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On Speaking for Others

On Speaking for Others

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Published by: nindze5173 on Dec 16, 2010
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GWSS 3303WResponse Paper #1February 6
th
, 2009
Speaking for Others: On Context and Responsibility
Linda Alcoff offers a complex interrogation surrounding the debates and practices of speaking for others. She argues that neither speaking for, nor 
not 
speaking for are simple positions to be taken, but rather that it depends on the context, discourse, location of thespeaker, the audience, and variety of other factors. The basic problem of speaking for others, nevertheless, remains an important one. Speaking for others might have intendedor unintended effects on those who are being spoken for; it might distort the realities andexperiences; and give undeserved power and status for the speaker instead of those whoare the subjects of the speech.She argues that speaking
 for 
is not completely different from speaking
about 
others, latter  being perceived as a less problematic intellectual or political exercise (9). For Alcoff, anyspeaking for or about others, or even about yourself is complicated by the problem of representation itself. Any claim that it is possible to represent anyone objectively fallsinto a trap of Western philosophical claims about the possibility of Truth, which isobjective and disembodied. Alcoff states:“…The attempt to avoid the problematic speaking for by retreating into anindividualist realm is based on illusion, well-supported in the individualistideology of the West, that a self is not constituted by multiple intersectingdiscourses but consists in a unified whole capable of autonomy from others” (21).
 
Alcoff calls to engage with “rituals of speaking” in order “to identify discursive practices of speaking or writing that involve not only the text or utterance but their  position within a social space including persons involved in, acting upon, and/or affected by the words” (12). The location of the speaker, among other factors contributing to thecontext, does matter, but it should not be perceived as the ultimate authority – “To saythat location
bears
on meaning and truth is not the same as saying that location
determines
meaning and truth” (16). More importantly, power inequalities matter greatlyand the position of the privileged intellectual or politician, for example, cannot beinterpreted the same way as that of the oppressed member from a particular marginalizedlocation. Alcoff, following Spivak, argues that simply to take a distanced intellectual position and not to speak for others might contribute, rather than challenge, existing power relations. Choosing not to speak is also a position of privilege and instead of attempting to occupy the position of a perceived ethical/intellectual “purity,” it is moreimportant to attack “the very structure of discursive practice” that privileges some voicesand silences others (23). More importantly, speaking for others, or any speaking for thatmatter, “should always carry with it an accountability and responsibility for what onesays” (25).In terms of women of color speaking for others the critiques similarly might be applied.There are inherent limits and dangers of one person trying to represent collectiveexperiences of others. Similarly to Alcoff however, I would argue that specific contextsand discursive field in which particular authors make their interventions does matter. For those who are marginalized and their subjectivities denied, “the very act of speakingitself” is potentially transformative and liberatory (23). Therefore, rather than making
 
clear-cut divisions between those who can speak for others, and those who cannot, weshould be interrogating particular contexts – who, to whom, from what location, as wellas how and what, is speaking. Identities are more complex than a mere gender, race,ethnicity, religion, class and so on- taken separately. Simply equating authors to their one(or several) identity markers cannot provide full experience of the group the author claims or is ascribed to represent. For example, a black woman writer might have particular insights stemming from her experience as a black woman in the social order  but that experience cannot be interpreted as a universal, since a black women who lives indifferent region, occupies different class, sexual, physical ability, age etc position mighthave an entirely different experience personally and collectively. It is important torecognize, when necessary, the identity of the author but the authors identity cannot betreated as a simple factor that establishes an unproblematic relationship to the text andreveals to us the “truth.” No matter what the genre is, whether it is a fiction, theory,history, or autobiography, certain elements of fiction and partiality are always present bythe simple fact that representations by their nature are just that – representations.One of the central issues that is engaged with in Margaret Homans’ article is thecomplicated terrain where postmodernist theory meets theories and practices of marginalized identities. On the one hand, postmodernist theory attempts to deny allessentialist claims to identity and argues that the social world can be explained byanalyzing social and discursive constructedness of identities and concepts that operate as“truth” in the world. On the other hand, those who only recently (and partially) were ableto gain recognition of their identities and subjectivities engage with postmodernist ideaswith suspicion. For example Donna Harraway states that “There is the refrain that, just

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