The War of Words: When Butler’s Excitable Speech Meets Injurious Speech in Greece (A Case Study)

Maria Boletsi

The increased significance of utterance in politics –what Judith Butler in her book Excitable Speech calls the “linguistification” of the political field- makes the convergence of the theory of the performative with urgent political issues almost inevitable. Language often takes the place of (political or military) action, granting ontological status to citizens and states -while depriving others of it- and shaping national identities. This paper deals with the ways that names can act and injure on a national level. In particular, Butler’s views in Excitable Speech on performative utterances and on the issue of injurious speech are employed in the analysis of a case study in modern Greece and the Balkans.

This paper examines how an act of national self-assertion, when it stumbles upon mutually exclusive national narratives, can be perceived as injurious speech by another nation, generating mutual exchanges of hate speech. More specifically, my case study involves the conflict between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) around the name “Macedonia.” The claim to this particular name by the new Macedonian Republic in 1991 -a name also used to designate a large area in Northern Greece- was met with fierce opposition in Greece and received by the Greeks as a direct insult and a threat to their national identity and borders. (A big part of) the Greek population felt that through certain changes in the linguistic field its national identity and its position within the national body was at stake. The Greek state refused to recognize the country by that name, while a huge wave of public outrage and nationalist hysteria swept the country.

This paper studies the forms that injurious speech took in this case as well as the discourse on the matter that was formed and employed by the Greek people, the media and the Greek government. In using Butler’s views in order to provide a new perspective to the case at hand, this paper tries to put her theoretical insights to the test as well, by showing that they do not always live up to the particularities of every case.