Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

How George Bush Silenced Anita Hill: A Derridian View of the Third Persona in Public Argument

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

How George Bush Silenced Anita Hill: A Derridian View of the Third Persona in Public Argument

Article excerpt

The silences around the words are as powerful and as numerous in meaning and valence as the words themselves.

(Clair, 1998, p. 23)

The ability of scholars to understand how public argument constitutes or generates identity has grown over the past few years (Crenshaw, 1996; Ishlyama, Launer, Likhachova, Williams, & Young, 1997; McKerrow & Bruner, 1997; Zulick, 1997). This has enhanced theorists', individuals', and social groups' abilities to understand that identities are formed not only in dyadic interactions but also in public arenas. Moreover, when these identities are forged in the public realm they become part of the larger system of meaning and ideology that can then be used to evaluate other identities and arguments. This article contributes to such a project by positioning the evocation of specific personae as an act of public argumentation. Moreover, we ground our understanding of this process in Derrida's (1982) concept of differance. Specifically, we argue that President Bush's discursive choices during the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation proceedings allowed him to silence and negate Anita Hill and her supporte rs while avoiding any explicitly negative claims about her.

While theorists have explored the role of personae and public argument in creating identities, they have yet to integrate the influence of our system of language, as a system of differences, upon identity construction. We argue that it is because of this system of differences that identities are often constituted in public discourse as different or alien than other identities, particularly in the third persona. Moreover, in making this assumption, we provide critics another means for conducting argumentation evaluation and for understanding the construction of identity as an argumentative process of differentiation. Accordingly, we first provide a brief overview of the relation of language, identity and Derrida's perspective of language; second, we look at the evocation of personae in public argument as differentiation; and finally we provide a case study of President Bush's discourse during the 1991 Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation proceedings.


A basic premise in this article is that individual and group identity is a form of subjectivity that is created/sustained through language via signification. Our position, therefore, aligns us with post-structuralist thinking and concerns (cf. Best & Kellner, 1991; Rosenau, 1992; Sarup, 1989; Weedon, 1987). In contrast to modernist or humanist perspectives that grant the individual a metaphysical presence separate from language, we agree with Weedon (1987) that "language is the place where actual possible forms of social organization and their likely social and political consequences are defined and contested. Yet, it is also the place where our sense of ourselves, our subjectivity, is constructed" (p. 21). Subjectivities and identities do not enjoy an a priori existence outside of language but rather are constituted within systems of language (cf. Lacan) or ideologies (cf. Althusser). Thus, a major theoretical concern for this project is analyzing how individuals are constituted as subjects or subject posit ions via personae in public argument.

While many theorists have contributed to the post-structuralist project (e.g., Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard), Derrida's work has several features that recommend it as a chain of signification for presencing the use of personae in public argument. Specifically, it presences differentiation as a means of both finding and constructing meanings that trace even when operating under erasure.

Derrida (1982) argues that signs both differ from and defer each other, a condition that he calls differance. "In a language, in the system of language, there are only differences" (p. 11). When one signifier is invoked it differs from all other signifiers. …

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