Saturday, February 07, 2009

On Use and Reference

Compare the articles by Wayne Heming and Patrick Smith, which present contrasting perspectives on LPGA golfer and professional model Anna Rawson in the wake of a radio interview she recently did in Australia that has lead to the year's first serious controversy in the world of women's golf. The controversy revolves around Rawson's choice of words--and at its heart is a debate over reference vs. use.

Here's Heming's set-up:

[Rawson] came under fire for her poorly chosen comments aired by NOVA 5AA in Adelaide on Wednesday.

"The tour has got so much better with so many young stars and great players," Rawson told the radio station in an interview arranged by her father Jim. "But the mentality unfortunately amongst the media and the industry hasn't changed.

"They still think we're at 25 years ago when the tour was full of, you know, a lot of dykes and unattractive females nobody wanted to watch."

Was Rawson citing others' views or was she implying she shares or endorses them? A lot hinges on how you read that "you know," which is why being able to hear the interview itself rather than just read snippets from it is so crucial to answering the question well. Not having been able to track down the audio file, the best I can offer now is a reading of how others (who presumably did hear it) are interpreting her words during and after it and a reflection on the controversy it has raised.

In choosing which clarifying/explanatory statements from Rawson to focus on, Heming emphasizes Rawson's insistence on reference:

"I was making a reference to how I feel society sees women's golf as a whole. I don't believe that. I wouldn't want anyone to think that was my opinion and I am sorry I said that, definitely.

"I was making a reference to how women make seven times less than men on the course and 20-to-25 times less on the sponsorship front. It's amazing how women's golf has grown and we have many great young players out here, yet society and the media haven't really caught onto that.

"That's what I was talking about, I wasn't talking about my opinion at all."

In his condemnation of Rawson, Smith emphasizes use:

It was an offensive remark showing little respect for the women who toiled here in Australia and internationally so the likes of Rawson could make a comfortable living playing the sport professionally.... Rawson's remarks were odious. She is right that women's golf in Australia is growing and developing superior talent. But it is only the legacy of the very women she denigrated on radio. Time she let her clubs do her talking. Otherwise she needs a caddy for her mouth. A little help with sentence selection wouldn't go astray.

In a similar vein, Bernie Pramberg ends his overview of the controversy with a comment from the head of the ALPG:

"She was not misunderstood. She did not preface her comments by saying the perception of women's golf was that of society. It was her perception. It's disappointing she made the comments."

So which is it--reference or use? Is Rawson a talentless self-promoter who buys into the beauty myth and is a borderline homophobe, or is the media opportunistically turning her own critique of the way women's golf is perceived and represented into an interrogation of her rather than an opportunity for self-reflection?

LPGA blogger Bill Jempty argues that this is clearly a case of reference. I tend to agree with him on Rawson's intentions, but think she could have done more to make her implied quotation marks more explicit than prefacing them with a "you know"--and perhaps even should have chosen more neutral language to summarize the "mentality" she was trying to criticize. It's not that she got her facts wrong: the quality of competition in the world of women's golf has gotten "so much better" in the past quarter-century; there are many "young stars" ready to challenge the "great players"; those stereotypes about the sexuality and beauty of the golfers on the LPGA did exist (despite the Jan Stephensons and Sally Littles on tour back in the day) and still do in many quarters. It's that the line between reference and use is so slippery to begin with. Even if Rawson had made clear by her tone of voice and the use of the "air quotes" gesture that she was referencing others' beliefs, the very fact she--a glamorous straight young star--repeated a term on the air that's sometimes used as a homophobic slur and sometimes reclaimed and reappropriated by lesbians themselves (in a somewhat similar way as, say, "Yankee" was in the late 18th C by American colonists) put her in an ambiguous position, raising such questions as, "Was she trying to express solidarity with the tour's lesbians, past and present, by not papering over the offensiveness of homophobia? Or was she assuming heteronormativity and associating herself with its most vicious defenders?"

Here's where Judith Butler's discussion in Excitable Speech on the intertwining of mention and use is to the point. Butler points out that every act of hate speech is a mention as well as a use: "The racial slur," she argues, "is always cited from elsewhere, and in the speaking of it, one chimes in with a chorus of racists, producing at that moment the linguistic occasion for an imagined relation to an historically transmitted community of racists.... Indeed, racist speech could not act as racist speech if it were not a citation of itself; only because we already know its force from its prior instances do we know it to be so offensive now, and we brace ourselves against its future invocations" (78). But could some mentions lead to different uses--and different effects?

An aesthetic enactment of an injurious word may both use the word and mention it, that is, make use of it to produce certain effects but also at the same time make reference to that very use, calling attention to it as a citation, situating that use within a citational legacy, making that use into an explicit discursive item to be reflected upon rather than a taken for granted operation of ordinary language. Or, it may be that an aesthetic reenactment uses that word, but also displays it, points to it, outlines it as an arbitrary material instance of language that is explited to produce certain effects. In this sense, the word as a material signifier is foregrounded as semantically empty in itself, but as that empty moment in language that can become the site of a semantically compounded legacy and effect. This is not to say that the word loses its power to injure, but that we are given the word in such a way that we can begin to ask: how does a word become the site for the power to injure? Such use renders the word as a textual object to be thought about and read, even as it also implicates us in a relation of knowingness about its conventional force and meaning. (99-100)

If you think of radio interviews as performance art of a sort, it's pretty clear that Rawson could have done a better job with Butler's first approach to reappropriating hate speech. And what might happen if the Australian media and the rest of us were to take up Butler's second approach? It's worth recalling that it was an Australian journalist who outed Karrie Webb in 2003. The Australian media's coverage of this controversy rings of belated support for Webb, overcompensation for their own complicity, and projection of all their problems onto Rawson. What if instead we all were to take Butler's response to Richard Delgado to heart?

Richard Delgado writes, "Words such as 'nigger' and 'spick' are badges of degradation even when used between friends: these words have no other connotation." And yet, this very statement, whether written in his text or cited here, has another connotation; he has just used the word in a significantly different way. Even if we concede--as I think we must--that the injurious connotation is inevitably retained in Delgado's use, indeed, that it is difficult to utter those words or, indeed, to write them here, because they unwittingly reiterate that degradation, it does not follow that such words can have no other connotation. Indeed, their repetition is necessary (in court, as testimony; in psychoanalysis, as traumatic emblems; in aesthetic modes, as a cultural working-through) in order to enter them as objects of another discourse. (100)

Ultimately, the traditional reference vs. use debate leads us into an all-too-familiar media spectacle where issues of responsibility are reduced to figuring out who's to blame--Rawson for making the comments in the first place or the media for taking them out of context and misinterpreting them. If we instead follow Butler's course of "ironic hopefulness that the conventional relation between word and wound might become tenuous and even broken over time" (100), the real questions to be considered in the midst and wake of this controversy are:

  • What are the most harmful stereotypes of women golfers today?
  • What can each of us do to challenge them?
  • How should the major institutions of women's professional golf (including the media) deal with the history of homophobia and culture of heteronormativity in and around the sport?
  • What would it take to enter injurious words as "objects of another discourse" than hate speech and break the "conventional relation between word and wound"?