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College Quarterly
Summer 1994 - Volume 1 Number 4
Outside in The Teaching Machine
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
New York, Routledge, 1993
Reviewed by Eva C. Karpinski

Gayatri Spivak attempts to bridge a gap between theory and practice by bringing philosophy into the classroom and applying it to pedagogy. Several essays, reviews and an interview collected in this book engage the gamut of ideas relevant to Marxism, deconstruction, feminism, and postcolonial studies. With ease tantamount to her mastery of various discourses, Spivak adopts different subject-positions in her writing: a philosopher, a university professor, a translator, a postcolonial feminist, and even an economic migrant in metropolitan space.

Reading Spivak, I have asked myself what we as teachers can learn from this cross-fertilization of the field of pedagogy by revisionist philosophies. Here is a tentative list of “pedagogical imperatives” that might be offered from Spivak's precarious insider/outsider place in the academy.

First of all, we must recognize that we work in the colonial (metropolitan) and postcolonial context. Our students are migrants, postcolonials, immigrants, people negotiating their identities across languages, generations, and cultures. Therefore, we need a pedagogy that would look critically at the role of essentialism in the politics of identity and culture and alert us to value-coding operating in any system.

As teachers, we must train ourselves in deconstructive thinking so as to avoid being trapped by the authority of “concept-metaphors” such as origin, national identity, citizenship, democracy, or constitutionality. Nevertheless, we can learn to use such concepts in an enabling way as Spivak does when she rejects “the 'moral luck' of the culture of imperialism while recognizing that she must inhabit it, indeed invest it, to criticize it.”

Consequently, we need to view teaching as a question of strategy rather than theory, in a double sense: by choosing what we teach and how we teach. Instead of giving them “theories”, we can help our students see that knowledge like a strategy, far from being disinterested, universal and good for all cases, often suits a situation.

We should also be aware of the limits of teaching, its risks and aporias. Spivak treats teaching as an intersubjective exercise where we must constantly ask ourselves: “What is it to teach? What is it to learn? What is it to assume that one already knows the meaning of the words 'something is taught by me and something is learned by others'?” Despite our assumption that a class learns, our work is grounded in uncertainty about what “really happens” in the process.

We mustn't hesitate to oppose the forces of political correctness. Spivak attacks the culturalist and identitarian position that literature, art, life of a particular ethnic, racial or gender group are inaccessible except to the authentic members of this group, and that, accordingly, only Natives can know Natives, Blacks can know Blacks, and women can know women. She locates the root of the problem in the faulty anthropological supposition that “every person from a culture is nothing but a whole example of that culture.” As a philosopher, she reminds us that “knowledge is made possible and is sustained by irreducible difference, not identity.” Similarly, she issues a warning against universalizing postcoloniality, reminding us that others are many.

Finally, it is time that we questioned disciplinary boundaries. Especially the teachers of English have to understand that “English is in the world, not just in Britain and the United States.” If we are to get rid of the Eurocentric bias in North American education, we must do this with the help of such disciplines as History, Anthropology, Political Science, African Studies, Asian Studies, Native Studies, etc. To paraphrase Spivak, we must take into account that the making of Canadians that would be faithful to Canadian origins is not just a transaction with Europe.

All the above points culminate in Spivak's vision of a transnational and postdisciplinary study of culture that would broach a new type of literacy. Joining the debate over the teaching of the canon, she proposes to include, next to the old masters (significantly reduced and reinterpreted), writing by women, women of colour, Afro-Americans, gays, lesbians, immigrant literature, literature of ethnicity, working-class literature, as well as non-Western literature. However, we must be careful not to fall into a trap of new orientalism with an alternative canon of “Third World Literature in translation.” It is necessary that we not only study other cultural systems, but also anthropologize the West.

In this context, how are we to understand the “outside” in the book's title? It is Spivak's metaphor for shifting the perspective on people, content, and methods involved in pedagogy. She makes us see what happens when the margin enters a teaching institution, when the disenfranchised are no longer silent, when the old canons are interrogated, when deconstruction and feminism are used as reading strategies. Most importantly, she makes us see her ideal of the classroom “staged as intervention, always moving outside in the teaching machine.”

Eva Karpinski teaches in the School of English Studies at Seneca College in King City, Ontario.