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Making Visible

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

I am Indian. The Roma are my cousins, moving out of India a thousand years ago. It gives me a particular thrill because I am not politically an identitarian –it is too closely tied to reproductive heteronormativity. Just a good feeling, then, cousins.
I was in Kosovo all of last week. The Roma are not part of the face Kosovo shows to visitors. Researching the terrible plight of the contemporary Romany in Kosovo, I was reminded of the word that first made me feel my kinship with the Roma, I’m a language person –Dukh, the title of a book of poems, bilingual in Romany given to me by its author Hedina Tahirović Sijerčić.
Dukh. For her in English bilinguality “Pain,” for me (it’s a word in my native language), more “Sorrow”. The invisibility of the Romany in Kosovo – the poet is from neighboring Bosnia – has given me the sense of kinship through this one word of immense power. Tragedy is the noblest genre, the pursuit of happiness is an American goal, tragedy teaches us more. Dukh, brings us together.

My title today is “Making visible.” What is it to “make visible?” And how does Roma Protokoll [1] make visible? The Greek word theorein, that the English word “theory” and the corresponding words in the major European languages transcribe, signals the phenomenon of “seeing or making visible correctly;” the word is related to theater, to staging, to making visible as in a theater.

Between May 13th, I have made presentations in Spain, Kosovo, Germany, Croatia. Everywhere I have been welcomed as someone who will theorize already existing material. I myself perceive my old friend Suzana Milevska’s making visible of the persistent undoing of legitimized violence, and Delaine and Damian Le Bas’s staging of the question mark in Safe European Home? as to be on a grid of theorizing, rather than caught in a theory-practice or theory-material opposition. I hope this will be clear - theorizing is an activity - in what I have to say in the time that remains. In some ways then, the way we look at theory or theorizing is a sabotaging of the classical Greek European model.

When I see Gagi speaking in detail about the occupancy problem of toilets - I am now referring to the exhibition - in Milutin Jovanović’s Migration, I think of Primo Levi describing the abjection of the toilet protocol in Auschwitz. The work is broadening, making a greater spatio-historical swath visible. Emmanuel Levinas, revising his ethics of alterity (or otherness, into the object man, writes that “the object man must figure at the beginning of all knowing.” [2] In other words, body before mind. We are alive and die as we are born.

Body before mind. Among Levinas’s prime examples is the usual suspect: reproductive heteronormativity – the pregnant mother. The excreting body is where Yeats, the poet, moves us along: “Love has pitched its mansion in the place of excrement.” [3] But Gagi and Levi move us further – into the courtesy of the excreting body. I wish I could share with you the complicated example of gender-solidarity through the access to the body’s allowance of shame that I was able to present three months ago in Delhi. For now, I will simply insist on the importance of theory’s task of making visible, as correctly as possible, the widest terrain of possible connections.

Look, for example, at the transformation of the impersonal legitimacy of signage in Alfred Ullrich’s two-channel video installation Crazy Water Wheel. [4] To turn the impersonal and ubiquitous declarative imperatives that in fact declare a specific race-class-gendered ideological subject  - who can or cannot use space - is a deeply theoretical gesture and will travel everywhere in capitalism, to make visible the imposition of a “globe” over a world. That’s what Ullrich is doing: making visible. Yet, the video screen will not let go of the existential specificity of the gesture (each and every sign), as no text will. What is the responsibility of witnessing here? (How do you watch this exhibition?) To witness here is to make visible that in the heart of the singular is a tendency to the universal. We theorize when we turn that tendency persistently into a crisis that will not remain frozen in the violence of a self-declared universal. Friends, I am a classroom teacher. I wish I had the time to unpack this. You can be sure that this material will become for me a teaching text. But four formulaic things I will say here, and now, looking toward those future occasions. Please bear with me:

  1. Subalternity brings itself to crisis by witnessing and dwelling in the transformation of a tendency in the singular. The singular is the universalizable, never the universal. This is Spinoza’s lesson, the vision of a just state, today degraded into the false promise of a ready-made multitude, safe in an unexamined digital idealism. By contrast, Suzana Milevska and Delian Le Bas inhabit that question mark, that we must always emphasize, and that troubles a safety imposed by law-enforcement alone, a theoretical work that forever transforms the risk-taking of witnessing into evidentiality. We must learn how to look at, how to listen to, how to walk into Jovanovitch/Gagi, Alfred Ullich, Marika Schmiedt. For those of you who have just walked into this space, these are the names of some of the artists in Roma-Protokoll, in Safe European Home?
  2. Mere identitarianism closes off this learning. It harnesses gendering into reproductive heteronormativity. It joins hands with the racists, legitimizes them by reversal, sloganizes that you are like this because you were born thus, manufactures cultural memory rather than singularize it, privatizes the historical, disqualifies itself by misappropriating the law’s blind conveyor-belt, ceaselessly neutralizing witnessing into singularity. I took good care to say I am kin to the Roma, that I am coming back from Kosovo, that the poet of pain or Dukh, Hedina Tahirović Sijerčić is from Bosnia. Let me add that I worked with Suzana Milevska in Skopje, Jovanović is from Belgrade, that Ullrich and Delain and Marika Schmiedt are Euro-Roma. This is because we, women and honorary women, have not remained in the gender-marked safety of identity. Friends, I have explained for decades now, in writing and teaching, how gender is the original instrument of theorization for social production, for the production of culture. Today in these 40 minutes I lean on that writing and teaching, I say that the group here, and I with them, have exposed identity and expanded it into the universalizability of the singular, that you can perform and give witness, who ever you are, as you walk through our show. It is said, only half in jest, that the Balkans begin in Austria. It is important that we are in the Parliament House and we are making that a space to contain singularity, at least until the 8th of June. Let it be longer, let it expand, in time as in space.
  3. As I am repeating over the last week, I was on the edges of Praxis international. Gajo Petrović, the great Yugoslav philosopher, was my personal friend, my only guest at the conference where I first presented “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in 1983, as a lecture. I heard last week one of Petrović’s students, now a lecturer at a university, put socialism and ethnicity in binary opposition, later commenting enigmatically that that was all he could tell his students now. I pick up his relay and say a bit more. That in Marx’s comments on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, a kingpin of socialism, is contained the very same theorizing gesture that we are inviting you to perform. Marx points out that if this tendency (for him the Hegelian word die Tendenz) is not brought to crisis, capitalism will manage it. If Socialism had had the time and inclination to teach this lesson as human nature (just as capitalism daily presents the gesture of “selling oneself for the highest profit as human nature”) we would not be living in this world of financial crisis today. Let me tell you that there is never enough time for teaching such counter-intuitive lessons, for the vanguard must be impatient. The ceaseless work of teaching, as these installations and mixed-media initiatives also teach, is to supplement vanguardism. As I quote Derrida’s hard description of the supplement, see how it describes the precariousness of the gendered fragility of our show here, today: the supplement “it may always not have taken place… it is never present, here and now… Less than nothing” – fragile outdoor structures, a few documents, a couple of videos here – “and yet, to judge by its effects, much more than nothing.” [5] the supplement is dangerous because it opens the vanguard to the incalculable.
    As John Drabinski correctly comments: the supplement is “an addition to that which pretends to be self-sufficient (law, identity, the benevolent european universal that “give voice” to the subaltern), which then unravels self-sufficiency with a constitutive contingency” [6] – the singular is universalizable, therefore contingent (not necessary, as the universal in Euro-teleology again and again tells us) - yet resides as a hole to be forever filled in the self-declared universal. A lesson to be learned.  A hard lesson, but it can be learned. I am speaking as a teacher, and I am trying today to emphasize that if we learn how to watch this exhibition it can be a teaching text.
  4. If it is a lesson to be learned, the teacher must serve the “reading” of art. The Roma must also be epistemologically trained so that she can relocate the main stream, she is not just the object of being given a fair education and so on; I believe, and this relates to my work, in my work with the mainstream: where do we learn from? We learn from the people who are mistaken as only object of benevolence rather than help to locate ourselves in a safe space within it. Some years ago, I had commented on the benevolent yet dismissive and silencing gesture of the charismatic diasporic when she wrote that Hanife, the only Roma member of the women she was helping (and she uses the word Gypsy), she said Hanife  “drew” her letters. I had once again quoted Derrida: “is that not as if one should refuse, ‘speech’ by translating the equivalent word in the language of the Nambikwara as ‘to cry’, ‘to sing’, to sigh?’” And I had gone on to say “there is nothing proper to the letter in the convention of its writing.” [7] In other words, I was asking the activist, helping from above, to learn her own alphabet by letting the Roma, subaltern in that group of Greeks and Turks benevolently brought together, make visible the singularity of the latin alphabet.

I repeat that plea here, today. I am overwhelmed by Małgorzata Mirga-Tas and Marta Kotlarska’s Miraculous Water. [8] I heard the elation in the voice of Birgit Lurz, whose brilliance and generosity I cannot begin to describe, when it became possible to hold a workshop of Romani Click here in a Vienna school, where “15 Roma children will transform a classroom into a big camera obscura.” This is tremendous work. I have been engaged in the education of the subaltern for 25 years now. I bring what I have learnt to supplement Romani Click in alliance with the same struggle.
Obviously, and I am now quoting the magazine relating to the installation, “the project engages with the urgent need to employ different methods to combat the existing prescriptive educational policy and goes towards the young Roma… (e.g., the widely spread phenomenon in Eastern Europe of putting Romani children in special schools and classes for pupils with mild mental disabilities) [9]
The children create their own world, lead the other kinds of children in the class to create theirs. There are follow-up actions in Romani settlements. To repeat, I am overwhelmed by this. And I crave your indulgence to take another step.
The 34-year-old left-front Government in my native state of West Bengal died in heavy electoral losses a fortnight ago. Adding this to the story of the failure of international socialism, I will repeat what I have been teaching and writing since 1978, when I taught my first course on a thousand pages of Marx, at the University of Texas at Austin: there is no direct line from the ownership of the means of production to a desire for general social justice, from self-interest to general social justice. You cannot fault the ones who have been exploited and say: oh well, they should have followed through; it’s easy to say that from the point of view of a class with a liberal education. I repeat, there is no direct line from the ownership of the means of production to a craving for general social justice.  The dictatorship of the proletariat does not happen and is bound to fail. In that same spirit, I will say, in alliance with Suzana: there is no direct line from “access to means of representation” (her words) and an end to the subalternization of the Roma all over the world.

I should say a great deal more to make myself clear. Instead, let me tabulate. As they are constructing their world, these children are held within the hegemonic history of Europe, and I quote your article again: “In the Renaissance (is there is only one Renaissance in the world? it’s the European one we are speaking about, and assuming it’s the universal name), artists started to use the camera obscura as an aid to help them re-draw the world.” What world was this? This is the remote beginning of Kant’s cosmopolitheia Goethe’s Weltliteratur. This is the beginning of the felicitous colonial. Artists are more or less innocent, but history is larger than art, and that’s what I am talking about; the imagination is not a racist imagination, but there must be epistemological training in order for the imagination to become an activist imagination. The European Renaissance re-drawing of the world is the beginning of the capitalist imperialism that re-writes the globe today over “a world”. In order to use this as medicine rather than poison, Romani Click must supplement general cognitive education rather than see itself only as “a contrast” to it. Art history to art geography to geography to the environment to technology to economics through science to mathematics – all the way to the world as they grow as children, held up, one hopes, by a deep learning of languages, a learning that cannot avoid poetry. Globalization will always be an island of languaging in a sea of traces. Let our Roma children move as subjects there. Only capital and data globalize. Everything else is damage control. Let our Roma children grow up to be problem-solvers for a just world. The safe haven of Europe will not contain them then. Their voice will not be “given” any longer to them by the good people of Europe.

I come now to Marika Schmiedt, What Remains. The teacher in me speaks first: don’t just collect the papers that you see on the desk. Read them: “Lists of prisoners, transport lists, inmate-staff cards, obituaries, detention certificates, cash cards, records of medical experiments (Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, Ravensbruck), measuring cards, prisoner photos, register files, police records, birth certificates, death certificates.” You will not become experts but you will be literate in our shared history, witnessing evidence as testimony. This is the materiality of evidence that the state puts together.
She expands here from the Dukh of her grandmother, and I feel a special tie. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” I expanded from the suicide of my grandmother’s sister. In order to establish my particular sense of kinship with Marika Schmiedt, I want to quote myself:

My grandmother’s sister joined a group of self-styled terrorist freedom fighters in the 20-s of the 20th century. She killed herself because she was given an assassination detail and found herself unable to kill. I should like to think that my pacifism resonates with her inability to kill.  When recently, in a public conversation with Judith Butler in New York, I said in answer to a question from the audience as to how I could be a pacifist in the face of Palestine, that the problem with the situation in Palestine was that politics would not allow me to be ethical, no one in the audience knew that I was thinking, in my heart, that it was a lesson I had learned from my grandmother’s sister, who was only seventeen when she died. She was four years older than my mum. And it was my mother who told me the story. [10] What kind of flip is given to a mother's testimony, in terms of veridicality?

Where is this on the grid from witnessing to evidentiarity?    
Abena Busia, the Ghanaian poet and critic, has been very kind to me and suggested that in writing the essay “Can the Subaltern speak?” I had made my grandmother’s sister speak, in a certain way. Today standing here I say, that Marika has made the subaltern speak, in a certain way for sure, through representation, but much more forcefully. If the subaltern is the group that cannot achieve the state – Antonio Gramsci’s classic definition – the Roma Holocaust didn’t even make it into Hannah Arendt’s insistence that the banality of evil springs from the premises of the state. The Roma Holocaust is not allowed into this widely accepted generalization. That is subalternity, not just not achieving the state, but not even achieving the record of the banality of the evil state. What speaks here in this exhibition is not a mother’s word, as in my case, but the archives of the state, evidence made visible into singularity.

To summarize, then. Theorizing, as making visible and staging, is not separate from art practice. I try to show this by suggesting that Damian and Delaine Le Bas’s fragile staging of Roma life and history is just that: theory as theater. Even if our birth certificate says: “Roma,” we must pray to be haunted there because “I cannot be in the other’s place,” – especially historically – “in the head of this other” - even if it is supposed to be my own history, history does not belong to anyone. Then I discussed Suzana Milevska’s Roma Protokoll to show how it makes visible the singularity of the Roma as the universalizable, through the ethics of the body, and gendering as theorizing instrument. I suggested that Roma children must be set on the path of relocating cognitive education. I suggested that we undo the divide between socialism and ethnicity. I suggested that teaching should supplement vanguardism. In conclusion, I stood with Marika Schmiedt and our foremothers, to make the subaltern speak, if only through representation.
Thank you for teaching me so much. All my remarks come from visiting the exhibit. Take it away from me now...

[1] Exhibition curated by Suzana Milevska, Roma Protokoll. Austrian Parliament, Press Room. May 26th to June 8th 2011. All entries belong to this exhibit.

[2] Emmanuel Lévinas, Otherwise than Being: Or, Beyond Essence, tr. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 1981), p.59.

[3] William Butler Yeats, “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop,” The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, 2nd ed. (New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996), p. 259.

[4] Alfred Ullrich, Crazy Water Wheel, 2009-2011, Two-channel video installation, 18’ 38”.

[5] Derrida, Of Grammatology, tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), p.314.

[6] John E. Drabinski, Levinas and the Postcolonial: Race, Nation, Other (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2011), p.101.

[7] Spivak, Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward A History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), p. 408.

[8] Malgorzata Mirga-Tas and Marta Kotlarska, Miraculous Water, 2006/2011, DVD loop.

[9] Suzana Milevska, “Roma Protocol,” Safe European Home? (Vienna: Festwochen, 2011), p. 12.

[10] Spivak, “Foremothers,” in Susan Gubar, True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is a literary critic, theorist and a University Professor at Columbia University, New York City.


The text "Making Visible" originates in a symposium held on the 28th of May 2011 in Vienna, Austria in the context of the Wiener Festwochen production "Safe European Home?" at the Architektur Zentrum Wien. The exhibition "Roma Protokoll" was curated by Suzana Milevska. The symposium was curated by Birgit Lurz and Wolfgang Schlag.

An audioversion of the talk can be found here.


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