The Perlocution Will Not Be Televised: The Oscar Pistorius trial and the fate of language

The editors of Anthropoliteia would like to welcome a special guest post from Thomas Cousins

On Monday 3 March, 2014, the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius began with a flurry of international media coverage. The famous “Blade Runner”, now made infamous for shooting and killing his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day 2013, is defending his actions as a case of mistaken identity. The fact of the shooting is not in doubt, and as Margie Orford’s oped (now gone viral) brilliantly shows, the three bodies at stake and their arrangement in relation to one another is clear. Those three bodies are: the cyborg body of the Olympic athlete now fallen from grace; the “exquisite corpse” of the former model; and the imagined body of the racialized stranger intent on robbery, rape, and murder.

Oscar Pistorius, cyborg

A full-length portrait of Oscar Pistorius. Cover Credit: PIETER HUGO / THE NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE

In Orford’s words, “the figure of the threatening black stranger has driven many South Africans into fortress-like housing estates, surrounded by electric fences, armed guards and the relentless surveillance of security cameras”. She brilliantly shows how this third figure poses the real question of the judgement of the state of mind of the shooter, a question that relentlessly draws together the psychic source in the world along with the social:

“Is it a kind of possession, this fear of an intruder that compels a man to unthinkingly and without hesitation fire a gun through a locked door? Or is it nothing more than the reclaiming of the old white fear of the swart gevaar (black peril) as Pistorius’ only defence against the charge of the premeditated murder of Steenkamp? What is this irrational fear that has sunk so deep into the psyche? It is perhaps the most atavistic of white South African fears. Under apartheid, the threat of the swart gevaar was used to excuse any and all kinds of violence. In the pernicious narrative of “us” against “them”, these dangerous strangers, these “intruders” in the land of their own birth, had to be obliterated. In that unyielding construct of threat and danger, of your death or mine, there is no middle ground, no compromise and no space for thought or language”.

Orford’s penetrating analysis points towards the delicate place of language in the trial: the judge must evaluate the various forms of forensic evidence, listening carefully to the testimonies of the various experts and witnesses, and render judgement on the question of intent and thus of responsibility. It’s a terrible double-whammy: either Pistorius is guilty of shooting an intruder – a case of mistaken identity – or he is guilty of murdering his girlfriend – now as an accident or a case of domestic violence. Both horrifying possibilities rely on a set of background conditions and assumptions about reasonable fear, unreasonable intimate violence, and the exceptionality of this particular case.

Both horrifying possibilities rely on a set of background conditions and assumptions about reasonable fear, unreasonable intimate violence, and the exceptionality of this particular case

The intensity of the media frenzy has already shaped the outcome of the judgement: 24/7 coverage of the trial across all media (television, twitter, Facebook, print) has generated a massive echo-chamber of commentary.  Last week, a judge ruled that an audio feed of the whole trial could be broadcast.  Some parts will also be televised, including opening arguments, evidence of experts, police witnesses and closing arguments. The testimony of the accused and his witnesses is exempt. This has not prevented Pistorius’s voice from echoing through the twitter-verse in the reported third person, parsing the question of whether the screams on the night, at the moment in question, could have been his or hers. “Screaming like a woman” framed, for the first week of the trial, the critical question of voice and its carriage as a function not only of witness and courtroom, but social media and public anxiety over the instability of (gendered) voice and the violence that it indexed.  In the great resonancemachine of media-saturated public concern with sovereign bodies, ethical conduct and the rule of law, the crucial speech act of Pistorius’s own testimony will be redacted.

In J.L Austin’s, How To Do Things With Words, a perlocutionary act is a speech act, as viewed at the level of its psychological consequences, such as persuading, convincing, scaring, enlightening, inspiring, or otherwise getting someone to do or realize something. Pistorius’s testimony will constitute a rich locutionary field of citations, actions, recollections, assertions, and inferences, and will be stitched together by, and folded into, the full panoply of forensic data, alternative testimonies, legal precedents, linguistic possibilities and background conditions.

How we see, feel, and think about each element of the unfolding trial will be shaped in powerful ways by the various techniques and technologies for enhancing or inhibiting… citationality

What difference will it make to the trial itself, to its outcome, to the people involved, and to the broader public interest, that the crucial perlocutionary acts will not be televised? How will those differences become significant in the way that we read the bodies at play, the intentions at stake, and the making of truth in the court of law? While the revolution may or may not have been tweeted in Egypt, Venezuela, Iran, or Sudan the tweeting of the Pistorius case has been taken to be a watershed moment for both the law and the media. Also here and here.  How, precisely, will the prosecution lead its questions to Pistorius in the dock? What kinds of discursive interactions will make for the success of failure of the defence? What kinds of excuses will Pistorius be pleading, with which justifications? And how will both the prosecution and the defence seek to stabilise the sense and meaning of their words to secure the communicative outcome they look for? Clearly Austin’s case of the donkey[1] that is shot perhaps accidentally, perhaps mistakenly, is resonant here, but what will the outcome of the judgement mean for how we speak about race, sex, and violent crime in South Africa, whether of the stranger danger or intimate partner variety? In particular, how will the exceptionality of this particular case shape the many thousands of cases of murder, rape, and other violent crime that affect poor, black South Africans without access to expensive lawyers and the outside the glare of global media attention?

The stitching together of bodies with their various capacities and qualities (amputee/model, alive/dead, black/white, real/imaginary) and the actions that shape their trajectories through the public spaces and events carved out by new media technologies (the Olympics, the OJ Simpson trial, the upcoming South African elections), involve a high degree of inter-textuality, in the sense that Silverstein develops in relation to metapragmatics. How we see, feel, and think about each element of the unfolding trial will be shaped in powerful ways by the various techniques and technologies for enhancing or inhibiting such citationality, and whether we imagine the outcome of the trial to be predictable in one direction or another will clearly depend entirely on how we read those manifold referential hooks. While the perlocution will not be televised, the metapragmatics of race, sex, and violence in this particular post-settler society is already undergoing radical torque.

[1] See note 4 of his Presidential Address “A Plea for Excuses

Thomas Cousins (PhD, Johns Hopkins University 2012) teaches in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University. His doctoral dissertation was an ethnography of life around the timber plantations of northern KwaZulu-Natal, focussing on the logic and effects of a nutrition intervention for plantation workers in the context of a crisis of social reproduction and bodily capacity. He continues to conduct fieldwork on the intersections of nutrition, the body, politics, and public health. He is currently part of a collective effort to re-imagine the practice of anthropology from Stellenbosch as a peculiar location for the study of populations, persons, and politics.  

3 thoughts on “The Perlocution Will Not Be Televised: The Oscar Pistorius trial and the fate of language

  1. Thanks for the post, Thomas. One of the things I’m struck by is how well this trial seems to parallel and develop some of the themes of our other recent “cyborg” post on Robocop. This sense of judgement, Law and its subsequent violence being “stitched together” I think is a powerful one.


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