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  • Introduction:Beyond Bad Words
  • Luke Fleming and Michael Lempert

As that which ought not to be said, taboo speech involves the moral life of language. Efforts to proscribe speech may be justified variously, by appeal to religious dictates, state policy, or etiquette. They may be conventionalized and institutionalized, policed and punished in myriad ways. But a familiar irony haunts all these efforts: proscription is, in a word, productive (cf. Foucault 1978, Butler 1997). The more intense the interdiction, the more power seems to accrue to the transgressive act.

From Freud's theory of subconscious repression to the laments over the failure and futility of civility campaigns, this irony is a familiar one. The more that taboo acts are prohibited, the more their power seems to grow. The same is true for language use. Under proscriptive regimes, like the FCC-ban on obscenities on broadcast television and radio, or the edicts of the royal court in Tahiti prohibiting the utterances of the king's name (Simons [End Page 5] 1982), one can't even innocently "mention" a taboo expression, by embedding the wayward curse in a quote, for instance, without the utterance counting as a taboo "use." Verbal taboos are, properly speaking, unmentionable. Ironically, proscriptions and even the appropriate substitutes these regimes recommend (e.g., euphemisms, circumlocutions, special citational forms like "the F-word") make taboo utterances more salient. And rather than fix or stabilize a speaker's relation to the taboo object—by ensuring a safe, respectful "distance," for instance—proscription and efforts at containment seem to make such relations less stable. As conventions, they may now be flouted, parodied, played upon, or otherwise altered for strategic and interactional effect. These essays on the moral life of language thus explore the dynamic affordances and instabilities of verbal taboo, with cases that draw on diverse languages from sites and populations across the globe. In addressing the manifold ways in which proscription is productive, we push past an earlier literature that saw verbal taboo as a matter strictly of "avoidance" and "control," and as involving the mechanical reproduction of cultural norms and values.

1. Unmentionables as Performatives.

A core irony explored in this issue is the way proscriptions can intensify the performativity of would-be taboos items, investing the prohibited forms with a seemingly inherent power and efficacy, to the extent that the expressions are seen to have inescapable, indefeasible effects. John Austin (1962), it may be recalled, argued that speech-act performativity depends in part on features of context, which he formulated in terms of "felicity conditions." For a wedding to be successful, the individual who says "I now pronounce you man and wife" must be an ordained minister, the couple willing, and a witness present. Such felicity conditions precede, condition, and otherwise constrain the performativity of language; without them the performative utterance wouldn't count as an act. But taboo utterances (e.g., saying the F-word on FCC-regulated broadcasts or uttering the Tahitian king's name) rest on few, if any, such conditions. Like pragmatic "prefabs" or "readymades," these expressions seem to have their context coiled tight inside. Utter them, and they count as a social act (as profanity, blasphemy, social injury, etc.) irrespective of felicity conditions like the intentions of speech participants or the institutional authority of the speaker to engage in the act. Quote a verbal taboo in a reported speech construction and you risk replicating the offense. Unmentionables may become so essentialized that their performativity comes to rest on few [End Page 6] if any felicity conditions, demonstrating a seldom appreciated point: performativity is gradient, a matter of degree.1 The strong indexicals—from curse words to stigmatized dialects—that the authors in this volume discuss represent points at the far end of this continuum.

2. Hazards of Addressivity.

Strong performatives usher into existence not just actions, like 'blasphemy,' but addressees. Unmentionables not only accomplish acts, they also project their own participation frameworks—their own models of communicative events and the actors that inhabit them. Given that linguistic deference and insult, confrontation and avoidance are typically a function of who the addressee is, this suggests that we should inquire into what Bakhtin (1986:95) called...