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  • Writer's pictureSam Stoeltje

Spivak on the Supernatural (Yes, you read that correctly)

Painting by Nirode Mazumdar, an artist discussed by Spivak.

A short post with some long quotes – I just finished an essay by Gayatri Spivak, ”Moving Devi,” which she first presented as a lecture accompanying a museum exhibit of (as I understand) ancient Indian art depicting female deities of the Hindu pantheon. Although, as it turns out, Spivak is set on troubling terms like “pantheon”, and more generally, the colonialist and Eurocentric but above all monotheistic habits of thought when it comes to representing what we call “polytheism.” It’s a long essay, available on JSTOR, which, if you don’t have access, shoot me an email and I’ll get you a pdf.

I’m not sure what originally drew me to the piece, but I wanted to post about it here because Spivak gives sustained attention to metaphysics of the Indian subcontinent involved in thinking about or attending to the “supernatural.” The principle distinction she is out to deconstruct and anatomize is between dvaita and advaita, or “dualism” and “non-dualism” respectively. One fascinating thing I learned, as someone with next to no expertise on Hinduism (itself a category Spivak problematizes), is that “dualism” in certain contexts may refer to something other than the mind/body binary, or the self/other binary; or more specifically, that dualism may in fact not signify a “binary” as we are used to thinking of it.

Dualism, or dvaita, becomes through Spivak’s learned (but as she continually emphasizes, non-specialist) consideration, a way of seeing or being or perceiving that is open to the “radical alterity” of the supernatural as manifest in anything, that is, any human or non-human, deer or painting or stone, as the case may be. Without exactly subscribing to or declaring her investment in dvaita, Spivak speaks of it affirmatively, concluding the piece with a portrait of ritual worship as it exists within her life and within the context of her metropolitan immigrant milieu. There is much much more to her argument, but I hope only to have piqued interest here. At the very least, this sustained extension of Spivak’s engagement with autobiography and with the metaphysics of South Asia begun in “Can the Sub-altern Speak?” may challenge our received impressions of her. Or it did mine, at any rate.

Here is Spivak (fascinatingly) comparing her understanding of “dvaita” to Derrida’s “messianicity” as he worked it out in Specters of Marx:

“I am drawing now upon my conversations with the late Professor Matilal, who was one of the greatest international authorities on Hindu religious and philosophical culture. Discussing the Mahabhrata with him, I suggested that the active polytheist imagination negotiates with the unanticipatable yet perennial possibility of the metamorphosis of the transcendental as supernatural in the natural. To my way of thinking, this seemed to be the secret of the dvaita structure of feeling: the unanticipatable emergence of the supernatural in the natural-the tenacious dog on the mountain path is suddenly King Dharma for Yudhisthira in the last Book of the Mahabharata- rather unlike any sustained notion of incarnation. Perhaps this is why the Sanskrit word for "incarnation" (avatar)-has nothing to do with "putting on flesh." It means rather "a come-down [being]." Everything around us is, after all, "come-down" if we assume an "up-there."”

And here is a quotation/retelling of a mythic narrative that becomes central to her argument, the death and dismemberment of Sati (interesting particularly for people thinking about cartography and the destruction of the female body):

“One day, while Sati was sitting outside her house, she saw a number of gods and goddesses passing by.... "Where are all of you going?" They answered, "Don't you know of Daksha's magnificent sacrifice?" ... [Sati] could not believe that they had been deliberately overlooked.... Sati asked her husband if he could explain her father's abnormal con- duct. Shiva was sure he could.... Daksha intensely disliked Shiva and his unconventional way of life.... So, Sati ran to her father, ignoring the banter and sneers directed at Shiva, and said to Daksha, "What kind of sacrifice is this, father, where the supreme god Shiva has not been invited?" The status-conscious Daksha ... replied sarcastically, "... You have married beneath your social status, my child. I cannot insult these assembled dignitaries by asking that lunatic loafer to be here!" ... Unable to bear the insults uttered against her dearly beloved husband she fell down in a swoon and died.... [Shiva] was mad with fury and ...rushed to Daksha's sacrifice.... Shiva tore Daksha's head from his neck and threw it away. The sacrifice itself assumed the shape of a deer [lovely dvaita touch!] and fled. Shiva, with his Pinaka bow in hand, chased and shot it.... Shiva now came to where his beloved Sati lay dead and an uncontrollable fit of madness seized him.... [P]icking up Sati's body, he walked, jumped, danced, and traversed long dis- tances for many days on end, oblivious that the mortal remains of Sati were dropping off, bit by bit, over many places. All these places, including those where parts of her jewellery fell, later became places of pilgrimage.”

Did you catch it in the brackets? A "loveliness" worth close consideration.

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Dec 03, 2020

See a related Paracultures post here:

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