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Reviewed by:
  • Book Reviews
  • Mary Kate McGowan
Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect. By DENISE RILEY. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005.

Denise Riley's Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect is a collection of provocative essays on a wide variety of language-related topics. With colorful, but sometimes challenging, prose, Riley tackles such subjects as the functioning of hateful speech and how one ought to deal with it; the peculiar sensation of feeling like a liar even when one knows that one is telling the truth; the potentially paradoxical fact that language is both impersonal and general and yet partially constructs who we are; the curious fact that we somehow manage to use language effectively even though so much of it is beyond our control; what is problematic about our collective quest for social inclusiveness; how awkward and even paradoxical it is to think about one's past beauty; and the coercive and phenomenological aspects of language use. [End Page 221]

What I liked most about the book is Riley's introduction of new questions and complication of accepted phenomena that other theorists have not yet acknowledged. In this regard, she has a real talent for identifying what is mysterious about seemingly ordinary linguistic occasions. For example, most people have never stopped to think about how the expression "Why me?" really functions linguistically. Who is being addressed and what would count as an adequate answer? Is this expression really a question or is it a lament?

Another strength of the book is Riley's talent for describing what it feels like to use and understand language. Unlike most other theorists, she concerns herself with the phenomenology of language use and she gets that phenomenology right. For example, there is a peculiar feeling associated with using the latest words for talking about sex. It is often uncomfortable to do so and one is often additionally uncomfortable with that very discomfort. There is also a peculiar sensation associated with feeling like one is lying even though one is telling the (whole) truth. Suppose, for instance, that I truthfully tell an acquaintance that I cannot attend her party (which I had previously committed to attending) because I am not feeling well. Riley contends that I will feel like I am lying even though I know that I am telling the truth. Note that this feeling of lying is not the same as the feeling (or the fearing) of not being believed. I will feel like a liar and I will also feel (at least initially) confused by my feeling like a liar. After all, why should I feel this way when I am telling the truth? Riley diagnoses the case thus: When one uses an expression that is a conventional and polite way to lie, one feels like one is lying when using such expressions even when one does so truthfully.

Many interesting themes run through the book. First, Riley stresses how language constructs us. Being categorized as an X, for example, can affect how we think of ourselves, how we behave, and how others treat us. Such "looping" is not limited to cases where X is a socially important category (for example, 'woman,' 'welfare recipient,' or 'victim'), it occurs, according to Riley, even with the use of seemingly innocuous first names. Names often carry associations with them and these associations can affect us our entire lives. Second, Riley stresses how we adjust our language use to those around us and she points out that such "linguistic accommodation" can be (or at least feel) coercive. When speaking with young people about sex, for example, one might feel pressured to use the latest lingo. She also points out that the costs of such linguistic accommodation are often borne unequally. In "Linguistic Inhibition as a Cause of Pregnancy," for example, she discusses how socially awkward it is to ask about protection during a sexual encounter. The awkwardness inhibits speech (that is the asking about protection) and this inhibition has greater cost for a woman because she runs the risk of becoming pregnant (by not asking). In this way, Riley hints at ways in which facts about social power affect language use and thereby gestures toward...


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pp. 221-224
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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