it. Spivak's theoretical and logical strategies usually entail at least a double gesture and raise the prospect of aporia rather than ready consensus. Accordingly, her question is unconfinable to the condition of not requiring an answer. Instead, she reclaims it for the se lf-e vi dent's polar opposite - namely, wnanswerabiUty - and this binary arrangement is then compUcated by the answering of the unanswerable in inconvenient ways, ways meticulously contextual and attentive to the social relations of exchange and its endlessly asymmetrical outcomes. The epideictic morphs into its other, the inscrutable enigma, and in so doing opens space for further reflection. As a result, there is no answer to the question because there is no-one in a position to answer it; but there are also several versions of the wrong answer designed to leave Spivak's primary audience of Euro-American radical scholars unsettled and defensive. The doubleness of Spivak's no/yes gesture combines with the doubleness of the 'session of representations'3 she mentions, and the role of proper names in processes of grammatical abduction, catachresis and mistranslation, to underwrite her provocative alignment with Derrida, who remained in 1988 the most ostensibly apolitical of high theorists. …

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