CriticaLink | Spivak: Echo | Reading Guide for Pages 28-30

As an Algerian woman who has learned the practice of French writing. . .

To give an example of this différance, Spivak describes features of the novel Fantasia by Algerian writer Assia Djebar, in which the main character's name, Isma, is a name that points to the very process of naming. Djebar's novel also develops the concept of a-phonie, a kind of non-speech that resisting fixing and categorizing on the part of authority. Djebar's novel ends with a reflection on the failure of a French-Arabic dictionary to find a non-contradictory definition for the Arab word tzarl-rit, a form of utterance--a bodily/verbal practice--specific to women in this culture.

What's at stake for Spivak in this argument becomes clear in this section. In stressing the impossiblity of "grasping" in any complete way the experience of the subaltern, Spivak is at the same time arguing against at least two positions that might be taken in the face of this impossibility: 1) resignation, which leaves the subaltern to her suffering because "nothing can be done" or 2) a scrupulous critique of any effort to ameliorate the condition of the subaltern as essentially imperialist--which has the same result of not changing the situation of the subaltern.

Spivak presents a dilemma that we must continually struggle to make a productive dilemma: we cannot ever fully "know" the experiences of women in conditions of radical exclusion, oppression, and disenfranchisement, but that impossibility must not deter our efforts at addressing the problems that maintain these conditions, such as discriminatory laws. The phase "vox manet" (the voice remains) becomes a kind of slogan for Spivak representing the disturbing effect of the impossibility of knowing the subaltern--the present of an absence that summons us to address an ethical challenge.

The image of a "deconstructive embrace" serves to describe the link Spivak is trying to establish between the mythological figure of Echo and the character of Isma in Djebar's novel. This "embrace" is also a way of reading--bringing classical, authoritative texts into a relation with the problems of the postcolonial world in a manner that shows the limitations. At the same time (and this is a feature of the productivity of deconstruction), the exposure of limitations offers insights into the ethical, political, social, and cultural difficulties at hand.

Spivak contrasts this kind of confrontation with difficulty to the published accounts of women's hardships--Spivak uses the example of Rigoberta Menchú--which are too often taken up within narcissistic regimes of knowledge, either to assuage the consciences of their readers (in a kind of politically bankrupt catharsis) or to become targets of reactionary attempts at delegitimization.