By Utter Force

Speech acts, forms of writing, modes of public expression, all become crucial to revolutionary action and to understanding and fomenting social change. It wasn’t just that women took up a position in public space, but that public space also became configured in such a way that women could find themselves speaking; and it wasn’t just that women found sites from which to speak, but that women, as a category, became established as a site of enunciation. As a result there is no agency in the subject, but we might find the potential for historical change in the sometimes convergent and sometimes divergent sites of enunciation that shifting historical forces make possible.

Judith Butler 2011: 24

“Speech acts, forms of writing and modes of public expression” are the discursive forms through which composer Cathy Lane’s Hidden Lives and, in following posts, artist and writer Emma Hedditch’s We’re Alive, Let’s Meet! will be considered. Both Lane and Hedditch have created artworks that ‘speak up and talk back’ in paradoxical ways. Each are invested in creating “sites of enunciation” for “women as a category”, though the idea of ‘woman’ for each artist explores a set of different socio-historical and political forces in the present.  Both these works take struggle as a starting point, as a certain protest against dominant forms of representation and their attendant exclusions.  One could generalise and claim that all the works addressed within Feminist Frequencies protest in one way or another against the historical exclusion of women from sound arts and experimental musics. But each artist and work takes a different representation of ‘woman’ as a starting point from which to question the constructions of the category of women.  Lane’s composition Hidden Lives, as considered throughout the next few posts, may be perceived as addressing the dividing line between public and private spheres that have historically been applied as a means by which to silence ‘woman’. By doing so, the composition seeks to question the grounds by which the words ‘woman’ and ‘composer’, unlike the pejorative ‘her noise’, have seemingly struggled to meet.

Hidden Lives by Cathy Lane (1999)

Composer, sound artist and researcher Cathy Lane’s composition Hidden Lives (1999) is an example of a work that deals with the collective experiences of ‘women’ and a historical idea of ‘woman’ through memory and repetition. A group of women, mostly friends of the composer, were each asked to read excerpts from a 1930s text, The Book of Hints and Wrinkles, in which domestic expectations for women were clearly outlined.

Hidden Lives is informed by the idea of the house as the repository of memories, and of women as the curators of those memories. Through the repeated carrying out of domestic chores, women have shaped and sorted cupboards, rooms, all manner of dwelling places, the inner lives of societies and cosmologies. They have been at once confined inside the house and have colonised the ‘inside’ as their own, the place for daydreams and memories.

The material for this piece is drawn from a selection of women reading from The Book of Hints and Wrinkles a small piece of social history from the 1930s which describes how women should manage both their houses and themselves in no uncertain terms. The daily routine timetable is enough to ensure that no woman could ever spend much time outside the house or away from this backbreaking schedule, a sharp contrast to the lives of the women reading the text. The piece is in celebration of all lives lived and forgotten. (

This interpretation of Hidden Lives is explored through an investigation of speech act theory, particularly focusing upon of the performative force of the illocutionary utterance. By focusing on the performativity of the speech act in my listening, I can hear the ways in which the composition explores relationships between power and speech and between memory and repetition, critiques the categories of private and public, examines ideas embedded within the category of ‘woman’ and explores the ways in which historically, English women individually and collectively have been silenced.

In Speech acts and Unspeakable Acts (1993) Rae Langton analyses elements of speech through J.L Austin’s “distinctions between locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts”  (1993: 298).  Langton, focusing on subordinating speech acts that have the power to silence their speaker as a “mark of political power” explains;

If you are powerful, you sometimes have the ability to silence the speech of the powerless. One way might be to stop the powerless from speaking at all. Gag them, threaten them, condemn them to solitary confinement. But there is another, less dramatic but equally effective way. Let them speak. Let them say whatever they like to whomever they like, but stop that speech from counting as an action. More precisely, stop it from counting as the action it was intended to be (Langton 1993: 299 emphasis in original).

By interrogating the locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary modalities of speech act theory, Hidden Lives cuts through to the power dynamics that Langton describes, as discursive boundaries that are paradoxically embedded and trespassed within the work’s own compositional processes. By doing so, the composition puts forward the proposition that the speech acts of the original 1930s text, she has only herself to blame, wash and…, baby’s breakfast, kitchen and lavatory, make beds, prepare lunch, wash up, freshen up, are speech acts that have historically constructed specific notions of woman made legible through the demand for silence and servitude as ‘silencing speech acts’ (Anon 1930). Importantly, Hidden Lives demonstrates one way in which such silencing speech acts may themselves be silenced.

The raw material of Lane’s Hidden Lives is drawn from the 1930s The Book of Hints and Wrinkles, itself a slice of social history that harks back to an era of Victorian moralism. Lane, as the composer of this work, selected a particular passage from the text, a “daily routine time-table” from the chapter, “Running the Home” which provides a list of things that English women were expected to perform to ensure the functionality of the household (Anon 1930: 112). Friends and colleagues of the composer were given a copy of the particular passage which they were recorded reading:

6.45 am Lift and give orange juice to baby; get tea for self and husband

7.30 Light your boiler; set breakfast table

8.00 Wash and dress baby

8.15 Baby’s breakfast

8.30 Put baby in pram on veranda; prepare breakfast and serve…… etc. etc.

Before moving into an analysis of the composition itself, I would like to spend a moment more unpacking the actual speech act that is being expressed in these instructions. Speech act theory distinguishes between three interdependent modalities; locutionary acts “the actual utterance” (of words/sounds) “and its ostensible meaning”; illocutionary acts as the intended real significance (meaning) of an utterance; and perlocutionary acts – the actual effect of an utterance such as persuading, convincing, enlightening – getting someone to do or realise something (Baker and Sibonile 2011: 138). Illocutionary speech acts are commonly understood as those that “in saying, do what they say, and do it in the moment of that saying” whilst perlocutionary speech acts “produce certain effects as their consequence: by saying something a certain effect follows” (Butler 1997: 3). Butler’s articulation of the differing processes contained within these two speech acts, but the later in particular, uncovers the functions of cause and effect inscribed within the process of locution.

The list of instructions in the ‘daily routine time-table’ may be understood as a locutionary act in that it utters a statement, prepare breakfast and serve, for example. The perlocutionary act may be evidenced through the effect of persuasion, the text seeks to convince, where the effect is that the reader will do or realise something, the effect is that you understand and do the intended action. The illocutionary act is evidenced through the force of the utterance, prepare, serve, where the real intended meaning is that by doing the required action of the text, you become the required subject of the text. Focusing on the illocutionary act here, “it can be thought of as a use of the locution to perform an action” (Langton 1993: 300). The locution, prepare breakfast and serve, either urges, orders or advises the reader to do something whilst the illocutionary act may have a particular persuasive function as its often hidden intention. That intention that is being performed through this action is the construction of woman as servant.

What we have here are utterances whose force is something more than the semantic content of the sentence uttered – the locution – and something other than the effects achieved by the utterance – the perlocution. What is responsible for this important third dimension? Austin’s answer was that an utterance has illocutionary force of a certain kind when it satisfies certain felicity conditions (Langton 1993: 300-301).

As The Book of Hints and Wrinkles was written as a guide for the appropriate behaviour of women in England in the 1930s, it sets out the expected norms and conventions of its own time. But for speech acts such as this to be effective, as Langton explains, a set of felicity conditions need to meet. These felicity conditions are intention, authority and legitimation. Intention to perform the locution will often, but not always, determine what illocution is performed. For the intention to be successful, the recipient of the demand for action must recognise that intention. It must be legible and intelligible and there must be uptake, where what is intended and what is achieved meets up (cause and effect). This requires authority, where the authority of the intention is also legible and intelligible and thus recognisable. The classic Austinian example is the marriage ceremony whose illocutionary act, “I do” requires that the intentions of all the participants are agreed and recognised and where the authority of the minister and the legitimacy of the act through agreed upon laws, norms and conventions must all be met for the the words to fulfil the stated intention. As an illocutionary act in The Book of Hints and Wrinkles, the locution prepare breakfast and serve makes the case that English women must perform domestic servitude within the bourgeois home – indeed that English women and domestic servitude are one and the same. Implicitly, within the cultural text – The Book of Hints and Wrinkles – as locution it refers to women, specifically as the functional organisers of their own bourgeois English home, as a particular relation of property. Its perlocutionary effects are that white bourgeois women will do these tasks, ensuring a racialised and gendered division of labour and property. As illocutionary act, it orders white bourgeois women to do these tasks, and simultaneously orders men not to do them, thereby further constituting the correct roles, norms and conventions for both ‘sexes’ within a heteronormative and supremacist framework.


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