General Anthropology Division
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
This paper analyzes an ontology of Khmer speech to rethink performativity. Interrogating the confluence between Austin’s phrase “our word is our bond” (1962:10) and the Khmer imperative to “take care of your words,” I describe how, in Cambodia, utterances can prove dangerous to speakers when ghosts or spirits overhear speech and use it against the utterer. Ghosts residing in powerful locations can use careless utterances to trade places with the speaker, causing the utterer’s death. Spirits of dead relatives can overhear ill-considered words spoken at rituals and use them to effect mishaps. In both cases, utterances’ force does not arise solely from human-generated citationality, but from the mutual constitution of the human and spirit realms: spirits’ peri-performative presence (Sedgwick, 2003) weighs on speakers’ word choice—suggesting that performativity involves what is not said as much as what is said—and people’s utterances bond them with spirits. Malinowski (1935) proposed that performance and spirits are central to coral gardens’ magic, and Tambiah (1968) extended that work to theorize the “power of words,” but both primarily dealt with purposeful utterances. I suggest that unintentional and unguarded speech also has performative force. Furthermore, save for those authors, much performativity theory is steeped in European contexts, and because of that, I suggest, it has focused on how performativity forms identity and voices political dissent. Considering the force of unguarded speech, I explore how performative utterances, by binding one’s self to a spectral other, can be considerably more dangerous than has been previously recognized.