"Deconstructing the Moment of Representation with Spivak and Derrida"
I was inspired to choose this topic by my internship with Prayasam, an international non-profit organization in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. Prayasam partners with youth from marginalized communities in West Bengal and empowers them to "transform their local communities by assuming the role of change-agents." Creating platforms for self-representation is integral to their mission, which aims to combat stigma, cultivate positive mindsets and aspirations, and instill greater self-confidence in youth. Through Prayasam, I’d come to realize that self-representation is not just about creating the 'right' image— it has its own power in bestowing agency and enabling you to define yourself in the way you want to become. Working closely with Gayatri Spivak and Jacques Derrida for my thesis has confirmed the self-actualizing power of representation, and given me the framework to argue for what an ethical approach to representation should look like, based on the way meaning and subjectivity is constructed. With my thesis, I hope to raise awareness of the vital role that signifiers play in shaping our understanding of ourselves and others. Given their power, I hope to instill a sense of responsibility as well as insight, so that one can reflect seriously on the expressions and statements they choose to propagate. When representing ourselves or others, the choice should be concerned with far more than truth and lies— it’s a choice between whether to build up or take down.
This essay aims to employ a deconstructive understanding of identity and representation in order to identify what an ethical approach to representation should look like, especially with regard to the empowerment of minority and marginalized groups. I turn to Gayatri Spivak and Jacques Derrida who provide the framework for my scope of inquiry. In “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak problematizes the aim of postcolonialism to constitute a postcolonial identity by giving voice to indigenous cultural narratives that counteract dominating Western imperialist ideologies. The problem with this aim lies in its tenuous commitment to a stable, persistent ‘truth’ of identity that can be understood apart from context, which, according to Spivak, results in the failure to recognize how the “epistemic violence” of imperialism has obstructed the subaltern subject’s ability to both speak and be heard. To justify Spivak’s concerns, I will look to her foundation in Derridean deconstructive analysis, which is built upon the premise that all meaning resides in the unstable relations between signifiers, rather than a fixed referent. With her Derridean background, Spivak advocates for strategic essentialism as a way for marginalized groups to achieve discursive power. Due to well-known dangers of essentialism that are highlighted by a deconstructive lens, however, I argue for a representational approach that goes beyond essentialism and seeks to produce an illimitable subjectivity by allowing room for change and possibility. With this goal in mind, I then offer potential strategies for the empowerment of minority and marginalized groups.