CriticaLink | Spivak: Echo | Overview

Gayatri Spivak's "Echo," originally published in 1993 in the journal New Literary History, combines a detailed reading of the Narcissus and Echo myth in Ovid's Metamorphoses with a rigorous engagement with an ethical problem in cultural theory: how is it possible for people writing from within positions of privilege in cosmopolitan centers to represent people living in conditions of poverty and oppression elsewhere in the world? What kinds of theoretical and ethical dilemmas confront cultural critics who seek to "know" the experiences of others? How does focusing on the position of Echo in the story of Echo and Narcissus help us to understand such dilemmas?

Spivak's reinterpretation of the Narcissus myth builds on the inability of classical psychoanalysis to account for the radical difference represented by Echo in Ovid's story. Her reading follows a typical pattern in deconstruction: to identify an element in a text that disturbs its structural integrity, a "marginal" element that exerts a destabilizing pressure on the "center."

The essay is organized around a set of central questions:

  1. Given its historical and cultural specificity, what role can psychoanalysis--in particular the theory of narcissism--play in the study of cultural and political situations outside the Western world? (17-20)
  2. In what ways has the figure of Echo been marginalized in the elaboration of the theory of narcissism? What happens when Echo is reintroduced into the narrative--when we pay attention to the complexity of her relationship with Narcissus? (22-25).
  3. How does the position of Echo in the myth offer a model for the position of the "objects of study" of cultural criticism? (26-27).
  4. How does Echo's position issue an ethical challenge to the cultural critic? (27-28).
  5. What is at stake in responding to Echo's ethical challenge? (34-36).
In laying out these questions and suggesting some provisional answers to them, Spivak builds up a dense network of references and allusions to a wide range of philosophers, literary theorists, and writers. Although her writing is dense, she frequently offers points of orientation that can help readers locate themselves within her argument. She often previews what she's going to do next, and her complex formulations are juxtaposed with straightforward, conversational discussions of the problem at hand. If you take time with her work, you can learn a lot from Spivak--her texts are an excellent exercise in reading theory and thinking about how theoretical positions emerge out of theorists' reflection on their reading, conversations, and life experiences.

One of the striking dimensions of Spivak's "Echo" is that the essay presents a kind of miniature intellectual autobiography. Alongside her analysis, Spivak tells the story of how she came to that analysis--the books she read, the colleagues with whom she had conversations, the experiences she underwent. This autobiographical impulse folds into the main thesis of the essay, as Spivak situates herself and her own work within the ethical dilemmas she describes.

The task Spivak undertakes in this essay also offers a different perspective on the canon debates. Ovid is unquestionably a "canonical" author. Rather than dismissing him and his work as irredeemably patriarchal and conservative, however, Spivak not only traces the cultural and philosophical impact of his Narcissus narrative on the history of Western thought but describes the implications of extending that influence into considerations of non-Western cultural contexts. Such a critical engagement with the texts of a tradition is also a charactristic of deconstruction, which does so much not set out to "destroy" or discredit these texts, but attempts to understand the persistant power (and sometimes unproductive, even dangerous) influence they exert over our thinking.

As you read Spivak's challenging essay, keep the question about rhetoric-- how is it put together?--always a little ahead of the question about content-- what is it about? Tracking the way an argument is unfolded in a text can often reveal a great deal about its topic and can prepare you better for your own critical response to what the text is "saying."