To speak is to say something, to someone: it is to claim or express a fact or feeling about the world, as well as to presume or articulate – to perform – some aspect of a relationship between whoever speaks and whoever listens. The moment of speech draws us into relation with others, or at least makes the relations between us immediate and explicit.
Talk is a principal way in which we define the situation. Both what is said and the relationship it enacts – that is, both the form and the content of a communicative interaction – are constructed in the course of that interaction. And if talk serves to define the situation, it also, by extension, defines the political community. The encounter becomes significant when we stop to talk. We attend gatherings and meetings in order to talk, or to listen to others talk.
Talk generates meaning. We do not know who we are and then explain ourselves to others, but discover who we are in talking. It’s not that we have something to say and then seek an opportunity in which to say it; we have conversations in order to have something to say. Knowing does not precede saying; we learn what we know only when we come to say it, and by testing it against others’ reactions to what we have said.
The meeting is significant as a social form for the assurance it provides that what’s going to go on among participants is talk, rather than any of the more difficult, dangerous or disruptive things human beings might do with and to each other. Most importantly, the meeting form is a limited guarantee of non-violence. It’s a similar guarantee of seriousness, against the more interesting and pleasurable things human beings might do together, such as play or party, entertainment or sex. This is much of the reason meetings are ‘boring’: it’s important nothing ‘interesting’ happens which might constitute a distraction from or disruption of social order.
When we meet, we talk in a particular way, in what Wilbert van Vree thinks of as ‘meeting language’. Because meetings are fundamentally about the common future of participants and the people they represent, they produce specific ways of talking about people in the plural: about groups, companies, nations and states. The meeting is something like a form or template for talk, and works in the way an administrative form does: where the form standardises information, the meeting standardises interaction. Occasions for talk are uncertain and rule-bound, whether formal or informal, like a game or perhaps a ‘practical gamble’.
So politics is conducted in speech, but it’s much more than ‘just talk’. Speaking is a mode of doing like any other: every act responds to and invites others. Exactly what is to be said and how, and what will be said and done in return, is always underdetermined; every move is made in uncertainty and must be returned in uncertainty. And perhaps more than any other mode of doing, every utterance is an action in the presence of others, intended to influence those others in some way: it is a performance.
In reviewing The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Thomas Powers reproduces part of the transcript of a meeting which took place on 18 October 1962, as advisers consider whether to blockade Cuba, or attack it. Powers notes: ‘This exchange is elusive; its exact meaning seems to hover just out of reach. Other passages are simply incomprehensible as Kennedy’s advisers converse with each other in a semi-coherent shorthand of sentence fragments, truncated questions, vague allusions, swallowed words, repetitions, deferential nods and shrugs and miscellaneous noises of objection, assent, qualification, emphasis. There are pages so opaque and unrecoverable that it seems one could evolve a whole new perspective on spoken language as depending less on grammar and syntax than on a kind of emotional semaphore. How else shall we interpret the murky exchanges that go on for pages, the obsessive tongue-tied repetitions, the sentences that occasionally parse but often convey no recoverable meaning?’
Speech and agency
She has stood up to speak, her shoulders pitched forward, intent. To begin to speak, as we experience it, especially in public, is to begin to do. It’s the moment at which we move from being part of the action and become an actor, in which we find or discover agency.
For some, talking politics is a way of being, an activity intrinsic to who they are. George Packer watched Newt Gingrich at the Republican Party Convention in Tampa in 2012, as he held forth to whoever would listen, posed for pictures, did interviews: after one he turned back into the ballroom, ‘where there was more talking to be done, always more talking, for not to talk would be to die’. By the same token, not talking – not to be allowed or entitled to talk – is to be denied a voice or significant presence, to be denied agency.
To speak, then, is to act, and seems essential to acting politically. Wherever the US President goes, just as a military aide accompanies him or her with a briefcase containing the launch codes for nuclear missiles, so ‘a venue is identified where he can give an emergency statement to a group of assembled press from behind a lectern bearing the seal of the president of the United States’. As important as it may be to launch a nuclear strike, it is just as important to be able to speak, and to speak officially.
Statement and command
Politics is done in speech, as Arendt says, but which kinds of speech? Which ‘forms of talk’, in Goffman’s words? When we speak, how do we speak? How does our talking do politics?
Our first words are constative, statements naming people, things, feelings. They are necessarily also assertive, acts of both authorship and authority. I can give a name to this, I can represent it in words, and what is more I have the right to do so, and what matters in the first instance is that doing so is meaningful to me.
But does the child point to the ball and say ‘ball’ for the pleasure of naming and knowing, for the control he seems to have won over it, or for the mother’s approval?
Question and answer
Questions and answers make up one of the simplest forms of talk, one with an especially powerful dynamic. For to ask a question is to request, if not require, an answer. Powerful social convention makes it very difficult not to respond in some way to a question – and for the same reason may make it very difficult for a question to be asked.
Parliamentary politics in the UK is distilled into six questions, asked of the Prime Minister by the Leader of the Opposition every Wednesday at midday, in the House of Commons. The purpose of the exchange is to hold the government to account, by holding the Prime Minster to account for its actions and inactions. Because the opposition may ask about any aspect of government, and because the Prime Minister has no knowledge of the questions in advance, he or she must be widely and fully briefed: this makes every minister and every department answerable to him or her, as all the activity of government is funneled into this moment each week.
PMQs is a forum in which some of the key political skills of its principal protagonists – Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition – are tested. At issue are their understanding of the issues, their deftness in debate, their resources of confidence and wit, their essential capacity for coherent thought and speech under pressure. For the House is full, noisy and unruly, and the event is televised.
The individuals at their despatch boxes want to present themselves, their colleagues and their parties in the best possible light and to expose the failings of their opponents; what matters most of all is to avoid shame, to avoid seeming incompetent, incoherent or inconsistent. To this end, the party leaders and their staffs spend several hours each week in preparation, drafting and rehearsing possible questions and responses to them. Over time, they think their way into the role in which they have been cast, develop a certain manner or character, and do what they can to deploy and sustain an unflattering characterization of the other. Immediately afterward, journalists gather with respective parties’ spokespersons backstage – around a long table just outside the press gallery – for a further set of exchanges, as they work out how to interpret and report what’s gone on.
Jokes aren’t cast as analysis or opinion, but carry a politics within them. They might disrupt and destabilise the image we have of a leader or government, inviting us to see them differently, rendering them painfully or embarrassingly human, revealing the ridiculous in what is otherwise presented as authoritative or charismatic. But they also escape the conventional frame of political engagement, breaking the ordinary rules of political talk; they do politics differently. They are ‘a protocol weapon of democracy, unsettling the structure of the encounter between oppressor and oppressed’.
The joke is a low-budget ‘weapon of the weak’, in James Scott’s phrase; think of the way demonstrators’ placards carry one-liners as often as claims for justice. The joke is destabilising, tending to puncture a performance, or expose it for what it is. It’s powerful, though, not because it’s funny, but because it spreads. The joke is talk’s equivalent of the incendiary device: it invites retelling, it bounces from speaker to speaker, communicating not iteratively but sequentially. Cartoons and doctored photographs diffuse quickly across the internet in the same way.
The joke belongs to the gathering and the encounter rather than to the meeting. There is something oppositional and conspiratorial about it; it draws us in, creates a complicity in the judgement it makes; it creates community among those who get it, or at least distinguishes them from those who don’t.
Why did she scream? What is a scream? Where does it come from and where does it go? What does it do? The scream is both reactive and assertive. It seems essential, primitive, animal even, to come from somewhere within the body, it is physical and primal. It speaks of pain or refusal, of inarticulate anger, of resistance, insistence, existence and enduring presence. It comes before speech and is what is left after speech.
The scream refuses talk – there was no debating with the police – it is a physical reaction to being physically carried away.