Publications

Extracted Speech
(Social Theory & Practice, 2016)
Much recent philosophical work argues that power constrains speech -- pornography silences women, testimonial injustice thwarts a speaker’s transmission of knowledge, bias distorts the performative force of subordinated speech (MacKinnon 1993, Langton/Hornsby 1998, Fricker 2007, Kukla 2012). Though the constraints that power places on speech are serious, power also enables some speech. Power doesn’t just keep us from speaking -- it also makes us speak. This insight plays a central role in the work of Michel Foucault (Foucault 1978, 1985). In this paper I explore how power produces, rather than constrains, speech. I discuss a kind of speech I call extracted speech: self-subordinating speech that is elicited from an agent. I discuss examples of coerced confession, intimidated "consent," and mandatory self-disclosure as instances of extracted speech, and theorize a bit about what significance this speech has more generally for philosophy of language and political philosophy.

Contention, Intention and Resistance
(Voicing Dissent, 2018
Three weeks before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech at Grosse Pointe High School in the suburbs of Detroit. There he addressed the public disorder and unrest of the “long hot summer of 1967”— claiming famously that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Theorists such as James E Scott (1985), Aihwa Ong (1987), and others have echoed this sentiment, describing spontaneous opposition, disorder, and non-cooperation by peasants and workers — e.g. “foot-dragging, evasion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander and sabotage” — as resistance to the changes in land tenure and labor regimes that accompanied capitalist expansion.

Such a view contrasts sharply with a theory of resistance that sees such practices as essentially communicative — that is, as based in reflexive intention recognition among political factions, groups, or agents. One such model is that proposed by Charles Tilly (1995, 2008), which pictures resistance as contention— that is, as the making of claims addressed to those in power and the voicing of protest, dissent, or disagreement. 

A problem arises. Many acts of opposition, non-cooperation and non-compliance — such as looting, property destruction, vandalism, and disturbance of the peace— may not have such a robust intention structure. If resistance is communicative, a riot could not be — as King, Ong, and Scott claim — “the language of the unheard.”

In this paper I try to square the circle. I suggest some ways of thinking about non-compliance, resistance, opposition and dissent that do not require reflexive intention recognition. I suggest that a communicative theory of resistance may be misguided, and sketch an alternative expressivist model. 


Work in Progress

drafts available on request 


Threats from Below 
In this paper I discuss the pragmatics of directives as they are embedded in institutions and social structures. I focus in particular on commands and threats, and describe the role such speech acts play in escalation -- in shifting discourse from deliberation to bargaining, negotiation or parley. I describe "threats from below" within the context of contention and highlight the promise and peril such moves have for collective action in the lead up to strikes, blockades, and boycotts. I provide reasons for thinking that at least some such threats are not only permissible but legitimate motivators against background conditions of inequality, historical injustice, and institutional non-responsiveness. 

Requests, Commands, and Threats
with Daniel Harris (CUNY) 
We argue for an intentionalist account of communicative illocutionary acts by arguing that our theory makes better sense of the request/command distinction than alternative accounts. On our view, which builds on work by Paul Grice and Stephen Schiffer, the performance of a communicative act is grounded in the speaker's intentions to produce a certain response in an addressee, partly on the basis of their recognition of this intention and partly on the basis of a further intended reason for having the response. In requesting that A φ and commanding A to φ, a speaker intends to produce or reinforce a plan to φ in A. The two cases differ in that requests are backed by the speaker's desires whereas commands are backed by an implied conditional threat.


Dissertation

Communication, Labor, and Communicative Labor
My dissertation looks at the work we do to understand and to be understood, and how this work is distributed among communicators. What I call communicative labor is an important and under-theorized aspect of communication, and one that significantly impacts our epistemic, social and political lives.

Consider, for instance, the role that undue skepticism plays in shifting the burdens of proof among interlocutors. What such a practice shows is how easily something easy — like communication — becomes unnecessarily hard.

Context: S and H are at the Natural History Museum looking at an exhibit.

Lucas: Look, here’s a Coelophysis footprint! This guidebook says we know dinosaurs once walked here.

Maria: We don’t know that; we don’t even know if the external world exists! We could just be brains in vats, for all we know. 

The theoretical value of an approach to communication that focuses on labor becomes clear when we look at conversations that don’t function properly. Drawing on work by Paul Grice, Michael Bratman, and Elizabeth Camp, I distinguish several kinds of antagonistic interpretation that distort communication in conversation: undue skepticism, willful obtuseness, bad listening, intrusive interruption, affected misunderstanding, and ignoring. I argue that such practices, if systematic and concentrated enough, undermine valuable properties of conversations. In particular, such practices undermine those features of conversations that allow agents to transmit knowledge, coordinate inquiry, and direct action with relatively low levels of effort.

My focus on communication as labor helps us better understand traditional concepts in philosophy of language (such as the ‘conversational scoreboard’ and ‘common ground’), but it also sheds light on more specific (and specifically subordinating) forms of speech. While antagonistic interpretation can distort conversations by making some speech more difficult (in the limit case, by silencing speakers), it can also distort conversations by making some speech easy, unwilled or automatic. Such speech plays an important role in determining the social status and political rights of agents beyond the immediate context of utterance.

For instance, in 1989, after hours of interrogation in police custody, 16 year old Antron McCray confessed to a crime he did not commit. McCray’s utterances formed the linchpin of his wrongful conviction as part of the Central Park Five.

I discuss such cases as object lessons in the management of effort against speakers in conversation. In some discourse contexts, agents come to produce locutions not on the basis of reasoning about how and whether to speak, but on the basis of constrained alternatives to doing so. In such cases, an agent produces speech, but only at the expense of having her communicative agency compromised. I call such speech extracted speech, and focus on the role it plays in distributing communicative labor and power in institutional contexts.

My dissertation makes headway in philosophy of language, philosophy of action, epistemology, and social/political philosophy by offering a cohesive framework for explaining the differential ability of speakers to use their words to change linguistic contexts and — by extension — the world around them. Attending to the labor of communication helps make clear features of speech that are otherwise occluded — in this case, a fuller range of phenomena related to sociality and effort, cooperativity, and power.


Other Projects

Language Use in Defective Contexts with Daniel Harris
(2014 Pacific APA presentation) 
In this presentation we question the widespread view that semantics and pragmatics are (or ought to be) only concerned with language use that is communicative and cooperative. We argue that some speech is native to non-cooperative contexts, in the sense of being made possible by the contexts’ very defectiveness. We demonstrate the existence of a class of speech where the status of a conversational move comes to be fixed by factors other than the mutual presuppositions of the conversational participants. We argue that such defective speech offers significant challenges to both Stalnakerian and Gricean theories of communication. We argue that both theories fail to explain and predict various features of defective speech, which we take to constitute data that must be accounted for by a viable theory of human communication. We thus maintain that both the context-determinist and Gricean views of defective speech are inadequate.

Convention, Variation, and Force-Marking
(2012 Pacific APA presentation)
In this presentation I discuss a set of linguistic data underdeveloped in the philosophical literature on linguistic convention. I explore a cluster of linguistic conventions — those that mark and govern illocutionary force — and argue that knowledge of conventions marking and governing lexical, syntactic, and compositional form is insufficient for knowledge of conventions marking and governing force. I then look at sociolinguistic variation and propose a picture for how speakers are able to communicate outside of their most local speech communities. On my view, communicatively competent agents have at their disposal multiple different convention models that they employ in different contexts and with different speakers. Such models allow for agents to converge on common conventions and communicate.