Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Of interest to: Students
Primary Theme: The Political
Secondary Theme: Ethics
Contemporary political currents and events have brought to the surface enduring questions surrounding ‘free speech’: what kind of speech can be ‘free’? How and when is it ‘free’? With what consequences? Why and how does this come to matter differently to people in particular social and historical circumstances?
Free speech has attracted extensive theoretical attention and critical discussion in the fields of legal studies, philosophy and political science. Yet our anthropological understanding of how people relate to ideals and practices of ‘free speech’ in their everyday lives, in concrete historical and geographic contexts, remains paradoxically scant. How, in various locations, does the everyday life of ‘free speech’ become entwined with actors’ intimate understandings of responsibility, equality, courage, truthfulness, measure and excess? What effects do the practicalities and exigencies of different legal and institutional frameworks, new and old modes of communication and political action, have on lived commitments to free speech – be they exhibited loudly, becoming clear foci of attention and dispute, or on the contrary lived and embodied quietly, in the nitty gritty of everyday practice?
This panel seeks to address these empirical questions while also asking what theoretical tools we can draw on or develop in order to render free speech legible in anthropological terms? This will require the combined insights of diverse branches of anthropological enquiry. Linguistic anthropologists have developed a panoply of conceptual devices for exploring the intersections between speech and sociocultural life. Anthropologists of politics and law have engaged liberalism and democracy as ethnographic objects and explored the performative dimensions of speech. Anthropologists of ethics have outlined how specific forms of value and virtue are made concrete and practiced in individual lives. An attention to material semiotics has foregrounded the objects, techniques, and media which participate in and shape human action. Together, these perspectives allow us to explore how freedom and speech articulate, as they are constituted within particular semiotic ideologies, ethical regimes, and material and political orders. They enable us to ask how it is possible to understand the relations of truth, power, and language that emerge as we study ‘free speech’ as dynamic and lived, as well as abstracted and idealized.
Building from these questions, this panel will develop an anthropology of free speech through ethnographic accounts of its forms, values, stakes and risks, and the ways in which they are experienced in particular socio-cultural contexts.