appreciation · faster feminism · spotlight

On the Problem of Speaking for Others

This week, I had the opportunity to reread Linda Martín Alcoff’s famous essay “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” The essay, published in 1991 at the height of Identity Politics, is one of the most insightful interventions into the politics of who can speak for whom that I have ever encountered.
The question of who can, and who should, speak for whom is an enduring one within feminist thought. It comes up in research, teaching, and activist contexts. One of the main things that I take from Alcoff’s work is an attentiveness to a politics of responsibility and accountability. How does one fairly represent a community about which one is writing about, teaching about or with whom you’re doing activist work? This question is important, regardless of whether you claim membership in that community or not, but is particularly salient for identity groups that have seen their histories erased, distorted, or only partially represented within dominant culture.
This question has come up for me repeatedly in my own research on feminist magazines like BUST and Bitch. These are feminist texts, and yet I write in ways that are frequently critical of them. Sometimes, I worry sometimes that my criticism overrides what I see as the value of these texts. One of the challenges of academic work is how to do justice to work that one may be critical of in a way that isn’t dismissive.
Alcoff’s thinking on the topic of speaking of others emphasizes the importance of context. She demonstrates the ways in which a universalized position, such as “it is always a problem to speak for others” or “it is never a problem to speak for others,” is untenable within a framework of feminist ethics.
One of the ways in which Alcoff makes this point is through Foucault’s concept of the “rituals of speaking,” which emphasizes the ways in which speaking and writing always occur within social spaces. Speaking is not simply a matter of autonomous individual choice (this is why people who say, “just speak up if you have something to say!” really irritate me). Rather, the rituals of speaking call our attention to the contexts in which speaking and being heard are made possible.
Alcoff criticizes those who argue that speaking for others is always problematic, suggesting that this “retreat response” abdicates one’s responsibility to addressing injustice. But it is also worth noting that there are contexts in which stepping aside might be appropriate. I think of a panel discussion I attended last year on the Occupy movement, held in a large lecture hall. There were two microphones set up in the aisles for audience members to line up behind to ask questions. Each line had 6-8 people in it. There was one woman in line. When she got to the microphone, she stated that she had observed the gender disparity in who was lining up to speak, and encouraged other women to ask questions. Then, someone yelled from the audience, “and maybe some of the men could step back!” I found this intervention really fascinating, because it makes visible the ways in which these social spaces are shared spaces to which everyone is responsible. It’s not just about telling folks who are silent or quiet to “speak up.” Equally, or perhaps more importantly, social justice work is about creating the conditions that help make listening possible.  

faster feminism · networking · spotlight

Faster Feminism Spotlight: Helene Vosters

I’ve been inspired, in part by our own mandate of faster feminism (itself inspired), in part by our friends at University of Venus who recently posed a networking challenge, and in part by good old feminist networking. In the name of inspiration, connection, networking, and getting the word out, I’ll be doing periodic Faster Feminism Spotlights. The aim of these spotlights is to shine them on folks doing the positive and often provocative work of inspiration.

I was first introduced to Helene Vosters’s work in one of those weird and serendipitous moments of connectivity. After giving a paper from my current research–something I’m calling the Collapsible Commons–several audience members did me the kindness of asking Real Questions. You know, those rare questions that are both supportive of your work and push you to think harder and better about what it is you’re trying to say. Dream questions. One asked me about vulnerability. Another asked me to think about layered history and layered space. In the hallway another audience member came up to me and suggested I look at Vosters’s work. “I think she’s really interesting,” she said. She was right.

Helene Vosters is a performer and a performance scholar. She has an MFA in queer and activist performance from the New College in California and is currently pursuing PhD studies in performance at York.

On July 1, 2010 Vosters started Impact Afghanistan War. The concept was simple: fall down in public one hundred times a day for a year. In her artistic statement Vosters writes that each fall represents a death in Afghanistan. Unlike the Canadian military personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan there have been no accurate records kept recording Afghani deaths. This is not an oversight.

Impact is an attempt to “reach beyond the numbness produced by abstract numbers, political debates and media spectacularization” she writes. “It is my attempt to register, through my body, the impact of our (Canada’s) engagement in Afghanistan. In a larger sense, it is an inquiry into empathy.”

You can watch Helene fall here.