by Bonnie Waterstone

This is a 'think' piece, a conceptual paper, in which I ask questions about the construct of 'voice' and the assumptions of 'self' within it, and about the conditions of its production and reception. I suggest that some new ways of thinking about 'voice' as dialogic and discursive can be useful.

The construct of voice has had a varied and sometimes high profile career in a wide range of fields, and has become loaded with highly charged and often unexamined assumptions. 'Voice' is the hero in stories that champion research subjects to speak for themselves, empower students to find their voices, and encourage the expression of one's 'authentic voice' in writing. Often conflated with the personal or with the self, 'voice' seems to stand in for an authenticity of experience; in this view, finding and expressing one's 'own voice' become important tasks.(1) Issues of power, agency, and views of 'self' assumed in uses of 'voice' have been analyzed by feminist and poststructural theorists (Britzman, 1989; Grumet, 1990; Ellsworth, 1992; Orner,1992; Finke, 1993; Otte, 1995; Kramer-Dahl, 1996; Lensmire, 1998), some of whom suggest alternative ways to think about 'voice' and the constellation of issues that circulate around it.

The use of 'voice' as self-expression assumes a stable, already existing, coherent 'self' that can be expressed through language, rather than a contingent subjectivity constituted in language. How might we conceptualize 'voice' in a way that takes into consideration poststructural understandings of language and subjectivity? What relations of power/knowledge are reiterated in calls for 'voice'?

Idealizing (certain) voices reinforces a speech/silence binary and ignores conditions of reception and production that make some voices intelligible and not others. How is this intelligibility constructed? What are the activities of recognition that shape both speaking and listening, both what can be said and what can be heard?

I will first discuss some of the problems with the construct of 'voice': its imbrication with notions of authenticity and self-expression; how the desire for 'voice' is inflected with the pleasures of consuming (selected) 'voices'; and the dangers of a speech/silence binary, often assumed in calls for 'voice.' I will use Bakhtin's understanding of 'voice' as dialogic and addressed, as a starting point for analyzing conditions of reception and production, and for looking at practices that construct the intelligibility of certain 'voices.' I suggest that we might productively deconstruct our reading and listening habits, as a way to move towards alternative, more responsible practices. To begin, I outline some of the assumptions and problems with the notion of 'voice' as it has been used.

One of the assumptions that underlies the notion of 'voice' is that there can be an 'authentic voice' that represents an 'authentic self.' However, poststructural understandings of subjectivity undermine notions of a unitary, coherent, continuous self, already there and waiting to be disclosed, expressed, and represented (Weedon, 1997; Taylor, 1991). Such notions of 'self' are embedded in the notion of 'voice' as self-expression. Urging students to "express your real, authentic self in your writing" imagines a pre-existing, "stable, coherent, unitary and autonomous" self that can be expressed by language, not one that is formed through language (Lensmire, 1998, p.264). On the other hand, poststructuralism, in Chris Weedon's words, "proposes a subjectivity which is precarious, contradictory, and in process, constantly being reconstituted in discourse each time we think or speak" (Weedon, 1997, p.32).

The process, then, is not one of 'finding' an 'authentic voice' already there, but of 'fashioning' a voice from available discursive resources (Kramer-Dahl, 1996).

The notion of 'authentic voice' also begs the question: who decides what counts as 'real' or 'authentic'? Relations of knowledge, power, and desire shape the discursive environments within which voices are fashioned.

Critiquing the notion of voice in feminist pedagogy, Laurie Finke (1993) interrogates what teachers really mean when they ask students "to 'discover' their own voices" (p.16). She argues that what teachers really want is for

students to fashion a particular kind of voice that corresponds to our own desires as teachers, desires which have been authorized by the discursive practices of our [particular] disciplines and fields (1993, p.16-17).

Desires for particular kinds of voices are embedded in relations of knowledge/power, which legitimize and authorize certain voices and not others. Our complicity in these relations and our pleasure in consuming certain voices needs to be acknowledged (Boler, 1999; Leach & Boler, 1998; Gallop, 1995).

The power to select and authorize certain voices can also be read in the paternalistic concern, in critical pedagogy as well as in research, to give "voice to the voiceless" (Visweswaran, 1994, p.9). This construction of 'voice' against a background of silence tends to result in a romanticized and essentialized version, singular and representative, obscuring dissonance and multiplicity. This use of 'voice' also reinforces an unproblematic speech/silence binary. In this binary, speech is (necessarily) beneficial, and silence a sign of repression. Speech is positively loaded with assumptions of agency, and silence negatively loaded with passivity. Not only is this a very Western view of the practices of speech and silence, it also elides the conditions of reception and production that make some voices and not others intelligible. As Gayatri Spivak (1994) asserts, the subaltern can speak--but can she be heard? Who will listen?

Questions of listening and intelligibility, of difference and desire, are opened up here. I return to some of my opening questions:

What relations of knowledge/power are reiterated in calls for 'voice'? How is the intelligibility of certain 'voices' constructed within particular conditions of production and reception?

Bakhtin's (1981, 1986) rich concept of voice as dialogic and as 'addressed' can help us think about these questions. 'Voices' are embedded in a dialogic web of relations: always "half someone else's", always anticipating response, always enlisted in struggles for meaning. Speakers appropriate others' speech and accent it with their own intent, in the process of 'fashioning' their voices. This process is characterized by what Bakhtin calls the forces of heteroglossia: centripetal forces--normative and homogenizing--and centrifugal forces--disruptive and dispersing. This complex interplay of forces shapes struggles for meaning within discursive and material environments.

Within these environments, some 'voices' are more privileged than others. Social relations are inscribed in all language use, and hierarchies of power circumscribe who can say what to whom, in what ways, and with what response (Bourdieu, 1991). As Pierre Bourdieu says, there is a difference between being able to produce an utterance, and being able to produce an utterance that is "likely to be listened to, likely to be recognized as acceptable" (Bourdieu, 1991, p.55, emphasis in original).

The role of recognition in maintaining hierarchies under which some voices are listened to, and not others, indicates that our participation in particular practices helps to organize conditions of discursive possibility. As recognizable "ways of acting together," genres administer and organize participation (Miller, 1994, p.67). Genres might be seen as centripetal forces of heteroglossia, centralizing and normalizing social interactions, as people recognize, respond, and 'act together' in given situations. However, the possibility of mis-recognition is always present.

Engaging with questions of agency and power in relation to 'voice' we might inquire further into these activities of recognition, into the intersubjective construction of a shared social understanding. What is constructed as 'intelligible' within a given situation?

Spivak (1993) examines the relations of power/knowledge (Foucault, 1972, 1977, 1980) by looking more closely at pouvoir/savoir. This nexus, she suggests, can be seen as the capacity to do what one knows or understands to do. What one is able to do is constrained/enabled by what one knows how to do, or understands as possible.

But, as Deborah Britzman asks, "what is it that structures meanings, practices, and bodies, and why [do] certain practices become intelligible, valorized, or deemed as traditions while other practices become discounted, impossible, or unimaginable"? (1995,p.231). Why are some statements--some practices--recognizable, and recognized as intelligible (and not others) (Foucault, 1972)? What are the discursive and material conditions of this intelligibility?

Judith Butler (1993, 1997), bringing psychoanalytic theory to a Foucaultian analysis of discursive formation, describes how the intelligibility of normative discourses is maintained by constant reiteration. Every time a norm is cited, it is reproduced, and it is through "the repetitive labor of that norm" (e.g., 'girls cry easily') that its regulatory power is reinforced (Butler, 1993, p.10). Butler (1993) names these practices of citation "performativity" (p.2). It by this continual performativity that norms derive their power, that the discursive production of intelligibility takes place.

Thus, it is our participation in particular practices that operate to construct some 'voices' as intelligible and not others. This acknowledgement of our own complicity in relations of knowledge/power and desire can be a starting point for alternative, critical literacy practices. Kramer-Dahl (1996) suggests that we might denaturalize "portrayals of experiences and voices" through making our reading and writing practices themselves the object of our pedagogy (p.259). This would involve denaturalizing and historicizing our pedagogical practices. It would involve making explicit how we frame texts and talk about texts in classrooms, how we authorize, invite and legitimate certain reading/writing practices and not others (Kramer-Dahl, 1996).

We might make visible our own reading and listening habits, and deconstruct practices of complicity and consumption. In order to hear difference, without erasing and consuming the other as same, alternative practices of listening are needed. Megan Boler (1999) argues that, although empathy is often regarded as a way to increase understanding of another, there are risks to empathetic reading and listening. Some kinds of empathy end up, she says, reducing the other to (quote) "a mirror-identification of oneself, [as a way to render] the discomforting other familiar and non-threatening" (unquote) (p.177). To illustrate this type of empathy, Boler uses the example of her undergraduate students' responses to a reading of a first-person narrative of the Holocaust. Boler asks hard questions about how some reading practices allowed students to remain detached from emotions of rage, blame and guilt, to experience this story as a pleasurable read. What does it mean if an "unimaginable horror" becomes imaginable? And, (quote) "Who benefits from the production of empathy in what circumstances?" (Boler, 1999, p.261). Naming practices of consumptive identification "passive empathy," Boler outlines problems with this practice:

"Passive empathy absolves the reader through the denial of power relations [through a confessional] that is not referred beyond the individual to the social" (p.261). Passive empathy "motivates no consequent reflection or action, either about the production of meaning, or about one's complicit responsibility within historical and social conditions" (p.261).

Boler advocates an alternative practice, "testimonial reading" or listening (p.263), which places responsibility on the reader or listener. In this practice, the reader/listener actively rethinks her own assumptions, confronts the internal obstacles she may encounter as her views are challenged, and recognizes her own implication in historical social forces.

"Testimonial reading or listening" motivates a politics of listening in which the reader accepts responsibility for her part as "co-producer" of what is said (p.263). Testimonial listening bears witness to historical complexities of both the speaker's and listener's experiences. Such listening is part of a collective endeavour in learning to see differently, rather than an attempt to make the other, the different, familiar and non-threatening. Such listening involves a willingness to be vulnerable and to move beyond "the comforts of home" to places where one feels discomfort (Martin & Mohanty, 1986).

Testimonial listening, then, would engage with listeners' desires for certain kinds of 'voices' -- would investigate those desires as productive of particular relations. Submitting our own practices to scrutiny, we might inquire into our ability or inability to attend. We might trace the social construction of what Boler calls our "inscribed habits of inattention" (page). We may become aware of how our practices reiterate normalizing, perhaps familiar and comfortable, relations. We might become aware of how we are implicated in the production of the intelligibility of some voices and not others. As writing teachers, we are uniquely situated within historical and social forces of Standard English and cultural norms for what constitutes 'good writing;' we participate in the production of intelligibility within what Spivak calls 'the teaching machine.' What do we understand as possible within the relations of knowledge, power, and desire that adhere to our particular position?

What would it mean to move into more precarious places of unknowing, places of discomfort?

Boler (1999) advocates for a "pedagogy of discomfort," for moving out of our comfort zones to productive places of discomfort. These places offer opportunities to engage with our own practices of complicity and consumption, with our own "habits of inattention" (page). A pedagogy of discomfort might be an approach to "learning how to see" and hear differently (page). As we notice how we "co-produce" the voices that can be heard through our ability and inability to listen, we may make different choices. We may notice opportunities--ruptures--where we might, as Judith Butler says, 'disloyally repeat the regulatory norm,' re-signify and re-articulate possibilities for writing and reading, for speaking and hearing.


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Boler, M. (1999). Feeling power: Emotions and education. New York: Routledge.

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1 Although space constraints do not allow this here, these tasks might be considered in terms of Foucault's (1988) "technologies of the self" -- ways we regulate (and produce) ourselves as particular kinds of subjects.

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