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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Speech-Act Theory & Practice

Action and Agency in Dialogue: Passion, Incarnation and Ventriloquism by Franois Cooren, with a foreword by and Bruno Latour (Dialogue Studies Series, Volume 6: John Benjamins Publishing Co.)

In the end, when you begin to become more familiar with agencies instead of the dummies that are made to speak (formerly known as the human speaking subjects), a totally different speech act theory is emerging. Although Cooren's book has not developed it completely, it is certainly in the offing when, in the last chapter, he compares the agencies able to make us organize ourselves with those able to produce political will or even with those able to make us feel amorous passions. In order to move from the egocentric to the agency-centric view, you just have to replace, in the notion of speech-act, the human actor by what has made this human actor act. No doubt that if we manage not to loose the empirical techniques of inquiry, a much more realistic picture of interactions will be drawn. Cooren's book is an important step in just this direction. from the foreword by Bruno Latour

What happens when people communicate or dialogue with each other? This is the daunting question that Action and Agency in Dialogue proposes to address by starting from a controversial hypothesis: What if human interactants were not the only ones to be considered as doing things with words? That is, what if other things could also be granted the status of agents in a dialogical situation? Action and Agency in Dialogue proposes to explore this unique hypothesis by mobilizing metaphorically the notion of ventriloquism. According to this ventriloqual perspective, interactions are never purely local, but dislocal, that is, they constantly mobilize figures (collectives, principles, values, emotions, etc.) that incarnate themselves in people's discussions. The book develops the analytical, practical and ethical dimensions of such a theoretical positioning.

In Action and Agency in Dialogue, Francois Cooren, professor of communication in Montreal, wrestles with all those multiple agents to destroy, one after another, all the concepts dear to the heart of communication specialists: action, voice, agency, interaction, information and, of course, communication.

Like many specialists of communication studies, Cooren has been puzzled by the centrality given to the commonplace idea of one human speaking agent interacting in a dialog with another human speaking agent. Cooren's book pushes the puzzle further and adds to the multiplicity of speech acts the multiplicity of agencies making the human agent speak.

According to Bruno Latour in the foreword, what Cooren wishes to point out, is that the flow of agents and agencies in which we swim, float, drift or sometimes drown, is not mastered at all. What is important in order to understand Action and Agency in Dialogue, is that it is not about a flow of discourse, but a flow of characters with their own ontology and their own weight, each distributing differently the powers to speak or to silence.

In the book ventriloquism is inverted: we, the human subjects, are the dummies toward which other entities are projecting their real voices as if they were coming from us. All the studies of metaphor, of storytelling, or staging arguments are put upside down. We are spoken or silenced by others, by aliens, toward which we should direct our attention if we want to understand what make us act or speak. Cooren remains firmly committed to the stock and trade of speech act theory and conversation analysis.

In the first part of Action and Agency in Dialogue, Cooren presents a series of arguments leading to the reconceptualization of the question of action and agency. Chapter 1 shows that instead of reducing action and agency to a performance intentionally accomplished by a human being, this acceptation of the term allows us to acknowledge the many things that artifacts, predispositions, technologies, and architectural elements do in our daily life, while also taking into account the various situations where what we do escapes our control.

Chapter 2 proposes an alternative model of speech act theory and conversation in general, a model that questions the reduction of speech agency to what human interlocutors intend to do in interaction. Speech acts thus become an object of potential negotiation between interactants, which leads us to recognize that talk in interaction never is under the participants' full control.

This plurified view of the dialogic scene then brings us to Chapter 3, which introduces the ideas of passion/animation and their operationality in interaction. Using the work of ethnomethodologists and conversation analysts as an illustration, this chapter shows that traditional ways of conceiving of interaction tend to reduce this phenomenon to what people do when conversing with each other. Reversely, once we recognize that there is no action without passion/animation it becomes possible to dislocate our interactions. Furthermore, the question of who or what is acting becomes debatable, for many types of agents or figures (such as utterances, emotions, collectives, principles, or rules) can be identified as doing something in a given discussion.

Action and Agency in Dialogue then introduces the second part, which illustrates its analytical productivity. Chapter 4 introduces the phenomenon of ventriloquism. Although dialogues and interactions have traditionally been conceived as mobilizing two or more human beings, Cooren demonstrates that interactants constantly mobilize various beings by ventriloquizing them, that is, by making them say or do things. This reflection on ventriloquism then allows him to show that a certain oscillation or vacillation is always at stake in interaction and dialogue. If one way of conceiving of interaction consists of positioning the interactants as ventriloquists who make dummies say or do things, such a positioning can be deconstructed to the extent that these interactants can also be seen as animated or moved by specific agencies (principles, values, norms, etc.) that ventriloquize them.

Two forms of ventriloquism are thus identified, what Cooren calls downstream and upstream forms of ventriloquism. While the downstream form of ventriloquism corresponds with how interactants can be said to be ventriloquized through the turns of talk they produce, a phenomenon that also allows them to convey implicit messages about people's rights and obligations, the upstream form positions the interactant as incarnating or embodying something that they claim to represent, whether it is a principle, value, rule, norm or collective. These effects of authority and power show that authorizing is authoring. In other words, lending weight to one's position consists of implicitly or explicitly showing that we are not the sole authors of what is put forward, but that other things appear to support and author it too.

Chapter 5 tackles a key topic that animates, in many respects, the raison detre of Action and Agency in Dialogue, that is, the question of incarnation and its connection with the constitution of collectives. Cooren demonstrates in this final chapter that all these effects of ventriloquism and representation can also be understood as different manners by which various things incarnate or embody themselves in our discussions. Invoking a rule or positioning oneself as speaking in the name of a principle amounts to giving flesh to what could, at first sight, be considered abstract, disincarnated, intangible, or ethereal. Communication, according to a ventriloqual analysis, also becomes this dislocated locus where the immaterial and material features of our world merge with each other, what he calls im/materiality.

Having acknowledged this im/materiality, Cooren then shows how a reflection on incarnation and embodiment allows us to problematize the mode of being of collectives (groups, organizations, institutions, societies) by demonstrating their communicative constitution. While a name always points to something that supposedly preexists it, collectives' names are the very means by which the things they are supposed to point to are produced and reaffirmed. Cooren says that such a logic allows us to question some basic tenets of systems theory as well as questioning the evilness of the term reification.

Elegantly written and compellingly argued, Cooren offers up some of the most original theorizing on agency in the communication sciences that we have seen to date. Nonhuman agency does not just make a difference in this book. it is a difference that connects, communicates, and brings to life the impossible. Gail T. Fairhurst, Professor, University of Cincinnati

In his powerful book, Action and Agency in Dialogue, Francois Cooren helps to explode unexamined assumptions about our extraordinary relationships with nonhuman entities. As might be expected, the perspective of Action and Agency in Dialogue opens new ways of thinking about speech acts, social institutions and the ontology offerings. David Goldblatt, Emeritus Professor, Denison University

Cooren convincingly demonstrates in the book that any action should be considered as contributing to a configuration of activities it participates in. His goal is not to deny that speakers do things with words, but to show that many other agents are implicitly or explicitly mobilized in this type of activity. Istvan Kecskes, Professor, University at Albany, SUNY

Cooren has written a highly original book about speech-act theory in which he leads readers through a vast literature to demonstrate that when we speak many other voices are speaking as well. Action and Agency in Dialogue will be of interest to communication scholars, linguists, sociologists, conversation analysts, management and organizational scholars, as well as philosophers interested in language, action and ethics.


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