• Issue
  • Jul 03, 2023

One on One: Han Mengyun on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Full text also available in Chinese.

Portrait of GAYATRI CHAKRAVORTY SPIVAK. Photo by Alice Attie. Courtesy Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak FBA.

To trace the history of repression and reveal the mechanisms of power that silence the subaltern woman in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), comparative literature scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak drew on the example of the English abolition and criminalization in 1829 of sati, the Hindu rite of self-immolation of a widow upon her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. Using Derridean deconstruction, Spivak identifies two lies in the absence of the woman’s voice-consciousness: “White men are saving brown women from brown men” by the British as imperial rhetoric of subjugation; and “The women actually wanted to die” by the Indian nativists, for whom sati was an important proof of their allegiance to tradition as a reactionary ideology and of a nostalgia for lost origins. In Spivak’s words: “Between patriarchy and imperialism . . . the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘third-world woman’ caught between tradition and modernization.”

Gazing into the abyss where subaltern women dwell, I saw darkness and silence in their utmost clarity. A moment of searing awakening, akin to the clinical experience of diagnosis, of symptoms long felt, neglected, and endured, but never acknowledged, for they have no record in history. The father and the alien tongues that I speak yet do not speak me; I question the possibility of belonging. Any attempt to utter ends up in a violent shuttle into the unnamable gaps of languages, places, and bodies. The illness of absence is terminal—the subaltern cannot speak.

I do not wish to claim subalternity in my position as a Third World intellectual woman with access to cultural mobility. But the understanding of the Third World female subaltern’s predicament and women’s perennial absence in cultural discourse, via the theoretical tools provided by Spivak, proved incredibly helpful to interrogate the mechanisms and problematics of (self-)representation in the complicity with patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, and globalization, which construct the interior voice(s) spoken by the other(s) in me. This awareness is ever more critical in thinking about the ways in which I must honor my agency to speak, as a female artist from China participating in the global art arena, without falling prey to the violence of representation and to the sweetness of self-orientalization. But self-preservation is not enough and “women must tell each other’s stories.”

Spivak’s politics of translation, rooted in her concern with subaltern women, is the foundation of the politics of my current visual practice. Spivak claims that “translation is necessary but impossible.” That insuperable difference of existence between languages is what I experienced deeply growing up during the economic reform in China. While my multilingual education enriched me with understanding of the diversity of world cultures, it has also built a Tower of Babel that fissures me. My gendered experience further compounds the difficulty beyond literality. This schizophrenic existence fragmented by multilingual cacophony and silenced womanhood is the basis of my understanding of that impossibility. Ultimately, to translate means to construct the Other in a world that does not recognize her. To assume such possibility is to violently deny the Other’s difference, which is exactly what makes translation impossible but also necessary, as monolingualism and Westernization expand globally.

To me, painting is also language. Each painting tradition is intimately connected to the culture and language that forge its specificity and semiosis. Under the continuing dominance of the European and postwar American modernist tradition, when one thinks of painting today, “oil-on-canvas” comes to mind. But what about 畫, نگارگری ایرانی , चित्र, and beyond, along with their respective episteme? Our globalized art world speaks less languages as multiplicity is homogenized. On the other side of the double bind, women have always been painted and painted for.

Despite, and because of, the impossibility of translation to make a just world and to instate the parity of cultures, we must translate. For the subaltern women who are double subjugated into disappearance, women—for themselves and for other women—must make their own image, with the awareness of the risk of the double bind and violent transcoding. The activism in my art practice is to recognize the difference between cultures, to retrieve and repair lost and damaged episteme by learning languages, and to supplement where women and their individual differences are made absent and silent. “The task of the translator,” says Spivak, “is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying.” I find this love extraordinarily moving for it embraces fraying as a result of inevitable conflict between difference. By transgressing all borders, my task as a feminist translator-artist is to foster this kind of love, to build a Tower of Babel as a lighthouse of global diversity to be the echo of the subaltern, and to welcome women to enjoy the wealth of world languages and images as their own legacy.

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