More thoughts have been spurred by reading the opening essay by Kevin Vanhoozer in the book he recently edited: Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. If you are familiar with Vanhoozer, you will know that the orienting metaphor he uses in his thought comes from speech-act theory which declares that when we speak, there are three things at work: locution, illocution, and perlocution. In the essay, he is concerned with paying attention to these three layers when interpreting cultural texts. He explains the words like this:
First, a cultural text, like written discourse, has a locutionary dimension and employs either language or some other signifying medium (e.g., art, television, film, music, products, social practices). Second, cultural discourse raises the same questions about its illocutionary act as does written or oral discourse, namely what is a cultural text doing in saying/showing/signing such and such? Third, cultural discourse achieves certain effects (e.g., cultivation, spiritual formation) by saying/showing/signing. (45)
The CliffsNotes version:
- locution: the medium and what is being said
- illocution: what the “text” is doing
- perlocution: the effects of what is being said
Think of the common prohibition to yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. Such a prohibition is not based on the locution of the act, because it is not criminal to speak, or even to generally yell in a crowded movie theater. I could talk to my wife about the campfire we had at youth group and not worry about being given a citation. The problem with yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater is its illocutionary and perlocutionary effect: the desire to bring about and subsequent bringing about of needless mass chaos, hysteria, injury, trampling, etc.
If you think about it, many laws operate in the these arenas. But at times, Christians have been known to only worry about the locutionary aspects of cultural texts to determine if they are appropriate or not. See this quote by Vanhoozer:
To be sure, Christians should not rush to judgment on the basis of superficial criteria. It is not enough to simply know that there are “bad words” in a film, for this takes us only as far as locutions. Of much greater importance are the illocutions and perlocutions: what is the cultural text doing with these bad words and what effects does it bring about by using them in just this way? (53)
Where Vanhoozer does not go with his argument is to point out that context matters greatly when dealing with perlocutions. I can yell “Fire!” almost anywhere without repercussion. But because of the context of a crowded movie theater, performing that same act produces a completely different (and criminal) perlocutionary effect.
The point I would like to make is that a perlocution of a text upon an individual greatly changes with the development of the individual. Thus, lots of “bad words” in the ears of a small child will likely result in that child repeating those words with a degree of harmless innocence. Take that same exposure to “bad words” to an upper elementary child and they will likely repeat the words but often with malicious and prideful (“I cuss therefore I am cool”) intent. A teenager has oftentimes moved past the prideful dimension of cussing, but is still likely to use the words derogatorily in an attempt to gain social capital. Married adults secure in themselves often simply use those same words because that is the only way they know how to talk. So, the exposure to certain words has different perlocutions depending upon the development of a person. That is why a 24 year old like myself can watch and see certain things that we don’t want a 5 year old to see; it really is a completely different scenario.
This also shows the logic behind the idea that we shape things and then our things shape us. The cell phone is invented (locution) in order to ease communication between people and to make a profit (illocutions), but the inventors of the cell phone have absolutely no control over the perlocution. The perlocution (one of which is making people work-a-holics) is determined after the “text” of the cell phone has achieved widespread acceptance. Most ads work this same way. They all have the same basic illocution. What are ads doing? They are trying to make you want their product. But there are ripple effects of the perlocution of that ad and the culmination of thousands of ads that drastically shapes our culture. They shape identity, define worth, cause people to go into debt, and so on.
I enjoyed Vanhoozer’s essay immensely, as it provided some sound ground for evaluating things in culture. We do need to get beyond the locutionary dimension of cultural texts and really ask what the illocutionary and perlocutionary effects are of commonly accepted cultural texts like advertising, education, text-messaging, and more. And we must do all this, especially people working with children and teenagers, with the understanding that similar texts can have vastly different effects upon individuals (and communities for that matter) based on their context and development.
(PS – I know the title on this post is obscenely long, elitist, and high-snootin’, but I’m doing a little experiment to see how well I get ranked in search engines for these obscure words.)