Sunday, August 22, 2010

The illocutionary force of leftist discourse

A very old and interesting debate at the interface of philosophy, sociology, linguistics and anthropology is the question of the illocutionary force of an utterance. Most forcefully argued by J.-L. Austin, illocutionary force concerns the power of an utterance to act convincingly on a listener and whether such force is intrinsic to and a property of language as such or is derived from social positioning and social relations. So if someone says to you, 'you are intrinsically a moronic fool', what are the forces at work in the utterance that will make you consider the proposition seriously. Sociologists, a la Pierre Bourdieu, and sociologically influenced linguists like Austin, would argue that the capacity of the statement to have an impact depends on the social legitimacy and the authority of the speaker within given social relations. If a respected professor of linguistics makes this utterance to a junior colleague at a workshop, it is likely, though, of course, there might be other variables that can make a difference, that the person will take the statement seriously: it might devastate them, it might upset them and lead to a vigorous defence of their view, etc... The social setting influences in a variety of ways: the setting of the workshop in front of other colleagues might make the utterance exceptionally powerful and it might make the person on the receiving end more vulnerable. If it is uttered in a coffee shop at university, it might be less powerful. In a coffee shop outside the university even less powerful etc...
Sociological arguments of the social efficacy of language do not stop at this. Some linguists will argue that if the linguistic professor ends up, following a shipwreck, on a deserted island with people who don't know or understand the nature of his authority his utterance might still muster some linguistically rather than socially derived social efficacy. So, if he says to someone 'you are intrinsically a moronic fool', they might still be flabergasted by his capacity to put intrinsically, moronic and fool in one sentence and might submit to him. Sociologists will say that this is still a social power derived from the recognition of his social capacity to choose and put together certain words; that his authority still depends on someone recognizing that it is indeed skilfull to be able to put these words together. For, the professor might end up with people who are not impressed at all by either his choice of words or the way he utters them and might look at him and say: 'fuck off you bloody wanker' and the professor's power might just melt away.
Nonetheless, for Bourdieu, people with power internalise their position of power and it ends up reflecting itself in their statements. They acquire a habitus of power, or what Nietzsche would call a 'sense of power', which transcends specific situations. Like the old English aristocracy, which can loose all the social and economic basis of their power but still convincingly project a sense of artistocratic power. Bourdieu argues that this is so because every habitus has a conatus, a Spinoza-derived term meaning: a tendency to persevere in one's own being. The conatus allows for the reproduction of a sense of power even if the conditions which have given someone a sense of authority has disappeared.
Now that the lecture is over let me say that I feel that this applies to understanding progressive and conservative discourses today in Australia. I think that conservative utterances still project a sense of power from the Howard years despite the fact that the conditions of right wing dominance from which this sense of power was derived no longer exist. Progressive utterances on the other hand still suffer from the historical decline of left-wing thought and left-wing politics after the demise of Marxism and Communism. Yet, I feel that the elections show that there is a healthy section of the Australian population that is both progressive enough to not fall for 'the boats are coming discourse' or 'there is no such thing as global warming', ethical enough not to feel like rewarding a power-driven instrumentalist political culture of assassination no matter which side of the political spectrum it emerges from, and what's more they have a good acute sense of social justice. So, I hope the progessive left will now start to re-internalise a sense of power and legitimacy so that they can convincingly tell the racist/populationists, the anti-environmentalists, etc... exactly what they ought to hear about themselves: that they are intrinsically a bunch of moronic fools. The progressives must be able to withstand those reactionary journalists who, affecting to represent the 'true people', will tell them something: 'fuck off you bloody wankers'. They must now see them for what they are, people who are trying to bolster their legitimacy by affecting to represent a population they no longer represent.

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