Linguistic encounters: the performativity of active listening

24 June 2016, New Conference Room, Sofia University

Beata Stawarska University of Oregon

image1 In my talk, I examine social encounters in language by combining an inquiry into individual saying acts (otherwise called speech-acts) with a reflection on how the enabling and constraining social conditions impact the success of such acts in the present. In other words, I propose to work at the intersection of a micro-sociology of social encounters with a larger structural focus on historically contingent social positions. Yet my overall task is not only diagnostic but also emancipatory, and I seek resources for resisting the received and sedimented social relations of power, including at the level of the individual sayings themselves. I therefore recover Bourdieu’s central claim that language mirrors social conditions of power operative in our not-solely-linguistic lives but emphasize, in agreement with Butler’s conception of linguistic performativity, that an ongoing linguistic practice does not solely reflect but can also resist and revise dominant distributions of power by enacting novel social relations through the saying acts. I argue that both Bourdieu’s and Butler’s understanding of the language-power structure will benefit from integrating additional insights from speech act theory, specifically regarding the importance of the hearer’s uptake for a successful or felicitous performance of a speech act. Speech is typically thematized in terms of the vocal production made by an individual speaker or a group but I will argue, drawing on Austin and in agreement with Hornsby and Langton, that the hearer’s uptake, which includes at least minimal receptiveness to what the speaker is saying, constitutes an integral and active element of the total speech situation. Defined in this way, uptake belongs to the language and power structure since granting the speaker minimal receptivity can enable a speech act to function as such (for example, an attempted order to become an accomplished one) while withdrawing minimal receptivity can make the speech act flounder. I turn to Irigaray’s philosophy of dialogue across sexual difference to make a case for active listening as an emancipatory strategy that can re-authorize speakers who have been socially disempowered on account of their gender. Throughout, I seek to both recognize the weight of inherited social conventions in language and to recover the capacity for sociolinguistic renewal within the partially unscripted and potentially innovative interactions between language users in the present