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SWIPshop: Lisa McKeown

September 20, 2016 @ 6:30 pm - 8:00 pm

Lisa McKeown (New School for Social Research)
Making Room for Mistakes: How Interpretation Informs Illocution

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016
6:30-8:00 pm
The Graduate Center, CUNY
Room 5414

Please RSVP to swipshop@gmail.com.
This is a pre-read workshop: click here to download the paper.
(light refreshments will be provided)


Freedom of speech is a central tenet of North American culture. Yet, there is general agreement that some language is harmful, evidenced in our concepts of ‘hate speech,’ or ‘slurs’. Violent pornography also counts as hate speech for some philosophers who argue that pornographic images are communicative, depicting and normalizing rape. Rae Langton and Jennifer Hornsby, for example, have contributed substantially to the literature surrounding the classification of pornography as hate-speech, arguing that constitutes the subordination and silencing of women. Part of their argument rests on the idea that pornography is performative speech that ranks women as inferior, legitimizes rape and violence towards them, and in doing so frames the possibilities of women’s speech, making it at times impossible for their refusals and protests will be taken seriously in sexual contexts. Women try to refuse, but their refusals are not ‘taken-up’ or understood as being serious. Langton calls this kind of inability illocutionary silencing.

Rebecca Kukla, in her paper entitled Discursive Injustice, responds to Langton’s claims about illocutionary silencing. The problem with illocutionary silencing, she contends, is that Langton ends up saying that in fact no speech act happens when women unsuccessfully refuse sex. But according to Kukla, that cannot be right. There is still a speech act, even if it is not the intended one. Rather, Kukla wants to identify what she calls discursive injustice. While she states that none of us has absolute control over performativity, she argues that it’s also true that members of disadvantaged or oppressed social groups might suffer from limitations that are a function of this group membership, and which further compromise their social position. In cases of discursive injustice, certain speech acts may, as a function of the speaker’s belonging to certain oppressed social groups, may have the wrong uptake. In this case, the intended speech act does not come off, but another, unintended speech act does.

In the paper, Kukla claims that the line between what we do with our words (illocutionary force) and the effects of our speech (perlocutionary effects) is, at times, blurred. Instead, she opts to use the input/output framework for understanding speech acts. Our intentions for our speech count as part of the input. The uptake or understanding or response of our audience is part of the output. Sometimes, she argues, the input and the output of a speech act do line up: a woman issues an order, but it is understood as a request. In these cases, she argues, the output determines and overrides the input: when the woman is understood as issuing a request, she has issued a request.

Kukla argues that a speech act can result in an interpretation and response that changes its intended force. I agree that at times, this is true. And yet, a problem of this view is the question of how we are to account for mistakes. A woman might issue an order that is understood as a request by one man, and understood as an order by a second. If Kukla is right, and responses fill out speech acts and help to create what they are, then how do we understand what the woman has ‘done’?
Furthermore, if we consider the example of refusing sex, there might be important reasons that we want to claim that a woman genuinely refused a man, but simply wasn’t understood. Doing so, for example, might help us reorient from a view that is about his understanding her mind to one in which he did not understand her actions.

I agree with Kukla that illocutionary silencing is an unsatisfying analysis of what happens in cases of speech acts whose intentions are not understood, and I further agree with her that at times, responses to speech acts can inform what speech act has come off. Yet I argue that maintaining Austin’s original categories of illocution and perlocution might give us a better way to understand both how responses (perlocutions) can inform speech acts (illocutions), and, because it maintains a distinction between the act and the response, also gives us a way to understand that sometimes, a certain speech act (such as a refusal) can be understood as having happened, regardless of the interpretation or response of the audience.


September 20, 2016
6:30 pm - 8:00 pm
Event Category:


CUNY Graduate Center Room 5414

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