Jennifer Petersen on her book, How Machines Came to Speak

Interview by Joseph Wilson

Joseph Wilson: The combination of legal discourse analysis and technology studies in this book is a fascinating mix. How Machines Came to Speak examines the legal definition of speech (as part of the concept of free speech) and how it morphed over the years as new technologies changed the way Americans communicated. How did you first come up with this topic? Did you come at it from a legal angle or from an STS angle?

Jennifer Petersen: I came to the book from the history of media technologies (informed by STS) and communication history, and a set of interests—or perhaps a puzzlement—about the status and authority of law. In particular, I was interested in free speech law as a site where debates about rationality and emotion, ideas and action (for example, when does speech become a threat or harm; how is money considered speech) take place, with social and political consequences.

In graduate school, I had written a paper looking at how judges were determining whether and how the First Amendment applied to new media – at the time, software, URLs and hyperlinks. I was fascinated by the way the judges were theorizing communication in these cases. The paper left me with a lot of unanswered questions, so when I finished my first book, these nagging questions returned. When I thought about the scholarship I would need to read to work through these questions, I was all in.

Joseph Wilson: You write that in the 20th century written speech (newspapers, books, pamphlets) was often privileged over other modes of ‘speech’ (film, radio, flag-burning) because of its association with rationality, civilization, masculinity and the ‘world of the mind’. With the rise of new visual/aural media like podcasts, TikTok videos, or even video games, do you think these Enlightement-era binaries are starting to break down? Is the written word still considered the archetypical medium of speech?

Jennifer Petersen: I do think the binaries that were in place at the beginning of the century have eroded in some ways. This is perhaps most evident in examples of expressive conduct. In the early 20th century, physical activities and non-verbal expression were clearly physical conduct. By the mid- to late-20th century, it was possible to consider many forms of physical conduct – from flag burning to sit-ins and other forms of silent protest, like Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest –as expressive, even when they do not clearly translate into words, or a verbal message. And I do think that pictorial and visual media will continue to erode this distinction.

However, in many ways the written word is very much the archetype of speech in legal discussions of the First Amendment. In determining whether new or controversial cases are speech, judges and justices often turn to words and writing. For example, when arguing that naked dancing was a form of speech (albeit a putatively lesser one), one of the justices anchored his reasoning in the assertion that dancing is like writing with the body. Given this, it is no coincidence that the current challenge to anti-discrimination laws in Colorado is being brought for a business that is proposing to build websites and wants to exclude same-sex customers. If you remember, there was a similar case a few years ago involving a baker who refused to make wedding cakes for same-sex customers. Cakes were less evidently expressive (though there was a lot of discussion of the fact that bakers use icing to write messages on cakes!) than websites are. I think the current case has probably been engineered to appeal explicitly to the Court’s bias toward writing.

Joseph Wilson: You point out that during the radio era it was legally understood that the speech one heard on the radio did not necessarily represent the views of the radio announcer, but was instead the work of a team of people: station owners, distributors, advertisers, announcers, and so on. This reminds me of Goffman’s distinction between animator, author, and principal. Do you think there is a danger that this kind of distribution of responsibility can be used as a defense against the consequences of truly offensive or dangerous speech?

Jennifer Petersen: The question of distributed speech is one that really interests me. Your last question asked about erosion of older binaries. One of the questions that came out of this book for me was about how the experience of algorithmic media – from Tik Tok to bots—might erode some of the dualisms around speech and subjectivity or personhood. I wondered whether our current experiences might re-shape our understandings of speech, so that in the future the idea of an autonomous speaking subject is less central. One of the ways in which we currently experience algorithmic mediation is as a change in the structure of speech or authorship. In many such contexts, either 1.) what we say is understood not to be entirely of our own making; or 2.) complex systems designed and prompted by people produce outcomes that are not direct expressions of their thoughts, beliefs, knowledge or intention (for example, ChatGPT). Put differently, in many algorithmically mediated contexts, we understand ourselves to be speaking with or through complex sociotechnical systems; the chains of intentionality and agency behind any expression are distributed rather than direct. I am very curious about how this experience will shape the next generations of judges’ and justices’ assumptions about what speech is and who (or what) can speak.

This has some attractive political and ethical implications for how we might understand ourselves and constitute community. In some ways, when we decenter ourselves and our intentions, our sphere of responsibility may expand. For example, if what makes my words racist or damaging is not my thoughts or intentions but their effects in the world, my responsibility for those words is expanded. I think that many of my students are coming to express this sense of ethics and accountability.

Also, it’s the conception of speech as the direct expression of an individual’s ideas and beliefs does not bring with it a lot of accountability. We are held legally accountable only for expression that harms reputation (defamation), that incites or is very likely to incite criminal actions, and that poses a “true threat” (such as, burning a cross on someone’s lawn as a treat of racial or religious violence).

Joseph Wilson: There has also been a lot of criticism recently (a so-called techlash) about data collection, privacy policies, and the ability for social media companies to manipulate what people understand to be the truth, much of which is currently protected under freedom of speech laws. This is a version of what you call a ‘posthuman conception of speech’. Are we due for a (legal) correction to this broad understanding of speech, one that rehumanizes speech as the realm of only humans? 

Jennifer Petersen: When I talk about the posthuman conception of speech, I’m looking at instances where lawyers and judges reason about speech without reference or regard to speakers. When the courts say that the flow of information is speech, or that particular artifacts are speech, and attempt to analyze speech without reference to social dynamics or agents involved, they are engaging in what I call a posthuman approach to speech. It is one that does not require persons.

Interestingly, in the examples you mention in this question, tech companies have been drawing on classic liberal humanist arguments. For instance, Google’s search results have been classified as speech because they represent the ideas and opinions of Google employees and/or the company. In practice, the company becomes endowed with protections crafted for persons – in particular, political persons, in effect granting these companies more political and legal capacities. These companies, in sum, use arguments about civil liberties in order to gain market and legal leverage.

Yet, I don’t think saying that speech rights are only ever for natural persons, or individuals—or rehumanizing speech –will answer these problems. There are reasons to think that organizations, even corporations, might play some role in our public sphere, and expressive and political landscape. In fact, part of the problem I see is that speech is understood too narrowly in terms of a classic, liberal vision of persons. It is this close articulation of speech to a form of agency associated with natural persons that allows corporations to game the system.

I think, rather, that a less dichotomous approach to speech and agency may be in order. The examples of distributed, algorithmically-mediated speech noted above may be able to help us think more productively about expression. They may help us dis-articulate speech from the minds of discrete subjects, and help us think through expression as having a variable relation to things like the opinions, intentionality, conscience, and will of persons.

We need, I think, a broader and variegated conception of what it means to speak today – a broader ecology of means and forms of speaking as well as of different types of speakers. And we need ways of adapting the law to these different forms rather than an all or nothing logic. I think this would be hard. It would bring its own problems. And it, too, would be open to opportunism. But the opportunities would be fewer without the current winner takes all stakes.

Joseph Wilson: In recent years, the concept of free speech has drifted from being a supposedly typical left-wing issue favored by social democrats, towards the right, where it is often used as a defence against accusations of political incorrectness. How does this political reframing fit into your argument that speech is a ‘historically contingent’ concept?

Jennifer Petersen: I think that when we think we know what speech is – and that this is always what it has been – it is easy to think that what is going on right now is about “the left” abandoning speech or “the right” taking up the rhetoric if not the actual substance of free speech (the right, after all, is busy banning books and dictating curricula, both textbook examples of censorship).

To some extent, I think that this framing can act as something of a red herring, especially for the types of legal opportunism outlined above, in which companies use the First Amendment to avoid regulation as well as to enhance their standing as persons, or subjects before the law. In many of the key legal battles today, the expression being fought over does not look like a dissenter on a soap box or sound truck. Rather, these cases often center on categorizing economic transactions, services, and products as expression in order to gain favorable regulatory outcomes. The political and social stakes of cases like these are substantively different from the debates over whether sit ins are a form of expression—yet, when courts support these claims, they often do so in the names of political freedom and civil liberties.

I think that a large part of what enables these opportunistic uses of the First Amendment is the way speech as a legal category has transformed over time without serious attention and reflection. When we engage in discussions of whether free speech is a left or right issue, I think we lose sight of the pressing issues around technology and opportunism outlined above. To me, this is an essential political and theoretical misstep.  Looking instead at the underlying definitions of speech can help to highlight what exactly is at the heart of free speech disputes. It can also provide new arguments and insights for charting a future as technologies again change what it means to speak.

Juan Luis Rodríguez on his book, Language and Revolutionary Magic in the Orinoco Delta

Interview by Rusty Barrett

Rusty Barrett: First, for those unfamiliar with Venezuela, could you explain the term “revolutionary magic”?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I first encountered the term revolutionary magic in one of Fernando Coronil’s interviews where he wondered whether the Bolivarian revolution would be a new iteration of what he called the magical state. Coronil argued back in the 1990s that Venezuela’s dependency on oil put the state in a mediating position between the social body of the nation and both its nature and international capital. This position made the Venezuelan state appear magical to Venezuelans because it had the possibility of carrying out grandiose projects of infrastructure and welfare policies with money that seemed to come from nowhere. The state, without taxing either its citizens or its industries, was in the position to undertake the process of making Venezuela a modern country. This magic, of course, has the downside of depending on the ups and downs of oil prices in the international market. When Chavez was elected to office in 1999, he took office at the end of a long period of economic crisis that extended from 1983 to the end of the1990s. After a few years in office, he found himself as the leader of a revolution (later he will call this turn socialism of the 21st century), and as the Venezuelan president that has managed the largest budget in the history of the country. Since roughly 2004 to the end of 2012 Venezuela received more money from oil exports than at any other time in its history. In this historical period Venezuela combined all the structural features of the magical state with all the utopian desires of a 21st century socialist. The term, revolutionary magic, then refers to the assemblages of performances, political ways of speaking, and infrastructural projects that emerge out of that combination of those factors. If the magic of the Venezuelan state in the 20th century produced a kind of modernity, in the 21st century this capacity was turned to construct a revolution. In both cases, modernity and revolution suffer from the same reliance on the state to scaffold rhetorical and performative apparatuses with an unreliable source of economic success.          

Rusty Barrett: Your work is clearly situated within the discourse-based approach to culture, why did you choose that particular framework? How does this approach address concerns beyond linguistic anthropology?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I came to learn about discourse-centered approaches to culture during my grad school years studying under Jonathan Hill and Anthony K. Webster. I still remember how reading Jonathan’s work and going to seminar with Tony grounded my work on the idea that I should go after naturally occurring instances of language use emphasizing the centrality of performance and showcasing the complexity of what people say while we do fieldwork. This was very important to me because this is what methodologically separated my work from Coronil’s who rather had the methodological gaze of a historian. I wanted to understand Venezuelan political discourse and gift-giving in the context of the magic of the state (or magical state), but I wanted to do it by paying attention to how people get folded into actual contexts of linguistic interaction where they must engage in actual political speech. The distribution of state resources and the magic of the Bolivarian revolution produced actual instances of language use. I wanted to go after that. Discourse-centered approaches, especially the branch coming down from Joel Sherzer, have always been associated with verbal play, poetics, and performance, and rightly so. I hope that my book shows how discourse-centered approaches to culture can also shed light on questions of political economy, revolution, and modernity that are often not addressed from this perspective.

Rusty Barrett: Your book emphasizes issues of translation and transduction. How are those concepts important for understanding the place of the Warao in Venezuelan politics?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: Part of the transition from what Chavez called the fourth republic into the Bolivarian revolution was a change in the kind of relationships that state institutions, and the Catholic church, had with Indigenous communities. After 1958, when dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was deposed, Venezuelan political parties signed what was known as the Puntofijo pact and embraced representative democracy as a core ideological value. During this period, Indigenous peoples were regarded as potential constituents to be represented by appointed officials from the central government in Caracas. They were supposed to be integrated into Venezuela’s political and economic system, but that future was always imagined as a process of acculturation in which they become undifferentiated citizens who speak Spanish primarily. Their languages were supposed to disappear and, from the point of view of the State, it made sense to translate their oral traditions into Spanish making them cultural patrimony of the nation. In this way the ideals of representative democracy gave a specific directionality to the work of translation from Indigenous language to Spanish because the product of these texts was supposed to represent Indigenous peoples as future integrated citizens of a modern State. The work of the Magical State is to produce modernity, and during this period that meant pulling Indigenous peoples into the orbit of the state. The work of translation followed that logic.

This all changed with the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power. He opposed a new ideal of participatory democracy, and later socialism, to the previous ideology of political representation. This new ideology centered around the notion that people must have a degree of direct participation in the decision-making process and implementation of policies. This new ideological position was central to the writing of the new constitution in 1999. At the same time the circulation of texts and practices of translation was completely reversed. Indigenous peoples were now not supposed to be integrated as culturally and linguistically undifferentiated constituents who needed representation but as subjects who would keep these differences and participate in the democratic process themselves. The constitution, laws that affected Indigenous peoples’ lives, and the symbols of the nation, such as the national anthem, had to be translated into Indigenous languages. That reverted the flow of translation in the hope that it would give Indigenous peoples the knowledge and capacity to participate in the political life of the nation representing themselves in the process.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Bolivarian revolution is how this process of political participation that seemed so good in paper never really took off. Instead, the nominal legal rights to participation have been contradicted with strategies of cooptation that allowed Chavez, and now Nicolas Maduro, to pose as if Indigenous peoples have achieved a degree of integration into the political decision-making process while in practices they marginalize and manipulate this participation. Indigenous peoples in Venezuela have recently faced a deterioration on the conditions of their voting rights as well as a brutal encroachment on their ancestral territories. The Bolivarian revolution has produced some of the most brutal ecological degradations in Indigenous territories through the so-called Arco Minero that only reproduces the logic of capitalist extraction that was supposed to be rejected with the arrival of the revolution.

This brings me to the place of transduction in my book. I understand transduction as the transformations, and assemblage, of signs across semiotic modalities. As I explain at the beginning of the book, the main process of transduction that I am interested in is the transformation of oil revenue into forms of political performances and political influence. Oil revenue support forms of political speech linked with ideologies of modernity and state control in Venezuela. My argument in the book is that despite the reversal on the flow of translations that correlated with a transition from representative to participatory democracy, the basic transduction of oil revenue into modernity and political control remained the same in both periods. In other words, despite rhetorical differences in ideological principles, Chavez’ revolution never really produced a systemic transformation in the structural conditions that marginalized Indigenous subjects in Venezuela. They might have more nominal rights now, but oil dependency still means those rights are principally rhetorical devices. The transduction of oil revenue into political performance and celebrated forms of modernity is an unstable structural condition subject to ups and downs of commodity markets and this means that the revolutionary gains in political participation can disappear at any moment.                      

Rusty Barrett: What aspects of your analysis do you feel are most useful for looking at the relationship between Indigenous communities and the state in places beyond Venezuela?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I think my analysis is useful for understanding how the integration of Indigenous peoples into public political spheres–and the performative and communicative strategies used for that purpose–depend on kinds of ideological political project made possible by entire political-economic systems. The main goal of my book is to show how discourse-centered approaches to culture can help us accomplish that goal.

Another aspect of my analysis that I think can be useful is to bring attention to the ways in which State actors’ agendas and intentions do not determine the consequences of their actions. I tried to illustrate this point by bringing examples of political gift-giving which is in Venezuela stereotypically regarded as a form of political bribery, corruption, and coercion. I show how the gift per se does not accomplish any of this without further discursive engagement in the communities where is received. Likewise, promises of political gifts do not amount to simple deception since gift-giving and discourse form complex chains of interpretation in the Orinoco Delta. I hope these insights can served to inspire more ethnographic research into how these complex semiotic systems are developed under different political and economic conditions.   

Rusty Barrett: The book provides a language-based approach to understanding political gifts and campaign promises. In what ways do you see this approach as providing insights that might be overlooked by other approaches? What would you hope scholars in other fields take away from your analysis?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: What I would hope other researchers take away from my book is the necessity to see political gift-giving and speech as interrelated. The naturalness of the correlation between gift-giving and political influence that some researchers see in patron-client relationships do not occur without the mediation of a great deal of speech. Paying attention to these patterns allow us to understand how political influence through gift-giving and political promises is an interactional achievement that we cannot take for granted. I would hope that researchers interested in these kinds of questions will take a little more seriously the fact that naturally occurring instances of language use (discourse) provide not only frames for cultural interpretation but are, more importantly, embodied practices that make political gifts feel right or not in a particular social context. Paying attention to that relationship is central to how I study politics through the lens of a discourse-centered approach to culture.