Reading Reaction, Alcoff


In my search for definitions I turned her to the academic study of diversity inform myself of what current thinkers believe.


“a speaker’s location (which I take to refer to her social location or her social identity) has an epistemically significant impact on that speaker’s claims, and can serve either to authorize or disauthorize one’s speech. (Alcoff 1)“decisions about demarcating identity are always partly arbitrary” (Alcoff 2)

“Premise (1): The “ritual of speaking” (as defined above) in which an utterance is located always bears on meaning and truth such that there is no possibility of rendering positionality, location, or context irrelevant to content. The phrase “bears on” here should indicate some variable amount of influence short of determination or fixing.

“One important implication of this first premise is that we can no longer determine the validity of a given instance of speaking for others simply by asking whether or not the speaker has done sufficient research to justify her claims. Adequate research will be a necessary but insufficient criterion of evaluation. Now let us look at the second premise.”

Premise (2): “All contexts and locations are differentially related in complex ways to structures of oppression. Given that truth is connected to politics, these political differences between locations will produce epistemic differences as well.” (Alcoff 3)

“The major problem with such a retreat is that it significantly undercuts the possibility of political effectivity” (Alcoff 5)

“In conclusion, I would stress that the practice of speaking for others is often born of a desire for mastery, to privilege oneself as the one who more correctly understands the truth about another’s situation or as one who can champion a just cause and thus achieve glory and praise” (Alcoff 10)

Reading Reaction and the Definitions I’m seeking
Alcoff argues that we too often speak for other people and, in so doing, create false images of those individuals. She acknowledges that speaking for others can cause serious problems because it effectively silences the testimony of others and, according to Alcoff is often done with the “desire for mastery” (Alcoff 10). But despite the dangers of speaking for others Alcoff does not argue that we cannot speak for others rather that we should be very wary of those who do so and be very cautious when we attempt to do it for ourselves. When we speak we often lose control over the meaning which proceeds from our speech. We often see ourselves as unaccountable for what follows from this speech which can be dangerous when we are seen as completely non accountable reinforcing oppression.  Her conclusion is that speaking for others is only appropriate when we know that our words will “enable the empowerment of oppressed peoples” (10).
I think Alcoff is right on here. One hardline position on speaking for others, is that “we can never speak for others” because we can only know our own experience. This seems to me to be quite wrong as it fails to account for certain practical situations under which speaking for others can have positive effects. Likewise the other position that we can all speak for one another and that identity is not relevant to how we perceive speech is also not practically feasible as a great deal of psychological research shows that human beings are riddled with biases which affect the way we analyze testimony. I think Alcoff’s view strikes a middle ground and  allows us to retain our common sense understandings of when it is appropriate to speak for another community. I think that Alcoff could build on her view by spelling out the specifics of when certain speech is and is not appropriate beyond it’s just “enabling empowerment”. I imagine that there are instances where speaking for others in a way which empowers them can still  have oppressive results or be oppressive towards other disenfranchised groups–what are we to make of these cases?
Alcoff’s discussion of truth is also significant. If truth is, in some sense culturally situated what are we to make of it. Does it have any significance if it is just a conflation of ideas, might it just be something we call the a unifying factor in diversity? Although Alcoff’s work is highly conceptual and academic her ideas will be formative for my poetry as they will help me to approach the views of other’s and the idea of truth, and my definition of it, with a great deal of caution.

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