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Failing Frustration

Rae Langton, in “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts”, addresses three types of speech acts that silence. Firstly there is the failure to perform the locutionary act at all: locutionary failure, where fear and futility can combine in a belief that speaking is either dangerous and/or pointless – no one´s listening anyway! –  and where ¨any form of protest is deemed futile from the outset¨. In this instance, the speaker believes that they will not be heard, that one´s speech is illegible. Such a locutionary failure can be heard in Cathy Lane’s Hidden Lives (1999) between 0’40” to around the four minute mark, where sound stretches, stutters, but remains unformed, illegible.

Secondly, Langton explains, one may speak, but the intended effects of one’s speech will not be achieved. This presents what Langton calls perlocutionary frustration and may be experienced for example, in losing an argument or not winning when casting a vote. One’s utterances may be heard but not accepted, occurring in Hidden Lives as uttered yet not fully-formed protests approximately between 4’00” and 5’00” up to the point where the whispers and utterances thin and fade to sparsely formed intakes of breath.

Thirdly, is illocutionary disablement. As an inversion of a speech act that has illocutionary force, illocutionary disablement is a situation in which the speaker lacks the required authority for one’s speech to perform the intended illocutionary act. One speaks but fails to achieve the intentional effects and intentional performance of the speech act, “here speech misfires…although the appropriate words are uttered with the appropriate intention, the speaker fails to perform the intended illocutionary act” (Langton 1993: 315). In this instance speech is deemed unintelligible.

Authority, as Langton demonstrates, is one of the felicity conditions required for a speech act to be effective, for it to be constituted as action, for it to fulfill its meaning and intention, to achieve its stated goal. The historical problem and the challenge to normative history relates to how authority may be granted or assumed when one’s speech has been rendered ineffective due to the body one is perceived/coerced to inhabit. One may say ‘no’, may protest, but if the dominant, normative structure does not recognise or cannot/will not hear that ‘no’ then the perlocutionary force of the protest is rendered ineffectual. The question is, if a person or group’s speech, in this case the women and their utterances in Hidden Lives, has been silenced through a form of illocutionary disablement – whereby any speech in opposition to the disciplinary norms of the text is deemed as nonsensical, unintelligible or inaudible – how might such speakers turn illocutionary disablement into a successful illocutionary act? How might their intended meaning be recognised? Following Langton’s hypothesis, it would seem that intention needs to be backed up by authority1 to gain any legitimacy or to enable a sense of agency for a speaker or group, something that is usually not afforded to most individual female identifying people.

Silencing Speech Acts that Silence

Langton further identifies three main related modes of speech acts that can silence, which she calls silencing speech (Langton 1993: 318). The first relates to the ways in which speech can silence by order or threat. For example a judge ordering silence in a court. This is what Langton calls “simple silence”, where no sounds as a result are produced (Langton 1993: 318). Secondly, related to perlocutionary frustration is the frustration of the perlocutionary goal, by which the spoken order may be disobeyed and the effect frustrated, for example the judge’s order may well be ignored. Thirdly, through certain laws, norms and conventions, the speech of some is made unspeakable; specifically speech acts attached to assumed identities produced through and for the perpetuation of sexist, racist, homo- and transphobic, ableist, classist, and nationalist, to name a few, structures. The ‘illegal’ and ‘illegitimate’ subject, it would seem, has no authority with which to speak or to be heard.

  1. Authority in this instance may be understood as agency in a way that links with Judith Butler’s assertion that there is no agency in the subject as such …, but where change may be possible in “shifting historical forces” – through the collective (Butler 2011: 24)
Published inChapter 2 | Unspeakable NoiseFailing Frustration