Agency, Authenticity and Positionality

Recently, I saw a blurb on the back of a text that I like. This text, called Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India, is an ethnographic study on devadāsis about whom I have written a chapter in my thesis and hereThis particular blurb written by Janaki Bhakle commends the text for providing with a ‘sensitive’ portrayal of devadāsis. Devadāsis were marginalised and rendered voiceless, and eventually subaltern, by the on-going nationalist movements in the early 20th century South India, as the author of the text, Davesh Soneji, argues. But my issue with both the text and this blurb is the problem of lending voice to the ‘voiceless.’ Soneji gives a very detailed historical and contemporary narratives of devadāsis as being marginalised by a system that constructed its ideas on ‘ideal Indian womanhood’ that was based on the Victorian notions of morality, hygiene and eugenics. Soneji’s work is unique in that, whilst works have looked at historical developments in relation to devadāsi communities, it is an in-depth study of devadāsi community and he has gone a step further to talk about what happened to contemporary devadāsis who lived through the ‘reform’ and/or experiencing the effects of the ‘reform.’ However, for a remarkable text this is, Soneji does not acknowledge his positionality (Western educated, middle-class, male) whilst writing about devadāsis, which makes the reader wonder whether he was lending his voice to devadāsis or speaking for them. And the blurb mentioned above is a representation of it: he provides a ‘sensitive’ portrayal of devadāsis. Both Soneji and Bhakle do not see how problematic (not to mention, patronising) this is. It raises questions on the agency (or lack thereof) of devadāsis or questions on whether when they do speak, he, as an ethnographer, was actually hearing them. If the intention of the text was to critique how devadāsis were deprived of their agency  by the ‘reform,’ to not acknowledge the ethnographer’s positionality from which these discourses are made (historically and in this particular text) is to make the same mistake that the ‘reform’ did- making assumptions about what devadāsi voices were. In Soneji’s defense, he lets devadāsis speak; but therein lies the problem- not that he provides a forum through his text for them to speak but that he does not acknowledge that it is his forum.

The question of agency is problematic, especially for Postcolonial Studies scholars. As works of Gayathri Chakravorty Spivak, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Saba Mahmood and Lila Abu-Lughod have shown, the questions such as ‘can the subaltern speak?’, when they do, how do we hear them, etc are difficult to answer. And closely associated with such a question is that of the author’s positionality. Harper-Scott has recently written, eloquently, on this issue. He argues, what he calls the ‘authenticity condition’, that ‘It is the belief that unless A is a person of type X, A cannot understand X’ as problematic and that, it does not allow for emancipatory politics. In other words, specifically pertaining to my argument, who gets to speak for whom? If I may extrapolate this problem to a larger context, to argue for ‘authenticity condition’ would then render every white, male, Postcolonial Studies scholar from former colonial powers ‘unqualified’ from writing about colonial/postcolonial histories. Pertaining to feminism, the argument then would not be that the First and Second Wave feminism failed to address ‘third world’ women, rather the ‘third world’ feminists alone are qualified to speak for themselves. Harper-Scott is right in arguing that ‘the authenticity condition must be rejected because, far from representing a view of the world that entirely denies the possibility of Truth, it actually supports the capitalist Truth.’ Thus, to argue that devadāsis must speak for one another then does not ensure ‘authenticity’, rather keeps them marginalised. They have been rendered ‘voiceless’ and therefore, there’s much reluctance to hear them, should and when they speak. In that sense, emancipatory politics is affected.

But, the problem of positionality and of agency is prevalent in every historical/ethnographic work. My own arguments here might seem contradictory: on the one hand, position of privilege does not always let us hear the voice of the Other. On the other hand, positionality should not be seen as an impediment to understanding the work of the author in the task of chasing for authenticity of the voice. Is there a way to subvert this contradiction? It would be helpful to see that there are different dimensions to what is considered a marginalised group. There is a normative identification of who the Other are. Thus, for instance, in a patriarchal society, as a woman, I might see myself as belonging to the marginalised group. But in the contexts of ‘lower-class/caste’ communities in India, I am (raised as a upper-caste, middle-class, Western educated academic), the privileged. It does not discount my marginality, but as Harper-Scott argues, should not disqualify me from speaking for the ‘lower-class/caste’ communities. In that case, the best way to address the issue would be to acknowledge the positionality of the author, as I have argued above in relation to Soneji’s work.

Marten discusses this issue, pertaining to medical knowledge in the 19th and early 20th century Palestine, in a very interesting essay about the positionality and subjectivity with which historical knowledge was acquired (within a specific colonial context). Amongst other issues, he argues that listening when the subaltern speaks is one among many answers to the question of agency. But what he does really well is to address the positionality of who acquires the knowledge and has the voice to speak, that is, the dominant; whilst doing so, he addresses his own positionality (as a middle-class, white, male, academic) from which he is critiquing the issue. This, I would argue, is the starting point to navigate the line between speaking for the Other and looking for the ‘authentic condition.’ It does not give the author the liberty to lend voice to the Other or to assume what the voice is. Harper-Scott rightly argues that any interaction is mediated. Therefore, I am not arguing here for an ‘objective’ method of listening to the Other, if such a condition exists at all! Rather, what I think is the most productive way to engage with these issues is for the author, by addressing their positionality, be self-aware of the contexts within which their argument is made. This is will help the author from decontexualizing themselves and the Other.


Marten, Michael. “On Knowing, Knowing Well and Knowing Differently: Historicising Scottish Missions in 19th and early 20th century Palestine.” In Transnational and Historical Perspectives on Global Health, Welfare and Humanitarianism, edited by Ellen Fleischmann, Sonya Grypma, Michael Marten, Inger Marie Okkenhaug, 210-238. Kristiansand: Portal Books, 2013.

Spivak, Gayathri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak.” In Marxism and the Interpretations of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271-313. Macmillan Education: Basingstroke, 1988.


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