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Diacritics 31.4 (2001) 41-53

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Bad Words

Denise Riley


The worst words revivify themselves within us, vampirically. Injurious speech echoes relentlessly, years after the occasion of its utterance, in the mind of the one at whom it was aimed: the bad word, splinterlike, pierces to lodge. In its violently emotional materiality, the word is indeed made flesh and dwells amongst us—often long outstaying its welcome. Old word-scars embody a "knowing it by heart," as if phrases had been hurled like darts into that thickly pulsating organ, but their resonances are not amorous. Where amnesia would help us, we can't forget.

This sonorousness of vindictive words might help to characterize how, say, racist speech works on and in its targets. But doesn't such speculation also risk becoming an advocacy for the cultivation of insensitivity on the part of those liable to get hurt—or worse, a criticism of their linguistic vulnerability: "They just shouldn't be so linguistically sensitive"? There's much to be said for studiously practicing indifference. But the old playground chant of "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me" was always notoriously untrue. The success of the tactics of indifference will also depend on the vicissitudes of the words' fate in the world, which is beyond my control. I change, too. As the terrain upon which malevolent accusation falls, I am malleable, while the harsh words themselves undergo their own alterations across time, and so their import for me weakens or intensifies accordingly. At times the impact of violent speech may even be recuperable through its own incantation; the repetition of abusive language may be occasionally "redemptive" through the irony of iteration, which may drain the venom out of the original insult and neutralize it by displaying its idiocy. 1 Yet angry interpellation's very failure to always work as intended (since at particular historical moments, I may be able to parody, to weaken by adopting, to corrode its aim), is also exactly what, at other times, works for it. In any event, interpellation operates with a deep indifference as to where the side of the good may lie, and we can't realistically build an optimistic theory of the eventual recuperability of harm. Here there's no guaranteed rationality, nor any inescapable irrationality. Repetition breeds its own confident mishearing, 2 but its volatile alterations lean towards neither automatic amelioration nor inevitable worsening.

This observation, though, leaves us with the still largely uninvestigated forensics of spoken injury. Verbal attacks, in the moment they happen, resemble stoning. Isn't it making heavy weather, then, to ask how they do damage: isn't the answer plain, that they hurt just as stones hurt? At the instant of their impact, so they do. Yet the peculiarity of violent words, as distinct from lumps of rock, is their power to resonate within their target for decades after the occasion on which they were weapons. Perhaps an urge for privacy about being maliciously named may perpetuate the words' remorseless afterlife: [End Page 41] [Begin Page 42] I keep what I was told I was to myself, out of reserve, shame, a wish not to seem mawkish and other not-too-creditable reasons such as guarding the word so it can't slip away to be lost in the broad linguistic flood; yet even if I manage to relinquish this fatal stance of nursing my injury, it may well refuse to let go of me. Why, though, should even the most irrational verbal onslaught lodge in us, and why should it stubbornly resist ejection, and defy its own fading? For an accusation to inhere, must its human target already be burdened with her own prehistory of vulnerability, in the shape of some psychic susceptibility; must it even depend on her anticipating readiness to accept or even embrace the accusation that also horrifies? Maybe, then, there's some fatal attraction from the aggression uttered in the present toward earlier established reverberations within us, so that to grasp this phenomenon, we have to leave a linguistic account and turn instead to a prelinguistic...


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