On Two Footnotes in Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason. By Alberto Moreiras.

(I thank Eduardo González for pushing me to comment on Spivak’s characterization of Derrida’s figure of the marrano.)

“Split self as migrant hybrid,” Spivak says about a thread in Derrida’s writing that would have begun with The Other Heading.   Aporias would have radicalized the figure “into an earlier text of hybridity,” the marrano: “if one, figuring, calls marrano anyone who remains faithful to a secret he has not chosen, in the very place where he lives” (Derrida, quoted by Spivak).   Spivak concludes: “it is possible to think that the utterly persuasive dominant discourse of Derrida’s critique of Western metaphysics contains signs (or at least signals) of a prior identity hidden by collective covenant in response to shared menace.”   A “prior identity”?   The marrano does not refer to a prior identity except delusionally: a marrano is not and never was a prior Jew any more that it is or ever was a present Catholic.   Identity thinking keeps playing its games, errantly, and in open contradiction with itself—as it cannot but be, since identity could not organize a scene of writing, only of death. Spivak continues: “Does [the marrano] make specific—and necessarily efface—. . . the general graphematic that all disclosure is also effacement?”   Again, the marrano is presented as an “other text at work,” a prior text, except that the marrano is neither prior text nor other text: it could not be, or else the marrano sign itself would be effaced, reduced to its indexical function. Spivak concludes: “’We’ are, then, the marrano as old European.”

What is the purpose of it?   Spivak’s interest is in counterpositing her pair native informant/postcolonial subject (the postcolonial subject would have overwritten the native informant, would have effaced the native informant, the native informant would still be the site of a prior text, an other text, which all disclosures would ultimately desire) to the pair marrano/hybrid migrant. Derrida, then, would have appealed to the figure of the marrano as a tropology of old Europe, to use it as a lever for a critique of the present.

All of this happens in Gayatri Spivak’s note 29, pages 17-18, of the Critique of Postcolonial Reason.   In note 126, page 279-80, she returns to the same topic, addressing a claim about Derrida “seeming aware” of ethnocentrism in the production of knowledge.   Spivak wonders about Derrida’s “speculation” on “migrancy or displacement as an origin.”   But this means, Spivak says, that Derrida “would figure the indigenous subaltern, from the perspective of the metropolitan hybrid, as a correlative of cultural conservatism, topological archaism, ontopological nostalgia.”   The critique is pointed. For Spivak, a deconstruction of deconstruction, that is, to turn deconstruction against itself, would reveal that “each time that ethnocentrism is precipitately and ostentatiously reversed, some effort silently hides behind all the spectacular effects to consolidate an inside and to draw from it some domestic benefit.” As a result, after all is said and done, Spivak would reassert her preliminary assessment, in the earlier note, that Derrida places himself in the “role” of “an honorable and well-placed Eurocentric economic-cultural migrant.”

One can respect Spivak’s project in Critique of Postcolonial Reason and accept that, to a certain extent, one must use one’s elbows to make room for oneself in a crowded room. And one cannot deny the action, precisely not, to hybrid migrants either. The problem is that in these footnotes the notion of the marrano Derrida proposes goes to hell, or is sent to hell.   But no: the Derridian marrano, that is, Derrida’s marrano tropology, cannot be confused with the tropology that informs, forms, and defines Spivak’s meditation on native informants and postcolonial subjects.   It is, precisely, otherwise, something entirely other, and we do not have to go to the superimposed (by Spivak) figure of the “absolute arrivant.”   The marrano is not the absolute arrivant because it can never be the one who was always already there in some other place.   The marrano is not a figure of identity, which is the reason Spivak ultimately cannot countenance it, one has to conclude.

Whether the marrano only comes from European history, from a particular history of concrete hegemonization and consequent exploitation, or whether, as a figure, it is strong enough to assert its independence from its historical determination, the fact remains that the marrano is irreducible to postcolonial desire.  Which is not to say marranism, as a figure of postcolonial thought, if one wanted it, could not have decisive advantage over the identitarian thinking that, to date, seems to be most all of what postcolonialism is prepared to provide on its positive instantiation.


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