By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant
The September 12th Faculty Fellows seminar featured guest speaker and seminar leader Robin Lakoff, Professor Emerita in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a pioneering figure in the study of language and gender. Dr. Lakoff presented the Faculty Fellows group with a series of articles past and present, including a series of unpublished “snorts,” or short articles on a variety of different topics relating to linguistics, politics, and current events. Dr. Lakoff’s appearance at the Faculty Fellows seminar was one of three events she offered across campus during her visit to Austin. Lakoff participated in a moderated conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Keating, professor in the Department of Anthropology at UT-Austin, and later lectured on “Narrative Control and the Human Project” as part of the Humanities Institute’s Distinguished Visiting Lecture series on “Narrative and Social Justice.”
In the seminar, Lakoff expanded on many of the themes she discussed in her lecture, including a shift on the part of the media from political candidates’ personal stories to a focus on who is “controlling the narrative,” or the cultural conversation. Many in the seminar discussed the breakdown of communication in politics as a whole, examining the ways in which cultural narratives around American civility have shifted to narratives of control. Others pointed out the ways in which these narratives appear in the classroom, brainstorming methods of teaching students to identify bias and model analytic skills.
Responding to questions about how she came to her more recent interest in political rhetoric, Lakoff described both her current interest and her development as a scholar in linguistics. As she explained, she began her undergraduate studies at Harvard as a classicist, studying languages, philology–everything but classical literature itself, which she said was at that time typically left as the last step in a long path. Lakoff told the group how she had found herself becoming impatient with the pace of her program, and how she eventually began visiting Building 20 at MIT, the province, she said, of the “not-quite-academic” fields. There, she began to work with students in linguistics, who were in the active process of building the field from Noam Chomsky’s principles. They had thought, she reminisced, that they would eventually get a universal grammar through their work, but eventually linguists such as herself came to recognize the improbability of that task. Her own interests turned towards pragmatics, and her interest in gendered language began in that context.
Participants discussed the difference between Lakoff’s and Chomsky’s turn to politics (his pursued apart from linguistics, hers within it). Lakoff admitted that she did not consider herself a feminist scholar at the beginning of her career, but noted that a shift occurred when she began to delve more deeply into gendered semantics. She became fascinated by the way language represented intimacy and power dynamics through its more performative aspects.
The seminar participants discussed Lakoff’s assigned readings at length, including pieces discussed during Lakoff’s public talks. Participants pored over Lakoff’s article examining the concession and acceptance speeches of candidates during the 2000 presidential election. Some noted their surprise at speeches’ success, given the fraught state of affairs surrounding the Florida recount. Yet Lakoff asserted the importance of each speech act in reunifying the country, covering over the election’s drama with “business as usual.” Lakoff evoked again her concluding paragraph in the final minutes of the seminar, noting that the candidates headed off a constitutional crisis through a call to inaction–a prizing of social nicety over alarm, or action.