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Performativity and Language
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  • 1. Performance and language Empty Promises… Speech Act Theory and linguistic mechanisms of populist rhetoric Based on research by Magda Stroińska & Vikki Cecchetto McMaster University, Canada
  • 2. Why the topic?
    • The spread of empty promises in public discourse seems to be reaching epidemic proportions world wide.
    • Whether in political life or in marketing, people are bombarded with promises that were never intended to be fulfilled.
    • In political discourse, empty promises are particularly popular during election campaigns.
  • 3. Populism…
    • This phenomenon is not limited to specific political agendas or party lines but seems to be cutting across the wide spectrum of political life across the world.
    • It is characteristic of the wave of populism where politicians are ready to promise the voters anything in order to get elected.
    • What seems surprising is not that empty promises are being made but rather that people still believe them and let the politicians get away without holding them responsible for their words.
  • 4. Populism
    • a political ideology or rhetorical style that holds that the common person is oppressed by the ‘elite’ in society, and that the instruments of the State need to be grasped from this self-serving elite and used for the benefit and advancement of the people as a whole.
  • 5. A populist…
    • reaches out to ordinary people , talking about their economic and social concerns, and appealing to their common sense .
    • makes promises that the audience wants to hear. Thus populism can be seen as a rhetorical style that can be used to promote a variety of ideologies.
  • 6. What do populists promise?
    • Individual populists have variously promised to "stand up to corporations" and "put people first."
    • Populism often incorporates nationalism, jingoisms, and occasionally racism. Many populists appeal to a specific region or a specific social class rather than the broader society.
  • 7. Imitating the Master?
    • “ Jesus spoke to the crowds that followed him. (He) spoke to prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman centurions, and sinners. These were the outcasts with whom Christ mingled… The Gospel champions the cause of justice for the poor and marginalized . The Gospel speaks for those who can’t.”
    • Ghislaine Salvail
  • 8. People
    • Abraham Lincoln could not have summed up the populist ideology better when, in his famous Gettysburg Address, he advocated "... government of the people, by the people, for the people."
  • 9. Barack Obama – Victory Speech
    • Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington. […] It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause.
    • It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation's apathy […].
    • It drew strength from […] the millions of Americans who volunteered and organized and proved that more than two centuries later a government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not perished from the Earth.
    • This is your victory.
  • 10. Speech Act Theory
    • John Langshaw Austin (1911-1960)
    • English philosopher & linguist
    • presented his Speech Act Theory in his 1955 lectures at Harvard University, published posthumously as “How to Do Things with Words” (1975).
    • Austin’s ideas were further developed by other philosophers and linguists, especially John Searle.
  • 11. Austin's Speech Act Theory
    • Austin's work was a reaction to some traditional attitudes to language :
    • that the basic sentence type in language is declarative (a statement)
    • that the principal use of language is to describe states of affairs
    • that the meaning of utterances can be described in terms of their truth or falsity .
  • 12. Austin:
    • Not all sentences are statements
    • Much of conversation is made up of questions, exclamations, commands, and expressions of wishes:
    • a. Excuse me! b. Are you serving? c. Hello. d. Six pints of stout and a packet of peanuts, please!
    • Such sentences are not descriptions and cannot be said to be true or false.
  • 13. Performative Utterances
    • Even declaratives are not always used to make statements. Some declaratives are neither true nor false.
    • a. I promise to take a taxi home. b. I bet you five pounds that he gets caught
    • for that. c. I declare this meeting open. d. I warn you that legal action will ensue. e. I name this ship Queen Mary.
    • These sentences are in themselves a kind of action. He called them performative utterances.
  • 14. Performatives
    • Performative sentences perform the action named by the first verb in the sentence.
    • We can insert the adverb hereby to stress this function, e.g.
    • I hereby declare you husband and wife .
  • 15. Evaluating performative utterances
    • Performative utterances are not true or false. Rather the question is whether they work or not:
    • Do they constitute a successful warning, bet, ship-naming etc.?
    • A performative that “works” is called felicitous and one that does not is called infelicitous .
  • 16. Felicity conditions for promising : (Searle 1969)
    • S = speaker H = hearer A = the future action
    • P = the proposition expressed in the speech act
    • e = the linguistic expression
    • H would prefer S’s doing A to his not doing A and S knows it.
    • * I promise that you will fail the exam….
    • It is not obvious to both S and H that S will do A in the normal course of events.
    • ? I promise that I will leave my estate to my wife.
    • In expressing that P, S predicates a future act A of S.
    • * I promise that I have done the homework…
    • S intends to do A.
    • I promise that I will take you out to dinner.
    • The utterance counts as an undertaking to do A.
  • 17. Are election promises “for real”?
    • How threats and promises used by populist parties to win support by eliciting feelings such as fear or insecurity
    •  hostility towards those who are perceived
    • as potential threats to the “right way of life”
    • Parasitic Speech Acts (Austin, Searle, Derrida, Halion)
    • “ Parasitic Threats”: threats disguised as promises directed towards those who do not support the speaker’s ideology
    •  highly aggressive style of political discourse
  • 18. Political Discourse as Theatrical Discourse (Performance)
    • Just like theatrical discourse, political speeches are framed as opposed to being uttered  parasitic speech acts
    • - The ‘script’ uttered by a politician is written by a Superspeaker (political speech writer functions as the playwright).
    • - The politician is a ‘speaking body’ (jut like a cast member in a play).
  • 19. Political promises
  • 20. Promise: Felicity Conditions (Strawson)
    • S makes a promise p to H by uttering T iff :
      • S and H are using the same language;
      • S expresses that p in the utterance of T;
      • By saying that p, S predicates his future act A;
      • H would like S to do A and S knows that;
      • It is not obvious to both S and H that S will do A in the normal course of events;
  • 21. Promising… continued
    • S intends to do A;  the sincerity condition. Ammendment: S intends that the utterance of T will make him responsible for intending to do A.
    • S intends that the utterance of T will place him under an obligation to do A;  the essential condition
    • S intends that H will believe the promise inherent in utterance T is sincere.
  • 22. Election promise
    • An election promise is a promise made to the public by a politician who is trying to win an election. They have long been a central element of elections and remain so today . Election promises are also notable for often being broken once a politician is in office.
    • Elections promises are part of an election platform. (…) They are an essential element in getting people to vote for a candidate. For example, a promise such as to cut taxes or to introduce new social programs may appeal to voters.
    • (From Wikipedia)
  • 23. Also…
    • Election promises are usually based
    • on the most optimistic forecasts for
    • the future (a strong economy, cooperative opposition leaders and good international situation)
    • Government policies, on the other hand, usually plan for the worst possible future.
  • 24. Politics and realism
    • If a politician would plan for the worst case scenario, their platform would be
    • far less attractive than that of their opponents.
    • Thus, realism about future performance would hurt the politician.
    • It “is also difficult to do in ten second news sound bites or thirty second commercials”. (Wikipedia)
  • 25. Broken promises?
    • “ Election promises have been broken for as long as elections have been held and this is likely to continue.”
      • Wikipedia
  • 26. Why do politicians offer empty promises?
    • There are strong pressures on politicians to make promises which they cannot keep.
    • A party that does not make exaggerated promises might appear bland, unambitious, and uninteresting to voters compared to the one that does.
    • Sometimes this can give the exaggerating party an advantage over the truthful one. Government finances are extremely complex and promises are vague enough that the media and public can rarely say for certain that the numbers do not add up. Thus almost all parties continue to promise lower taxes , more social programs , and a balanced budget .
    • Wikipedia
  • 27. Promises, promises…
    • Possibly sincere promises that could not be kept:
    • Examples
    • President Woodrow Wilson's promise to keep the USA out of World War I
    • President Herbert Hoover's 1928 pledge
    • to end poverty
    • President Franklin Roosevelt's 1940 promise to keep the US out of World
    • War II
  • 28. Contradictory promises…
    • A promise to lower taxes , offer more social programs , and still have a balanced budget .
  • 29. Promises that “make sense” and can be believed but…
    • I shall not become Prime Minister while my brother serves as President
          • A promise made by J. Kaczynski, leader of the majority party, whose twin brother L. Kaczynski was elected President.
  • 30. Parasitic Speech Acts
    • PSA are uses of language that are dependent on or derived from the primary uses of language.
    • The primary purpose of language will be intentionally to perform certain conventional acts, such as asserting, promising or threatening;
    • Parasitic or secondary uses are concerned with the performance of indirect conventional social activities, e.g. joking, theatrical performance, literature, etc.;
  • 31. PSA continued
    • A parasitic use of language is not a mistaken or unhappy or infelicitous
    • or failed use of language but rather
    • a quite deliberate secondary use of language.
  • 32. Is political language normal language or parasitic?
    • Hearers perceive political discourse as normal language use while in fact it is parasitic and fits the categories of theatrical and metaphoric.
    • Examples: Party names:
    • Forza Italia  could mean “Let’s go, Italy!” or “the force of Italy”.
    • Samobrona  ‘Self-defense’ – of whom? By whom? Against whom?
  • 33. Amendment explained
    • In making an insincere promise the speaker does not have all the intentions and beliefs he has when making a sincere promise. However, he purports to have them. (Strawson, 51)
    • Political promises are often insincere promises because they violate the ‘essential condition’ on promising.
  • 34. Sincere versus insincere promises
    • … in sincere promises the speaker believes it is possible for him to do the act…
    • (cf. Strawson)
    • In political discourse, the speaker knows in the back of his mind that there may be external conditions that will prevent him/her from fulfilling the promise once they are in office. They are not sharing this information with the public.
  • 35. Example of an insincere promise:
    • In the last provincial election in Ontario, one of the promises made by the Liberal Party was that there would be no new taxes one they came to power. At the same time the Liberals knew that the extent of the deficit of the Tory government would prevent them from keeping this promise.
  • 36. Parasitic threats
    • Some promises can be interpreted as direct threats by those who are not the intended beneficiaries of the promise made or who can see that the promise is impossible to keep.
    • Such promises become an instrument for fostering a hostile political atmosphere.
  • 37. Parasitic threats
    • G.W. Bush (2002) before the invasion of Iraq:
    • “ If military action is necessary, the United States and our allies will help the Iraqi people rebuild their economy, and create the institutions of liberty in a unified Iraq at peace with its neighbors.”
    • Promise of liberty
    • Threat of war
  • 38. Why do people believe election promises?
    • Are some people more likely to believe empty promises?
    • What makes people more tolerant of lies?
    • “ Assaulted person” syndrome : How is it possible that some intelligent persons have such low self-esteem that they keep getting involved in harmful relationships, abuse harmful substances and are unable to be successful in their careers and personal lives?
  • 39. Victims of abuse?
    • Is it conceivable to treat countries/nations in terms of “victims of abuse”?
    • Are authoritarian systems a form of societal abuse?
    • Victims of abuse are particularly vulnerable to suffer repeated assault.
  • 40. Solutions?
    • People are increasingly aware that election promises are going to be broken. Hence:
    • Some politicians make their promises more believable, e.g. by giving specific promises with numbers attached.
    • Politicians break promises at the very beginning of a term so that voters may forget about it by the time the next election occurs.
    • They often save irrelevant but popular promises for the end of their term, just before they are up for re-election.
  • 41. Vote for Nobody
  • 42. Am I promoting cynicism?
    • It is important to sensitize the electorate to the parasitic use of language in political speeches, especially in case of populist politicians.
    • It is important to study linguistic mechanisms of populist rhetoric and its effects on the hearers, especially in the environment controlled by fear…