The Power of Words: The Linguistic Imagination Between Emancipation and Domination


A long-standing tradition within Western thought has conceptualized language as a symbolic code clearly separate from material reality and aimed at enabling human communication. The language/world divide has dominated scholarship across several disciplines, leaking into common sense: “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” goes the old adage, “but words will never hurt me.” Words, according to this folk view, “are just words”; that is, they are sounds and concepts lacking the potential to affect the world. This yearlong course explores and questions the view (popular and scholarly alike) according to which language is exclusively a system of symbols that stand for and allow speaking about the world. A series of theoretical readings, practical exercises, and ethnographic case studies will generate a reflection on how language partakes in the making of human experience and social reality. Through this journey, language will appear as a form of action endowed with the power to shape the world and structure the production of social constructs such as race, class, and gender. The readings will be organized through two complementary narratives of gloomy domination and hopeful emancipation. During the first semester, we will explore how language contributes to reproducing social inequalities and racial stereotypes. This focus on the dynamics of linguistic marginality will shed light on language-based discrimination, enhancing our awareness of the role of communicative practices in the operations of hegemonic and colonial power. Through these at times discouraging accounts, we will decenter the idea of the sovereign speaking subject and discover how humans are often at the mercy of language. The readings for the second semester will aim, instead, at disclosing language’s creative and poetic potential, opening views on the capacity of words to mediate emotions and affect the world in transformative ways. While reading about linguistic revitalization movements and other language-driven forms of emancipation and resistance, we will learn about the role of language in challenging power relations. Throughout the year, we will engage foundational theories of language and communication, ranging from Saussure’s structuralism and Pierce’s semiotics to Speech Act Theory, from Whorf’s linguistic relativity to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of language, and from Bourdieu’s practice theory to Butler’s insights on linguistic performativity.