The Crisis of
IN 1929, THE PHILOSOPHER V. N. VOLOSHINOV wrote that every word we speak is an “index of social changes,” for “a word in the mouth of a particular individual person is a product of the living interaction of social forces.” In a way, the history of the many debates about the politics of language that have unfolded in European and American intellectual life in the decades that followed can be understood as a history of different perspectives on how such a claim could be true.
These debates rage still. We see them in activism and in academia alike, in battles over whether speech can be violent and whether silence might be violent as well, in arguments over free expression and its limits, in contested ideas like hate speech and microaggression and implicit bias. Whether in the classroom or in the public square, it is hard to listen to—or participate in—these debates without feeling as though they are full at once of insight and of contradiction, pulling us between competing ethical demands, contrasting political dreams.
I argue that these debates feel so caught between promise and peril today because they play out between two basic, competing frameworks. But this tension between opposing perspectives is not simply a fight between left and right; it is not a contradiction between liberty and equality, nor a contrast between censorship (or “cancel culture”) and expression (or “free speech”). The tension is instead internal to each of the dominant political alignments today, crosscutting them at a deeper level, shaping indeed the very terms in which we ask our questions about language and violence at all.
One framework can be understood in terms of discourse and power; the other, in terms of speech and harm.
The perspective of discourse and power has its intellectual origins in the collapse of the Marxian project of ideology-critique in the 1970s. Marxist theorists—including many in France, West Germany, and the anglophone world who were as critical of the Stalinist state as they were of western capitalism—had in the twentieth century devoted sustained attention to analyzing how cultural and linguistic practices and norms provide the ideological underpinnings of political and economic domination. But for complex reasons, the Marxian approach to ideology entered a period of real crisis in the decades after the Second World War. New theories of discourse rose to fill the gap, providing fresh perspectives on how language could operate as a sphere of power in a structural, systemic sense. Figures like Michel Foucault and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak advanced incisive and influential analyses of such dynamics, introducing new concepts like power-knowledge and epistemic violence in order to understand how large-scale patterns of intelligibility and unintelligibility, of communication and distortion, of representation and misrepresention, shape the conditions of our everyday lives.
Such approaches to discourse and power offered fundamental insights. They illuminated how the very terms in which political problems and social questions are expressed can make certain forms of power more difficult to resist; and they also showed how systematic silence—the way certain things are made more difficult to say at all—could likewise let oppression run free. What was remarkable about this approach was that it helped people analyze their everyday conditions in terms that connected individual experience to wider and deeper processes, dynamics whose origins lay beyond any one person’s deeds or misdeeds. These were systemic theories. They did for language what ideas like structural violence had done for inequality: they showed how real injuries could be produced through the operation of forms of power that transcended the action and intention of individuals, even of elites.
Yet structural theories can render certain kinds of personal reflection more difficult as well—their political strength is sometimes their ethical weakness. If a theory tells us that violence can exist in language without any particular violent person to hold accountable, what should we conclude about how to morally act? A quite different perspective on language arose in the same period to address such questions more directly—the perspective of speech and harm. This framework had its intellectual origins in a mostly separate academic tradition, that of Anglo-American analytical philosophy.
In the 1960s, J. L. Austin’s theory of speech-acts had begun to fundamentally reshape anglophone philosophy of language. Austin’s fundamental insight was that not all uses of our words are merely descriptive. Sometimes, in speaking, we perform an action, rather than merely describe it—his now-classic example was the “I Do” of the wedding ceremony, which actually brings the marriage into existence. Austin’s theory of “performative speech” had profound effects across the humanities in the decades that followed, in such disciplines as philosophy, legal studies, critical race theory, and feminist thought. It was just one piece of a broader turn to the situated significance of rhetoric in daily life, understanding language as a tool for changing, not just depicting, concrete situations. Through such developments, it became widely understood that if words can be deeds, then they can also be harms.
The theory of speech-acts became a fundamental influence on debates dealing with such questions as the censorship of pornography and the regulation of racial slurs. By attending to what words do, beyond what they merely say, new questions about the moral and political dimensions of linguistic activity could be asked and answered. In its pure form, however, the speech-and-harm approach exactly inverted the strengths and the weaknesses of the discourse-and-power paradigm. The attention to individual behavior—to personal agency—as the site of language’s force could make the systemic or the structural harder to see.
In principle, of course, we can imagine that the two frameworks might complement each other rather nicely. With discourse, we have a picture of systemic power; with speech, a picture of individual harms. But in practice the relation between the two approaches was always more complex, and often conflictual. There are philosophical and theoretical sources for the tensions between them, conceptual dilemmas that could animate a whole library of monographs; but more significant are the material and psychological processes that destabilize any simple union of the two perspectives. For reasons that have as much to do with the dynamics of real-world politics as with our internal psychological complexities, it has proven extremely difficult to hold together the critique of systemic power and the analysis of individual behavior within a coherent and mobilized ethical-political perspective.
The result is that most of our debates about language and its politics are caught between the two paradigms, never quite aligning fully or exactly with one or the other. Debates about hate speech, for example, often move uneasily between a structural critique of white supremacy and a behavioral analysis of prejudiced interaction. Accounts of silencing shift back and forth between systemic theories of marginalization and situated accounts of interpersonal disrespect.
It is tempting to say that what we need is simply a sharper philosophical analysis of the ideas at stake in such debates: a clearer perspective on why the different claims come together and move apart, a smoother translation of terms between the competing approaches, a more careful effort to combine the individual and structural, the ethical and political. But attempts to resolve such social dilemmas through more rigorous conceptualization are unlikely to succeed. There is a general reason for this and a specific reason. The general reason is that there are simply limits to what any mere reinterpretation of the world can achieve—eventually, the point must be to change it. The specific reason is that language itself is not today any longer what it was when the two frameworks alike emerged, and the competing resources they present are no longer adequate for the comprehension of what language has now become.
Both paradigms—discourse and power, speech and harm—took shape in the immediate postwar decades. This was a moment of political, social, and economic transformation, a global rupture so vast and far-reaching that its shape could not then be clearly seen and still today can barely be understood; it was the beginning of the so-called information revolution.
In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard famously diagnosed a mass crisis of language and of knowledge, describing the collapse of the old grand narratives grounding Western self-understanding and analyzing the new relativism apparently taking their place. It has become fashionable in some quarters today to ascribe the contemporary battles over speech and expression to a “postmodernism” run amok. The diagnosis is true, but not in the way that it is usually meant. For what the postmodernism-trope about our contemporary culture wars forgets is Lyotard’s account of why the new crisis of truth emerges at all. It is not because of some merely cultural nihilism or some pervasive intellectual anarchy. Its roots are political and economic. In the “computerization of society,” Lyotard argued, the status of knowledge has changed because of how information itself has become a commodity.
The commodification of information in the rise of digital society has fundamentally reshaped the quite literal economics of knowledge, and it has reshaped how language itself functions in turn. The internet is a space of language, among much else, but the language of the internet is not quite speech and it is not quite discourse. It is a new linguistic form, connected to a new economic form, and it is one whose shape and significance we are only beginning to understand.
“Speech and harm,” “discourse and power”: such frameworks for comprehending language and its politics are in crisis now because the linguistic phenomena they were developed to describe have been eclipsed and reconfigured in the internet age. As the technological transformation of language accelerates—as digital platforms replace our public squares and our classrooms—as the marketplace of ideas gives way to the commodification of information—we will need new approaches entirely, if we are to understand what these older perspectives have helped us begin to see but cannot themselves resolve within our view. For today, as in 1929, our words themselves index our dramatic forms of social change.
Matt Shafer will appear at "Silence Is Violence, and So Is Speech," April 27, 5:00-6:30 pm.