Monday, 14 January 2013

Language, legitimacy and Louise Mensch

One of the issues that comes across when reading about the practical use of language, or its use in social settings, is how much relies on the legitimacy of the speaker, compared to the actual words spoken (or written, tweeted etc). The idea of performativity, which I've written about before, has some of its roots in Austin's How To Do Things With Words. Austin was interested in the way that some speech act achieve something through their being spoken. For example saying "I'll promise I'll be there at 6.00pm" achieves the act of making a promise.

He explored the question of when speech acts like this were successful and when they were not. Austin gave the example of naming a ship. I could smash a bottle of champagne on the side of a ship and say "I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth" but because I don't meet some of the 'rules of the game' for ship-naming (I'm not a member of the royal family or whatever) the act would not be performed. This is even though, on the surface of it, I have met the requirements of performing the act.

As I understand it, Bourdieu, whose book I am reading currently, says that Austin gets things wrong by looking for what allows words to perform actions in language itself (and its use). Instead he argues that the words only work because we have bought into the institutions that allow Act X to be performed by Representative Y, and thus make the ship-naming, or whatever, a successful act. (He also writes a lot of good about how the rules of the game in different types of speaking as undertaken by people from different social classes work, and how this leads people from one group to be silent or clumsy when speaking in a situation governed by the rules of another group. But that's for another day).

I find Bourdieu's take on things pretty convincing, which leads me on, obviously, to Louise Mensch on Twitter. There's something a bit jarring about her tweeting about UK politics, and I think that this is bound up with the issue of legitimacy. A UK MP tweeting about UK politics is entirely normal. Because they are the specialist in that particular field their tweets are entirely legitimate, and what's more they are invested with more power because we consider that they know the rules of their game better than we do. (Note that a lot of political commentary is concerned with what a particular form of words really means, or what impact it will really have, and this is divined by those who 'know the rules'.) 

Of course politics is also participative. Sometimes an ordinary punter can say/tweet something that transcends the rules of the game in the political field, and appears very powerful through doing so. We are reminded, briefly, that politics isn't all about who's up/who's down and 'what does X mean for Y', it's also about politicians taking our views into account and shaping policy accordingly.

But what about Louise Mensch? She has been an MP, but for a very brief period. She did not have a political career before, and may not have one in future, and she no longer resides in the country about which she makes her political commentary. I think these factors combine to corrode her legitimacy to speak as a political expert. Yet equally she is not an ordinary member of the public. She cannot, as it were, 'speak truth to power' as only recently she has been one of the faces of power. What's more, as an employee of News International she has a public voice in our media which is not available to ordinary citizens who reside in the UK. So it what capacity does she now speak?

I think that we must consider that whatever legitimacy she has now comes from celebrity, rather than politics. She was quite well known as an author before becoming an MP (and spent more time in that field), and her public recognition increased once she was elected and, in particular, sat on the DCMS committee investigating phone-hacking undertaken by the company which now pays her as a columnist. So, in a way, she has benefited from the circular nature of modern celebrity whereby one can be famous, and feature in the media, by nature of having been in the media previously and therefore considered famous. In addition, her husband is well-known in the music industry. In combination, then, I wonder if the legitimacy she now has to speak is comparable to someone like, say, Sharon Osborne? And perhaps we should assess her contributions to UK politics taking account of this.

NB. I am taking the p***           

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