In her new book Seven Stories of Threatening Speech: Women's Suffrage Meets Machine Code, Professor Ruth A. Miller examines the functions and implications of speech divorced from any human speaker, as well as from any ideological content it might contain.
University of Michigan Press: First, Ruth, what does it mean for speech to be “threatening,” aside from a specific verbal threat against another person?
There are three ways to approach this question. The first is to think about what sort of speech, historically, has been criminalized or denied protection. Even in the United States, where free speech is often characterized as the fundamental right, a person can be convicted of treason solely because of speech. In other national and transnational contexts, hate speech is similarly illegal. Both of these are instances of speech itself, regardless of context, speaker, or audience, defined as a materially criminal act against a particular legal or political order.
A second, and related, way to approach this question is from the direction of classical discourse analysis. Here, speech is threatening if it contributes to a discursive field in which a particular, and particularly oppressive, mode of embodied subjectivity becomes the norm. Hate speech, then, becomes threatening not because it undermines a legal ideal—say, political equality—but because it produces or re-produces violent modes of existence.
Both of these interpretations of threatening speech recognize the material or physical quality of language. Each assumes speech to be an act in and of itself. Each also limits speech to the human sphere, and thereby misses an aspect of threatening speech that Seven Stories tries to highlight. Namely, a third way to describe speech, or speech acts, as dangerous is to discuss the work of language not on political or biological bodies (or political or biological bodies alone) but on systems and environments. Indeed, one of the running themes of the book is that as much as historical writing on or about threatening speech may have been concerned with sovereignty or subjectivity, it has been equally concerned with systems and environments. We just have to expand our definition of “materiality” to recognize this interest.