This is the second part in my series looking at pornography qua speech act. The series is working from Mary Kate McGowan’s article “Conversational Exercitives and the Force of Pornography”. Before getting into the topic of this post, let’s review some of the material covered so far.
The feminist legal theorist Catherine MacKinnon has argued that pornography qua speech act silences and subordinates women. In other words, she argues that pornography does not merely cause the silencing and subordination of women, but is in fact itself an act of silencing and subordination. The distinction is subtle but important because it could take pornography out of the class of legally protected speech.
MacKinnon’s argument, such as it is, lacks the clarity and logical force of a typical philosophical argument. But then again MacKinnon isn’t a philosopher (not primarily anyway). Luckily, some prominent philosophers have tried to recast MacKinnon’s argument more perspicuous philosophical garb. One of them is Rae Langton. She has suggested that MacKinnon’s argument can be understood in terms of exercitive speech acts.
An exercitive speech act is one that sets the permissibility conditions on particular kinds of actions in particular domains. For instance, a club president who says “There shall be no more smoking on club premises!” performs an exercitive speech act. Taking this concept on board, Langton’s version of MacKinnon’s argument has two stages. First, she argues that pornographic speech could be exercitive in nature, specifically it could determine the permissibility conditions in the heterosexual sociosexual arena. Second, she argues that the kinds of permissibility conditions set out by pornographic speech could be such that women are silenced and subordinated.
Both stages of Langton’s argument are controversial, but McGowan criticised the first. She argued that Langton’s argument was flawed because it relied on the Austinian concept of the exercitive. According to this concept, in order to successfully and non-defectively perform an exercitive, a variety of conditions must be met. To be precise: (i) the speaker must intend (directly or otherwise) for their utterance to have an exercitive effect; (ii) the utterance must somehow convey the desired exercitive content; (iii) the listeners must be able to appreciate the exercitive nature of the utterance; and (iv) the speaker must have the requisite authority. The problem is that few, if any, of these conditions are met in the case of pornographic speech.
But McGowan is not deterred by this. She thinks it is possible for Langton’s argument to be salvaged. This is because there is an alternative type of exercitive speech act, one which is not subject beholden to the same success conditions as the Austinian exercitive, and which may justify the conclusion that pornographic speech silences and subordinates women. This is the “conversational exercitive”.
In the remainder of this post, I will explain what a conversational exercitive is and show how it might salvage Langton’s argument. It should be noted at the outset, however, that no strong conclusion about the actual effectiveness of the revised argument will be reached. Instead, we will be considering a proposal, an intriguing one for sure, but one with many crucial details yet to be worked out.
1. What is a Conversational Exercitive?
David Lewis said that a conversation is like a baseball game. Both are rule-governed enterprises, though the conversation rather more loosely so (more on this anon). In both, the permissibility of future behaviour depends on what has gone on before. And both have a “score”, where this is understood broadly to include all those facets of the game that are relevant to its assessment and proper play.
I don’t know enough about baseball to explain this analogy coherently, so I’ll focus purely on conversations. Two examples will help to flesh out the three features discussed by Lewis (both are taken from McGowan’s article, as are all other examples in this post):
Mike’s Dog: Mike and I are having a conversation. He mentions that his dog has been to the vet. I later ask whether “the” dog is okay.
Italian Boot?: Donal and several of his friends are talking about geography. Donal says that Ireland looks like a teddy bear lying on its side. Nobody questions his claim. But later on Seamus says that Italy doesn’t look like a boot because “it’s squiggly on both sides and boots usually aren’t”.
In the first example, Mike’s mentioning of his dog alters the salience of certain facts in the conversation. Although there are many dogs in the world, the fact that he has specifically referred to his dog means it is okay for me to later refer to “the dog” without there being any confusion as to which dog I am referring to. This is interesting because it suggests that what I am entitled to say within the conversation is altered by what Mike has said. In other words, the conversational “score” is adjusted by Mike’s initial utterance.
Something similar is true in the second example. When Seamus says that Italy looks nothing like a boot because of its squigglyness, he alters the standards of accuracy that operate within the conversation. His claim is true enough, but only because the standards of accuracy have been raised. This affects future contributions to the conversation. Once again, the score has been adjusted.
Both examples show how conversations are loosely rule-governed enterprises in which the permissibility of future behaviour depends on what has gone before. In my conversation with Mike, I could not have used the expression “the dog” to refer to my own dog, or some dog other than Mike’s. Well, that’s not quite true. Of course, I could have done so, but confusion would certainly have ensued. If I wanted to introduce a new dog into the conversation, I should have done so and changed the salience facts myself. The same is true of Seamus. His assertion may be challenged on the grounds that the standards of accuracy are not that high in this conversation, but, equally, the participants could adjust to the higher standards of accuracy. That would make it impermissible to say that Ireland was like a sideways teddy bear later on.
Now we come to the crux of the matter. McGowan’s central claim is this: conversational contributions like those in Mike’s Dog and Italian Boot? are exercitive in nature. They are conversational exercitives. That is to say, like the Austinian exercitive, they enact permissibility conditions for future conversational contributions, but unlike the Austinian exercitive, they do not rely on the four conditions of success mentioned earlier.
McGowan argues for this in depth in her article, I’ll only sketch the argument here. First, conversational exercitives, unlike their Austinian brethren, don’t have to express their exercitive content. When the club president bans smoking, his utterance has to say as much, but Mike does not have to say anything like “all future references to “the” dog must be references to my dog” for his conversational contribution to have its exercitive effect. Second, this implies that conversational exercitives are not sensitive to speakers’ intentions in the same way that Austinian exercitives are. Rather, they function in a largely covert and automatic way. Third, listeners need not consciously recognise the exercitive intent or purpose of the utterance. And fourth, authority is not an issue here. All conversational participants have the authority to alter the permissibility conditions in this manner.
2. Pornography as a Conversational Exercitive
The conversational exercitive is certainly an intriguing concept, one worthy of deeper analysis and consideration, but what good does it do here? Remember, the ultimate goal is to defend something akin to MacKinnon’s argument and we haven’t really begun to approach that goal yet. Several further steps must be taken. For starters, it needs to be shown that pornographic speech is a conversational contribution. Then, it needs to be shown that it is exercitive in nature. And finally, it needs to be shown that as an exercitive it serves to silence and subordinate women (at least some of the time). What for Langton was a two stage argument is now a three stage argument.
So let’s start with stage one. Is pornographic speech a conversational contribution? McGowan argues that it is. Echoing Langton, her claim is the following:
- (1) Pornographic “speech” is part of the ongoing “conversation” in the sociosexual arena.
The inverted commas are intended to highlight the fact that we are not dealing with a paradigmatic conversation here; rather, we are dealing with something that it is akin to a conversation in all important respects. Thus, the supporting argument for (1) is analogical in nature. It suggests that the properties typical of paradigmatic conversations are also typical of what goes on in the heterosexual sociosexual arena.
Like a paradigmatic conversation, the sociosexual arena is loosely rule-governed. At any given time, in a given sexual context, certain kinds of behaviour are permissible and certain kinds are not. This is what happens in conversation: certain things can be said and certain things cannot. Further, the rules that operate within the sociosexual arena adapt to fit the behaviour of the participants. If two sexual partners are turned on by yodeling, then yodeling becomes an appropriate form of foreplay, even if this would not be appropriate in many other sexual encounters. This suggests that the sociosexual arena is, in general (and ideally), a cooperative one: one in which the individuals coordinate their activities for mutual gain. Many linguistic theorists, such as Grice, hold that this is true of conversations too. If we accept that the sociosexual arena is akin to a conversation, the notion that pornography is a contribution to that conversation becomes much more palatable.
That brings us to the next stage of the argument. Once we accept that pornographic speech is a contribution to the sociosexual “conversation”, we need to show that it can be exercitive in nature. At this point McGowan’s argument gets rather sketchy (as she herself acknowledges). But one could well imagine that pornography has an exercitive function. Suppose that two sexual partners watch pornography together, that pornography repeatedly depicts people engaging in sexual act X, and neither of them objects to this act (and maybe even signal approval), one could then say that the pornography enacts permissibility conditions for sexual behaviour. The pornography says that act X is acceptable or permissible, and it becomes difficult for the two partners to deny this in the future. Thus:
- (2) Pornographic speech, on at least some occasions, functions as a conversational exercitive within the sociosexual arena, i.e. it enacts permissibility conditions for sexual behaviour.
But even allowing for this possibility, does it enact permissibility conditions that silence or subordinate women? The argument gets even sketchier at this point, but again McGowan suggests that it is possible that, on at least some occasions, it does. For instance, pornography might repeatedly “say” that whenever women say “no” to certain kinds of sexual advance they are really coyly signalling sexual acceptance. It may thus become impossible for some women to refuse sexual advances in some contexts. This would silence them because they would be unable to perform speech acts that they ought to be able to perform.
This could also hold true for subordination. Again, pornographic material might repeatedly signal that women are permissibly treated in a subordinating and dehumanising manner, and this might become part of the “score” of the sociosexual conversation. This gives us:
- (3) The permissibility conditions enacted by pornographic speech may, on at least some occasions, silence and subordinate women.
Which allows us to reach the conclusion:
- (4) It is possible that pornography, qua speech act, serves to silence and subordinate women.
Note how weak the conclusion here actually is. It does not say that pornography does silence and subordinate women, it merely says it is possible for it do this. A lot more would need to be done to satisfy the anti-porn position held by the likes of MacKinnon. But that’s in keeping with the “modest” (her words) aim of McGowan’s article. She is merely introducing a proposal that might work in MacKinnon’s favour. She is not actually defending MacKinnon’s view, nor is she saying that pornography should be banned or otherwise restricted.
Still, McGowan thinks there might be some flaws in her argument even when understood in this weak, proposal-like form. She addresses three of them. Let’s close by looking at these.
3. Is the Proposal Flawed?
The first objection is the mere fiction-objection. It has been pointed out by others that whenever a conversational participant tells a story or joke, the normal illocutionary force of the utterances that make up that joke seem to be suspended. Thus, if I say “A rabbi, a priest and a nun walked into a bar…” as the preface to a joke, I am not taken to be genuinely asserting this to be the case. In other words, I am not claiming that three such people did walk into the bar and I am not taking responsibility for the falsity of this claim.
But if the illocutionary force of an utterance is suspended when telling a joke or story, why is this not true of the exercitive force of pornographic speech? If pornography is mere fiction, then maybe it doesn’t have the exercitive force of other non-fictional contributions to the sociosexual conversation.
- (5) Pornography is mere fiction hence it does not have the illocutionary force typical of non-fictional contributions to the sociosexual conversation.
McGowan says this is wrong. Although it is true to say that some illocutionary forces are suspended during the telling of a story, the exercitive force need not be. Furthermore, the exercitive force can extend beyond the fictional domain in which it is first presented. She gives a long example of this, which I’ll abbreviate here. Suppose I start telling a joke about a chicken pecking at a Guinness tap in bar. By doing so, I have altered the salience facts of the conversation. This renders certain future conversational contributions permissible. For example, it is suddenly okay for my conversational partner(s) to start talking about chickens and his like or dislike for them. The joke enacts permissibility conditions for future conversational contributions and these permissibility conditions hold outside of the joke-telling portion of the conversation.
- (6) Purely fictional utterances can still have an exercitive effect within a conversation, and that exercitive effect can extend beyond the fictional realm of the utterance.
Of course, that’s just one example. McGowan never shows how the same is true of pornographic speech. Indeed, this is a general problem with her proposal. Even if it is sketchy, and intended merely to provoke further debate and discussion, it is really opaque about the mechanisms through which pornographic speech achieves its exercitive effect. Or, as in this case, how it manages to avoid having a purely fictional effect.
A second, and arguably more serious, problem is that the permissibility conditions enacted by conversational exercitives are extraordinarily weak. Go back to the Mike’s Dog example from earlier on. If Mike first talks about his dog, and I later refer to “the dog” without intending it to refer to Mike’s dog, the claim is that I have violated some permissibility condition in the conversation. But so what? Mike could easily adjust to or accommodate my utterance. For instance, if I say “the dog slept in my room last night”, Mike will realise that I’m not referring to his dog since he knows his dog slept in the shed last night. As with any good conversational partner, Mike will be inclined to cooperate with me and adjust the rules accordingly. Hence, I don’t really violate any rule. Not in a serious way anyway. Couldn’t the same be true of pornography?
- (7) The permissibility conditions enacted by conversational exercitives are extremely weak: it is very difficult to violate them in a serious manner because the rules of the conversation constantly adjust to accommodate the behaviour of the parties.
McGowan responds by saying that, although this may sometimes be true, it doesn’t rule out the serious violation of permissibility conditions in some conversational contexts. This is because the violation may go unnoticed at first, which then creates tensions or problems downstream. For instance, when Mike and I start talking, respectively, about “the dog” and its various antics, we might not realise that we are talking about different dogs. In this case, the violation of the rule goes unnoticed and problems will ensue at a later stage as we become more and more confused about the dog and what it got up to. How this might work in the case of pornography is another question, but this is an interesting idea nevertheless.
- (8) It is possible for there to be a serious violation of some of the permissibility conditions enacted by conversational exercitives, e.g. as when the initial violation goes unnoticed.
The final, and related, problem is that the kinds of permissibility conditions enacted by conversational exercitives are easily reversed. Thus, to use the dog example again, though our repeated use of the phrase “the dog” to refer to different dogs might violate permissibility conditions within the conversation we are having, Mike could easily rectify the problem by taking some time out to clarify that the phrase actually refers to his dog. Again, couldn’t the same be true of pornography? In other words, even if the pornography changes the permissibility conditions within the sociosexual arena, couldn’t one of the participants reverse those changes by enacting a new set of permissibility conditions?
- (9) Conversational exercitives are easily reversed, thus any exercitive effect that pornographic speech might have can be overturned by future conversational contributions.
In response to this, McGowan argues that some conversational exercitives might be hard to reverse. For example, in the Italian Boot? case given earlier, Seamus changed the standards of accuracy within the conversation by asserting that Italy didn’t look like a boot because of its squiggly outline. It has been observed by other philosophers of language (Lewis is specifically mentioned) that once standards of accuracy are raised within a conversation, it is difficult to reverse them. (I don’t know why)
In this instance, McGowan argues that something similar is true in the sociosexual arena. Specifically, she says that once a formerly taboo sexual practice (e.g. anal or oral sex) becomes an accepted part of the sociosexual conversation, it becomes difficult to revert to the taboo. Pornographic speech may play an important role in breaking down these sexual taboos. Similarly, if it really is true that pornographic speech makes it difficult for some women (in at least some contexts) to refuse sexual advances, this might be very difficult to reverse. If “no” is really taken to mean “yes”, then it’s difficult to know what someone could do to reverse that state of affairs. Repeatedly saying “no” doesn’t solve the problem.
- (10) Certain conversational exercitives are hard to reverse, including, plausibly, the kinds of exercitives related to sexual taboos and sexual refusals.
The diagram below illustrates the various stages of the dialectic.
4. Concluding Thoughts
That brings us to the end of McGowan’s article. To briefly recap, McGowan has argued that it is possible that pornography qua speech act silences and subordinates women. This is because pornographic speech might be exercitive in nature: it might enact permissibility conditions within the sociosexual arena. To support this claim, McGowan introduced the concept of the conversational exercitive, which is distinct from the Austinian exercitive, and can more plausibly be used in this debate.
Two concluding thoughts occur to me. First, although McGowan’s proposal is pretty sketchy in this article — particularly about the mechanisms through which pornographic speech replicates the effect of the conversational exercitive — she has not been idle since it was originally published. She has written several other articles that expand upon these basic ideas. I have not read those articles. It could well be that the necessary detail is found in them.
Second, if McGowan is right to view the sociosexual arena as akin to a conversation, and to view pornography as a contribution to that conversation, it is difficult to see why pornography should be singled out for approbation. Many other contributions to sociosexual conversations — e.g. actual conversations about sex, the publication of sex tips and advice columns etc. — could be exercitive. What’s more, those contributions could well have the silencing and subordinating effect alluded to by the likes of MacKinnon. Whether that’s a sensible thought or not, I leave to the reader to decide.