Paroles en l'air/Paroles en terre

Some methodological comments about cultural inscription

  1. The exact status of words (in myth, fiction, institutions, interviews, etc.) is a major issue in social analysis because of the dual intuition that
    1. words reveal; they may be "acts" (Austin, Searle)
    2. words vanish in the air; all that counts are deeds ("focus on what they do, not what they say")
  2. This issue is all the more important that, in most cases, words are the primary medium through which social science proceeds. This has led some (Geertz, etc.) to the position that social sciences must only be "interpretive" of "texts," and that they are themselves nothing more than the producer of other "texts" with no more claim to truth than the original text. (Shweder on "casuistry").
  3. Paradoxically (given the anthropological pedigree of this discussion), this ignores the various positions that speech (words, texts) can take in relation to other speech and the attendant acts (even if "acts" can themselves by seen as speech). IN other words, the classical pragmatic intuition that meaning is in the "response" rather than in the initial speech, allows one to classify any instance of speech, schematically, into:
    1. "paroles en l'air"--a French phrase, also rendered as "parler pour ne rien dire": speaking to say, that is do, nothing. These are words in the air, words without consequences, words that are not to be taken seriously. [caveat]
    2. there is no opposite phrase in French to talk about "speech" that "says," what might have been called "paroles en terre," words that make a mark on a solid surface that will be there to morrow for other people to consider, words that have been "inscribed" in human soil (Derrida)

July 27, 1998