Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative
Excitable Speech is a rich, provocative and challenging book which argues that linguistic meaning is fluid and provisional, not fixed or rigid. The speaker cannot exercise complete control over an auditor’s interpretation, because the speaker, the auditor, the occasion for speaking and listening, and, indeed, the words themselves are sutured into larger cultural relations. The speaker always-already exists within a web of historicities and discursive formations that encourage her/him to attach already-taken-for-granted meanings to words as s/he articulates them in the public sphere. The provisionality of the performative is, paradoxically, also the source of its strength, both in the domain of law and in more ordinary contexts. Speech-acts are thus constrained within and by a larger set of discursive rules or regulations, but those rules are tenuous and to some degree negotiable. In this complex formation, speakers can never determine with certainty the audiences’ interpretation of the speaker’s utterance.
Excitable Speech thus continues Judith Butler’s analyses of the ways in which subjectivity is constituted and regulated rhetorically, historically, psychologically, philosophically and politically. Here Butler focuses specifically on how language “interpellates” subjects in discourse, and in so doing delineates the main features of the “performativity of political discourse” (40). The auditor (who may thus become a speaker) may find a way, in part, to reevaluate and reinscribe the speech “against its originary purposes,” thereby reconfiguring the “chain of resignification whose origin and end remain unfixed and unfixable” (14). As a result, Butler concludes that speech is too “slippery” for any state speech-regulation to be highly effective. In fact, she is concerned that any such regulation would refocus state power against society’s already marginalized members, as debate over Mapplethorpe’s photography in Congress indicated (22). As a response to such oppressive speech she holds out the possibility of some non-governmental, subversive yet democratic [End Page 205] rearticulation of discourse, such as the reappropriation of racial epithets by rapper Ice T (100). Echoing Foucault and Derrida, Butler makes clear that this rearticulation of hateful and oppressive speech—“mentioning” but not “using” it—still restages such speech and so does not completely overcome its oppressive force. Apparently progressive change is tempered by anxiety about current institutions—yet not without some hope for partial future success (161). Moreover, the efficacy of such change is tempered by hegemonic and reified language-use practices.
The text itself begins with the observation that “resignification” of utterances is possible—indeed, Butler emphasizes how “words might, through time, become disjoined from their power to injure and recontextualized in more affirmative modes” (15). At least two critical questions follow from this claim. First, on what rhetorical grounds might these affirmative modes of discourse be negotiated and produced? Second, how would one be able to recognize when the resignification has been successful—that is, what is the locus of judgment for deciding under which circumstances the affirmative mode has materialized? Implicit here is the problematic of asymmetrical power relations as they impinge upon the speaker/audience relation: inequality, abjection, simple lack of ethos will influence and perhaps overdetermine a speaker’s ability to resist/renegotiate originary meaning. Given these difficulties, even provisional success conditions may not just be elusive and paradoxical, but might obtain rarely or perhaps not at all.
Butler provides three main case studies for examining this ephemeral yet omnipresent performative speech politics. Chapter 1 draws on Austin’s speech act theory to examine R.A.V. v. St. Paul, a 1992 Supreme Court case overturning a Minnesota ordinance which made it illegal to burn a cross as symbolic speech targeting minority-race individuals. Chapter 2 draws on Foucaultian power and Habermasian consensus models to examine the analyses of hate speech by Mari J. Matsuda and Richard Delgado and of pornography by Catharine MacKinnon. Chapter 3 draws on Freudian views of conscience, manhood and paranoia to examine the ways that the U.S. Military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy pathologized speech as “contagious words,” where “mere” speaking makes one gay. In all three cases Butler argues that attempts at completely constraining and even totally censoring discourse will likely fail because no single contextual, linguistic discipline of discourse can capture (thus none can prevent) linguistically-informed subjects from challenging and contesting the hegemony of the regulations—even when, as censored language-users pushed to the discursive margins by the regulation they risk their very linguistically-informed subjectivity in the challenge (133). For those working in linguistics, philosophy and [End Page 206] rhetorical theory, even these tentative suggestions about the difficulties of regulating discourse should prove illuminating, and perhaps troubling, especially for those who look to law and society for discursive authorities capable of making speech more democratic to and for its subjects.