Voice and body appropriation. by Mathilde Pavis

Samuel Beckett’s famous line ‘What does it matter who is speaking?’ opens Foucault’s reconsideration of authorship in What is an author.[1] Since then, the phrase is often referred to in conversation questioning the relevance of identifying the author of a work and generally arguing for the open-access, free use and re-use of individuals’ creations. This note puts in perspective Beckett’s quote with the question of ‘voice appropriation’. This slightly different context challenges the irrelevance of identifying a or one author as defended by Foucault or Beckett. Until then, the question of awarding authorship evolved around the idea of paying tribute to the author for his/her work or preventing other individuals from using it. Determining the author was exclusively thought in relation to these agendas and was thus disconnected from the words spoken by the author themselves (the content of the work). The concept of voice appropriation reconnects the person of the author in its entirety (identity, spirituality, body) to his/her words, to his/her work. This reconnection questions the validity of ignoring who speaks and argues that yes ‘who is speaking’ does matter.

‘Voice Appropriation’ and authorship

The phrase ‘voice appropriation’ refers to “the depiction of minorities or cultures other than one’s own, either in fiction or in non-fiction”.[2] Voice appropriation was the focus of much debate in the United States regarding the appropriation of the Indian American culture. In The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties - Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law[3], Rosemary Coombe describes and analyses this societal and legal turmoil. Native Indian American citizens are opposed to the mimicking of their history and culture in the arts or in the commerce by individuals outside their community. They fear the perpetuation of preconceived ideas or clichés about their culture if described by outsiders.[4] In Canada, this situation lead to discussing the possibility of refusing government grants to authors who adopt styles or stories of minorities other than their own without the collaboration of members of the minority at stake.[5] Such suggestion triggered counter claims protective of authors’ freedom of expression and the need for an “unfettered imagination”.[6] Others have also argued that it is in the essence of writing to merge fiction and non-fiction and that every piece integrates a certain degree of the two dimensions.[7] As a result, the fine line between non fictional appropriation and fiction is too hard to draw to contain the risk of arbitrary censorship.[8] The risk of conveying stereotypes would be the price to pay to protect creativity.

This debate highlights the fact that connecting a work to its author goes beyond the question of controlling the access or the financial outcomes of the work. The identity of the author shapes its content and its authenticity. When the story told is of a sensitive nature (e.g. about minorities), the question of who is speaking such voice becomes all the more important.

Disability Dance: from ‘voice’ to ‘body’ appropriation

The whole discussion of voice appropriation experienced in Canada or in the States concerning ethnic minorities seems to resonate with the comments made by some of the artists we have interviewed.[9] When a differently abled dance artist expresses her anxiety about other dancers performing her work because the latter is not only moulded on her unique body but also tells her very own and personal story, one may sense a reluctance to have her ‘voice’, expressed through her body, mimicked by somebody else. This feeling or need of appropriation and control of her work might be enhanced by the fact that her dance and her movements are not just any movement her creativity commanded; they are the result of both her different physicality and her inspiration as a dance artist. If a non-impaired dancer was to re-cast her choreography in the more or less exact way she performs it, the performance may result in a subtle mixture of honouring the artist’s creativity and mimicking her identity by reproducing moves ‘as if’ the recasting body was also impaired.

This situation triggers the following questions: is ‘faking’ disability honouring or offending the disabled dance artist? Would mimicking somebody’s different abilities be taking over his/her voice? Is writing about the Native American Indians for a non-native person the same as choreographing about or dancing disability for the non-disabled artist? It could be argued that these situations are similar in their risk to convey negative or inaccurate representation of what disability or the Indian culture is, since both being minority cultures. Yet one common question arises: who holds the correct representation of either of these cultures? Are all the voices of disability agreeing on one and only representation of their personal experience? Would putting a cast on who can or cannot write about disability limit or better its integration in the mainstream?

[1] Carys J Craig, “Reconstruction the Author-Self: Some Feminist Lessons for Copyright Law” (2007) 15 Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 207. ; Michel Foucault, What Is an Author (P Rabinow ed, London: Penguin 1984). David J Gunkel, “What Does It Matter Who Is Speaking ? Authorship , Authority , and the Mashup” 1.
[2] Karen Danielsen, Dan ; Engle (ed), After Identity - A Reader in Law and Culture (Routeledge 1995) 252.
[3] Rosemary Coombe, The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties - Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law (Duke University Press 1998). Also in Karen Danielsen, Dan ; Engle (ed), After Identity - A Reader in Law and Culture (Routeledge 1995) 251.
[4] Ibid 252. Interestingly, in the United States, in Aalmuhammad v. Lee, 292 F.3d 1227, 1230 (9th Cir. 2000) a dispute over the authorship of the film arose between the director and the Muslim expert by the production to ensure the authenticity of the Islamic culture portrayed in the work.
[5] Coombe 209.
[6] Danielsen, Dan ; Engle 252–3.254
[7] Ibid 253. “appropriation of voice is what fiction is” [quoting Russell Smith]
[8] Ibid.253 The censorship is described as being a two-edged sword because it would both prevent mainstream authors from writing about minorities but also minorities from engaging with the mainstream.
[9] The relevance of comparing the claims of native American Indians and disabled dance artists is enhanced by the fact that both are minorities whose stories is expressed in the Arts.
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