Q&A with Ruth A. Miller, author of ‘Seven Stories of Threatening Speech’

by Shaun Manning on December 15, 2011

Miller_final_frontIn her new book Seven Stories of Threatening Speech: Women’s Suffrage Meets Machine Code, Professor Ruth A. Miller examines the functions and implications of speech divorced from any human speaker, as well as from any ideological content it might contain.

University of Michigan Press: First, Ruth, what does it mean for speech to be “threatening,” aside from a specific verbal threat against another person?

There are three ways to approach this question.  The first is to think about what sort of speech, historically, has been criminalized or denied protection.  Even in the United States, where free speech is often characterized as the fundamental right, a person can be convicted of treason solely because of speech.  In other national and transnational contexts, hate speech is similarly illegal.  Both of these are instances of speech itself, regardless of context, speaker, or audience, defined as a materially criminal act against a particular legal or political order.

A second, and related, way to approach this question is from the direction of classical discourse analysis.  Here, speech is threatening if it contributes to a discursive field in which a particular, and particularly oppressive, mode of embodied subjectivity becomes the norm.  Hate speech, then, becomes threatening not because it undermines a legal ideal—say, political equality—but because it produces or re-produces violent modes of existence.

Both of these interpretations of threatening speech recognize the material or physical quality of language.  Each assumes speech to be an act in and of itself.  Each also limits speech to the human sphere, and thereby misses an aspect of threatening speech that Seven Stories tries to highlight.  Namely, a third way to describe speech, or speech acts, as dangerous is to discuss the work of language not on political or biological bodies (or political or biological bodies alone) but on systems and environments.  Indeed, one of the running themes of the book is that as much as historical writing on or about threatening speech may have been concerned with sovereignty or subjectivity, it has been equally concerned with systems and environments.  We just have to expand our definition of “materiality” to recognize this interest.

Why is the speech of suffragists useful in examining threatening speech as machine code?

Although the speech of suffragists is only one case study in what I think could be a broader methodological project on the work of language in the world, it does lend itself more readily to this project than other examples might.  The reason for this is that suffragists’ speech has been held up explicitly and repeatedly as threatening in the three ways I described above.

Historically, anti-suffragists deemed suffragists’ speech to be threatening because it assaulted traditional interpretations of citizenship and political order.  More recently, feminist scholars became aware of the discursive violence inherent in much of the suffragists’ linguistic activities—of the extent to which suffragists’ speech was embedded within oppressive late nineteenth and early twentieth century race and class discourses.  Finally, women’s speech more generally has always been linked to the operation of machines on the one hand and the work of nature on the other.  It has therefore posed a longstanding historical threat (whether via computation or via witchcraft) to a variety of systems and environments.

The speech of suffragists, then, is a particularly useful example of threatening speech as machine code both because it plays up the connections among these three types of threatening speech and because it is a simple or clear-cut jumping off point for re-conceptualizing them from a computational perspective.

What made you want to examine speech in this way?

I came to this project because it seemed to me that much of the conventional wisdom on speech has not accurately described the role that language plays in contemporary politics.  There is an awareness that computation or computational networks of various kinds have altered the work that speech does.  But in general this awareness has not translated into a deep revision of our understanding of linguistic activity.

The two options in writing about post-internet talk seem to be either to censure the trivial (or narcissistic) babble of the internet, Twitter, or the 24-hour news cycle or to make triumphant claims about how these networks have broken down all political and physical barriers to human communication, how the world is smaller and more connected, and how these are both good things.  Neither of these options, though—and I think because of their human-centered starting points—describe effectively the contemporary work of language.  Moreover, both make for me unattractive normative claims.

So my goal in leaving aside human subjectivity and human communication was to get away from these normative models of speech in order to write a (both teleological and anachronistic, if that combination is possible!) linguistic history with a more satisfying explanatory ending.

You argue that focusing on the body and subjectivity has made study of computational speech itself nearly impossible. Why is that, and how do propose correcting this?

Scholars who have emphasized, as I do, the materiality of speech and language have for the most part privileged biological materiality (that is, bodies) over non-biological materiality.  Many of these scholars have also taken human subjectivity as a starting point, and have therefore described the network as nothing more than (an impoverished, I would argue) tool for human communication.  As a result, the mechanical qualities of computational speech—the non-communicative speech acts of the machine itself—have been ignored in favor of returning to age-old questions about how to define the human (as a speaking animal, by bare life, etc.).

By focusing on the non-biological machine rather than on the biological human, and by privileging the environment over the communicating human subject, Seven Stories gets away from these well worn Aristotelian questions.  It charts the beginning of an alternative, non-human theory of speech.  And, relatedly, it evades the apparent (but I would argue not actual) problem of instrumentality—of who or what is a user and who or what is a tool—in order to pose additional, and I think more relevant, set of ethical questions about the work that speech does in the world.

So Seven Stories removes humans from the story of women’s suffrage, instead telling the history as if executed in machine code. How does this change our view of these familiar events?

Most fundamentally, the book challenges readers to re-think what those opposed to the suffrage movement feared about suffragists’ speech.  It asks readers to consider the possibility that anti-suffragists were not simply misogynist or self-hating (or vaguely “conservative”):  they may instead have been citing a long-standing fear of a particular type of non-human linguistic activity—a fear that had little to do with the content of the suffrage debate (i.e. voting rights), and everything to do with how speech operated.

More than that, though, and I think more important as far as the book’s readership is concerned, the computational perspective challenges conventional late-twentieth century writing on first-wave feminism.  By shifting focus away from humans and human subjectivity, it recuperates aspects of early feminist work without attempting to explain away or defend its well-known oppressive characteristics.

You note early in the book that throughout the 20th century women have often done the work of “computers,” transmitting (men’s) messages via telegraph or typing up data and information, and because of this there arose a train of thought that associated women with information-processing machines like cyborgs or, alternately, with concepts like “nature.” Is this association still current in 21st century information theory?

In a 2010 editorial in The New York Times, William Gibson made an interesting point about digital subjectivity and artificial intelligence.  He said that until Google appeared on the scene, writers located artificial intelligence in discrete entities—in, essentially, cyborgs and super-computers.  Since Google appeared, he continues, artificial intelligence has come to be understood instead as a distributed system or environment in which everyone and everything participates.

Although Gibson’s concern in the article is surveillance rather than gender, I think his point is relevant to the implied (and well-taken!) criticism lurking in this question—that a gender studies framework may no longer be effective in discussions of language, computation, and subjectivity.

Whereas it is true that the cyborg seems now to be a bit of a relic, I don’t think that feminist theory has nothing to offer to discussions of executable speech.  Indeed, a major goal of the book is to dissociate the problem of executable and material language from the problem of embodiment that was so central to late twentieth century writing on women, cyborgs, and nature.

Put differently, the distributed cognitive systems that Gibson identifies as the new artificial intelligence are strikingly similar to the distributed systems that feminist theorists as diverse as Katherine Hayles and Rosi Braidotti have described—and have described without losing gender as a central category of analysis.

What are some of the practical and theoretical implications of the research on display in your book?

One of the book’s most important practical contributions is its optimistic reading of current speech and contemporary electoral habits.  It flies in the face of a great deal of recent writing on the supposedly pernicious babble of a post-internet world.  It does so, however, not by trying to find new meaning in these linguistic activities—not by repositioning, say, Twitter as the ersatz printing press of the twenty-first century’s Popular Revolution—but by questioning the centrality of meaning in language altogether.  It finds in the non-human and non-communicative quality of current speech a radically inclusive political sphere that goes far beyond anything imagined by post-liberal revolutionaries.

Theoretically, I like to think that the book contributes to a number of ongoing conversations about speech and politics that have been undertaken by historians, new materialists, scholars of science and technology studies, feminist theorists, and scholars of language and rhetoric.  I also like to think that it forges new links among these fields.  Very specifically, though, one small, but key, theoretical implication of the book is that the death of the network has been over-stated.

As early as 2001, Mark Wigley (convincingly, I think) pointed out that so-called net-speak had not only been played out by the beginning of the twenty-first century, but that it may have seen its day circa 1960.

By focusing on the physical and material machines that execute language over networks rather than on the human subjects who communicate via networks, though, Seven Stories rescues the network from the purgatory of (past) trendiness.  It makes the case that the network continues to be useful in describing not only historical events that occurred long before the mid-twentieth (or for that matter, mid-nineteenth) century, but in describing ongoing and contemporary modes of political engagement.

Seven Stories of Threatening Speech is available now from the University of Michigan Press.

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