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  • Performing Politics and the Limits of Language
  • David Campbell (bio)
Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997)

Scene one. In a Yorkshire village, an English schoolboy greets his Australian friend with the antipodean salutation of “G’day sport.” Despite the absence of any concern on the part of the addressee, the school authorities discipline the child for uttering a “racist slur,” and insist he receive sensitivity counselling.

Scene two. Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing National Front, addresses a rally in Munich organised by a former SS officer. Defending his victimization in a “campaign of diabolisation” by the “pro-immigrant lobby,” his peroration turns to the Second World War. “When you pick up a 1,000 page book on the Second World War, concentration camps take up two pages and gas-chambers 10 to 15 lines, in other words, a detail.” Under French laws that forbid the denial of crimes against humanity, Le-Pen’s revisionism results in a court order handing down a series of fines to be paid to anti-racist groups.

Scene three. Tatiana Suszkin, a Russian immigrant to Israel and member of the anti-Arab group Kach, distributes in Hebron posters she has drawn portraying the Prophet Mohammed as a pig. After violence flares, Suszkin is charged with committing a racist act, supporting a terrorist organisation, and attempting to give religious offence. Found guilty by a Jerusalem court, which rejects the claim that freedom of expression granted her the right to act as she did, Suszkin faces a maximum sentence of 26 years.

These scenes (reported in the British press at the end of 1997) represent globalized moments of an uneven phenomena that concerns Butler in Excitable Speech. In the context of the “linguistification” of the political field (74), Butler wants to explore through issues prominent in American jurisprudence the way in which words are said to wound, symbols claimed to injure, and punitive responses consequently warranted. With her own rhetorical virtuosity and acute philosophical acumen, Butler sets out to interrogate the assumptions behind key arguments concerned with hate speech and the strategies to counter it. In so doing, she begins from a particular position sympathetic to those worried by hate speech in order to make a specific point that diverges from their normal position:

That words wound seems incontestably true, and that hateful, racist, misogynist, homophobic speech should be vehemently countered seems incontrovertibly right. But does understanding from where speech derives its power to wound alter our conception of what it might mean to counter that wounding power? Do we accept the notion that injurious speech is attributable to a singular subject and act? If we accept such a juridical constraint on thought - the grammatical requirements of accountability - as a point of departure, what is lost from the political analysis of injury? Indeed, when political discourse is collapsed into juridical discourse, the meaning of political opposition runs the risk of being reduced to the act of prosecution.


The collapse into juridical discourse, backed by the power of the state or specific agents of the state, is obvious in the scenes above, and Butler’s anxiety about the minimalization of political opposition - particularly in the first case, where the dubious nature of the ‘offence’ diverts attention from racism more generally - appears fully justified. The question is, however, whether the nonjuridical and nonstate forms of agency and resistance Butler places her faith in are up to the task set for them.

Let’s leave that concern to hang for a bit. Let us first ask how it is that the dominant modes of dealing with hate speech appear universally juridical? In answering that question, Butler demonstrates well the way in which critically interpretative thought can combine a series of theoretical assumptions to demonstrate the limitations of prevalent discourses and alternative possibilities. In so doing, Excitable Speech is a powerful statement in response to those who would maintain that arguments imbued with the idea of a “modernity without foundations” (161) evacuate ethico-political concerns from our horizon.

Those who argue that hate speech demands juridical responses assert that not only does the speech communicate, but that it...

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