The Purpose of Pelosi’s Impeachment is, Politically, Primarily Perlocutionary

One thing that legal analysts and linguists share is an obsession with words and texts, and their meaning and their function. Accordingly, we have today a debate about whether or not President Trump was actually impeached if Speaker Pelosi does not deliver the articles of impeachment to the Senate. What does it mean to be impeached. Is it the vote on the impeachment? Or it is the act of bringing it before the Senate for trial?

Keith Whittington has written a nice little essay on what he calls the “the utterly academic question” of when an officer is impeached. As he emphasizes, “Nothing much turns on this distinction in the federal context.” But I think that it’s helpful to think about the social function of the impeachment process through J.L. Austin’s notion of speech acts.*

The function of impeachment, I suppose, is primarily to be able to say “you have been impeached.” The point is not the linguistic function of declaring someone to have been impeached as if this is a claim that can be assessed as true or false. But rather, the function is to say be able to shape the discourse around and social understanding of the target of the impeachment. In Austin’s terms, the purpose of impeachment is perlocutionary. That is, in this case, to annoy the president and his supporters.


* This was recently made somewhat notable through this remarkable story of Judith Butler criticizing the NYT headline that the turducken is performative. Anyway.