Sanctioned Ignorance

A postcolonial critic, Spivak seeks alternative readings of culture within the context of colonialism. She writes in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999) that ‘the mainstream has never run clean… part of mainstream education involves learning to ignore this absolutely, with a sanctioned ignorance’ (p.2). Here she is referring to the Western literary canon as being tainted by imperialist assumptions and the sanctioning of scholarly ignorance to this fact as worthy of critique. Spivak believes that the ‘theoretical elite’ and the ‘self styled academic ‘practitioner’’ (p.4) sanction ignorance now more than ever before.


The effect of this ‘sanctioned ignorance’ is, she suggests, the reproducing and foreclosing of colonialist structures, and every critic of imperialism must chart this ignorance in their studies. Here, the focus is the ‘third world’ and its relation to the ‘first world’. In Selected Subaltern Studies (1985) Spivak writes ‘it is correctly suggested that the sophisticated vocabulary of much contemporary historiography successfully shields this cognitive failure and that this success-in-failure, this sanctioned ignorance, is inseparable from colonial domination’ (p.6). Ignorance is therefore rationalised, and by such means sanctioned. Spivak’s charge of sanctioned ignorance is most often directed at the Western study of the ‘third-world’, ‘oriental’ or ‘subaltern’, a gaze filtered through a selective lens. It therefore sits comfortably alongside recent calls to bring the non-Western into social theory. However, broader than this is the abstraction of normative theory, originating in particular, colonial, cultural and historical contexts and then apparently unproblematically applied to all contexts.


The charge of ‘sanctioned ignorance’ is not merely the suggestion of an omission, an angle on analysis as yet unexplored by chance. It gives agency to the omitter. Indeed, to the collective academy. It is a purposeful silencing through the dismissing of a particular context as being irrelevant. This is not necessarily an issue of individual malice but an institutionalised way of thinking about the world which operates to foreclose particular types of analysis or considerations from entering into the debate.


Essential reading:

Spivak, G. C. (1985) Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography. In: Guha, R. & Spivak, G. C. eds. Selected Subaltern Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press


Spivak, G. C. (1999) A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Boston: Harvard University Press.


Further reading:

Mayblin, L. (2013) Never Look Back: Political Thought and the Abolition of Slavery, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 26:1, 93-110



What examples of ‘sanctioned ignorance’ are there in your discipline?


By what processes is ‘sanctioned ignorance’ made possible?


How can ‘sanctioned ignorance’ be challenged?


Submitted by Lucy Mayblin

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