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568 [1942]), dubbed “fighting words,” that is, words that are 26 From Noose to Needle “experienced as a blow” and so “by their very utterance inflict injury” (572). What distinguishes the death sentence from mere fighting words, on this construction, is the fact that it issues from a judge who, in his capacity as officer of the sovereign state, has the ability as well as the authority not merely to wound but to kill via his utterances. His voice is the source of the agency that abolishes the distinction between wig and gallows.

The 32 From Noose to Needle moment when the trapdoor release mechanism, a steel pedal embedded in the death chamber’s wooden floor, was engaged. But is this answer entirely adequate? The noun execution suggests that this was a well-bounded event (as does the phrase death sentence, which I have now rendered problematic), and hence that we should be able to specify with some degree of precision the temporal boundaries that distinguish this event from those that led up to and followed it. But if that is so, then just when did this execution begin and when did it end?

From these two constraints, it is possible to tease an emendation of Austin’s argument, one that is predicated on a criticism that in a sense reverses that made by Bourdieu. Bourdieu takes Austin to task for failing to consider the structures of power that invest a judge’s utterance with illocutionary force. I now want to suggest that these same structures constrain and indeed constitute the identity as well as the agency of that judge. Although Austin is aware of the requirements imposed by what he calls conventions, this does not prompt him to subject to critical interrogation the “I” who utters this or that performative and, more specifically, to call into question its status as an autonomous speaking agent.

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