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Speech Acts On Us

There is a claim, it can be proffered, within in Cathy Lane’s Hidden Lives (1999), that certain kinds of speech can be heard as illocutionary acts of subordination, as those that have a power to silence. Rae Langton, writing in “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts”, asserts that there are three features by which speech acts may subordinate: they rank (value and place) asymmetrically; legitimate certain behaviours; and deprive certain powers (agency) (Langton 1993: 303). Using the speech acts of apartheid as an example, Langton through her reading of J.L.Austin, claims that speech acts subordinate when illocutionary acts involve an authority delivered as a verdict, where “the authoritative role of the speaker imbues the utterance with a force that would be absent were it made by someone who did not occupy that role” (Langton 1993: 304). The emphasis of authority in this instance is placed on the ability to define and assert ‘truth’ within the context in which the speech is uttered and results in what is known as a verdictive utterance – as one based upon the delivery of a verdict (Langton 1993: 304). Additionally, “illocutions that confer powers and rights on people, or deprive people of powers and rights”, labelled as exercitive illocutions, “legitimate discriminatory behaviour” through a “force that would be absent if they [the speech acts] were made by speakers who did not have the appropriate authority” (Langton 1993: 304). So authority and legitimacy here are bound together within the assertion of ‘truth’. These are speech acts Langton, again following Austin, calls “authoritative illocutions: actions whose felicity conditions require that the speaker occupy a position of authority in a relevant domain” where authority and legitimacy are the contextual and contingent means through which ‘truth’ should arise (Langton 1993: 305).

Silencing Speech Acts

If speech is action, then silence is failure to act (Langton 1993: 314).

If the goal, of feminism for example, is to have a voice and for that voice to carry authority ensuring that the speech act has the intended outcome, to be able not only to do what one says but also to have others meet one’s requests/demands/expectations, then the speech act needs to be recognised with an according authority and the utterance needs to be deemed legitimate and intelligible. But speech acts can be silenced in ways that deem their illocutionary force, their intended meaning, nonsensical or unintelligible;

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).

Particularly speech acts uttered through asymmetrical power relations, based upon ranking, legitimising and depriving can be understood as silencing opposition, silencing any oppositional agency in the very act of the utterance. Speech dismissed as gossip, as do compositions made by women, for example, have been bound by these discursive norms.


Published inChapter 2 | Unspeakable NoiseSpeech Acts On Us