Alcoff’s widely-cited article titled, exactly: “The problem of speaking for others.” Alcoff’s essay is a review of the arguments that have been presented by. ; revised and reprinted in Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity edited by Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman, University of Illinois Press, ; and . The Problem of Speaking for Others. Author(s): Linda Alcoff. Source: Cultural Critique, No. 20 (Winter, ), pp. Published by: University of.

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Consider the following true stories: Anne Cameron, a very gifted white Canadian author, writes several first person accounts of the lives of Native Canadian women. At the International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, a group of Native Canadian writers ask Cameron to, in their words, “move over” on the grounds that her writings are disempowering for Native authors.

After the elections in Panama are overturned by Manuel Noriega, U. President George Bush declares in a public address that Noriega’s actions constitute an “outrageous fraud” and that “the voice of the Panamanian people have spoken. At a recent symposium at my university, a prestigious theorist was invited to give a lecture on the political problems of post-modernism.

Those of us in the audience, including many white women and people of oppressed nationalities and races, wait in eager anticipation for what he has to contribute to this important discussion. To our disappointment, he introduces his lecture by explaining that he can not cover the assigned topic, because as a white male he does not feel that he can speak for the feminist and post-colonial perspectives which have launched the critical interrogation of postmodernism’s politics.

He lectures instead on architecture. These examples demonstrate the range of current practices of speaking for others in our society. While the prerogative of speaking for others remains unquestioned in the citadels of colonial administration, among activists and in the academy it elicits a growing unease and, in some communities of discourse, it is being rejected.

There is a strong, albeit contested, current within feminism which holds that speaking for otherseven for other womenis arrogant, vain, unethical, and politically illegitimate. Feminist scholarship has a liberatory agenda which almost requires that women scholars speak on behalf of other women, and yet the dangers of speaking across differences of race, culture, sexuality, and power are becoming increasingly clear to all.

In feminist magazines such as Sojournerit is common to find articles and letters in which the author states that she can only speak for herself. In her important paper, “Dyke Methods,” Joyce Trebilcot offers a philosophical articulation of this view. She renounces for herself the practice of speaking for others within a lesbian feminist community, arguing that she “will not try to get other wimmin to accept my beliefs in place of their own” on the grounds that to do so would be to practice a kind of discursive coercion and even a violence.

In anthropology there is similar discussion about whether it is possible to speak for others either adequately or justifiably. The recognition that there is a problem in speaking for others has followed from the widespread acceptance of two claims. First, there has been a growing awareness that where one speaks from affects both the meaning and truth of what one says, and thus that one cannot assume an ability to transcend her location.

In other words, a speaker’s location which I take here to refer to her social location or social identity has an epistemically significant impact on that speaker’s claims, and can serve either to authorize or dis-authorize one’s speech.

The creation of Women’s Studies and African American Studies departments were founded on this very belief: The unspoken premise here is simply that a speaker’s location is epistemically salient. I shall explore this issue further in the next section. The second claim holds that not only is location epistemically salient, but certain privileged locations are discursively dangerous.

This was part of the argument made against Anne Cameron’s speaking for Native women: Cameron’s intentions were never in question, but the effects of her writing were argued to be harmful to the needs of Native authors because it is Cameron rather than they who will be listened to and whose books will be bought by readers interested in Native women.

Persons from dominant groups who speak for others are often treated as authenticating presences that confer legitimacy and credibility on the demands of subjugated speakers; such speaking for others does nothing to disrupt the discursive hierarchies that operate in public spaces.

For this reason, the work of privileged authors who speak on behalf of the oppressed is becoming increasingly criticized by members of those oppressed groups themselves.

On the Problem of Speaking for Others – Hook & Eye

However, we must begin to ask ourselves whether this is ever a legitimate authority, and if so, what are the criteria for legitimacy?


In particular, is it ever valid to speak for others who are unlike me or who are less privileged than me? We might try to delimit this speakung as only arising when a more privileged person speaks for a less privileged one. In this case, we might say that I should only speak for groups of which I am a member. But this does not tell us how groups themselves should be delimited.

For example, can a white woman speak for all women simply by virtue of being a woman? If not, how narrowly should we draw the categories? The complexity and multiplicity of group identifications could result in “communities” composed of single individuals. Moreover, the concept of groups assumes specious notions about clear-cut boundaries and “pure” identities.

I am a Panamanian-American and a person of mixed ethnicity and race: The criterion of group identity leaves many unanswered questions for a person such as myself, since I have membership in many conflicting groups but my membership in all of them is problematic.

Group identities and boundaries are ambiguous and permeable, and decisions about demarcating identity are always partly arbitrary. Another problem concerns how specific an identity needs to be to confer epistemic authority. Reflection on such problems quickly reveals that no easy solution to the problem of speaking for others can be found by simply restricting the practice to speaking for groups of which one is a member.

Adopting the position that one should only speak for oneself raises similarly difficult questions. If I don’t speak for those less privileged than myself, am I abandoning my political responsibility to speak out against oppression, a responsibility incurred by the very fact of my privilege? If I should not speak for others, should I restrict myself to following their lead uncritically? Is my greatest contribution to move over and get out of the way? And if so, what is the best way to do thisto keep silent or to deconstruct my own discourse?

The answers to these questions will certainly depend on who is asking them. While some of us may want to undermine, for example, the U. In order to answer these questions we need to become clearer on the epistemological and metaphysical issues which are involved in the articulation of the problem of speaking for others, issues which most often remain implicit.

I will attempt to make these issues clear before turning to discuss some of the possible responses to the problem and advancing a provisional, procedural solution of my own. But first I need to explain further my framing of the problem. In the examples used above, there may appear to be a conflation between the issue of speaking for others and the issue of speaking about others. This conflation was intentional on my part, because it is difficult to distinguish speaking about from speaking for in all cases.

There is an ambiguity in the two phrases: In fact, it may be impossible to speak for another without simultaneously conferring information about them. Similarly, when one is speaking about another, or simply trying to describe their situation or some aspect of it, one may also be speaking in place of them, i.

One may be speaking about another as an advocate or a messenger if the person cannot speak for herself. Thus I would maintain that if the practice of speaking for others is problematic, so too must be the practice of speaking about others. In post-structuralist terms, I am participating in the construction of their subject-positions rather than simply discovering their true selves. Once we pose it as a problem of representation, we see that, not only are speaking for and speaking about analytically close, so too are the practices of speaking for others and speaking for myself.

For, in speaking for myself, Speakign am also representing my self in a certain way, as occupying a specific subject-position, having certain characteristics and not others, and so on. In speaking for myself, I momentarily create my selfjust as much as when I speak for others I create them as a public, discursive self, a self which is more unified than any subjective experience can support. And this public self will in most cases have an effect on the self experienced as interiority.

The point here is that the problem of representation underlies all cases of speaking for, whether I am speaking for myself or for others. This is not to suggest that all representations are fictions: However, the problem of speaking for others is more specific than the problem of representation generally, and requires its own particular analysis.

There is one final point I want to make before we can pursue this analysis. The way I have articulated this problem may imply that individuals make conscious choices about their discursive practice free of ideology and the constraints of material reality.

This is not what I wish to imply. The problem of speaking for others is a social one, the options available to us are socially constructed, and the practices we engage in cannot be understood as simply the results of autonomous individual choice. Yet to replace both “I” and “we” with a passive voice that erases agency results in an erasure of responsibility and accountability for one’s speech, an erasure I would strenuously argue against there is too little responsibility-taking already in Western practice!


When we sit down to write, or get up to speak, we experience ourselves as making choices. We may experience hesitation from fear of being criticized or from fear of exacerbating a problem we would like to remedy, or we may experience a resolve to speak despite existing obstacles, but in many cases we experience having the possibility to speak or not to speak.

On the one hand, a theory which explains this experience as involving autonomous choices free of material structures would be false and ideological, but on the other hand, if we do not acknowledge the activity of choice and the experience of individual doubt, we are denying a reality of our experiential lives. Ultimately, the question of speaking for others bears crucially on the possibility of political effectivity.

Both collective action and coalitions would seem to require the possibility of speaking for. Yet influential postmodernists such as Gilles Deleuze have characterized as “absolutely fundamental: What is at stake in rejecting or validating speaking for others as a discursive practice?

To answer this, we must become clearer on the epistemological and metaphysical claims which are implicit in the articulation of the problem. A plethora of sources have argued in this century that the neutrality of the theorizer can no longer, can never again, be sustained, even for a moment.

Critical theory, discourses of empowerment, psychoanalytic theory, post-structuralism, feminist and anti-colonialist theories have all concurred on this point.

Who is speaking to whom turns out to be as important for meaning and truth as what is said; in fact what is said turns out to change according to who is speaking and who is listening. Two elements within these rituals will deserve our attention: Rituals of speaking are constitutive of meaning, the meaning of the words spoken as well as the meaning of the event.

This claim requires us to shift the ontology of meaning from its location in a text or utterance to a larger space, a space which includes the text or utterance but which also includes the discursive context. And an important implication of this claim is that meaning must be understood as plural and shifting, since a single text can engender diverse meanings given diverse contexts. Not only what is emphasized, noticed, and how it is understood will be affected by the location of both speaker and hearer, but the truth-value or epistemic status will also be affected.

For example, in many situations when a woman speaks the presumption is against her; when a man speaks he is usually taken seriously unless his speech patterns mark him as socially inferior by dominant standards. Thus, how what is said gets heard depends on who says it, and who says it will affect the style and language in which it is stated.

The discursive style in which some European post-structuralists have made the claim that all writing is political marks it as important and likely to be true for a certain powerful milieu; whereas the style in which African-American writers made the same claim marked their speech as dismissable in the eyes of the same milieu. This point might be conceded by those who admit to the political mutability of interpretationbut they might continue to maintain that truth is a different matter altogether.

And they would be right that acknowledging the effect of location on meaning and even on whether something is taken as true within a particular discursive context does not entail that the “actual” truth of the claim is contingent upon its context.

However, this objection presupposes a particular conception of truth, one in which the truth of a statement can be distinguished from its interpretation and its acceptance.

On the Problem of Speaking for Others

Such a concept would require truth to be independent of the speakers’ or listeners’ embodied and perspectival location.

Thus, the question of whether location bears simply on what is taken to be true or what is really true, and whether such a distinction can be upheld, involves the very difficult problem of the meaning of truth. In the history of Western philosophy, there have existed multiple, competing definitions and ontologies of truth: The dominant modernist view has been that truth represents a relationship of alcpff between a proposition and an extra-discursive reality.

On this view, truth is about a realm completely independent of human action and expresses things “as they are in themselves,” that is, free of human interpretation.