Thursday, January 22, 2009

Swearing in, or The Meaning of the Robama Conspiracy

When Obama’s swearing-in ceremony went awry on inauguration day, the New York Times and NPR both suggested that this event is something that only academics will argue about. And of course they’re right, but at the same time it’s clear this mishap bothered Obama aides enough to decide to do the whole thing over again. Why the anxiety? In a word: speech-act theory.

According to the theories of J.L. Austin, the “father” of speech-act theory, the first swearing-in ceremony never really happened. A “speech-act” or “performative utterance” refers to those kinds of words that actually do things. For example, in a marriage ceremony, when the groom says “I do” (take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife), this statement does not refer back to a state of affairs that is true or false (the groom is not saying “she is my wife,” since until that moment the two are merely betrothed, not married). When the groom says “I do,” this new state of affairs is inaugurated in that very act: he is now, in that moment, taking this woman as his wife. “I do” therefore performs an act; it does not refer back to a prior state of affairs.

We have the same situation with naming ceremonies, as when a group of people gather to name a new boat. But suppose, Austin says, some “low type” comes along, and right before I’m about to bang the bottle on the side of the ship and name it “The Seaward,” this “low type” grabs the bottle from my hand, takes a swig, and then bangs it against the hull at the same time that he says: “I name this ship the Generalissimo Stalin.” Has this speech-act actually performed the act of naming? If I had gone through with my naming ceremony, then certainly the ship would have been named “The Seaward.” After all, I was authorized to name it, there was an audience that recognized my authority to name it, and, if the “low type” hadn’t come along, I would have uttered the correct words in the correct order. The ship would have been named. But since the “low type” came along and usurped my position, then everything has gone awry: he was not authorized to name the ship and the audience did not recognize his authority (he was a “low type”). For Austin, there would be no way we can say that the speech-act has occurred as it was supposed to; it “misfired,” he would say; it should be considered “infelicitous.” In short, nothing happened.

Obama’s swearing-in ceremony stands in this long tradition of speech-acts that have gone awry. On the one hand, the right conditions were all in place: the context was correct, the person doing the swearing was authorized to swear and the audience recognized him as authorized to swear, and there was a Chief Justice there – one of the most authoritative people in the country – ready to witness and recognize the act. Most of all, there was no question as to which words were to be spoken, since these words are institutionally mandated and actually written in the authorizing document of the United States: the Constitution. Everything was in place. But, as the White House counsel noted, “there was one word out of sequence”: the word “faithfully.” At that point, technically speaking, the speech-act failed: the proper words were not spoken in a way that was faithful to the authorizing document (the Constitution). The word “faithful,” misplaced in this way, forced Obama to swear unfaithfully. And to swear unfaithfully is to delegitimize the authenticity of a speech-act. As a result, Obama’s swearing-in ceremony cannot be considered a felicitous speech-act: his performative utterance misfired.

Who is to blame? Well, the low type. In Austin’s theory, the “low type” names the agency that disrupts a potentially felicitous speech-act and instead makes it misfire. The “low type” is not necessarily a person but rather an event that haunts every speech-act: as Derrida notes, all performative utterances are marked by the possibility of a misfire. In this case, the “low type” is not Obama or even Roberts: it is the figure inscribed between the two of them. After all, the act was performed not only by Obama, but also by Roberts: together they messed up the act of swearing; the two of them together displaced the word “faithfully” from its proper position. The two together formed a kind of conspiracy, a conjura in Spanish (literally, a “swearing-together”). The two conspired (conjuron) – regardless of their intentions – to undermine the efficacy of this inaugurating moment. This is the Robama conspiracy (Roberts / Obama).

And here’s my only point: by sabotaging the swearing-in ceremony in this way, this “low type” (“Robama”) produced an event that has nothing to do with a faithful act of swearing. Something happened that day, but it wasn’t a legal act. The actual event that happened on inauguration day was an event of politics, the event that happens when a low type comes along and performs a speech act improperly. Every act of politics entails the “conspiracy” of a low type that threatens to derail a legitimate act. In this case, the “low type” is a kind of bi-partisan conspiracy between Roberts and Obama: the Robama Conspiracy. The swearing-in ceremony therefore did not inaugurate a new administration; rather, it repeated the inaugurating act of democracy: democracy, if it exists at all, must always be a struggle between the legitimacy of law and the emergence of a low type that threatens that law. Obama’s swearing-in ceremony should serve as a reminder that democracy always entails the possible usurpation of power by a low type who is not authorized to speak.

For that reason, the supplemental swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday, January 21, is not simply something added or extra (“out of an abundance of caution”), but is rather absolutely essential. This act must always be repeated, since there is never any one moment when a democracy is fully legitimate. Every moment must be a repetition of this gesture that allows the “low type” to speak. This, perhaps, is the meaning of the conspiracy (conjura) that was sworn together by Roberts and Obama on Tuesday. This (maybe) is the meaning of the Robama Conspiracy.

What’s interesting is that all this doesn’t matter. It’s all “academic.” As the New York Times noted in its report on Wednesday, January 21:

It is academic to argue about what the failure to utter the words in the precise order required by the Constitution means. Who would have standing to raise the argument that Mr. Obama had not become president as a consequence?
This is a strange way to put this. The NYT seems to be asking: Who would have the authority to state that Obama’s speech-act did not work? Who has the legitimacy to say that a legitimate act has not occurred? This is as much a challenge as it is a question: Who would dare claim to have the standing to be able to argue against the standing of the President? Only a low type, one presumes, would lay claim to such a ridiculous notion. By posing this challenge, by inviting the low type to speak, the New York Times, in its own way, has repeated the act that the Robama Conspiracy itself repeated. Or, to put it in the mode of the conspiracy theorist: Who is to say that the New York Times is not part of the Robama Conspiracy?

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Rebecca said...

A couple of questions:
1. If Obama had actually said the correct words (despite what Roberts said), would the swearing in have been legal?

2. Could Biden, make a claim for the presidency if the swearing in wasn't corrected? Or could Bush claim that he should stay on? I would assume that the Supreme Court would handle the decision. Would Roberts have to excuse himself?

3. They add a 'so help me god' at the end. Could they add anything they wanted as long as the part in the constitution is said correctly?


Bob said...

Wow. _Very_ interesting post. Also, very interesting questions from Rebecca.

Brief historical trivium: Franklin Pierce used the alternative wording the Constitution gives (he "affirmed" his oath, rather than "swearing"), and did so not on a Bible, but on a law book. (According to Wikipedia, Theodore Roosevelt did not use a bible, and John Quincy Adams also used a law book, but they both "swore" rather than "affirmed".)

Wikipedia also has more on the questions around "so help me God", including the attempted injunction for this inauguration.

Also, it is clear that spellcasting as conceived in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is based on speech act theory. Spells depend on "magic words" being performed in just the right way, in order for the magical effect to happen. If the spellcaster is distracted or silenced or whatever, the spell "misfires".

Another historical trivium: incidentally, (also from Wikipedia), William H. Taft, then Chief Justice, misspoke the oath to Herbert Hoover (who didn't have to repeat the oath, just say "I do" at the end.) This was caught by a schoolgirl because the inauguration was on the radio, but Taft didn't think it was important and Hoover did _not_ re-take the oath "correctly".

I'm pretty sure that's why the Great Depression happened, so good thing the Obama people were on this.