Let them speak…

I’d like to draw attention to a passage from the work of philosopher Rae Langton (MIT), which I think serves to illustrate how one of the orthodoxies of post-colonial and feminist theory may also be one of its most stubborn misunderstandings, i.e., that political inclusion and agency are a function of ‘voice’ or representation. Questioning the primacy of ‘voice’ in political life reflects a sharp divergence from the work of a range of theorists from Arendt to Habermas to Spivak. For Spivak, Derrida’s critique of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ limits any conceptualization of subaltern agency to representation through language. Accordingly, colonial domination is defined in terms of being silenced and having dominant communities speak for you:

[I]n the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak…

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” p. 28.

If the subaltern can speak, then, thank God, the subaltern is not a subaltern any more.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The New Historicism,” p. 283.

Langton, however, describes the strategy that dominant communities have deployed to maintain power and privilege while remaining perfectly at home in the democratic ethos of universal and unrestricted access to the public sphere:

If you are powerful, you sometimes have the ability to silence the speech of the powerless. One way might be to stop the powerless from speaking at all. Gag them, threaten them, condemn them to solitary confinement. But there is another, less dramatic but equally effective, way. Let them speak. Let them say whatever they like to whomever they like, but stop that speech from counting as an action. More precisely, stop it from counting as the action it was intended to be.

Rae Langton, “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts,” p. 299.

Langton draws specifically from speech act theory to make a point that has been made by others working in  critical discourse theory, ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, etc, which is that semantic models of communication, insofar as they locate meaning in words or symbolic orders, cannot account for how the context of speaking both enables and constrains the meaning of what is said. If we wish to genuinely understand in order to challenge relations of power, we must look past what is said to the practices or forms of life that subtend discourse.