Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Apology as Speech Act

J.L. Austin in How to do things with Words, notes that there are two types of speech acts – the perlocutionary and illocutionary. For him, perlocutionary speech acts may invite certain effects but are not effects in and of themselves – for instance hate speech can be viewed as possibly producing certain effects BUT is not an injury in and of itself. However, illocutionary effects are an effect in being uttered - for instance where hate speech can be viewed as wounding or injurying the subject that such utterances are hurled at…Austin’s famous example of the illocutionary speech act is that found in the marriage ceremony when the "preacher" states "I now pronounce you husband and wife" as it, when uttered, is the effect (being married). The "preacher" or "justice of peace" who is vested with authority utters phrases that "do" what they say. Of course, this utterance in the current political climate around same-sex marriage is quite interesting when one thinks about the ways such an utterance is controlled by the government and who it sanctions with the ability to have such an utterance made to "do" what it says. As such, this control produces different types of subjects (legitimate subjects that speak – straight - and illegitimate subjects that (can’t) speak – gay/lesbian) causing the various rights-based issues present in the marriage debate. Of course, these issues are further complicated by critiques of marriage in general begun by the feminists and taken up and added to by numerous queer theorists (i.e. Michael Warner, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler).

But, as I contemplated these types of speech acts and the complexity of language, I was drawn to the phrase “I’m sorry” – the apology. What does this phrase do? How does it act? It obviously can act in many different ways and produce different effects. It, in being uttered, seems to produce the subject that was violated and the subject that violated. It allows those involved in the space/time of the utterance to have the injury recognized as the utterer finally allows the one hearing the utterance to see themselves as an injured subject and be recognized as such AND with the utterer recognizing him/her/hirself as the violator and being recognized by the other as the violator.

So, the utterance of “I’m sorry” alludes not only to some violation but produces the subjects of such violation and the subjects own recognition of the violation. The utterance (apology) recognizes some form of injury that needs to be addressed and is that which addresses the injury. Yet, is the utterance “I’m sorry” effective? And how is the effect of such an utterance “determined”? Is it a perlocutionary speech act or an illocutionary speech act to follow Austin's work OR does it traverse those two possibilities…never solely one or the other…dependent on the context in which it was uttered? (i.e. a judge pronouncing a same sex couple as "married" in most states is ineffective, it does not produce the effects the phrase is meant to produce BUT in being uttered allows for the possibility of such an effect to be fought for)

What do I mean by this?

If the apology is an effect in itself, what is it an effect of? Does it negate the injury that asks for such an apology? Does it make possible a recognition of injury or trauma that was previously unknown or unintelligible because of the pain associated with it? Is it immediately healing, closing the wound and having the effect of not producing a married couple, but producing a "healed" relationship?

Or does it only allow for the possibility of an effect to emerge, depending on the subjects that utter and hear such utterance? Does it only open up the possibility for healing to emerge, for recognition to become possible? If so, it’s effectiveness is perhaps dependent on how the utterance is 1) uttered by the subject speaking, 2) taken up by the one who “hears”, and 3) the relationship (history) between those two subjects? This third component is the interesting piece for, as Butler notes, the strength of a speech act depends on the power it achieves through repetition and citation – allowing such speech to gain “authority”. Yet, if one always apologizes, this repetition works in the opposite way…taking away the authority of the utterance. This is of course on the individual level since the “apology” has gained its status "institutionally" by its constant use as a way of relating with/to others or educating people into sociality by different discourse communities (notably the law, religion, and education).

But, it is this individual level that is perhaps interesting to think about here in terms of how it - the apology - loses authority if constantly repeated. If one constantly apologizes, its ability to “heal” lessens as one becomes “use” to hearing the apology. It becomes transformed into something else – such as an excuse. It is possible in thinking about the apology to see the critical interventions that uttering “hate” speech can have. For instance, if one constantly uses a hateful word (i.e. fag, bitch, cunt) those who hear it can become desensitized to it whereby there is no or “less” injury, but rather a place to parody or subvert such speech…something that can be seen when bullies get mocked for being “bully”. This of course varies on the word being uttered as seen in how some terms (i.e. queer) have been challenged while others with a different history (i.e. the n-word) maintain their ability to wound. But, if we could or would (try to) censor such language and disallow its use – which at times may be productive/beneficial/necessary – we may actually allow such a term to gain strength in its wounding capacity as it does not become excessive, inflated, over-used. Rather, it maintains it's strength as being "taboo", as being hateful.

But that is not my point here - Judith Butler explores that in her text Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative from which i developed these thoughts. My point is thinking about the apology. And it would seem then, that unlike the injurious possibility of words where words wound - "excitable speech" - that the apology as a speech act maintains its authority in not being repeated by the same individual over and over to the same person(s). Its political significance is in its sparing use for grave issues and those grave issues are one's in which reparations are necessary in order for the trauma inflicted to become recognizable, intelligible, etc.

6 comments:

Matthew Koehler said...

Interesting post. Makes me wonder how to think about the purpose(s) of Tiger's recent apology. It's given in public, yet not directed to them. Seems even more odd having read this post.

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