Thursday, January 22, 2009

Efficacious Speech

One of the things I have emphasized as one of the major common threads in ancient literature is the power of speech. Words are strange things, and their power is highly ambivalent. They can build up or tear down. They can deceive or enlighten. They can find great resource in ambiguity and double-speak. People can manipulate speech and manipulate by speech for a multitude of ends, whether positive or negative (or even determine what is positive or negative).

One type of speech among these is the speech-act. The speech-act emphasizes that speech DOES something. In particular, speech can be tranformative. Often, or in fact usually, this speech-act is highly formulaic, the formulae based upon particular social developments or contexts. The transformative speech-act based upon formulae is recognized in so-called "magic." In this case, for the speech--the spell--to have effect, to have efficacy, it must be said just right. Again, its power is ambivalent--such a speech-act can bless or curse.

We see similar transformative speech-acts based upon traditional formulae all around us. The most familiar today would be the marriage vows. Saying "I do" or "I will" changes the status of those involve by the very words. Moreover, marriage is a ceremony, a ritual, that occurs in religious and civil realms simultaneously (or it can). Perhaps the most visible civil speech-act, however, happened the day before yesterday...and, uh, yesterday as well: the Presidential oath of office. By saying an oath in a particular way in a particular setting, a private citizen becomes the President. Thus, the importance of the now-famous mis-speak when Justice Roberts messed up the oath when administering it to Obama. He only messed up by misplacing a single word--one word was out of order, "faithfully." When repeated, the Chief Justice put "faithfully" in the right place, but left out "execute." And despite the fact that most Constitutional Lawyers say that Obama became President on Jan. 20, at noon no matter what, the power of the speech-act was so important that, just because Obama, by copying Roberts, said it slightly wrong, yesterday the oath was readministered, Obama took it again, to make sure they got the wording just right. Perhaps this was just an overabundance of caution, but it still demonstrates the power of transformative speech-acts, how the oath of office said in the right way in the right context magically transforms its speaker into the holder of that office.

No comments: