4 Talking 4 Talking

Speaking and doing

For human beings there is evidently something more important than to win; they must explain themselves and have company.

Paul Goodman, Speaking and Language, 1973

A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.

Jürgen Habermas, ‘The public sphere’, 1964

The basic element of politics is, quite simply, talk. On the one hand, politics constitutes the transformation of physical confrontations into verbal ones, and on the other, the resolution or accommodation of these confrontations involves the use of political rhetoric.

Peter Hall, ‘A symbolic interactionist analysis of politics’, 1972

Entering the atrium from either Wall Street to the south or Pine Street to the north, the sound that hits one’s ears is particular: the low, constant hum of human voices, a steady buzz, punctuated by the odd exclamation. It is the sound of concerted, excited, cooperative activity.

Writers for the 99%, Occupying Wall Street, 2012

The great scene of debate, the great engine of popular instruction and political controversy, is the legislative assembly. A speech there by an eminent statesman, a party movement by a great political combination, are the best means yet known for arousing, enlivening, and teaching a people. The cabinet system insures such debates, for it makes them the means by which statesmen advertise themselves for future and confirm themselves in present governments. It brings forward men eager to speak, and gives them occasions to speak.

Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, 1867

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.

Public platforms aren’t places for chats between pals. They exist in a forum where we, the public, get to hear people, be in their presence, listen, learn, call them to account; a forum where we get to join in public conversation, where we do politics.

Beatrix Campbell, ‘Trans’, 2016

Speaking is a commitment not only to a human relationship with the one spoken to, but also… to the existence of the thing spoken about.

Paul Goodman, Speaking and Language, 1973

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.

Humans do not converse because they have inner thoughts to express, but they have thoughts to express because they converse.

Michael Billig, Arguing and Thinking, 1987

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.

Politics is a communicative practice, requiring embodied subjects who can perform and engage in speech acts in a domain that is public, where others can witness and freely respond to those performances and speech acts.

Geoffrey Craig, Performing Politics, 2016

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?’

If things aren’t spoken then they’re not real. A spoken word becomes real to a certain extent and then it has to be acted upon.

Lizzie Borden, in conversation with Kaisa Lassinaro about ‘Born in Flames’ 2011

Speech and agency

A woman stands to speak at a meeting.
Guido van Nispen: Maagdenhuis occupation, University of Amsterdam, February 2015, Guido van Nispen | CC BY 2.0

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.

Ray had worked between tech jobs in Seattle, and lived alone after his parents died. The work dried up, he followed Occupy Wall Street on cable news, and was himself critical of banks, oil companies and corporations. He was concerned about fracking. He headed to NYC, and Zuccotti Park. Initially disoriented and effectively destitute, he joined the Sanitation Working Group, and began to make contact with others. ‘(He) found a sign that said BAN FRACKING NOW, and, after working on his delivery, he spent a few days talking to strangers on the sidewalk along the south side of the park. It was a little like acting, and he discovered a voice inside himself that could speak out’.

George Packer, The Unwinding, 2013

I was desperate for those conversations, and organizing, I found, was the way to have them. Like a consciousness-raising group, organizing conversations allowed you to air grievances long suppressed in the name of politeness or professionalism, to create a space for politics where it wasn’t supposed to be….

Alyssa Battistoni, ‘Spadework’, 2019

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.

I was scared to talk. Most women did not speak, in the way of the world in those days, I mean I didn’t have a strong opinion, when there were all these guys who were very eager to impose their ideas on the rest of us… It was kind of like being in this endless seminar where you just had to sit and listen… The idea of actually standing up and talking when I wasn’t at all sure of myself, was very far beyond me at that time’.

Tessa DeCarlo, talking in 2018 about the student occupation of Columbia University, April-May 1968

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

The first thing that strikes one about a command is that it initiates action… An action performed as the result of a command is different from all other actions. It is experienced and remembered as something alien, something not really our own… A command addressed to a large number of people… has a very special character. It is intended to make a crowd of them.

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1960

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.

When women asked questions in political meetings and failed to get answers, they were not doing anything militant. In Great Britain it is a custom, a time-honoured one, to ask questions of candidates for parliament and ask questions of members of the government. No man was ever put out of a public meeting for asking a question. The first people who were put out of a political meeting for asking questions, were women; they were brutally ill-used; they found themselves in jail before 24 hours had expired.

Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘Freedom or death’, 1913

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.

An answer restricts the movements of the person who gives it; he has to abide by it; it forces him to take up a fixed position and to remain there, whereas his questioner can shoot at him from anywhere, changing his position as it suits him.

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 1960

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.

Complaints that politicians don’t give straight answers to straight questions are not wrong, but it’s worth bearing in mind that most people in most jobs don’t even get asked straight questions, or at least not in front of an audience.

PMQs takes place in public and therefore just does involve performance, like anything that happens in front of an audience. There’s a theatrical element to political speeches and rallies, too; what there isn’t, unless something goes wrong, is a back-and-forth argument between two opposing sides: speeches and rallies to friendly audiences are less risky, more sanitised, than making an argument in front of people who are convinced you are wrong and can answer back… [PMQs] forces a direct clash of arguments, and of the skills of the two people entrusted by their parties with making those arguments, in the same place at the same time.

Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, Punch and Judy Politics, 2018

What is it about your basic sense of things that really propelled you to become a [social worker, pastor, imam, teacher, union member, etc.]? What contribution in your work as county commissioner, or your involvement in this community, do you most dream of being remembered for? There is a lot of suffering in this neighborhood, what are the things that most anger you about how this city is run? Being a pastor, what do you think Jesus and the Beloved Community mean for Durham, NC?… These questions often catch people off guard. They often open lines of dialogue, paths of relationship, and political possibility that might otherwise be slammed shut. When public officials experience this style of engagement, they not infrequently begin to listen a bit better themselves – sometimes unexpected substantive directions unfold.

Romand Coles, ‘Moving democracy’, 2004

The joke

Jokes are an active, living and mobile form of disobedience.

Metahaven, Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? 2013

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’.

Humor as a system of communications and as a probe of our environment – of what’s really going on – affords us our most appealing anti-environmental tool. It does not deal in theory, but in immediate experience, and is often the best guide to changing perceptions.

Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, 1967

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.

The scream

Fort Calata was an anti-apartheid activist from the Eastern Cape, one of the ‘Cradock Four’ executed by South Africa’s security services in 1985. Nomonde Calata is famous for the wailing, almost inhuman, cry she emitted at the start of the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which momentarily brought the hearing to a complete halt.

Jacqueline Rose, ‘In Stellenbosch’, 2019

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.

It was early in the morning, just before sunrise. The pickets and their supporters were trying to prevent the non-striking bus drivers from starting the service to fulfill the minimum transport plan… A few minutes later, the police dispersed the sit-in. Everything was quite calm – the policemen carried away the strikers one by one, almost as if they were following a routine, and the protesters let them carry them away. Suddenly, a girl started to scream loudly as she was lifted from the ground and kept on screaming without a break until she was put down again.

Christine Auer, ‘Affect in political protest’, 2013

The scream refuses talk – there was no debating with the police – it is a physical reaction to being physically carried away.


‘For human beings…’: Paul Goodman, Speaking and Language. Defence of Poetry, London: Wildwood House, 1973, p 11

‘The basic element of politics…’: Peter Hall, (1972) ‘A symbolic interactionist analysis of politics’, Sociological Inquiry 42 (3-4) 35-75, p 51

‘A portion of the public sphere…’: Jürgen Habermas, ‘The Public Sphere: an encyclopedia article (1964)’, trans Sara Lennox and Frank Lennox, New German Critique 3, autumn 1974, 49-55, p 49

‘The great scene of debate…’: Walter Bagehot, (2001) [1867] The English Constitution, edited by Paul Smith, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, p 14; cit Wiesner, C, Haapala, T and Palonen, K (2017) Debates, Rhetoric and Political Action. Practices of textual interpretation and analysis, London: Palgrave Macmillan, p 48

‘Entering the atrium…’: Writers for the 99%, Occupying Wall Street. The inside story of an action that changed America, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012, p 44

‘Public platforms…’: Bea Campbell, ‘Trans‘, letter to London Review of Books, 2 June 2016

‘Speaking is a commitment…’: Goodman, op cit, p 4

The idea of a ‘meeting language’ I have from talking to Wilbert van Vree, 31 May 2017; the ‘practical gamble’ is Goffman: ‘Where the action is’, in Goffman, E Interaction Ritual, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972

‘Humans do not converse…’: Michael Billig, Arguing and Thinking: a rhetorical approach to social psychology, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987, p 111; cit John Clarke, Critical Dialogues. Thinking together in turbulent times, Bristol: Policy Press, 2019, p 6

‘Politics is a communicative practice…’: Geoffrey Craig, Performing Politics. Media interviews, debates and press conferences, Cambridge: Polity, 2016, p 1

Thomas Powers, ‘And after we’ve struck Cuba?’ London Review of Books 19 (22) 13 November 1997

Lizzie Borden directed Born in Flames (1983), about an insurrection of the Women’s Army in New York. Her conversation with Kaisa Lassinaro is an insert in Lassinaro’s transcription of the film, credited to Lizzie Borden and Kaisa Lassinaro and published by Occasional Papers, 2015

The note about the emergency statement is from Ben Rhodes, The World As It Is, London: Bodley Head, 2018, p 117

Newt Gingrich talking appears in George Packer, The Unwinding. An inner history of the new America, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013, p 404, as does Ray’s story, pp 367-8

Alyssa Battistoni, ‘Spadework. On political organizing’, n+1 34, 2019

Tessa DeCarlo was talking on BBCR3’s Free Thinking: Counterculture and Protest, broadcast 11 January 2018

Goffman, E (1981) Forms of Talk, Philadelphia, PA: U Pennsylvania P

‘The first thing…’: Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973; pp 352, 353, 360

That a question requires an answer is from Geoffrey Craig, op cit

‘Freedom or death’ is a speech Emmeline Pankhurst gave in Hartford, Connecticut, 13 November 1913

‘An answer restricts…’: Canetti, op cit, p 333

The account of PMQs is drawn from Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, Punch and Judy Politics. An insider’s guide to Prime Minister’s Questions, London: Biteback, 2018; ‘Complaints that politicians…’ is pp 113, 326, 337

‘What is it about your basic sense of things…’: Coles, R (2004) ‘Moving democracy: industrial areas foundation social movements and the political arts of listening, traveling, and tabling’, Political Theory 32 (5) 678-705, pp 685-6

The idea of the joke as ‘protocol weapon of democracy’ is from Metahaven, Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Moscow: Strelka Press, 2013, p 74; ‘an active, living and mobile form of disobedience’ is p 55

James C Scott, Weapons of the Weak. Everyday forms of peasant resistance, New Haven: Yale UP, 1985

‘Humor as a system of communications…’: Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, coordinated by Jerome Agel, The Medium is the Massage. An inventory of effects, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967, p 92

Nomonde Calata’s website is here. I learned about her from Jacqueline Rose, ‘In Stellenbosch’, London Review of Books 41 (10), 23 May 2019, pp 10, 12

Auer, C (2013) ‘Affect in political protest – the sound of anti-austerity demonstrations in Lisbon’, workshop paper, Protestos e Movimentos Sociais Contemporâneos em Portugal, 21 February, ISCTE, Lisbon; https://portuguesemovements.hypotheses.org/234; p 7