Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

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Linda Martin Alcoff

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This project looks at the work we do to understand, to be understood, and to act on the basis of such understanding. Communicative labor is an important and under-theorized aspect of communication, and one that significantly impacts our epistemic, social and political lives. In this dissertation I take such labor as my object of analysis, and show how it bears on speakers and contexts.

First I provide an analysis of labor suitable for characterizing unwaged, immaterial and reproductive labor, and argue that such an analysis helps make sense of language systems ' the common pool resource systems that allow speakers to communicate and act on the basis of communication. Such systems require maintenance in order to function and preserve their value.

The theoretical value of a labor-based approach to language systems becomes clear when we look at conversations that don't function properly. I distinguish several kinds of antagonistic interpretation that distort communication in conversation: undue skepticism, willful obtuseness, bad listening, intrusive interruption, affected misunderstanding, and ignoring. I argue that such practices, if systematic and pervasive enough, undermine valuable properties of conversations.

My focus on communication as labor helps us better understand traditional concepts in philosophy of language (such as the 'conversational scoreboard' and 'common ground'), but it also sheds light on more specific (and specifically subordinating) forms of speech. While antagonistic interpretation can distort conversations by making some speech more difficult (in the limit case, by silencing speakers), it can also distort conversations by making some speech easy, unwilled or automatic. Such speech plays an important role in determining the social status and political rights of agents beyond the immediate context of utterance.

For instance, in 1989, after hours of interrogation in police custody, 16 year old Antron McCray confessed to a crime he did not commit. McCray's utterances formed the linchpin of his wrongful conviction as part of the Central Park Five.

I discuss such cases as object lessons in the management of effort against speakers in conversation. In some discourse contexts, agents come to produce locutions not on the basis of reasoning about how and whether to speak, but on the basis of constrained alternatives to doing so. In such cases, an agent produces speech, but only at the expense of having her communicative agency compromised. I call such speech extracted speech, and focus on the role it plays in distributing communicative labor and power in institutional contexts.

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