On Speaking on Behalf of the Oppressed

In Language and Symbolic Power[1], Pierre Bourdieu shows how the spokesperson by claiming to be nothing but the reflection of the will of “the People” at one and the same time channels and borrows authority from this constructed category (“the People”). In this act of charismatic magic, the spokesperson both constructs herself as nothing but a conduit, while also constructing the category of the spoken for. This act of institution also positions the spokesperson, since she is merely a conduit for an authorized other, as personally disinterested, and therefore all the more authoritative. It is an act of projected self-denial, motivated purely by the desire to present the will of this newly instituted “People.” But perhaps most importantly it is a speech act that denies the spokesperson’s own creative agency in constructing her claims and narratives, and thus removes an obvious target for criticism.

I was reminded of this beautiful analysis when I read the AAA Boycott resolution, and some of the reports on the speeches from the business meeting where the resolution vote took place. The resolution itself claims it is a response to the call from “Palestinian Civil Society” which thereby similarly removes the authors from creative agency (and authorship/ accountability) , while constructing the authoritative source of “Palestinian Civil Society.” But this will-without-author had an interesting twist in the American context. Bourdieu himself points out elsewhere in the book that contrary to Austen’s understanding of only the immediate context of a speech act, it matters greatly who utters a speech act, and what exactly endows them with the additional specific charisma to endow the speech act with actual power.

In that sense, political theater matters greatly, and the Boycott campaign brilliantly choreographed the spokespersons to derive maximum authority to the messages they delivered. It was reported to me (I wasn’t there personally) that most of the speakers for the Boycott resolution were young women, and were identified either as Arab/Palestinian, or wore T-shirts that identified them as Jewish (“Another Jew Supporting the Academic Boycott”).

There is of course the messaging implying in selecting young women to do the speaking – the least professionally authoritative and therefore the best vessels for denying the authorship of spokesperson and present the spoken-for as the real authentic author. Other dynamics are at works too, namely the implied equivalence (Bourdieu calls it homology) between the young and disenfranchised Palestinians and the powerful Israeli establishment on the one side and the insurgent rebels and the old establishment trying to stem the tide of the boycott campaign.

But what I find most interesting is the identity politics that provide different types (and asymmetric) authenticates to the messengers. The Arab/Palestinian authorizes the speaker as authentically interested, while the Jew authorizes the speaker as authentically disinterested. What I mean is this: it is because the Arab/Palestinian is perceived as close or even identified with the victims that their message carry additional authority. But exactly because of the asymmetric valence on moral/dominated/Palestinian vs immoral/dominating/Israeli Jew, it allows for an inverse authenticity for the Jewish spokesperson. Because of the close and identified position of the Jewish spokesperson to the Israeli Jew, a message on behalf of the Palestinian cause, is all the more disinterested, authentic, and carries moral authority. This only works because of the asymmetric valence. The moment the Jewish person speaks on behalf of an Israeli message the moral authority becomes immediately suspect as interested because it maps to the dominated/immoral valence.

[1] Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language and Symbolic Power (John B. Thompson, ed) Cambridge: Polity Press. See also his articles “The social space and the genesis of groups” Theory and Society, 14(6), 1985, pp. 723-744 and “Social space and symbolic power”  Sociological Theory, 71(1), 1989.pp.14-25.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s