Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

I Don’t Know What I’m Saying. Do You?

I have read “Burning Acts, Injurious Speech,” several times now, and I remain somewhat confused by the argument. Not unconvinced, but uncertain of how all the parts fit together.

All speech is “excitable,” meaning that it is, at some level, beyond the control of the speaker. This is because language is produced out of a cultural and social matrix that precede and supercede the speaker. Therefore meaning can’t be dictated by the speaker. Furthermore, because the meaning stems from the context that precedes excitable speech, the speaker is actually produced as a subject from that pre-existing meaning and context. In the case of hate speech, the law—by predetermining the meaning of certain words in advance of their utterance—creates the speaker as subject so that the speaker can then be prosecuted. This seems in line with Butler’s comment in last week’s essay (“Endangered/Engendering”) about the beating of Rodney King as a necessary cultural production of blackness (and, quoting Ruth Gilmore, as an instance of nation-building). The prosecution of hate speech requires that the speech itself is rehearsed in public and that it become part of the official state record (in court). Yet after this rhetorical move, Butler then asserts that speech does not have to be understood as hateful. Not only is all speech excitable (out of the speaker’s control), but it is also “ex-citable”—it can be uncoupled from its cultural meaning and assigned a new meaning by those who hear it.

But that seems to imply that a speaker can never assert the meaning of her speech, and that only the listener has the power to subvert the predetermined meaning of the speech. In which case, the audience can assert agency, but the speaker never can.

One Comment

  1. Not only is that confusing, it strikes me as a bit unfair. I’m a recently graduated English major and I’ve seen a similar tug-of-war between readers and writers. In the context of speech though, I think a speaker should have more right than a writer to at least be granted some minimum control over what he/she means.

    Realistically speaking, both sides are not necessarily incorruptible and I’ve found that tipping the balance in favor of one or the other can come off as unjust. Excessively favoring the speaker could enable dishonest denial whilst the same treatment towards the listeners enables oversensitivity.