‘When we claim to have been injured by language, what kind of claim do we make?’ - Judith Butler, Excitable Speech
Excitable Speech is widely hailed as a tour de force and one of Judith Butler’s most important books. Examining in turn debates about hate speech, pornography and gayness within the US military, Butler argues that words can wound and linguistic violence is its own kind of violence. Yet she also argues that speech is ‘excitable’ and fluid, because its effects often are beyond the control of the speaker, shaped by fantasy, context and power structures.
In a novel and courageous move, she urges caution concerning the use of legislation to restrict and censor speech, especially in cases where injurious language is taken up by aesthetic practices to diminish and oppose the injury, such as in rap and popular music. Although speech can insult and demean, it is also a form of recognition and may be used to talk back; injurious speech can reinforce power structures, but it can also repeat power in ways that separate language from its injurious power. Skillfully showing how language’s oppositional power resides in its insubordinate and dynamic nature and its capacity to appropriate and defuse words that usually wound, Butler also seeks to account for why some clearly hateful speech is taken to be iconic of free speech, while other forms are more easily submitted to censorship.
In light of current debates between advocates of freedom of speech and ‘no platform’ and cancel culture, the message of Excitable Speech remains more relevant now than ever.
This Routledge Classics edition includes a new Preface by the author, where she considers speech and language in the context contemporary forms of political polarization.
Table of Contents
Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition
Introduction: On Linguistic Vulnerability
1. Burning Acts, Injurious Speech
2. Sovereign Performatives
3. Contagious Word: Paranoia and "Homosexuality" in the Military
4. Implicit Censorship and Discursive Agency.
Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, and holds the Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School. She is the author of Gender Trouble (Routledge); Bodies That Matter (Routledge) Precarious Life; Frames of War; and Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly.
"In her extraordinary new book, Excitable Speech, Judith Butler... looks conceptually at speech, and she has plenty to say... Excitable Speech offers a thoughtful consideration of the ways in which speech and speaking are used by all points on the political spectrum to further political ends." - The Bay Guardian
"Makes a valuable contribution... No-one should ignore Judith Butler's analysis and conclusions." - The Women's Review of Books
"Butler's exploration of racist, sexist, and homophobic language is hence of acute significance to anyone concerned with the sociopolitical and theoretical implications of hate speech." - The Lesbian Review of Books
"This book offers a challenging analysis of the free speech debates. As she moves from the often frightening contradictions in legal arguments to the visceral pain caused by hate speech, Butler makes a compelling case that our laws--and our lives--are determined by conceptual frameworks." - Lambda Book Report
"This sober and subtle work draws us into the dark heart of a world where words wound, images enrage, and speech is haunted by hate. Butler intervenes brilliantly in an argument that tests the limits of both legal claims and linguistic acts. She explores the link between 'reasons' of state and the passions of personhood as she meditates on utterance as a form of incitement, excitement, and injury. There is a fine urgency here that expands our understanding of the place of the 'affective' in the realm of public events." - Homi K. Bhabha, Harvard University, USA
"Judith Butler has brilliantly challenged us to rethink our conventional ideas about the power of speech. As is to be expected of Butler, Excitable Speech is original, witty, and lucidly argued. This book is essential reading for anyone concerned with the politics of free speech." - Drucilla Cornell, Rutgers University School of Law, USA
"If to speak is to act, what follows? In this shrewd and compelling book, Judith butler, the philosopher of Queer Theory and the performative theory of gender, takes up the thorniest problems of our day concerning the relation between speech and action, such as hate speech, pornography, and the military's policy that makes a declaration of homosexuality a punishable act. Her analyses are brilliant engagements that refuse to oversimplify and show us that politics requires serious thinking." - Jonathan Culler, Cornell University, USA
"Flag burning and cross burning; pornography and coming out; racial taunts and AIDS education; using 'racial classifications' and remaining 'race blind': this book will provide constitutional and legislative debates about regulating these forms of 'injurious speech' with a brilliantly nuanced analysis of language as action. Butler has provided us with a sustained demonstration that we should fill in the moat that separates law schools from the human sciences, and quickly." - Janet Halley, Harvard Law School, USA
"In this relentlessly intelligent analysis of hate speech, Judith Butler proposes a speech act theory of verbal injury that is not dependent on the grammar of accountability. There is never a slack moment in this brilliant book." - Barbara Johnson, Harvard University, USA